Steady Wisdom: 3 Week Progress Check

Steady Wisdom: 108 Verses On Changing My Thinking

DAY 21

When a person gives up all desires as they appear in the mind, happy in oneself alone, that person is said to be of steady wisdom.
– Bhagavad Gita 2:55
Progress Check

After three weeks of doing nididhyasana, I take an honest look at my thoughts and actions and ask myself, “How do I measure up to the scripture’s standard of one established in self-knowledge?”

I might be tempted to say, “I’m the self, not the body-mind!  I’m free of all action and thought so what does it matter what the body-mind thinks and does?”  From the absolute perspective (paramarthika), I would be right:  I’m not the body-mind so I’m not responsible for what it does nor do its actions reflect on me in any way (how could I be responsible for, or affected by, an illusion?).  But from the empirical perspective of everyday experience (vyavaharika), I would be wrong…for several reasons. 

First, it’s a contradiction.  Why?  Because while I’ll apply the logic of “what does it matter what the body-mind thinks and does?” when evaluating my spiritual progress, I don’t apply the same logic to other aspects of my life.  For instance, when I’m supposed to have a presentation ready for work on Monday morning and I don’t get it done I don’t tell my boss, “I’m not the body-mind, so what does it matter?”  Instead, I apologize and make an attempt to redeem myself (assuming I want to stay employed).  Or when I say something hurtful to a friend, I don’t claim, “I didn’t say anything, I’m the self!”  Rather, I apologize and make amends (assuming I want to stay friends). 

In those kinds of situations, even though I know damn well I’m the action-less self that’s unaffected by the body-mind, I observe the rules of the admittedly illusory world and make corrections to “my” behavior.  And yet, when it comes time to determine whether or not Vedanta is having a positive effect on my mind, I try to wriggle out of making the appropriate changes by claiming it doesn’t matter.  This is simply a misapplication of self-knowledge.  Because if the actions of the body-mind truly don’t matter on any level, then I would disregard all aspects of my life equally.  But I don’t!    

Second, while the scripture denies the reality of the body-mind, it never says to disregard its behavior.  In fact, it says the exact opposite.  Just look at the verse from the Bhagavad Gita above.  Further, no legitimate teacher of Vedanta, from the legendary Shankara down to modern luminaries like Swami Dayananda, ever says that self-knowledge negates the value of good conduct and spiritual living.  They assume that you’re fully committed to dharma (right living) and sadhana (spiritual practice) before you even begin studying Vedanta.  And they expect you to stay committed to dharma and sadhana–even after enlightenment–the same way you stay committed to behaving properly in regard to your friends, family and job.  Why?  Because right living and spiritual practice lead to peace of mind, even for the enlightened. And Vedanta is pointless without peace of mind.   

I may get frustrated at this point, wanting the simplicity of an either/or situation:  Either what the body-mind does is inconsequential or it isn’t.  But unfortunately, because Vedanta isn’t so naïve as to flat-out deny the existence of the world, it’s a both/and situation: What the body-mind does both matters and doesn’t matter.  Because I know I’m the self, it doesn’t matter.  But because knowing I’m the self doesn’t make the illusion of the body-mind disappear, the behavior of the body-mind still matters, at least on the illusory level.  As a discriminating Vedantin, it’s up to me to know the difference between the absolute and relative levels and to apply the correct knowledge in the proper context.   

For instance, when my mind gets angry, I remember that I, the self, am never angry.  From that perspective (the absolute) I understand that the angry mind is not a problem.  But from the relative level I see that anger causes suffering, both in my mind and the minds of others.   I could disregard this situation saying it doesn’t matter (and technically, from the absolute perspective, I’d be right) but by that reasoning it also doesn’t matter whether or not I eat, pay my rent or wear clothes (yet I do those things unquestioningly in order to avoid suffering). 

So remembering that the rules of the relative world still apply on the relative level whether or not I’m enlightened, I work on my mind (if not for my benefit, then I do it for the benefit of others who don’t know, or even care, that I know I’m the self).  The difference is that before self-knowledge, I worked on my mind with anxiety, thinking that I was the mind or that the state of the mind defined who I was.  When the mind was good, I felt good about myself.  When the mind was bad, I felt bad about myself. But now, I tend to my mind without the anxiety of identifying with it, simply because it needs to be done, the same way that I pay my utility bill because it needs to be done. 

The beauty of Vedanta is that it considers both the absolute and the relative levels of reality.  It shows me that I’m the absolute reality so I can tend to the relative level of reality with objectivity.  I know that life is just a play but I keep playing my part.  When the actor known as the body-mind flubs its lines, there’s no reason for concern.  I just hand it the cue card and move on to the next scene.  That’s steady wisdom. 

Read Series Introduction                   

Steady Wisdom: Day 3

Steady Wisdom: 108 Days of Changing My Thinking

DAY 3:

I do not change.  I have no form.  I am free from all impurity.  I am imperishable.  I am not the body which is unreal.
-Aparokshanubhuti V.25
Meditation

The body is merely a form that appears in me, pure existence.  It is like the form of a clay pot appearing in formless clay.  Like clay is fundamentally unchanged and untainted by the form of the clay pot, I remain fundamentally unchanged and untainted by the form of the body.  Being formless and changeless, how can I perish?  Destruction, decline and death are only meaningful in relation to change and only applicable to that which has form.  I transcend them all.  Like the clay to the pot I am the real, the ground of being by whose merit form and change exist.  OM.

Read Steady Wisdom Intro

Steady Wisdom: Day 1

The third stage of Vedanta is nididhyasana, the internalization and assimilation of self-knowledge to the extent that there’s no gap between what I know about myself and how I think, feel and act. At this point there’s no special effort put forth to invoke the knowledge. It’s spontaneously available whenever I want it, like a mental app running quietly in the background of my mind’s operating system. This is called jnana nishta, becoming established in self-knowledge.

Becoming established in self-knowledge can be accomplished in two ways: The first is to continue dwelling on the teaching. I can read scripture and listen to it being taught (even though I’ve already realized the import of the scriptures directly). I can write about what I know, putting my self-knowledge into words. I can discuss what I know with friends, having my self-knowledge strengthened through both affirmation and challenge. I can teach others what I know. I can sit and meditate on what I know.

The second way to become established in self-knowledge is to imitate the behavior of someone who’s already established in self-knowledge, a jivanmukta. If I don’t personally know such a person, the scriptures give me helpful examples. For instance, Ashtavakra Samhita 17:8 says, “Being fulfilled by self-knowledge alone, with their minds absorbed and contented, the wise ones live happily while seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and eating.” So even when I haven’t fully internalized self-knowledge, I can model my behavior after that of a jivanmukta from scripture until it becomes my own.

What’s the surefire sign that I’ve become established in self-knowledge? The transformation of my thinking. More often than not, I’ll be mentally composed and free from negative emotional reactions such as attachment, fear, anger and anxiety.

If I’m seriously interested in making progress on the path to jnana nishta, I might be tempted to judge myself based on the standard above. If that’s the case, I’ll be happy when I stay peaceful and composed—I’m totally a jivanmukta. But when I lose my cool, doubt about my jivanmukta status creeps in and ironically, I get even more upset than I already am because I feel like I’m not making progress. Now I have two problems: my initial negative reaction and the self judgement that follows it! In order to deal with my secondary reaction—that of judging myself—I consider the following points:

1. My mind can never be totally free from disturbance. Krishna says as much in the Bhagavad Gita when he tells Arjuna that the mind of one with self-knowledge, although primarily peaceful, will continue to fluctuate. Mental disturbance, therefore, can only be reduced, not totally eliminated. Knowing this, my goal is clear and my expectations for my progress remain realistic.

2. Reduction of mental disturbance isn’t instantaneous. Rather, it’s a gradual reduction in the frequency of disturbance, followed by a reduction in the intensity of disturbance. So first, I become upset less often. Then, when I do get upset, I’m able to keep the disturbance at the mental level alone, not letting it manifest as a physical or verbal reaction. After lessening the intensity of my mental reactions, I’m able to shorten the time it takes for me to regain composure between mental disturbances.

But I always remember that this process will vary from person to person and from emotion to emotion. Perhaps for me anger goes slowly while depression goes quickly, whereas for someone else, anger goes quickly and depression goes slowly. Knowing this, I see that it’s not constructive to compare my progress to that of others.

3. Reduction of mental disturbance isn’t a linear process where negative reactions continuously decrease. Fear, for instance, may temporarily lessen only to flare up again later. Knowing this, I don’t feel elated and declare victory over a particular negative reaction when it temporarily disappears. Conversely, I don’t get dejected and feel like a failure if it returns again later.

4. Mental disturbance is caused by innumerable factors, many of which are unconscious and therefore unknown to me. If I can’t determine the cause of a particular mental disturbance, it’s unlikely I can change it (except by accident). Knowing this, I relax in the understanding that not every negative reaction is directly under my control.

5. Not all mental disturbances can be controlled by self-knowledge. Knowing this, I don’t doubt my self-knowledge in the presence of a persistent mental disturbance. Nor do I expect self-knowledge to get rid of all of my mind’s undesirable tendencies and reactions. Some of them may stay with me my entire life, while others may need to be addressed with conventional methods such as diet, exercise, therapy etc. Some may go away on their own over time, in light of maturity gained from life experience.

6. This is the most important point, the one that puts all the others in perspective: Reduction of mental disturbance is only the secondary purpose of self-knowledge. The primary purpose is to show me, with complete certainty, that I am not my mind nor am I affected by my mind. Knowing this, I’m not overly concerned with the conditions of my mind, bad or good.

The logical conclusion of this understanding is: If I’m truly unconcerned about the condition of my mind and I’m convinced it doesn’t affect me in the slightest, I don’t need nididhyasana. If, however, I feel motivated to work on my mind (and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that), I do it in an objective manner, without anxiety or tension, not feeling upset when I fail or elated when I succeed. I view it as a lifelong process that I do for its own sake, without self-judgment or an inflated self-image.

Further, I understand that doing nididhyasana doesn’t mean I don’t have self-knowledge. Nor do I think that not doing nididhyasana means I somehow have more self-knowledge than people who do want to do it. Why? Because feeling like I do or do not need nididhyasana is just a thought in my mind and I know that I am not my mind.

As I said above, nididhyasana is simply changing the way that I think about myself. As the Ashtavakra Samhita says, “He who considers himself free is free indeed and he who considers himself bound remains bound. “As one thinks, so one becomes,” is a popular saying in this world, and it is quite true.” Previously, I thought I was the body-mind and I developed the habit of identifying with all of its flaws and limitations. Now I know I’m the perfect, limitless self. But because I’m so used to believing I’m the body-mind, it can take time to get used to thinking of myself as the self (even though I know it’s true!). To change this I can practice taking the stance, “I am the self” again and again until it becomes as habitual to my thinking as my former belief, “I am the body-mind.”

One way for me to practice thinking of myself as the self is to take a statement of self-knowledge from the scripture and contemplate it’s meaning throughout my day. If I feel so inclined, I can do this this as a formal, sitting meditation. Or I can simply bring a statement of self-knowledge to mind amidst my regular activities, especially when negative thoughts and reactions contrary to self-knowledge arises. As I mentioned, there are many effective forms of nididhyasana. But contemplating statements of self-knowledge from the scripture will be the focus of this series.

It’s important to note that I don’t have to have self-knowledge to practice nididhyasana—it can be done at any stage of self-inquiry. Granted, if I don’t yet know I’m the self, I may feel like doing nididhyasana is just trying to convince myself that I’m the self through mental tricks and repetition. Or worse, I may feel like I’m duping myself by indiscriminately adopting a belief system. To assuage my doubts, I consider that the result of either believing I’m the self or knowing I’m the self is the same: my thinking changes for the better. So it’s a win-win situation.

But thankfully, as long as I’m diligently doing self-inquiry, I’m not tricking myself or being asked to believe anything. Instead, I conditionally take the scripture at its word to the extent that its claims seem reasonable, make me happy, grant me peace and give me clarity. I adopt an attitude of good faith, and with an open mind and heart I investigate and scrutinize the claims of scripture until I see for myself, in my own experience, whether or not they’re true.

With that attitude, on the first day of the New Year, I accept the scripture’s challenge to think about myself in a radically different way, as the limitless reality I am. For the next 108 days I will contemplate a statement of self-knowledge each day while taking an honest look at how I think and act. By the grace of the sages from whom these statements come, may my thoughts, words and deeds be in harmony with what I know about myself. But at times when they aren’t, by the grace of Vishnu, may I always remember the true message of Vedanta, that I can’t be defined, limited or affected by the thoughts in my mind or the actions of my body. As the Avadhuta Gita 1:55 says: I am absolutely pure. I am without body and mind, and unaffected by the illusory world. I am not ashamed to say, “I am the self, the supreme reality.”

Day 1

Ignorance cannot create any doubt in me. Why should I care about thoughts? They appear and disappear like bubbles in the water.
Avadhuta Gita 2:7
Meditation

Ignorance cannot create any doubt in me. It is merely a thought and thoughts come and go like bubbles in a can of soda—they aren’t real. Anything that isn’t real can’t affect me. For the very fact that I recognize ignorance to be the unreal thought that it is, no doubt about my true nature can arise—I am the self, unaffected by either the presence or absence of ignorance.

Vedanta Is Not The Answer

S: My goal is to reach a continuous peace of mind. I think that knowing and controlling my mind/thoughts is the key to reach it. Self-mastery!

V: That’s a good goal, assuming continuous peace of mind is even possible. Since the mind changes constantly how could you keep it one way alone? You might try to slow down or temporarily stop the changes in the mind by using techniques to control it but the changes themselves are often caused or influenced by a factor you can’t control at all: the external world. Since you can’t predict what the world is going to do you never know how your mind is going to react to it. It’s true that you can—and should—work on lessening your reactions to external situations. But the hitch is that your reactions to external situations are often dictated by the subconscious and unconscious mind, two things you can barely access, let alone control.

Because of the external world and the subconscious/unconscious you can never be sure what your mind will do next, regardless of how much you try to keep it in check. That’s why you can make the mind more peaceful but it’s impossible to make it continuously peaceful. There’s no harm in trying but it’s very frustrating when it doesn’t work. And ironically, that frustration further robs you of peace of mind.

That’s why Vedanta is different than science, psychology and other kinds of spirituality. While those things treat you as if you are the mind, Vedanta says that you aren’t the mind. Therefore Vedanta asks, “How can mastering the mind be self-mastery if the mind isn’t the self”?
This a radical difference, and if understood, the benefit is that you can work on your mind with total objectivity, never taking the condition of the mind personally. When the mind is angry you don’t think “I’m angry” and then get even more emotionally disturbed thinking, “I shouldn’t be angry!”
The mind is something that ‘belongs’ to you. It’s merely an instrument, the same as your car. The difference is—despite the fact that both the mind and the car are objects known to you—that you don’t identify with your car. When your car is running poorly you don’t take it personally saying, “Oh no, my fuel injectors are malfunctioning! I feel terrible about myself because they shouldn’t be doing that!” This doesn’t happen because you know clearly that the car isn’t you. So you’re able to look at the situation objectively, free from emotional disturbance or guilt, and deal with it. You get to work on the car. If the car can be fixed you don’t say, “Hurray, I fixed myself!” Nor if the car can’t be fixed do you say, “Woe is me, I’m broken!”

Do you understand the value of what Vedanta is offering here? It’s saying that if you want to work on the mind, great, but working on the mind is much easier and more effective when you do it objectively, with the clear understand that you aren’t the mind. Furthermore, when you understand that you aren’t the mind, the mind’s problems become a lot less important because you know they don’t belong to you or affect you, the same as the problems of your car.

S: I’m struggling to figure out how my mind works through Adavaita Vedanta.

V: I want to save you the trouble of struggling by saying that Advaita Vedanta won’t help you figure out how your mind works. It doesn’t even really try. Its goals are to 1) Show you that the mind isn’t real and 2) Show you that you aren’t the mind. That’s it.
If you’re trying to understand how your mind works, psychology is the way to go. If you want to go the ‘spiritual’ route, then yoga and meditation is the way. Meditation has taught me A LOT about my mind. It’s an excellent practice. But to be clear, Vedanta is not the answer.

It’s true that Vedanta is sometimes presented as a means to self-mastery but that comes from teachers co-mingling yoga/meditation with Vedanta. Vedanta isn’t against yoga/meditation in any way—in fact it encourages it as a preliminary step—but their goals are totally different. Yoga/meditation is for manipulating the mind, Vedanta is for transcending the mind altogether. And by “transcend” I mean the full understanding, “I am not the mind nor does it affect me.”

S: I’m continuously looking for practical tools to improve my being.

V: That’s why it’s so helpful to know that your true being, pure consciousness-existence, can’t be improved. It’s perfect, which means YOU’RE perfect. Knowing that, you can take the condition of the mind in stride and work on it much more objectively and effectively, always understanding that has nothing to do with you.

All my best – Vishnudeva

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