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Vedanta Is Not a Spiritual Lifestyle
Susan: I read the requirements, and hesitated to write, and realized it was fear, so I am going to. A little background: I lived in the Sivananda organization for 20 years and took the vows of sannyas, then left, wanting to live those vows outside in the hub of life and see if the teachings held me outside of the bubble of ashrams.
Sundari: When you say you have read the requirements for self-inquiry, what do you mean? Have you followed them? Living in an ashram and taking vows of sannyas mean different things to different people. The Sivananda organization has a mixed reputation, as you probably know. Were you looking for a spiritual lifestyle or something more?
The tradition of Vedanta is not a spiritual lifestyle, although it does require a sattvic lifestyle. It is not about finding a spiritual identity but losing it in the one and only true identity as the Self. It is not taking vows or living in an ashram, although it offers that path to genuine renunciants. Vedanta is about facing life, understanding what it is, not trying to avoid it. It is living free of the world as the Self, while still managing life as the apparent person who lives in the apparent reality.
The most important renunciation of all is the renunciation of the renouncer – the doer – the one who needs an identity.
Susan: I came across James Swartz, as I realized I was hungry, not for life, but for living life out of all it is, as seen.
Sundari: This is a confusing statement; much of your writing is. Are you saying that you know the joy is not in the objects (experience), i.e. “in life” but in freedom from experience, that the joy is in the ever-present Self, which is your true nature?
Yet you say “as seen,” which seems to indicate you don’t know. As seen BY whom? This is the main question underpinning self-inquiry, investigating the nature of reality.
Who is it that sees the seer? What makes “seeing” possible, and what is it seeing?
Susan: I liked him and his teaching ways, as he is just honest, no bullshit in the way I experience it, and he made me laugh, that at last he was someone who spoke in a way I could take and understand. Wow, I better not go on, I love the Vedanta. Why? Because it makes sense of a world that is not separate from me.
Sundari: Good. The world is not separate from you as the Self; the world depends on you, but you never depend on it. Do you know what that means? We cannot teach you if you have not signed on to the methodology as set out by the ancient tradition of Vedanta, which is why we have the requirements we do on our website.
James is probably one of the best teachers in the lineage alive, and he has done more to make the teachings accessible to Westerners than anyone before him. However, the teachings are not “his.” They are not his opinion or belief, as they stand independent of all belief and opinion. It is imperative you understand this, if you are interested in self-inquiry, that is.
Susan: Doubts have come in though, hence the writing, that I get it, feel it, but can’t articulate it, I suppose I can live it.
Sundari: Get what, Susan? What are you saying here? Vedanta is not about feeling or “getting” anything. It is about having the ignorance of your true nature removed by Self-knowledge, so it is about a losing, not a getting. How can you gain something you already are? You are already whole and complete, non-dual, actionless, ever-present, unconditioned, limitless awareness. Nothing can add to that or take it away. You just don’t seem to know what that means, so you have an ignorance problem, for which there is a solution: Self-inquiry.
Self-knowledge is about understanding that your thoughts and feelings are objects known to you: the one and only, Self/awareness.
If you cannot live the knowledge, it has not been understood and assimilated, and therefore it is useless to you.
Susan: But now old habits, but what are habits but only safety mechanisms for living a life that has been so strange, and not fitting in, even in a spiritual organization?
Sundari: “Old habits” are your conditioning, or vasana load, the filters through which you experience the world. They are your doer/ego/limited-self identity and are designed to protect it. Binding vasanas are what keep you stuck, small and suffering because they keep you separate from who you are. Moksa is rendering all binding vasanas non-binding and negating the doer/ego, not busting it. Negating means understanding what it is and why it is not who you are.
Susan: I am writing because I am asking myself the question that came to me this morning: Why do I feel I have to be an intellectual to be on this path?
Sundari: What is an “intellectual” anyway? A clear and sattvic intellect is required for self-inquiry. Usually, an intellectual is someone invested in the way they think or their ability to think. While some people definitely think more clearly than others and are more intelligent, which is an advantage for self-inquiry, it can also keep you stuck. Freedom from dependence on objects and identification with the doer – the person called Susan – has zero to do with being an “intellectual.”
It is about understanding what is required for self-inquiry, particularly the qualifications, developing the ones that are weak or absent and applying the mind to the teaching methodology of the scripture with a single-pointed determination and dedication, with the karma yoga attitude.
Have you any understanding of karma yoga?
Susan: It is to live a life of not judging others, for sure, but also not judging myself, for in doing so I am judging all.
Sundari: As you are writing to us, and we are Vedanta teachers, I gather your main interest is freedom from limitation – i.e. freedom from identification with and bondage to objects –in which case self-inquiry involves an investigation into how the mind works, what governs it (vasanas), to render the voices of judgment forever silent through Self-knowledge. It is the only way.
Susan: I feel tongue-tied, I am bored with living, but I smile at it, the boredom and life. So I carry on quietly smiling inside and out, but there is a huge desire to be able to focus, to study, but is there a way, perhaps it is just by living life, knowing that it’s okay. I will stop. Now.
Sundari: Boredom with living is a result of a tamasic/rajasic mind. Dispassion, which is indifference to results, is a qualification for self-inquiry. But ask yourself, WHO does the “I” refer to? I see a lot of “I”s in this email. Are you referring to Susan because you are identified with her? Susan may be bored with life and think that freedom is just floating happily along like a butterfly, but who is she?
Susan: Simplicity, simple thinking, high living, perhaps what I am trying to say is that I have read and listened, and live, but at this moment cannot trust that it’s okay not to be able to study.
Oh, I am over 60. Thanks a lot.
Sundari: We appreciate you sharing your story with us, although your age is of no significance, because as the Self you were never born and never die. Yes, it’s good to live simply. What have you read or listened to?
And what do you mean by “it’s okay not to be able to study”? Study what?
Why are you writing Susan, what is it you need?
Susan: I am looking for something more. Requirements, a sattvic way is beneficial, living in an ashram was an eye-opener, and it took a long time to realize that there was more, and struggling inside quietly and not so quietly, ended up in my seeing it was not a path I needed. Vedanta is about facing life, that’s what leaving the organization was about. To step away, to face life, not avoid it, as is so the case in spiritual organizations. To live as the self and manage this life, recognizing that serving was living in the world but not of it. Not being a butterfly but not needing.
Rereading my questions, I see the confusion the expressions and words used. The joy is when life is seen from the self, rather than the reaction from emotions and vasanas. Vedanta is not about feeling or getting, the striving for self-knowledge to remove this ignorance; there have been glimpses, and hearing James speak, teaching has woken me up, a sense of relief starting to come in, that life is about discovering the self. Realizing that I am whole; yes, ignorance is there for sure, self-inquiry is stronger, hence the writing. Hence the listening to the talks, the teachings that James shares, that I understand he is passing on and only a transmitter of them. I truly understand this; that’s what made it easier to hear.
Vedanta was something that was described to me as a very late-stage, and to stick to service and bhakti yoga, to be sure I believed this. Sitting in thousands of satsangs, listening and then started to question; got into trouble for questioning; the self was reacting somehow, opening daily letters from Master that often said the true path was Vedanta. Freedom from limitation yes, okay.
Susan has had doubts, knowing that life is more than eating, sleeping and drinking, seeing that nothing is separate, that I need a teacher. Read a lot, gave up reading, thinking it was not the way. Kept coming back to reading, listened to Swami Chinmayananda, listened to a lot of teachers, tried the new teachers, but it lacked something and seemed to floaty and ungrounded. Then James in his clear speaking and way in teaching struck a note of “this is it, it will be tough but it’s worth it.” Guidance and the sincerity and clarity of how you wrote back to me.
Running away is not the answer. I have read The Essence of Enlightenment, but I will read it again, need not in a needy way.
Sundari: Okay, your reply is good. You clearly have a confused mind, loaded with spiritual ideas and notions, but the saving grace is that you know you need to be taught.
Here is what I suggest, if you are truly interested in self-inquiry and being taught by a qualified teacher of Vedanta, which I am:
1. Give up the swami identity you acquired in your ashram life. Names are not important, but the identities they try to portray are obstacles to self-inquiry. See your (relative/jiva) self as a clean slate, with no name. Drop all spiritual pretenses; Vedanta is not about becoming “more spiritual” or “waking up.” It is about Self-knowledge, that is all. It is completely unpretentious and ordinary to be the Self because that is the only option available. It is not a special state or achievement, because you are the knower of all states and achievements. As the Self you never slept, so you cannot “wake up.”
2. Accept the fact that everything you think you know may be ignorance or at best ignorance mixed with some knowledge. The doer – Susan – cannot “do” her way to enlightenment, because the doer is the problem. Only Self-knowledge itself can remove ignorance; your part is to commit the mind to hearing/reading and contemplating the scriptures.
Most inquirers who come to Vedanta have a ton of indoctrination from other teachings to work through, especially those who have spent years in an ashram, like you have. It’s not that there is anything wrong with other teachings or ashram life per se, but most other teachings are unclear about what the Self is, nor are they able to explain the apparent reality, other than through their own experiences or beliefs. There is no other teaching available other than Vedanta that has a completely independent and valid means of knowledge capable of revealing the Self and what the world is by removing duality, ignorance. And many inquirers who run away to an ashram are simply in denial of life and assume another materialistic/dualistic identity, albeit a so-called ‘spiritual’ one.
As a bhakta, your orientation thus far has not been knowledge, but experience. Most often bhaktas are after the feeling of sattva that devotional practice and ritual brings, which is where they differ so much from inquirers. An inquirer is also someone who seeks peace of mind (sattva) but who is not merely after an experience, because experience is always changing. An inquirer wants to understand the true nature of reality, that which never changes. An inquirer wants permanent, not temporary, peace of mind.
3. Stop comparing and confusing yourself with other spiritual teachings, stick to Vedanta. You clearly do not understand yet what it is and why it requires qualifications. See more on this below.
Vedanta is a doctrinal teaching at the end of the Vedas, which are the sacred, impersonal and eternal scriptures of Hindu tradition. There are four Vedas; the first three pertain to the person living in the world, covering different aspects of physical life and obtaining desired results. The first three Vedas are for doers, people who are identified with being a person, wanting specific results and believing they can do something to get them.
The fourth and last Veda deals exclusively with the true nature of reality, which is why it is called Vedanta, literally meaning “the knowledge that ends the quest for knowledge.” Vedanta is about negating the doer and identifying solely with awareness. Its main teachings are found in the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. Although Vedanta originates from Vedic culture, the basic teaching is universal in that its fundamental principle is that reality is a non-duality as opposed to a duality. It reveals that there is only one principle operating, in which everything has its origin and is made up of, and that is consciousness. Therefore Vedanta, in essence, is not specific to any culture, race or religion, as consciousness does not “belong” to anyone in particular. It is who we are.
Vedanta is the science of consciousness, also called apauruseya jnanam, meaning “not the philosophy or experience of one person” like a prophet or a mystic, as in the Buddha, Jesus or Abraham, or any other Indian “mystic,” no matter how venerated. It is not a belief system or religion either. Vedanta predates all known religious or philosophical paths because it is the pathless path that underpins all other paths. It is an independent teaching, or sruti, which means “that which is heard.” It is also called Self-knowledge.
4. You need to start at the beginning and sign on to the logic. Vedanta is set up as a very specific methodology for a reason; it is NOT subject to interpretation. If you try to make Vedanta fit into your current beliefs, it will not work for you. So decide what your most important motivation is and conduct a fearless moral inventory on your main values. See how they support or obstruct self-inquiry.
Most importantly, read the chapter on qualifications necessary for moksa in James’ books. See where you are lacking qualifications and need to strengthen or develop them. Write them up, track yourself on them on a moment-to-moment basis.
5. Read Essence or How to Attain SLOWLY, word for word, from the beginning, do not skip, do not jump ahead. You may have read Attain, but you have not assimilated the teachings, because your mind is a jumble of conflicting ideas. See if you have sufficient faith in the scriptures to leave all your ideas on the shelf, at least to begin with. You can always take them back if you like them better. But if you truly want to live free from limitation as the Self, you first need to understand who the jiva is, what the Field of Existence is (Isvara) and the forces or energies that run it (the gunas). You can trust the methodology to take you through all the steps and to answer every doubt along the way. Inquiry will not work without faith in the scriptures.
The teaching of Vedanta does reveal your true nature to be the Self, but that is not its main purpose. Vedanta tells you up front that you are the Self and explains why that is self-evident. Its main purpose is to remove the ignorance that covers this self-evident fact. This is the hard part. Vedanta reveals the truth that the world of objects, including your body, mind and senses, are known to you, the Self. All evidence of this is in terms of knowledge ONLY, not experience. Any knowledge implies consciousness, the one and only invariable, ever-present factor in all situations.
Self-realization, knowing you are the Self, is where the work of self-inquiry begins. If you don’t know what it means to be the Self, your knowledge is indirect and incapable of freeing the mind from limitation.
So, Susan, if you are serious, and I believe you are, I am happy to assist you with your self-inquiry. But we do not spoon-feed inquirers. ShiningWorld is a gold mine of the highest-level Vedanta teachings you will find anywhere, and we have a huge load of people we teach. It is up to you to dedicate yourself wholeheartedly to your sadhana, with the karma yoga attitude, which means you consecrate every thought, word and action to Isvara and take the results that come as prasad. Karma yoga is designed to negate the doer. As long as the doer is identified with self-inquiry, it will not work.
We cannot do self-inquiry for you. Use the resources at your disposal – you are truly blessed to have found ShiningWorld – your search is over now, if you want it to be. You are no longer a seeker, but an inquirer. And by your dedication and Isvara’s grace, you will become a finder. We have literally thousands of pages of Q&A satsangs on our website, covering every doubt possible. Use them! Only write when you are genuinely stuck. We have James’ book The Essence of Enlightenment on the website as a 12-part course, with all the relevant questions and answers. You have innumerable hours of James’ teaching on video.
We are here to serve in the spirit of friendship and equality. We are not invested in you as a person, but our reward is in the joy of sharing this incomparable teaching so that one day you will live truly free as the Self you are, unlimited by Susan, though loving her unconditionally as the Self too.
PS: In future, if possible, do not write your replies under mine, as it makes more work for me. We post all satsangs on our website (anonymously of course; we remove all personal details), so please also check your grammar and punctuation.
~ Love, Sundari