Q : I am a “solo practitioner” of the advice of Ramana Maharshi, as I understand what I absorb of it. My enquiries move between an apophatic and cataphatic flavor.
When I do this, I am moved to an absolute stillness. Upon ‘coming back’, there is a sensation of still not passing the barrier of stillness. I am not sure how to continue. Should I continue to practice just like this? Until I have destroyed differentiation? Should this be a lesson on what the real really is?
[Note (Dennis): Here are the meanings of those terms from my Oxford dictionary –
apophatic /ap’fatk/ – adjective Theology (of knowledge of God) obtained through negating concepts that might be applied to him. The opposite of cataphatic.
cataphatic /kat’fatk/ – adjective Theology (of knowledge of God) obtained through defining God with positive statements. The opposite of apophatic.]
A (Meenakshi): Apophatic and cataphatic flavor:
The culmination of vedanta is not in the knowledge of an anthropomorphic god. The main teaching is that the truth of all, is you. Whenever, brahma satyatvam (the truth, ie. Atma being brahman) is taught, in the very same breath, jagat mithyAtvam (unreality of the world) is also taught. Hence, negation of the unreal and assertion of the truth go hand in hand. The truth of you being brahman is meaningless as long as the world is not cognized as unreal. If the world and ego are taken as real, then one can never appreciate the oneness of the individual and whole. Hence, it is good to have apophatic and cataphatic flavor.
Also, one needs to know that the self, as such, is beyond all negations and assertions. When the self is taught as ‘not this’ ‘not this’, it is indirectly taught that the self can never be objectified as ‘this’. It cannot be labelled by a word. A word is always for a form. The truth being formless, it cannot be named as such. The words ‘brahman’, ‘advaita’, ‘witness’ etc are only for the purpose of bringing home the teaching to the student. The truth is formless and nameless. It cannot be a thought in the mind or an event.
There are three ways in which the philosophy is taught:
1) Inquiry into creation (jagat vichAra): One learns that there has to be a cause for the world. If this cause has another cause then it will lead to infinite regress. Hence, the truth of the world is a causeless cause which is brahman. The scriptures teach this many a times; the essence of which is that, the self alone is the material and intelligent cause of the creation and is itself not an effect.
2) Inquiry into Ishvara (God, macrocosm): Ishvara, macrocosm is the total, all names and forms included. One learns to appreciate the presence of Ishvara throughout. The basis for the macrocosm is again the same causeless cause. Through such an enquiry one arrives at the fact that the truth of the total is the all pervasive truth.
3) Inquiry into the individual: This is the way that Ramana Maharshi used to advocate (if i may use that word). The existence principle/consciousness is what pervades the world, the total and the individual; It is distinct from the three, yet inherent in the three. This truth appears as the three. Ramana would ask one to inquire into the ego and see that the consciousness that enlivens the ego is the same as existence outside. This is known when the ego is negated as unreal. The truth of oneself is known by directly enquiring into one’s ego. This is the ‘Who am I’ enquiry.
It is good that you are doing this yourself, since one’s enquiry cannot be enquired by another. The self is closest to you. It pervades the ego. Delve into it and know it.
The are these stillness moments that you mentioned. One has to delve more into the truth of it. Who is it that knows the stillness? Stillness of the mind is, in other words, resolution of the mind. We are not looking for a state where the mind is resolved. Our problem is that we have a wrong notion of finitude. So, the teaching has to be dwelt upon.
There are different types of meditations like relaxation meditation, concentration meditation, meditation on the totality as being all pervasive and meditation on universal values of kindness etc. Then there is vedAntic meditation where the teaching of scriptures is dwelt upon. In case of the inquiry, as suggested by Ramana Maharshi, one has to enquire into the truth of the ego. Enquiry cannot be done with a resolved mind. The ego has to be known to be unreal. The consciousness pervading the ego is to be claimed as one’s nature, the only truth.
Once the truth is known, the mind is meditative wherever it goes. That means that the truth is apprehended, no matter what. The knowledge is never lost sight of in spite of the appearances of the world and ego. Ramana Maharshi talks of this remembrance as the greatest abidance
(niShThA). One always remembers one’s gender no matter what kind of interaction one is having in the world. So also, the truth of oneself as the whole is always cognized.
Differentiation is never really destroyed in the absolute sense. Even after the truth is known, the world and the ego will continue or else we would have wise men drop dead immediately after gaining knowledge. The change is merely cognitive. What was thought to be real (the world and ego) is now totally falsified as relative. What was till now thought as distant in time and space (self) is now ‘known with conviction’ as the truth of oneself.
It is a good to practice contemplation along with some study and reflection. It helps. Merely contemplating on the ego without appreciating the underlying consciousness that enlivens the ego is not useful. The self that seems to be limited by the ego, is actually the only truth, that not only pervades the individual ego but is all-pervasive and division-less.
A (Ramesam): The Question raised by you is very subtle and is an important one that comes up in the course of many a seeker’s life. It crops up particularly in the minds of those seekers given to observing one or other ‘practices’ (upasanas). Recently I happened to answer a question on ‘thoughtless state’ during meditation. It is available at: http://beyond-advaita.blogspot.com/2012/08/stream-of-thoughts-question.html
Is the ‘stillness’ you are referring to is akin to the thoughtless state? But then it makes me wonder why you have used terms like ‘apophatic’ and ‘cataphatic.’ Even a well read and highly knowledgeable person like Dennis had to see a dictionary for their meaning!
You may be knowing that these are terms more commonly found in Christianity Theology. How could you combine them while talking about what you have understood to be Ramana’s philosophy?
I admit, I haven’t read much about Ramana’s advice you speak about. But as far as I know, he asks you to find the things by yourself by ‘go on questioning until nothing is left to question and then question the questioner.’ The usage of the two terms, apophatic and cataphatic, by you gives away, IMHO, actually the problem you have now landed into.
Let me first explain what I understand by the two words:
Apophatic means: that God can be described only in terms of what He/She is not and never in words that can say what he is.
Cataphatic means: we can describe God in positive terms of what He/She is.
Now you see, what is the enquiry here? It is not so much about finding God. It is about language and an appropriate expression to package the God. Have you realized that there is upfront an implicit “belief” in the existence of a God somewhere apart from you and you have to locate Him? Is this understanding working behind unconsciously?
When there is a priori the assumption of a God being there somewhere, all my effort is going towards a search for Him. That would be a perpetual struggle like the cat chasing its tail. But Ramana would want you to find out who is actually carrying out the search, whether there is any entity called “I” at all rather than run after a “belief” in a God. There is no God separate from what is “all around.” And what is “all around” is what is created by you, as your projection. You are thus the creator. You are the God.
In fact, this is the critical distinction between Advaita and other monotheistic schools of thought, particularly those of the Abrahamic teachings.
So let us leave the ‘apophatic and cataphatic’ terms.
Leaving those terms, can you describe what is going on in your practice in simple words? Is it more like trying to home onto ‘some’ formless imaginary Brahman? Or would the words ‘thoughtless state’ or ‘gaps in thoughts’ describe better what you called as ‘absolute stillness’?
If it is so, the link I have given to a detailed analysis about it could perhaps answer your question. If not, I will appreciate if you can reformulate your question describing your actual experience.
But one thing I may say here. Trying to be in a ‘blank stillness’ is not advisable. If you have understood the Advaita teaching, what right now is Brahman. It is not any extraordinary earth-shattering situation. It is just the ordinariness of everything, non-exclusively, without a separate ‘me’ popping up as the ‘observer, seer, doer, owner’ etc.
A (Sitara): As far as I can see you have tapped into the stillness that you are but you did not recognize it as who you are. Instead your mind, after a while, started to objectify it – so you ‘came back’. You got the impression that you did not pass a certain barrier. This barrier is called ignorance – not recognizing your true Self (in the form of stillness).
Now, what to do? Obviously ignorance has to go and has to be replaced by complete understanding. How? Advaita Vedanta recommends study of Vedanta under the guidance of a competent living teacher. Western Advaita teachers have different approaches. Direct Path teachers work purely on the base of logic. All agree that what is missing is understanding – something that no kind of practice will ever deliver. See who seems best for you, but a teacher is needed for almost everybody. You certainly are a dedicated seeker but what you describe is exactly what is most likely to happen at some point for a solo practitioner: he/she getting stuck due to non-understanding.
Your idea that you, by means of a practice, would be able to ‘destroy differentiation’ reveals your notion that you can manufacture your own enlightenment. It is impossible. Identification with a separate ‘I’ will have to die in enlightenment. Both cannot go together.
The belief in a separate ‘I’ is the very basis for differentiation/duality. But differentiation need not be destroyed. Ignorance has to be removed and replaced by understanding. This understanding will unveil the view of ignorance that made you believe in a separate ‘I’ and differentiation.
You ask: ‘Should this be a lesson on what the real really is?’ Definitely but you have to get the message. My advice: Find a living teacher you trust to guide you.
A (Peter): Ramana gives us the essential question: ‘Who am I?’ Vedānta gives us the answer in the succinct formulation: ‘Tat tvam asi’ (You, the apparent individual, are That, the Supreme Reality, the Whole).
Using logic we can negate what we are not: anything that is an object of our observation is what we are not. In this way we can negate body, life-force, powers of perception, powers of action, as well as thoughts and emotions. The main problem, thereafter, is that we are left with a half-complete job, because we still do not know in a positive way what we are. (It is a myth that just through negation we somehow arrive at Reality. If that were true we would know the Reality every night when all false loci for Self are negated in deep sleep. Yet we return to self-ignorance morning after morning.) So it is not surprising that, despite experiencing profound stillness, you experience a ‘coming back’.
I once asked my teacher why this idea persists that the Self is what remains when all thoughts are resolved and she said because it is true; but there’s a catch: we do not recognize what’s there because we do not really understand what we’re actually looking for. Swami Dayananda tells a funny story about travelling in a plane, squashed up in this window seat by a large Australian in the seat next to him. The man chatted on about going to Rishikesh to visit a particular Swami and handed Dayanandaji a paper with the name and address of the man he was going to visit. It Read: Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Purani Jadhi, Rishikesh’! So here was the man clearly in the presence of the one he was going to meet, almost sitting in his lap, recognizing him as a Swami, and yet until Swami Dayananda said ‘I am that Dayananda you are going to meet’, the man remained in ignorance. So we need to be shown how to recognize what we see.
Even the seemingly positive indicators of Reality such as Truth, Consciousness, Limitlessness, etc merely help us negate further those things that do not have these characteristics. They too, in common with all positive ‘indicators’ are not observable as objects of experience: they are to be understood, not experienced. Understanding is the key. If you hear the word rose, something clear appears in mind. If you hear the word ‘Consciousness’, what happens? The meaning of Consciousness is ‘I’. How do you strip this word of all false overlays that stand for ‘meanings’?
Traditional Vedanta tells us that the only means for discovering the meaning of Consciousness, ‘Tat’, the Reality that you are, is by studying Upanishads with a qualified teacher – not by being a ‘solo practitioner’. Your practices, however, do sound as though they have sharpened your mind. So now apply that sharp and incisive mind to serious study. Good luck with finding a teacher, one who knows how to ‘handle’ words such as ‘Consciousness’ to bring you to a point at which you see what they see and thereby find what you seek. This is the real teaching and this is what will deliver the breakthrough you seek. Nothing needs to be destroyed: you don’t need to destroy the wave to know it is water. There is only Self, this is the teaching of the authentic teachers: and you are that.
A (Dennis): Here is what I said in response to a similar question several years ago:
<<I’m not actually the best person to ask about Ramana’s Self-enquiry; a) because I have never really practiced it and b) because I can’t say that I really believe in its efficacy. You may ask how I can make the latter claim when I admit to the former! But, as I repeatedly tell people, since our problem is one of Self-ignorance, the only remedy is Self-knowledge to eliminate that ignorance. ‘Doing’ anything or ‘experiencing’ anything is not really going to achieve anything (other than maybe highlight the ignorance so that one is prompted to try to obtain the knowledge). So, to my mind, the value of repeated asking ‘Who am I?’ is to bring about the realization that I am not any of those things that I might have thought myself to be – body, mind, intellect etc. Basically, if I can observe it, I cannot be it, since I am the observer. As you say, this might lead one to the conclusion that ‘I am the witness’. But the point here is that this witnessing is only possible through the body-mind equipment. Furthermore, the very concept of ‘witness’ is meaningless if there is no witnessed object – i.e. we are still in duality. So, in reality (paramArtha), there can be no witness.
So, it is all of this understanding that has to be garnered and not more, specialized experiences of witnessing or inquiring. All of this is fully and completely explained in the scriptures, but ideally needs a qualified teacher to unfold this in terms which are immediately recognized by the seeker.>>
I read in one of the Mountain Path journals an article effectively stating that shravaNa, manana and nididhyAsana are of value ‘only as a preliminary step’ whereas the Self-inquiry as described by Ramana is the ‘direct path’. This is contradicted by several thousand years of tradition. Traditional teaching works by negating the false understanding that we have about ourselves and the world and then pointing to the truth of brahman. The facts that reality is non-dual, that everything is brahman, that ‘I am That’ are not realizations that are likely to be made by simply being still or asking ‘Who am I?’ This knowledge is only contained in the scriptures and has to be conveyed by a suitably qualified teacher in order that it should be believable, reasonable and ultimately eliminate our self-ignorance. Also, the end point of seeking is not ‘extinction of the mind’ as this same article suggested.
I would certainly never suggest either that Self-inquiry is valueless or that Ramana Maharshi was not a brilliant teacher but it does seem to be an unfortunate fact that some of the things he said have been taken out of context and are lauded by some modern teachers as efficacious in their own right, bypassing the methods proven by many generations of teachers. Unfortunately, I believe that this is not the case as far as the vast majority of seekers are concerned.