Nonduality, by David Loy

I have just begun a very exciting book, Nonduality, by David Loy. It is a philosophical analysis of three major non-dual philosophical systems: Advaita Vedanta, Taoism and Buddhism. It explores notions such as nondual perception and action in a rigorous and yet readable manner. Though is is primarily an academic work, it has already in a couple of chapters opened up some “real-life” philosophical puzzles that have haunted me for some time now!

I came across it in  Joan Tollifson’s reading list, which is a rich source for books in the non-duality ballpark.

Very excitingly, the author himself has uploaded the book as a scanned copy here. Please read for a sophisticated and exciting glimpse into the most profound philosophical traditions on the planet!

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Crossing the Bar: Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

***

One of my favourite poems; it captures so well the intersection between mortality and eternity, in a flash of words.

There is a musical rendering of this poem by the group Salamander Crossing which is stunning. Click here.

Meaning making

 

Humans are deep meaning-making machines. At every instant of our lives, we seem to be processing our environments, both social and physical, and interpreting them in meaning-rich ways.

I look around me and try to find love, engagement in work, spiritual fulfillment, an identity in a complex shifting world.

While this is beautiful and “natural,” I think we must also ask deep questions of the meaning-making process. This is often difficult to do, as our emotions are so deeply rooted in the meanings we make of the world. However, if I persist with my questions, some interesting perspectives arise.

For instance: how can I be sure that a meaning that seems solid and real is not just my own invention? If I look at the social institutions that mean so much to me—religion, family, community, nation—I can quickly see that these institutions vary tremendously through the world. So in some sense, humans have “invented” meanings that may simply not exist otherwise.

Since life is so fleeting and transitory, I am convinced that there is something (or Someone) Out There who is permanent, beyond change, all knowing and all powerful. But the fact may be that the Universe is fleeting and transitory; that may be its beauty, power and creativity. Is permanence simply my invention, my belief?

My point is not to tear meanings down but to question them to reveal their limits.

Many mystics across the ages have insisted that when the human ego, with all its rich meaning making capacity, ends, then a totally different kind of perspective on life, one not bound up with human pettiness, emerges. It is this possibility, as well as the conflicts in human society that are born out of specific attitudes, that keeps me interested in questioning our frameworks of belief.

 

Death

I find this account of Ramana’s self-realisation tremendously moving and urgent. 

Ramana:

It was in 1896, about 6 weeks before I left Madurai for good that this
great change in my life took place. I was sitting alone in a room on
the first floor of my uncle’s house. I seldom had any sickness and on
that day there was nothing wrong with my health, but a sudden violent
fear of death overtook me. There was nothing in my state of health to
account for it nor was there any urge in me to find out whether there
was any account for the fear. I just felt I was going to die and began
thinking what to do about it. It did not occur to me to consult a
doctor or any elders or friends. I felt I had to solve the problem
myself then and there. The shock of the fear of death drove my mind
inwards and I said to myself mentally, without actually framing the
words: ‘Now death has come; what does it mean? What is it that is
dying? This body dies.’ And at once I dramatized the occurrence of
death. I lay with my limbs stretched out still as though rigor mortis
has set in, and imitated a corpse so as to give greater reality to the
enquiry. I held my breath and kept my lips tightly closed so that no
sound could escape, and that neither the word ‘I’ nor any word could
be uttered. ‘Well then,’ I said to myself, ‘this body is dead. It will
be carried stiff to the burning ground and there burn and reduced to
ashes. But with the death of the body, am I dead? Is the body I? It is
silent and inert, but I feel the full force of my personality and even
the voice of ‘I’ within me, apart from it. So I am the Spirit
transcending the body. The body dies but the spirit transcending it
cannot be touched by death. That means I am the deathless Spirit.’ All
this was not dull thought; it flashed through me vividly as living
truths which I perceived directly almost without thought process. ‘I’
was something real, the only real thing about my present state, and
all the conscious activity connected with the body was centered on
that ‘I’. From that moment onwards, the I or Self focused attention on
itself by a powerful fascination. Fear of death vanished once and for
all. The ego was lost in the flood of Self-awareness. Absorption in
the Self continued unbroken from that time. Other thoughts might come
and go like the various notes of music, but the ‘I’ continued like the
fundamental sruti note which underlies and blends with all other
notes.

(In Indian classical music, “sruti” refers to a musical note, as Ramana explains).

Krishnamurti: Self Expansion

Is not craving the very root of the self? How is thought, which has become the means of self-expansion, to act without giving sustenance to the ego, the cause of conflict and sorrow? Is this not an important question? Do not let me make it important to you. Is this not a vital question to each one? If it is, must we not find the true answer? 

Reflection on the Self, p132

Whenever I re-read K, I am astonished at some small phrase which I had overlooked the last time and which shines out with a special significance.

Is not craving the very root of the self? Again, I must pause and consider this afresh. The way I can understand it is to rephrase the question. Can “I” exist without craving? It seems not, because every micro instant of my existence is filled with an inner restlessness and desire which I try to subdue by my thoughts and actions.

This sounds very negative. When I try to describe this restlessness to other people, I often get this response: gosh, you seem to be so restless and discontent! Relax! By the way, all our moments are not like that! We have moments of tremendous peace too!

I feel that this restless desire is not peculiar to me, that it’s part of our human condition. Let me try to describe it. We are often bored, and we crave to fill that boredom with small actions. Pick up a book. Pick up the phone. Send a text message. Write a blog. Make a cup of coffee. Day dream. Day dream some more. Get absorbed by work. Solve a puzzle. Cook a meal. The list is endless. And each of these “tasks” can itself be broken down into micro moments of restlessness and desire, even though we can be absorbed for a brief period.

The time when I understood this most clearly was when I attended a Vipassana session. (Vipassana is a kind of Buddhist meditation). I sat, cross legged, eyes closed, completely quiet, for upwards of ten hours every day for ten days. Talking about the restless craving mind is one thing, but encountering it day after day in this naked form is something else. This was when I realised that the smallest actions in our lives fill in some kind of void. Those ten days of absolute silence were extremely challenging.

And of course, beyond the micro-craving, we have macro-cravings! The urge to be important, famous, well-loved; the urge to have money, power and sex. These are obvious cravings which seem connected to the subtler ones.

(contd)

The Basics: Nisargadatta (contd)

“You give no attention to your self. Your mind is all with things, people and ideas, never with your self. Bring your self into focus, become aware of your own existence. See how you function, watch the motives and results of your actions. Study the prison you have built around yourself, by inadvertence. By knowing what you are not, you come to know yourself.”  I Am That, p4, Ch2

I return often to the quote above, even though I am very familiar with it. It structures so much of what I define as “meditation,” or awareness of inner and outer worlds.

Your mind is all with things, people and ideas. I am humbled by the day by day, hour by hour, indeed minute to minute processes of identification that take place in our minds and bodies.  Our consciousness seems to be spread out, like a drop of water on fine paper, over vastness in space and time. I can identify with my coffee cup, and insist that I drink only from that favourite cup because it gives me some intangible, fleeting comfort. I can pass by a landscape, a road, a house, and find my consciousness imprinted upon it because this particular spot arouses such a wealth of complex feelings in my mind and body: peace, desire, regret, shame. I can look at the moon, 360,000 kilometers away, and feel attached to its beauty and the memories it arouses. And so on all the way, I presume, to the edge of the known universe! Creation seems soaked with my identity; both penetrate and mingle with each other.

And it is this exact process of deep deep identification that the mystics are challenging. Focus on the “I” that identifies, they say, rather than the thing that it is identified with. Strip away all identification so that only the “I” remains. And then see what happens. Impossible, we exclaim. And the masters calmly reply: Who is this who proclaims that it is impossible? And the cycle begins again. . .

The Basics: Nisargadatta

“You give no attention to your self. Your mind is all with things, people and ideas, never with your self. Bring your self into focus, become aware of your own existence. See how you function, watch the motives and results of your actions. Study the prison you have built around yourself, by inadvertence. By knowing what you are not, you come to know yourself.”  I Am That, p4, Ch2

All mystics through the ages have stressed on this basic idea. Forget the blazing lights, the pure bliss, the oblivion of body. The hard work of bringing the daily self into the foreground is what they primarily emphasize (Krishnamurti, Joko Beck, Buddha himself) and yet this is the toughest part, the primary challenge, for our wandering minds.

“Your mind is all with things, people, ideas.” The fundamental point that Nisargadatta stresses upon is our identification with things, people, ideas. I see a picture of a gadget, say the new Kindle. My curiosity is aroused, but it is not just an abstract curiosity. I feel a strange sense of fulfillment, a swelling of my self, an added sense of solidity and self worth, when I imagine myself holding the Kindle. I feel that it will be a deep source of pleasure. I project myself holding it, explaining its power to my friends, I sense their curiosity and slight envy (unless of course they have a better model!) There is a deep abiding bond that is built up between myself and this object. In fact, my identity seems to have penetrated the object, so that we are one entity.

(If you feel that all this doesn’t apply to you–and many people reject the above model–just remember the last time you lost your wallet, or your cell phone, or your car keys. The bond with a familiar object, and with the security it represented, was broken, perhaps forever. What were your emotions at that point?)

And yet, when I acquire the object, why is there the sense of quiet deflation, the sense of a promise not quite fulfilled? Already I am planning mentally on the Kindle upgrade.

If all this is true of things, the depth of identification with people is exponentially stronger. I identify with my girlfriend because she is my primary source of pleasure: the pleasure of sex, the pleasure of “ownership” (yes, very subtle and refined, but ownership anyway), the pleasure of control and the pleasure of submission. The cycle of fulfillment and betrayal, emotional and physical, oscillates gently through the days, bringing in its wake tenderness, anger, jealousy by turn.  This cycle is so fascinating that it keeps me interested for months and years, until maybe a new fascination comes along.

And, finally, ideas. I feel no one has explained our obsession and identification with ideas more clearly than Krishnamurti. My idea of nation and my identification with it; my idea of religion and my identification with it; family; work. The list is endless. And, very much as with relationships, powerful emotions are associated with these identifications. When the identity is questioned, fierce anger and insecurity are aroused. When there is affirmation, there is a glow, an enhancement of self and (seemingly) well being.

…continued