Steady Wisdom: Day 16

Steady Wisdom: 108 Days of Changing My Thinking

Day 16

I have neither mother nor father nor children.  I was never born nor will I ever die.  The mind does not belong to me.  I am the absolute reality, always steady, never agitated.  I am immortal consciousness, ever the same like space. 
-Avadhuta Gita 3:22
Meditation

The illusory body has a mother and a father—this is true.  But to say that I, immortal consciousness, have a mother and father?  That is false. I am existence itself, absolute reality, and whatever truly exists always has and always will exist.  So I cannot come into being—I have always been.  Therefore I was never born. 

The illusory body begets children—this is also true.  But to say that I, immortal consciousness, beget children?  That is also false.  I am existence itself, absolute reality.  I am one without a second, for what could exist but existence itself?  There is none other than me so nothing can truly arise or descend from me.  And that includes the mind; like the body it is merely illusion.  As such I am never subject to its wavering or agitation.  Like space, I remain steady and ever the same. OM.     

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A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 19

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CHAPTER 12
Janaka said:
12:1 – First I became averse to physical action, then to extensive speech, then to thought.  In this way I abide in my own nature.

Self-inquiry is a contemplative journey, one that requires you to progressively withdraw your attention from external things in order to look inward and investigate your true nature.  This withdrawal is the natural consequence of seeing that physical action, speech and thought, being transient in nature, can’t bring about a permanent solution to existential angst.  Once you come to this understanding, it’s not as if you completely stop acting, speaking or thinking.  That’s impossible, unless the body-mind is dead.  Rather, you’re able to prioritize your actions, words and thoughts, focusing on the ones that work towards your goal of self-knowledge to the exclusion of those that don’t.  In this way you ‘abide’ in your own nature.

12:2 – Having no attachment for sound and other sense objects, and by virtue of the fact that I am not an object of perception, my mind is freed from distraction and is one pointed. In this way I abide in my own nature.

Seeing the impermanence of sense objects allows you to reduce your attachment to them.  After all, what’s the point of attachment to sense objects if none of them last?  When this is known, distraction caused by sense objects decreases, freeing up attention to inquire into what is permanent:  consciousness-existence, your true self. But this isn’t an inquiry into yet another object because your self is never an object.  Instead, it’s the essence of all objects without being an object itself, the way water is the essence of all waves without itself being a wave.

12:3 – An effort has to be made for concentration when there is distraction of mind owing to superimposition (self-ignorance).  Seeing this to be the rule, I abide in my true nature.

During self-inquiry the mind has to be continually brought back to the contemplation of consciousness-existence when it gets distracted by sense objects and thoughts contrary to the inquiry itself.  But when self-inquiry bears fruit you clearly understand that you’re consciousness-existence regardless of whether your mind is distracted, concentrated or otherwise.  You see that you’re always ‘abiding’ in your true nature—consciousness-existence—because you always are consciousness-existence.

12:4 – Having nothing to accept and nothing to reject, and having neither joy nor sorrow, I abide in my true nature.

You’re consciousness-existence and consciousness-existence is non-dual.  This means there’s only you, so there’s nothing outside of yourself that’s available for acceptance or rejection.  This doesn’t mean you’ll stop preferring one flavor of ice cream over another or that you’ll just sit back and let an unhealthy situation in your personal life slide.  It just means that you gain perspective on life through the knowledge that everything, good or bad, is in reality just yourself.  So when that irritating co-worker comes up to your desk yet again to talk to tell you their asinine views on politics it’s not as if you won’t tell them that you’re not interested.  But you can do it with the empathy, informed by the understanding that both of your body-mind’s are but appearances of the exact same self, consciousness-existence.

12:5 – A stage of life or no stage of life, meditation, control of mental functions—finding that these cause distractions to me, I abide in my true nature.

Observing your duty, renouncing your duty, meditating and controlling your mind—when properly applied—can be invaluable practices on the path to self-knowledge.  But once self-inquiry negates the idea that you’re the doer of said practices, they become distractions to simply ‘abiding’ in the knowledge that you’re consciousness-existence regardless of the actions of the body-mind.  But caution must be exercised here.  To dismiss spiritual practice as a distraction before gaining self-knowledge is a mistake that will likely hinder self-knowledge because a mind undisciplined by spiritual practice is usually unable to muster up the concentration necessary for sustained inquiry.

12:6 – Refraining from action is as much the outcome of ignorance as the performance action. Knowing this truth fully well, I abide in my true nature.

Thinking both, “I will do this” or “I will not do this” stems from the same erroneous belief:  that you’re the doer of action, the body-mind.  When you know that you’re consciousness-existence, you realize that you’re not involved with the body-mind, regardless of what it does or doesn’t do.

12:7 – Thinking of the unthinkable (consciousness-existence) is not possible without thought itself.  Therefore giving up that thought, I abide in my true nature.

Conceptualizing the self as this or that is a necessity in the process of self-inquiry because you can’t inquire into something that you can’t think about.  But in the end inquiry shows you 1) That you, the self, aren’t and object and 2) That you’re not the thinker, the mind.  At that point you can stop trying to think of yourself as one thing or the other and you can simply rest easy in the knowledge that you are the self.

12:8 – Blessed is the one who has accomplished this. Blessed is he who is such by nature.

Om. Amen. Word.

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A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 13

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CHAPTER 5

Vedic cosmology posits that creation is cyclical—the universe arises from consciousness-existence and eventually ‘dissolves’ back into consciousness-existence, lying dormant until the time comes for it to arise again.  This dissolution of the universe into consciousness-existence is called laya.  Another meaning of laya is “absorption,” which in relation to enlightenment pertains to the belief that a person attains freedom by merging their ‘relative self’ (the individual soul) into the ‘absolute self’ of consciousness-existence. 

But here in the four verses of Chapter Five, Ashtavakra offers a very different perspective on these traditional notions of laya.  He declares the universe doesn’t need to be physically dissolved into consciousness-existence because it naturally ‘dissolves’ into the consciousness-existence through the understanding that the universe is nothing other than consciousness-existence.  In the same way, the relative self does not have to be literally merged into the absolute self because the relative self—in its true nature as consciousness-existence—already is the absolute self.  And understanding that fact is freedom (enlightenment) because freedom is the nature of the absolute self.                     

Ashtavakra said:
5:1 – You are ever pure and untouched—what is there to renounce? [Knowing this] destroy the collection of matter known as the body-mind and attain dissolution.

The universe is an illusion that never affects you so only the belief that it’s real can be or need be renounced.  And by extension, nothing can be or need be destroyed or dissolved.  But figuratively speaking, by renouncing the belief that the universe is real, the body-mind is ‘destroyed’ through understanding and you attain ‘dissolution’ (freedom from the body-mind).               

5:2 – The universe arises from you like bubbles arising from the ocean. Having known yourself to be one alone, attain dissolution.

All of the objects that comprise the universe are nothing but you, consciousness-existence, in the same way that bubbles arising from the ocean are nothing but water.  Unlike bubbles that literally dissolve back into the water from which they came, the universe is ‘dissolved’ into you by understanding that is none other than yourself.      

5:3 – The universe that appears in you is like a snake being seen where there is only a rope—it is unreal. It does not exist in you who are ever-pure. [Knowing this] attain dissolution.

Just as an illusory snake is ‘dissolved’ upon realizing it is a rope, so the universe is ‘dissolved’ when it is known to be none other than you, the ever-pure self.   

5:4 – You are perfect and changeless in pleasure and pain, hope and despair, and life and death. [Knowing this] attain dissolution.

To escape the uncomfortable duality of pleasure and pain etc., some people may seek a literal dissolution of the universe.  But this isn’t necessary when you understand that duality is merely an appearance that never affects you.      

A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 10

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CHAPTER THREE

Chapter Three is usually characterized as Ashtavakra testing Janaka after the latter makes a statement of self-knowledge in Chapter Two.  But there doesn’t appear to be a coherent line of questioning.  And some of the verses are not questions at all, but statements.  Additionally, owing to a lack of definitive background information about Janaka to give them context, it is not even clear whether Ashtavakra’s questions and statements pertain directly to Janaka or not.  In a way, this is preferable because it allows Chapter Three to be more of a universal lesson about the effect of self-knowledge on the thinking and behavior of the body-mind rather than a critique of a specific person.      

Ashtavakra said:
3:1 – Having known yourself to be one (non-dual) and indestructible, how can you feel attached to acquiring wealth? 

If the body-mind knows itself to be non-dual unchanging consciousness-existence, there is no reason for it to be attached to the idea of possession or non-possession of wealth.  Why?  Because being wealthy or impoverished are states that only apply to an illusory body-mind.  So there is no virtue in the body-mind being poor nor any vice in the body-mind having wealth—neither one has any effect on you, consciousness-existence. 

3:2 – From self-ignorance comes attachment to illusory objects of perception, just as from ignorance of mother-of-pearl comes greed for illusory silver. 

When you don’t know that you’re the non-dual self, the sole existent reality, you think that 1) objects are real and 2) that they are different or separate from you.  These beliefs are what makes attachment possible, because why would you be attached to an unreal object?  In the same way that greed for silver dissipates when it is known to be mother-of-pearl, attachment for objects dissipates when they are known to be illusory.    

Does this mean that a person with self-knowledge has no desires?  First, if someone knows that they’re the self, they understand that they are not, never have been, and never will be a person.  Therefore, whether the person (the body-mind) has desires or not is ultimately immaterial. 

Regardless, self-knowledge can—and should—inform the way the body-mind thinks and behaves.  So when the mind knows that at its essence it’s the sole unchanging existent reality, its desire for illusory objects should naturally decrease.  The next verse illustrates this point perfectly.     

3:3 – Having known yourself to be that in which the universe appears like waves on the ocean, why do you run after objects as if you are in need? 

If you have self-knowledge, you know that the body-mind is illusory and has nothing to do with you.  But despite being unreal, it does not suddenly disappear.  And according to rules of the universe the body-mind inhabits, it still needs food, shelter, clothing etc., assuming you do not want it to wither away and die; jobs, relationships and family commitments need to be maintained, assuming you want to keep them.  The difference is that you can tend to the body-mind and its circumstances without the undue stress caused by thinking it is real and that your well-being somehow depends on it.  As consciousness-existence, you are always completely fine, regardless of the state of the body-mind—even when it is running after objects as if it is in need.        

3:4 – After hearing oneself to be pure consciousness and surpassingly beautiful, how can you continue to be attached to the impurity of sex?

Pure consciousness, the self, can be considered “surpassingly beautiful” in a few different ways.  1) It is the most attractive ‘thing’ there is insofar as all actions are done for the sake of the self. 2) Beauty is often considered to be a measure of perfection; in this regard, owing to its utter lack of defect, the self—as opposed to inherently flawed objects—is “surpassingly beautiful.” 3) Since no beauty in the empirical world is even possible without consciousness being there as its very essence, it is “surpassingly beautiful.” 

If you have discovered your own ‘inner beauty’ as the self, there is no need to be preoccupied with sensual pleasures such as sex that can never bring any lasting satisfaction.  But like the issue of wealth discussed in 3:1, there is nothing inherently wrong with sex, even for one who is free from self-ignorance.  It is a natural part of life and done consensually and respectfully, it is a healthy part of loving relationships. 

Being an ascetic, perhaps Ashtavakra would not agree with this sentiment.  But having a monastic lifestyle doesn’t make a person more pure than someone who leads a normal life in the everyday world.  As Ashtavakra points out, you are pure consciousness; since purity is your nature, you can never be impure. 

3:5 – It would be astonishing for the sense of ownership to continue in the wise one who knows that he is the self in all and that all is in the self.

If you know that everything is yourself, then you can’t say you own anything for the simple fact that you can’t own yourself—you simply are yourself.  Does this mean that on the empirical level you suddenly lose all notions of having a body, a house, a car etc.?  No.  But the idea of ‘owning’ those things is put into perspective in light of the truth of non-duality–even though notions of ownership may persist, they are known to be completely baseless. 

3:6 – It would be strange for one dwelling on the highest non-duality and intent on liberation to be impaired by the desire for enjoyment. 

When you realize that transient objects can never give lasting satisfaction, your desire for them should become subservient to your desire to seek freedom from objects through self-knowledge. 

3:7 – It is astonishing how one debilitated and approaching death could still have desire, even after ascertaining that its arising is unfriendly (contrary) to knowledge.

After a lifetime of trying and failing to find fulfillment in fleeting objects it would be unfortunate if it didn’t become obvious that attainment of desires isn’t the key to satisfaction.  Ironically, pursuing desires is the main impediment to the fulfillment that is being sought because it keeps attention riveted outward, looking for solutions in external objects, thereby inhibiting the contemplation of the non-object ‘inner’ self—‘inner’ meaning it is the essence of everything—that leads to actual satisfaction through self-knowledge.      

3:8 – It is strange that one who is unattached to the objects of this world and the next, who discriminates the eternal from the transient, and who longs for liberation (moksha), should yet fear liberation! 

Even highly qualified students who are dispassionate (“unattached to the objects of this world and the next”) and able to discriminate the eternal (the self) from the transient (the ‘not-self’ i.e. objects) may fear the very liberation they are seeking.  Why?  Because it appears to be the destruction of their own individuality.  But this fear is unfounded and it stems from a basic misunderstanding of liberation.  Liberation, instead of being the destruction of the individual (the body-mind), is the destruction of self-ignorance. 

This means that while the body-mind persists after liberation, the belief that you are the body-mind is what is destroyed.  Granted, since you have identified with the body-mind your entire life, this may still seem unsettling.  But seeing as the body-mind is the seat of all suffering, both mental and physical, negating the notion that it is who you are should be a welcome change. 

Here is another way to look at it: the word “individuality” normally means to be an entity distinct from other entities and this is how people suffering from self-ignorance normally view themselves; they think they are one unique body-mind among many body-minds.  Self-knowledge does negate individuality in this sense.  But a word that is synonymous with “individuality” is “uniqueness,” which means to be “one of a kind.”  So even when self-knowledge destroys the idea that you are an individual body-mind, you still retain your individuality in the sense that as non-dual consciousness-existence—you are one of a kind because there is nothing other than you.  

A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 5

CHAPTER TWO

Through Ashtavakra’s instruction in the first chapter, Janaka gets enlightened.  Chapter Two is Janaka’s statement of self-knowledge.    

Read Part 4 here.

Janaka said:
2:1 – I am consciousness: without defect, tranquil, and beyond the material world.  All this time I have been deceived by delusion. 

As previously mentioned (in Part Two), enlightenment or self-knowledge is a matter of identity.  When you are ignorant of your true nature, you mistakenly identify with the body-mind.  But when you know what your true nature is, you correctly identify with consciousness.  You can tell that Janaka now clearly identifies with consciousness instead of the body-mind by the way he starts speaking of consciousness in the first person, saying “I am consciousness” instead of “consciousness is (such and such)” as if he were describing something other than himself.  For that reason, the verses in Chapter Two are excellent for meditation, recitation and contemplation.        

When Janaka says that he is beyond the material world, it does not mean that consciousness is in one place and the material world in another because consciousness has no spatial location.  Furthermore, since reality is non-dual, there cannot be both a world and consciousness.  So to say that consciousness is beyond the material world means that consciousness is not affected by the illusory appearance of the world.   

2:2 – As I alone reveal this body, even so do I reveal this universe. The entire universe is mine; or alternately, nothing is mine. 

The entire universe—which includes the body—is a known object.  That which knows it is consciousness.  In this way consciousness ‘reveals’ everything in the universe.

In the second part of the verse Janaka switches from the empirical viewpoint to the absolute viewpoint (see 1:16 for explanation of viewpoints).   From the empirical viewpoint, which provisionally accepts the appearance of the universe, it can be said that everything ‘belongs’ to consciousness since everything is consciousness.  Yet, from the absolute viewpoint, which does not admit of the universe whatsoever, nothing belongs to consciousness because there is nothing other than consciousness to belong to it. 

2:3 – Having left behind the body and the universe, I now see the highest self.

When people get enlightened, they continue to have bodies that exist in the universe.  If this were not so, then the moment Janaka got enlightened he would have disappeared and been unavailable to make these statements.  Actually, if this were not so, Janaka would not have gotten enlightened in the first place because Ashtavakra, his enlightened teacher, wouldn’t have been there to teach him.  So when Janaka says he has left behind the body and the universe, they remain as they are but he has ‘left them behind’ by recognizing them for the illusion they are and ceasing identification with the body. 

In this chapter, Janaka starts referring to consciousness/existence as “the self” (atman).  In the sense that consciousness/existence is what you truly are, it is the “self.”  Therefore, the terms will be used synonymously in the text from here forward. 

Sight being a common symbol of knowledge, when Janaka says that he sees the self he means he understands that he is the self, not that the self is some kind of object of perception.  That this self is the “highest self” means that consciousness/existence is the true self, as opposed to the false self of the body-mind.    

2:4 – As waves, foam and bubbles are not different from water, so the universe emanating from me is not different from me.

At first, Vedanta posits two fundamentally dualistic categories: self (consciousness/subject/knower/witness) and ‘not-self’ (non-conscious/object/known/witnessed).  But seeing as reality is ultimately non-dual, these two categories can only be conditionally accepted.  You may ask, “Then why use them at all?”  The answer is that in the beginning of the teaching the concept of ‘not-self’ provides a stable and critically important platform from which to inquire, one that helps you objectify the body-mind and see that it is unreal.  Once the body-mind is clearly known to be an illusion that never affects your true nature, the temporary dualistic split of self and ‘not-self’ must be mended in order for the ultimate truth of non-duality to be grasped.  Examining the relationship between water and its various manifestations is an excellent way to do this. 

Initially, it can be said that waves, foam and bubbles are different from water because the waves etc. are transient, ever-changing and possessed of form while the water is ever-present, unchanging and formless. But when the existence of the waves etc. is negated by the knowledge that they are only water, it must be said that the waves etc. are non-different from water because they are not really there; there is ever only water and therefore nothing else exists to be different from it. 

Similarly, at first it can be said that the self and the ‘not-self’ are different because the ‘not-self’ is transient, ever-changing and possessed of form while the self (consciousness/existence) is ever-present, unchanging and formless.  But when the existence of the ‘not-self’ is negated by knowledge that only the self exists, it must said that the ‘not-self’ is non-different from the self in the sense that there is nothing other than the self to be different from the self.   

It could be argued that it would be more efficient to simply skip the first step that falsely admits of something other than the self in order to go directly to the truth of non-duality.  However, very few people can do this because at first the idea of non-duality appears to stand in direct opposition to their everyday experience.  And when people are still convinced that there is such a thing as the ‘not-self’ (objects of experience) it is not productive to merely deny its existence.  Therefore, Vedanta, being eminently practical, offers an intermediate step.  It conditionally accepts the ‘not-self’ and then provides you with the tools that are needed to understand that it only appears to exist while you, the self, are the only thing that actually exists.  When that is known, the temporary difference between self and ‘not-self’ is discarded in favor of the non-dual view that there is only the self.  This view is reiterated in the next verse using the analogy of cloth and thread and requires no additional commentary.            

2:5 – As cloth, when analyzed, is found to be nothing but thread, so this universe, when analyzed, is nothing but me. 

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