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Vedanta and the Meaning of Experience
Keith: Would you be willing to answer that earlier question, perhaps under the umbrella “The simple act of lifting (a heavy object) according to Vedanta”?
Ram: Vedanta is a means of self-knowledge. It is not a philosophy or a school of spiritual thought. So Vedanta deals with meaning, specifically the one to whom experience occurs and the one who interprets experience. Vedanta says that any experience has no meaning without inquiring into who is having the experience. In the statement above three factors are stated or implied. The stated factors are a heavy object and the act of lifting. The implied factor is the lifter. We will assume that the lifter is the human body, powered by the mind. But it might just as well be a freight elevator.
The act of lifting has no meaning to the heavy object, unless that heavy object is a conscious being, like a fat person or an elephant. If the heavy object is a conscious being, then we would have to inquire into how the object saw the act of being lifted. Assuming that the heavy object is insentient, we cannot make any statement about the act of lifting from its point of view.
Nor can we make any statement about the act of lifting itself, because lifting is simply an impersonal karmic process devoid of consciousness. But assuming we are not talking about an elevator, the act of lifting can have meaning to a conscious being. We can eliminate animals, elephants, for example, since we have no way to know how the elephant feels about lifting a heavy tree in a tropical rainforest.
If a human being, which is just an animal plus an intellect, lifts a heavy object we can interview the human being and learn his or her opinion. “It was fun,” one might say. “It was awful,” a skinny groom said about lifting his obese bride across the threshold, “I’ll never do it again.”
The answer that we get from human beings would not be truth, however, since many human beings interpret the act of lifting (or any other event) in many ways according to their past experience. We would get many personal truths but we would not get truth, a hard and fast statement that applied to every act of lifting every time.
When you asked, “Is it possible for you, Ram, to lift a very heavy object while there is awareness of this action?” I replied, “Yes, but not in the way you think. I am awareness, not the lifter. If there is a lifter, it is me, but I am not the lifter. There is in fact no lifter, no lifting and no lifted from my point of view.”
My reply, which perhaps seems a bit crazy, points to the third factor in any experience, the self. You assumed that you were speaking to a human being and perhaps you wanted to know how the I that you thought I was sees the act of lifting a heavy object. But I replied that I am not a human being, that I am the awareness in which the lifter, the lifted and the lifting occurred. And then I went on to dismiss the question, since the act of lifting and any possible interpretation of it by a human being, the lifter, would have no lasting reality to me. I could report the various physical and emotional sensations that appeared in me, awareness, when the body lifted the object and I could also report any interpretation of the sensations by the intellect, like the thought, “Whew! This is heavy,” or in the case of your intellect, “The lifter, the lifting and the lifted merge into the movement simply lifting.”
Vedanta would not quarrel with either your statement or mine. In fact your statement is much more interesting from a spiritual point of view than mine, since this is uncommon. Your statement is a statement of a mystical experience. This interpretation is born out in another of your statements: “Or when I dance. At some point, the dancer, dancing and the dance morph into simply dancing. What ensues is bliss and presence and the act of dancing remains without a me. No one is doing anything, and still the dancing happens, somewhat impersonally.”
To report this experience, which includes the subtle events of presence and bliss, you would have to be someone other than the lifter, since the lifter has disappeared into simply lifting.
This is fine as far as it goes, but Vedanta would ask two further questions: (1) Who is there to see this merger happen? and (2) What does this merger, which results in presence and bliss, mean?
I think the intent behind your asking me about this experience is to resolve some doubt you have about it. It is an unusual experience from the normal point of view, since most people who lift heavy objects or dance do not report that these activities produce epiphanies – probably because they are not wholly engaged. But yours is actually a universal experience and happens during almost any activity when the mind is fully engaged in the activity. What is unusual is the degree of clarity in reporting the experience.
The clarity is there because the self is actually recording the experience, although in your case you take the self to be a person called Keith.
If you knew that you were the self you would not have been interested in explaining the experience. You would not have looked for meaning in it, because you would know even before the experience occurred that you are the meaning of every experience. By this Vedanta means that without you, awareness, no experience can take place. Without you, nothing can be known. You are the essence, that which gives meaning to everything, but nothing gives meaning to you. Human beings are the self deluded by the belief that what they experience and how the intellect interprets experience somehow validates or invalidates them.
My reply was how the self would see this experience. It would not have any meaning to the self, because the self is a limitless, impersonal vision, uncontaminated by interpretation and meaning. Everything experienced is meaningful because of the self, but it is not meaningful to the self.
I hope this is helpful to you. Let me just say, for whatever it is worth, I think that questing for meaning through the interpretation of experience, no matter how transcendent or mystical, no matter how much presence or bliss is produced, is not the way to go – if you want enlightenment.
Of course it is through our epiphanies that we are moved to seek enlightenment, but enlightenment is not experiential, contrary to Yogic teachings, unless it is the experience of understanding. Experience we have plenty of. It goes on eternally. In a non-dual reality, which this is, experience is the self. But the self is not experience. And enlightenment is just the hard and fast understanding (jnanam) that “I am the self; I am everything that is; I am actionless, limitless awareness.” You cannot experientially gain the experience of this. You already have it. That you do not appreciate it is due to the fact that you are trying to understand it through ideas that do not serve to elucidate it.
This is where Vedanta comes in. It is a means of knowledge that removes the ideas that stand in the way of appreciating yourself as you actually are. You cannot apply this means to yourself, at least not in the beginning. You need to have it worked on you in a skillful way by the self in the form of a guru.
~ Om and prem, Ram