The Self vs. God

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Non-dualistic spirituality posits that our true identity is not with our individual minds and bodies, but with an underlying Self, the serene space in which all these minds and bodies appear and disappear and their underlying substance.

What is the difference between that Self and God? In traditional Hindu philosophy, the Self as it is is called "Brahman." In Buddhism it is called sunya, or the void (though many Buddhists would disagree that sunya should be called the Self; that's an argument for another day). 

The Self is beyond creation, destruction, and all opposites. All that may be said of it is that it cannot be described. 

Now, as it manifests in the world (how does this happen? it remains the greatest mystery), it may be considered the creator and the destroyer, etc. In that capacity it is called God.

But strictly speaking the Self is beyond even God. And when we realize our true identities -- it is with the Self, and not with God, except inasmuch as God is also the Self.

Enlightenment does not mean feeling like you have the total control over the universe that God does. It means the discovery that the universe itself is only an appearance in Something Else where issues of such control do not arise. The discovery of that Something Else is what we are aiming for.

Should desire be indulged or denied?

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Most people think of spirituality as being against desire. If pursued, desire would lead only to more desire. Trying to quench desire by satisfying it would be like trying put out a fire by pouring gasoline on it.

But if these older traditions are examined more closely, they are not as against desire as they seem. 

The Bhagavad Gita counsels against lust, greed, and anger, not against sex, possessions, and aggression. It warns against eating too much or too little, sleeping too much or too little. Similarly, the Buddha recommends following the middle way. Aristotle and Confucius, to take two widely differing examples, recommended similar ideas.

Throughout eastern culture, it is not simple denial of desire that is counseled, but balance. Harsh repression of desire is just as bad as simple indulgence. In either case, you deviate from what helps ensure a quiet mind.

How to find that balance? Here is where my advice differs from most. I believe that our desires have in them a natural balance. We usually don't know this balance because we don't take the time to express our feelings. Expressing exactly what our feelings are like in words or in other symbols helps us see what they are really pointing at. Often, the needs they really express are not the ones that they seem to target on the surface. If we target the wrong needs, then of course we fail to soothe our feelings, and get more and more frustrated.

To understand what needs our feelings really target, we have to experiment: envision possible new scenarios or test certain actions, then express how we feel again.

To delve into our feelings, express them, test them against possible actions, and attempt to find a way that they can all co-exist harmoniously is the true path to the moderate expression of desire, and to the acquisition of mental and emotional balance.

Pure, unworried relaxation of the mind is happiness

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The master idler,
to whom even blinking is a bother, is happy.
But he is the only one.
— Ashtavakra Gita (Bart Marshall, translator)

The Ashtavakra Gita is a famous Hindu spiritual text. In it, the enlightened sage Ashtavakra and the enlightened king Janaka talk about the non-dual nature of reality. I love this particular passage because it is so outrageously counter to our usual notions of virtue. Laziness isn't a good thing -- is it?

In a way it is. For the one who resides in the Self, there is no worry about action. Action simply takes place. Thought comes and thought goes, but because there is no attachment to the individual self, those thoughts don't carry the sense of doing. So in one sense, even when the sage does, he does not do, because he does not identify himself with the doer, and does not worry about the outcome. He is simply the space against which doings appear and disappear. So in that sense the sage is always perfectly still. He is the unchanging background to action.

In another, even more literal sense, the sage just does not think as much as others. Because so much of thought is simply the anticipation and regret connected to thinking that one is a person, the sage's mind tends to be clearer than most people's minds. So there is less thought and also less action. He does not act impulsively or out of need, but spontaneously out of the deep sense of stillness. To break that stillness with even a blink is a shame, a bother.

A quiet mind is a happy mind

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Self-realization or enlightenment is valuable chiefly because it indicates that the mind has seen its own boundaries. Now, like some kind of billiard ball, it's going to bounce against them until it loses its energy and finally comes to a rest. The realization of the true, eternal calm of the Self is not enough to immediately quiet the mind.

To quiet the mind, the mind must slowly wear away all its old habits and desires, which were based on the illusion of being an independent doer, thinker, and enjoyer. It is merely an image, a shadow, and when it grasps that, it falls silent.

It must grasp and fall silent without ever seeing for itself. It cannot see the Truth. It can only intuit it from the sense of reverence and awe -- and perhaps bliss, yes -- it gets at times when it falls silent. Technically those experiences are mental experiences, however, and not experiences of the Self per se. Still, those are the experiences upon which the mind must grow less dependent over time.

Trusting in them, it must slowly grow faith, rest in the knowledge of its own image nature, and grow quiet. And in that quiet the true happiness of the Self will shine, as through a perfectly clear window. 

Misconceptions about Enlightenment #2: It gives you happiness as we know it

When we hear that enlightenment means permanent happiness, we immediately think that this means a permanent version of what we ordinarily think of as happiness. Enlightenment is happiness, but it is not ordinary, day-to-day happiness...

Misconceptions about Enlightenment: It gives you mental certainty (3 min video)

One of the misconceptions about enlightenment is that it lets you know, in the way you know anything else, what you really are, and the answers to all the existential mysteries. It does no such thing. Though enlightenment DOES give you certainty... of another kind.

Surrendering and living in the present moment: two versions

The usual way surrender happens is that you think: "I surrender." The usual way living in the present moment happens is that you think: "I choose to live in this moment and not to worry about the rest."

The true surrender, however, is not to be making a choice or doing the activity of surrender. Truly living in the present moment is not to think that you are choosing to live in it, but to know that you are the present moment, continuously and forever.

But you can't force yourself into those true positions. If you feel you are the doer, you must choose one of the first options, and hope you graduate into the second. If you do graduate, it won't be "you" who graduates; rather, the graduation will reveal that the you who thought you were surrendering or living in the moment was always a misconception, an incoherent thought. It wasn't necessary to choose surrender or live in the present moment; it wasn't even possible.

What should I do when I'm not the doer?

We ask this of ourselves in so many situations, from the trivial to the life-changing. Like so many other questions, from the nondual viewpoint, it's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is no more appropriate to ask this question of yourself than it would be to ask of a movie character what he or she should do -- as if you were the movie character. No more appropriate would it be if the movie character asked it, expecting that they have control over their situation, when they are clearly characters rather than people and really, in the movie you watch, mere images playing at 30 frames a second.

On the other hand, he who asks the question can think it over and answer it. The very asking of the question is also a doing. Nothing wrong with the movie character asking this question. In doing so, the character isn't really doing. There's no one to do.

In reflecting that he isn't really doing -- in that too the movie character is seemingly doing. and again, there's no one really to do.

And yet, as long as one believes one is the movie character, this reflection must take place.

Now the real key is to see that you're not the doer, not the movie character. But what are you supposed to do before one sees this fact? Pursue the spiritual search as if you are the doer, knowing in some abstract intellectual way that you aren't. Eventually the illusion is seen through.

Better put -- he who thinks he is the doer: that is a movie character. Don't identify with the one who thinks himself a doer. Don't identify with the identifier.

But who could or would so identify?

Ultimately only the mind would. So what precisely is the mind doing in not so identifying? What is changing in its structure? It may go on functioning, and having, at some level, a sense of itself as a doer -- but that sense is overruled by something higher which nullifies that sense. What is that something higher? It's the mind which is polished to the point of self-reflection. It takes itself as its own object. It reflects its own reflectivity. Or rather, not its own reflectivity but really -- the subtle image of its own reflectivity. Or its boundaries. Language breaks down. So that it may operate as itself -- I.e. as an identifying device -- but simultaneously view that operation from a higher vantage point, as within the context of its seeing itself, and that nullifies that operation. It sees the operation of identification as an overlay. Indeed even that higher vantage point, even the reflection of itself -- even THAT is an overlay. Realization is a change finally in the structure of the mind.

The Self does not require realization and is incapable of it.

 

On the importance of not grasping

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Bodhidharma, the famous monk who during the 5th or 6th century AD brought Buddhism to China, said in his teaching that the essence of it all was not to grasp. Just don't grasp -- and you're where you need to be.

What does not grasping mean? It means relaxation. Allowing. Withdrawing. Letting go of effort. Letting go of intention towards everything -- towards the outside world, and just as much towards one's own state of mind. It is, in the parlance of Vedanta, surrender.

Why is it important? When you do not grasp, you give up as much as possible the efforts that keep the mind running in its usual way. The mind grows quiet. In the quiet mind the Self is clearly reflected.

Is it the same as acceptance? I think not. Acceptance implies an affirmative act: a willingness, an accommodation, a giving up of hatred or desire. Not grasping does not do those things. It allows hatred to be where it is and desire to be where it is. It does not grasp them -- nor does it grasp the need to reconcile, accept, or forgive. It lets them all go.

It must be admitted that not grasping -- for the seeker -- does grasp at one thing. It grasps at itself. It does require effort -- minimal, but still significant, crucial -- to not grasp, to surrender. As a seeker one still feels "**I** surrender." And that feeling of doership means the feeling of effort.

So why not "not grasp" "not grasping" itself? This is precisely what the Self does, in fact, and is always doing. The Self does bother whether one surrenders or not, whether one is ignorant or not, unhappy or not. It is serene and itself in all situations.

From the seeker's standpoint, however, ignorance and unhappiness are precisely what is unacceptable. While in the end it turns out that these are illusory, imagined problems -- until one sees that, one must pretend that they are not. The seeker must grasp not grasping.

Do not grasp anything but not grasping. Surrender all but surrender itself.