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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A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 4

Read Part 3 HERE.

Ashtavakra said:
1:18 – That which has form is unreal; that which is formless is permanent (and therefore real).  Through this instruction you will escape rebirth.

Here Ashtavakra presents a fundamental axiom of Vedanta, one on which making the distinction between yourself (the real) and the body-mind (the unreal) hinges.  While the commonly accepted definition of the word “real” is “that which can be known or experienced,” Vedanta defines “real” as “that which is ever-present and unchanging.”  The logic behind Vedanta’s definition of “real” is this:  Something cannot be real if it is here one moment and gone the next, or if it is one thing one moment and something else the next.  According to this line of reasoning, things that have form, such as the body-mind, cannot be real because they A) are not present before birth, after death, or even in life during dream and deep sleep and B) when they are present they change continuously, subtly on the cellular level and more obviously on the external level of physical appearance.  Therefore, only that which is formless, consciousness, is real because it is always present and it never changes.   

Here, some objections may arise:

Student:  I didn’t exist before birth and I won’t exist after death. 

Teacher:  Then you must not exist right now because that which has no existence in the beginning and no existence in the end has no existence in between, just like a mirage in the desert or silver in mother- of-pearl.      

Student:  But it’s obvious I exist.  I am here asking this question. 

Teacher:  Then you must be confused about what the word “I” really refers to. 

Student:  “I” refers to my body-mind.

Teacher:  Which body-mind? 

Student:  I don’t follow. 

Teacher:  If you are the body-mind, which one are you?  Are you the infant body-mind or perhaps the adolescent body-mind?  If so, where are they? 

Student:  They are gone. 

Teacher:  Are you gone? 

Student:  No.

Teacher:  Then that suggests you are different from the body-mind, does it not?

Student:  Yes, but my adult body-mind is here right now and that is what feels like me. 

Teacher:  Agreed, it does feel that way.  But that does not make it so.  Feeling like you are running from a tiger in a dream does not mean that it is really happening.  So not being the body-mind is not a matter of experience but one of understanding what experience means.  We’ve already seen that the infant and adolescent body-mind cannot be you because they are no longer present while you still are.  But if you are the adult body-mind, the same kind of question applies:  Which adult body-mind are you?  It changes from moment to moment, let alone from day to day or year to year.  Are you the adult body-mind from last year?  From last week?  From five minutes ago? 

Student:  I can see your point but it is difficult to discard the possibility that I could be the body-mind that changes throughout life.            

Teacher:  Yes, the belief is deep-rooted and hard to get rid of.  But the body-mind which changes continuously, which is one thing one moment and something else cannot be real.  You are real.  But another way to look at it is this:  even when the body-mind appears to be relatively permanent, such as in adulthood, it still cannot be real because it is not always present.  Where is your body-mind when you dream, or during dreamless sleep? 

Student:  Lying on the bed, I think.  If that is the case then it is still present, correct?   

Teacher:  By observing others sleeping, we can assume that the body-mind is lying on the bed during sleep.  But if the body-mind is truly you, how could it not be present in the dream or dreamless sleep?  You are present in those states of sleep are you not?

Student:  Yes. 

Teacher:  So if the body-mind were essential to your nature, then they too would be present because you can never be apart from what you truly are.  This proves that the body-mind is an illusion that is incidental to your existence. 

Student:  I can see how that could be true regarding the body; it is not there in a dream.  But in dreamless sleep, when the body as well as the mind are not present, I am not present.

Teacher:  Again, you are confusing yourself with the body-mind and taking its absence in dreamless sleep to mean you do not exist.  But if you do not exist in dreamless sleep then you cannot exist while you are dreaming or awake either because that which truly exists can never not exist.  And we have already established that you exist.  It is obvious. 

Student:  But it’s also obvious that the mind exists in a dream and that the body-mind exists when I am awake, is it not?   

Teacher:  I am using the word “exist” in the sense of being real, permanent and unchanging.  So although the body-mind, like an illusion, can be experienced, it is not real.    

Student:  That makes sense.  But is it not true that, “I think therefore I am”? How can I say I exist in dreamless sleep when my body-mind is not there to prove I exist by thinking and experiencing?    

Teacher:  How can the presence or absence of the body-mind validate or invalidate your existence?  You are consciousness; you are what validates (reveals) the existence—albeit illusory—of the body-mind and not vice versa.  Just because the body-mind is not present does not mean that you, consciousness, are not.  For example, if you are blinded in an accident and your eyes lose the power to see, does your mind—the knower of what your eyes see—stop existing too?  No, it is still there knowing the absence of sight.  Similarly, if the perceptions and thoughts of the mind temporarily cease in dreamless sleep, does consciousness stop being conscious?  No.  It is still there, conscious of the absence of the workings of the mind. 

Student:  But I don’t experience that.  I don’t know anything in dreamless sleep. 

Teacher: Because experience and knowing are functions of the mind.  So when the mind disappears no experience or knowing is possible.  But that does not mean that you, consciousness, are not still there. 

Student:  How can that be?  Consciousness is called “the knower,” is it not?    

Teacher:  Calling consciousness the “knower” is only a figurative description, as are all words used to describe your true nature, owing to the fact that it is not describable by any word.  Since there is no other option, the teaching is forced to use words, but they are only employed as indicators of the truth, not the truth itself.  If you ask someone where a particular star is, they will use their finger to point to it in the sky.  But the finger is not the star itself, only an indicator of where the star is.  The limitation of this metaphor is that unlike the star, you, consciousness, are not an object of the mind or senses that exists in a particular location.

In its initial stages, when the teaching conditionally accepts the appearance of objects, it describes you as “the knower.”  In truth, knowing is a process of the mind but describing you as the knower is meant to draw your attention to the fact that the knowing of your mind is itself a known object and therefore cannot be you.  In this regard, instead of saying your mind is known to you, it is more appropriate to say that you are the “light” that illumines the mind—light being a metaphor for consciousness—because it must be admitted that because the mind is not self-evident, it must be revealed by something other than itself.  “Light” is a more apt description of what you really are because similar to the way the sun illumines the earth effortlessly because light is its very nature, you illumine the mind with absolutely no volition or action because consciousness is your very nature.  Therefore, when the reality of objects is negated, along with the knowing of the mind, you are left simply as consciousness.      

Student:  How can I be conscious if I don’t know anything? 

Teacher:  Because, like the previously mentioned sun that requires no action to be luminous, consciousness does not depend on the knowing of the mind to be conscious.  Consciousness is what you are, not something you do.  It is important to note that the fact that you are still conscious when you sleep is impossible to experience because the instrument of experience, the mind, is not present.  This means you can only understand—while you are awake—that during sleep you are still consciousness. 

Student:  I’ll admit that that is a reasonable explanation.  But it has not completely removed my doubt.  I am so used to equating being awake with being conscious.  Sleep still seems like the absence of consciousness.  In fact, it appears to be the absence of everything.  It appears to be nothingness, a void. 

Teacher:  Fair enough.  But keep in mind that the word “consciousness” is not being used in the traditional sense.  Vedanta’s definition of consciousness is much broader because it is used synonymously with the word “existence.”  In other words, consciousness is pure being, existence itself, that which makes the existence of illusory objects such as the mind even possible.  So the question is, “When the mind is not present, do you, existence, stop existing?” 

By merit of the fact that we are discussing the particulars of dreamless sleep, it appears that you are admitting that it exists, correct?  Otherwise it would be pointless to discuss the details of a non-existent entity.    

Student:  Yes, I am admitting that dreamless sleep exists. 

Teacher:  So in dreamless sleep, despite the absence of the mind or experience, existence still exists. 

Student:  Perhaps.  What if dreamless sleep is total non-existence? 

Teacher:  First, there is no definitive evidence that when your mind is not present to experience it, that the world (or at least the illusion of it) does not continue to exist.  In that case, dreamless sleep would not be total non-existence, just the absence of experience in the world by your mind. 

Student:  But conversely, there is no definitive evidence that the world does exist when my mind is not there to experience it.  Hence the possibility of dreamless sleep being nothingness, a void. 

Teacher:  Granted, but let’s suppose dreamless sleep is nothingness, a void.  Are you not admitting that nothingness, the void, exists?  If you do not admit that nothingness exists, then there can be no argument.  An objection cannot have a non-existent premise, correct?   

Student:  Yes. 

Teacher:  So even if it is admitted that dreamless sleep is actually a void, the void would exist.  And because of that, existence itself still exists.  This means you still exist in dreamless sleep.  This means that you are still consciousness in deep sleep because they are the same thing. 

Student:  I can see your point about existence but trying to think of myself as consciousness in dreamless sleep is still difficult. 

Teacher:  Upon further contemplation it may become easier.  But if not, there is no need to get hung up on the words used to point to your true nature because as I mentioned before, they are only indicators.  The words “consciousness” and “existence” are only employed to help you see that you are ever-present and unchanging.  Use whichever words best help you to understand that, and once you do, you can even disregard those. 

Student:  Is it not possible that I can exist, then not-exist, then exist again?  Or both exist and not exist at the same time? 

Teacher: Can you think of a single example of something totally non-existent—such as the son of a barren woman—coming into existence? 

Student:  No. 

Teacher:  That’s because it is impossible—and illogical—for something of the nature of non-existence to become of the nature of existence.  That which is truly non-existent always remains non-existence.  That which is truly existence always exists.  The true nature of a thing cannot be changed.

Student:  Can something be of the nature of two things at once, such as being simultaneously existent and non-existent? 

Teacher:  Is the son of a barren woman both existent and non-existent at the same time? 

Student: No. 

Teacher:  Can fire be both hot and cold at the same time?  Can light be both luminous and dark at the same time? 

Student:  No. 

Teacher:  Then having two different natures at once is also impossible, as well as being contradictory to common sense.  Therefore, you have always been existence/consciousness and will always be existence/consciousness. You can never be other than what you are.             

1:19 – Just as a mirror exists within and without the image reflected in it, so you exist inside and outside this body.

In this verse, you are likened to a mirror and the body to a reflection.  This metaphor works on two levels: 1) Just like a reflection is superimposed onto a mirror without the mirror being affected, the appearance of the body is superimposed onto you without affecting you whatsoever 2) You are not contained within the appearance of the body just as a mirror is not contained within a reflection; as existence itself, you exist everywhere equally.  You are the ‘background’ upon which all appearances are superimposed.     

The limitation of the mirror analogy is that it implies duality and a spatial relationship between two things: that like a real object exists outside of a mirror and is the cause for the illusory reflection, there could be a real object outside of yourself (existence) that is the cause of the superimposition of the body.  But this cannot be because there is nothing ‘outside’ of existence.  Hypothetically, if there were something outside of existence it too would exist and therefore not be different from, or outside of, existence itself.   

Note:  The word literally used to denote you in this verse is parameshvara, the highest (parama) lord (ishvara).  In relation to the relative appearance of the world, you are the ‘absolute’ (the highest), that which is real, as well as the ‘lord,’ that by merit of which all relative things are even possible.  But to keep things simple by avoiding unnecessary theistic symbolism, I translated parameshvara as “you” because that is the direct meaning.    

1:20 – As space pervading the inside and outside of a jar remains one, so the unchanging brahman remains undivided while existing within and without all things.

Space is quite possibly the best metaphor for your true nature (here called brahman).  Just as there is only one space and it is the same everywhere, there is only one you and you are the same everywhere.  And just as all things appears within space, yet do not affect space, so all things appear within you but do not affect you.  In the same way that saying space is inside or outside of anything, such as a jar, cannot be taken literally because it implies space has a location, saying that you, brahman, are within and without all things must be taken as a figure of speech.  Its purpose is to point to the fact that you are one and the same everywhere. 

The shortcoming of the space metaphor is that space is not consciousness, while you can never not be conscious since consciousness is your true nature. 

Note:  Since the term brahman is so common in Vedanta I have left it untranslated but please understand that anywhere you see this word, it simply means “you,” or if the statement is in first person, “I.”

This verse concludes Chapter One, as well as Ashtavakra’s answer to Janaka’s initial question.  Next week I will start Chapter Two, which is Janaka’s response. 

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There Is No Other Freedom

Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting Paul, my good friend and guru-brother.  While staying with him he showed me a book of Swami Dayananda’s transcribed talks and pointed out one titled, “Freedom – Absence of Self-Judgement.” While I’ve read a fair amount of Swami Dayananda’s voluminous body of work (all of it high-quality), this piece immediately became my favorite.  Why? First, while brevity and directness are not always Vedanta’s strong-suit, this talk had both in spades.  Second, and most importantly, it dealt with the most pertinent topic of Vedanta, freedom, an issue that every student of Vedanta finds perplexing at one point or another in their study.

One of the reasons for the confusion regarding the nature of freedom is the close association—and subsequent mixing up—of yoga, meditation and Vedanta.  Despite the fact that yoga and meditation are excellent practices (practices that Vedanta advocates), their ideas of freedom are usually different from Vedanta.  While yoga and meditation often aim to fully change, control or stop the mind, Vedanta does not.  Why?  Because Vedanta recognizes a simple fact:  While the mind can (and should) be disciplined, it can never be fully changed, controlled or stopped.  This means that freedom, as commonly defined in yoga and meditation is impossible.  Since freedom is desirable, that seems to present a major problem.  However, Vedanta says not to worry.  The condition of the mind is not an insurmountable obstacle to freedom because you, the self, are always free from the condition of the mind.    

The idea that freedom depends on a certain condition of your mind is by far the most common, persistent and harmful misconceptions about freedom.  Because Swami Dayananda clearly pointed out the error of this idea in his talk, I’ve re-printed the transcript below, taking the liberty of italicizing the parts I thought were of particular interest.  May it help you make your goal crystal clear.    

-Vishnudeva

P.S. – I am always hesitant to quote teachers owing to the possibility that I may misrepresent them in some way.  I have a lot of respect for Swami Dayananda so if I have misrepresented him in any way, the fault is mine. 

FREEDOM – ABSENCE OF SELF-JUDGEMENT

To judge oneself, at any time, on the basis of the obtaining condition of one’s mind is an error.  The present condition of the mind may be sorrow, depression, frustration, regret, disappointment, or just a response to failure.  As long as you judge yourself based on the condition of your mind, you are a samsari (one enmeshed in the relative world of beginnings and endings.)  When you refuse to judge yourself from the condition of your mind, you are a mumuksu (one who seeks freedom from all apparent limitation) and a jignasu (one who seeks freedom through knowledge). And when you cease to judge yourself based on the obtaining condition of the mind, you are free.  This is the only freedom there is—the freedom from the error of self-judgement that is based on the condition of the mind. 

The error is evident.  The nature of the mind is to keep changing all the time.  In the morning you judge yourself in one way, and in the evening in a different way.  When the judgement is harbored, the harbored judgement, stored in memory, creates a “personality” out of a person.  The personality is purely psychological.  It is against the vision of the self that Vedanta is unfolded in the teaching of Vedanta.  And if the knowledge of the self that Vedanta unfolds does not work for you, it does not work only because of this judgement.  When you refuse to judge yourself on the basis of your mind then you are serious in seeking clarity in the vision of the truth of the self. 

This does not mean that you have to always have a particular type of mind.  Mind does and will change, unless you anesthetize yourself psychologically, which is unnatural.  Thoughts do not “dry up” because the source of thoughts, perception and memory, is always there. 

The student says, “I seem to understand the vision, but then why am I still bothered by a jumble of thoughts?”  Because of a condition of the mind, the student doubts the vision, the very knowledge.  The doubt is an obstacle to gaining the knowledge.  Knowledge is not an obtaining condition of the mind, not a state of mind.  Knowledge is recognition of the fact that I am thought-free.  This recognition is different from a state of mind that is thought-free.  The difference between recognizing my fundamental nature as thought-free and aiming for a thought-free mind is the difference between knowledge and ignorance. 

Refuse to judge yourself on the basis of the obtaining condition of the mind.  Then you are serious in the pursuit of freedom.  Then there is freedom.  There is no other freedom

Swami Dayananda – Piercy, CA March 1983

 

 

How to use the word “I” in Vedanta

L: What is the correct way to speak using the word “I” with all of the knowledge of vedanta?

V:  To use the word “I” the way any other person does, while knowing that it refers to your true nature instead of the body/mind.  That’s all.  Saying the word “I” or referring to yourself as “I” is only a problem if you think “I” means the body/mind.    

L: It seems like the word itself has problems.  It is a habit to use “I” to refer to the thoughts, feelings, and memories that consciousness is illuminating.  But this is not the most real essence of what I truly am.    

V:  True, but it’s impossible to communicate without using words that refer to concepts.  So it’s okay to use “I” as long as you know what “I” really means.  If you identify yourself with the thoughts, feelings and memories that “I” refers to, then it’s a problem.  If not, then it’s not.   

L:  On the other hand, it seems very difficult to use the word “I” to refer strictly to atma, because to my way of thinking, pure atma alone doesn’t think, feel, or remember, except as a differentiated illusion. 

V:  Like I said previously, it’s like the water / wave metaphor.  If the illusion of the wave says, “I am water” then it’s a true statement.  Likewise, if the illusion of Lee says, “I am atma” it’s a true statement. 

If there is any thinking, feeling or remembering going on, even if it’s illusory, that thinking etc. is none other than atma.

One of the key features of Vedanta is switching back and forth between different viewpoints or ‘levels’ of truth in order to make sense of reality.  Let’s call the real truth the absolute viewpoint and the relative truth the empirical viewpoint.  From the absolute viewpoint, there is no actual Lee, no thinking etc.  This is not a viewpoint you ever experience directly but simply understand to be true.  On the other hand you have the empirical viewpoint where you undeniable experience Lee and his thinking etc.  To ignore one of these viewpoints is to not view reality as a whole, and doing so can make your life very difficult.  Strictly taking the empirical viewpoint is obviously problematic because Lee has a whole host of problems, most notably sadness, sickness and death. 

But simply taking the absolute viewpoint (even though it is true) is not helpful either as I think you’re starting to notice.  The reason is that even if Lee is an illusion he is undeniably there, along with the world he inhabits.  When you understand that Lee isn’t real and that you are actually atma, the world is still there, just the same as before.  This means you have to interact with it like you always have.  You can’t simply sit in one place not speaking, thinking, eating or breathing.  The world demands that you act.  To acknowledge the world and act accordingly is allowing for the empirical viewpoint, the relative truth.  You simply do it knowing the absolute truth and you can switch back to that viewpoint in your mind any time you need to. 

But you don’t need to look at things from that viewpoint all the time (you can’t even if you want to because it isn’t helpful).  For instance, if I know my name I don’t have to remind myself of it constantly, lest I somehow forget it.  It’s there in the back of my mind all the time.  When someone asks me what it is, I simply recall it.  This means that if you are sitting there eating a sandwich you don’t have to do it thinking, “I am not really eating this sandwich.  Lee is not real nor is this sandwich.  I am the real, action-less atma.”  You just eat the sandwich.  If for some reason you need that knowledge (namely, if you find yourself mentally suffering) simply recall it.  Otherwise, live your life.       

L: Perhaps it is best to say “I have this thought,” or feeling, or memory? 

V:  Initially, yes.  This is a required practice in order to break our normal identification with the mind.  Usually, “I have a thought” equates with the belief “I am the thinker.”  So at first we need to objectify our thoughts to see them as the ‘separate’ objects that they are.  This is the artificial duality we spoke about previously.  When the practice of objectifying our thoughts bears fruit, namely the fruit of the knowledge “I am atma,” then the practice is no longer necessary. 

L:  But the concept of a separate “I” is essentially an illusion.  To some extent, is it necessary to participate in the illusory drama, to play the role of the “I”?

V:  Yes.  The only way not to participate in the illusion is to die.  And even though you are the immortal atma, I don’t recommend that 🙂 Besides, the illusory drama can be a very interesting and enjoyable thing, especially when you know that you are free of it.  You simply ‘participate’ knowing that you are not really participating.  

L:  It would sound odd to say “The illusory Lee-creature is wondering what book to read next” but this seems like the most truly accurate way to speak. 

V:  It would be the most accurate way to speak but as you’ve pointed out, it would in fact be odd.  And it would also be a bit contrived and pretentious.  Luckily, as I’ve said, it’s not necessary.  Once you’ve gotten it absolutely crystal clear that you atma instead of Lee, you simply say “I’m wondering what book to read next” with the full understanding that none of that is actually true.  You are like an actor in a movie, knowing who you really are (without any conscious effort) while playing a role.  As long as you’re not a method actor, losing yourself in the character, you’ll be just fine.     

L:  I’m getting the feeling that truly arriving at the deepest level of understanding of this knowledge of non-duality must require the “I-ness” to stand down, to figuratively self-immolate. 

V:  Yes, it is figurative because the “I-ness” doesn’t stand down in any literal fashion.  It stands down only through knowledge.  You make it stand down by recognizing it for what it is:  an illusion.   

L:  I have an inclination to undertake a process of detaching from the habits that feed the “I-ness” for a few weeks, long enough to break the habit.  But this does not seem to be a practice in traditional vedanta.

V:  I’m not sure what the details are of this process you’re thinking about so I’m not sure if it aligns with traditional Vedanta or not.  But if you think it will help, give it a try.  There is no rule that you have to conform to traditional Vedanta.  Besides, a cursory investigation of the history of Vedanta will show you that there’s not even a consensus about what traditional Vedanta actually is.  

L:  I had the thought to develop a set of sequential affirmations or thoughts to step through each day.  Is there already a standard sequence of realization statements in vedanta?  Things along these lines:

– This body and mind are temporary and limited illusions within infinite consciousness. –– My true nature is infinite and eternal conscious awareness.                                                    – This entire universe is an illusion created within one single consciousness.                        – I am the infinite and eternal consciousness that underlies this universe.

V:  Yes, that pretty much sums it up Lee.  But at the end I would add:

-I am not the universe but the universe is none other than me.

This means the appearance of the universe is you but does not affect your true nature in any way.  And this heals the artificial duality between atma and anatma (not-self).       

L:  Most of the questions that arise in my mind are resolved by coming back to one of these statements.  My thought was to repeat them and dwell on them every day.

V:  Yes!  In Vedanta this is called manana (reflecting on what you’ve learned until you understand it clearly) and nididhyasana (fully assimilating the implications of what you know to be true).  These are some of the fundamental practices of Vedanta.    

All my best – Vishnudeva

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Respect the Elephant: Self-knowledge Isn’t Denial

(Note: The first part of this Q&A is a response to a quote I was sent of a teacher discussing whether or not you can use self-knowledge to deny or ignore the everyday world.  For the sake of brevity, I’ve omitted the actual quote – V). On to my response:  

The goal of Vedanta is to understand how things really are, despite any appearances to the contrary (namely the false appearance of the body/mind/world).  Once you have gained this understanding, it profoundly affects how you view and interact with the appearance.  But in no way does gaining this understanding mean you should ignore or deny the appearance.  The body/mind/world may not be real but they are certainly not non-existent.  For instance, if your spouse is in front of you asking to discuss the hurtful things you just said to them, you can’t stand there with arms crossed, placid look on your face and say, “I didn’t say anything.  I’m the absolute.  This situation is not real.”  Instead, you respond appropriately and have a discussion, all the while fully knowing that you aren’t really responding to anything or discussing anything with anyone.  In fact, you know that you aren’t even a ‘you’ at all.  You know everything is really the non-dual brahman and that the body/mind/world is merely and illusion.  Yet, the apparent you (the body/mind) still acts according to the rules of the illusion. 

The good thing is that, informed with the knowledge that the body/mind/world is merely an illusory appearance of the non-dual brahman, the apparent you is able to respond to everyday situations in a much more objective and dispassionate manner.  This knowledge helps life go more smoothly (otherwise, as you said, what’s the point?) but it in no way is intended to deny life.  People who don’t really understand non-duality will try to use ‘non-dual denial’ to avoid ‘doing’ things they don’t want to do or ‘dealing’ with things they don’t want to deal with.  If an uncomfortable situation arises, instead of meeting it head on, they try to take the absolutist stance and avoid it.  But this is foolish and shows their lack of understanding because they refuse to acknowledge the world and respond when it’s convenient for them but if someone robbed them of their money or set their house on fire, they wouldn’t stand there saying, “I’m not the doer” while the thief ran away or “I’m the absolute that cannot be touched” while they burned alive. 

On the one hand they say the body/mind/world is an illusion—which is true—but on the other hand they act like their actions within the illusion are somehow real and that acting invalidates the fact that reality is non-dual.  Ironically they pick and choose when this applies and this shows they don’t know what they are talking about at all.  They are clearly mixing up the absolute with the relative, which Vedanta never does. 

My favorite story illustrating this point is about a king in ancient India who had two very different teachers.  One teacher was a dualist, who accepted the world as absolutely real.  The other was a Vedantin who claimed the world was merely an illusory appearance.  As the king and his teachers were walking through the forest, debating the various points of their respective teachings, the Vedanta teacher heard something stirring in the trees.  He realized it was an elephant on a rampage and shouted, “Run!  An elephant is coming!” and he pushed everyone out of the way as the elephant crashed across the path, nearly killing them.  After the king and his teachers regained their composure, the dualist pointed at the Vedantin accusingly and said, “Ha!  I knew you were a phony.  If the world, as you claim, is illusory, then why would you jump out of way?”  The Vedantin replied, “The world IS illusory, which means my reaction to the elephant was illusory as well.  My illusory reaction to the illusory elephant in no way contradicts my true nature as the non-dual brahman.”  The point here is that the one with self-knowledge does their best to act appropriately in a given situation, while clearly knowing that the situation and their reaction to it is not real.  They wouldn’t stand in front of a rampaging elephant saying, “I’m the absolute” only to get their guts smashed out on the forest floor.  That would simply be stupid.  Acknowledging the relative in no way contradicts the absolute.  That is the vision of Vedanta. 

With that in mind, let me address your questions. 

T:  I suppose that I have an idea that Vedanta will indeed take care of the doubts, fears and trauma of the body.

V:  It will certainly take away any doubts about who (or rather what) you really are.  The knowledge that you are the limitless, eternal brahman and not the limited, ephemeral body/mind is certainly empowering and helps greatly with fear because it shows you that you are always okay. 

Does this mean that the body/mind will never have doubt?  It may not have a doubt about what its true nature is, but it will certainly have doubts about other things, like whether or not to take a job or the appropriate thing to say to someone in a particular situation.  But when these moments of uncertainty arise, the person of knowledge knows what?  That they are not the one suffering from uncertainty. Uncertainty belongs to the mind alone, not to the self.  It’s like watching a TV show where someone doesn’t know what to do.  You don’t get concerned and think you are suffering from uncertainty because you know the character is unreal and has nothing to do with you. 

This applies equally to fear and trauma.  I know exactly what I am, but if someone points a gun at my body, my mind will naturally feel fear.  At the same time, I fully know that I am not the fearful mind.  And further, I know that if my body is shot and killed, I am not shot and killed. This is no way means I won’t run or try to defend myself.  But this doesn’t contradict my knowledge at all. 

Recently I had surgery.  Did I—or at least my mind—feel apprehension?  Yes.  Did my body feel pain?  Absolutely!  But at the same time, did I know for a fact that despite the fear and pain that I was totally okay?  Yes.  Did that make my mind feel better?  Yes. Again, that is the vision and beauty of Vedanta.  We can’t always change the world or the condition of the body/mind, but despite that, we can know for certain that unpleasant circumstances never affect us in any way.   

T:  (I think) that freedom means that you are not affected by the constant ups and downs that identification with being the body seems to bring.

V:  Sure, but that doesn’t mean constant equanimity and peace of mind.  The mind is fickle and you really never know what it’s going to do or why.  That’s why yoga is a great tool for controlling the mind but its success rate is relatively low.  This is where Vedanta really shines.  It steps in and shows you that despite the condition of your mind, you are always the self and perfectly at peace and unaffected.  Vedanta is total dis-identification with the condition of your mind.  This isn’t disassociation or denial.  It’s simply a recognition of how things actually are.  This means that you are never affected by ups and downs, even when your mind is.  Ironically, the knowledge that you aren’t the mind trickles down into the workings of the mind itself and over time increases its equanimity and poise.   

T:  “Not knowing all the answers” and “getting it wrong sometimes”, seems to indicate to me that there is still work to do? It doesn’t sound like the end of knowledge?

V:  From a Vedanta perspective, not knowing the answers or getting it wrong sometimes only indicates that there is still work to do if you don’t know the answer to the question, “Who am I?” or if you get it wrong by thinking, “I am the body/mind.”  If you know the answer to that question you understand that you are not the body/mind, and that in fact is the end of knowledge.  Why?  Because if you know who you are, you know you are the non-dual brahman, that there is nothing other than brahman.  So if you know brahman, by extension you ‘know’ everything else, in the same way that if you know a single drop of salt water, you know the entire ocean. 

Does this apply to relative matters?  Is self-knowledge omniscience?  Absolutely not!  The body/mind will still be ignorant of certain details of the relative world and will still make mistakes all the time.  But self-knowledge tells you what?  That YOU aren’t ignorant of certain details and that YOU don’t make mistakes at all because you aren’t the body/mind.  Problem solved.   

T:  I’m not expecting the separate self to go away, but that it will be seen for what it is.

V:  Exactly.  You see if for the illusion it is and you stop identifying with it.  This means you can accept it for what it is, even when it has problems.  As I’ve said before, you don’t deny the problems and avoid them, but the knowledge always keeps them in the proper perspective.  If my relative self is afraid of something, I take the appropriate steps to alleviate that fear.  But if that doesn’t work I’ve always got the knowledge “I am not the relative self and I am always fine” to fall back on.  After self-knowledge, life goes on exactly as before, but your understanding of it drastically changes for the better. 

T:  When you know 100% who you are, can you still feel lonely, frightened, confused?

V:  If we are talking about the real you then no, because the self is never lonely, frightened or confused.  If we are talking about the relative you (the body/mind) then absolutely.  Those are natural parts of life.  However, knowing you are the self can, and does, alleviate those feelings over time.  It’s not an instant fix because the mind is an unpredictable and fickle creature of habit.  But as I’ve pointed out, self-knowledge always puts things in perspective by showing you that, without a doubt, regardless of the condition of your mind, you are completely fine. 

T:  Maybe it is complete freedom to just accept those things as being a part of life?

Does this make any sense?

Sincerely, T

V:  Yes!  Now you’ve got it!  The body/mind/world can be accepted exactly how it is because it’s not real, the same way a dream is not a problem when you realize it’s just a dream.  The good news?  You ARE real, and you can never be limited or changed. 

All my best, Vishnudeva