Q. 356 – Signs Along the Way

Q: I’m firmly convinced that nothing outside myself can give lasting fulfillment, I have acquired quite a facility for playing the piano and am still improving that skill, and when I do make an improvement it’s usually after a long period of practice until the next breakthrough ad infinitum, I’m in a fulfilling relationship with my girlfriend and I have a great job at a pharmacy, I’m in good health as well, but beneath it all is this sense it will eventually change and I ask myself is this it? All my needs are met but I still feel incomplete. I have good karma and predominantly sattvic tendencies, so how will I know I’m making progress on my path? Are there certain objective milestones that I will definitely notice and be like ok I’m closer to realizing who I am? You said the mind needs to be receptive and mostly controlled but I just wish there were more specific instructions.

Answers are provided by: Ted, Martin, Sitara, Ramesam, and Dennis.

A (Ted): The way you will know that you are making progress on the path is that your penchant for wanting things – be they tangible objects, money, relationships, power, prestige, achievements, particular physical or psychological states of being, spiritual experiences, or whatever – will diminish. 

 Vedanta says that all desires fall into four basic categories.  The first three are security (artha), pleasure (kama), and virtue (dharma).  From the description you offer, it sounds like your life is rife with objective phenomena that fit into all three categories.  Your good health and great job offer security, your facility for playing the piano and the fulfilling relationship you enjoy with your girlfriend provide pleasure, and your good karma and predominately sattvic tendencies bespeak a virtuous character.  Still, you remain unfulfilled.  This, according to Vedanta, is as it should be – or rather as it is – at least for the person who still believes lasting peace and happiness can be had through the acquisition and enjoyment of objects.

 There are three reasons simple reasons for this. 

 First, joy is not in objects.  If it were, then the same object would provide joy for everyone, which we know is not the case.

 Second, the entire apparent manifestation is in a constant state of flux.  Since both the relative subject, which is the apparent individual you take yourself to be, and all objects, both gross and subtle, are continuously changing, none are capable of providing permanent happiness.

 Third, all objects and actions are inherently limited.  Hence, no limited action executed by a limited entity (i.e. person), which is an object, can produce a limitless result (i.e. eternal bliss).

 Through repeated exposure to the teachings of Vedanta, the consistent application of those teachings to the situations and circumstances of your life, and the continual contemplation of the defects inherent in object-happiness, you will notice your desires gradually drying up and your conviction in your true identity as whole and complete, limitless, non-dual awareness becoming more and more solid.

 In this regard, it is vitally important to understand that self-knowledge is not an experience, per se.  Understanding your true nature, viewing the circumstances of your life (i.e. that of the apparent individual person (jIva) you take yourself to be) from the point of view of pure awareness – though, technically speaking, awareness has no point of view – and acting in ways that accord with the non-dual vision of reality, will undoubtedly have an impact on your experience (i.e. again, that of the apparent individual person), especially your state of mind, which will most assuredly be far less stressed out and anxious about getting what it wants.  Fundamentally, however, self-knowledge is just that – knowledge.  In other words, despite the almost universally held belief that self-realization is an experiential phenomenon, understanding your true nature as awareness is not contingent upon having and sustaining any certain psychophysical condition, emotional state, transcendental epiphany, or mystical vision.  Rather, it is simply the hard and fast understanding that you are awareness in which all such experiences arise, abide, and subside.  And while all such experiences are essentially made of you and are thus dependent on you for their existence, you are independent of all experiences and all objects.  When they appear it is you in which and to whom they appear, and when they disappear it is you who is aware of their absence.  Despite the physical condition of the body, the emotional tenor of the heart, and the intellectual shape of the mind, you remain ever the same.

 As the assimilation of self-knowledge gradually takes hold, you will stand more and more firmly and ultimately with unshakable conviction in your true identity as whole and complete limitless awareness and, thus, remain increasingly and ultimately completely unaffected by the objects (i.e. circumstances, situations, encounters, sensations, feelings, and thoughts) appearing within you. 

 It is beneficial throughout this process, however, to bear in mind that karma does not care whether you are enlightened or not.  It marches on with the same momentum as ever.  Though your relationship to it will have changed dramatically, you cannot escape your prArabdha karma (i.e. the karma that is slated to play out through the specific mind-body-sense complex with which you, awareness, are presently associating).

 Such being the case, it is equally important to realize that understanding that your true nature is whole and complete limitless awareness will not magically transform the life of the apparent individual person (jIva) into a slice of paradise.  The apparent individual as whom you, awareness, are masquerading will not always feel good and will not get everything it wants.  The human aspect of you will carry on as before, albeit now guided by knowledge rather than ignorance.  You, however, will remain ever unattached to its daily dramas.

 The bottom line is that the liberation that constitutes “enlightenment” is not freedom for the apparent person, but from the apparent person.  This is the real meaning of moksha.

A (Martin): Obviously, you are seeing yourself as a limited, separate being, thus missing something that is other than ‘me’, outside of ‘me’. The search for knowledge usually takes many years, and one follows multiple by-ways; this is inevitable, but nothing is lost; it is supposed to be like this, depending on the individual. The first thing is to have faith, confidence — that there is a resolution to the ‘conflict’ (of separation). The second is patience. The third – fortitude, steadfastness. The fourth, which is fundamental (and could be considered as the first requirement), is a strong desire for truth or liberation. I think that looking for milestones will shackle you even more, because you are reinforcing the ego… the one that is ‘looking for’. 

 You are not the limited ego, a false ‘reference centre’. You need the mind (ego and mind are practically equivalent, though not the same), as Dennis is pointing out, but you are not the mind either – the mind is at your service (and it can be a saviour as well as an enemy). Ultimately, what you are is pure consciousness, which has to be realized. Swami Dayananda puts it this way:

 “Why is knowledge the only means to freedom, moksa? It is because freedom sought is limitlessness itself, that choiceless human goal underlying all other human struggles for limited ends. Limitlessness is not something that can be created or produced. It either is or it is not. Limitlessness, by definition can never be the end product of a process of becoming. An endless series of limited things will not constitute limitlessness.”

A (Sitara): There is no specific indicator that will show for certain where you are at in your spiritual quest. There is nothing like a thermometer, which could clearly indicate “how cooked you are”.

 You say: “All my needs are met but I still feel incomplete.” Being able to acknowledge this feeling is a blessing because most people would skip over the frustration onto the next thing promising completion. As you say, you have predominantly sattvic tendencies, which help in the preparation of the seeker.

 It seems that you are prepared enough. So what is missing?

 You asked “Are there certain objective milestones that I will definitely notice and be like ok I’m closer to realizing who I am?”

 Every seeker needs confirmation. He/she needs to know whether he is on the right track or moving astray. Yet most people will not be able to give you this kind of confirmation. And you will not get it from books either. You need someone who has completed the spiritual journey and can clearly see what it is that will help you and what might be in the way. Even such a person will not be able to tell you your exact position on the path, simply because no-one can. But he/she will be encouraging you and help you out of the limbo you are feeling in right now.

 It would be very good for you to find a teacher, someone you trust in that he/she is able to guide you; someone who you can turn to with your questions, someone to study with and learn from. And you need to have regular personal contact with that teacher (even if only over the phone or skype). There are so many teachers alive today, please go ahead and seek guidance. And if you feel that someone is the right one for you, commit yourself. This is my main advice.

 Having said that, there is kind of an indicator but it is an indicator that you cannot directly manipulate. It is called priorities. If you still have many plans for what you want to achieve, do, enjoy or experience in life or even help others achieve, do, enjoy or experience – then you are likely to have a long journey ahead of you.

 But mind you: you cannot force yourself out of your priorities. You can only notice which priorities are still at work and watch when they change. In the course of a spiritual journey they will drop one by one, as a side effect of karma yoga and deepening your understanding. It is a natural process for a spiritual seeker that priorities change and the focus moves more and more onto the essential. The very moment when only one priority remains – the desire for mokSha – that very moment mokSha will be there.

 We all have lots of hidden wants, and even someone who says “MokSha is the only thing I want” can be certain: mokSha not being there is a clear indication that mokSha is not the only thing he wants. Now, mokSha need not be the only thing you want but it has to have top-priority – clearly, decisively, definitely, irrefutably. If nothing else counts, not even your own life, only then mokSha has top-priority.

A (Ramesam): The arising of such a question in the mind of a seeker is auspicious and that itself is a sign that the seeker is moving in the right direction. (In fact, there is no movement; but we will come to it a little later).  

Many people suffer through seismic quakes, severe shocks, hard hits or downfall to abysmal depths in their life before they realize the emptiness of their enchanted pursuits. So when all things are in “swell” condition, to ask “Is this it?” at the prime of life clearly shows that you are on the Path of Implosion (nivRitti marga), as the tradition would call it. That means “the separate self” in you identifying itself with the body-mind has stopped looking for lasting happiness in external things and has turned one eighty degrees the other way – taking up a symbolical inward journey. This beginning stage of seeking is referred to as shubhechChA (desire for Truth or Enlightenment) on the path of Self-inquiry.

A healthy body and a healthy mind are sine qua non for a rigorous undertaking of Self-inquiry.  The traditional approach, whether on the of path Yoga or Knowledge, lays considerable emphasis and devotes considerable time in preparing the seeker towards this end – development of a focused and calm mind and a healthy and agile body using various techniques like dhyAna,  prANayAma and asana-s —  so that s/he is ready and mature enough to receive the final instruction in Advaita.  An alternate approach, referred to as ‘Direct path’, is to give a taste of the final understanding right at the beginning to an eligible seeker and let him/her then develop the required practices, in the light of the intelligence so gained, to stabilize himself in the understanding of Non-duality.

Accustomed as we are in the industrial culture of road maps, standards and specs, red flags and milestones of progress, no wonder we look for verification, certification and validation of our advancement on the so called spiritual journey too.  Advaita does not work that way.  The comparison to a journey is purely metaphorical and ends when the seeker begins to question “is this all?”  Advaita clearly tells us that you are already what you seek. Therefore, there is no journey to go on, no movement to anywhere.  What is required is only a change in the stance of one’s perception. So a seeker may not expect any predefined signposts or landmarks on his way to the destination in the Self-inquiry. 

It is important for the seeker to know that whatever the world one already is in, will continue to be the same even after enlightenment. No ‘thing’ will change. In most cases, no dramatic shifts, novel and superbly altered states of consciousness will take place. One will have to understand that it is only his tricky and cunning “ego” which is trying to perpetuate itself by popping up in the garb of a holy  “desire” to reach an ‘unknown’ or unknowable goal sometime in the future. In fact, the dawn of realization that the very cause for our misery is the expectation of “something” different to happen from what exists in the now marks the end of seeking.

To express it differently, by being dissatisfied with what IS, by seeking something other than what IS, we are resisting or denying the current experience. The ego ‘wants’ a different experience, perhaps something more exciting, something more pleasurable. But there is no other thing in the moment, i.e. other than the sum total of all the images and thoughts, bodily sensations and the perceptions of the world happening as a single One experience at that moment.

So if there is a feeling of a “lack”, an absence of fulfillment in the current moment, just observe that feeling too without paying any special heed to it.  Be unconcerned towards it and have no identification of yourself with it.  Do not claim “ownership” for that lack with statements like “I feel a lack, I still miss something.”   Notice that just at that moment you would have experienced the pressure of the chair on your bottom or the sound of a passing car on the street or the noise from the next room.  You experienced all of them unaffected by them in any way — that is to say without any concern or claim of ownership to them.  Observe the naked ‘raw’ feeling of lack without giving a name to it.  If you do not give the name “lack” and do not go on building a story over it as ‘an undesirable thing,’  ‘I have to escape from it’ and on and on, you will notice it to be like any other unnamed sensation.  So do not try to change, replace or alter or to get rid of it. Try observing the feeling of that ‘lack’ without claiming ownership to it. 

As a matter of fact, you CANNOT get rid of it!  Why?  Because the total experience of all the thoughts and images in the mind, the sensations in the body and the perceptions of the world at that moment, all of them put together as One without fragmentation and labeling, constitute what “You” really are. THAT is the True Oneness – advaita. Consciousness as “You”, in its infinite Freedom and Wisdom, has chosen to appear in that form at that moment. So what is experienced is “You” only and how can “You” get rid of yourself?

A friend of mine was kind to summarize once the exchange of mails we have had on advaita and formulated a 3-step process that is useful as a method for nididhyAsana (contemplative meditation) to help him in stabilizing himself in Self-Knowledge. I am giving below an edited version of his summary:

“Self-Knowledge is nothing more or less than realizing that I am not the body-mind but I am their witness. “I” witness the body-mind and the world while being the substratum of all.  Once this realization takes place, further study is not going to make the Knowledge any deeper. nididhyAsana is a process that helps in removing the traces of ego or clouds of ignorance that arise from time to time due to past habits of the mind. Though nothing seems to have changed on the surface, a softening in the belief of a separate self at the core does appear to take place with the true understanding.  Earlier, a strong feeling of  “I am Mr. So and So” was conspicuously there at the core while all kinds of things were being experienced.  The “I am the body” feeling was effortless and did not need any rituals or practices to remember it – even while studying Non-dual teaching, the feeling persisted: “I hear you! All this is wonderful stuff, but I am still Mr. So and So.”

Now, after a clear understanding, the surface has remained pretty much the same but at the core it is “aham brahmAsmi” (I am brahman).  Most importantly, this urge “Is this it? Is this all over now?  Let me study more” seems to be disappearing or has disappeared.

As and when the feeling of a separate self arises taking the form of  “I am the ‘doer’ and the ‘experiencer’,” a three step prakriyA (exercise) is useful to get back on track:

1. I am not a doer/experiencer/knower (as a separate self).

2. I am no “thing” but a mere undimensional witness of all things.

3. I am nothing other than what is witnessed.

This three step prakriyA removes the temporary “i” feeling and frees the seeker from the notion that ‘I am a doer and enjoyer.’

The most important caveat to be noted is: The above three step ‘aide‐memoir’ should not stay merely as statements at a verbal level. The understanding has to be more than at an “intellectual” level. An intellectual understanding of advaita message takes place easily but the feelings of separation continue at the level of bodily sensations and perceptions. To get rid of them at the body level is the HARDEST part. This is the reason why many Non-dual practitioners say that they read all the Upanishads, that they understand the advaita teaching but complain that they are unable to “realize” brahman.

So a seeker has to be vigilant about the sense of separation hiding in different nooks and corners of the body. When such ‘sensations and perceptions’ of separation arise, one should just observe them indifferently, unconcernedly. One should not have any agenda with them ‐ either to control or suppress or modify. Mere observation eventually will orphan them. But any agenda to do something with them to get rid of etc. will only strengthen them.”

As the above understanding is ingested and one is able to stay more and more with this understanding, one does notice a few changes. One may consider these changes as “indicators” on the path, but the important point is that these changes are only by-products and need not be made as goals to be practiced and to be achieved (though the teachers of certain progressive traditions do advocate these practices).  Examples of such “indicator” changes are: disinterest in participation in social interactions, diminishing desire for acquisition of things, quick dissipation of arousals in the body, greater resilience, desire to keep company of noble people, preference for simple food and so on.

You may like to read these short write ups for more information:

On the sense of “lack”:  http://beyond-advaita.blogspot.com/2009/12/conversations-with-living-gaudapada.html

On Progress indicators on the knowledge Path:  http://beyond-advaita.blogspot.com/2010/12/yoga-based-and-knowledge-based.html

A (Dennis): As I repeat many times to questioners, enlightenment is the same as Self-knowledge. It ‘occurs’ in the mind when you become certain of the truth of the pronouncements of the scriptures. This is not merely an intellectual conviction; there are no doubts remaining. So progress can be seen on those (hopefully numerous) occasions when you hear or read something and are aware of a flash of recognition in the mind – Ah! That’s how it is! Also, when you read or hear other things, you will experience doubts and questions will arise that require an answer. Progress can be seen when such occasions reduce in number and eventually cease (even though you continue to study).

Note that what I am saying here must be differentiated from the perceived worldly benefits (equanimity in the face of adversity, no longer fearing death etc.) These fall under the heading of jIvanmukti and there are lots of questions on that in the archives.