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.
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...
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.
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.