Q. 355 – Faith in a Path

Q: How do we get the conviction to go on a spiritual quest?  Unlike science, there are no indicators to give feedback if this is even the right path. We need to have blind faith in the general idea itself before we venture into it. Can we only do this through negation of the other paths, where apparent validations are possible by material feedback.

A devil’s advocate argument could be to dismiss everything associated with the vedas/upanishads as nonsense, since nothing can be proved. Another way to look at this is to acknowledge that the ancient sages have come up with practices such as yoga and meditation, which sort of proves their intellect and extrapolates on their ability to see things farther than a average person can and thereby have faith in their judgements.

 I am not able to articulate my question very well but I hope I got my point across.

Answers are provided by: RamesamDhanya, Ted and Dennis.

A (Ramesam): Man, by his/her very nature, feels incomplete. He seeks fulfillment of what he lacks through effort using his natural or acquired talents.  In fact, it is this “lack” that drives his passion for action along the path of the means chosen by him suiting to his comfort-level.

At the most basic level the drives that motivate a man for action are the biological and physiological needs.  As described by the Psychologist Maslow, the subtlety of these needs changes from a lower to higher level in the following manner:

Biological and Physiological (Food and Mate) → Physical needs (Safety and Security) → Emotional needs (Love and Belonging) → Social needs (Status and Self-esteem) → Self Actualization (Realization of one’s own full Potential) → Self-transcendence (Experiencing the Spirit beyond the human self).

Thus a human being is propelled to go on a spiritual quest. That’s the way he is wired. The famous story of a lion cub brought up by a flock of sheep, how he realized his true nature when he hears the roar of a lion instead of the usual bleat of a sheep he was accustomed to hear, illustrates how the man too re-cognizes his true Self instantaneously and spontaneously on being exposed to the Truth. Therefore, you do not have to worry about “how we get the conviction to go on a spiritual quest.”  The inner “You” by itself takes you on the path with you or without you or in spite of your doing or not doing a thing.

Your next Question is on feedback and validations on the path:

If you are theistic by nature and would like to believe in or be dependent on some power or other, well, you will automatically take a devotional route observing a Master-slave relationship with that God-head. If, however, you are analytically inclined and would like to go by the path of Self-inquiry using logic, you need to have the courage of conviction to follow where the relentless logic will ultimately lead you.

I am not knowledgeable of other systems, but as far as Advaita is concerned, I can assure you that no demands are made on the seeker for blind belief in the system.  Advaita, in the form of its source texts like the Upanishads (the prasthAna traya) and special treatises and monographs on specific topics of Non-duality (prakaraNa grantha-s) provide you with necessary tools and alternate models that enable and empower you on the path of unbiased and incisive inquiry for Truth. They offer you also the mechanisms for self-assessment (for example see: Comparison Of The “Stages” In Yoga-Based And Knowledge-Based Spiritual Paths : http://beyond-advaita.blogspot.com/2010/12/yoga-based-and-knowledge-based.html ).

Further, I may suggest that the following parameters can be useful as “indicators” on the path of Self-inquiry:

i)  As the seeker progresses in his understanding of the Oneness of All (jIva brahmaikyatva), s/he finds that the flux density of his wants reduces and his desires diminish. (This will happen with advancing age too – maybe the reason many people take to spirituality as they age!).

ii)  A sense of surrender develops within the individual with “What IS” without the ego popping up looking for self-aggrandizement or self-pity.

ii)  Even if the body gets subjected to occasional emotional arousals, the resilience will be faster.

iv)  One would also lose fear of one’s own death. 

v)  One develops a tendency to accept things as they happen without a spirit of rejoicing or rejection for the events taking place around.

These are all broad and general guidelines and need to be applied with care in one’s own life. More appropriate answers can be obtained from the scriptural texts for the specific situations of an individual.

A (Dhanya): It seems to me that one is impelled or compelled to find out the truth.  One doesn’t really have a choice.

 I suppose one needs to have faith, some deeply ingrained conviction that one can find what one seeks. I like the way Swami Dayananda interprets the Sanskrit word shraddhA (which some translate simply as ‘faith.’)  He calls it ‘faith pending understanding.’  I like that.

 Here is a quote from Swami Chinmayananda which a friend of mine recently posted on Facebook.  I think it address the above topic pretty well.  It is interesting.  

 Faith is the belief in what we don’t know, so that we may come to know what we believe in.
It is the secret strength in the scientist, in the explorer, in all creative artists, without which they will not find any consistent enthusiasm in their continued search for the unknown.
Faith is the secret power in all spiritual students with which they steam forth on their path of seeking the ‘Unknown and the Unknowable’.
Without this Faith born out of true and deep understanding, no consistent spiritual sadhana is ever possible. 
~ Swami Chinmayananda

 A (Ted): The spiritual quest truly begins when one becomes completely disenchanted with the false promise that objects – and by “objects” I mean anything that can be experienced, whether gross (i.e. tangible objects perceived by the senses, including all other people as well as oneself) or subtle (i.e. emotions and thoughts) – can provide one with permanent fulfillment or produce lasting peace and happiness.

 Despite the fact that virtually every person spends virtually every moment of his or her life chasing objective sources of joy, a logical and dispassionate inquiry into one’s own experience reveals several truths that shed light on the erroneous and inevitably fruitless nature of this endeavor.

 First, the fact that no object has ever produced lasting happiness for you – which is obvious for the simple reason that if any had, you would no longer be seeking for the eternal experiential bliss that is the supposed endgame of the spiritual quest – should provide a pretty strong indication that object-happiness is doubtful at best.  You might, of course, argue that you just haven’t yet found the right object (or enough of it), but that were you to do so you would be happy forever.  This argument, however, grows rather flimsy upon further investigation.  Though you may not have acquired all the objects you personally desire and may truly believe would be sources of eternal joy, by means of inference it is easy to see that no object, despite its apparent grandiosity, has ever delivered unending satisfaction to anyone.  Riddling the pages of history are countless stories of people who have secured every conceivable kind of material wealth, sensorial titillation, social power, and spiritual epiphany who have failed to find permanent peace and happiness.  Ironically, in fact, it is quite often the case that those whose “worldly” success has seemed the greatest are the very individuals whose minds have been most tortured by perpetual feelings of inadequacy and incompleteness and/or whose lives have been reduced to virtual cesspools of suffering due to deleterious effects of their deeply-ingrained dependency on “worldly” indulgences.

 Also, it is readily apparent that no single object provides happiness for everyone.  An extreme athlete who finds joy in bungy-jumping, for instance, is not going be satisfied sitting around knitting mittens for his girlfriend, while a brittle-boned granny who takes great pleasure in knitting adornments for her grandchildren is not going to be happy leaping off a bridge with a rubber cord tied to her ankles.  And since happiness is not an intrinsic quality of the object, the only alternative is that the source of the happiness is the subject – i.e. the apparent individual experiencer – or, in more personal terms, the “you” to whom you refer as “I.”

 Furthermore, the only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from the fact that all objects are by definition limited – How otherwise could they be distinguished as entities or experiences different from other entities and experiences? – is that no object is capable of providing permanent fulfillment, for obviously no limited action (which as an experienceable phenomenon is an object) done by a limited doer (who as an experienceable phenomenon is an object as well) can produce an unlimited result (i.e. permanent peace and happiness).

 Moreover, thoughtful consideration of the fact that the fundamental defining characteristics of the manifested universe are limitation and perpetual change leads to the unavoidable conclusion that no object can provide permanent satisfaction and thus entirely eradicate one’s sense of incompleteness and inadequacy.  Inevitably, either the object changes (i.e. deteriorates, breaks, or in the case of another person may change its mind about or behavior toward us) or we change (i.e. grow bored with or develop an aversion to the object).

 And finally, given the dualistic nature of the manifestation or apparent reality, life within its context is a zero-sum game.  In other words, for every loss there is a gain, for every success there is a failure.  The price of intimacy, for instance, is the loss of freedom, and the price of freedom is the loss of intimacy, the price of adventure is the loss of peace, the price of peace is the loss of adventure.  Because there are two sides to every coin, so to speak, no particular object can be said to provide comprehensive or limitless fulfillment.

 For these reasons, it is obvious that no permanent peace, happiness, fulfillment, or freedom is to be found in objects.  And the continuous contemplation of these obvious defects of the pursuit for object-happiness is what ultimately jumpstarts one’s quest for truth.

 Question:  Unlike science, there are no indicators to give feedback if this is even the right path.

 Ted:  Actually, Vedanta is regarded as the science of self-inquiry.  The wisdom that constitutes Vedanta is neither a philosophy cooked up by a particular individual or a group of individuals that offers a theory about the nature of reality nor is it a faith-based religion whose fundamental requirements are blind belief and unquestioning obedience.  Rather, Vedanta is revealed wisdom that was “seen” or “heard” by innumerable seekers throughout the millennia in deep states of meditation and confirmed through acute analysis and thorough contemplation.  Vedanta is not the creation of a particular individual, but is the essential wisdom culled from the meditative insights had by countless seekers throughout the ages that has been thoroughly vetted and stripped clean of all personal interpretation and bias.  In other words, the truth it reveals is that which has always been, is now, and will always be universally verifiable by all qualified aspirants who are able to undertake an objective inquiry into the nature of their experience of being.  The revelations that come as the inevitable consequence of the various prakriyas or methods of inquiry utilized by a qualified teacher to guide the student through a systematic dissection of the student’s previously unexamined – or erroneously interpreted – experience serve as the indicators that “show” the student his or her true nature as pure limitless awareness.  And once this understanding has taken place, there remains no question of conjecture or faith.  One simply knows.

 Question:  We need to have blind faith in the general idea itself before we venture into it.

 Ted:  It is true that one of the fundamental qualifications that an aspirant must have in order to successful undertake the practice of self-inquiry, or the systematic study and application of the teachings of Vedanta, is faith.  This faith, however, is not an indefinite mode of unquestioning belief in a particular dogma and strict obedience to a specific set of moral laws, but rather a matter of giving the benefit of the doubt to a teaching that has a well-established track record of delivering self-knowledge and thereby granting liberation to countless seekers since time immemorial and only accepting its revelations pending the results of one’s own investigation into the nature of reality and one’s true identity under the guidance of a qualified teacher who is already established in the knowledge him or herself.

 Question:  Can we only do this through negation of the other paths where apparently validations are possible by material feedback?

 Ted:  I’m not sure I understand this question.  But in terms of “material feedback” I can say that the self, which is pure limitless awareness, has no definable characteristics or measurable attributes.  According to the Kaivalya Upanishad, it is at once subtler than the subtlest, minuter than the minutest, and greater than the greatest.  In other words, the pure awareness is all-pervasive.  It is the adhishthanam, or fundamental substratum, of the entire apparent reality (i.e. the manifested universe in both its gross and subtle aspects) as well as the “substanceless substance” of which it is made.  It is the open, spacious, brilliant clarity, so to speak, out of which all objects arise, in which they abide, and back into which they subside.  It is formless and indefinable as there is nothing other than it in reference to which any parameters could be identified.  The bottom line is that there is no discrete object or experience that can comprehensively describe that which is everything that is but whose own existence is wholly independent of all appearances within it.  More to the point, no measureable objective phenomenon – even the most subtle, such as emotions and thoughts – can prove the existence of awareness.  The good news is, however, that no such proofs are necessary because awareness is self-evident.  Just as I don’t need to see my eyes to know I have eyes because the fact that I see in itself proves I have eyes, so I know I exist because I exist.  Despite all the erroneous romantic notions about its nature, awareness is not an experience – not an energetic sensation or mystical vision or set of super-powers or whatever – but rather the limitless substratum in which all experience occurs.  Hence, self-knowledge or “enlightenment” is simply the understanding that I am awareness, and liberation is the understanding that though all objects depend upon me for their existence, I am ever free of all ephemeral objective phenomena.

 Question:  A devil’s advocate argument could be to dismiss everything associated with the Vedas and Upanishads as nonsense as nothing can be proved.

 Ted:  Except, as has been pointed out, by a careful analysis of one’s own previously unexamined or erroneously interpreted experience.  Ultimately, the truth is proven, so to speak, by the fact that it is.  You are proven by the fact that you are.

 Question:  Another way to look at this is to acknowledge that the ancient sages have come up with practices such as yoga and meditation, which sort of proves their intellect, and extrapolate on their ability to see things farther than an average person can and thereby have faith in their judgments.

 Ted:  The role faith plays in the practice of self-inquiry has already been discussed, but with regard to the “judgments” of the ancient rishis, or seers, it is important to understand that these judgments were not based on personal interpretations of experience but rather resulted from the logical discrimination between the ever-present subject (i.e. awareness) in whose scope all the ephemeral objects appear.  Such discrimination between the subject, which is the self, and the objects, which are only apparent entities that are wholly dependent for their existence upon awareness and thus constitute the “not self” (Atma-anAtma-viveka) is the crux of Vedantic wisdom and the assimilation of the profound implications of this distinction is what constitutes “enlightenment” or liberation.

A (Dennis): Most seekers seem to go down a few cul-de-sacs to begin with. This is not a problem as Advaita sees it. If you keep trying, it proves that you have the genuine desire – mumukShutva. It does not matter how many lifetimes you take (according to the scriptures!), no matter which religions or philosophies you try, you must inevitably come to Advaita, since that it the truth.

You have to put your trust in something or someone in the first instance – someone who says ‘this is the way; it works’. Common sense tells you to point this trust in the direction of someone or something that you have reason to believe is sincere rather than something or someone which has already been shown to be false on at least one occasion. The ‘proof’ that you are looking for is not in the form of a geometric theorem. It begins with unlikely-sounding statements in the scriptures. You then investigate these, with the help of someone who has been down this path before and is familiar with all of the signs and can guide you through the fog and avoid the cliff edge. Ultimately, you see the destination for yourself with total clarity and there is no doubt in your mind that this is it. Faith is not blind; it is trusting in your guide dog!