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Meditation Does Not Replace Self-Inquiry
Anne: Good day, James. My name is Anne. I am a 42-year-old mathematician who has been studying Advaita Vedanta for only three years. I attended your three-day seminar in Toronto recently (I was the girl in the front row who pushed the button on your Sony device) and have studied How to Attain Enlightenment, Mystic by Default and your commentary on the teachings of Ramana Maharshi. I am fortunate in that Vedanta study and a sadhana of self-enquiry (supported by correct karma yoga and a fairly sattvic life) have been the only spiritual path upon which I’ve ever embarked. My teacher encouraged me to study Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj and to take up self-enquiry meditation after an unsolicited spiritual awakening hit me one day rather out of the blue three years ago. Having previously maintained an essentially undisciplined and unspiritual existence, I fairly instantly switched to actively working to discern ignorance and gain knowledge of the self after said awakening and being completely won over by the logical framework of of Vedanta. Things clicked along fairly nicely in my sadhana until I reached a point in my meditation practice exactly as you describe below:
“During this stage, which might also be called the meditation stage, the mind, formerly riveted on happenings in the outer world, turns inward and fixes itself on the self, the light within, and at some point, usually after intense investigation, realizes the self. This realization is invariably formulated in experiential terms and is thought by many to be the end of the search, the ultimate state. But the science of self-inquiry says that while this is a welcome and enjoyable state, it is not the end, because there is still a sense of separation between the experiencer and the object of experience, the self. When there is separation there is doubt, and the doubt is always that this state, like all states, will end, plunging the experiencer back into darkness. The fear is invariably fulfilled as the experiences is not the direct experience of the self, which is impossible for reasons already discussed, but a reflection of the self in a still mind. No blame. However, the mind is subject to change, so the experience inevitably ends. This doubt is due to the failure of the experiencer to understand that what is experienced is just his or her own self, in which case it could never be lost, because when do you not exist? To enter the final stage, which is not a stage, inquiry must continue during the experience of the self. In ordinary perception, a thought wave arises in the mind corresponding to the nature of the perceived object. You see a tree and you know it is a tree because the self, awareness, illumines the tree thought as it arises in the intellect. Similarly, when the ego experiences the reflection of the self in a pure mind, a thought corresponding to the nature of the self, an unbroken ‘I’ thought, arises, and this thought needs to be owned. When it is taken as one’s own, the ‘I’ thought, backed by experience, destroys the notion in the mind that it is limited, incomplete and separate.”
What I am specifically enquiring about are the meditative mechanics of the last paragraph. How does one “own the ‘I’ thought” in this meditative state and then realize both in meditation and forever after that there isn’t any separation. I have no idea how to go about vectoring this experiential state into “self” and have been stuck here for nearly a year. Any wisdom you could impart would be very much appreciated.
~ Cheers, Anne
Sundari [answering for James]: Hello, Anne. Your doubt is a common one for those who are well-qualified and whose desire for moksa is burning. Clearly you have been dedicated to your sadhana and had the good grace (which is earned) to come across Vedanta right from the start of your search. You must have punya karma. ☺
I have focused on your last paragraph: “What I am specifically enquiring about are the meditative mechanics of the last paragraph. How does one ‘own the “I” thought’ in this meditative state and then realize both in meditation and forever after that there isn’t any separation. I have no idea how to go about vectoring this experiential state into ‘self’ and have been stuck here for nearly a year. Any wisdom you could impart would be very much appreciated.”
First of all, what do you mean when you refer to meditation? In the excerpt from James’ book that you quote from above, he is referring to meditation as an aid to self-inquiry, not specifically the practice of meditation per se. He makes it clear in his book that unless karma yoga is understood and meditation is practised with the karma yoga attitude, it will impede instead of assist self-inquiry.
Let’s look at the thrust of your doubt: “How does one ‘own the “I” thought’ in this meditative state and then realize both in meditation and forever after that there isn’t any separation. I have no idea how to go about vectoring this experiential state into ‘self’….”
Firstly, this is the doer talking here, the one who thinks that something has to be done, achieved or experienced. The self is not a “state” nor can you go about “vectoring” it “into” the self. This is because the self is not a state and you are already the self, the container of all experiences and states.
Meditation is a tool to aid self-inquiry but it does not equal self-inquiry. Unless one has realised that one is not the meditator but the one who knows the meditator, meditation can keep one stuck for years trying to have an experience of the self, which many meditators do. The problem is the identification with the experiencer/meditator is still there. Unless the knowledge that the meditation is designed to impart is fully assimilated – i.e. “I am whole and complete, non-dual awareness” and not the meditator – the experience ends, because it was just that, an experience. All experiences happen in time and so they are subject to change. Only self-knowledge will permanently set one free of the meditator/experiencer because you – awareness – are already free.
In this way the experience of self-realisation does not necessarily lead to freedom, moksa. This is why there are so many frustrated meditators around trying to get the experience back. Even if they succeed, they will most likely “lose” the self-realisation once again because the knowledge that they are that which makes all experience possible, i.e. awareness, escapes them. Meditation is no different from any other activity done to achieve a specific result unless it is practised with karma yoga, which negates the doer.
The knowledge that the meditation points to is that you are the knower of the one who meditates, the one who thinks it is the doer/meditator, the one who is trying to “vector the state of self” into the self. Meditation is just another object appearing in you, allowing the reflection of the self to appear in a still mind. However, seeing as no experience can take place without you, awareness, and because as awareness you are actionless, no special experience is required to experience the self. You are always experiencing the self, whether you are meditating or not. You just don’t know this. And no action the doer takes can produce self-knowledge. This is because as the doer you are limited and no action taken by a limited being can produce a limitless result, i.e. freedom.
The self, awareness, or you, is not an object of perception and cannot be known by the mind, because the mind is too gross and the self too subtle. The object cannot know the subject. The self is beyond the only the mind has to know anything, which are perception and inference.
Although we can have an experience of the reflection of the self in a pure, sattvic mind (such as in meditation) this is not enough to set us free of the doer. For this we need to expose the mind to self-inquiry and allow self-knowledge to remove our ignorance (avidya). Although self-inquiry is also an action, the result of self-inquiry is self-knowledge, which can produce a limitless result, meaning freedom from identification with the doer, or person.
The akankandakara vritti is the knowledge “I am whole and complete, non-dual awareness.” This knowledge sets you free of the identification with the doer, as it appears only in a purified mind. Self-inquiry is just the application of knowledge. Self-inquiry states that awareness is our true nature and both knowledge and ignorance are objects appearing in you, awareness. Keeping this knowledge in mind and continually contemplating it is self-inquiry. This is why self-inquiry is different from meditation, because the knowledge is maintained by an act of will, whereas in meditation the knowledge appears during a particular experience, which ends.
Self-inquiry is superior to meditation because the doer does not need to maintain a particular state and wait for the knowledge. He or she has the knowledge already and applies it continually. Meditators do not know the value of knowledge whereas inquirers do. That is why most meditators meditate. Knowledge may arise in meditation or it may not. If it does, we say meditation is a “leading error.” But even if meditation does lead to knowledge of the “unbroken I-thought” (akandakara vritti), the knowledge does not always stick, as I point out above.
We stand in awareness as awareness by claiming it, with the aid of self-inquiry and by applying the knowledge “I am whole and complete, non-dual awareness.” Life will continue as it always has, and as the apparent person we were “before” self-realisation. If the knowledge is firm, what will change is that one is forever free of the notion of bondage to objects, which means one is forever free of the notion of doership. Therefore one no longer seeks objects to fulfil you as you know that you are already full. The joy is not in the object, it is in you, awareness.
This is where self-inquiry into the true nature of reality comes in, which means learning to discriminate between you, awareness, and the objects appearing in you. Self-inquiry is the analysis of your own experience in the light of self-knowledge. Meditation, helpful to calm the mind, does not equal self-inquiry.
Freedom is for the jiva, the apparent person, who lives in the apparent reality. The self, being self-luminous and self-aware, has always been free. The understanding of the nature of the apparent reality is essential, as without it moksa will not be achieved, at least not for long.
There is no way around the work involved in understanding what makes up “our” conditioning; this is what we call self-actualisation. Self-realisation is the easy part. One cannot impose the real on the apparently real (satya on mithya). My feeling is that this is where you are stuck.
You ask: “How does one ‘own the “I” thought’ in this meditative state and then realize both in meditation and forever after that there isn’t any separation. I have no idea how to go about vectoring this experiential state into self experiencing the self in meditation” is well and good, but if the knowledge that “I am whole and complete fullness” does not take place, self-inquiry must continue until self-knowledge removes the ignorance that is blocking it. One is only free when one has discriminated the self from the objects appearing in it, rendered the binding vasanas non-binding and negated the doer. One can meditate all one wants to but unless these criteria are present, freedom does not take place.
One cannot impose the experience you had in meditation onto the apparent person hoping it will set them free. There is no other compass or vector other than self-knowledge that can do this for you.
Self-inquiry needs to take place in full consciousness, with meditation as an aid, not the aim. And then the knowledge has to be practiced in the fray of life, not sitting in meditation.
I have attached a brilliant article by James called The Mirror of Vedanta and a recent article I wrote on the common identity that awareness has as the Creator wielding maya (Isvara) with the individual subtle body (jiva) and the world. It also contains a brilliant satsang that James had with a self-realised man about the nature of the forces that make up the apparent reality. I hope this helps!
~ Namaste, Sundari