Q. 433 Seeking ‘nondual experiences’

Q: For the better part of four decades, I was on the hunt for spiritual experiences that would ‘expand my consciousness.’ I now realize and understand that only Self-Knowledge can provide lasting peace, and any experience is something that comes and goes in time and therefore can never be a permanent condition. However, I still find it very difficult to drop the search for a Big Bang event, after which I can safely say: “Ok, now I am enlightened for sure.”

What is confusing about this is that there are so many teachers who seem to have a pretty clear grasp of nondual teaching and still speak in terms of what happened during their awakening or enlightenment event. Francis Lucille, for example, talks about his experience in Eternity Now. (“For a few moments, the pure I-thought seemed to vacillate, just as the flame of an oil lamp running out of fuel, then vanished. At that precise moment, the immortal background of Presence revealed itself in all its splendor.”) Franklin Merrell-Wolff provides an amazingly clear description of the ‘Recognition’ events that happened to him after studying Shankara. Ken Wilber talks of having been consciously aware for 11 straight days, even through deep sleep, etc. Clearly, Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj both went through Big Bang type spiritual awakenings, and of course, there are numerous other similar reports by various sages and gurus.

Recently, I came across a work by Michael Langford, titled, ‘The Most Rapid and Direct Means to Eternal Bliss’, in which he recommends a specific meditation technique. After 27 years of various Yoga and spiritual practices which proved fruitless, he discovered the method of ‘awareness watching awareness’, and promptly woke up and obtained the result he was after. The method basically consists in sitting quietly for a couple of hours a day, with awareness watching awareness, as the most direct means of finding the I-sense and abiding within it. He says that over time, there is an opening and deepening of bliss that takes place, etc. We also have the talk by Maharaj of “sitting with the I AM” for three years, and “then I realized.”

I guess my question is twofold: are any of these methods of self-inquiry via sitting in meditation worth pursuing, or am I still fooling myself in looking for the Big Bang? And if so, how do I drop this lust for a major transformative event?

A: The impossibility of a non-dual ‘experience’ and the distinction between knowledge and experience in advaita have already been discussed in other question & answers (See 78, 151 230 and 309 for example) . But it is such a common misunderstanding that it bears repetition:

It is not the case that one gains ‘intellectual understanding’ and then has to go on and gain anubhava – the ‘experience’ of something that will provide the actual ‘enlightenment’. If you understand and fully accept the tenets of advaita – if you have heard the teaching (shravaNa) and had all of your doubts removed through asking question, further reading etc (manana) – then that is it. It may take longer to ‘internalise’ all of that (nididhyAsana) and for it to become the background to your entire outlook on life, but there is nothing more to be done.

What more could there be to do? You are brahman because you always have been brahman. It was just that you did not appreciate it. You were ‘experiencing it’ all of the time without realizing it. Once the ignorance has been removed, you know it. Where could there be a question of experiencing something else? There is nothing else!

In my experience, meditation is useful. But its value is in conditioning the mind, since it is in the mind where enlightenment takes place. But unless the knowledge is there, stimulated by the appropriate input, nothing will happen. I.e. meditation cannot be a means to enlightenment on its own. If the truth has already been heard and considered then maybe the stillness of mind brought about by meditation will allow the ‘event’ to occur. But the meditation is only providing more conducive conditions. In the case of Michael Langford, assuming he is enlightened, this may just have had something to do with the assimilated knowledge over the previous 27 years!

My own experience and belief is that there need not be any ‘event’. It may simply be realized one day that there are no more questions and no more doubt. Further reading, discussion, etc. may help consolidate this and help answer others’ questions but it does not ‘add’ to the truth, which is already known. In what, in any case, could a ‘transformation’ consist? Who would be transforming into what?

7 thoughts on “Q. 433 Seeking ‘nondual experiences’

  1. I for a time collected “big bang” enlightenment stories from all of the various teachers and gurus out there; not specific to Advaita, by the way. For example, Christian mysticism is immersed in the idea of a living Christ engaged in annihilating the personal self. Indeed, all mystical practice has at its core a goal of annihilation of the egoic self, though all too often seekers are instead pursuing the elevation of the egoic self by seeking these experiences.

    I considered it a major breakthrough when I saw through that, or should I say, realized that a peak experience can be transformative, but has nothing at all to do with understanding your true nature. Perhaps it breaks the egg shell of one’s investment in egoic self and experience; thus for some, very useful as a tool.

    If nonduality is true, then anything that can be described in terms of an “experiencer” “experiencing” an “experience” is by definition not important. All experience is irrelevant to the understanding. All understanding is also irrelevant as it requires an understander understanding. Noone can know anything about nonduality as, if nonduality is true, there is noone to know anything.

    True enlightenment is simply silent surrender to the indescribable mystery of alive-ness.

    For the “big bang” breakthroughs, we know how the human brain is giving people these experiences and we know that anyone can have them. You can wrap them in religion or you can wrap them in the cloak of “special being” status, but at the end of the day, frankly, a surgeon can open your skull and with a probe trigger this explosion of “enlightenment” with a probe. It is nothing of importance except, as I said, perhaps as a good way to defeat the ego’s investment in itself.

    I heartily recommend the works of James Austin, MD, a Zen practitioner and MIT scientist. He writes about the science of our neurobiology, the psychology and physiology of experience and his own history as a lifelong Zen devotee. “Selfless Insight” is the most accessible for non-scientists and is really a wonderful way to understand how we humans operate.

  2. Enlightenment means ‘Self-knowledge’. It is nothing to do with ‘defeating the ego’ or simply being alive. It is, quite specifically, the removal of the ignorance that we have about the nature of ourselves and the world, and the realization that all is non-dual Consciousness. The surgeon’s probe may well give us a spectacular experience but it is never going to do give us Self-knowledge.

    Also, there is no intended implication that we subsequently ‘know’ reality. As you say, “there is noone to know anything”. Nor is understanding how humans operate going to help. Science, of any persuasion, can tell us all about the mithyA world but nothing about the satyam reality.

  3. Dear Dennis

    You wrote:
    “Enlightenment means ‘Self-knowledge’. It is nothing to do with ‘defeating the ego’”.

    I’m not sure that is right. In Naiskarmya Siddhi, Suresvara writes:

    2.30 When the ego sense ceases, the sense of possession too departs; for the ego-sense is its only cause. Can thee be the appearance of a false snake only when it is dark?

    2.32 If the ego-sense were really a property of the Self it would continue after liberation and in deep sleep. Since it does not do so, we can conclude that it is a property of something else.

    3.43 It is true that it is through the ego-notion that the seeker of liberation comes to know the Absolute in the form “I am Absolute”. But it is through dissolving itself (to make way for the Supreme Reality) that the ego notion serves as an instrument in this matter.

  4. Hi Venkat,

    The ego is an aspect of the mind. The mind is mithyA so also the ego must be. The mind is resolved in deep sleep, hence the absence of ego. It must continue, albeit in an attenuated form, after ‘liberation’. Without it, how could the sage even respond when called by name? (I put the word liberation in quotation marks because, of course, we are already free in reality.)

    The sense of possession is lost on gaining Self-knowledge because we know that there are no things or persons in reality. Since reality is non-dual, who would own what?

    The Self is attributeless and actionless so has no properties. It cannot (and there is no need for it to) ‘dissolve itself’. The reality is always the supreme reality and cannot be otherwise.

    Best wishes,

  5. Hi Dennis,

    I had a deja vu experience while reading this post, then realized it was a question I had asked you more than five years ago! As you noted elsewhere, wait long enough and eventually one can answer one’s own questions. 🙂

    The mother lode for “Big Bang” type spiritual epiphanies is the book, “Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind,” published at the turn of the 20th century by Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke. The author theorizes three types of consciousness: Simple Consciousness, possessed by most animals; Self Consciousness, possessed only by human beings (along with Simple Consciousness); and Cosmic Consciousness, a “new” type of consciousness experienced only by a few individuals like Buddha, Jesus, or Mohammed. Bucke’s definition requires a “sudden” illumination event, and his book reviews dozens of representative cases, many of which meet his standard for a person who has achieved this exalted state, and many of which only rise partially to that level.

    My view nowadays is that all of this is part and parcel of the “experiential view of enlightenment” that has been discussed and debated extensively here at AV. It is a very misleading approach that actually “doubles down” on the sense of doership that is already the prime cause of my suffering — I must “do something” to achieve a new state of consciousness, and once that new state of consciousness has been made permanent (through practice and repetition), then I will be fully enlightened. In other words, I must ADD something to what I already am in order to become enlightened, or “Cosmic” to use Bucke’s terminology. In reality, Shankara made it clear that it is only necessary to SUBTRACT the ignorance preventing me from seeing I am already That.

    Therefore waiting for a Big Bang spiritual event is a fool’s errand at best. Any spiritual event or epiphany is mithyA, nothing more than a part of the movie superimposed on the screen that is Self, Brahman, Consciousness. Such events do not confirm Self-Knowledge. One may or may not experience such epiphanies depending on the karma one brings to the process of inquiry. For some, there may indeed be a major transforming experience that deepens the passion and commitment to Self-Inquiry. For others there may be no such major event, only a gentle, quiet, and continual awareness that only Consciousness is Real and all else merely gossamer and dream-like.

    Best Regards,

  6. Very well expressed, Charles – thank you! I hadn’t realized it was your question. I am in the process of assembling the best into a book, separated into sections with introductions and summaries. And I am so committed to maintaining anonymity that I do not know myself who asked what without searching back through archived emails.

    Best wishes,

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