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How Do I Practise Self-Knowledge?
Sundari: Sundari’s answer: It takes total dedication to self-inquiry, 24/7.
Here is the basic outline for self-inquiry. There are three stages to it. Provided the qualifications for self-inquiry are present, they are:
1. Sravana – Listening or hearing the scripture. This requires that you leave everything you previously believed or thought you knew temporarily on the shelf. You can take it back if self-knowledge does not work for you. But for now leave it on the shelf. This is very important; if you keep comparing Vedanta to all your beliefs and opinions and try to make it fit in with them, forget about self-inquiry. It will not work, so go back to whatever you were doing before; you are not ready for moksa if this is the case. Vedanta is a radical teaching, it is counterintuitive; expect it to challenge everything you thought you knew about the person you think you are.
It all depends what you want most. If you want freedom and an end to suffering, then this is the only means to achieve it. If you want experience, 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 your own experience. At this point, you look at your beliefs and opinions in the light of what the scripture says, NOT the other way around.
3. Nididhyasana – Applying the knowledge to your life; taking a stand in awareness as awareness.
Joseph: The difficulty for me is applying the knowledge moment by moment. The thought “I am unlimited and nothing is separate from me” I find very difficult because, as you say, I get sucked into identifying with the feelings and I forget to apply the knowledge.
Sundari: Ask yourself: Who is talking here? Is it the jiva identified with being the jiva, the jiva who knows the self or the jiva who knows it IS the self? This is the ego, or Joseph the reflected self, who is an object known to you the self, talking as the jiva who knows the self, i.e. has indirect knowledge of the self. Joseph is a name that refers to the self under the spell of ignorance and as a jiva, or ego, it is the one who gets “sucked into the feelings” and who forgets to apply self-knowledge. This is the ego trying to experience the self, which is the way most people begin their self-inquiry. It takes great discipline and dedication to self-inquiry for self-knowledge to remove ignorance and for the mind to assimilate the knowledge that it is really the self “experiencing” the ego.
Joseph: How do I “practise knowledge”? I feel I need a course of some kind, a step-by-step training in this. I suppose that this is why people live in an ashram. But how do I do it on my own?
Sundari: It is easier to practise self-knowledge in an ashram, as typically ashrams create an atmosphere that is conducive to spiritual seeking. People who go to ashrams are very often seekers and not finders. Unless the discipline in the ashram is based on self-knowledge and the student is able to translate what is learnt in the ashram into life in the apparent reality outside of the ashram, once these people leave this environment they are often right back where they started no matter how spiritual they think they are. The vasanas are still there, the gunas are operating as they always do and no amount of meditating and spiritual talk will make them magically go away. This is because the person is still there, the doer, who thought it could “do” spirituality, which has not been negated and is at the mercy of its conditioning. This is why no other process can be a permanent solution to samsara; only self-knowledge has the power to remove ignorance and thus to negate the doer and render the vasanas non-binding. I don’t think you are seriously contemplating an ashram as option for you anyway.
So this is how you practise self-knowledge. Self-inquiry requires the most rigorous discipline!
1. Conduct a fearless moral inventory of your values. These are what underpin the vasanas, which are generated by the gunas. This is what determines your motivations. The first thing to be sure of with regards to self-inquiry is how well-grounded you are in the basics, which are the qualifications. This cannot be overstated, as it is absolutely necessary to know “where you stand,” i.e. what stands under you. This lays the foundation for the work of exploration into the self and what will give you the spiritual stamina to stay with it and do whatever it takes. Without a very strong desire for moksa you will not get very far. Write down the qualifications, track yourself on a moment-to-moment basis. See where and how you are weak in any one of them.
2. Self-inquiry can only be done on your own, with a qualified teacher guiding it. Vedanta needs to be taught. Even though it may help to find like minds to share ideas with, unless this sharing is undertaken with a qualified teacher guiding it, this most often leads to interpretation of the knowledge instead of practice of the knowledge. You have access to tons of invaluable resources through your contact with James and the material he freely offers at the ShiningWorld website; make use of them. You can write to me or any one of the excellent teachers that ShiningWorld endorses. We are all here to help you with whatever query you still have.
3. Start a sadhana that you stick to no matter what. Read James’ book How to Attain Enlightenment from the beginning again; do not proceed further until you have fully understood each sentence. Each word in that book is a densely-packed, high-potency infusion of self-knowledge. Do not be in a hurry and do not skip. Corroborate everything with the thousands of e-satsangs posted at the website. Every question that could possibly be asked has been already answered there. Read other source materials, such as Dayananda’s Bhagavad Gita Home Study Course. Watch at least 30 minutes of the DVDs and video material from the ShiningWorld website every day. Subject your mind constantly to the knowledge.
4. Make sure that you fully understand and apply all the yogas. The most important practice of all is jnana yoga (self-knowledge), which entails subjecting your mind to the scripture on a constant basis. It is the most important of all the yogas and of course incorporates all the yogas. There is no other way to discriminate self from not-self, which is how you negate the doer and render the binding vasanas non-binding. There is also no purifier like self-knowledge, and nothing else is capable of removing ignorance of your true nature, i.e. to set you free of Joseph.
5. Practice karma yoga to negate the doer by surrendering each action or thought on a moment-to-moment basis to Isvara, knowing the result is not up to you, then taking the result that does come as prasad, a gift.
6. Practice triguna vibhava yoga (managing the gunas) by understanding what the gunas are and how they make up the dharma field and thus how Isvara operates. This is seeing how the gunas have created “Joseph’s” conditioning (it actually comes from the field, or Isvara, and therefore does not belong to Joseph) and making changes in the light of self-knowledge to manage the gunas for peace of mind. This sounds like a doing but it is actually the understanding that comes from self-knowledge, which allows for appropriate action to be taken.
7. This will involve reassessing your lifestyle, what you do for a living, how and where do you live, money, sex, entertainment, diet, exercise, who you associate with and why, family, etc., etc. Cleaning up one’s psychology in the light of self-knowledge means simply understanding the gunas and how they have conditioned the apparent person.
See the conditioning that operates in Joseph like the software in a computer, programmes overwriting programmes that are always running in the background. See the dharma field like a computer game where all the moves are programmed into the game already and even though the apparent individual seems to choose a move and takes action, it can only act within the scope of what is already programmed into the game. Then ask yourself, who is the doer? Hint: it is not Joseph and it is not you, awareness. Remember at all times that moksa is freedom from the doer, not for the doer.
8. Devotion: bhakti yoga is love in the form of understanding, or self-knowledge, and flows naturally as a result of applying the mind to self-knowledge. It is simply a rediscovery of one’s true self, and an essential practice for purifying the mind. Self-knowledge is another word for love. Develop a religious attitude; this helps to negate the ego, as any practice one does in the light of self-knowledge is a worship of or devotion to the self, you. Find a devotional practice that works for you.
9. Choose a prakriya, or spiritual practice, for instance, applying the opposite thought. One of my favourites is to catch yourself whenever you find yourself saying the word “I.” Hit the “pause” button without delay and ask yourself: “Who is speaking here? Is this the jiva identified with being a jiva (the doer/ego), is it the reflected self, Joseph, or is this me, pure awareness?” The mind is hardwired to think a certain way and it needs to be trained, like the wayward spoilt child that it is, to behave differently. Dedication and repetition are essential.
Neuroscience confirms this with studies on the neurotransmitters and on how the neural networks form in the brain. Find a mantra that appeals to you and chant it as often as you can. You need to take a stand in awareness and do whatever it takes to make the knowledge firm, even if it means “faking it till you make it.” This means, even if the ego does not yet buy it, keep up the self-inquiry and just keep repeating: “I am non-dual, actionless, unchanging, unlimited, ordinary awareness.” The reason this works is because it is true. Constantly watch the mind; see what thoughts arise in it, track their origin.
All thoughts arise from the gunas: they are either rajasic, tamasic or sattvic and as such totally predictable. If you want to understand the psychology that runs the ego, or Joseph, this is how to do it. In this way you will understand the binding vasanas and samskaras. Everything dissolves into awareness, but the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
Do the work! This is where Vedanta differs from other paths, as it is both a means of knowledge – a pathless path – and a path of action, meaning that it provides tools and the instructions how to use them which when applied rigorously and with dedication will remove ignorance and its effects. It is the irrefutable knowledge that underpins all other paths. It will set you free but you have to “do the work,” meaning commit yourself above and before anything else to moksa, freedom from the person. It is really self-knowledge itself that does the work of removing ignorance, not any action per se that the jiva takes.
It is thus very important to understand that this does not mean one has to set about perfecting the person, the jiva. It means negating the doer by fully understanding the conditioning that is operating the person in the light of self-knowledge. Self-inquiry involves making the choice for peace of mind by moderating behaviours that generate excessive rajas and tamas, which are the basis of all ignorance, as well as initiating behaviours that are conducive to peace of mind. For instance, a sattvic lifestyle, meditation, a devotional practice of some kind, chanting or anything else that is conducive to peace of mind. In this way the mind is purified and self-knowledge can then remove the ignorance. There is no shortcut to this, only the long cut, which is constant application of the knowledge. This requires without fail facing everything that challenges your good opinion of yourself. It is less than glamorous or exciting “work” but the only worthwhile occupation there is!
There is no other magic formula to make the knowledge firm. It takes total dedication, 24/7. What could be more important than this, than you?
Joseph: It’s as if I’ve learned a foreign language from a book and I’m facing the question “How do I actually speak the language in real life?”
Sundari: This is true from Joseph’s, or the apparent self’s, perspective. It is a totally new language, as up until now you thought you were Joseph and he has been speaking the language of ignorance. You are learning the language of self-knowledge and this entails seeing and speaking from the self’s perspective. For self-knowledge to take place and remove ignorance, everything else you thought you knew or thought you understood needs to be dumped, cleaned right off the board, so that you start with a clean slate. Be utterly ruthless in this or you will interpret Vedanta according to the vasanas that operate Joseph and self-knowledge will not take hold. Start with the assumption that you know nothing and that everything has thus failed you, which you know very well is true. Then surrender Joseph to Vedanta so that you can be free of him, while loving him all the same, just as a mother would love an errant child.
Joseph: I’m very grateful that you’re here and taking the trouble to answer my questions. I have no doubt that life has provided me with the right teacher. The difficulty is asking the right questions and practising the answers!
Sundari: Yes, the difficulty is indeed in understanding what it means to be self-realised and to live that “in the world.” Moksa is for the jiva and freedom from the jiva, who never leaves the apparent reality. The self has always been free. Self-realisation is the easy part; self-actualisation is the tough part and where all the “work” comes in. There is a saying that when the student is ready, the right teacher will appear. There is another saying that you get the teacher you deserve. Maya is a great teacher, and when the apparent person has had enough of suffering it gets serious about putting an end to it. This is generally when Isvara provides the appropriate teacher who will assist the ego to embark on the journey that is not a journey to what has been there all along, which is you, the self.
By Isvara’s grace, the apparent person stumbles upon the pathless path which has been beneath its feet all the time: Vedanta. It is the self under the spell of ignorance that is propelling you to end this search and it has brought you to James, who is none other than the self, you. You could not have found a better teacher or arrived at a better place to discover that you are and always have been, the only place.
~ Much love to you, Sundari