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Freedom from Me: My Adventures in Vedanta, Part 1, Separating Awareness from the Doer
The following essays explain my spiritual quest for freedom for the last thirty years of my life and finally understanding the truth due to the grace of my Vedanta teacher James Swartz. I would also like to take the opportunity to thank my previous teachers Curt Steinmetz, Timothy Conway and Anadi (formerly Aziz Kristof) who showed me how to live a life in accordance with dharma and freely shared all their teaching without any expectations. For a long time I thought my quest will end in freedom for Vivek but now I realize that it is freedom from Vivek, the experiencing entity.
I have divided the essays into three series:
1. Separating Awareness from the Doer
2. My Personal Quest for the Self
3. Morality, Love and Compassion
Part 1 – Separating Awareness from the Doer
For most of our adult lives, when we look at the outside world it seems like we control the outcome of various parts of our lives but on careful analysis realize that we actually don’t control most parts of our lives. For example, digestion, breathing, heartbeat are functions that are entirely beyond our conscious control but we wake up every morning thinking that we actually influence every facet of our existence. This doer (sense of personality, mind, intellect and ego) does not have a concrete existence but can only exist in relation to something else like external objects, thoughts, ideas, emotions or feelings. Metaphorically, the doer is like the shadow that shows up when you hold an object to the candle. The shadow has no independent existence aside from the flame. Because the flame illumines the object and casts a shadow, the existence of the shadow depends on the flame. Similarly, the doer is always looking for validation outside of itself by trying to revel in objects, ideas, emotions, and sundry. In other words, the desire for experience and completeness is paramount when you imagine yourself to be the doer because the doer’s very existence depends on experience. Hence the search for material pleasures, soul mates, the one love that will complete me, etc. However, the doer can never be happy or free because its very existence is insubstantial and no action can complete it.
In the above metaphor, awareness is the flame and the doer the shadow with the entire external reality/world being objects. The crux of the issue is when one finally understands the difference between awareness and the doer. When you realize that the doer (sense of personality, mind, intellect and ego) is an object in awareness it becomes obvious that no action can free you. This is because the doer and the action that is trying to change the doer are objects in awareness and therefore cannot lead one to awareness. This understanding is at an intuitive level and cannot be intellectualized by the mind because the mind is still an object in awareness. Once it becomes solidified there is a shift in perspective where instead of you looking at the world through the lens of a doer you see the world as awareness. You realize that awareness is the ground from which all existence arises. The doer becomes a part of the picture instead of the sole focus. Once you realize the shadow (doer) for what it is it loses its significance. It is like seeing a mirage in the desert, you know that it is mirage so you will not go and drink the water. However, it does not mean the mirage disappears once you know that it is a mirage. It is the knowledge that it is the mirage that frees you, or like a wise man once said, it is the truth that frees, not your effort to be free. In my personal experience, when contemplating the difference between knowledge and experience it became clear to me that the self/awareness is always free of experience.
After recognizing that you, the doer, are an object in awareness, normal cyclic mentation where the mind rules the roost is reduced. You can clearly see that thoughts arise in awareness and you as awareness are independent of this thought. You also see that the doer is actually a part of the structure of thought and therefore any attempt by the doer to free himself/herself from thoughts is bound to end in failure. This does not mean that the mind stops or the ego dies but you as awareness realize that you are separate from the mind and the ego. The mind and ego are required for the functioning of the human being in this world, and imagining that enlightenment will somehow destroy the mind is deluded thinking. Without a functioning mind you cannot drive a car, cook your food or pay your bills. For example, even a simple act like drinking a glass of water requires a functioning mind because the mind creates a cognitive map of the body and that allows you to reach forward in space and grasp the glass of water. Since all great masters drank water daily and interacted with the world in a reasonably logical manner we can safely assume that they had a functioning mind and ego. The only thing that changes is the need to react every time something arises in the mind or if the ego needs to assert its self-importance. You as awareness see the doer (mind, intellect and ego) as constructs that arise in awareness, meaning that they have no independent existence aside from awareness. The no-mind, stop-thinking, open-your-heart schools are based on a fundamental misunderstanding on the nature of enlightenment. Stopping the mind or the no-thinking teaching in certain instances can point towards the awareness that supports our whole existence but it does not preclude a critically thinking mind. J. Krishnamurti, who claimed that his mind stopped when he realized himself, dressed in Savile Row tailored suits and drove a Mercedes. How could he do that if he did not have a mind or an ego?
Obviously, it takes time for this insight to deepen because all human beings in this world have unconscious tendencies and patterns that develop since birth. Some patterns are like raindrops in a stream, and can be cleared by momentary insight while some are like the stream and take longer to dry. Living as awareness allows you to separate yourself from these patterns so you don’t have to be pushed and pulled by your tendencies all the time. Another path which is valid is to let the mind be as it is and take a stand as awareness while making sure that you follow dharma during the process. This is a dangerous path because there is high probability that the ego could co-opt this experience and try to make it special. It is always preferable to purify the mind according to scriptures, like the great teachers of yore.
So how does one come upon this awareness that supports our whole existence? Despite what the no-teaching, no-path or no-doer schools of enlightenment like to claim, you just cannot negate the doer using the mind because, as we said before, the mind and the doer are one and the same and share the same order of reality. The doer is a part of the framework of thought and hence cannot free itself from thought. Not doing anything is the same as doing something since they both originate from the network of thought. Denying that you are the doer or that everything is up is up to grace of God might give you a temporary high but as you enter the world and interact with human beings the old patterns reemerge and you are back to square one. The doer can never negate himself, especially by not doing anything! Siddharameshwar Maharaj, a great Advaita teacher, said, “The bird of self-realization flies on the wings of effort and grace.”
To solve this conundrum there are two main approaches, one experiential (Buddhism and yoga), and another knowledge-based (Vedanta). Buddhism proposes stilling the mind through meditation, which allows awareness to shine forth. In Soto Zen this is called shinkantaza, a method of awareness watching awareness, which in essence is sitting without any expectations. This method is arduous and time-consuming because it requires a lot of patience to let the mind run through its machinations and finally become still. Beginners typically expect instant results, and most people don’t have the patience to follow this path. In Indian philosophy this is called Pipilika Marg, the “Way of the Ant.” In the Rinzai school of Zen or in the sudden-enlightenment schools the student is given paradoxical statements to solve in the hope that the mind stops and awareness shines forth. One you realize the essential nature of this awareness you try to stabilize in this awareness. Another method that has become popular in recent times is the technique popularized by three famous sages who lived in India during the 1940s, Ramana Maharshi, Sri Krishna Menon and Nisargadatta Maharaj, which is to follow the “I-sense” back to its source and then find that the I-sense is an object in awareness. The I-sense is typically what is called the ego knot, the sensation that is responsible for the feeling that you exist. It is a bridge that connects the doer to the self/awareness.
The main problem with the experiential schools is that the language in most cases presupposes a doer that stabilizes in awareness. As we have discussed above, the doer can never stabilize in awareness because the doer depends on awareness for its existence. It is the shadow to the flame of awareness. The shadow can never become the flame. They also do not have the precise language to separate the doer from awareness. Why is this important? It is important because unless you separate yourself from the idea that you are the doer you can never be free. Experience by its very nature is impermanent. Could anyone among us name even one experience that lasted forever? No experience can give you the knowledge that you are awareness, including experiences of awareness, or self. All experiences are time-bound, including mystical experiences and sublime experiences of the self. Stilling the mind, watching awareness or tracing the I-sense will never lead to freedom because the doer is under the illusion that this action will free him. Only knowledge that “I am awareness” frees oneself. Awareness is free of all action and is eternal. It is the ultimate subject and it cannot be made into an object. All things begin in awareness and end in awareness.
In Vedanta the student under the guidance of a teacher who has realized the self is shown in a logical manner how the self/awareness is always free. This teaching is called Vihangam Marg, or “The Bird’s Way.” This is the way of understanding, the direct way of self-realization. Vedanta makes astute use of the mind/intellect to show how the mind cannot free itself. In scientific parlance, it basically shows the mind to be a self-referential loop, and realization of this fact allows one to see himself/herself as awareness. Vedanta is not a religion which requires faith in anything. The only requirements, according to Shankara, a great Advaita sage, for a student to be enlightened are the following:
(a) Unattachment, dispassion, (b) discernment of the abiding real from the fleeting unreal, (c) supreme earnestness, or yearning for authentic liberation, and (d) “six attainments,” entailing shama (concentration), dama (control of the sense organs), uparama (contentment through dharma [virtue]), titiksha (equanimity/forbearance) and shraddha (supreme faith in the self).