‘The Indication Of Your Progress Is Your Disinclination To Associate With Normal People’

Near the end of his life, Nisargadatta is in a satsang with a student who asks: “What is the yardstick to measure the progress of the seeker” (Prior to Consciousness: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, p. 45)? His answer may surprise you.

Maharaj: “The indication of your progress is your disinclination to associate with normal people; your desires and expectations get less and less. When out of intense hunger for Self knowledge, the door, or the floodgate is opened, then you start rejecting everything, right from the gross state to Iswara state, your own consciousness, you reject everything” (pp. 45-6).

Does this sound peculiar to you? Harsh? Impossible? Well, it’s none of these. It is plainly true and being true, it is marvelous.

That disinclination can be hard to put into words. It could be said, quite concretely, that you decline various, almost all social engagements. They have no flavor. It’s not just that you’re disinclined to engage in small talk, and it’s not just that you cease taking any interest in promoting–directly or indirectly–the ego-self. All of this just stops of its own accord. You have zero interest. Nada. Keiner.

Maybe the word disinclination is a touch misleading. There’s just nothing “registering” when you’re asked to associate with normal people. It is neither attraction nor aversion. It’s like being told that you can eat as much fruit as you like when you’re on a Keto diet. The fruit simply ceases to “show up” as food.

Make no mistake: Maharaj is not speaking only of renunciation here. He is also pointing to the fact–the lived fact–that the “hunger” for Self knowledge has become singular, concentrated, the most real inquiry there is.

At this point, nothing can sway or divert you from your inquiry. In fact, every happening becomes more “grist for the mill,” a gift that miraculously pushes the inquiry forward. For surely the “doubt sensation” (in the language of Chan) has arisen and it’s as if What Is is carrying you Home–in its own time, according to its own rhythm, in its own way.

Nothing can stop this unfolding. There is nothing here to impede it. It is an inevitability of the kind that we might, drawing from Zen, call Great Trust. Of course, to say all this is to say much too much. The labels–the need for labels–melt away and everything becomes sanctified.

Deft Spiritual Instruction In The Shvetashvatara Upanishad

Tucked between verses containing soaring lines on the Absolute, the Shvetashvatara Upanishad includes very practical, and sagely, spiritual instruction on how to meditate. It is worth reading closely and bears deep contemplation.

Be seated with spinal column erect

And turn your mind and senses deep within.

With the mantram echoing in your heart,

Cross over the dread sea of birth and death.

Train your senses to be obedient.

Regulate your activities to lead you

To the goal. Hold the reigns of the mind

as you hold the reins of a restive horse.

Choose a quiet place for meditation that is

Clean, quiet, and cool, a cave with a smooth floor

Without stones or dust, protected against

Wind and rain and pleasing to the eye.

In deep meditation aspirants may

See forms like snow or smoke. They may feel

A strong wind blowing or a wave of heat.

They may see within them more and more light:

Fireflies, lightning, sun, or moon. These are signs

That they are well on their way to Brahman.

Health, a light body, freedom from cravings,

A glowing skin, sonorous voice, fragrance

Of body: these signs indicate progress

In the practice of meditation.

As a dusty mirror shines bright when cleansed,

So shine those who realize the Self,

Attain life’s goal, and pass beyond sorrow.

The instructions on seated meditation are excellent. Sit with spine erect and turn inward, replacing the outward-going attention on sense objects and on mental objects with the inner light of awareness.

So are the words about having certain visions or experiences. Sometimes Zen overemphasizes the unimportance of visions, calling them “illusions.” While this is strictly true, it can be heartening for the spiritual aspirant to know that such visions (yes, mind-concocted and hence not the True Self unadorned) can be regarded as “signs of progress,” signs of greater clarity, depth, and direction. “Yes,” one might say afterward, “I am going the right way.”

The poem in no way suggests, however, that it is wise to grab onto such states, visions, or experiences. Doing so is a sure sign of lack of progress, and a surer sign still that you have embraced spiritual materialism. Anything less than Truth is a poor substitute and a tempting danger.

Thus, as in Zen, so in this Upanishad: clean the mirror, polishing it until it is so spotless that only the light of Reality can be reflected here.

Atman And Anatta

According to a Wikipedia entry comparing Advaita Vedanta with Mahayana Buddhism,

Advaita Vedanta holds the premise, “Soul exists, and Soul (or self, Atman) is a self-evident truth.” Buddhism, in contrast, holds the premise, “Atman does not exist, and An-atman (or Anatta, non-self) is self-evident.”

This seems like a dubious “difference without a distinction” so long as one remains married to direct experience. To see this, we have to remember that all mystics are coming to a Reality that is prior to all language and therefore also prior to specific cultural, historical, and conceptual differences. Naturally, when they “report” on what they have directly discovered, they will avail themselves of the language–the analogies, the metaphors, and the concepts–that are ready to hand, sometimes using such culturally specific tropes in creative, innovative, and spellbindingly poetic ways.

Atman, recall, is the True Self. It is an answer to the question: “Who, really, am I?” And the answer, state spiritual adepts, sages, and saints, is that there is an unlimited, pure Awareness that, according to the dictates of dualistic language, will, alas, be put into the “subjective category,” the category of the “I.”

Now, when the Buddha suggests that anatta is true, he is saying that there is no such thing that “fits the bill” for being a personal, individuated, soul-like self. The Buddha’s, you see, is a deconstructive move: see through the illusion of a separate, allegedly self-standing self and then simply see who you really are.

This is so clear to one twentieth century Zen master, Shibayama, that, in The Gateless Barrier, he freely and without scruples calls ultimate reality Absolute Subjectivity. So much for that purported distinction!

Therefore, both are true: anatta points to the fact that no separate, personal self “holds together” the lived experience of any psycho-physical organism (human beings included) while Atman gives us an ultimate, positive answer to this pressing matter of ultimate concern. The Buddha demolishes while Advaita affirms. The via negativa and the via positiva here quite naturally join hands in universal fellowship and in pristine, reverent understanding.

A final word: we do well to trust the great mystical masters, not the scholarly debates that, so long as they are engaged in discourse alone, are starting off on the wrong foot. Chan, Zen, and Advaita Vedanta, in fact, all share a commitment to beginning, and ending, this existential inquiry into the nature of the ultimate by appealing first and above all to experience, not to scripture. The latter, yea a pointer, supports, but the former must bear the weight of the inquiry if this inquiry is to bear very beautiful fruit.

Nachiketa’s Greatest Boon: Going Beyond Death

The Katha Upanishad is remarkable for its poignancy, beauty, and clarity. Poignantly does it describe a dialogue between a teenager Nachiketa and Yama, the presider over death. Nachiketa, afraid of death and rightly so, asks how he might go beyond death.

What is clearly articulated are the whispers of a path. So:

When the five senses are stilled, when the mind / Is stilled, when the intellect is stilled, / That is called the highest state by the wise (Katha Upanishad 3:10-11, Easwaran translation)

In beautiful verse, the youth is urged to “go back the way he came” (to quote Maharshi). Therefore, he is to begin with the physical senses and accordingly withdraw both from sense objects and from the sense organs (sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste). Next, he is to view the mind and, through practice, “look at the mind from outside of the mind” (Nisargadatta). Behind the intellect, as Maharshi has gone to great pains to show, is the ego, which is most purely witnessed in the form of the I-thought.

Elsewhere, the Katha Upanishad tells us that consciousness, which is universal but which has already tumbled forth into being, gives way to what is “prior to consciousness” (to quote Nisargadatta). And what is prior to consciousness but the True Self?

Beyond the physical senses, the mind, and consciousness, then, is the True Self, standing supreme, abiding as Itself. This is what Nachiketa seeks; in seeking This, he seeks Himself. And “That is called the highest state by the wise.”

This “highest state” is, in fact, a “no-state state” (Stephen Wolinsky) in the sense that it is timeless, spaceless, changeless, and more. States change, but only This remains.

Death applies to the physical and mental forms, but the Deathless, prior to all births and deaths yet also tumbling forth in countless temporary names and forms, reigns supreme. The simple formula, “Atman is Brahman,” reveals the highest truth: that who I essentially am is none other than the supreme, single, unborn, and deathless Reality. Whatever is temporal I am not; whatever is eternal That I am.

The poem ends:

Nachiketa learned from the king of death / The whole discipline of meditation [which was said to be necessary for Self-realization]. Freeing himself from all separateness [to wit, the belief and feeling that he is a separate self], / He won immortality in [and as] Brahman. / So blessed is everyone who knows the Self!

Samskaras And Thoughts: On Ramana Maharshi’s Fresh Approach

Yesterday, I sought to show that there is an especially close relationship between samskaras and Ultimate Reality. I’d like to expand on those reflections here. To do so, I return to Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi.

A disciple, who is also a busy householder, is asking Maharshi about the role that meditation plays in realizing one’s true nature. “No separate meditation is necessary?,” he asks.

Maharshi replies, “Meditation is your true nature now” (p. 279). For adept meditators, this bit, so far, is old hat: meditation is not what you do; it’s what you are. The crux, for me, comes later when he offers, “Other thoughts arise more forcibly when you attempt meditation” (p. 279, my emphasis).

Oh, and the text just here states that “[t]here was a chorus of questions by a few others” (p. 279). No doubt!

So, Maharshi continues, “Yes, all kinds of thoughts arise in meditation. It is but right. What lies hidden in you is brought out. Unless they rise up how can they be destroyed? They therefore rise up spontaneously in order to be extinguished in due course, thus to strengthen the mind” (p. 279, my emphasis).

There’s a lot here to unpack! To begin with, let’s recount what we often hear about thoughts during meditation:

–Note them (a labeling exercise) and then let go of them.

–Be mindful of them and let go of them. Return to (e.g.) the breath, the mantra, the count, etc.

–Allow them to arise, but remain uninvolved, unconcerned.

–See where thoughts come from and where they go off to.

–Ask, “What do these thoughts arise from?”

–Use the koan or huatou like a vajra sword.

And so on. All of these are, in their place, good cues, but can we, in this context, start to see how much more profound Maharshi’s remarks are?

1. Let’s be a bit anthropomorphic and say that Universal Consciousness is “sending” us exactly these thoughts as a blessing. It is precisely these thoughts that need to be witnessed right now.

2. These thoughts are very often samskaras. Accordingly, to be sent just these is to be in a position to see them off. (“What lies hidden in you is brought out.”)

3. Buddhism emphasizes that “delusions are endless” (until one gets to the root of all delusions). Sometimes that first part can be colored by quiet despair. “Endless, you say?” Geez, what’s the point then? Return to Maharshi’s remarks now: let us say that there is a kind of “order” to the arising of thoughts as well as a “mission” or an “agenda.” The more this order and mission are ascertained, the clearer it becomes that seeing them off is one perspicuous way that personal consciousness becomes more transparent with Universal Consciousness. Full transparency is identity.

In short, samskaras, by this analysis and by virtue of the sustained practice that Maharshi tacitly proposes, become ready pointers to Universal Consciousness. You might say that Maharshi has adroitly “defanged” suffering for those willing to heed his words.