The Only Answer Is Trust

To those spiritual aspirants who couldn’t simply realize their true nature by dint of purely being in his silent presence, Sri Ramana Maharshi would say, “You are the supreme consciousness.” And if this too proved ineffectual, as it often did, he moved down one more level to meet seekers where they were. And in many cases, at this point he offered them two options: either inquire into who you really are (atma vichara) or surrender everything to God (bhakti yoga).

Surrender, if it is to be worth its salt, must be total. There is no such thing as half-surrender or quarter-surrender. In surrender, I realize my helplessness (in a metaphysical sense) and understand, in my heart, that everything belongs to God. You might say that this moment is the true beginning of prayer.

All contemplative prayer is about putting everything on the line. To do so is an act of boundless trust. It seems to me anyway that we must put our trust in something–we cannot do otherwise. Living as an ancient skeptic is actually impossible.

Understand that if you’re anxious, fearful, or nervous, you’ll never dissolve any of these, in any final sense, through knowledge or even through quelling doubts. Any knowledge acquired will soon meet its edge, and any doubt answered will be followed by a fresh doubt. Knowledge acquisition is endless and, as it pertains to the “problem of suffering,” futile while all skeptical doubt is corrosive, eating away at one from the inside.

The only answer is trust. The felt sense of trust, which is what I’ll focus on here, is softening. That is, to trust is to soften. Not in the sense of being gooey or goopy or ooze-like. Softening means loosening up, handing the keys over. Mind you, what I mean to convey here is stronger than “letting down one’s guard,” the latter being no more than a precondition for the felt sense, or experience, of trusting. Trusting is–to coin a verb–peacing.

In the fullness of trust, I am peace. Not: I am at peace. But: what I am is essentially peace. Meditation, by virtue of unraveling distrust, leaves the dust here, here where it has always been. Once I stop trying to kick it up through distrust, doubts, reservations, desires, and fears, the dust is found to be ever settled. Pristinely itself.

Trusting, feeling like softening and peacing, is homing. And when all that slowly stops or unwinds, then there is just home. No verb. Just a period.

All Religions ‘According to the Viewpoint of the Seeker’

“The religions,” declares Sri Ramana Maharshi, “are according to the view-point of the seeker” (Be as You Are, p. 206).

If the mind of a young child carries around ideas about boogiemen, then a religion could form, stating that no such being exists. Were that to happen, then perhaps it would go on to suggest that there is an all-powerful Person who protects and loves all.

At a later point, perhaps the late adolescent or early adult might come to question whether there is a bearded man up there in the sky, looking out for all. Does a Superman make sense? And because of the alluring nature of atheism, she might come to conclude that there is no reality apart from this apparent, sensible world.

And so it may go for some time.

Perhaps, decades later, certain experiences would impress or force upon her the need to reconsider: to reconsider her place in the cosmos and to inquire anew into what she is and into what there is. Maybe something deep has, over all these years, been ripening within her.

And so, she might be ready to hear that “all is one Reality” and that “you are That.” What once seemed beyond the pale is now well within her purview.

An all-pervasive stillness may find her, may be her, may be here. Then it could be discovered that this “purity of heart” is the very place where she can “listen to Reality without any self-seeking interference.”

Atma-vichara Vs. Other Sadhanas

Ramana Maharshi is making some bold yet also reasonable claims. The first is that Self-inquiry (atma-vichara) is the most direct means to Self-realization. The second is that, unlike other spiritual practices (sadhanas), it provides us with “the only raft” (Be As You Are, p. 55, my italics).

Let’s see whether we can make sense of these two claims while also softening both.

Ordinary Sadhanas

Maharshi’s critique of other forms of meditation (dhyana) is that they amount to holding on to an ego-object structure. So, he states, “Dhyana is concentration on an object. It fulfils the purpose of keeping away diverse thoughts and fixing the mind on a single thought, which must also disappear before realisation” (p. 54).

To see the point he’s making, consider some form of breath control (pranayama). During pranayama, the mind may become one-pointed as attention remains, say, on the third eye. But what is it like 30 minutes after pranayama? The same mental chatter resumes, and the key is that the mind required an object for the meditation itself. That is to say, the key, for Maharshi, is to relinquish all objectifying tendencies, and so any form of meditation that does not necessitate that relinquishment cannot take you Home.

Another way of putting this critique is to say that Maharshi is focused on pure awareness, not on attention. The latter, necessarily, is always objectifying while pure awareness is beyond as well as prior to all attention. Therefore, any practice worth its salt must ultimately bring us beyond attending and to pure awareness.

Claim #1: The Most Direct Means

Maharshi suggests that Self-inquiry is the most direct means, and about this he is right. It must be the most direct just because it is pointing us straightaway to the Ground of all becoming.

Yet the claim needs to be softened a bit. I would say that any approach can called the most direct so just long as it points straightaway to This Very Reality. Understood thus, the natural koan in Zen and the huatou in Chan also fit the bill. And, in actual practice (i.e., “from the inside”), I can make out no essential difference between Self-Inquiry, the natural koan, and the huatou.

The scope of Maharshi’s claim so widened, any meditation that is a direct pointing would also count as being the “most direct means” of realization.

Claim #2: The Only Raft

Arguing along similar lines, I would submit that Self-inquiry is the only kind of raft that can bring us Home. For Maharshi is surely right to say that the “mental modification of the ‘I'” (the short, though perhaps somewhat misleading or confusing translation is the “I-thought”) grabs a hold of an object. When the I is modified, it is already grabbing on to something: a thought, a perception, a memory, a sensation (which is implicitly called “mine”), etc. Therefore, he is right on the mark when he states that only when the “I-thought,” being intensely held on to, relinquishes all objectivity can it sink back into the Heart/Self. That sinking back or dissolution is realization.

In Rinzai Zen, it is said that once the doubt sensation has arisen, there can be the Doubt Block (or the Great Doubt). This is all-encompassing, all-pervading, so much so that all ego-thought freezes.

My interpretation is that different cultural traditions–Advaita and Zen, for instance–and different spiritual paths–Self-inquiry and huatou, say–are converging on the same basic insight. Now, during what may be the beginning of a Second Axial Age, is the time to spell all this out as clearly as possible.

When All Samskaras Have Been Given Up…

In Be as You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, Ramana Maharshi states, “[W]e have simply to throw out all the age-long samskaras [innate tendencies] which are inside us. When all of them have been given up, the Self will shine alone” (p. 15).

A samskara is an ego-self tendency. Any form of reactivity (for instance, anger or sadness or shame) and any thought-looping (“I don’t want to be seen this way,” etc.) would be a sign that a samskara has arisen.

The simple truth, very akin to a store going out of business, is that everything held onto must go.

Suppose that one of my samskaras is the fear of loss. The body experiences the fear in the form of certain physical sensations while the mind cycles through imagined scenarios of loss as well as through ways of preventing these imagined losses.

To say that “everything held onto must go” is, mark this, not to send off the loss or the thoughts or the emotions. Doing so will only ensure that they come back. No, one must go is the basis or root or relative source of this fear of loss. And that is, as Shankara knew, the “I am the body idea.” For he rightly said that the “I am the body idea” is the source of all misery.

In the meantime, each samskara must be allowed to arise and must be approached non-judgmentally and curiously from multiple angles. Get behind the mind and, said Nisargadatta, take a keen look at it from the outside. Truly, when all samskaras have been given up, then only Ultimate Reality remains, shining forth unimpeded and unencumbered.

Whatever you’re holding onto, can you see it clearly? That is, can you let it be seen? And, seeing it clearly and intimately, can you let it fade away? And can you trace this samskara back to the relative source of all samskaras–namely, the ego-self? And can you intuit that this relative source is, in actuality, not real?

Theism And Panentheism

A couple of days ago, I went to my book shelf to see what I might like to read next. I grabbed The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as well as an unassuming book entitled The English Mystical Tradition by David Knowles, a Benedictine monk, Catholic priest, and historian until his death in 1974.

I remember picking this book up at the Ojai Public Library’s semi-annual book sale back when my wife and I lived in Ojai, California. It would have been a sunny day, and the books, on tables and in boxes outside, would have been well picked through by the time we arrived. Still, few, then as now, would have been intrigued by The English Mystical Tradition, and the book itself, though aged and dusty, has a newish feel.

Right at the beginning, Knowles shows his cards; doing so makes plain the immense difference between traditional theism and the nondual teaching. For he writes,

How then, have the theologians interpreted the message of the Scriptures? They have taken their stand upon two basic Christian doctrines: the transcendent immanence of God and the divine sonship given us by Christ.

God is at once transcendent and immanent in His creatures. H is transcendent, and therefore cannot be attained or comprehended or experienced as He is in Himself by any created faculty; yet He is immanent in creation by His power, His presence, and His essence, for without this power and presence no creature could exist. This is true of all creation, but it is eminently true of the spiritual world of soul. God is Spirit, and the soul is made in His likeness, with the faculties of knowledge and love and (within limits) of self-determination. (pp. 6-7)

Theism and nonduality agree that God is transcendent. It could be said that God’s transcendence refers to His going beyond all worlds, all minds, and all bodies–in short, beyond all form and manner of limitation. Transcendence is thus boundlessness.

Both equally agree that God is immanent for God is surely in all beings. God breathes life into all that exists, and truly all that exists depends, ontologically so, upon God.

The first clue to a significant difference in perspective comes with the particular kind of “transcendent immanence of God.” For Knowles, immanence is exhausted in the claim that God is is in all of “His creatures,” whereas nonduality wishes to go one, radical step further, stating that, yes, God is in all manifestation (i.e., all things “participate in” God), also through all creation (cf. the Holy Spirit), and also is all creation (identity).

To taste the difference, consider this short passage from Swami Ramdas, a nineteenth century Indian mystic:

Forget not the central truth that God is seated in your own heart. Don’t be disheartened by failures at initial stages.

Cultivate the spirit of surrender to the workings of his will, inside you and outside you, until you have completely surrendered up your ego-sense and have known that he is in all, and he is all, and you and he are one.

“You and he are one”: yes, it may be said, due to divine grace but not temporarily and not, finally, with even a hair’s breath of separateness. Tat tvam asi: you, essentially, are That.

The Heart Sutra says it all and with perfect Zen concision: “Form is formlessness, formlessness form.”