Q. 424 Paradox of the Illusory Self

Q: I’ve read your wonderful book, Back to the Truth, and much from your website. I’ve learned so much from what you’ve offered, it’s impossible to thank you enough. I do have a question that continues to arise again and again. Though simple, it’s never quite answered head-on. It’s hard to phrase it in a single sentence, so here goes: 

Sometimes it seems that nondual teachers are simply saying “Did you notice you’re conscious? That’s what you are.” There are many such teachers, as I’m sure you are aware. Some, similarly, seem to say that realizing there is no person is all there is too it, everything else stays the same. Meanwhile there are many many accounts of realization that include an understanding of the nature of consciousness, of seeing he world of objects as empty or transparent, and many have said that the mark of realization is an awareness that does not go away (or seem to go away) during deep sleep. These understandings seem beyond no-self.

So when an instructor says something like “who wants to know” or “who wants enlightenment” I get very frustrated. I get it that there is no person that wants to know. Maybe I don’t get it enough (certainly not experientially), but just dropping the idea of a self and saying “yep I’m conscious, I’m aware” does not lead to these other powerful understandings, or deeper truths. 

Body minds that have realized no-self still go on through life with a few desires and interests that they try to satisfy (Ramana Maharshi reading the news, for instance). This body-mind is interested in big Truths. So why tell me that seeing through the self, knowing that I am aware (or awareness) is enough? There seem to be another, bigger, even more interesting truth to be discovered. 

So, I guess a simple way of asking my question is: Paradoxes rise from a illusory self seeking to see through itself. but they don’t arise from a body mind (or even an illusory self) seeking to understand oneness, consciousness, the universe, etc. I assume we have to see through the self to realize the rest, but why do so many seem to ignore the rest?

A (Dennis): Glad that you have found the book and website useful – always good to hear! I do notice that you refer to ‘Back to the Truth’ specifically. This was an attempt to express the truth through the words of many teachers, rather than specifically through my own understanding. Thus, if you want the latter, ‘Book of One (2nd edition)’ is the better book. I will, however, try to answer your specific question.

The ‘bottom line’ teaching of advaita is best expressed by Shankara’s summary: brahman is the truth, the world is mithyA, the jIva is none other than brahman. ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘Self-realization’ is the irrevocable gaining of this knowledge, all doubts having been eliminated. Whether you are subsequently totally serene and blissful is not directly dependent upon this knowledge but on the mental preparation that preceded it. Your life continues. Desires and aversions continue in an attenuated form, but you are no longer too much perturbed whether or not they are met. Again, the degree of ‘too much’ depends upon prior preparation or continued ‘devotion’ to the truth.

It is the mind of the person that realizes this. It IS the person who ‘wants to know’ and it IS the person who gains enlightenment. Part of the realization is, indeed, that the person is mithyA. But that does not alter the empirical experience. (c.f. you still see the sun rise, even though you know that it is actually the earth rotating.)

I don’t really understand your phrasing of the question about paradox. The problem is really one of language. In a sense, it is language that it is the cause of all our seeming problems. It is fortunate that, through advaita, language can also provide the solution! (Now that is a paradox!)

Q: Hearing this helps so much: “It is the mind of the person that realizes this. It IS the person who ‘wants to know’ and it IS the person who gains enlightenment.” There is a similar line in your book and when I read it I assumed there must have been a typo or a left out word. I had heard so many times that the ‘I’ cannot realize itself since it’s non-existent, so I couldn’t believe I was reading it right. But I have always had the following thought (when hearing neo-advaitins say such things): If there never was a self, then all the things that we thought were a self are still there to understand the truth, even if that truth is that the person that knows is not a person. I think you are basically confirming this. 

There is one very simple part of my question that you did not fully answer, largely because I garbled how I asked it. Let me try to put it another way, even though it’s simple. I have read of many interactions where the seeker finally gets it when being pointed to awareness. In one case, for instance, a seeker meets John Wheeler at a Satsang. Wheeler asks him two questions. First, “Do you exist,” then, “Are you aware.” The seeker is then enlightened and is even so ‘done’ that he then leaves the Satsang. But I don’t know from such stories if he means simply that he realizes that he is awareness (if more completely than before) or if he now ALSO understands what I think are essential things: that all sentient beings share a single consciousness, that consciousness does not come from brain, that there is no death. Is he now, from this simple pointing to awareness, aware during deep sleep?

Put another way, does seeing through the self simply let you know there is no self (with possible benefits, such as bliss and an easier way through life) or does it necessarily reveal brahman, the oneness of consciousness, etc? I mean, if the only goal is to see through the self (and life stays the same) then I could imagine being ‘done’, stopping seeking. But if deeper truths are necessarily a part of it, how can I not think that there is something to get that I don’t have?

A: There are quite a few misunderstandings in what you say here. It may well be better for you to read Book of One first and see if any questions (along the lines of what you are asking) still remain.

One particular concept usually clarifies the confusion regarding ‘existence of the self (with a small ‘s’). It is that of chidAbhAsa – reflected Consciousness. Read these two articles on the website: https://www.advaita-vision.org/chidabhasa/ and https://www.advaita-vision.org/continuing-reflections-on-reflections/.

Understanding that you exist and are aware is NOT enlightenment! I referred to Shankara’s summary. You have to understand that Consciousness is the non-dual reality, that the universe is only name and form of Consciousness and that the essential ‘you’ (Atman) is this same Consciousness. You must have not a shadow of a doubt that this is the case. Only then can you claim to be enlightened. Also, no-one is ‘aware during deep sleep’, not even Shankara! And no-one ‘sees’ brahman. How could they when there is ONLY brahman?

The route to a total realization of this is usually gradual, requiring lots of interim explanations. The only reliable source is scriptural unfoldment from a qualified teacher.

8 thoughts on “Q. 424 Paradox of the Illusory Self

  1. I hope everyone will find this relevant…Sam Harris on Nonduality…interview with Dan Harris…Taming the Mind


    Dan: You know, I’ve read a little bit about non-duality, but I still don’t fully understand the distinction you’re making. I know you’re supposed to be interviewing me, but I would love to hear more about this from you. I’ve wanted to ask you this question for a long time. What is the non-dual critique of gradual approaches like mindfulness?

    Sam: I think the best way to communicate this is by analogy. Everyone has had the experience of looking through a window and suddenly catching sight of his own reflection staring back at him from the glass. At that point, he can use the glass as a window, to see the world outside, or as a mirror, but he can’t do both at the same time.

    Sometimes your reflection in the glass is pretty subtle, and you could easily stand there for ten minutes, looking outside while staring right through the image of your own face without seeing it.

    For the purposes of this analogy, imagine that the goal of meditation is to see your own reflection clearly in each moment. Most spiritual traditions don’t realize that this can be done directly, and they articulate their paths of practice in ways that suggest that if you only paid more attention to everything beyond the glass—trees, sky, traffic—eventually your face would come into view. Looking out the window is arguably better than closing your eyes or leaving the room entirely—at least you are facing in the right direction—but the practice is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. You don’t realize that you are looking through the very thing you are trying to find in every moment. Given better information, you could just walk up to the window and see your face in the first instant.

    The same is true for the illusoriness of the self. Consciousness is already free of the feeling that we call “I.” However, a person must change his plane of focus to realize this. Some practices can facilitate this shift in awareness, but there is no truly gradual path that leads there. Many longtime meditators seem completely unaware that these two planes of focus exist, and they spend their lives looking out the window, as it were. I used to be one of them. I’d stay on retreat for a few weeks or months at a time, being mindful of the breath and other sense objects, thinking that if I just got closer to the raw data of experience, a breakthrough would occur. Occasionally, a breakthrough did occur: In a moment of seeing, for instance, there would be pure seeing, and consciousness would appear momentarily free of any feeling to which the notion of a “self” could be attached. But then the experience would fade, and I couldn’t get back there at will. There was nothing to do but return to meditating dualistically on contents of consciousness, with self-transcendence as a distant goal.

    However, from the non-dual side, ordinary consciousness—the very awareness that you and I are experiencing in this conversation—is already free of self. And this can be pointed out directly, and recognized again and again, as one’s only form of practice. So gradual approaches are, almost by definition, misleading. And yet this is where everyone starts.

    In criticizing this kind of practice, someone like Eckhart Tolle is echoing the non-dualistic teachings one finds in traditions such as Advaita Vedanta, Zen (sometimes), and Dzogchen. Many of these teachings can sound paradoxical: You can’t get there from here. The self that you think you are isn’t going to meditate itself into a new condition. This is true, but as Sharon says, it’s not always useful. The path is too steep.

    Of course, this non-dual teaching, too, can be misleading—because even after one recognizes the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness, one still has to practice that recognition. So there is a point to meditation after all—but it isn’t a goal-oriented one. In each moment of real meditation, the self is already transcended.

  2. Enlightenment = Self-knowledge.
    No experience can ever gain one Self-knowledge.
    Meditation can never gain one Self-knowledge.

    The only way to gain Self-knowledge is by removing Self-ignorance. And this is done by listening to explanations from a qualified teacher and asking questions to remove all doubts. It is a gradual process, even though the final realization may come suddenly, following the removal of some specific problematic misunderstanding.

    Sam Harris does not understand the teaching of Advaita and any of his views should be treated with skepticism at least. Please see my review of his book ‘Waking Up’ at http://indiafacts.org/sam-harris-waking-guide-spirituality-without-religion-critique/.

    • Superb, spirited review, naturally I have to defer to your knowledge of the facts of advaita. Needless to say, I do not agree with some of the parts that I CAN understand and will comment when I am able to.

      As I have remarked before there is a mystical dimension to this whole business that is incommunicable, most definitely ineffable. (I don’t know about “transmission” by touch etc, and cannot dismiss it out of hand..I know I am implying that means “it” is an “experience” and that is one more point of difference.)

      Anyway, you write very well especially when provoked by the likes of Sam Harris !


    • Hi Dennis,

      I read “Waking Up” by Harris a year or two ago, Like you I found it to be well written and moderately interesting, although obviously lacking in any real understanding of Advaita. Just read your critique of the book this morning and enjoyed it. Would you recommend the Chidambaram book that you reference in your review? Worth reading?


  3. Hi Dennis

    I would agree with much of what you wrote in your review about self-knowledge not being about gaining some experience.

    My main quibble with your article is equating Ramana Maharshi with Poonja’s satsang teachings, and with the neo-adviata fad of ‘being here now’ stemming from Ramana. Sorry this is wrong. Ramana never taught along these lines. His main teaching was consistent with advaita, with an emphasis on atma vichara. Interestingly, his teaching of atma vichara is very consistent with that of SSSS (set out below).

    In addition, I would concur with Shishya that there is an indescribable element to self knowledge, which hinges on the fact that that which is seeking self-knowledge is the ego, which is as much mithya as everything else. And in your schema, the self-knowledge that is arrived at, is still that of the ego / mind. As you write:

    “The only way to gain Self-knowledge is by removing Self-ignorance. And this is done by listening to explanations from a qualified teacher and asking questions to remove all doubts”

    However, there seems to be something beyond purely intellectual understanding, yet which is not one of experience (since that would necessarily be dualistic and of the ego). If you read SSSS’ Adhyatma Yoga. he writes:

    “At last, the aspirant should objectify his ‘I’-Iense or ego taking a stand in the true nature of his own Self, that is, the Witness of the ‘I’-sense. To objectify the ‘I’-sense the only method is through discrimination, and with deep concentration, when one says there is ‘I’-sense, then automatically he takes his stand in his true nature of the Self, who is the Witness of the ego or ‘I’-sense. There is no need of any effort to take a stand in the true nature of the Self, because that is one’s own nature of Being and always he is That. Due to his wrong identification with not-selves like the ego etc., one misconceives that ‘1 am so and so’. By adopting this process of discrimination with a concentrated mind according to this ‘ Adhyatma Yoga’, as described here, one ceases his identification with the ego and all the rest . . .

    “Through the practice of this’ Adhyatma Yoga’ at last one cognises that my true nature of Being is beyond the ‘1’sense or ego. When one cognises this Truth, then he remains unto himself as of the nature of the Witness of the ego. Hence ‘to know the Self is to be the Self and to be the Self is to cease the identification with the not-self’. This utterance of Sri Ramanamaharshi is to be remembered by the Sadhaka of Adhyatma Yoga. Here the Sadhaka has traversed inwards, as it were, with a concentrated mind, followed by discrimination, and has arrived at the brink of all duality and at the very core of life. And he himself has remained as the Witness of the ego or as the Pure Self . . .

    “An aspirant should practise this Adhyatma Yoga till he gets established naturally in the awareness of the Self without any effort. This is called in Vedanta as Jnana Nishtha and to get this Jnana Nishtha this Adhyatma Yoga is a direct means.

    “In the Gita 2-53 the word ‘Samadhi’ means the Self. The mind or the intellect gets completely still when one cognises the true nature of the Self by discrimination. Hence the Self is called as Samadhi. Dhi means the Self. Except cognising the real nature of the Self there is no equipoise of the mind.”

    If you have ever read Ramana’s Nan Yar, his description of atma vichara is wholly consonant with what SSSS writes above as the path to liberation.

    With best wishes

  4. Hi Venkat,

    I don’t think I was equating Ramana’s teaching with that of Poonja. Rather I was pointing out that Poonja claimed that Ramana was his guru, and therefore might be expected to be providing similar guidance in his satsangs. Indeed, I thought I was indicating that a large number of modern satsang teachers claim that Ramana was their guru and thereby mislead seekers into taking what they say as ‘authentic’.

    I appreciate what you are saying about ineffability and implying that ‘true’ enlightenment is somehow beyond the mind. BUT, I would say that only absolute Consciousness is satyam and all else is mithyA. This means that, like it or not, the ‘witness’ is also mithyA and has to be mind-related and therefore only a ‘reflection’ of Consciousness.

    If you practise meditation properly for a long time (1/2 hour, twice per day, for several years), you are eventually able to reach complete stillness quite frequently. In this state, you can observe any thoughts arising in the mind as well as events outside the body and remain completey detached, as though you were another observer. I suggest that this is what is meant by the ‘witness’. But it is still an aspect of mind, merely a very ‘advanced’ one, having achieved viveka and vairAgya, shama, dama and samAdhAna. I.e. it is a product of sAdhana chatuShtAya sampatti and indicates a readiness for taking on board Self-knowledge. I.e. it is PRIOR to, not POST, the ‘intellectual’ realization. (Obviously it could be post, but this would only be an experience and nothing to do with enlightenment per se.)

    As I have indicated before, any explanation for what happens to bring a jIva to realization of the truth is fine if it works. You cannot say that one explanation is true and another false. All explanations are mithyA. Nor can you say that, post ‘real’ enlightenment, a jIva is somehow ‘established in brahman’ (or however you want to phrase this). Both prior to, and after, enlightenment (however defined), the jIva IS brahman, whether this is known or not. The key thing that matters to the jIva is that it is known by the mind.

    Best wishes,

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