Search & Read
Fear of the Void
Nick: Hi, Sundari.
I’ve been running into a Vedanta roadblock for the past few weeks and am writing in the hope you can help clear up a major doubt.
My brief history:
I’m a 65-year-old male and have been “seeking” since college days. I kind of gave up for a few decades in my thirties and forties, then got involved with Neo-Advaita (mostly Adyashanti here in the San Francisco area) about ten years ago. I had been reading Annette Nibley’s blog in the spring of 2014, and she mentioned she felt something was missing with Neo-Advaita and talked about Vedanta and James. I got hooked and have been listening to the audio recordings fairly obsessively since. I’ve also attending James’ Berkeley satsangs in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
I started listening to the free audios from the website and then moved on to the old Complete Teachings. I’ve been listening to the 2015 Panchadasi Tiruvannamalai recording for the past few months. I’ve listened to them all repeatedly over the past few years. It’s interesting and also a bit frustrating that I find the audios very soothing; they give me hope and “fill” me. But I don’t seem to like either the videos or reading Vedanta. I’ve read How to Attain Enlightenment, Inquiry into Existence, James’ versions of the Bhagavad Gita, Aparokshanubhuti, etc. but when I read Vedanta, I find it very disturbing. It brings up a lot of fear and anxiety. So I listen mostly to James’ audios.
I’m writing because for the past few weeks I’ve been experiencing feelings of “The Void.” Basically, it’s a very strong fear that “being awareness” is an empty, vague, boring emptiness that goes on forever. This feels more like Hell than Heaven, to be honest. Or maybe something I’ll call Vedantic Disillusionment. If there is anything in the online satsangs regarding this topic, I’ve missed it. Obviously, having been so immersed in the teaching for the past few years, I find this deep sense of despair feels like I’ve run into a large wall at the end of a short dead end. I’m actually feeling fearful of listening to any more audio for a while, although I can’t really go back to “normal” either. Can’t go forward and can’t go back. I do feel the lack of a personal connection with a teacher, as hopefully they might be able to “ground” me and give me some advice. I imagine what I am experiencing would be quite common.
If you can be of assistance, that would be great. If you are busy, I would not mind if you referred me to another teacher. Thanks very much to you and James.
Sundari: This fear is not uncommon for seekers, and we have addressed it in the e-satsang section of the website. Have you tried using the search function in that section? I am sure you will find more satsangs on the topic by all the teachers who write for ShiningWorld. I suggest you keep listening rather than reading or watching teaching videos if your mind hears and assimilates knowledge better that way. Vedanta is meant to be heard and it is an oral tradition, using the implied meaning of words to point to that which cannot be conveyed in words, meaning atma – you, the self.
Vedanta is a radical teaching and it will strip the ego of its attachment to its identity, meaning, its identification with the body-mind. The ego is a fear-thought born of ignorance of your true nature. The whole point of self-inquiry is not to destroy the ego, but to deconstruct it in the light of self-knowledge, so that Nick can live free of the ego, as the self – and not as Nick and the self. But if it is the ego is trying to enlighten the ego, there is no solution, because the ego will still be conditioned by its vasanas and will not let go of its idea of doership. It will hang on tenaciously because it believes that letting go will mean it ceases to exist. One of the main qualifications for self-inquiry is that the mind has come to the firm realisation that there is no solution in the world of objects, that they are empty of any real or lasting meaning, and there must be something else that gives life meaning. The ego, or “I-sense” (identification with the body-mind), is the biggest hurdle to see as an object known to you. The ego will most definitely kick against this, as it refuses to believe it is not real and that the joy is not in objects. It cannot see that the joy of objects comes only from awareness.
There are three main issues you need to look at:
1. Karma yoga: I am not sure how well you understand karma yoga, but it seems that this could be the problem with your sadhana. You have anxiety over results because you are not experiencing what you think you should be experiencing. Karma yoga is designed to negate the doer, the one seeking and wanting results. Karma yoga, when practised properly, is dharma yoga because every action you take is dedicated to Isvara; it is a consecration. It is understood that peace of mind only comes with the realisation that you are not in control of the dharma field, yet in taking the appropriate steps to act in accordance with dharma and then relinquishing the results, peace of mind is produced. If you are not experiencing peace of mind by relinquishing results you are not relinquishing results. It’s that simple – the doer is still there, afraid and small, still wanting a particular result because of its likes and dislikes, frustrated and afraid because it believes it needs the result to be safe or whole as it is not getting what it wants.
Karma yoga is not to destroy the doer (ego). Karma yoga is simply to destroy the notion of “doership,” that we are doers. Karma yoga is meant to clear the mind of enough likes and dislikes until it becomes composed enough to do sustained inquiry. Only inquiry removes the problem of doership because it shows that you, the self, cannot be the ego (doer) that is known to you. When that is clear, the doer can appear in you, but you do not identify with it.
2. Bhakti yoga: Another suggestion for your sadhana is a devotional practice, bhakti yoga. I strongly suggest you read James’ book on the topic, The Yoga of Love. The first three stages of bhakti, or devotional practice, are called dvaita bhakti; all three involve free will and the jiva, the person, which is why these stages are called dualistic worship. The purpose of these stages of worship, or bhakti, is that these practices reduce subjectivity and neutralize vasanas – likes and dislikes – as well negate the doer. It takes care of the childish ego. The last stage and fourth stage of devotion, non-dual bhakti, takes place once the doer is negated, and is based on knowledge. If you don’t already have one, construct a simple altar, somewhere to which you bring focused attention. Place anything on it that symbolizes the self for you, light a candle and make it a practice to sit there in silence, at least once a day. Meditation, chanting and prayer also work to calm the mind and prepare it for self-inquiry.
3. Incorrect ideas about enlightenment: It also seems clear that you have an incorrect idea of what enlightenment is, and quote, you see “…being awareness is an empty, vague, boring emptiness that goes on forever. This feels more like Hell than Heaven, to be honest. Or maybe something I’ll call Vedantic Disillusionment.”
This description is the ego talking about its loss of identity, its fear of non-existence. What you do not see is that as the self you are the fullness that sees the void – or the inherent emptiness – of all objects. You are existence itself. There is nothing the mind sees that is not you (including the mind itself), but you are not it. All objects arise from you and depend on you to exist, but you depend on nothing to exist and do not need objects to know yourself. You, awareness, are not an object of knowledge, because you are what which makes knowledge of anything possible.
The mind needs to turn around and see that the light that shines on it, in it and through it, making knowledge of objects possible (the void being another object known to you), is you, whole and complete, non-dual, ever-present, unchanging, unconditioned awareness. You are the fullness that knows the emptiness. You need nothing to make you full and nothing has the power to make you empty, because you are all that is.
You also seem to think that enlightenment will confer a special experience or status. It does neither. We experience awareness every minute of every day because there is only awareness, and without it we would not exist. So we do not become more aware or change when ignorance of our true nature is removed by self-knowledge. Although moksa is freedom from and for the jiva (or ego), it is not about improving or changing the jiva, although usually it does improve because enlightenment means we have dissolved the doer and rendered binding vasanas non-binding. The function of objects does not change. All that changes are the status of the world and of the jiva. Both are no longer seen as real (defined as always present and unchanging, which only ever applies to awareness) but as apparently real (defined as not always present and always changing).
Moksa is the ability to discriminate you (awareness, that which is real, or satya) from the objects that arise in you (mithya, or that which is only apparently real) 24/7 and never to confuse the two again. This is freedom, the essence of Vedanta. The world will not magically change, you will not “transcend” it, Nick will remain Nick with his particular personality and karma stream, but you will no longer be bothered by the world or by Nick, because both are known to be objects known to you.
Nick: Thanks very much for your reply. Sometimes it feels necessary to just check in with a real live teacher, especially when one feels like they are going off the rails. I pretty much knew what your reply would be, but it is really helpful to hear it personally anyway. Traditionally, of course people listened to Vedanta literally at the feet of the master, and I assume that being in their presence was part of the teaching. To be honest, I miss that. Thanks again very much to both you and James.
~ With much appreciation, Nick
Sundari: You are welcome, Nick, feel free to write anytime. I understand how you feel about the need to learn at the feet of the guru, so to speak. As helpful and comforting as that is, ultimately self-inquiry is something we can only do alone. The walk to freedom can seem like a lonely path, seen from the ego’s point of view. But when self-knowledge fully obtains all sense of separation ends and you know yourself as All One.
Keep up the good work, remember you are never alone. Take heart and know that the feeling of void and emptiness will pass, as do all feelings. It’s a tough concept for the ego to accept that it and all objects are devoid of meaning, including thoughts and feelings. But with the dedication to your sadhana you clearly have, the ego will eventually get on board and realise that it shines in the light of awareness.
Write this mantra down and say it often, as it is the essence of Vedanta:
Brahma Sathyan Jagan Mithya Jivo Bramaiva Naparah
It means “I, the self, am limitless consciousness, and the jiva is non-different from me.”
May the fullness of the self you are destroy all notion of separation and fear. May you stand resolute and utterly confident in your true nature.
~ Love, Sundari