Existence is consciousness. From the human point of view it is experienced as three states: waking, dream and deep sleep. Sleep is the absence of differentiated experience. Dream is similar to waking in that the subject-object distinction obtains. Waking state consciousness can be divided into two sub-states: samsara and nirvana, to use two Sanskrit terms.
Samsara describes the experience of life as we know it. It is conceived of as a whirlpool or a wheel, a state of mind that goes around and around more or less forever. A whirlpool is difficult, if not impossible, to escape. Desires and fears emerge from an unknown source, disturb the mind for a while and disappear, only to reappear and disturb it again. We do actions intended to remove them but the actions only serve to reinforce them. As the wheel of life goes around and around we go up and down, elated one minute and depressed the next. Samsara is an entropic perpetual motion machine that never takes us anywhere, slowly wears us out and eventually sends us on.
Sometimes, however, we are granted a reprieve and lifted out of the samsaric state of mind. One is never sure how or why it happens. Grace is the only word that seems applicable. During these episodes we feel open, expansive and free. Typically, we observe our minds and bodies as objects. Perhaps we feel connected to everything. Maybe we melt into the world or experience a radiant inner light or the peace that passes understanding. It may feel as if we are not there because the ego has temporarily dissolved. Fear and desire, our more or less constant companions, are conspicuous by their absence. Hence, this transcendent otherworldly state is called nirvana.
Nirvana literally means without flame or extinct and symbolizes a desireless, fearless state of mind or the extinction of the sense of separateness. This state is invariably accompanied by wonder and bliss. These epiphanies vary from a few seconds to minutes, days and occasionally weeks or even months. Eventually we come back to samsara, the everyday state of mind.
When we get back we long to return because a vacation from the monotonous uncertainties of life is a great relief. A few serious epiphanies and we are tempted to drop out and head for India. Epiphanies are the basis of all religions and give their doctrines of divinity an experiential foundation. They are sometimes called visions of God or revelations and are highly valued. Many ardent prayers are offered to invoke them.
These experiences, large and small, happen infrequently but are so compelling they cannot be discounted. At a certain point in an individual’s evolution they become intense and frequent. Over the course of human history they have been catalogued, discussed and analyzed and constitute a large body of literature. In due course a science of meditation evolved from them. Meditation makes it possible to experience nirvana, the transcendental state or God consciousness, with enough certainty to give it a scientific basis.
Meditation is often conceived of as a flight, a journey to the beyond. It takes considerable practice to master, but eventually the meditator is able to transcend the mind more or less at will. As the practice becomes routine, the meditator spends increasingly longer periods in nirvana where there is no suffering and less time in the samsaric state where there is. Eventually the state is meant to become effortless and continuous so that the individual can even go about daily life in nirvanic consciousness i.e. fulfilled and happy.
The last word in terms of freedom from samsara is called nirvikalpa samadhi, a state of absorption that erases duality. The subject and the objects merge into one experience that lasts for some time. It is the opposite of deep sleep because the mind is awake. In deep sleep duality is erased because the knower-known-knowledge division is gone. When the duality of subject and object does not obtain, freedom obtains. This state does not destroy the ignorance that causes the samsaric state of mind because the one who has the ignorance has been absorbed into awareness where no duality obtains. If you achieve this samadhi it indicates a high degree of mastery of the mind which may be useful once you are back in samsara.
It comes up short in terms of lasting freedom, however because when you leave the samadhi and enter samsaric consciousness the inbuilt dualistic orientation, the subject-object distinction, returns. Unconscious tendencies begin interpreting experience and the same old problems resurface. And one important fact needs to be taken into account when we are considering the pursuit of this kind of enlightenment: all experiences are in time so nirvana or samadhi can never become a permanent or continuous experience.
The theory of experiential enlightenment does not explain why we are caught up in samsara. It takes for granted that the solution to samsara is exclusively experiential and offers to convert samsara into nirvana. The Bible for the proponents of this view of enlightenment is the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, written a few hundred years before the Christian era. It informs us that our conditioning stands in the way of the experience of nirvana and instructs us how to remove it so that we can experience freedom, not to put too fine a point on it.
It is a dualistic doctrine based on the apparent reality of subject and object. I, the subject, am limited by my state of mind. Because limitation is not acceptable to me I would like to free myself of it. I practice some form of meditation and gain mastery of my mind by removing the thoughts that obstruct the experience of limitlessness. My experience of limitlessness is the object. Buddha’s Eightfold Path and Ashtanga Yoga are the traditional methods for gaining experiential freedom. Buddha did not bring God into it but Patanjali did, saying that surrender to God is an indirect aid for attaining freedom.
Success in meditation does not destroy duality. I am still me, the subject, but I now experience freedom. Patanjali does not put it exactly this way. He says that once the mind is brought under control, ‘the seer dwells in its own nature’ and ‘the indweller shines forth as pure consciousness,’ words that amount to freedom but do not take into account the fact that the seer, awareness, dwells in his own nature and shines forth irrespective of the condition of the mind. Nor does it take into account the fact that the meditator is consciousness i.e. free already. In any case, enlightened or not, a mind free of desire is certainly not undesirable for anyone seeking happiness. The Eightfold Path is also an experiential journey that is said to end with enlightenment. This view is fairly reasonable and would not have endured for two thousand years if there was not some truth to it, but it is a very arduous path requiring an austere lifestyle and many years of rigorous practice.
When passion is king and instant gratification is queen, the mind becomes agitated if more than a few minutes are required to satisfy its desires. Fortunately, the samsaric state of mind is its own worst enemy and sensitive individuals seek a way out. Invariably, the first enlightenment view that presents itself to them is the experiential view. From womb to tomb life is one long series of experiences so it is natural to become attached to experience and define ourselves by our experiences. Who would I be without them? The idea that we do not need experience to be happy never occurs to us. Although it is a natural and inevitable experience, death terrifies us as it seemingly spells the end of experience.
Experience obviously takes place in time. It is clear that experienced objects change but what about the experiencer−me? I change too. Can I honestly say that I have not changed since the day I was born? Absolutely everything about me changes: my body, my feelings, my thoughts and ideas. I am never the same from one day to the next. Time is having its way with me and there is nothing I can do about it. If experience did not modify me, what would be the point of experience? And because experience is dualistic it is sometimes positive and sometimes negative. Positive is fine, but negative is not fine, so I am open to suggestions that might free me of the negative and generate the positive. In fact, a significant fraction of my energy goes into calculating which course of action will make me feel good and which will make me feel bad. As I cannot know for sure what the results of my actions will be, I often find myself hopelessly confused and unable to do anything at all.
If somebody says that there is a special kind of experience that feels good and never ends, I am ready to sign up. If I have an experience of uncaused bliss, one that is not dependent on an outside event, I may be even more inclined to accept the idea of experiential enlightenment. Perhaps I reason that I can make the experience permanent, even though every time it happens, it ends. When the great sage Patanjali says that all I have to do to make it permanent is to remove my thoughts, I am ready to become a yogi. How hard can it be?
This is wishful thinking because samsara, the world of experience, is change. There is no special experience in samsara that does not change. The experiencer, me, is in time and the objects of experience are in time, including all states of mind. How is it possible for two things that are constantly changing to produce a state of mind that does not change?
The experiencer changes because he or she is limited. Even deep sleep changes the experiencer because he or she wakes up rested. The experience of oneness also changes the experiencer because he or she wants to experience it again when the effects wear off. If it had no effect, the desire to regain it would not occur. To experience changelessness, there would have to be an unchanging experiencer outside of samsara that could experience it, assuming there is something beyond samsara. But where there is no change there is no experience, so what is the point of trying to become another experiencer even if it is possible?
If you believe that through a yogic technique or willpower or some other way, the experience of limitless freedom could be made permanent, who would make it permanent? The experiencer could not do it because he or she does not even know what his or her next state of mind will be. No state of mind is under the conscious control of the experiencer. Even if the experiencer could control its state of mind or the thoughts in it, what happens when he or she loses control? To maintain control concentration is necessary. What happens to the experience of limitlessness when I get sick and lose my concentration? It seems that my enlightenment is going to disappear along with my health.
Furthermore, the experiencer would have to be limitless to keep the mind permanently under control. But I am definitely limited. If I were limitless I would not be concerned about enlightenment as I would not be limited by suffering. It is precisely because I feel limited that I am interested in freedom. How can an action−concentration, meditation or any other action−by a limited entity produce a limitless result? Freedom is limitless and cannot be the result of any action.
Finally, the idea that I can obtain the experience of enlightenment means that I am not experiencing the self—the light of awareness—now. It so happens that the non-experience of the self is impossible because consciousness is eternal and omnipresent and non-dual. It is everything that is. How can I get what I already have by doing anything? If I am going to get what I already have, I am going to have to lose my ignorance of who I am. This is not to say that meditation, epiphanies, or other spiritual practices are not valuable. We will later argue that epiphanies are very helpful as they give us an idea of what we are seeking. And we will also argue that spiritual practice is essential, not because it produces enlightenment, but because it prepares the mind for enlightenment. Without a prepared, qualified mind, enlightenment will not happen.
The Path of Knowledge
To attain enlightenment I need to know what it is. The experiential view of enlightenment is based on the idea that reality is a duality. I am here, the world is there. I am here, enlightenment is there. But what if reality is not a duality? What if it is actually non-dual consciousness? Would I try to experience the self through meditation or some other method?
If have a mystic experience like a non-dual epiphany, it is unlikely that I will think about it meaning as it unfolds. The experience itself will be so strange, welcome and exhilarating that I will just get into it and enjoy. As it happened unexpectedly−perhaps I was just walking to the post office with many mundane things in my mind−the cause is unknown to me. If I take LSD and my mind is blown, the cause is obvious. But non-dual experiences, melting into everything in love for example, come unsolicited. They can only be chalked up to the grace of God. And in the absence of the knowledge of the nature of reality, I have no way to evaluate their overall meaning. Even if they tend to come with regularity, each one is unique, making it difficult to divine the meaning. Experience usually needs to repeat over and over, in the presence of an inquiring mind, before its secrets are revealed.
Epiphanies may temporarily motivate me to change, which oddly enough is not desirable, or they may make me think I am quite exceptional, perhaps enlightened, but usually they simply produce a strong craving for more. The attempt to re-experience the self is futile because the experiencer thinks the self is not presently experienced. But ironically it is present when I want it because it exists prior to the experiencer. It is not prior to the experiencer in time, in which case it would not be present. It is prior in terms of in terms of understanding. It is present and apparently hidden.
Experience, worldly or spiritual, is only raw information that has no meaning apart from the way it is interpreted. What if the purpose of experience is not experience but knowledge? What if experience is just an envelope containing messages from consciousness about our identity? What if experiences are not telling us what to want or to avoid in samsara? What if they are telling us who we are?
Just as there are scriptures that tout experiential enlightenment, there are scriptures that tout enlightenment as self knowledge. If you find yourself suddenly disinterested when you hear the word knowledge, keep reading. Please do not succumb to the strong anti-intellectual bias that pervades the spiritual world. If you think enlightenment is all about heart or a special experience and that knowledge is merely intellectual, keep reading. Knowledge is not opposed to sensations or emotions or any experience. In fact, what you feel is enhanced by understanding. What is about to unfold could very well move you along on your path. If you react unfavorably to the word knowledge, substitute the word understanding.
Knowledge cannot be dismissed or negated. For example, when scientists want to send a spaceship to Mars, they do not aim it at Mars but send it toward another planet in the opposite direction. You say, “Hey, Mars is over there!” But they do not listen. When it arrives it circles around planet X, picks up momentum and is shot off in to the depths of space where there is nothing for a zillion light years. You cannot believe what they are doing because Mars is presently a bit to the left of planet X. You politely mention it but they do not care.
A few months later it enters the orbit of planet Y, picks up more momentum and is again shot off in a direction that has nothing to do with the present position of Mars. After a year or two it meets up with Mars right on schedule. You cannot count on personal experience as it is conditional and can be dismissed. If you relied on personal experience you would never get to Mars. The odds of stumbling upon enlightenment are a million to one if you rely solely on your personal experience and the knowledge you extract from it.
Knowledge is object dependent, not subject dependent. Two plus two is four, no matter how you personally see it. Objects drop at thirty two feet per second whether you are a Christian, Muslim or an Australian Aborigine. It has nothing to do with you. It is like sleep; a king sleeping on his silk sheets in the palace has the same experience as a drunk sleeping in his vomit in the gutter. When you realize the truth, you realize what everyone else realized. The idea that there is my truth and your truth does not work because knowledge is object-dependent and there is only one self. Knowledge is valuable because nothing in this world is what it seems to be. The world of time, experience, is a world of appearances. If you take it to be real you will suffer. It does not exist apart from awareness. It seems to be real because you do not know who you are.
Awareness, you, is always here. You are always the same. You are what is real. You are the truth. Without you the world of appearances does not exist. Self knowledge−I am awareness−is always good because the self is always free; and it is most desirable because freedom is our most cherished value. You can count on it because it never changes. You cannot dismiss it because you, the object of knowledge, are always present and cannot dismiss yourself. If this knowledge ‘stands under’ you, you are free. Hence, the path of understanding.
The scriptures that tout enlightenment as self realization or self knowledge are based on the contention that reality is non-dual, unlike the scriptures that tout experiential enlightenment. Non-dual reality means that there is only one principle operating in reality, not two or more, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. It means that the subject and the objects are actually non-different, although they seem to be different. Unlike experiential enlightenment, self realization is a hard sell because experience seems to completely refute it. We cannot be faulted for unthinkingly interpreting the information we get from our senses to mean that the subject is different from the objects. We are born into a world where everyone has unwittingly made this assumption. We are conditioned by it every minute of our lives because we accept our senses as our only means of knowledge.
Just as the scriptures on Yoga offer methods for experiencing the self, the scriptures on knowledge use a sophisticated methodology to reveal the self. This method, which will be unfolded throughout this text, is called self inquiry. We inquire because we want to know something. There is no contradiction between these two methods. Experience is not good and knowledge is not bad. Nor is experience bad and knowledge good. If the relationship between them is clearly understood, a great obstacle to enlightenment has been dismissed.
From the point of view of consciousness there is no difference between knowledge and experience. Knowledge is experience and experience is knowledge. What you see you know and what you know you see, because consciousness is all there is. But from the point of view of an individual seeking freedom, experience and knowledge are quite different. This is so because the individual experiences objects through the mind, which makes them seem to be something other than the mind, and the mind, based on past experiences, interprets what it sees as knowledge whether or not the knowledge is actually true to the object.
If we look at the claim of the proponents of the experiential view of enlightenment from the non-dual point of view, the attempt to gain the experience of consciousness, however I formulate it, is unnecessary. Why? Because, if there is only one self and it is everything that is, then everything I experience at any time or place can only be the self including me, the experiencer. In short, I am experiencing awareness because I am awareness. And because awareness is limitless it is always free. And because there is only awareness, I am already free. I do not need an experience to set me free. Therefore, the attempt to get a discrete experience of the self is gratuitous, like going out for a hamburger when you have a filet mignon in the refrigerator.
This may sound like the negative teachings of the instant enlightenment schools−there is nothing to do, no path, no teacher, no scripture, no this, no that, you are already enlightened−that have muddied the spiritual waters since time immemorial. The view from the self does negate everything, but negation is only the preliminary portion of the self inquiry story, as we will see.
Neo-Advaita, the latest iteration of the instant enlightenment idea, makes it the whole story because the teachers, all Westerners, never actually exposed their minds to the teaching tradition of the Science of Self Inquiry in a disciplined way. They kept a Western orientation and picked the easiest self serving teaching−not this, not this−from a guru who neglected to teach the complete science of consciousness, if he knew it at all, passing it off as the whole loaf. In fact the guru explicitly stated that he did not give the whole teaching as his disciples were not qualified.
In any case, one of the most important functions of the statement that reality is non-dual awareness and that if you exist, which you do, you can only be awareness, is to convince you that you do not have an experience problem as far as enlightenment is concerned. In fact, you cannot actually experience awareness as an object because you are awareness. The best you can do is experience its reflection in a pure mind. This can be a help or a hindrance, depending on what you make of it. What use is it to try to experience awareness, if in fact everything that you experience within yourself and beyond the body is it?
If I am experiencing awareness all the time because it is me, then I have a knowledge problem, not an experience problem. If you do not realize that you have a knowledge problem, then unfortunately you will have to keep groping around in the experiential wilderness until you do realize it. ‘By knowledge alone is the self realized,’ says Ramana Maharshi and innumerable texts of the Science of Self Inquiry. When this fact has been properly assimilated, you are qualified for self inquiry.
So what is the knowledge that constitutes enlightenment? It is the hard and fast conviction based on direct observation that I am ever free awareness and not the body mind. It is the understanding that I am everything that is. It is the rock solid conviction that no matter what happens, good or bad, I am completely OK. This knowledge frees the self from the belief that it is an individual, limited being and destroys its attachment to objects as defined in Chapter 1.
The words ‘hard’ and ‘fast’ mean that binding fears and desires have been neutralized by the knowledge and that the pursuit of security, pleasure and virtue, is no longer active. If you say you are enlightened but continue to chase and cling to objects in samsara, you are not enlightened. You may know who you are intellectually but you do not actually know who you are.
Enlightenment is the unassailable understanding that because you are eternal, you are completely secure. Wealth cannot make you more secure. It is the bedrock knowledge that the pleasures available in the world of appearances are but dim reflections of the pleasure that you are. It means that you need not strive to be virtuous because you are goodness itself.
The Value of a Means of Knowledge
If you are in the middle of a non-dual epiphany, the self does not suddenly appear and say, “Yo! Seeker! Pay attention. What you are experiencing is you, although it seems to be an object. I am telling you this so you will not try to repeat this experience once it ends. If you are wondering what to make of this experience I will tell you now. It means that you are whole and complete actionless awareness, just like me.
It means that henceforth you will not desire or fear anything because nothing can be added to you or taken away from you. If, when this experience wears off, you set out to get it back or do something with it, you have not properly assimilated the meaning of my words. Good luck.”
The self will not say this because it sees you as whole and complete consciousness. The beliefs and opinions you picked up in life will not help interpret your epiphanies either, because you picked them up when you were ignorant of whom you are. You will see them as you want to see them, not as they are. Knowledge is seeing things as they are, not as how they appear to you.
So to gain enlightenment you need to shed self ignorance and to do that, you need a proven means of self knowledge. It will help you make sense of what happens to you spiritually and otherwise.
Epiphanies are useful if they are accompanied by self inquiry. Self inquiry does not mean asking ‘who am I?’ because the answer is known. If you have a doubt, a glance at scripture will set your mind at rest. You are awareness, not the person you have been led to believe you are.
Self Inquiry is a systematic body of proven knowledge that looks at experience and knowledge, from the point of view of consciousnesses and from all the basic samsaric reference points. It does not summarily dismiss experience and knowledge as illusion. It shows you that you are the big picture and if you cannot see yourself that way, it shows you how you fit into the big picture. You need an impartial guide, not your own interpretation of experience, because ignorance can make what is false seem to be real. You are the last person who should be an expert on who you are. – By James Swartz