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Is the End of Ignorance the End of “Me”?
Harold: Hi, Sundari. I recently attended the satsang in Berlin with your husband, Jim. It was the first time I attended a satsang. My first exposure to Vedanta was basically through listening to Jim speak at The Buddha at the Gas Pump podcast with Rick Archer a few months ago, in October, I believe. At the satsang, Jim encouraged me to stay in touch if I had any questions. While there I purchased one of the USB sticks with the complete Vedanta teachings on it. I have been listening to them about two hours every day and also reading and rereading The Essence of Enlightenment and other materials at the ShiningWorld site. I think I am getting “it” but I thought I’d write to ask a question or two. I apologise for the length of the email, but I think you’ll understand why it couldn’t be briefer as you read on.
Sundari: I really enjoyed your email – apart from the excellent writing, your mind is very clear, objective – and funny! Humour is such an essential part of objectivity, don’t you agree? You had me laughing a few times. I think that is why James is attractive as a teacher. He is not only brilliant and one of the most powerful voices for Vedanta on the planet, he is also very funny and self-deprecating. The story you tell is beautiful and also quite typical of people that have the good grace to become finders instead of remaining seekers all their lives.
Harold: Here goes…
Sometime in the late eighties, when I was about ten years old, I was at my grandparents’ house looking around and I was struck by a sense of the immensity of time. The objects somehow testified to my grandparents lives and were part of a long chain of events that went back much, much farther than themselves. As I felt that my grandparents been around a very, very long time, this insight about time being even much greater than them was disorienting – but also exciting – for me. In this moment I was triggered to think consciously about my own life and what I might do over the years that I would exist. I became aware that I was existing in history and that my life was going to be tacked on to all that had come before me. It was, perhaps, the first time I thought about such things or thought about myself in this way.
As though in response to this thought taking place in me, a voice clearly sounded out, “When you figure it out, then you are done.” Simultaneous with the hearing of this voice was the immediate knowing that, with the time I was going to exist on this earth, I had to figure out something important about the nature of this life and reality I was suddenly conscious of. I was struck by a feeling of exhilaration and awe. I felt that there was a purpose for my life and that this “figuring it out” was what the purpose was. Being “done” came across to me as a very good thing, something I knew I very much wanted, even though it wasn’t disclosed to me what exactly being “done” meant. This statement resonated in me as a deep truth. I felt eager to get to work right away and was grateful to be “put on course” right out of the gates, so to speak. Since that time, in one way or another, I have been attempting to accomplish this task, though there have been stretches of time that I have gone off-course.
Sundari: As I explain further down, if I cannot understand an experience like this, it will not lead to freedom, because the belief is that there is something I (the person) can “do” to achieve enlightenment, or “being done.” Freedom from ignorance cannot take place unless the doer – the one who thinks he has to “get it” – is understood in the light of self-knowledge and negated. All the same, this experience clearly had a powerful impact which was instrumental in igniting your spiritual vasanas and getting you “on the road,” so to speak.
Harold: This experience was the first of numerous other childhood spiritual experiences I would have. I am not given to hearing voices. The experience above is one of four times I have heard such a voice in my life. The last time was about twelve years ago when I was a few months away from graduating from college. At that time, I had become a near-alcoholic, chain-smoking, neurotic mess of a person. While taking a shower, I was contemplating what bar I was going to go to after classes were over when the voice thunderously welled up from within me and demanded, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE!?” A moment prior, I was completely calm and focused solely on the things of this world. Following this, my anxiety was ratcheted up to an intolerable level, leaving me to feel that I had squandered precious time and energy on completely worthless pursuits. I literally shook with terror for about an hour following this experience and for the following two or more years an acute sense of dreadful seriousness accompanied me through nearly waking moment (and often in my dreams as well). For a guy in my early twenties, I was a pretty serious (and intense) dude.
Following this severe reprimand, I was back “on the path,” though that path has taken me down a lot of winding roads and, not infrequently, dead ends. I won’t go into the details of those pursuits, nor the other experiences I could recount. I bring this stuff up for a particular reason: How does Vedanta make sense of such experiences? From the perspective of Vedanta, what is the source of these voices and insights? I have read The Essence of Enlightenment, attended the Berlin satsang and have now listened to well over fifty hours of additional Vedanta instruction from James’ recorded talks. Perhaps I missed something or failed to comprehend some teaching I’ve already encountered. Could you please clarify this for me?
Sundari: Yes, you have missed the most important part. It is the one who knows the experience and experiencer (Harold), which is you – awareness, the non-experiencing entity. Almost all spiritual seekers make this mistake. Unless enough qualifications develop and the seeker is guided to a valid means of knowledge with which to undertake self-inquiry guided by a qualified teacher, it is virtually impossible to discriminate between ignorance and knowledge. The spiritual experiences most seekers have come from Isvara, or the causal body, also called the unconscious in psychological parlance. They are always subjective experiences influenced by our environment and experienced through the filters of our conditioning, or vasanas. Vedanta calls the subjective reality “pratibasika,” or “apparently real,” meaning not always present and always changing, “real” being defined by “that which is always present and never changing,” which can only be used to define awareness, the knower.
Spiritual experiences of whatever ilk do have some benefit in that they can give one the understanding that there is something outside of the information available through the normal organs of perception. The insights available in such cases are much like the insights a drug-induced high can provide. When the experience ends you are still the same person with the same problems. If one gains some objectivity from the experiences, they can be beneficial in helping the person understand their conditioning. The problem arises when more import is given to these insights than they hold or one is seduced into believing that one needs a particular experience to know the truth. As we are always experiencing awareness and nothing else, there is no particular experience that will free the mind from bondage to objects. Only self-knowledge can do that. There is nothing wrong with experience and we will experience until the day we die, but “spiritual” experiences, like all subjective experiences, are of limited use unless they deliver self-knowledge and the knowledge is understood and assimilated.
If you read James’ autobiography, you will see that he had more spiritual experiences than most. In the end, they were more of a hindrance than a help. It was only when he gave up on chasing spiritual experiences that he found his guru and Vedanta.
Harold: One of the reasons I have been attracted to Vedanta is because it actually makes sense of what the first voice stated when I was a child: “When you figure it out, then you are done.” Unlike my childhood religion of Christianity, which to me is not about figuring anything out but rather simply accepting various doctrines (though an argument could be made that Christianity and the teachings of Jesus are two very different things), Vedanta does teach that figuring it out is what we need to do. It also teaches that once we figure it out, we are done. Do I have that correct? Another way of putting this is that the end of ignorance is the end of “me.” Yes or no?
Sundari: We are in agreement about religion! My mother, a devout Catholic, said: “Don’t confuse Christ with the Christians.” And how true that is. Religion has its place but does not offer a valid means of knowledge for moksa. It will not set you free of identification with objects. See my reply further down.
Harold: I cannot help but note that this statement came to me at the exact moment that I began to think of myself as an actor in time. Like a cryptic antidote, I was pointed towards the cure at the onset of the disease. It was as if I was being told, “No, you are not some little person being tacked on to the preceding chapters of history. That is incorrect. Know that and you are free! Don’t get sucked in!” Do you think this is a possibility? Out of all the ways I’ve tried to understand this, this Vedantic angle is the most natural fit. Am I kidding myself?
Sundari: No, you are not kidding yourself, Harold. And you are not “some little person being tacked onto” the future. You are not a person at all but awareness, the one who knows the person, beyond time, space and causality. You are heading in the right direction but need to understand the difference between the two orders or reality, what makes them the same and what makes them different. The two orders are the knower, that which is real, always present and unchanging (satya), and the known, the person, that which is apparently real, not always present and always changing (mithya). What makes them the same is that they are both awareness. What makes them different is that the objects depend on awareness but awareness does not depend on the objects. The understanding and assimilation of this teaching is the crux of self-inquiry, explained in great detail in James’ books. You have come to the right place.
Harold: A week or so prior to coming to Berlin for the satsang (which was a very unusual thing for me to do, by the way… I’ve stuck to studying Western, esoteric spiritual approaches for the most part) I had a dream in which a voice said, “Ramesh, you will make it through this time!” I never heard the name Ramesh before – I am British by birth. “Am I a reincarnated guy from the East with the unfinished business of “figuring it out” to do?” I wondered. I nearly laughed at the absurdity of this. Sometimes I am a bit much for myself.
Sundari: The grace of Isvara brings everyone to Vedanta when they are ready. As for reincarnation, it depends on who you think you are. As the self, we never reincarnate, being unborn and undying, ever-present and unchanging. As the person identified as a person with a story, you could say “you” reincarnate. But who reincarnates? It is not the same person but the subtle body that reincarnates. The subtle body is an eternal principle existing in the causal body. When it manifests it is composed of the mind, intellect and “I” sense, or ego. While the gross body is made up of the five elements and gets recycled after death, the subtle body remains and is subsumed back into the causal body, from where its vasana load originated. If the karma from a particular lifetime is not resolved at death, the vasana load is “assigned” to another body and will have another opportunity to work it out. “Past” life memories are quite common for many seekers. They are imprints from the “past” vasanas. They are only useful if they are understood in the context of self-knowledge, and can be a hindrance to self-inquiry if the mind identifies with them.
Well done for applying yourself to self-inquiry, which clearly comes quite naturally to you, given your inquiring nature. As you may have realised (or maybe not), Vedanta as a teaching is a valid means of knowledge for awareness, the self, your true nature. It has a particular methodology which if followed results in liberation from suffering, assuming moksa is the primary aim. Suffering is the product of the belief that reality is a duality, giving rise to the illusion that you need an object to complete you – and that you are dependent on objects for happiness. Vedanta states up front that your true nature is whole and complete, actionless, unconcerned, unchanging, unlimited and ordinary awareness. You need nothing to be happy as the joy is in you, not the objects. You are the subject giving rise to all objects and exist independently of them. There is nothing you can do to gain awareness, because it is who you are. But as you have an ignorance problem and don’t know who you are, you need a qualified teacher and a valid means of knowledge to remove ignorance.
As the self, the subject is subtler than the objects and cannot be an object of knowledge; it cannot be known by the means at our disposal to know anything: perception and inference. An object is defined as anything other than you, awareness, consciousness, or the self. You are the knower of objects – anything known to you cannot be you, whether the object is gross, like the body, or subtle, like thoughts and feelings. To negate objects does not mean denying their existence. They exist because you can experience them. To negate objects means that we understand what they are – apparently real, arising from the self but not self – and where they are experienced: in the mind only.
The first teaching in Vedanta is the “location of objects,” explained in great detail in both of James’ books How to Attain Enlightenment and The Essence of Enlightenment. You can also sign on to the 12-month teaching course at the website, which will take you through each chapter of Essence with questions and answers. While it is imperative for your self-inquiry to listen to and watch the videos, reading the book is essential, as both books lay out the methodology very clearly and explain the terminology Vedanta employs. There is a progression to the teaching which is important to follow, starting from the beginning and signing on to the logic. Maybe you need to read Essence again, go slowly, work carefully through each idea, putting aside what you think and believe.
Vedanta is called a sabda pramana, the oral or spoken testimony of competent witnesses, meaning that the words are time-tested, impersonal and they work to remove ignorance IF the mind is qualified, has negated the doer (the person identified as being a person) and is ready to hear and assimilate the truth. Vedanta is unlike any other knowledge because it is the knowledge that underpins all knowledge.
The teaching starts off with motivations, moving on to the qualifications required for self-inquiry to work. In your case, it seems that the value to understand the “big picture” has been a driving force since very young. It is also evident that two of the necessary qualifications for self-inquiry are present (although they must be developed further): dispassion and discrimination.
To strengthen the foundation for your inquiry, let’s clarify the difference between object-knowledge as opposed to self-knowledge. Self-knowledge, unlike object-knowledge, is always true because it is true to the self, meaning it cannot be dismissed or negated by any other knowledge. Self-knowledge is different from knowledge of objects, which is object-based, not subject-based. Even though I may have spent years learning something (psychology, for instance), knowledge of objects is not knowledge unless it is true to the object. Many things we learn turn out to be untrue. If I am looking at a cat, I won’t see a dog, assuming my eyes are working and the mind behind them is not impaired. If it is “my” knowledge, then it is my interpretation of an object, so it is subjective knowledge (pratibasika), which is not necessarily knowledge. Ignorance (or my point of view) causes me to see or experience objects in a certain way because of “my” conditioning.
Looking at a cat I will not see a dog, but I may dislike cats intensely and experience a negative reaction to what I am looking at. As you probably know, research into the field of perception has revealed conclusively that of all the billions of stimuli available to us for perception at any given moment, our mind will pick up on only a fraction, and these will be the stimuli that correspond to our frame of reference or conditioning. The statement “we see the way we are” is a statement of fact. The tendencies (vasanas) that condition the mind seem to be personal because I think I am a person, so I identify with the thoughts/feelings that make up my mind. As long as I am identified as a person, I am under the spell of ignorance, or duality. People identified with the body-mind believe that ignorance is knowledge because they believe that what they experience is knowledge. It may be knowledge, but it may not be.
Usually, what we think we know is a mixture of ignorance and knowledge. The esoteric or “spiritual” world is full of misinformation and disinformation. It is often the source of the greatest confusion and suffering. You are blessed indeed to have found James and Vedanta! All the same, however circuitous our path may be, everything we encounter along the way to the knowledge that ends the quest for knowledge (if we are blessed to find it) we call a “leading error” because although it cannot free us from ignorance, it points us in the right direction. It has its place.
Self-knowledge depends on the nature of the self – which is always present and unchanging – and always truth with a capital “T.” It does not depend on knowledge gained through personal experience or object knowledge – which is always changing and not necessarily true. Self-knowledge is irrefutable logic, which is why we call it the science of consciousness. On the basis of self-knowledge the individual can retain or reject the knowledge gained through his or her personal experience. However, from the psychological level self-knowledge is subject to interpretation, which is why we need a means of knowledge based on a teaching that is independent of interpretation or opinion, called scripture, Vedanta. One of the most important qualification for self-inquiry is faith in the scripture for it to work to remove ignorance. This faith is not blind faith (such as is expected in most religions) but faith pending the outcome of one’s investigation. Vedanta’s clearly states that it is only self-knowledge and not experience that is capable of removing ignorance. And although self-knowledge is the result of self-inquiry, it is not a given, even to the dedicated inquirer. Self-knowledge is the result of grace and grace is earned. It is a gift from Isvara and not the result of learning, intelligence or experience.
In answer to your statement…
“These kinds of experiences are consoling and reassuring at times. However, they do reinforce the idea of being the jiva and not the self. They, additionally, do not explain themselves. Also, I must admit that there have been times where they gave me an inflated sense of importance or purpose. I don’t understand where they come from and, after a lifetime of looking to such experiences to help me navigate the spiritual waters, I am now wondering if they are as much a hindrance as they are a help. I have learned that Eastern meditative approaches urge the meditator to ignore such experiences and to keep on keepin’ on. I would guess that Vedanta would be in accord with this view?”
…yes, it is very common in the spiritual world that “special” experiences are co-opted by the ego feeding the illusion of superiority. Most people who come to Vedanta have had a history of experiential enlightenment because that is what is commonly believed to be the way to “enlightenment.” It is seen as another object – only to be gained by the elite few. Like you, most inquirers have had experiences (or chased experiences) that have given them a glimpse of something other than normal consciousness, but without a valid means of knowledge to explain what the experiences is meant to deliver, the knowledge is not assimilated. All experiences end, as they happen in time – but all experience is supposed to convey one message: I am the knower of the experiencing entity, not the experiencing entity.
Unless the teaching the mind turns to has a full grasp of what non-duality means and has a valid means of knowledge with which to teach, it will fail to produce lasting freedom from (and for) the experiencing entity. For this reason, Neo-Advaita is one of the many teachings that fail to remove suffering for most inquirers, because it simply ignores the apparent reality, saying it does not exist. But freedom is not possible unless the apparent reality (the person and its world) is understood. Misunderstanding or denying its existence will not make it go away.
So the question to ask then is: Who is asking the question? Is it the person identified as a person, is it the person who knows about awareness but does not know what it means to be awareness or is it awareness that knows it is awareness and not the person? Vedanta says that this is a non-duality, not a duality. Duality is a superimposition onto non-duality and can be completely negated by self-knowledge. Therefore even though the person arises from awareness and is made up of awareness, you are not the person but the knower of the person and all other objects. As stated above, all objects depend on you to exist but you depend on nothing to exist, because you are existence itself. There is only one principle operating – awareness – and you (and everything else) is it, although awareness is always free of the objects. The trick is to know what this means for the person living in the world. What use is self-knowledge if it is purely cognitive? As the self, you are already free. Moksa then can only be for the person who wants to live free of suffering caused by identification with objects.
“Vedanta does teach that figuring it out is what we need to do. It also teaches that once we figure it out, we are done. Do I have that correct?”
Who is it that is figuring “it” out? And what is “it”? Vedanta says that you (the mind, or person) are incapable of figuring out “it” (your true nature), because the mind trying to figure it out is an object known to you, awareness. The mind is inert. It is like the moon, having no light of its own “borrows” the light of the sun to shine. The mind appears to be conscious because the light of the self shines on it. Self-knowledge cannot be “figured” out. If the mind tries to do so without a valid means of knowledge and qualified teacher unfolding it, the chances are very good that it will interpret the knowledge according to its filters, or vasanas. There are apparent contradictions in the teaching, which are not really contradictions and need to be explained. Vedanta is a radical teaching and is extremely counter-intuitive. Ignorance, being as hardwired as it is, the mind not only has to be qualified, but it has to commit itself to the “work” of self-inquiry with great dedication or the knowledge will not stick.
The ego, or person, does not remove ignorance – there is nothing you can do to remove ignorance, because no action taken by a limited entity can produce a limitless result. Self-inquiry is an action but it is different from all other actions because it is capable of producing a limitless result: moksa. Awareness, your true nature, can only be revealed in a qualified mind consistently exposed to the scripture with the removal of ignorance by self-knowledge. The search ends when you know that you are the light of awareness shining on the mind, not the mind – and you know what this means.
From this perspective, the answer to the next part of your question…
“Another way of putting this is that the end of ignorance is the end of ‘me.’ Yes or no?’
The answer depends on who you think you are. As awareness you see only the self when you look at anything; you “see” no difference anywhere, because there is only you. As the person under the spell of ignorance, or duality, you see difference everywhere. As the jivanmukta (the person no longer under the spell of ignorance) duality does not disappear when you know who you are. Duality is only a problem when you don’t know what it is and take it to be real because you cannot discriminate satya from mithya. If duality is known for what it is (only apparently real) it is like a mirage on the desert sand, which we can still see even when we are aware it is not real. You, Harold, or the ego, remain.
Liberation is the ability to discriminate you, awareness, from the objects that appear in you, at all times (i.e. Harold and “his” world.) When self-knowledge has permanently obtained in the mind, one accepts the person as they are, with their intrinsic nature, knowing that you did not make them the way they are. All the same, to be free of the person so as to live free as the person requires that you understand what the person is, what makes up their conditioning, where it originates from, the environment they are a part of, what makes it up and the natural laws that run it. This teaching is called the jiva-Isvara aikyam, or identity, and is where most of the teaching in Vedanta takes place. The means of knowledge of scripture, if followed, will take you step by step through the process of unfolding the knowledge.
~ Much love, Sundari
Harold: Thank you for your response.