Search & Read
The Work of Self-Inquiry
Michelle: Hi, Sundari.
I will be as brief as possible, trying to omit nothing.
I am 65 years old, retired and I have all my life been motivated by “spiritual life.” I have been doing “karma yoga” for years without knowing that it is “karma yoga-ing.” Now that I have found “Vedanta,” I think I have found the “real” thing (excuse the pun!). ☺
Sundari: You have found the real thing; and Vedanta is not only the real thing, it is you, the Self.
Michelle: I have read and invested myself in How to Attain Enlightenment, taken the one-year course, read the three gunas, I have seen most of James’ YouTube videos and taken his last seminar in Colorado via the internet. I understand apparent reality well, I am quite “awakened.”
Sundari: It is great that you are so committed to your self-inquiry, good for you. I realize that probably English is not your first language, so there are several issues involving the language you use here, but I think they could be just language barriers. For instance, ask yourself: Who does the “I” refer to? Is it the jiva identified with being a jiva or is it the jiva who knows about the Self but does not know what it means to BE the Self (indirect knowledge)?
If Self-knowledge is direct, the “I” always refers only to the Self, not the jiva, even though it is okay to speak as if you are the jiva, when you know you are not. And as the Self, you cannot be more “awakened,” because you never slept. You cannot become more aware, because awareness is all there is; but when it is covered up by ignorance, this fact is not known to you. When the mind is subjected to the teachings of Vedanta (assuming qualifications for self-inquiry are present), Self-knowledge removes the ignorance of your true nature, and your true nature as the Self (which has always been there) shines through.
But I understand that what you probably mean by your statement, “I understand apparent reality well, I am quite ‘awakened,’” is that your Self-knowledge is fairly good.
Michelle: My days are very much turned “inwards” rather than “outwards.” I constantly inquire (so to speak) about my thoughts, emotions, perceptions and actions, putting my mind there where it belongs being in the “Self.” I know who I am, but my knowledge is not firmed up yet, although I sense I get it from time to time. I review the Colorado seminar with a friend and I must say that sharing my actual understanding is the most interesting part of my life.
Sundari: Most dedicated inquirers go through what we call the “firefly” stage when Self-knowledge has not been actualized. You need to understand the difference between Self-realization and Self-actualization:
Enlightenment is not an object or a state of being to attain. It is who you are. You cannot gain something you already have. In truth, nobody is enlightened or unenlightened, because our true nature is the Self, the source of Light and the knower of “enlightenment.” But there is a big difference between enlightened (Self-actualized) and Self-realized.
Self-realization is an experiential term. It is also where the work of Self-actualization begins. Self-realization is an experience, and because all experience occurs in time, no experience can become permanent, all experiences will end. Experience is therefore not real in the light of Vedanta’s definition of what constitutes real, being “that which is always present and never changes.” Only awareness fits that definition, meaning one can “lose” one’s Self-realization if the knowledge “I am whole and complete, actionless, unchanging, unlimited, ordinary awareness” is not fully assimilated and you understand what that means for the jiva. It is one thing to know that your true nature is awareness, which is called indirect knowledge. It is quite another to live free of the person and as the Self.
We are always experiencing something. In fact we are only ever experiencing awareness, but if ignorance clouds the mind, we think awareness is something we must gain, so we seek experience. We then chase after objects (experience is an object) because we believe we are incomplete without it. This is the cause of all suffering. Vedanta states that only Self-knowledge and not experience can remove ignorance. Knowledge can be gained through experience if the knowledge experience is meant to impart is understood and assimilated. For this reason, epiphanies and other religious or transcendental experiences can become a hindrance, not a help. Unless the experience is understood in the light of Self-knowledge, it will be interpreted by one’s conditioning and the knowledge it offers will be contaminated. This leaves one endlessly seeking freedom through experience, a fruitless endeavour because you are what you are seeking.
Self-knowledge makes it clear that one is the Self, not the experiencer, because the experiencer is an object known to you. When you understand this fact clearly, your desire to experience the Self dies because you see that you have always only ever been experiencing your Self.
Self-actualization is the consistent, total application of Self-knowledge to one’s life. To be Self-actualized means (1) that one has fully discriminated the Self (consciousness) from the objects appearing in it (all objects, meaning all gross objects as well as one’s conditioning, thoughts, and feelings: all experience) and (2) that that knowledge has (a) rendered the binding vasanas non-binding and (b) negated one’s sense of doership.
Unless Self-knowledge translates fully into the life of the person, it cannot be said that Self-actualization has taken place, because the person will still be identified with certain aspects of being a person. In other words, binding vasanas and the sense of doership, or egoic belief in separation, will still be causing agitation in the mind. To repeat: for existential suffering to end and for awareness to become one’s primary identity, the person needs to be free of the idea of being a person to live free as the Self. What is the point of Self-realization if the mind is still under the tyranny of its likes and dislikes (vasanas)?
One can only fully actualize Self-knowledge when you have understood the identity between awareness, Isvara and the jiva. This is where most people get stuck (or come un-stuck) in their self-inquiry and it is why many self-realized people do not Self-actualize. Understanding Isvara is the key. This is probably one of the most important teachings in Vedanta. Isvara is your environment and everything in it, including you. For more on this teaching, please read Inquiry into Existence by James, based on Panchadasi.
Being fully Self-actualized means that you know that the apparent reality is not real, only you are, so you no longer seek objects to complete you and you no longer seek to change yourself or the world. If you do make changes it is from the standpoint of peace of mind, not because you are looking for more, better or different. You are already whole and complete. An object is anything other than you, so your contact with objects is all that changes. You no longer do anything for happiness. You do what you do happily because you are already happy. It does not mean that life is always wonderful or great; it is not. It is what it is and how it is, is not up to you as the person, even when you know that you are really awareness and unlimited. Your life belongs to Isvara and Isvara’s Creation continues as “before” your enlightenment. As awareness, you take what comes as prasad, dispassionate about results. This is because Isvara in the role of Creator or the Field of Existence (awareness plus Maya, or the gunas) takes care of the Total, not the jiva and not pure awareness, Paramatman. Moksa is freedom from the idea that you are the person, knowing you are really awareness, irrespective of what is happening or not happening in person’s life.
Michelle: I enjoy several times of “nirvana” per week.
Sundari: What does this mean, Michelle? Vedanta teaches that moksa is not experiential and cannot be gained through any experience, whether of “nirvana” or anything else. See above. When you understand this, it no longer matters to you what the jiva is experiencing, whether nirvana or its opposite. As the Self, you are always beyond all experience as the witness, and never condition to the gunas.
Michelle: I have three questions:
1. Where am I at? What would you recommend as my next steps?
Sundari: I have explained above. You are stuck at Self-realization and need to submit the mind to the teachings. Here are the mains stages of Self-inquiry:
Self-inquiry into the true nature of reality requires some important qualifications to be present in order for Self-knowledge to take place. Please make sure you know what they are, well described in James’ book How to Attain Enlightenment. They are essential requirements for Self-inquiry, and if they are not all present, you must develop them.
There are three stages to Self-inquiry:
1. Sravana: listening or hearing the scripture by exposing an open mind to it. This requires that one leaves everything one previously believed or thought one knew temporarily on the shelf. One can take them back if Self-knowledge does not work for you. This is very important; if one keeps comparing Vedanta to all one’s beliefs and opinions and try to make it fit in with them, it is best to forget about Self-inquiry, as it will not work. Vedanta is a radical teaching; it is counter-intuitive and it will challenge everything one thought one knew about the person you think you are.
It all depends on what one wants most. If freedom and an end to suffering is what one wants more than anything else, then this is the only means to achieve that. If one is still chasing experience, there is nothing wrong with that, but then Vedanta is not for you.
2. Manana: reasoning, contemplation. This is thinking about what the scripture is saying, examining the unexamined logic of one’s own experience. At this point, one looks at one’s beliefs and opinions in the light of what the scripture says, NOT the other way around.
3. Nididhyasana: once you have understood the teachings, the next step, nididhyasana, is the longest for everyone. It involves applying Self-knowledge to your life: taking a stand in awareness as awareness and transforming all the jiva’s conditioning into devotion to the Self.
Michelle: 2. Tell me how to maximize my “nirvana” time, please. I do not want to waste it.
Sundari: There is only way to “maximize nirvana time,” and that is to know that you are not conditioned by its presence or absence, that as the Self you are whole and complete, unconditioned and limitless awareness, always full and satisfied no matter what is going on for the jiva. You need to work on your satya-mithya discrimination by applying karma yoga.
Here are the four stages of karma yoga:
Step 1 of Doer Renouncement: Sacred Karma Yoga
This is for people actively engaged in Self-inquiry. It is surrendering the results of action to Isvara in an attitude of gratitude, consecrating each thought, word and action on a moment-to-moment basis to Isvara. It is managing your thoughts and emotions, and taking all results that do come as prasad. This is the only way to negate the doer.
Stage 2: Karma Sannyas, Relinquishing of Desire
Karma sannyas is to manage desires and no longer initiating any gratuitous actions. We have surrendered to Isvara and no longer pursue gaining anything in the world, although we still do what is required to live. Once the mind is purified, we apply Self-knowledge to discriminate the Self from the not-Self. This means that you know that your conditioning does not belong to you, but you are still bound by it. At this stage, unless one understands and practises triguna vibhava yoga in conjunction with karma sanyass, many highly qualified inquirers get stuck.
It does not work to superimpose satya (pure awareness) onto mithya. If superimposition happens, even though the Self is known, it will remain indirect knowledge, i.e. the Self will still appear as an object. And we will think we must “get” it. Or we must wait to have that final experience that will prove we are awareness, like wanting to experience nirvana when you are nirvana, as the Self. Direct knowledge and Self-actualization is the difficult part of inquiry.
Stage 3:Karma Jnana Sannyas
Through continual discrimination and application of the teachings, the jiva, the individual under the spell of Self-ignorance, understands that it is actually the Self, limitless awareness, and not the person it thinks it is.
The third stage of sacred karma yoga is karma jnana sannyas, the full negation of the doer with the knowledge that we can act but Isvara is the only doer. It is rendering all binding vasanas non-binding. If Self-knowledge has fully removed the ignorance of your true nature and you know without a doubt that you are the Self, beyond the gunas – trigunaatita – this is moksa. Moksa is for the jiva because the Self is already free. Direct knowledge allows the jiva to live free in this apparent reality.
Direct knowledge, moksa, is spontaneously discriminating the Self, satya (that which is real, always present and unchanging) from the not-Self, mithya (that which is only apparently real, not always present and always changing), at all times.
If the knowledge is firm and direct, karma yoga is no longer a practice as such, it is just knowledge. However, duality does not disappear once you know what it is. Maya/macrocosmic ignorance continues even though Self-knowledge has removed personal/microcosmic ignorance.
Step 4: Self-Actualization, Nididhyasana
Unfortunately, more often than not, the doer survives moksa and we still have work to do on rendering binding vasanas non-binding, i.e. purifying the mind. Here karma yoga becomes a different kind of mind management, nididhyasana, the transformation of our remaining binding mental/emotional conditioning into devotion to the Self. This period can take many years for most inquirers and it requires the application of sacred karma yoga and jnana yoga, until the jiva is fully dismissed.
Nididhyasana is managing the mind’s involuntary thoughts as well as our habitual thoughts and feeling patterns, which are bedrock duality and can survive moksa. Without self-objectivity and mind-management, these patterns can still hijack the mind without a moment’s notice, denying it access to the Self in the form of Self-knowledge. There is nothing inherently wrong with involuntary thoughts, but they tend to immediately morph into actions, which are liable to create unwanted karma in the form of obscuring thoughts and emotions.
The practice of Self-knowledge involves keeping it in the background during one’s daily transactions. It is difficult if you have a lot of karma because the mind is easily lost in dealing with it. It is constantly reminding the mind that one’s jiva and the world are both mithya and that the jiva is only a contributor of action while Isvara is the controller of the results. “You have a choice over action alone; never over results. May you not think you are the author of the results of actions. May you not have inclination towards inaction.” ~ Bhagavad Gita (2:47). It is a fact that you don’t have control of your body, mind, family and possessions, so leave them alone and accept the world as it is. You should always think, “It is a great blessing that I am never affected by anything that happens in mind or the world.”
The obstacles to mind control are (1) sleepiness (tamas) happening during meditation, (2) a mind hopping from one thought to another (rajas), (3) subconscious psychological problems (samskaras) that make the mind dull and (4) attachment to sattva produced by meditation. Once these obstacles are overcome, the mind permanently rests in the knowledge, “I am limitless, unborn, ordinary, unconcerned, ever-present, blissful awareness.”
Michelle: 3. I am humbly asking, may I have a teacher, please?
Sundari: That is what you have found. My recommendation is that you take the 12-month free course we offer on our website, based on James’ second book The Essence of Enlightenment. It offers the full teaching, with all the relevant questions that should arise, with the right answers. I also recommend Christian Leeby’s course Mind Management, available on our website.
~ Om and prem, Sundari