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States of Mystical Awareness
Barbara: Dear Ramji, here’s something I would ask you to kindly clarify for me in your inimitable style.
“The Vedic hymns repeatedly proclaim a unity that lies beyond all categories of opposition, such as being and non-being, death and immortality, knowledge and ignorance. This radical oneness is inexplicable, and by implication, can only be seen in an elevated state of mystical awareness. The differentiated aspects of this oneness are our everyday distinct categories – from trees to people to the star-studded sky.”
When he says seen “in an elevated state of mystical awareness,” how would you say this “seeing” differs from knowledge of the oneness, or self-knowledge?
Ram: If this statement is an example of yogic language talking about self-knowledge, there is no difference. But if it is referring to a special kind of vision belonging to particular individuals (mystics) or the mind when it is in a certain state there is a difference.
But before we try to determine the meaning of this statement it contains several words that need to be understood, the first being the idea that this unity is inexplicable. If this unity is the self, which I think this statement refers to and is the basis of my argument, it is not inexplicable. As you are well aware, Vedantic literature (the Upanishads, Brahma Sutras, Gita, Shankara) is full of precise descriptions of the self – descriptions meant to aid self-inquiry. Chaitanyam, awareness, for example, is one word that accurately describes the self.
This statement presupposes, I believe, the idea that only tangible things can be revealed through words. But we know that many words, love, for instance, indicate intangible realities that are universally known and experienced.
Be that as it may, do words accurately describe the things in this world we think they describe? No, because all objects that ideas and words refer to are neither completely real nor completely unreal, they are impossible to accurately describe. For example, when you say “tree,” what are you actually referring to? If you do an analysis of a tree, break it down into its constituents, you will find that what you thought the word referred to does not exist as an independent object. Its existence depends on a whole complex of related semi- realities. When you factor in all the other related realities and try to make a statement about them you find that they are in turn dependent on another more subtle level of objects until you suddenly realize that what you were talking about has no independent existence at all – that it is just a name and form superimposed on the screen of awareness – you. So it isn’t real, meaning enduring. True, it is experienceable, but it is not real.
But it isn’t unreal either. You don’t have the proverbial snake without the rope. You do not have objects independent of the subject, the unity, the self. So whatever order of reality the tree enjoys is borrowed from you, the seer, awareness. It enjoys a dependent order of reality. Real (as the self appearing in a form) – but not real (self-shining, independent in its own right).
Secondly, this awareness is not radical either, unless radical means uncomplicated. It is the most simple, common, ordinary thing. It is just awareness, or if you prefer an experiential term, seeing. It is what is. And it is the only thing that will not break down on analysis. So it is the only thing that can be accurately described. Sat, chit, anandam, sakshi, chaitanyam, etc. are words that describe the self. You can analyze anything out of existence – except the analyzer and the words that refer to the analyzer. The analyzer, you, is indestructible awareness. The words can’t be destroyed either, because they are not separate from the self, the I.
Finally, just to be thorough, unity is not a good word to describe the self, because it implies something connecting many different things. The self doesn’t connect separate things, because it is the things it seems to connect. Nonetheless, people who have limited experience/knowledge of the self often think of it as a unifying factor, the glue holding everything together. This is reasonable because although there is no connection there seems to be a connection when one accepts the way the senses present the world – as if it were something other than us.
One problem I have with this statement, however, is the idea that the self can only be perceived in an elevated state of mystical awareness. Is it untrue or true?
It is untrue. How is it untrue? It is untrue by virtue of the fact that if the experience/knowledge of the self is dependent on an elevated state, then the self would not be available in an unelevated state – meaning in our everyday state of consciousness.
But we know that the self is available all the time, “omnipresent” is the word used in scripture. It is there when the mind is elevated, seeing it, and it is there when the mind is unelevated, not seeing it. It is the reason you know that you are not seeing it. For example, you say that sometimes you see it and sometimes you don’t. So I ask, how do you know that you are not seeing it? And you can only answer, “Because I am aware that I am not seeing it.” So I ask, who is aware that you are not seeing it? And you inquire and you understand that the it that you were not seeing is right there as you, as the awareness of the not-seeing.
The problem with the view expressed in this statement is that enlightenment then boils down to a person having his or her mind in an elevated state. But we know from a study of the mind that it is incapable of a permanently elevated state. It is anitya, impermanent, by its very nature. It cycles through the gunas.
But the statement is partially true. It is true because when the mind is predominately sattvic one may, although not necessarily, see the unity, the self. Actually, what is seen is not the unity, the self, but the reflection of the self in the clear lake of the mind – but this is good enough for self-knowledge to arise – and set you free.
The instrument of experience (mystic vision in this case) is the mind. So when the mind is tamasic you cannot experience unity. In the tamasic mode the mind is a huge dark cloud. It absorbs but does not reflect the light of awareness. So there is no bliss and no understanding of the self. The same is true when the mind is rajasic – but for a different reason. In rajas the mind is so active attention is continually distracted by the agitations so that it can’t perceive the self shining behind it. And even if it does get glimpses, as often happens in a rajasic mind and which are just fine in themselves, there is no retention of the knowledge that “I am the self and not this person perceiving it.”
The reason questing for unity doesn’t work is because you already are that unity. Why do you need to experience something that you are already experiencing twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year? How can you get what you already have?
I just received an email from a person who can explain better than I what needs to happen:
Seeker: Dearest Ram, thank you for lifting the lid on my heart and mind.
It (self-realization) felt all so close the last years and now I just understood that I can’t gain what I am. It seems so easy and practical and useful and makes life very much easier. Since August 15th (my ascension day!!!) my mind is clearer than it ever was. I understand koans I was pondering over for eight years with my Zen teacher and laugh about knots in the mind.
Ram: Was this person in an elevated state of mystical awareness? No. There was a sense of euphoria (my ascension day!!!) after the realization, but the experience was simply an understanding of the nature of the self that had been prevented by a belief in enlightenment through karma, practice. In other words, ignorance about the self was removed by the teaching. The person got it . There was nothing mystical about it.
You can’t obtain it through karma, because you are it. You can only attain something through karma that you don’t have. So there is no need to cultivate a particular kind of seeing, because you are already what you want to see. There is nothing mystical (whatever that means) about enlightenment. So this unity that one wants to see is seen by removing one’s ignorance about who one is, an ignorance that is very often kept alive by the experiential/mystical belief in a special kind of perception.
Awareness or mystical awareness is not something that you use to see unity, the self. It is the self. It is you. If this is true, why try to elevate the mind to experience it? What a lot of bother that would be, particularly since the mind is going to have to eventually unexperience it when it inevitably becomes rajasic or tamasic once again. And if this is a non-dual reality, everyone everywhere every minute is experiencing it, in the words of your quotation, as the differentiated aspects of this oneness – in short, the world around. So the way to access the self then is to understand that the world is the self. This can come about during an epiphany (a state of mystical awareness), but it can also come about through reason.
People often tell me that they have realized that they are the self but they haven’t realized that the world is the self. So I give them a teaching that can remove the doubt. Understanding the teaching does not require a state of mystical awareness. It only requires a clear mind and the ability to follow a train of thought. And once the teaching is grasped the notion that the I is not the world disappears.
Do you need a particular kind of yogic or mystical state of mind to understand that everything you are experiencing all the time is you, the self? Not necessarily, although it can’t hurt – if this perception results in the knowledge “I am what I see.” One would want it to result in self-knowledge because that knowledge should be in operation when the mind is not in an elevated state of mystical awareness. Why? To negate the belief that what one was seeing was something other than the self when the mind tries to trick you into seeing duality – which is its tendency. If you think what you are experiencing every day isn’t the self then you will need to invoke a state of mystical awareness to see that it is. You will have to try to meditate or do some practice that puts your mind in an altered state. The problem with this is that states of mystical awareness are not under the control of the conscious mind. They come and go according to unconscious factors – the gunas. So what are you going to be doing while you wait for your mystical state of awareness to return? You are going to be frustrated because you will be dealing with a universe that seems to be separate from you.
Returning to this person’s realization, it is interesting to note, however, that the practice that delivered the goods was not mystical awareness or meditation or another physical practice, like Chöd. It was the practice of inquiry. The person was pondering koans for eight years. Pondering koans means trying to figure it out. This shows that inquiry works. It may take time, but it works. At some point you are ready to hear the truth and when you hear it, it goes in and is automatically assimilated. Finally, the person notes that life is easier when you are free of this notion of being the doer, the enjoyer, the experiencer.
Barbara: It is also said that the greatest jnani (apparently there are degrees of jnani-ism even according to Swami Chinmayananda) abides in this “seeing” state all the time. What does this mean?
Ram: It is true and it is not true. If jnanam is the knowledge “I am limitless, actionlesss awareness” then how can there be degrees of it? You either know that you are it or you don’t. Just as you cannot be a little bit pregnant you cannot know who you are to a certain degree. So from the self’s point of view there are no degrees. There are also no jnanis, if by a jnani you mean an embodied somebody who knows the self. When you know “I am the self” that ends your identity as a knower of the self. You are not left with a knower and an object of knowledge either. They are the same. The I that knows is identical with what it knows.
But it is true that there are degrees of jnanam if you accept the dualistic self-realization view that there is someone who is knowing or experiencing something called the self. Or put another way, that self-experience, as discrete from other experiences, is something worth striving for. There are basically two degrees, although clever gurus who seem more interested in coming across as brilliant mystics than as teachers of the self have broken them up into many stages. It is one of those things you need to do if you are interested in setting up a religion because religion is for doers and you need to keep people busy striving for the next level.
The two stages are “I experience the self” and “I am the self.” In “I experience the self” the experience can vary depending on the nature of the mind – so the knowledge will vary because it is based on experience garnered through a changeable instrument. In the back of Tripura Rahasya you will find a discussion of the different classes of jnanis. It describes them in terms of the purification of the vasanas. And it makes a very strange statement. It says that the best class of jnanis don’t purify their vasanas; they just let the vasanas be as they are.
You would think that the best class would be those who had purified the vasanas and were saints, like Ramana. But no, not according to the text. Why does it say that? Because the jnani who knows “I am actionless awareness” knows that the vasanas, if there are such things, are only the self. So nothing can be done about it. You can purify something that isn’t real, but you can’t purify something that is. This idea addresses the doubts you had about me, I believe. In fact from the self’s point of view (and a jnani is just a synonym for the self) the vasanas have no power to bind.
Barbara: For example, I know all is one, all is in me. I am self-knowledge. Does this make me a lesser jnani (this is in a manner of speaking of course) than the one who “sees” oneness all the time?
Ram: Absolutely not. In fact if your understanding is “I am the self. Period,” then you are at the second level (which is not a level), that is, you are enlightened and not merely self-realized – like the person who sees oneness all the time, assuming that the statement “sees oneness all the time” implies a seer that is different from what it being seen. The statement “sees oneness all the time” is suspect because it seems to not only imply a distinction between the seer and the seen but it puts the idea of knowledge in terms of time; it implies that there are times when one could not see oneness – which is the experiential view – and which is impossible if you know you are the self.
Finally, what would be the advantage to seeing oneness all the time if the one who sees is already one? If I’m one indivisible being then it does not bother me at all to see multiplicity, duality, plurality or any other “ity.” The worry that people have about what happens in the world is pointless because experience does not change the self. If it does, the person is identified with the wrong self, i.e. the mind/ego.
Barbara: For me, “seeing” occurs but very rarely – it comes and goes. But knowledge is firm and unshakeable.
Ram: Seeing as you are using it simply refers to kind of heightened awareness brought on when the mind is exceptionally sattvic. But as you note, this kind of seeing comes and goes. So is it real? Should you strive for it? Should you spend twenty-four hours a day in meditation to produce this kind of mind? I don’t think so. Why? Because this kind of mind is held together by karma and will dissipate when the karmas that create it cease. In other words, you have to be continually doing to maintain it.
There are a few rare people who can produce the state of mystical awareness more or less at will, our mutual acquaintance Ruby, for example. But these people have been cultivating sattva for a very long time, in her case over thirty years – so the sattvic vasana is entrenched. While you were smoking to calm your mind for scores of years – and thus produce a lot of tamas – she was meditating to gain extraordinary inner experiences – producing a lot of sattva. She still meditates today, even though she knows who she is – for pleasure. The other morning I woke up early and felt an interesting vibration in the flat. I peered in her room and saw her sitting in bed surrounded by a pure white halo. But when it is time to go to work she switches off the mystical state and gears up for work. So the statement that we are talking about may be referring to this phenomenon.
But what does the condition of the mind matter because although your minds are quite different, there is no difference between you? She is the self and knows it and you are the self and know it.
The development of a mind capable of states of mystical awareness is not a guarantee that one will attain enlightenment, although it certainly can be helpful. The problem with it, particularly if it evolves outside a teaching tradition, is that one can think that the state of mystical awareness is the ultimate state. Without self-knowledge states of mystical awareness are at best therapeutic and at worst terrible frustrations. Even if you have it, it in no way keeps the vasanas from sprouting and creating a samsaric life. Ruby went through the same kind of hellish life you did before she woke up. But it can be a relief, a haven, to which you return over and over when your life is challenging. The upside is that when you have this kind of mind you will definitely stumble on the self – but you may have no idea what it is.
For example, she came to me last year and said, “You know, Ram, when I go to all these different lokas and planetary systems and have all these mystic experiences, there is always something watching me. What is that?” And I said, “The self.”
When I said it I saw the lights go on. So I taught her about the self. About a month later she came and stood in front of me and said, “I am finished. I am the self.” So in this case, like the European woman, inquiry was going on all along. And when her intellect could connect the idea of the self with something she experienced regularly, the inquiry intensified and after a short while she gained what she already had – the self – through knowledge born of inquiry. So the state of mystical awareness – which is just a fancy term for sattva – was an aid to enlightenment.
Shankara, as you know, says that you need a mind that is capable of seeing the truth, but he does not call it a mystic mind. He just describes the qualities of that type of mind: discrimination, dispassion, clarity of mind, desire for freedom, faith and devotion. So no, a state of mystical awareness is not required for self-realization.
Barbara: Some yogis may say I am deluded, that experience is the truest way of knowing the self. Well, of course, the self is the experience, there is no experience apart from the self. I experience myself eternally. But I don’t know what this “seeing” is.
Ram: Well, these yogis would not be correct. As you say, you experience yourself eternally. What they mean is some kind of mystical experience perhaps and this cannot be discounted, but it is only a secondary means. If it doesn’t lead to the understanding “I am the self” what use is it?
This seeing is identical with knowing from the self’s point of view. Are you the self? For someone who thinks he or she isn’t the self, seeing is a way of speaking about the experience of the reflection of awareness in a sattvic mind, often referred to as “the third eye” and by many other terms: epiphany, satori, insight, etc.
Maybe this will put the nail in the coffin of this debate. The word “see” refers to a particular kind of experience but it is also a symbol of knowledge because when you see something you know it.
Barbara: My knowledge of the self is firm and unshakeable though.
Ram: Please think carefully about this statement. Is your knowledge of the self? By that I mean is there a you that is different from the self? Or is the you that has knowledge of the self the self? Or to formulate it in another way, do you actually mean that your knowledge is “I am the Self”?
Barbara: I’m sure you explain this quite succinctly in your knowledge/experience sections in various places, but please answer it in the light of the above “seeing.”
Ram: It’s true I do explain it elsewhere, but it is important to clear it up as your mind formulates it. Hang in there on this one because this is the last possible doubt you could have. I think you’re about to leave the spiritual world.
Barbara: Thanks a lot.
Ram: As always, my pleasure.