Desire is a game of 20 questions

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The game of 20 questions, where you get that many yes-or-no questions to guess .the particular thing another person is thinking, used to be a great way (ok, a decent way) to pass the time on car trips in the era before smart phones.

The series of questions, if cleverly asked, acted as an efficient path by which the answerer could tell you if you were getting hotter or getting colder, closer to or farther away from the answer. But every answer opened the space for more questions. If you figured out that it was an animal, then you could then ask whether it was a mammal. Otherwise you knew the entire idea of animal was simply getting "colder" and you'd move on to something else.

Desire is the same way. We don't know our real desires in full. We discover them progressively over time. Our imagination and our actions are questions. "Do I want this kind of thing?" we seem to be asking someone invisible. Then our emotions and our experiences are the reply. If we notice and express what it is like to have those emotions and experiences, we can grasp whether we are getting warmer or colder. If we are warm, we refine our hypothesis, staying within the same category. If colder, we try something else. On and on goes the game of learning what it is we want.

For in this game, there are not just 20 questions but an unlimited number... and multiple seemingly paradoxical answers may be given. The other player sometimes seems to cheat. Which is in fact, we may find, the most important answer of all...

States of Consciousness Arranged by Aspects of Ignorance

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In How to Find What Isn't Lost, I mention various states of mind: sleep, dream, waking, what I call "stillness of mind," and what I call "the spacious mind."

I want to elaborate on some of this characterization of these states by putting them into a little structure based on certain notions from the mystical school of Advaita Vedanta. 

What prevents us -- or seems to prevent us, to be precise -- from knowing the true Self is what is called ignorance.

Two kinds of Self-ignorance: Veiling and Variety

Ignorance is basically of two varieties, of which only one is really problematic. They are both structural qualities of the mind. The first is the veiling quality (in Sanskrit, avarana), which is like a shadow, a darkness, an absence, or a forgetfulness, and which hides (or seems to hide) the light of the Self. It only seems to hide it, because the light by which we know the absence of the Self -- the light by which we see that incomplete perspective, that forgetting -- is itself nothing other than the light of the Self.

Then there is that aspect of the mind that makes it appear to be composed of many parts and pieces -- its variety and movement (in Sanskrit, vikshepa), its manifestation.

Now it's crucial to understand the relationship between these two pieces. They are interrelated and interdependent. It is from the veiling that all variety springs. Variety springs from the ego, the sense of a separate self, of a division between "I" and "other" -- this is the veiling of the Self. And it is what enables normal experience. You can't have any experiences without that division. 

So that division, that veiling, is a certain mode of thought. And it sustains itself by clinging to various identities -- "I am an x..." -- be it father, mother, student, good person, bad person, great bowler, lover of the X-Files or whatever. So variety springs from veiling, but the veiling continues by clinging to the thoughts that are constantly generated in variety.

All the states of consciousness partake of these two qualities in different degrees.

That said, at the extremes, the two exist apart. That is, in deep sleep, the veiling exists in a potential, latent, seed-form -- a seed which actually means total veiling -- but without any manifestation. Conversely, in enlightenment, the variety exists but without the veiling, or rather -- the veiling is present, but in a harmless way.

In the normal dreaming and waking states, the veiling generates manifestation. What does this mean? It means that our normal sense is actually a series of senses of self -- every object, every new experience, is actually a two-faced thing (see the image at top, the two-faced Greek god Janus).

Now this manifestation, which comes from the veiling, is then a series of experiences which are half "sense-of-I" and half object, linked in one whole, unified experience-of-division. And it is has several problematic effects, which are really all different ways of saying the same thing.

The Problems of the Distracted Mind

It is a series of distractions, that is, variety, which prevents concentration on anything -- including and especially the spiritual search. Variety also, by distraction, hides the reflective quality of the mind, in the same way that ripples on a pond muddle the reflection of the sun. It is by that reflective, aesthetic quality of awareness that happiness manifests. So this mental variety and distraction a) blocks the spiritual search, which leads to the destruction of the veil and b) blocks the experience of happiness.

Reduce the variety and distraction and you lead to solutions on both goals. So therefore, one is advised to obtain a quiet mind, which means a mind in which the variety is reduced to a minimum, without being totally absent. Variety has nothing to do with the number of sense perceptions and everything to do with how they're reacted to in the mind.

Ordinary vs. Meditative States of Mind

Now how do ordinary states of mind compare to the meditative states of mind? There are two main meditative states of mind. The first I call stilllness of mind. It is the state of focusing intensely on just one thought... and is characterized by an absence of movement in the mind. In really intense versions of the still mind, the world and the sense of the "I" both seem to disappear. What's happening here is a reduction of mental variety, but without the destruction of the veil

In contrast to this, there is what I call the "spacious mind." This is a state of still mind which is still informed by some kind of intention. It is consciously reached by the processes of self-inquiry and surrender I define in How to Find What Isn't Lost. It also manifests as the state of "flow" sometimes when you are engaged deeply in an activity. In it, you are conscious and can work, but still have that stillness. That is, the mind is still but it does not go to sleep. The spacious mind is effortless, conscious, and high-performance. In the spacious mind, the veiling is removed, but variety remains. Usually, one cannot stay in the spacious mind because of various habits that pull you out of it, that pull you back to your ordinary self. Enlightenment means those habits have been conquered and the spacious mind is recognized as your natural and permanent state.

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As you see from above, being zoned out and being in a state of mental stillness are very close, the key difference being that being zoned out is reached accidentally, and so is less conscious and more veiled. Even stillness, however, can become mere sleep if there is no further goad to action.

I'll also note that even "in" enlightenment, so to say, the quietness of mind -- that is, the lack of manifestation -- still matters for the experience of happiness. Enlightenment is the knowledge that the Self is pure happiness. But if the mind wishes to experience it, it must be quiet. Quietness means few thoughts, little distraction... so that the blissfulness of the Self shines through. Few thoughts does not mean dullness or inaction; it means that what is thought about is thought about in a focused manner.

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. 

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.