Existential Opening And No Man’s Land

I. In The Beginning…

In the beginning was the existential opening. And what it said to me was: “You do not know yourself.” And I who do not know myself knew that it was right.

Before the beginning of the existential opening, there was, in fact, no beginning at all. Deep down, I felt that I knew myself and thus that I was not, nor could I be, brought into question. In this sense, I was frozen in time. Hence, taking myself to be self-evident, to be an obviousness, I remained pathless and because pathless, homeless. Until the arrival of the existential opening, I ‘existed’ prior to the possibility of any revelation of a path, let alone my own. I wasn’t even lost yet.

The Fundamental Question

What would motivate one to open all up to the existential dimension of life? Not, it turns out, an existential opening of any kind but only one of the tallest, supremest order.

For an existential opening bends the questions, for the first time, back on the questioner. In this manner, it throws open basic existential questions–notably,

  • Why am I here?
  • How shall I live?
  • What is ‘it all’ about?
  • What is truly real?

The crux to an existential opening of the tallest or supremest order is that each of the above fundamental questions can be traced back to the most fundamental question there is, to the essential question: Who am I? “Who am I?” is the reduction base for all fundamental questions.


Because to ask, “Why am I here?” or “How shall I live?,” the one asking that question must, in so doing, presuppose that the I itself is stable such that meaning in the first case and a final aim in the second can be inquired into. That presupposition is brought to light when one goes further back and asks, “And who is this ‘I’ in ‘Why am I here'”? Or: “What is the status of the ‘I’ in ‘How shall I live'”?

The same line of inquiry applies in the cases of the latter two questions: “What is ‘it all’ about?” and “What is truly real?” Most surely, there is a more–the most–fundamental question waiting to be asked: “Who wants to know?” That is, “Who is asking, ‘What is “it all” about'”? Or: “For whom is it a question concerning the nature of reality?”

There is no backstop question beyond the question of my nature. Thus, this question must be the basis of my investigation.

II. No Man’s Land

The essential point of an existential opening is that it places me squarely in No Man’s Land: I now have knowledge of ignorance (I know that I do not know myself), yet I am also, and very much so, ignorant of knowledge (there is no sense in which I know myself by being myself). In this respect, I am no longer an ignoramus yet neither am I a jnani. Hence, in a word, No Man’s Land.

Strikingly, we find the same starting point expressed with pith in the Hindu nondual text Yoga Vasishta Sara:

Neither one who is totally ignorant nor one who knows it (i.e. Truth) is eligible to study this book. Only he who thinks ‘I am bound; I must become free’ is entitled to study it.

Yoga Vasishta Sara: The Essence of Yoga Vasishta, p. 1

The one who is “totally ignorant” is also, in Socratic terms, the one who does not know that one is indeed ignorant of oneself. The veiling or forgetfulness of the question of one’s very being is still very much intact. For the ignoramus, then, neither is this book eligible for study nor is any path capable of being revealed.

Yet it must also be said that the jnani has no use whatsoever of sacred texts. What business does a jnani have reading sacred texts when he or she is the living embodiment of its teaching? The point, in fact, is more general than this: there is no path and no sadhana for the one who is fully realized.

We must revisit this strange space between knowledge of ignorance and ignorance of knowledge. The figure located between the ignoramus and the jnani is, in the tradition, referred to as “the sadhu.” And for a sadhu, only a path can lead one out of No Man’s Land.

III. The Essential Point Of Sadhana

Sadhana, then, is only for one who (a) has been existentially opening and thus, in virtue of this existential opening, (b) has entered No Man’s Land. It is fitting sadhana that provides one with a path Home.

For the earnest spiritual seeker, “I am bound; I must become free” becomes a natural, heartfelt expression. It is similar to the second patriarch’s desperation uttered in the presence of Bodhidharma: “Your disciple is not at peace!” The world over it would take very little research to discover similar articulations of one’s being utterly, existentially ill at ease and thus of one’s being wide open to a path toward final release, salvation, or liberation.

A sadhana is only for an earnest spiritual seeker. And what is its essential point? It is to close the gap between theoretical understanding and intuitive, unitive knowledge (gnosis). That is to say, the only aim of sadhana is to undo the ignorance of our essential nature.

If the existential opening is what gives rise to the felt need for sadhana, then deep sadhana is what points the way out of No Man’s Land. The pointer vanishes precisely when the seeker unrealizes ignorance of one’s very essence–which is to say, realizes Self-knowledge.

To his immense credit, Sri Ramana Maharshi showed earnest spiritual seekers, who had set foot on the path of knowledge, the method of Self-inquiry (atma vichara). It is to this method that I now turn….