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That Dissatisfied Voice
Martyn: Dear James, thank you for writing How to Attain Enlightenment as well as for publishing all the great content available via your ShiningWorld website. You are doing a great service by teaching traditional Advaita in terms more easily accessible to Westerners. I know you have a very busy schedule now that your book has become widely known so I apologize for adding to the load and realize it may take you quite some time to respond. Of course, I’m also aware that you and Sundari may simply be too busy now and may need to pass this along to one of your teaching colleagues instead – all good with me!
Aside from some email exchanges with Dennis Waite I’ve been studying Vedanta on my own and feel a need to check my understanding. I realize that you don’t consider yourself to be a guru. But it’s very clear to me that you are working within the legitimate sampradaya, that you are a true expert on Vedanta and you are in the unique position of being able to explain traditional Advaita to Westerners. It’s no mystery to me why you have become so popular since publishing your book.
Your phrase “I am ordinary, actionless, limitless, non-dual awareness” is amazingly helpful, thank you. Of course these words are just placeholders, and no thought (however eloquently expressed) could possibly encompass the Whole that is brahman. So I do also understand that this phrase is merely a pointer to That which cannot be stated. Language is firmly rooted in duality and can therefore never express non-duality. We cannot objectify the One Subject. Words fall back from it, and so on.
After searching for more than 40 years I finally realized a few years ago that I had been looking for the glasses that were already sitting on my head. I had been seeking an Object all that time when it was actually the Subject I was seeking. Further, I am already the Subject. More properly, there is no I at all, only Subject, a single Subject. Oops.
Before I could realize this it took a series of crises for me to hit bottom and then start anew. Knowing my previous approach to the path had failed but still looking for answers, I made the usual tour through the works of Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj and a very long list of Neo-Advaita authors. The Neo doctrine left me deeply depressed for the first time in my life (I will be 56 in a couple of months). It was a total shock to suddenly realize all the work I had previously done was merely mithya, only an apparent reality. Worse, “I” did not even exist at all. The whole story of my life was just that, a story, a work of creative fiction. I had been tricked. But what good did it do to know this? I felt no different from before. If I had finally gotten it, why did I still wake up thinking about my financial problems? Why did I still have negative thoughts? How come my joints still hurt? Much of this was due to impartial understanding thanks to the confused teachings imparted by the Neo crowd.
What I had been missing is the method and the need for self-actualization after self-realization, which you have discussed at length. I have found this very helpful and important information, thank you. “Respect the power of residual vasanas,” another of your pearls, James. Now that you’ve stated it thus clearly, again, it seems like a point so obvious as to be almost trivial. Yet confusion abounds here as well. There is an assumption that self-realization will cure one’s problems. But this is another red herring, another lapse back into dualistic thinking, right? Liberation, as per Vedanta, is freedom FROM the person (jiva), not FOR the person. (Insert palm slap to forehead here.)
I took your enlightenment quiz (a very funny concept, by the way) and scored 87, maybe 90 depending on how you count partially correct answers. That tells me I’ve absorbed some of the conceptual language pretty well but it doesn’t talk to my attachment to objects or resolve deeply embedded vasanas. I used to feel the weight of the world on my shoulders, a great responsibility to help save the world, but today I simply have more compassion than concern. It’s all Isvara, and who am I to judge? I have less metaphysical angst than before, and that silent existential dread which formed a sort of drone note to the music of life seems to have faded. So overall I would say that there is separation from suffering to a greater extent, thanks to Vedanta. But I’m not yet prepared to say that the Knowledge is hard and fast. I know that I still have various vasanas to stare down but just knowing this is a great help of and by itself.
Swami Dayandana talks about jnana phala, the fruit of knowledge, and how one may be enlightened but need further shravana, manana and nididhyasana to remove vasanas in order to enjoy the emotional benefits of self-knowledge, such as peace of mind, freedom from worry or anxiety, total equanimity and so on. This seems like essentially the same point you were making about self-actualization after self-realization, correct? If yes, I like the fact that you and Swami are in agreement on this.
Since I still seem to have some residual doubts here and there I’ve been working through most of the core texts (Upanishads, Brahma Sutras, works by Shankara, etc.) on my own, for lack of a proper teacher here in Southern California. To be sure, I have no shortage of options for “teachers.” Just down the road there is a fellow who provides shakti sessions for $250 and says he can align my crown chakra with the black hole at the center of the galaxy. Basically, he is offering to “transmit” enlightenment. (I guess there is one born every minute.) Direct Path teacher Francis Lucille lives about 30 miles north of me, Adyashanti a few hours from here, but I don’t believe sitting in a large group of people at a few satsangs will help all that much. There is a legitimate Chinmaya center nearby but I have the impression this is more of a cultural center for the local Indian population than a place for someone like myself to “go to a teacher.” So I prefer to write to you instead and just hope that you even have time these days to read such emails.
The most difficult vasana for me to drop is that of seeking an Experience. Your discussion on experiential enlightenment has been really helpful with this but I still have work to do. For decades I believed that I was a Microcosm and that purification and proper alignment of my vehicles (sheaths, etc.) combined with refined concentration would allow the Macrocosm to come flooding into my consciousness. I was after the experience of cosmic consciousness as described in example after example in the original book by Maurice Bucke. I went hard at it for a long time despite the fact that any system aiming for such results comes with serious baggage: messianic overtones, spiritual elitism and self-deception in huge proportion. Ironically, my brain doesn’t seem to lend itself very well to spiritual experiences. Epiphanies have been few and far between. I’ve had a few such experiences over the years but there have been so few psychic fireworks in my life despite decades of trying to produce said pyrotechnics that I’ve actually tended toward materialism and atheism. For about a decade before rediscovering Advaita I was convinced that any transcendental system was just bullshit, humans deceiving themselves about what lies beyond death. But once I started studying Advaita for real, rather than just giving it a cursory reading as part of an overview of Indian philosophy, it quickly became clear to me that the system is based on logic and is not actually about transcending anything. For years I had been working on a construction project only to discover that what is actually required is a deconstruction project.
I am no longer trying to produce experiences, and recognize that any experience is temporary. But I must confess to some residual confusion, and I do find myself tending to fall back into this type of thinking. Part of it is that just about every single important teacher seems to have a story that includes some sort of deep awakening experience, with Ramana and Nisargadatta as prime examples. Virtually all of the Neos report epiphanies. Franklin Merrell-Wolff gave a very lucid description of a transcendental experience that opened up his consciousness in a vast capacity, very reminiscent of the cosmic consciousness experience described repeatedly by Bucke. I will admit plainly that I feel rather chafed at having to give up the pursuit of such an expansive experience, before I’ve ever really had a chance to taste the chocolate, as the Tibetans say.
Also, you keep saying that enlightenment is no big deal when it has been made a “very” big deal for millennia by entire cultures. I have to admire your courage for saying this as I’m pretty sure you may have received some angry letters over it. It’s refreshing to hear it but due to my Rift Valley of a vasana (for Spiritual Experience) I still find it puzzling. It’s almost as though enlightenment has been downgraded. The Buddha sits under a tree, becomes enlightened and a world religion springs from his adventure. Along comes a modern teacher of Vedanta saying no big deal after all. How deflating that must be to Buddhists! ☺
Furthermore, you have also said that enlightenment grants no special status, an observation that I also find refreshing. Same problem though: it conflicts with the culturally accepted portrait of an enlightened person. And here I find even the Brahma Sutras speaking of the liberated soul in very glowing fashion, ascribing all sorts of powers to the realized man. Referring to the Sivananda version, page 529 (Chapter IV, Section IV), Topic 4: “The soul which has attained the saguna brahman effects its desire by mere will.” And Topic 5 on the next page: “A liberated soul who has attained Brahmaloka can exist with or without a body according to his liking.” Topic 6 tells us “the liberated soul can animate several bodies at the same time” and Topic 7 that “he has all the lordly powers except the power of creation.” It seems to me from these and other passages in the scriptures that there “is” a sort of special status associated with the liberated person.
In other commentaries, Shankara talks in terms of karma being dropped upon Realization, how the “soul” no longer “travels to the Moon” after death, how the jivanmukta does not reincarnate and so on. Isn’t it the case that the scriptures create an expectation that immortality will be achieved, physical or emotional suffering will end and only happiness and bliss will remain? Judging from your Dharma Combat PDF, where you went toe-to-toe with a swami from Ramanasramam, it seems clear that this debate about knowledge versus experience is ongoing even among those teaching Vedanta. If I understand correctly, Swami Dayananda parted company with your own revered teacher over this very issue.
These nuances seem to me to add to the difficulty for someone with an already deep vasana toward pursuit of spiritual experience as a marker for enlightenment. I assume there is no cure for this vasana other than continued shravana, manana, nididhyasana. Hence my letter to you!
Please feel free to hit me over the head again with the Truth, and you may use as much Sanskrit terminology as you like – I have a good dictionary (Grimes) and I’m trying to learn the technical terms anyway.
I greatly appreciate any comments you may care to offer and thank you for listening.
~ Best regards, Martyn
James: Dear Martyn, I read your well-written email with interest. I understand your doubt. Evidently the arguments in Chapter II of my book How to Attain Enlightenment did not convince you. Please reread it. There is an eBook at the ShiningWorld shop that is essentially all the arguments on the topic of knowledge and experience. I suggest you read it carefully. It costs $5.00. If the arguments are not convincing there is little I can do to help. I am not surprised that you are stuck on this issue. Failure to understand it is responsible for much frustration among tens of thousands of otherwise qualified seekers. You will not discover the freedom that is your birthright until you have sorted it out. However, it you can sort this issue your seeking will end. I have copied in an email that came in yesterday that shows that it is possible to set yourself free.
In any case, I will make a few statements specifically related to your formulation of this issue.
Why are you not satisfied with whatever you are experiencing now? Scripture says that you are whole and complete as you are. This means that the dissatisfied voice you are listening to does not speak the truth. I suggest that you question that voice rather than accept it. It is not the self that is telling you that you need some kind of special experience to be free. It is ignorance of the self.
See if you can find any reason to doubt the following logic. You want something you don’t have, a special experience. We know for certain something that what begins also ends. For an individual, experience itself does not end until death but within an individual life every discrete experience you have had is no longer with you. This is because every experience is in samsara, the realm of time. Why should the experience you want be an exception?
If you cannot accept this argument and let go of the desire to experience something special consider this: Who or what produces experience? It is certainly not you. You are on the receiving end. Experiences present themselves to you and then morph into subsequent experiences. What you experience is not under your control. If it was you would have the experience you want. We say that Isvara – the field of existence – produces experience and destroys experience. So even if the epiphany you want does exist somewhere you are going to have to wait until it happens to you, assuming that you need it. You are completely at the mercy of Isvara. If Isvara does not want you to have it you will never have it. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that if Isvara has not seen fit to give you what you want after all these years of seeking it is not going to hand it to you in the immediate future? Time is running out. I suggest you just let it go.
What makes you think that you need it? Is it because you are dissatisfied with whatever experiences Isvara has given you so far? What makes you think that if you get it that dissatisfied voice will go away for good? It won’t. It may temporarily be subsumed in the experience but it will return. Why? Because it is caused by self-ignorance and experience does not remove ignorance. Only knowledge removes it. Whatever it is that produces experience only gives those experiences that are necessary for an individual’s growth. To repeat, if you have not had the experience you want by now I think it is fair to assume that you are not going to get it. It is futile – vain – to want what you don’t have.
The words “you are ordinary, actionless, non-dual awareness” are a statement of fact about you. They are the opposite of the words that you believe to be true about you – “I am missing something.” There is nothing missing for you apart from the unexamined belief that there is. What you seek is you, the knower of experience, not an experience.
Self-realization will not cure all problems. Self-realization is an experiential concept. It is a belief that an object – a particular experience – will complete you. Self-knowledge will cure all problems because it will cure you of the belief that you are a dissatisfied, incomplete person. If you are Martyn and Martyn has problems, financial and otherwise, only Martyn can solve them. They are not issues for you, awareness.
I think you know all of this but you lack confidence in it because your life has been oriented around the dissatisfied you, not the satisfied you, for a long time. This orientation is difficult to overcome. It can be overcome by constant application of the knowledge “I am whole and complete. I need nothing to complete me.” Inquiry is a deconstruction project, to use your words. It is not a glamorous occupation. Swamiji and I are on the same page on the need for practicing knowledge because it is just common-sense logic. Vedanta is just the unexamined logic of your own experience. If you are not satisfied with who you are and what you have you have no choice but to do what it takes to satisfy yourself. The human heart will not rest until it has removed the limitations that apparently bind it.
Anyway, please reread Chapter II and read the book Knowledge and Experience. If you still have an argument that is not covered please write me. I can tell you for sure, as I mentioned above, that if you can get over this one you will not regret it. But ignorance dies hard. It has become a bad habit to listen to that dissatisfied voice. You have invested a lot in it and it is difficult to let go. But I think you will do it. I think you are nearing the end of your sadhana, and time is running out.
~ Much love, James
Martyn: Dear James, I wanted to let you know that your email has already helped a lot, thank you. Your suggestion that the “dissatisfied voice” I have been listening to does not speak the truth was an eye-opener. And your point that any such epiphanies are up to Isvara also really hit home. There is nothing I can “do” to create such an event anyway, so why the futile effort? I guess it has been partly just a matter of momentum, with the tendency to think along these lines rather deeply embedded after so many years of effort in that direction. I know it will take vigilance to overcome this vasana.
James: If you need some kind of experiential confirmation that there is something more than what you experience on a daily basis, you will get it. If not, not. It is totally up to Isvara. Longing for an epiphany is no different from longing for a winning lottery ticket. The solution is to investigate the longing, not take it for granted.
Martyn: I realized something else as well though. After receiving your email and re-reading it several times I spent a lot of the day pondering this issue. For the first time it dawned on me that I have been driven to seek spiritual epiphanies as a response to existential fear. I had never really admitted this to myself before. To be sure, I was attracted to what I perceived as the lofty aspirations and nobility of the “spiritual path,” etc. But if I am ruthlessly honest with myself I have to admit that fear has also been a prime motivating factor. The unconscious calculation was that if I could only get to a full-blooded samadhi and repeat that state of consciousness at will then all would be well and I would no longer have to fear the end of this particular incarnation. I would already have achieved “God-consciousness” and would no longer feel any fear, etc. I’ve never actually formulated that thought out loud before even though it’s a bloody obvious one in hindsight. I wonder sometimes if 99. 9% of what humans do or think isn’t motivated by a simple fear of mortality.
James: The logic in your statement “if I could only get to a full-blooded samadhi and repeat that state of consciousness at will then all would be well and I would no longer have to fear the end of this particular incarnation” is a bit weak. It is weak because if you have to repeat a samadhi it certainly means that it is not under your control. Why go for something that does not last?
Will-induced samadhi is a common belief. The Ramakrishna Mission people go on and on about Ramakrishna going into samadhi at will but have no answer to the question of why he went out of it. See how ignorance ignores the obvious. Liberation is liberation FROM the doer, not FOR the doer. All you have after your samadhi is a memory of your samadhi.
Martyn: Anyway, what is there to be afraid of? As Mark Twain once said, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” ☺ Of course the sruti confirms that I was never actually born in the first place! I guess the poor scared little jiva has thought otherwise all this time.
James: This is a good one.
Martyn: One more mini-revelation after reading your email: I’ve never been away from brahman, never apart from who I am. The awareness that I am is not different at age 56 from the awareness that first looked out these eyeballs more than half a century ago. The eyes are certainly not the same – virtually all of the cells in my body have been replaced multiple times over – yet there is virtually no difference in that awareness. I knew this already but for some reason it seems to have more impact now. I have spent all this time running around looking everywhere for Something when I was never away from It to begin with. How silly! I had a good laugh about it. ☺
James: Now all that remains is to understand what it means to be with brahman – better yet, to be brahman. It means that you know that nothing is missing. The cravings for experience are based on the belief that something is lacking. Non-duality means that there is only you, that you have everything you want even before you want it. So it is just a matter of confidence in the knowledge which is gained by steady affirmation of the fact “I am fullness itself.”