Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press:
And always will be, some of them especially
When there is distress of nations and perplexity
Whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgware Road. (T. S. Eliot. Four Quartets, 3.5)
If you are reading this magazine*, I suggest that there is a high probability that you are not happy! It is an undeniable fact that the majority of people today are dissatisfied with what they perceive as being a mediocre existence. They may feel that they are limited by an unattractive and illness-prone body or by a mind that is imperfectly educated and unable to make intellectual leaps of understanding. There are very many things that we want – objects, partners, lifestyle, jobs etc – but few that we seem to be able to obtain. (And, even when we do obtain them, their rewards are invariably ephemeral.) Western society relies upon the media advertising all of these things, and thereby continually reinforcing the desires. Being repeatedly frustrated by this materialistic lifestyle, it should be hardly surprising that many turn towards the spiritual in the hope that this might bring about peace and a durable happiness.
The problem is that all ‘paths’ and ‘systems’ can only promise you a future happiness, so that we need to have some sort of reassurance that the commitment of our time and effort will prove worthwhile. Unfortunately, the majority of the ‘new age’ techniques bring with them no reassurance at all. Frequently, these systems are quite contrary to reason and often rely upon putting one’s belief into something that is totally unbelievable. Cynically, one might think that the only reason that there are several books upon a particular topic is that the later authors realised after the first book that there was money to be made out of a gullible public.
A ‘spiritual seeker’ might be defined as the person who has realised that the attaining of ‘things’ does not, in fact, bring about lasting happiness. All it does is trigger the beginning of the next desire. This is what leads people to seek the magical, the fantastical that will shatter our mundane existence once and for all. Whether this be foretelling our future through tea leaves or crystals, or communicating with aliens or angels hardly matters; our minds make the leap from the worldly to the unknowable, other world where we are promised something that will truly satisfy.
But of course it doesn’t, because such worlds are not only unknowable but also imaginary. The fact that this cannot be proven to be so allows such ideas to exist but makes no difference to the outcome. Desiring the illusory is ultimately no more satisfying than obtaining the desirable.
We need to think about what it is that we really want and then refine our desires; evolving from wanting mere gross objects to the desire to discover our own nature and that of reality itself. It is discovered that our desires develop from the gross to the more refined. There is a natural and a necessary progression involved here. We begin with wanting simply things in the outside world (of course these may be people or situations etc). Then we realise that it is not the things themselves that we want but the happiness that we believe they will bring. The objects are many but the happiness is actually only one. Moreover, there usually comes a time when the object ceases to give happiness and you want to get rid of it!
The next step follows logically from the previous. The fact that things do not always give happiness means that the happiness is not actually in the object but in our self. It is never anywhere else! And it is this fact that deserves serious investigation. The suggestion is that happiness is our natural state and that this is revealed whenever a desire is removed (e.g. when we obtain something that we want and the desire for it goes away). Clearly, since we do not experience happiness all the time, this natural state must somehow be covered over. So the next startling realisation is that nothing I can do could ever obtain happiness for me (since I cannot choose whether or not to have desires). Indeed, it seems that most of the things that I do bring unhappiness! Instead, what has to happen is that I must come to know this natural state, i.e. my true self. This true self is not something to be obtained but something I have to know. Accordingly, the penultimate refinement of my desires is from wanting to find my Self to wanting Self-knowledge.
And thus we come to Advaita. Advaita is a proven teaching methodology to give me knowledge of my Self. The knowledge is contained in the scriptures called the Upanishads, which were written down thousands of years ago, having previously been passed down by word of mouth from the ancient rishis. Since they were necessarily in fairly dense form, and written in Sanskrit, they need to be interpreted and explained by someone who both knows the Self and is familiar with the techniques, stories and metaphors used to unfold these scriptures. These techniques have themselves been passed down from guru to disciple in a structured manner. Accordingly, the last refinement is from wanting knowledge, to wanting to hear these scriptures explained by a qualified teacher.
…But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint… (T. S. Eliot. Four Quartets, 3.5)
So, what does Advaita actually say? Very briefly, we presently experience ourselves as separate persons in a universe of objects. Despite this seeming duality, according to Advaita, reality is actually non-dual. This non-dual reality is called Brahman. As a matter of fact we do feel ourselves to be other than our body or mind. Advaita calls our essential self, which is beyond body and mind, the Atman. And the fundamental message of the Upanishads is that this Atman is Brahman.
There is an oft-quoted sentence which is said to summarize Advaita. This is:
brahma satyam, jaganmithya, jivo brahmaiva naparah (this is the Romanized equivalent of that Sanskrit sentence.) Translated, it means: “Brahman is the reality; the world is not in itself real; the individual self is not different from Brahman.” And the purpose of the teaching is simply to bring about this realization.
Unlike religions and most other spiritual systems, you are not asked to set aside reason and accept the unprovable as truth. On the contrary, you are encouraged to question everything until all doubts are satisfied. The only ‘practices’ you are expected to follow are those which promote self-control of mind and senses so that discrimination may operate in a still mind. Thereafter, it is simply a matter of listening or reading, clarifying confusion and reflecting until there is ‘enlightenment’.
For further reading on the subject:
. Short book for complete beginners – ‘Advaita Made Easy’ (2012)
. For those who already know a little – ‘The Book of One’ (2003), extensively revised in 2010
. The advanced, encyclopedic book – ‘Back to the Truth‘ (2007)
. Why traditional teaching is best – ‘Enlightenment: the Path through the Jungle‘ (2008).