By Adam J. Pearson
When I met my Guru, he told me: “You are not what you take yourself
to be. Find out what you are. Watch the sense ‘I am’, find your real
Self.” I obeyed him, because I trusted him. I did as he told me. All
my spare time I would spend looking at myself in silence. And what a
difference it made, and how soon!
My teacher told me to hold on to the sense ‘I am’ tenaciously and not
to swerve from it even for a moment. I did my best to follow his
advice and in a comparatively short time I realized within myself the
truth of his teaching. All I did was to remember his teaching, his
face, his words constantly. This brought an end to the mind; in the
stillness of the mind I saw myself as I am — unbound.
I simply followed (my teacher’s) instruction which was to focus the
mind on pure being ‘I am’, and stay in it. I used to sit for hours
together, with nothing but the ‘I am’ in my mind and soon peace and
joy and a deep all-embracing love became my normal state. In it all
disappeared — myself, my Guru, the life I lived, the world around
me. Only peace remained and unfathomable silence.
These are the words of Nisargadatta Maharaj (1973), the great Advaita Vedanta sage and humble shopkeeper who followed a simple instruction from his teacher that guided him Home to the true nature that he had never left. What is perhaps most striking about this account is Nisargadatta’s earnest single-mindedness. He took his teacher seriously and completely committed to the instruction to attend to the pure and simple sense of being–“I Am”–with all of his energy, attention, and engagement.
Nisargadatta could have easily amused himself with a million other distractions, like Instagram, Kanye West tweets, or Candy Crush–just kidding, his body left this mortal coil in 1981–but he didn’t. He focused on one teacher and one task and he saw where it took him. As it turned out, this single-minded focus took Nisargadatta beyond his notion of being a separate self altogether.
In his words:
The lifeforce and the mind are operating [of their own accord], but the mind will tempt you to believe that it is “you”. Therefore understand always that you are the timeless, spaceless witness. And even if the mind tells you that you are the one who is acting, don’t believe it. […] The apparatus [mind, body] which is functioning has come upon your original essence, but you are not that apparatus…
How often do we single-mindedly commit to one thing in the earnest style of Nisargadatta?
Many commentators have pointed out that modern humans increasingly display what could be called a ‘fast-food mentality,’ a compulsive drive to have, do, and become more and more, faster and faster (Schlosser, 2012). A deep fear of missing out can drive us to constant consumption: “what if I miss out on the next lover, the next iPhone, the next experience, the next deal, the next fix, the next drink?” The content varies, but the form is the same: the fear that “I will miss out on the next ____.” We can insert anything we think we want into the blank and the statement expresses the same essential sense of terrified scarcity, whether it be a hot date, a hot dog, or a hot doughnut.
Two words stand out as the fixing points of this compulsive mentality embodied in the fear that “I will miss out on the next_____”: “I” and “next.”
The issue is not so much the missing out in and of itself–we all miss out on billions of events every day and every moment–but on the mental process that produces a future-oriented sense of being a “somebody” who is the “one” missing out. The sense of being the “one” who exists in a constant state of scarcity is the root of the compulsive seeking that flows out of the fear of missing out.
In addition, the word “next” suggests a chronic preoccupation with the future that implies an often unquestioned dissatisfaction with the present. This dissatisfaction, a rejection of what is here now in favour of some desired future ‘next thing,’ has deeper roots that stem from the fundamental sense of being a separate ‘self.’ In every day speech, we tend to take the word “I” to refer to what we call”me,” the sense of being a long-lasting, independent, separate entity that is assumed to be the thinker of thought, feeler of feelings, and doer of actions.
This identification with our mind’s stories about “me” seems harmless enough, right? Well, doctors once thought smoking was a valid treatment for asthma and as harmless as can be, but that didn’t turn out so well…
As Paul Hedderman expertly points out, the reality is that when we look for the ‘self’ that is the alleged reference of all of the thoughts of “I,” “me,” and “mine” that flow through the mind compulsively and anxiously on a daily basis, we never find it. We never have a present experience of a separate self, only of a mental process of thinking or remembering driven by the words “I,” “me,” and “mine.” Because the sense of ‘self’ that the storytelling mental process generates is not a present experience, it has to be constantly remembered. When we really look for it in present experience, we find no thinker, only thoughts; no feeler, only feelings; no doer, only actions unfolding. The assumed master puppeteer behind all the strings of activity is nowhere to be found; she never showed up for the show, and yet the show goes on without her!
When the mind identifies with the mental process that gives rise to the fabricated sense of self out of the wispy, fluctuating, and volatile materials of memory, thought, and emotion, what happens? We tend to suffer. We eventually feel disappointed, depressed, anxious, frustrated, angry, restless, agitated, irrritated, and lacking. Our sandcastle sense of self gets washed away by the waves of time and change.
These suffering states arise from the discomfort that the selfing mental process generates in the body; indeed, the body rejects the tyranny and agitation of a ‘self’ that doesn’t exist, much like any responsible populace would to an imaginary dictator. If someone played Darth Vader commands on a loud speaker in Boston, would you follow them? There’s no way! Unless you believed him to be real, that is. And that’s exactly what we do on a daily basis with the dictator of the mental state that’s pretending to be “me.” Yikes!
Beneath the flow of thoughts and their dominant themes of trying to ‘have’ and ‘become’ more, no thinker is found driving the flow of thoughts; the thoughts come and go on their own. When the sense of self that the mind generates by remembering and telling itself stories about “me”takes hold of the body-mind, it produces a sense of compulsiveness, agitation, dissatisfaction, anxiety, and sometimes profound suffering. This unpleasant state tends to move the individual into a condition of seeking some kind of respite or solution to the problem it believes it facing. This makes perfect sense, of course; once we believe we are in a burning building, it’s logical to try to find a way out.
In the spiritual community, the fast-food mentality applied to “the spiritual search” can sometimes take the form of people dedicating years to the ‘satsang circuit,’ just travelling around doing retreats with one guru after another, hopping between satsangs like a frog between lily pads. In some ways, satsang hopping sounds like a wonderful time, but from the point of view of truth, there’s really no need to travel even a centimeter to get Home; we’re looking from it. Regardless of where we seem to go.
Of course, the story of being a “seeker of enlightenment” on a hero’s journey has a great appeal for the mind because it makes “me” special, woohoo! I’m a hero cutting through the demons of ignorance and suffering! Hi-ya! Hadouken!
Ironically though, looking at the world from the point of view of that story is the very thing that’s preventing us from realizing that the whole narrative of “me” is itself seen from what we truly are. The story of what we’re not is seen from the truth of what we are. Indeed, there’s no need to get out of a burning building when you realize the building is imaginary and you were never in it; you’re out! We’re trying to get to some imaginary destination, far off in a distant future when what we truly are has never budged an inch! Ever! And it never will.
Sooner or later, the Eric Cartman of the spiritual seeker has to realize that there’s no need to keep playing a rigged game that can’t be won and say “screw you guys, I’m going Home.” The ‘going Home’ couldn’t be more simple; it simply involves Being where we never left by attending to the pure and simple sense of presence that Nisargadatta mentions. By realizing what we’re not–the mental process and its story of a made-up “me” that we were entranced and identified with for so long–and removing our interest and attention from it, we gradually begin to wake up to what we are. Where do we find our true nature? Right here, where we’re seeing from, in the ever-luminous spaciousness that’s awake to this present moment here and now.
We’re like a gamer who starts playing a video game and becomes so identified with their game character that they forget they aren’t the one in the game. Oh no! we exclaim. How am I going to get out of all this trouble with these orcs and goblins attacking my village? What am I going to do to escape the menace of these dragons?
You’re not! You don’t even have to. You can’t get out of a place you were never in.
And yet, that’s how we live. We want freedom for the separate ‘self’ we take ourselves to be, only rarely realizing that the only lasting freedom is the freedom from it, from not having to get out of the game situation because we were never in the game in the first place. The freedom from the need to be free; that’s the juiciest spiritual cheesecake of all. Mm mm mm!
Instead of rushing from this guru to that, why not go to satsang right here and right now with the Guru that speaks through the mouths of all the gurus, our own true nature? It’s a lot cheaper. We don’t even have to worry about layovers at the airport! This satsang never even ends; it’s the ultimate retreat.
We want to go out externally to hang out with some other enlightenmenty dude or dudette so we can have a meeting with the truth (sat-sang) present in them. But that same true nature is right here where we’re seeing from; it’s the undeniable truth of our own presence. We can eliminate the middle man and go straight for the Source that can’t be lost or gained. We can cut the costs of the “spiritual journey,” but only 100% of them.
The end of the journey is the discovery that you are what you sought all along. Anything less than that is simply an imaginary signpost on a trip that never happened.
Part of a series on Nonduality: