Search & Read
Two Birds Sitting in a Tree
Karen: Dearest Ramji, I have happily travelled three times to be with you in person but this is my first letter to ask you a personal question. With all the material available at the ShiningWorld website, it is my habit to check there first; however, I entered a topic in the search function and nothing was found… so maybe I’ll contribute a new one?
The topic is ambivalence. I started thinking about this when I saw one of your recent Facebook posts. Here is the text of the post The Dualistic Nature of the Mind: “On one hand, it wants what it wants; on the other, it doesn’t care if it gets what it wants. There is a beautiful verse in one of the Upanishads that is relevant here. It says, ‘Two birds, beautiful of wing, sitting in a tree. One eats the sweet fruit, the other looks on.’ The non-dual self appears as a watcher and a doer.”
For most of my life I’ve noticed a persistent ambivalence towards… pretty much everything. I used to joke that ambivalence was my constant companion and we shared the same first two letters of our names. Early on there was a nagging concern that I’m not engaged enough in life, that I’m often not decisive and committed to action, that I don’t care enough, etc.
My life has actually been just fine in all its variety and much has been achieved (the best being my encounter with Vedanta). However, this strong sense of ambivalence always seemed to be a flawed aspect of the personality and it caused much confusion. When I saw your Facebook post I started to wonder if this damned ambivalence could just be “the bird that looks on”… and I’ve been misunderstanding it all my life.
Is it correct to consider ambivalence as “the watcher” nature of the mind rather than an aspect of personality? I’ve also thought about it in relation to tamoguna, but I’m not clear on that. How do you understand ambivalence?
I know satya is me, and that jiva and all its concerns are mithya, but there is such relief that comes with understanding. I’ve come to see that the best way to love my jiva is to clear up any lingering confusion. :-)
I am very grateful to be able to write to you and, when it’s convenient for you to respond, I look forward to whatever you have to say on this.
~ Much love and gratitude
James: Lovely to hear from you. We think of you fondly and often. You answered your own question: the “split” is the self on the one hand and the jiva on the other, the seeing part (awareness) and the active doing part, the jiva. Every jiva is a mixture of unchanging spirit and ever-changing matter. As you correctly point out, the ambivalence is caused by superimposing doership on the non-doing part. The more sattva you have, the more natural dispassion toward worldly things you are blessed with. Since dispassion is not viewed favorably by the world, your lack of enthusiasm for activity was probably not viewed favorably by your parents, teachers, etc. and you developed a bit of a conflict about it. Rest assured it is a blessing, not a curse. In any case there is nothing you could do about it if you wanted to. Your sensitivity to the difference between these two parts is just you, awareness, the non-experiencing witness of the two. It means you are neither part, although both are you. Knowledge of yourself as the non-experiencing witness is moksa, freedom from the knower/doer split.
Karen: Thank you for your reply. This seems very subtle, so I just want to make sure I’m clear…
So it seems ambivalence has been a subtle friend. Is it correct to say the experience of ambivalence arises with either the identification “as the doer” or “as the knower”… because both are me and neither is who I am? I look back to my zazen years as leading to a strong identification as the knower. Even then I knew it felt like a dead end.
This bird story from the Upanishads really helps illustrate it because it is so easy to mistake the “knower bird” as myself. But the “knower bird” and the “doer bird” are equally within the realm of experience (mithya) because knowing is an experience, correct? This points to the important difference between the words knowledge and jnana.
For me, the Sanskrit words have been like magical keys without a substitute. I appreciate that you have retained some Sanskrit in your teaching… just my opinion. Thank you for your help, James.
James: One of the functions of the subtle body is doubt (manas). Isvara evolved it because reality is not what it seems. So it is important to question what’s going on so that you can respond appropriately. Another function, intellect (buddhi), is designed to resolve doubt. If the jiva is not clear what it wants, there will be a more or less constant sense of ambivalence. If self-esteem is low, doubt can lead to serious neurosis. The basic problem for spiritual people is caused by a conflict between their material nature – the body, emotions, etc. – and the self. Am I a spiritual being or a material being?