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Ignorance: The Origin of Unnamed Fear
Steven: Dear Ram, Sundari, I was compelled to write this letter to you tonight, as I am at the end of my rope with the spiritual search.
Sundari: Then you have come to the right place! If you are ready to give up being a seeker maybe you are ready to be a finder.
Steven: I’ve been on the path for over 20 years and feel as though you are the closest to an authentic, no-bullshit teacher here in the West that completely embodies Vedanta.
Sundari: You are right, there are very few genuine Vedanta teachers worldwide and James is one of the best; you are very fortunate to have crossed his path.
Steven: Growing up in war-torn Israel, I had an awakening experience at the age of nine. One night I went into an inquiry, imagining myself buried six feet under as the rest of the world carried on. There was an undeniable knowing that what I am can never be off. What I am is and always was here. I went deeper into this, imagining everyone on the planet dead while the universe carried on. It was clear to me that nothing could exist without something attesting to the existence of the universe.
Sundari: This is a fairly typical epiphany, or experience of the true nature of reality being non-dual; unfortunately, it is only an experience. Unless the knowledge that the experience is meant to deliver has been assimilated and is firm, namely “I am whole and complete, non-dual, ever-present, unmodified, limitless awareness, then when the experience ends – which they always do – the knowledge is lost too. This is the main difference between Vedanta and 99.9 % of all other so-called spiritual paths, including Neo-Advaita. Vedanta teaches than only knowledge and not experience will set you free from bondage to objects. NOTHING else works. Neo-Advaita talks about awareness but it does not have a teaching, so there is no way for you to actualise what being awareness is. This is the crux of the matter: what does it mean to say that “I am awareness”?
Steven: This experience was never forgotten, and as my family and I moved to California this knowledge lost its power, became more blurry and was put on the back burner as I went through life trying to make something out of myself and live the life that my parents and culture wanted me to live. Throughout my young teenage years I suffered a lot of bullying and was a victim of racism. Those traumatic experiences ingrained a sense of lack and a story of not being good enough in me. Because of this I experienced many dysfunctional, co-dependent relationships in my life. I didn’t feel that I deserved any better so I settled with what came my way. My last relationship was very emotionally abusive as I feel my live-in girlfriend had quite a few narcissistic traits. I allowed myself to put up with many behaviors that most people would have walked away from.
Sundari: This is also fairly typical as far as stories go; samsara is a place of suffering when you do not know who you are. Moksa is being able to discriminate you, awareness, from the objects that arise in you – and to never confuse the two again. This entails rendering the binding vasanas (likes and dislikes) non-binding and negating the notion of doership. To achieve this karma yoga is the only way but for karma yoga to be really effective you need to understand who the jiva is, what Isvara is, what the dharma field is and how all this is related to you as awareness. This is called the work and there is no escaping this if you really want to be free of Steven and his stuff. You need to understand what makes up his conditioning, where it really comes from and what it is made up of – in other words, you need to understand Steven in the light of self-knowledge and NOT in the light of his sad life story.
Vedanta is a valid means of knowledge and offers all the tools for you to do this. It is called a brahma vidya, which means the “science of consciousness.” Vedanta is an objective and scientific analysis of the true nature of reality – and your experience based on the facts. Like any other science, it is not personal and it has a methodology – which, if followed with great dedication and commitment, will provide irrefutable knowledge that is moksa, if the student is qualified. Vedanta is simply the truth about you. Not your truth or my truth or anyone’s truth: The Truth.
This is why Vedanta is called apauruseya jnanam, meaning “not the philosophy or experience of one person” like a prophet or a mystic. It is not a belief system or religion either. It is an independent teaching, or sruti, which means “that which is heard.” Vedanta is revealed to the mind of man, not thought up by man, which is why you can trust it. You have found the Holy Grail. You just need a little help to understand what it means to be self-realised and to live the knowledge.
Steven: I see that the pursuit of happiness in the world has led me nowhere and that any relationship that I’ve had has been doomed to failure. However, for some strange reason I have this belief that I can awaken to what is true while maintaining a romantic relationship. But obviously, and this is what is so difficult for me to come to terms with, it has not worked out.
Sundari: If you have come to the realisation that the world has nothing to offer, then you are ready to negate all the objects as not-self, which includes the need for the special other, as in a romantic relationship. It is not that Vedanta is against relationships (I am married to James) but it teaches that the basis of freedom means freedom from dependence on objects because you know that your true nature is fullness. When self-knowledge has removed the ignorance of your true nature and revealed it to be whole and complete, then you no longer seek the other for joy because you know that you are the source of the joy. There is no other; there is only you. A self-actualised person may or may not be in a love relationship; whoever they relate to, they will do so as the self. They will not be in any kind of relationship because they need someone else to be happy or fulfilled because they are already happy and fulfilled.
Your motivation for seeking a relationship is to end the pain, to end loneliness, by finding someone who makes you feel less afraid. If you contemplate on this you will see that this is a serious impediment to moksa. This is because this is a totally dualistic belief; it is not based in truth and it will never be able to deliver to you what you are looking for, which is an end to suffering. In fact it will do the opposite because the more you reinforce this idea the more binding that vasana will become. As you say above, all attempts at finding happiness in relationships has been doomed to failure; this is how it is with desire for object-fulfillment. No object can satisfy anyone for long. When the initial burst of bliss is over, soon enough the joy that seems to come from the object will fade. This is because the initial bliss is really just relief that the pressure caused by the relentless desire for the other which drives the mind has temporarily subsided. Desire is painful for the mind.
Disappointment sets in along with all the other negative thoughts that accompany the fruitless search for fulfillment in samsara. One does not have to look far to see this obvious truth in our desire-driven and highly dissatisfied societies.
If you are convinced that there is nothing that the world can give you, then you are ready to hear Vedanta. Through dedicated self-inquiry into the true nature of reality self-knowledge will reveal to you what ignorance is and will also remove it. We advise people who are serious about moksa to NOT make a relationship a goal if they are genuinely seeking freedom. This is a binding vasana and will keep you bound to objects and to the doer, making moksa impossible. Moksa is freedom from dependence on objects.
You need to investigate your need for the other in the light of self-knowledge, which will mean that you need a full understanding of the awareness-Isvara-jiva identity and, of course, the gunas. (See attached article.)
The gunas are what make up the Isvara’s physical and psychological order, and there is nothing in the apparent reality that is not conditioned by them, other than Isvara and awareness. When the jiva’s ignorance has been removed by self-knowledge the jivanmukta, which is the self no longer under the spell of ignorance, still applies karma yoga purely as knowledge because enlightened or not, the dharma field operates according to certain laws and principles called dharmas. A jivanmukta naturally follows dharma because they want peace of mind.
Steven: I am honestly tired of going to satsangs and listening to teachers preaching non-duality. I’ve sat with various teachers and have even traveled to India where I sat for a month-long satsang with Dolano. Have you heard of her? There have been many beautiful, blissful experiences of the falling away of the Steven-story. But they don’t last. The egoic sense of self seems to return 10 times stronger.
Sundari: No, we have not heard of Dolano. There are many people who hop onto the non-dual bandwagon and set up shop as teachers. Some of them have their place and do have something to teach, most don’t. One has to use great discrimination because some of these teachers put out just enough knowledge so that someone who does not know the difference between ignorance and knowledge cannot see the ignorance lying right next to the knowledge and swallows it all. Vedanta is very precise; there is no room for interpretation nor can you get it to fit into what you think you know. If you are serious about moksa drop all that you have previously been taught or think you know – put it on the back shelf. Subject the mind with great faith to the scripture and be totally open to what Vedanta teaches. Faith in the scripture is one of the most important qualifications if you want moksa. If upon inquiry you do not find what you are looking for, then you can take back your previous ideas or beliefs about what you think is truth. Vedanta does not ask for blind faith but faith pending the outcome of your investigation. Vedanta is called “the knowledge that ends the quest for knowledge” – which is what the word Vedanta literally means. And it will definitely do that if the mind is qualified and dedicated to moksa.
Steven: I have read your book and I practice the karma yoga attitude daily but there is this constant emotional energy in the body, mainly in the solar plexus, that haunts me, often waking me up with panic attacks in the early morning hours. There are times when I feel a sense of a split in my personality. There can sometimes be days of complete absence of the me and perfect peace and harmony, only for this me with its broken past with all of the thoughts of what a failure I’ve been at the age of 51 to come back.
Sundari: It is good that you have read James’ book; I suggest that you read as many of the e-satsangs as possible as they are high-voltage, pure Vedanta. Watch as many of the videos as you can too. If takes great persistence to remove ignorance; it is hardwired and very tenacious. As long as you do not know the difference between ignorance and knowledge and you keep taking ignorance to be knowledge, the mind suffers. Existential suffering will only go away when the knowledge of the true nature of reality is hard and fast.
Samskaras (conglomeration of vasanas) have “a life of their own” because they actually have nothing to do with who we really are but, of course, as long as the person is identified with them the person is “under the whip,” so to speak, and suffering continues because there is still some ignorance. Self-knowledge has not yet been fully assimilated. The effects of ignorance take as long as they take to be removed by self-knowledge; it is not up to the person because ignorance (the vasanas) belongs to Isvara, the causal body. Neither the person nor awareness can “do” anything about them. Karma yoga is the only solution. I have explained in detail in the article I have attached how important self-actualisation is. Most people who have realised the self think that it is enough. Unfortunately, it is not. Self-realisation is not moksa. It is still an experience and there is still considerable “work” to be done to translate self-knowledge into your life. Moksa is freedom FROM the doer, or Steven and his stuff, as well as FOR the jiva; in order to live free of Steven Isvara and the jiva have to be fully understood in the light of self-knowledge.
The apparent reality does not disappear when you know that it is not real; it is known for what it is: a superimposition onto non-duality, like the mirage on the desert floor still exists when you know it is a mirage. Vedanta does not say that duality does not exist, it says it is not real, meaning always changing and not always present. Only awareness is always present and never-changing. Thus you can still enjoy duality for what it has to offer, which is limited bliss, because you know that you are the unlimited bliss from which everything ensues. It is all you, awareness, but you are free of it all, like water is free of the ocean and the wave but they both depend on water to exist.
The fear that causes knots in the solar plexus is related to what we call free-floating anxiety. It is a by-product of very deeply-rooted samskaras, and they have their origin in fear, of course. This is macrocosmic rajas (projection), and it is part of the dharma field. Everyone who is identified with being a person is affected by it to some degree. Usually, the vasanas will exhaust themselves after a while but this one, this unnamed fear, is constantly “on.” As the self it doesn’t bother you at all, of course, and for those who are self-realised but not self-actualised this unnamed fear may still come and go.
Very often, especially with people with low self-esteem, this is a fear (usually unconscious) of how “others” view the “me,” meaning the person. In this case, just the thought of judgment from others brings up fear. It is manageable if one does not identify with it, but to be free of the person this fear needs to be purified through self-knowledge as it causes great agitation for the mind, and when it rears its head peace of mind is not possible.
This fear is the big one, the king of all vasanas. We call it primordial, beginningless ignorance (tamas), or maya. A more user-friendly term is “free-floating anxiety” I mentioned above. What it means is that because self-knowledge is not firm there is a non-specific, unnamed, existential fear: dread. It is sometimes called “the fear of being and becoming.” The Christians call it “original sin.” It is always present yet hidden in the causal body, and it is looking for objects to attach to (rajas). It is related to others; it is the ultimate experience of duality, or otherness.
Not everyone experiences it directly like you do, although many do. In most samsaris it works out in petty, mundane and indirect ways all day long, year after year. You will notice that it is called “beginningless” ignorance. The implied meaning of this phrase is that it is not endless because self-knowledge ends personal ignorance (avidya) for good. As you have experienced, it disappears for a bit then reappears, so you know that the fear is not real. As you mention below, it is when you are around people in your work environment that you are most prone to this anxiety, rajas. On your own it is easier to experience sattva (peace of mind), which is the natural state of the mind. Meditation is a useful tool to purify the mind in preparation for self-inquiry.
Unfortunately, there is no quick, easy fix so you are going to have to somehow embrace it. By that I mean that it will be helpful to use it to motivate yourself to practice knowledge – meaning self-inquiry. Ignorance is hardwired, remember. The root of the problem may be the me that others seem to be judging as lacking. By “judge” I mean that you don’t like that me since people who truly love and respect themselves do not you have this kind of anxiety. Which means that Steven is identified with Steven and his stuff on a deeper, unconscious level.
The basic issue is viragya, lack of dispassion. You can’t separate the thoughts from the feeling of dis-ease that they engender. This is because your confidence in the knowledge that you are beautiful is not up to speed. So when this happens you should bring the knowledge to mind and/or alternatively enumerate your good qualities to yourself: “I’m not a murderer or a child molester. I’m a good person. I love God. I am dedicated to the truth. I am kind and intelligent, etc.” In other words, you should apply the opposite thought. This is called “taking a stand in awareness as awareness.”
All this basically boils down to one issue: why you don’t love yourself as you are. If you loved yourself it would not make any difference what thoughts arise in the mind. You would know that those thought are not real and have nothing to do with you. If you can’t accept the scripture’s contention that you are beautiful and perfect, then you have to appreciate the fact that you had no choice in who you are, either as the self or as the person called Steven. If you could have been different, you would have been. You cannot change you. You can only understand and accept the apparent person called Steven as he is – warts and all, if there are any.
Steven: I apologize for the long introduction, but I was wondering if you can offer some advice and if there is anything that I might be missing. I suppose my story is no different than your typical Joe Blow story but when I’m in the middle of the onslaught of the thoughts and the belief in them, it is hell! I know my job as a software engineer has become more of a trigger for these events because I notice that during weekends, while sitting alone in silence, there is peace and little identification with the story.
It would be great to sit with you some time and meet you. I am in Los Angeles and I see that you are going to be in Northern California later this year.
~ Regards, Steven
Sundari: We would love to meet you and hope to see you there, Steven! There really is only one story and we all share it; it is a story as old as time: the identification of the mind with objects and the lack of apprehension of the true nature of reality to be a non-duality. It is the story of existential suffering brought about by ignorance. What is missed is the one who knows the story and is unaffected by it: you, awareness. My advice is to continue self-inquiry, specifically with regards to the Isvara-jiva identity, as stated a few times above.
~ Much love to you, Sundari