Who do you think ‘I’ is? (Part 2)

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Having established the principles involved in escaping from the torments of living a false identity, we can examine how traditional advaitins approach the journey.

Preparedness. Am I fit for the journey? Three essentials are needed:

1) Clarity of purpose. This is the conviction that self-knowledge is the over-riding goal of life. Of course other activities involved in day-to-day living do carry on, but the fruits of wealth and pleasures are not to be over-valued. They give a respite, no doubt, but they will never deliver peace. And, without peace, how is self-knowledge possible? We do the needful: pursue security and pleasure, in conformity with universal values, for the sake of self-knowledge.

2) Mental clarity. The Sanskrit term śuddha, translated by words such as ‘pure’, ‘clean’, ‘clear’, ‘fault-free’, does not carry the moral or judgemental connotation as it does in the Western spiritual tradition. Vedanta reduces the whole of psychology to two key drivers, under which all others are subsets: ‘I wish to have’ and ‘I wish to avoid’. So strong are the pulls of desire, passion, lust (‘I want’) and fear, revulsion, hate (‘I want to avoid’) that often these forces can cause one to ignore ethical boundaries or universal values.

A universal value is one that is subscribed to by every one naturally. I do not want to be hurt, I do not like people lying to me, I do not like to be cheated or stolen from, I dislike being betrayed. It is unlikely that you’d find people (at least sane people) who would say the opposite; I like being hurt, I don’t mind people lying to me, it’s okay for people to cheat me or steal from me, it’s nice to be betrayed. No one will say these things. This is what makes non-injury, truthfulness, etc universal values. No one needs to be taught these things by external ‘authorities’. Yet, despite holding them as innate, inbuilt values, the force of the pull of  ‘I want’ and ‘I want to avoid’ can cause one to ignore these values. We know one thing and we do another: the knower ‘I’ and the actor ‘I’ are different: ‘I’ is split.

An ‘impure’ mind is at war with itself: thoughts, words and actions rarely align, and thus the mind is rendered unfit for holding to the single truth of one’s identity. By way of helping one not over-value the attraction of wealth and pleasure or aversion to things that prevent them, Vedanta recommends adopting an attitude of viewing everything that comes to us – the good as well as its opposite – as a gift of grace. In time, one will start to accept the world just as it is and do the needful as the moment dictates: one gradually unhooks from identification with the character that is desperately trying to re-shape destiny!

The life becomes dedicated to Self-knowledge, and all actions are performed with this in mind. Desires do not transcend universal values. One starts to exercise and strengthen one’s ability to discriminate, to engage the hitherto dormant faculty of choice. One is no longer a victim of the pulls and pushes of desire and aversion, one gains mastery over them. It takes practice and may take some time, but gradually the internal splits start to heal and one becomes fit to hear, understand and retain the truth of who one really is. This is virtuous living.

“Aristotle uses the term ‘virtue’ to mean ‘excellence’ – excellence is the activity by which the potentialities peculiar to man are realised.” Erich Fromm, Man for Himself, (1986).

3) Mental steadiness. By living this sort of virtuous life, one that has its roots and nourishment in the best part of me, what comes into view is the state of the mind. Most people find that mind cannot stay still for more than a couple of moments before leaping off onto another thought. This is not surprising as, according to Vedanta, mind is nothing but the name given to the flow of thought. When thoughts stop, mind resolves.

There are several techniques for stopping the meandering mind: the easiest is breath control. Try holding your breath and, in no time, the mind ‘comes back’ from its wanderings and focuses intently on monitoring the situation. This is a crude form of prānāyāma. (Health warning needed here: this is not a recommended route as there are very few qualified adepts to teach this technique).

Mantra-based techniques are also popular panaceas dished out. But the experience of many practitioners is that after an initial flurry of ‘experiences’, the returns are minimal. This is largely because the mantras given out are said to work mysteriously as vibrations that take the meditator back to his or her very source in pure consciousness. At best, the relief from the vicissitudes of mind is passing and in time the mind continues flitting here and there.

How, then, does the turbulent mind become steady? The Gita recommends practice and dispassion for the fruits of action here and hereafter. The traditional discipline recommended for creating a dispassionate mind can be a tough pill to swallow in today’s secular societies: it is to adopt a prayerful, worshipful attitude towards the higher powers. Allow the mind to unhook from its role as the one responsible for finding solutions for everything in the world and its job of constantly scanning the environment for things that can potentially undermine security and cover happiness.

Worshipfulness can be seen simply as the mind sitting back and enjoy the passing show, applauding and appreciating the performance: engaged but not involved, a spectator, not a participant with something to risk. Leave it to the powers of nature to work out the plot and direct the actors. Some people personify the forces of nature by calling them ‘god’.

Modern, sophisticated people commonly see ‘god’ as evidence of the primitive dualistic mindset of those who cannot accept ‘reality’. Traditional teachers offer two responses to help one overcome this resistance: the first is to present an alternative to the Abrahamic religions’ picture of God as a whimsical character with a white beard who sits in judgement over us. Vedanta presents ‘the Lord’ as the sum total of all universal natural law and order. It would be unreasonable of anyone to deny that, whether we like it or not, whether we wish it or not, the Law is what will deliver the only possible results that are lawfully possible in given circumstances. Surrender to this fact is maturity.

The second helpful insight offered by Vedanta teachers is to point out that until one faces the fact of one’s total helplessness in determining the precise results of action, ‘the Lord’ will be an irrelevance. As long as we continue in the delusion that we can ‘deal with’ anything life throws at us, we do not see the extent of our utter helplessness. All one needs to do to prick the bubble of this delusion is to ask how often we get exactly what we expected from our actions: not more, not less, but exactly what we expected. What factor, outside our control, determines the outcome? By acknowledging our helplessness in determining the predicted outcomes we demonstrate a mature grasp of reality.

With these three underpinning efforts, one can move on in the certain knowledge that no effort hereafter will be wasted.

Go to Part 3

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About Peter

I am a student of traditional Vedanta, in London, an interest that started in 1970s. Current Influences: In 2007 I attended a talk by Swamini Atmaprakasananda on Ganapati Atharvashirsha – and knew I had found my teacher. I am current Secretary of Arsha Vidya Centre UK, an organisation established to make available in the UK the teaching of traditional advaita as unfolded by Swaminiji and her own teacher, the illustrious HH Swami Dayananda Saraswatiji, the most respected teacher of traditional advaita. www.arshavidya.org.uk