Q. I come from an atheistic upbringing, and in addition I have studied a good chunk of modern Western philosophy and science, and such a position has become my “default mode”. A day came a couple years back where I found myself in a deep existential crisis (one that is most certainly still ongoing), and so I looked for a spiritual path that could reconcile what I knew of philosophy/science with spirituality. Advaita seemed to be the one that not only fit the bill the best, but also resonated with me the most. But on this path, I find myself constantly slipping into the habits of thought that I am used to. I try to cling to the pieces that don’t fit neatly into the materialist story, but I’m very much aware that I’m hanging on to them because I’m worried, not because I have a strong belief in their truth. If there is a teaching that goes against the grain of most scientific thought, even slightly, I tell myself I must discard it – “otherwise you’re just fooling yourself”, I say.
I notice this thought process, and it’s disturbing to me. I want to be open to what Advaita has to offer, but it’s incredibly tough – I worry often that a spiritual path of any kind is not possible for someone like me. I have a good deal of mumukshutva, but no shraddha. Can someone without shraddha somehow gain it? How necessary is it? And how can I break through my old habits of thinking, and gain that faith that there’s something more than just this body?
A (Ted): I must have a million questions (in all honesty, I desperately need a teacher)…
Yes, a teacher is imperative. Our innate self-ignorance precludes us from conducting successful inquiry into our true nature. We need a teacher who knows how to navigate the terrain, so to speak, to guide us out of the forest of our confusion.
…but for now I’m going to focus on shraddha. I come from an atheistic upbringing, and in addition I have studied a good chunk of modern Western philosophy and science, and such a position has become my “default mode.” A day came a couple years back where I found myself in a deep existential crisis (one that is most certainly still ongoing), and so I looked for a spiritual path that could reconcile what I knew of philosophy/science with spirituality. Advaita seemed to be the one that not only fit the bill the best, but also resonated with me the most.
You’ve come to the right “place,” because Vedanta is not a spiritual path. It is a means of knowledge that uses a very systematic analysis of the logic of one’s own previously unexamined or erroneously interpreted experience to reveal one’s own true nature as whole, complete, limitless awareness, the non-dual reality that underlies the apparent dualistic manifestation.
But on this path, I find myself constantly slipping into the habits of thought that I am used to.
It’s good that you are able to identify your thought patterns as habits rather than subtle embodiments of truth. Habits are behaviors that are subject to change, whereas truth is what is. Truth can be avoided or left unacknowledged, but it cannot be changed. The task at hand for you will be to set your habitual thought patterns aside long enough to make an unbiased examination of the logic of your experience and see what it reveals that is not subject to negation. This process does require faith in its initial stages, but once you see the reality that is revealed through the teachings of Vedanta and verify it in terms of your own experience faith is no longer necessary. You will no longer need to believe anything. You will know the truth. Through Vedantic self-inquiry, faith leads to knowledge. And only knowledge sets you free.
I try to cling to the pieces that don’t fit neatly into the materialist story, but I’m very much aware that I’m hanging on to them because I’m worried, not because I have a strong belief in their truth. If there is a teaching that goes against the grain of most scientific thought, even slightly, I tell myself I must discard it – “otherwise you’re just fooling yourself,” I say. Things like that.
This passage is a little confusing. It seems as if you are saying that you are hanging on to the “pieces” of Vedanta that don’t fit neatly into the materialist story. Is this correct? Or are you hanging on to the materialist story because you are worried about the existentialist pickle in which you might be left if you discard them?
I notice this thought process, and it’s disturbing to me. I want to be open to what Advaita has to offer, but it’s incredibly tough – I worry often that a spiritual path of any kind is not possible for someone like me.
Perhaps it would be best not to label your investigation into the nature of reality as a “spiritual path.” That moniker has a tendency to shroud self-inquiry, which is the term by which Vedanta refers to the investigation into the nature of reality, in an air of mystery and burden it with all sorts of preconceived notions concerning what is “spiritual” as opposed to “material,” which given the non-dual nature of reality are ultimately erroneous terms that are almost universally misunderstood by seekers—especially in the initial stages of their seeking.
As I mentioned earlier, Vedanta is a means of knowledge that follows a very logical and systematic process of analysis, and it requires the guidance of a qualified teacher. Due to our innate ignorance of our true nature, we are unable to conduct effective self-inquiry on our own. Pure, limitless awareness, which inquiry reveals to be the true nature of the self, is by definition attributeless, so no words or group of words can comprehensively denote, define, or describe it. Hence, the words of the scriptures that contain the revealed wisdom on which the teachings of Vedanta are based do not function in the way we normally expect words to function. Rather than serving as literal descriptors of the self and the nature of “enlightenment,” the words of scripture must be understood as figurative indicators. Thus, if we simply try to read the scriptures without the guidance of someone who is able to properly unfold their implied meaning, we will invariably interpret them according to our ignorance and, thus, fail to understand their true meaning.
I have a good deal of mumukshutva, but no shraddha. Can someone without shraddha somehow gain it? How necessary is it?
Faith in the teachings and the teacher are vital to conducting successful self-inquiry. Without faith in both of these factors, the mind will be continuously disturbed with doubt and too caught up in an ongoing debate with the teachings to ever abide in the contemplative quietude that fosters one’s capacity to “see through the veil” of one’s preconceived notions and gain a correct understanding of the nature of reality.
This faith can be cultivated through a consideration of your current existential quandary and the successful track record of Vedantic self-inquiry in setting seekers free. With regard to your current predicament, you must admit that despite your intelligence and the valiant effort you have undoubtedly put into your “spiritual quest” you have thus far been unable to “crack the code,” so to speak. You have arrived at neither an unassailable understanding of the nature of reality nor eradicated your self-ignorance and, thus, put an end to your suffering. The successful track record of Vedantic self-inquiry, on the other hand, speaks for itself. For thousands, if not millions, of seekers over the course of thousands of years, the teachings of Vedanta have facilitated the assimilation of self-knowledge that is tantamount to mokSha (i.e., liberation or ultimate inner freedom), the true goal of the “spiritual quest” and the highest attainment of human existence. In light of these two facts, might it not seem reasonable to at least provisionally extend the teachings of Vedanta the benefit of the doubt and put a committed effort into self-inquiry?
And how can I break through my old habits of thinking, and gain that faith that there’s something more than just this body? (A big question, I know.)
A variety of prakriyas or methods of analysis are employed throughout the course of Vedantic self-inquiry that serve to systematically deconstruct your identification with the body-mind-sense complex that constitutes the apparent individual person you erroneously take yourself to be.
To begin, you might contemplate the following questions and comments.
Are your thoughts or emotions your body? Obviously not, right? So that consideration alone establishes quite clearly that there is something more than just this body.
Of course, you might legitimately wonder whether such subtle phenomena can exist in the absence of the body-mind-sense mechanism. Perhaps they are simply products of the mind that are based on the experiences of the body.
Regarding this doubt, it is true that thoughts and emotions do depend for their existence upon the elaborate experience-processing mechanism of the mind-body-sense complex, but does that mean that you depend on it?
One of the fundamental principles of experience is that the experiencing subject cannot be the object of its experience. You might argue that you can indeed see your body, but we’ve just established that you are not your body—for if you are your body, then does that mean that you are not your thoughts and feelings? Furthermore, if the body is the basic identity of a person, then why don’t the eyes of a dead person see? There must be something enlivening the body, mustn’t there? There must be something that knows the body, wouldn’t it seem? Some subtler subject to whom the body is an object?
Following the logic of this consideration, of course, leads necessarily to the conclusion that you not the mind either. The mind is not the brain, and thus is not actually a tangible object. Rather it is a subtle object, essentially nothing more than a label we give to the phantasmagoria of thoughts and emotions arising within the scope of witnessing awareness. Thus, upon deeper analysis, it becomes evident that you are not the objects or forms appearing to or within you. Instead, you are that being to whom they appear, or—perhaps more aptly put—that consciousness in which they appear.
Further evidence of the fact that you are none of the phenomena of which you are aware results from a consideration of the state of dreamless sleep. Though you experience no sensations, emotions, or thoughts during the deep sleep state, you don’t cease to exist, do you? Of course, you might say that you can’t be sure, that there is no way to verify whether you are there or not. Again, however, deeper consideration of the issue reveals that despite the fact that you experienced no sensory, affective, or mental phenomena during the state of deep sleep, you certainly didn’t cease to exist. First of all, the fact that upon awakening you remember that you slept soundly attests to the fact that you—the true you, the real you, what Vedanta refers to as atma, the self, which is of the nature of pure awareness—were present, for you can only remember something that you have experienced. In addition, the fact that you awakened at all and are, in fact, making an inquiry into your true nature at this moment attests to the fact that you did not cease to be, for something can’t come out of nothing and, hence, if you are now, you must necessarily have been before, so to speak.
Ultimately, the even deeper revelation of this particular inquiry is that you are actually unborn, beginningless, eternal in the sense of being altogether beyond the limiting parameters of time and space (for even time and space are objects—i.e., concepts—appearing within and known to you), and, hence, immortal. Simply put, you are the singular permanent factor in existence and, as such, the sole reality, for according to Vedanta, only that which is non-negatable and immutable is real. While all objective phenomena—both the tangible objects that comprise the seemingly surrounding world and the subtle objects that are experienced “within” the mind—come and go, the witnessing awareness in which they appear always is. And, as Vedanta ultimately and succinctly concludes, you are that.
A (Sitara): Thank you for your question, which points to a fundamental question in the teaching of Advaita Vedanta, especially when addressing Westerners. In India one usually can take a certain degree of shraddha for granted but not so with Westerners or Western influenced Indians. And shraddha, as well as mumukshutva, is not something that you can practise, as with the other virtues of chatushtaya sampatti. So you are very lucky to have mumukshutva because without mumukshutva nothing is possible. But what about shraddha? Shraddha cannot be learned but it can be fostered. How?
Yes, you do need a teacher. I found that, in Westerners, shraddha is most likely to develop with a teacher. Simply because the very fact that you are able to turn to a teacher means that there is speck of trust in your heart already. From this more trust can develop.
I always translate shraddha as “trust”, never as “belief”. You probably know that in Vedanta blind belief is something that is considered counterproductive to the teaching. Blind belief is opposed to a strong buddhi and for a student of Vedanta everything revolves around developing a strong buddhi. Why? Because only with a strong buddhi will you be able to learn, discern and thus understand. Understand what? Understand how you cannot possibly be what you naturally assumed yourself to be, i.e. a limited entity made up of matter; understand what in truth you are, what the scriptures talk about: timeless, formless and all pervading. As far as Vedanta is concerned, there is absolutely no use at all in simply believing this. What is needed is understanding. But how does one bridge the gap between what is experienced and/or scientifically prooved on the one hand and what Vedanta says on the other hand?
The method Vedanta uses is quite similar to something used in science: what you cannot prove, you take as a working hypothesis in order to proceed with your investigation. You assume that it is so until you know whether it really is so or not. Sw. Dayananda calls it “belief pending understanding”. But I prefer the first term as I, being a Westerner, do not like the word “belief” at all.
With this in the back of your mind you can be much more relaxed about things. But you do need a teacher too, someone who understands the Western mind, with whom you feel able to reveal your doubts and wariness, someone who is able to dispel unnecessary qualms. Otherwise you might assume that in order to realize your true nature you have to believe in things that in actual fact you need not believe in at all. You asked how necessary is shraddha. It is necessary – but possibly not the thing that you consider “shraddha” to be. Truly understanding shraddha may be all that is needed for you.
For the time being (if there is no teacher around yet) you could just vent your doubts here, express what you think you should accept or believe but can’t. I am sure that many of the bloggers will gladly respond and that many of the responses will relieve you from the pressure to develop a “shraddha” that in actual fact may not be needed. So do not hold back but come out with your million questions (if possible one at a time though). It will be for other people’s benefit too.
Related and possibly helpful in respect to your question:
A (Martin): The following is a dialogue I recently had with a Neuro-physiologist and two others which deal with matters that seem to be crucial for the questioner. I believe it goes directly to the hub of the problem. The questioner states that for him Western philosophy and science have been, and still are, the ‘default mode’, while being attracted by advaita. My dialogue with the three scientists (one of them, Paul King, a prominent neuro-physiologist), could have the result of deconstructing that Western model, or make it questionable, uncertain, and inconclusive. First, to undo the ‘false’ – or questionable – and then the truer or more satisfatory alternative will take its place.
Bear in mind that my interlocutors not only are not adamant about the scientific method, but are also receptive to the non-dual approach I confronted them with (PK: ‘It is hard to argue with that. Ultimately, the question of whether or not subjective experience [pure consciousness] is an irreducible fact may come down to metaphysical stance and not anything that can be “decided” with a rational process”’). The isssue of faith might then follow … by default, that is, if my arguments in favour of advaita Vedanta vis à vis Western science make an impact on the questioner.
I would also advise him to check on Tom McFarlane in Quora. He is very good in science and also philosophy/spirituality.
SCIENCE, NEURO-PHYSIOLOGY, AND METAPHYSICS (Debate in QUORA)
RC: … different pieces of what we might call consciousness are probably more present in some areas of the brain than others, it would seem’… [weird].
Paul King: The question is this: Is there any experiment that could show whether or not a neuron has awareness? Because if there isn’t, then it isn’t a testable theory. [untestable].
LM: ‘Each neuron is probably aware already [in a way]… Oddly, if we cannot think of a way to disprove something (evidence falsifiability), we can’t scientifically offer proof it might be true. Awareness is one of those things we just cannot turn off (and remain familiarly conscious). To test neuronal or cellular awareness, we would have to abandon our own temporarily — and if we did, we would instantly realize our version is not a requirement for awareness’.
PK: ‘What ever consciousness is, it is probably pretty complex!’ Agree. [bottom line]
Martin: I will stay with advaita Vedanta. I don’t think that awareness can be explained by empirical science; it will always be a subjective experience (including objectless consciousness), an ultimate, irrefutable, and irreducible fact – noumenon. Science – with its procedures, viewpoint, and problems – is different from metaphysics, which is based on introspection… phenomenology is congenial with it. Transcendental experience by-passes an individual subject/observer/experiencer as such – and it is timeless.
PK: It is hard to argue with that. Ultimately, the question of whether or not subjective experience is an irreducible fact may come down to metaphysical stance and not anything that can be “decided” with a rational process.
The main challenges to the irreducible position are these:
1) Is a bacteria just a biochemical mechanistic machine? Or is it “alive”, “consciousness” or capable of subjective experience in some irreducible way?
2) If we created a computer that could pass the Turing Test using programs (something like the androids in movies, or the OS “Samantha” in the movie Her), would this “prove” that subjective experience is “reducible” or would that still not be enough?
The answers to these questions show, I think, the degree to which one thinks the question of reducibility is decidable with evidence or not. I don’t think there is a right answer.
Martin: Agree. My answer to your first point will show the reason why science and metaphysics are wide apart despite efforts by, and sympathy towards, consciousness and its attendant present problems (and possibilities in the future) in terms of coming to an understanding of what it is, by a significant number of theoretical physicists, neuro-physiologists, and other investigators.
For traditional advaita (Shankara and Gaudapada primarily) there is no reality other than consciousness (Atman-Brahman – which is/are just names or symbols). Phenomena are the way Consciousness or Atman manifests itself (a sort of play- maya). Multiplicity, space, time, and causality are illusory – that is, from the higher perspective, while they seem to be real from the lower, empirical one.
As to your second point, there is no objective proof, for there is only one Subject, as it were; a ‘subject’ without an object or objects as counterparts; a ‘witness’ which does not witness any thing while being the substratum of every experience, sensorial and otherwise.
I think the conclusion should be that scientists do not need the help of philosophers and, conversely, philosophers stand in no need of science and its cummulative progression. But I may be wrong (for example, Tesla, Heisenberg, Eddington, etc., as counter-examples).
PK: These are interesting asserted truths according to advaita vedanta, but they do not seem testable from evidence or experiment, which is ok.
What is your view on the answer to #1 and #2 in my earlier reply?
Martin: I’m not sure if you mean the two points immediately above, to which I only gave a global answer from the stand-point of advaita Vedanta. If those two are the points you refer to, to the 1st one re bacteria the answer is that all beings or entities, animate and inanimate, are projections or manifestations of consciousness, and are ultimately reducible to it.
Of course the intelligence that animate beings (from bacteria to mammals) vehicle is higher than that in inanimate ones, but the important point is that consciousness being the matrix or background of all phenomena, every phenomenon (in its apparent individuality) is in essence sat-chit-ananda, existence-consciousness-felicity or bliss.
That means that one cannot deny that there is at least a vestige of intelligence in sticks and stones… or atoms! (but who is going to accept that?). Actually, this is not the right way to express it, in view of what has just been said. Intelligence does not belong to objects/entities per se, but then there are no (separate) objects or entities. I lack competence to comment further on the 2nd point.
A (Dennis): The situation is not so bad as you think. My background is entirely scientific. (I have a Chemistry degree and nearly 30 years working with computers.) My new book (due out in 2 – 3 months is on Gaudapada. He was one of the earliest Advaitins and said that you should not believe anything you read in the scriptures unless it is backed up by reason. Faith is not having to believe in something that you really have grave doubts about; it is just being prepared to set aside judgment for a while until such time as you can ratify what is being said for yourself.