Today we bundle everything that is considered spiritual under the term New Age. There are even people, who consider psychotherapy as spiritual and again others who would call their traditional religious practices spiritual. Thus „spirituality“ is a broad field. Advaita Vedanta provides a very specific definition for spirituality that sets limits to this broad field. In Advaita Vedanta someone is considered spiritual only, if he/she wants to realize truth – the key to truth being realizing my true nature, who or what I am – as distinct from body and mind. Everything else may lead to spirituality, but will not provide the realization, that I long for.
All humans are seekers, all humans want to grow beyond themselves. Some want to multiply their possessions because they assume that thereby their limits extend. Others want to increase their quality of life because it helps them over the inevitable limits of human existence. Again others believe that such outer changes won’t be effective as long as one does not have a psyche that is able to enjoy possession as well as quality of life. These start to work at the psychological level to thereby grow beyond themselves. Others aim to extend their limits by exploring subtle phenomena and experimenting with them.
Any of the above approaches will ensure that one’s own limits are stretched – but not limitlessly. That is quite clear if one considers the increase of possessions or the improvement of the quality of life. It is less clear with the work on one’s psychology and even less so with the exploration of subtle worlds. The idea that one day I will have overcome all my psychological deficits is persistent – yet, after some time everyone will confirm that probably something will always remain to be done. So even a genuine therapy addict has the opportunity to realize at some point that the limitless cannot be attained through therapy.
Enquiry into subtle phenomena holds out the biggest hope for limitlessness. Worlds that seem to be infinite and seem to open up possibilities far beyond human limitations present themselves. But the reason they do not allow us to outgrow ourselves, is because we continue to encounter the limits of the gross world again and again. Every high has an end, no esoteric practice solves all my problems, and even angels, saints and gods do not save me from all of life’s inconveniences.
But hope dies last and most humans relentlessly stick to their pursuit – at whatever the level. Few are ready to face the sobering fact that these kinds of pursuits have not led them to their goal. True, again and again they manage to extend their limits, but the limitlessness that they actually long for continues to out to elude them.
However, why do humans look for the infinite? Advaita Vedanta says: Because limitlessness is our true nature – therefore no human will ever content himself with the limited.
Striving for freer a state with less boundaries, one probably will attain a freer state – either by wealth, pleasure, psychological break-throughs or by elevating esoteric experiences. But no matter how many of those are accumulated, they will never add up to that limitlessness, which is our true nature. They will remain states that come and go. That, which man truly is, does not come, does not go – he/she has always been that and will always continue to be it because that’s what he/she is.
Whatever a person can experience remains limited in space and time. Thus, everything encountered while seeking – whether by external or internal experiences, or by meditation or other spiritual methods – one thing is certain: It cannot be one’s true nature. Because one’s true nature is beyond time and space, it is limitlessness and eternal. One cannot bring it about, because it already exists and has always existed. Experiences and states may reflect one’s true nature but a mirror image never transforms into that which it reflects. One needs to turn away from the reflection and turn toward that which is reflected.
The path of advaita vedanta is a path of sorting out: I have to bury everything that cannot get me to where I want to get. The methods mentioned above, for example, will not get me there.
What will get me there then?
The seeker of truth, who devotes himself to non-duality, proceeds on the assumption that its statements are true, even if he himself cannot recognize them. (…) On the other hand it generates confusion, because he feels split between what he experiences everyday and what he intuits, hears or reads.
There is a simple solution for such situations in advaita Vedanta. All the statements that are considered to be true even though they do not conform to one’s own experience, become working hypotheses. (1)
If I assume that my true nature is limitless and eternal – even though this is not yet my experience – the next useful step seems to be to examine more specifically what I usually regard as my true nature.
The western world is a world particularly oriented towards the material. Our status in society is determined by outer appearances. I am supposed to be fit, healthy and attractive, attributes I particularly own if I am young and beautiful. That is how I start to develop a self-identity based on my physical existence. But do I believe that I am my body? Not, if I assume that I am actually limitless and eternal, because the body is neither. In Advaita Vedanta the body is considered to be pure gross matter, appearing alive only by the presence of something other than it. Thinking about it, most people would assume that they are that other thing instead of being just matter.,
However, what is this other thing? Many believe it to be the soul, but everyone has a different idea of the soul and few have a clear conception of it. When I was a child I believed my soul to be something like a small white ghost living somewhere inside my body which would leave the body after my death and (hopefully) attain heaven. Most people consider the soul as the individual part in humans, which can bridge the gap to the greater whole or to God.
The little ghost of my childhood imagination corresponds to the subtle body of Advaita Vedanta. Likewise the individual part of man that can bridge the gap to the larger whole refers to the subtle body, namely one of the four functions of the mind.
What many people consider to be the soul, advaita vedanta considers to be nothing but a function of the mind. This function can enable us to see beyond our gross and subtle existence. This is the function that we draw on on the path of Vedanta: it is sharpened and highly valued. Reading and reflecting on texts such as those on this site challenges, stimulates and enhances this function. It is called buddhi. (2)
It is buddhi that poses the question “Who am I?” With regard to the subtle body it asks: “Am I my energy, am I my action, am I my senses, am I my thinking, my feeling, my intuition, my projections, my memories, my identifications?“ Measured against the standard of limitlessness and eternity I am not those either because these phenomena are limited in time and space.
The next question is: Am I this one function that enables me to look beyond gross and subtle existence and recognize my true nature, the infinite and eternal? Am I the buddhi? Logically, no – because even this function is merely a function, which is sometimes, more or less, at my disposal. That means it is limited in time and space. Thus I am not the buddhi either or if you prefer, the soul. The soul can perhaps be the bridge to the ultimate, but that means that in itself it is not the ultimate.
There must be something else – neither gross nor subtle.
But how can one find it?
So far we have considered what one can perceive: objects. I can perceive the world around me, I can perceive my body, I can perceive my thoughts and feelings; such phenomena are objectifiable by me. But what is it that perceives them? If there are objects, there must be a subject somewhere. Advaita vedanta is the search for the ultimate subject, the search for the only ’thing’ that I cannot objectify.
In Vedanta this ultimate subject is referred to by many names, the most tangible of those being sakshi, the witness. Even that is a little too tangible for our mind, as we tend to degrade it into a part of our self-identity – in other words we turn it into part of the mind or into a function of our subtle body („the part of me that perceives all“.) This way the subject again becomes an object and is no longer what we originally found.
If we do not do that though, we will find that the witness eludes us, we cannot grasp it, we cannot hold onto it. Why is that? It has to be like that. If we do not turn it into an object, we have no choice but see that it is the subject – and that can mean only one thing: that we ourselves are the witness.
The knower is contrary to all that is known including the body and the mind. While the known are many, limited, changeful, and non-conscious, the knower is one, unlimited, changeless, and self-aware.
Swami Prakashananda (disciple of Swami Chinmayananda)
 To prevent misunderstandings: buddhi is not to be translated as ‚soul“. Basically in advaita vedanta there is nothing we can call ‚soul“. I just meant to point out that that which bridges the gap between what the seekers considers himself to be and the truth of his being, in advaita vedanta is called buddhi, which is part of the mind.
Photo credits “Reflections” Foto © Dance-it. Anne Hellum
Photo credits “Little ghost” to Renate Kalloch_pixelio.de