‘The Idea Of Difficulty Is Itself An Obstacle To Realisation’

Over the years, I’ve quite often heard conversation partners and meditation students say, “Yes, but X is hard,” “Y is difficult,” and “Z is challenging.” But who says this? For whom this difficult? Who is putting up the illusory blockade?

In “Talk 244,” Sri Ramana Maharshi deftly meets the resistance of a disciple:

D[isciple]: How can the mind be made to vanish?
M[aharshi]: No attempt is made to destroy it. To think or wish it is itself a thought. If the thinker is sought, the thoughts will disappear.
D.: Will they disappear of themselves? It looks so difficult.
M.: They will disappear because they are unreal. The idea of difficulty
is itself an obstacle to realisation
. It must be overcome. To remain
as the Self is not difficult.

Again, who says, “It looks so difficult?”

Only the ego says that. It is the ego-arising whose temporary, illusory existence is bound up with proclaiming–and, indeed, with holding onto–the idea that such and such is difficult. For its shadowy existence lasts only so long as it grips onto this form–the form of difficulty.

Thus, Sri Ramana cuts to the chase: “The idea of difficulty is itself an obstacle to realisation.” In which case, just see what the source of this I-thought is. Again, whose doubts are these? Whose difficulties? Who is the doubter filled with difficulties?

He often concludes, “Go straight to the source, abide there, and all will be well.” Indeed, “To remain as the Self is not difficult,” provided that one gives up–surrenders–each and every form of resistance, every single vasana.

Ethical Practice: From Pride To Humility

What are the basic spiritual virtues of those who are on the path of nondual realization? Frithjof Schuon suggests that there are three: humility, charity, and veracity (or truthfulness).

Today I’d like to discuss humility. Now, we do well to begin not with humility but with the vice of pride. When pride is removed, humility will flow forth.

Hence, concerning pride, we can ask:

  • How do we go about recognizing pride in our lives?
  • How do we let it go?
  • And how, from here, do we engage in a positive practice?

I. Recognizing Pride

My experience, in the world of knowledge work, is that pride can be indicated by (i) “I know a good deal,” “I know best,” “I know more than you do,” and so on and by (ii) “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” “You’re clueless,” and so on.

Therefore, the practice is to become more watchful so that one can introspectively see when “I know and you don’t” is arising in conscious experience.

II. Letting Go Of Pride

Loosely following St. Benedict’s discussion of the 12 steps of humility from The Rule of St. Benedict, I would offer the following:

  • As often as possible throughout the course of the day: remember God.
  • Next, be watchful: see (i) when proud thoughts arise, when (ii) pride-based speech arises, and (iii) when pride-based action arises. In the case of thoughts, remember the Self. In the cases of speech and action, use restraint: use muscle to cease indulging in wrong speech and in wrong action.
  • Thirdly, empty the self (what St. Benedict might term “self-abasement”). Here, we can do so gently by asking: “Do I really know? Might I be wrong? Might I not know something relevant? Could my viewpoint be limited or my judgment cloudy?” That is, allow this proud stance to be attenuated via gentle yet persistent doubts.

III. Engaging In Positive Practices

Now we’ve cleared the ground for actually being humble in our hearts and in our comportment. What would positive practices look like?

  • Concerning thoughts, a mantra: “Be humble. Be open.”
  • Concerning speech: offer up genuine (not fake) gratitude. Additionally, feel mudita (sympathetic or vicarious joy) in your heart and offer that up to the one who is sharing good news with you.
  • Concerning action: in lieu of self-centeredness born of pride, put the relevant other beings first.


In a separate post, it would make sense to discuss the virtues of charity, empathy, and compassion. I’d put all of these in the same class, the one that Schuon simply calls “charity” or “charitableness” or “love.”

Why Neti Neti Is Not Enough

We learn something crucial during a satsang between a disciple and Sri Ramana Maharshi. At the end of “Talk 41” of Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi (PDF), Sri Ramana responds quite decisively to what a disciple says about his spiritual practice (sadhana):

D. [Disciple]: I meditate neti-neti (not this – not this).
M. [Sri Ramana Maharshi]: No–that is not meditation. Find the source. You must reach the source without fail. The false ‘I’ will disappear and the real ‘I’ will be realised. The former cannot exist apart from the latter.

How come Sri Ramana replied so decisively to one who is referring to a key, indeed a staid practice in the Vedantic tradition?

The plot thickens. In fact, in “Talk 25,” while teaching Self-inquiry (vichara or atma vichara), Sri Ramana had suggested there that the early investigation is along the lines of neti neti: one sees that the “I” is not the body (annamaya kosa) nor is the “I” the mental faculty (manomaya kosa). Then why is neti neti, as he implies here in “Talk 41,” not sufficient?

I submit that Sri Ramana is clear about a tendency we may have to ‘stop halfway’ in our inquiry. You can see what I mean after a deep meditation. Perhaps the samskara-vasanas have temporarily subsided during a deep sit–yet later on in the day, they return and wreak havoc.

To be sure, seeing “not this… not this,” one may come to a sense of “I am-ness.” Yet has the source of one’s misery–the ego, or mind–been seen through–or has its apparational and intermittent existence continued here and there?

In brief, the Great Matter has not been resolved. It is Self-inquiry whose essential point is to resolve the Great Matter definitively.

How? By finding the source of the I-thought.

That is, unless you find the source of the ego I, your misery will continue, albeit perhaps intermittently. Neti neti, then, is not enough (though it may be quite helpful) just because it does not go to the source, does not get to the root. Sri Ramana again: “Find the source. You must reach the source [of the rising ego] without fail.” For if you do so, “[t]he false ‘I’ [the ego I] will disappear and the real ‘I’ [the I-I, or Self] will be realised.”

Happiness Is Knowledge Or Love Of God

Happiness is knowledge or love of God.

This is, as it may first appear, not a poetic formulation only. It’s a definition of happiness.

And happiness, it’s implied, can be none other than knowledge or love of God.

Consequently, all other candidates–popularity, wealth, status, pleasure, experiences, desire satisfaction, wealth, status, accomplishments, worldly success, a certain set of said to be objectively good objects, knowledge of the world, any mental state, service to others, and so on–are out.

In fact, everything centered on the mind, body, or world is out. That is, anything unreal–asat: meaning impermanent and not self-existent–is out.

But then the only way to know or love God truly is to be God.

This does not imply that God is seen through the prism of the ego for such is delusion. It’s not that the ego-self is God for such is blasphemy.

Rather, it suggests that when the ego illusion is thoroughgoingly seen through, then there is only, there has only ever been God: there is no real but Real: yea, there is no sacred knowledge of God but the very being of God, which is God’s eternally and infinitely being Himself.

This is only what can be meant by real happiness. This and nothing else.

Therefore, in order to be happy in the real sense, we must begin the spiritual search today–nay, this instant. And if the search has already begun, then we must continue henceforth in earnest, making the quest not just central but also entire.

For only God–the Real–IS and so only God–the Real–matters.


Frithjof Schuon: On Getting To The Trailhead

In the “Introduction” to Frithjof Schuon: Messenger of the Perennial Philosophy, Michael O. Fitgerald cites Schuon’s wife Catherine:

[Schuon’s] function in the world is really to bring people
back to practice their religion . . . to bring them back to a path that leads to God. . . . [M]any people have gone back and practiced their religion very seriously after having read his books. He wants to help us to go back to where we belong.

I was very moved by this not the least because Schuon’s life, from what I can gather, was a beautiful one, also because his gift to others is just what’s needed at this historical juncture, and finally because I felt kinship with him at the very moment when I read this from his wife.

For at the risk of sounding proud, I’d say that, in my own modest way, that I have sought, over the past 11 years, to do something similar: to get others ‘to the trailhead’ (as I’ve been saying recently).

In my own case, I use a Trojan Horse strategy: we begin by inquiring into the sticky conflicts that arise in the domain of ordinary life (work, relationships, pleasures). In so doing, two things happen. The first is that these matters ultimately get sorted out over some years. The second–and more important one–is that one gets the hang of leading a more examined life. That is, one starts to have facility in examining one’s life on own’s one. The crux is that the examined life naturally leads–if taken far enough–back to spirituality and religion. To mysticism, in fact.

Evidently, Schuon was quite fortunate in that his students were already “ripe” enough to be interested in nondual metaphysics from the start. This, however, is hardly true for many Westerners who, nonetheless, are primed to reflect upon the shape and substance of their lives from the standpoint of philosophical discourse.

How, then, is the transition from the examined life to the religious or spiritual life effected? The way I put the ‘pivot point’ is by saying, “You are now on the path of self-knowledge.” And this path naturally moves, given enough time, rigor, and doggedness, from the self to the Self–from the conditioned to the Unconditioned, from manifestation to Principle. By this means and over the course of a number of years, conversation partners are indeed brought to “a path that leads to God.”

For me, I confess, ‘twould be nice if the path to get another to the trailhead were not so long, windy, and precarious, but so it is when the starting point is secular modernity, with its penchant for scientific materialism. An impoverished time like ours calls for patience and discernment. Much like Schuon, I want to “help us to go back to where we belong.”