Q: As I understand, the sense of “I” (distinguished from the ultimate I/Self) is the source of “ignorance”. “Ignorance” leads to “the fear”, which inspires us to attempt to find “enlightenment”. The attempt to find “enlightenment” is the delusion that there is something to gain. The teachings tell us that “enlightenment” is the nature of existence. What needs to happen is the destruction/removal of ignorance, rather than the acquisition of anything. I already feel as if I have approached the “screen” upon which phenomenon occurs. By practicing “neti neti”, I attempt to see what always is, which is a temporary attempt to disregard things that can be seen. Once this happens, there is the inference of blankness/darkness/all-inclusiveness/voidness. And once this practice of “neti neti” is over, I begin to see things come of themselves, from little sparks … flakes of concepts … to their blooming as a climax of a concept. The climax wanes and the concept disappears of itself just as it arose.
A short time after this attempt at enquiry, the ease I had with reality fades. The sense that reality is not okay begins to gradually return. It feels as if I missed something from this experience. At other times, I feel as if perhaps this effort is part of the problem. Maybe the enquiry is meant to be a last ditch attempt to notice the fallacy of trying to do something, or even the attempt to try to do nothing.
Is this the realization? That effort is resistance? That surrender to this fact is the ultimate motion?
How does it happen that one can know “in the mind” that one is free, and yet continue to fall back into the conundrum of no longer feeling this freedom? Moments of complete freedom … knowing that it’s not my business to “do” life, not even to attempt to not “do” life … and yet slowly fall back into the habit?
A (Ramesam): I could possibly be wrong in saying this – nevertheless, the first two paragraphs of what you have written indicate to me that you have gained a nodding acquaintance only of the Advaita teaching. But in this process you seem to have imbibed some confusing concepts regarding the logic operative behind the development of Advaita philosophy, Advaita terminology, and the operation of the tools that Advaita provides in facilitating Self-inquiry. One is also not clear about the background and sources based on which you have acquired your knowledge of Advaita.
The doubt you have landed yourself in about “what constitutes realization” expressed in the third para goes to confirm my suspicion. Therefore, at the outset, I would like to state that there is no harm if you spend some time in a thorough review of what you have understood about Advaita philosophy using standard texts of reference. What texts you use will depend on your taste and familiarity with the Oriental or Western authors.
So instead of spending time here on a discussion of the theoretical aspects of Advaita philosophy, let us talk about the tool of “neti neti” you seem to have been practicing on.
“Neti”, as you may know, is a Sanskrit term. It is a combination of two words – ‘na’ and ‘iti’ – meaning ‘not’ and ‘this’.
The process of ‘neti neti’ is, thus, an operation of negation. You deny what is ‘not’ so as to stay with what cannot be anymore denied. So ‘neti neti’ is not a ‘practice’ to “attempt to see what always is”, as you stated.
Suppose you have a digging tool to remove the top layers of soil to see the underlying bedrock. Once I dug the hole, I have to take now all such new steps that are useful for me to understand what is exposed. Why should I go on “practicing” the usage of the same digging tool and just keep making more holes? The digging tool ceases to be useful when there is no further removable soil.
So the question that comes to my mind is whether there is a clear understanding of the ‘neti neti’ process by you. Therefore, let me first clarify on this.
In the normal circumstances, an ordinary seeker, starts with the belief I am so and so. ‘So and so’ can be his name (e.g. John, Ram), or qualification (e.g. educated, a degree holder, post-Graduate), relationship (e.g. husband, wife), quality (e.g. rich, poor) etc. In all these examples, the first part “I am” is constant, but the second part keeps changing depending on the context of where and when the statement is made, though the man remains the same.
In Sanskrit, the first part of the sentence is called ‘aham padartha’ and the second part is called ‘idam padartha.’ ‘aham’ means ‘I’ and ‘idam’ means ‘this.’ The ‘idam’ is the variable part. In order to know the (wo)man, I have to know the non-varying ‘aham’ part. Because the ‘idam’ part keeps on varying, I can discard that part in order to identify him. (He can be father to his child, son to his father, boss in office and may be bossed over at home and so on. These variable ‘idam’ things will not help me in specifically knowing him).
Likewise, in order to know “Who I am” in reality, I have to discard (negate) all things that keep on changing in me. The body I had as a three year old is not the body I have now. The body keeps on changing. So I am not the body. Similarly, I am not my senses. I am also not anything that my senses show me (because what is perceived by the five senses is always changing).
The peaceful, pleasant mind I had after a restful night is not what I have now when I have this gnawing doubt. My thoughts also go on changing. So I am not my thoughts or mind.
Proceeding thus, by elimination, you will be left with as the residuum that basic fundamental ‘sensing’ quality by which you know the things but by itself it is neither see-able nor describable. You find no objective dimensions to this ‘sensor’ quality. ‘Objective dimensions’ means limitations in size, defined shape, identifiable name, demarcating qualities (of weight, taste, color etc.). On further careful investigation, you cannot even locate where it exists in your body. You will not be able to place it even outside the body. You will never know its location.
When one reaches this level, one will be unable even to speak about it. We have to necessarily talk in terms of pointers. Vedanta uses the word Brahman to point to that indescribable That.
It is Pure Existence Itself – i.e. the quality of being or Beingness – on which you cannot put your finger and say, ‘It is this.’ It is also Knowingness Itself (that is not what is known but the very quality of ‘knowing’ a thing).
Knowingness and Beingness are not two qualifying descriptors for It. These are just two pointers for the same One thing. Hence you may hyphenise and call It as “Knowingness-Beingness” (also called Consciousness-Existence).
Because we have already discarded the mind in the preliminary eliminations, mind is not there when we talk about Knowingness-Beingness. Therefore, Knowingness-Beingness can never ever be grasped (understood) by the mind.
So be very clear that It is not any “blankness/darkness/all-inclusiveness/voidness” (your terms). It is Self-illuminating effulgent Beingness – not nothingness.
Well, those are big words – just a fancy way of saying that you can see (feel) your own ‘existence’ (aliveness) by yourself without any external source throwing illuminating light (proof). Don’t you know for sure by yourself that you exist? Don’t you also know that you are conscious? Does somebody need to certify these things for you? But also realize, as Advaitins put it, you have to exist to be conscious; and you have to be conscious to know that you exist. So Consciousness and Existence are not two separate things and you are not separate from them. That’s what “You” are. In other words, You are Existence-Consciousness.
This understanding should not stop at an intellectual or verbal level. It should sink to the ‘feelings’ level of the body too. A number of Western Teachers developed a few tools to help us to ingest this wisdom at the body level. Detailing them will be another essay.
The key to be able to stay with this understanding is to create all such ‘enablers’ that keep reminding us about this whenever the mind plays its tricks and veils the understanding. After all, the mind has been accustomed to a certain way of functioning for many, many years and developed its own energy saving behavioral patterns.
Now throw your digging tool away and find out how to abide in this understanding in spite of the distractions wrought by the mind. Lots of clues emerge from a correct understanding of Advaita. Correct understanding implies an understanding without even an iota of doubt left. So begin there.
A (Prashant): The question asked is a fitting example of where nidhidhyāsana (assimilation through repeated contemplation) comes in, and I appreciate it being posted, as it gives all of us a nice opportunity to reflect.
The questioner asks:
“How does it happen that one can know “in the mind” that one is free and yet continue to fall back into the conundrum of no longer feeling this freedom? Moments of complete freedom … knowing that it’s not my business to “do” life, not even to attempt to not “do” life … and yet slowly fall back into the habit?”
Here it needs to be understood, that when we use the word ‘know’, it signifies knowledge, and in vedic parlance, if one has knowledge, he is a jñāni (wise person). Jñānam (knowledge) only refers to what we call assimilated knowledge, which we differentiate from mere information.
There are three stages – viz: shravanam, mananam, nidhidhyāsanan – only after the completion of which does knowledge become assimilated.
Shravanam is when reading/listening the vedāntic teachings, as unfolded by a competent Āchārya (teacher) who handles shāstra (scripture) as a shabda pramāṇām (means of knowledge). This is equivalent to saying “I studied”.
Mananam is the clearing of intellectual doubts from your Guru, that arise as a result of the reading/listening to the words of the shāstra (scripture). When mananam takes place successfully, one can confidently say “I understand”. This is the stage the questioner seems to describe.
Now comes the tricky part, nidhidhyāsanan, where what is first studied, then understood, is now assimilated. How does that assimilation take place? But even before that, what keeps us from assimilating in the first place? Pujya Swāmi Dayānanda ji, in simple words reveals nidhidhyāsanan as the ironing out of our habitual errors. Over countless janmas (births), and even in this janma (birth) itself, we have taken up wrong notions about the self, and have identified with what we are not. This superimposition plays hard on the chitta (roughly: mind); and, just as wrinkles need to be ironed out from a crumpled up shirt, nidhidhyāsanan is the process of ironing out these routine errors from the mind. To do this, first the mind needs to be purified (chitta shuddhi i– mental purity). This is achieved by performing actions with an attitude of karma yoga, and also doing upāsanās (roughly: spiritual practices aimed at mental purity) – such as prayers, meditation, worship etc – which help eradicate the mental disturbances. One may also try inculcating discipline in their life. Lastly, one should repeatedly contemplate upon the knowledge of the self (Ātmavichāra), by keeping in touch with aupanishadic vidyā (knowledge presented in the Upanishads), and own up to their real svarūpa (nature), which is brahman. When this step is complete, one may proclaim “I know”. When this is done, one is a jñāni (wise person), and there is absolutely no turning back.
During shravanam and mananam we will all experience stages where we feel seemingly free from limitations, but it is only for the time being. This takes place because temporarily our mind is occupied elsewhere. Saṁsāra (a life of “becoming”) is only momentarily forgotten, not annihilated.
What the questioner described seemed to end at the mananam phase, where the expression “I know” could have been a cause of confusion 🙂
A (Peter): There are a few statements in the question that are nearly (but not quite) accurate.
So to begin at the beginning: we are all born in ignorance, ignorance is the causal state of the human being and not the result of “the sense of ‘I’ (distinguished from the ultimate I/Self)”: quite the reverse in fact. We are born ignorant about the world and ignorant about our true natures. So the starting point is ignorance, and the mistaken self-identity results from not knowing who we are, and the pain of life comes from the mistaken self-identity.
Conventional education starts to remove our ignorance about the world, but few people ever realise that their ideas of who they are is also erroneous and thus no attempt is made to correct one’s mistaken self-identity and discover the truth of oneself. Those rare people who do come to the appreciation that nothing they DO will end life’s misery are those who turn to correct the error of mistaking ‘I’ for body, mind, senses, etc.
The first step in coming to who you are is coming out of what you are not. This is the negation, ‘neti, neti’, ‘not this, not this’. The mistake of some who follow this route can be fourfold: (i) by so doing they ‘attempt to see what always is” (to use the questioner’s words); (ii) the end of negation of erroneous self-perception is “voidness” (to use the questioner’s word); (iii) ‘enlightenment’ is an experience; (iv) ‘enlightenment’ is brought about by practices.
It needs to be appreciated that any ‘seen’ such as “little sparks… flakes of concepts… to the blooming as a climax of the concept” are still all thoughts and, in keeping with the nature of thought, “disappears of itself just as it arose”. The ‘I’ that is sought cannot be that which can be observed: it is that because of which observation can take place.
What’s missing in the practice described in the question is any regular, systematic study with a qualified teacher over a long period of time. “Trying to do something, or even the attempt to try to do nothing” is not any substitute for replacing erroneous knowledge by true knowledge. To attain true knowledge about Self (just as one does to attain true knowledge of worldly matters) one studies the appropriate material with one who knows the subject. If one needs to do that in the case of easily observable matters, how much more so is a teacher required for unfolding the subtlest of truths?
This missing step of actively pursuing knowledge of what ‘I’ is to fill in the ‘void’ after eliminating what it is not, is the answer to the final question: “How does it happen that one can know ‘in the mind’ that one is free, and yet continue to fall back into the conundrum of no longer feeling this freedom?” It starts with clarity that the freedom that one seeks will only be found in knowing who I am and that knowing who I am will not reveal itself merely by knowing what I am not. It needs a proper guide and systematic study to start with and, it goes without saying, a mind that has been prepared by unhooking from the drag of appetites and aversions and steadied through prayer and a worshipful outlook.
A (Sitara): Your practise of neti, neti is a practise (a doing, as you say in your last sentence) and as such cannot but bring about temporary results. This is so because there is a practitioner. This practitioner in the course of the practise turns into the seer (I begin to see things …), which is beautiful and valuable. The problem is that even as the seer you can remain separate from the seen. This is very likely to happen if you practise and are not supported by a teacher’s teaching.
Even if you understand yourself to be the subject, you can remain separate from the objects that you see. As the witness you are still in duality, even if you recognize yourself as the ultimate subject that, unlike all other seeming subjects (body, mind), cannot be objectified. When you have this experience of ‘I begin to see things come of themselves, from little sparks … flakes of concepts … to their blooming as a climax of a concept. The climax wanes and the concept disappears of itself just as it arose’ you need to turn your attention away from the seen and right back to the seeing itself. It is not about the seen, it is all about the seer. Stop being interested in the seen. Just remain with seeing itself.
Seeing itself, unconcerned with objects occurring or not occurring, is consciousness and is, what you are. Once you realize that, it is immediate recognition and it will not be just an experience that comes and goes.
But it is subtle, especially in the beginning. It can be seemingly veiled by habitual thought patterns. In fact, it is almost unavoidable that it will be seemingly veiled by them because for lifetimes they have been ingrained in the mind.
That’s why in Vedanta even after the knowledge of you being consciousness has dawned, nididhyAsana is prescribed. nididhyAsana is the stage where you clear away those habitual identifications. These identifications are not able to take the recognition of you being consciousness away but they temporarily seem to veil it.
For someone having followed the traditional path, the knowledge of who he/she is dawns after having gone through shravaNa (i.e. intensive study of the scriptures) and manana (i.e. clearing all doubts about the studied). Both are done under the guidance of a teacher. After these two stages, knowledge of ‘me being Brahman (existence-consciousness-limitlessness)’ has occurred and one goes into nididhyAsana by oneself.
Although as a non traditional seeker you may have the recognition of who you are, you do not have the solid base resulting from shravaNa and manana. So even if you have realized who you truly are you are very likely to need the support of a teacher with your nididhyAsana. Depending on the background of the teacher this may consist more in study of the scriptures in which you will see your true self reflected in numerous ways or in talks clearing your personal ‘veiling experiences’ and preferably in a mixture of both.
A (Dennis): Enlightenment is not an experience; nor is it the ‘nature of existence’. It is true that you are already free; it is also true that you apparently do not yet realize this. ‘Not being enlightened’ is simply the mind’s not appreciating that you are already free. ‘Becoming enlightened’ is simply the gaining of the knowledge (in the mind) that you are already free. The ‘I’ that is already free is the ‘I’ that you are – it is brahman. You cannot really talk about a ‘source’ of ignorance but you are right that is the removal of this ignorance that has to be achieved. It is only knowledge that will remove it since only knowledge is opposed to ignorance. So it is perfectly legitimate to talk about the ‘acquisition of self-knowledge’ – you don’t yet have it (otherwise you would know that you are brahman) so you need to get it. You get it from the scriptures by way of a teacher.
Speaking of ‘seeing how things are’ is a new-agey concept. You don’t achieve this by ‘disregarding things that can be seen’. The things that can be seen are seen because they are in front of you. They are all forms of the non-dual brahman. Seeing them as separate is part of the ignorance. But, once the ignorance is removed, you still see them; it is just that you now know them to be none other than brahman – your Self. Seeing blackness or a void, or conversely seeing bright lights or flashes, has nothing to do with enlightenment but indicates malfunctioning of the eyes.
Basically, what you are describing is not true enquiry. The path to Self-knowledge is via shravaNa, manana and nididhyAsana. I’m sure that the attitude that you are describing is very common, and represents a misdirection brought about by latching on to Ramana’s ‘Who am I?’ I do wonder sometimes whether this single, oft-quoted mantra is the principal cause of most of the problems experienced by modern Western seekers. As (I think) I said earlier, Ramana was undoubtedly a brilliant teacher but taking this one element out of context and attempting to use it as the be-all and end-all of a path to enlightenment is simply mistaken.
There are quite a few questions on the topic of ‘falling back’ at the site. What you are differentiating between is the j~nAnI (who is enlightened) and the jIvanmukta (who is established in peace/stillness etc all the time). The obstacles are called pratibandha-s (obstacle, hindrance, impediment, opposition, resistance ). And they are there because there was insufficient mental preparation (discipline, control etc) prior to enlightenment. So the mind is still prone to fall into old habits. If nothing is done, it is possible to ‘fall back’ to some degree. The solution is to continue to do nididhyAsana in the form of reading, studying, teaching or whatever; continually reminding oneself of the teaching and the truth of its conclusions.
But read the other Q&As and these might help.