One lesson on which all schools of spirituality agree is that nothing on Earth is worthwhile for its own sake. All goals, however grand, are limited. They cost pain to get and if gotten are always in danger of being lost. Eventually they are lost, and then more is desired again. This is a hamster wheel and a fool's game. When this is realized, the basis of motivation must change.
Even the “magical" and the “divine” are just words, and can never serve as a true basis for long-term, sustained action in the world. The mind cannot truly conceive the meaning of these words, and so converts them into more limited, dead things.
Curiosity is the key
What, then, is the basis for enlightened action in the world? What is there to act for and why?
No thing can suffice. And enlightenment is, indeed, the recognition of the not-a-thing that is our own self. We are, of course, not even the doer. And yet this question arises...
For there remains -- in the very fullness, in the very completeness of our true Self -- a delicious, delightful, strange and colorful incompleteness.
What is the nature of this incompleteness? Where did it come from and what is its point?
The more we ask such questions, the more we realize the fact of our confusion. That confusion is not weak or harmful. On the contrary. it is the one true, durable motivation. It is the other side of the coin of enlightenment, that which accepts the necessary limitation of life and in fact feeds on it: curiosity.
It's all about The Puzzle
Life is a deep well of mystery and while enlightenment points to our true nature as total peace, it does not resolve this mystery.
We don't know the name or nature of this Mystery. Its name is its heart, its unsolved Question. We simply know that, deep within us, it calls to us.
It is a Puzzle, it is a Wonder, and whatever name we put to it never quite captures it. The name is dead as soon as it is spoken, for the reality changes instantly, constantly. We think it is here, and try to catch it, but it turns out it was over there the whole time. It moves endlessly without seeming to have moved at all. This is the game we are all playing, and when it is recognized as a game, it becomes fun.
Two paths to putting the jigsaw pieces together: wider and deeper
We cannot fully win this game. In fact, what we want is to be puzzled more and more deeply, more and more delightfully. And that requires finding answers which are themselves doorways to more intricate questions. It's like a video game with an infinite number of levels.
There are two ways of playing this game.
One is lateral: it connects various disciplines. Bring the humanities together, the sciences together, the arts together, and then connect all the insights of these different domains with each other. The entire experience of the entire human race must eventually connect and show a bigger piece of the Picture.
The other is vertical. We must each go deeper and deeper into our own specific viewpoint, our own precious and utterly unique individuality. How do we do this? We express what it is like to experience our experiences so accurately and originally that others can feel the way we feel. We at least try. All of us have exclusive access to our own story, to our own memories, and they are a fund of answers -- not just for ourselves, but for everyone. We all have the duty and pleasure of being artists.
Answers are just questions in disguise
The entire task of human knowledge and wisdom and creation is to help us piece together this strange Puzzle, this Thing which we all want to desperately know. What is that Thing? What is its meaning? This is the heart of the heart of what we don't know.
Every revelation leads us to greater clarity and greater mystery. That's the frustrating joy of the chase. There is an infinite unfolding of the unknown into the known, and that into the even more unknown.
It is to speak, and by speaking, to see, more of the infinite facets of the Question that is the real task. We are pushing against the limits...deeper and deeper, subtler and subtler.
The truth is stranger than we can possibly imagine. That strangeness is God; that strangeness is our true Self. We are it and we wish to see it. We are unlimited, and so unlimited that we are capable of limitation. And within the folds of these paradoxes there lies nestled the Question.
Self-inquiry, the spiritual technique that the Hindu sage Sri Ramana Maharshi recommended, is the royal road to seeing through the illusion of self. I explain it briefly in this video and more extensively in my book. It involves trying to locate where the feeling "I am" is coming from.
It's a very simple exercise, but it is easy to make mistakes. Here are four common pitfalls and how to avoid them.
Mistake #1: Making it an intellectual exercise
You are experiencing the sense that "I am" (as in "I am reading these words") right now. That sense, that feeling, is what you are trying to examine.
This is not an intellectual exercise. It is not about thinking about what science and philosophy are telling us the "I" is or isn't. It is not about whether "I" have free will, or the kind of "I" that we think of when we say try to think of ourselves as being part of a larger community or society. These are all fine ways of thinking, but they are not the self-inquiry game.
Self-inquiry involves examining our experience, our feeling of the I, and trying to find out just what it is. What exactly is it?
For example, we might find that feel something irritating, and identify it as a) a physical pain because we have something in our shoe, b) an emotion because we are angry at someone, c) a memory of something unpleasant, etc.
In the same way, we ask what is this sense of I? To answer the question, we have to hold that feeling with great concentration. And then as soon as we think we've held it, we then apply a rule: whatever we experience can't be the I, because "I experience it." So what is the I? We keep looking.
Mistake #2: Only doing self-inquiry at set times
Self-inquiry can at first be practiced in a formal way, while sitting for some period of time. But this is just the beginning.
Self-inquiry should eventually be done at all waking moments, while talking, cooking, cleaning, working, and doing any other of life's daily activities.
"But how will I do my work?"
It's a mistake to believe that self-inquiry interferes with work. There is a bit of practice required at the beginning, but basically self-inquiry does not interfere with doing. You are not the true doer, and self-inquiry is helping you see that.
To get to enlightenment, self-inquiry must be engaged in with great intensity at all times.
Mistake #3: Not paying attention to distractions and resistances
When you get distracted or feel like doing something else, your mind and heart are trying to tell you something. These messages are not to be ignored.
If you do, they will keep interfering with your practice, and will stop you from progressing.
Mistake #4: Expecting to find the I
First, this process is not going to be instantaneous. It is going to be frustrating. It is going to be confusing. It would be perfectly normal not even to quite understand what you are doing or what you are trying for at times. Keep going.
More importantly, you cannot find the I. That is the point of the exercise. That feeling is the illusion we are trying to see through. As long as the feeling of the I remains, you must pursue it, but the end of that pursuit will be to have it suddenly and strangely disappear! It's what I call the "spacious mind" in my book. Ramana Maharshi calls it the "I-I." You will know it when it happens.
That's the shift we're aiming for. It will disappear -- and then seem to reappear. As many times as it reappears, you must re-examine that feeling. Eventually the disappearance will sink in, and it will become apparent that it had never appeared in the first place. That's the delightful, hilarious contradiction.
Imagine you’d taken a massive dose of LSD — and the experience lasted a lifetime. That’s what life essentially is. Everything we see, hear, taste, touch, smell, imagine, think, and feel — including our very ability to see in an individual perspective... these are all one continuous designed experience. And it is made out of limitation. Limited perspective. Limited capacities. That’s what makes for the spectacular work of art that is our experience of life.
The goal of enlightenment: get to the true Self, the source of meaning, freedom, peace, and perfection
The basic point of the spiritual search is extremely simple: it is to get in permanent touch with the true Self. This true Self is not the true Self in the sense of what you really enjoy apart from societal and family pressure, though getting in touch with that true Self is in fact part of the search.
A quick explanation of self-inquiry, itself just a way of seeing through a habitual way of thinking.
"What should I do?" This is a question that the mind is confronted with every day, often many times a day. After a long spiritual journey, I am no longer confused about who I truly am. The Self shines clearly, but the mind and the body go on. Action and thinking go on. And so questions of decision-making, too, go on. And it remains a tricky puzzle how to go about it.
From the tiniest decisions to the largest ones, every decision requires numerous sub-decisions. Even something as simple as what restaurant to go to requires making decisions about how much time to spend on the decision, which information to heed (my own past experience, reviews, word of mouth?), and so on.
If you try to think it all out, you get stuck. If that's true of figuring out where to eat out, it is far truer of bigger decisions: choices of how to start a business or career, how to navigate a relationship, how to relate to yourself.
It's true that in real life we simply cut the decision-making process short for lack of time. But in theory we would like to know on what basis we cut it short. How should we think about how we make decisions -- including the decision of when to cut the decision-making process short?
Spiritual realization gives the whole discussion a massive twist.
The Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice tells a tale of wild love gone wrong. Orpheus, the world's greatest musician, who with his harp and his voice could "soothe the savage beast" and melt even the rocks, falls hard for the stunning Eurydice. Eurydice, alas, is bitten by a venomous snake, and dies, drifting off to the underworld. Orpheus travels there and sings songs of such rending grief that even Hades, the lord of the dead, is moved, and tells Orpheus that Eurydice will follow him back to the the land of the living on one condition: that he not look back even once.
In the nondual scheme of things, our true Self is pure being, awareness, and bliss. What we seem to be -- our individual selves -- are a sort of image, a kind of dream. How can the suffering in the dream be given validity, be made meaningful, be not simply an illusion? Well, one way is through what I call metaphorization.
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.
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.