By Adam J. Pearson
“There will be periods of frustration; there will be periods of doubt. Your worldly involvements would hamper your Sadhana (practice) and an atmosphere of defeat would prevail. But, come what may, just throw everything aside, don’t bother about anything and continue your abidance in the ‘I am’ with all earnestness. The ‘I am’ would test your endurance, but a moment would come when it will (…) release its stranglehold on you and reveal all the secrets.”
~ Nisargadatta Maharaj
“Self-inquiry must be done continuously. It doesn’t work if you regard it as a part-time activity.”
~ Annamalai Swami
“”Beginners in self-enquiry were advised by Sri Ramana Maharshi to put their attention on the inner feeling of ‘I’ and to hold that feeling as long as possible. They would be told that if their attention was distracted by other thoughts they should revert to awareness of the ‘I-thought’ whenever they became aware that their attention had wandered. He suggested various aids to assist this process – one could ask oneself ‘Who am I?’ or ‘Where does this I come from?’ – but the ultimate aim was to be continuously aware of the ‘I’ which assumes that it is responsible for all the activities of the body and the mind.
In the early stages of practice attention to the feeling ‘I’ is a mental activity which takes the form of a thought or a perception. As the practice develops the thought ‘I’ gives way to a subjectively experienced feeling of ‘I’, and when this feeling ceases to connect and identify with thoughts and objects it completely vanishes. What remains is an experience of being in which the sense of individuality has temporarily ceased to operate. The experience may be intermittent at first but with repeated practice it becomes easier and easier to reach and maintain.
When self-enquiry reaches this level there is an effortless awareness of being in which individual effort is no longer possible since the ‘I’ who makes the effort has temporarily ceased to exist. It is not Self-realization since the ‘I-thought’ periodically reasserts itself but it is the highest level of practice. Repeated experience of this state of being weakens and destroys the vasanas (mental tendencies) which cause the ‘I-thought’ to rise, and, when their hold has been sufficiently weakened, the power of the Self destroys the residual tendencies so completely that the ‘I-thought’ never rises again. This is the final and irreversible state of Self-realization.”
~ David Goodman, Be As You Are : The teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi
“Except when one is in the sleep state, the effort to meditate should continue always. Just like the river which is flowing constantly towards the sea, our awareness should flow without a break. We should not have this concept that we should meditate at certain times. The meditation on the Self should continue while walking, working, eating, etc. It should be naturally flowing in all places at all times.”
– Annamalai Swami
As we listen to the teachings of the great masters of jnana yoga, the path of Self-Realization, we are rapidly struck by the clarity and commonality of what they recommend to those who feel an intense yearning to directly realize their fundamental nature. “Keep the mind that is before thinking,” recommends the Korean Soen (Zen) Master, Seung Sahn. “Focus the mind on the I-thought,” the feeling of presence, recommends Ramana Maharshi. “Stay with the sense ‘I Am,’ the pure feeling of being as distinct from being this or that,” suggests Ramana Maharshi. “Stay with the sense of Presence,” says Eckhart Tolle. “Relax attention from focusing on this or that and abide in that unfocused, dispersed sense of presence,” recommends Florian Schlosser.”Keep asking “Who hears this sound, what sees this thought?” and answer with silently looking,” suggests the Zen Master Bassui. In all of these cases, the words are different, but the practice (sadhana) is the same. In practice, this becomes very clear.
We might wonder: what could be easier than simply being, simply abiding in the dispersed sense of presence? We might wonder. And yet, if we take the sages seriously, what they recommend is that this practice be ceaseless, continuousnot just on the meditation cushion, but throughout all of our daily activities. Nisargadatta Maharaj devoted every waking moment of his life in which thinking was not needed to complete some practical action to this abiding in the sense of presence, as his Guru had urged him to do. Anyone who has earnestly attempted to actually live this practice finds that, especially in the beginning, far from easy, it can be very difficult. Indeed, much reluctance and avoidance of the practice can arise, and we can seem to prefer to discuss and rationally speculate about what we are than to concretely do the work that would lead to directly realizing it.
Where does this reluctance and avoidance stem from? From which roots does it grow? And which seeming obstacles are naturally expected to arise in the process of living this practice? In my humble experience, I have thus far found that there seem to be at least six main obstacles to ceaseless practice, which shed light on why doing something as simple as resting in the sense of ever-present sense of being can seem so difficult. In reality, nothing hinders our true nature and there are no true obstacles, but in the process of doing the work of realizing what we are, these concrete, pragmatic issues may arise. Understanding these factors and knowing that they are normal and natural in practice can be very helpful in sticking with the abiding throughout the day. If they arise, we simply notice them and carry on. What, then, are these seeming obstacles?
- The Habit of Relying on Thinking
“You give reality to concepts, while concepts are distortions of reality. Abandon all conceptualisation and stay silent and attentive. Be earnest about it and all will be well with you.”
~ Nisargadatta Maharaj
First, it is worth noting that as a result of our upbringing and intellect-centric culture, many of us become so used to relying on thinking and on what we have known and experienced, that it becomes a deeply entrenched habit. We are addicted to thinking. Our focus drifts to thinking automatically and stays there almost in a hypnotic trance. Because it is familiar and thus feels ‘safe’ to us, we tend to stay withthe thinking-focused state is generally one of great misery, agitation, dissatisfaction, and anxiety.
Because thinking has served us well in all other domains of life, surely–or so we think–it will be the best instrument to realize what we truly are as well. This is an innocent and ‘reasonable’ belief, but as we rapidly come to see when we actually do the work, it is simply not true. Thinking can help with discernment and communication, but not with realization. Whatever can be thought about is not what we are. What we are is prior to all concepts and thinking and yet fully available at all times through the simple feeling of presence or beingness, the doorway between the ephemeral and the eternal. However, as a matter of habit, we may assume–that is, think–that thinking will reveal what we are and that more information and more knowledge will help us, but as U.G. Krishnamurti put it, our “natural state” is not “a logically ascertained premise.”
In fact, more thinking only covers up and redirects attention away from abiding in the simple sense of being. It does not reveal our true nature, contrary to the assumptions of all intellectual disciplines and, indeed, of most spiritual seekers themselves. Whatever is arrived at through thinking is at best a conceptual model, and not what it models. While intelelctual disciplines are the best tools we have to study relative phenomena in the universe, what we are after here is not yet another transient phenomenon, but what is ever-present beyond all that comes and goes. Simple Being is a thoughtless land because it is prior to all content and thoughts are content. As Ramana Maharshi put it, “The only language that can express the whole truth is Silence.”
Thus, to realize what we are, no thought, concept, or line of reasoning can ultimately assist us. All are hindrances to the work that alone can reveal what we are, namely, moment to moment, as ceaselessly as possible abiding in the feeling of thoughtless presence or silent beingness. When we rest in this pure feeling of being, we allow attention to disperse and relaxedly encompass the general field of this moment rather than focusing on this or that.
Keeping attention in this dispersed state while intensely aware of the simple feeling of being is the heart of the matter. And this is not a process of thinking at all. As this abiding is sustained, thoughts become few and far between and a radiant clarity shines in their absence. This is a presence that does not depend on thinking at all. Thinking is always about something. Simple being is about nothing. As Rumi said, “be deeper still, stand at Zero.”
2. The Discomfort of Difficulty
Second, many who try to ceaselessly abide in the sense of presence soon discover how difficult it is. It is difficult only because we have a habit of focusing on and getting hypnotized by thinking. If we are are not earnestly determined, we can give up on it too soon out of laziness, not enjoying the discomfort of the effort, or feeling like “nothing is happening” or “we’re not getting it.”
It’s true that nothing that is not always happening will happen in this practice and that we are not going to get what always is, but the very tendency to fixate on thoughts of this nature reveals the mind’s dualistic preferences. We want pleasure over pain, ease over hard work, to know more than to be and to think more than to be quiet. And all of these preferences are all self-centered, me-centered expressions of the very reliance on thinking about the “my” past and future that produces our suffering for the body-mind and keeps consciousness in a state of seeming delusion.
These preferences are all the conditioned products of identifying with the very thinking that is keeping us focused on what we’re not. All of this must be put aside during the practice, or conceptualization will make this empty beingness into something it’s not: a concept or an idea that the mind can hold on to. In this practice, nothing can be held on to, including our most cherished spiritual concepts. One is one too many. To quote Rumi, “ground yourself, strip yourself down, to blind loving silence. Stay there, until you see you are gazing at the Light with its own ageless eyes.”
3. Worrying About Doing it Wrong or How to Do It
Third, the mind can worry that we are ‘doing it wrong’ or worry about not knowing ‘how’ to do it. If we’re doing it right, both stories of “doing it right” and stories of ‘doing it wrong’ subside since they are both just thinking. “How” is also thinking; no how is needed to be. We are! The only how is this: keep quiet and be. To quote Kabir, “be silent in your mind, silent in your senses, and also silent in your body. Then, when all these are silent, don’t do anything. In that state truth will reveal itself to you.” In not-knowing, we can feel lost. This is perfectly fine. As Nisargadatta says, “by all means do feel lost. As long as you feel competent and confident, reality is beyond you.” Rest in the sense of being and dispersed awareness and all will be revealed from there. To make any movement needs a ‘how;’ to be still takes no movement. To be this or that, conditions must be met; simply to be takes no conditions. To do something right or wrong requires differences; pure being is prior to all differences, undifferentiated, not-two.
4. The Fear of Not-Knowing and Not-Being
Fourth, when abiding in the empty sense of presence prior to thinking–“keeping the mind before thinking” as Seung Sahn puts it—great fear can sometimes arise since we are left without all of our precious answers, knowledge, and habits of thinking. An unwillingness to surrender and feel this fear can also keep us focused on thinking rather than on the feeling of being.
Reeling from this fear, which is a fear of not-being, the mind tends to scramble to assert control or to retreat back into thinking about ‘how’ to do it. “Doing it right,” “doing it wrong,” and “how”–which all imply processes that take time–are all concepts. Drop them all, keep quiet and be. No how is needed to be. And no time is needed to be *now.* How much time do you need to travel to now? Where would you go? Ignore the mind’s obsession with ‘how’ and ‘what’ and just be.
As we abide in the simple feeling of presence, everything gently falls away, a little at a time, like ripe apples from a tree in the Fall, including all ‘my’ knowledge and realizations. All of this content had its relative place; it can be as it is. But it can’t weigh in on what is empty of all content. To be this or that takes content; just to be is content-free. “This” and “that” are mediated by concepts and memory; just being is prior to thinking, even when the mind is empty. You don’t need to take anyone’s word for it, you can investigate the matter directly. You have all the power you need.
So, if fear arises, let it be and stay with being. Nothing that comes and goes can cause you to lose beingness at all. Practice reveals this. Fear cannot destroy it, nor can anxiety or any other state. In fact, there is nothing safer than abiding as being although the mind can suggest that giving up thinking is the epitome of risk and vulnerability. Try it and see. Call the mind on its bluff. “If we do this, we’ll go insane and life will become chaos” is a story without evidence. Throw it out and be. Test and experiment. Find out the truth prior to thinking and beyond belief. Doubt all and be; that’s true faith.
5. Believing We Are Already Beyond The Need for It
Fifth, we may resist abiding in the sense of Being because either we believe we are already beyond it because of something we read in a book like Nisargadatta’s I Am That or because of what we have experienced or known. If we avoid abiding as the sense being–as Nisargadatta himself constantly did in his own sadhana–because of something we read, then we are believing a second-hand concept, and this is preventing us from directly looking into the matter and finding it out for ourselves. There is no skipping from a thinking-identified mind to the Absolute; as Nisargadatta himself often pointed out, abiding as being is the only way. The sense of being is not the ultimate, but it is the way to the ultimate. To believe prior to realization is premature; after realization, no beliefs are needed. If we really trust the great masters like Nisargadatta, we can express that trust by doing the work that brought them all the way to realization, which is precisely this simple practice of ceaselessly abiding in the feeling of Being.
If there is a sense of subtle arrogance or smugness in a feeling that “I” am beyond the beingness–unlike all of those deluded seekers who believe it’s necessary to abide as the feeling of being–this is often simply the same old sense of “me” as in any other ordinary identification and suggests we are holding onto realizations or understandings. Many intellectuals simply take on a new belief–that “I am awareness”–and avoid ever doing the work. Or, they have a fleeting glimpse of what they are prior to thought and prematurely conclude that the work is done. Both of these tendencies are grave errors that only postpone the work that must be done: hard, resolute practice.
What proclaims “I am awareness” and arrogantly argues with others to try to convince them that this is the case? Only the conceptual mind does this; what we are is ever-silent. Why does it do this? Because it’s afraid we will cease to be if we are emptied of all the crutches of concepts and thinking. Thus, the mind fixates on a very subtle conceptual position of being awareness. In truth, being emptied of all conceptual fixations does not result in a cessation of being at all even as the mind subsides into silence; being is prior to thinking. Indeed, this emptying feels in practice less like falling into chaos and more like having heavy bags lifted off of our shoulders following a long voyage. It comes as a relief; with less to carry, we “travel lighter,” as Paul Hedderman says.
Thus, if there is a subtle focusing on a subtle belief like “I am awareness,” and the mind is angrily arguing it on Facebook for instance, then we are still relying on the conceptual mind; we are still seeking refuge in a subtle concept of emptiness, awareness, or the absolute, rather than allowing silence to really empty us of all that can be emptied. We may talk of being beyond concepts, but we are still relying on them and avoiding doing the work of silent abiding. Thus, we are in a state of seeming stagnation in an ongoing process rather than at its end, as we falsely assume, that is, think!
In practice, even the thought “I am awareness” or “I am the absolute” subsides in the silence of resting as Being. Even that goes. Why? Because what we fundamentally are doesn’t go around describing itself. It is the mind that shows up and proclaims “I am awareness” when the sense ‘I Am’ identifies with a subtle concept of awareness. It is a subtle burden, but a burden nonetheless, an unnecessary fixation or reference point that can fall away. What we are is beyond all concepts both concrete and abstract. Allow this one, too, to fall away. It is, after all, simply yet another subtle form of “this” in “being this.” Empty being of all content–every “this” and “that”–and stay with empty being. This is the heart of the Way.
6. Not Realizing Its Value
“Just look away from all that happens in your mind and bring it to the feeling ‘I am’. The ‘I am’ is not a direction. It is the negation of all direction. Ultimately even the ‘I am’ will have to go, for you need not keep on asserting what is obvious. Bringing the mind to the feeling ‘I am’ merely helps in turning the mind away from everything else. When the mind is kept away from its preoccupations, it becomes quiet. If you do not disturb this quiet and stay in it, you find that it is permeated with a light and a love you have never known; and yet you recognize it at once as your own nature. Once you have passed through this experience, you will never be the same man again; the unruly mind may break its peace and obliterate its vision; but it is bound to return, provided the effort is sustained; until the day when all bonds are broken, delusions and attachments end and life becomes supremely concentrated in the present.”
~ Nisargadatta Maharaj
Sixth and finally, we may experience aversion to abiding in the sense of being simply because we are not yet aware of the fruits that it can yield or its efficacy as a golden vessel that can take us all the way to Self-Realization. Contrary to what the conceptual mind may suggest, empty, silent beingness is not, in fact, a state of chaos or fear at all; chaos and fear are forms of content, forms of “this” and “that” and pure being is contentless. In fact, when we are deeply and sincerely abiding in the feeling of naked presence, there is a sense of deep clarity, deep peace, and causeless well-being or simple happiness without conditions. Abiding there, a sense of loving warmth without object or subject is revealed to be ever-present. A love shines there with no one loving and nothing loved.
In truth, everything we’ve been seeking through conditional content, impermanent phenomena, and second-hand thinking–peace, love, happiness, joy, fulfillment, freedom–is in fact, always available at all times, in the very state of abiding we are avoiding. However, because we haven’t trusted the empty, thoughtless beingness sufficiently to abide there long enough to realize this, we don’t think it is so. All the great masters suggest that if we simply try it out and see, really see, really give it an honest effort, earnestly dedicating every free moment to it, we may be very pleasantly surprised. From its sanity,we recognize the insanity of constantly and obsessively focusing on thinking and all of the suffering this innocent habit generates. We see the agitated nature of all thinking from the silence prior to it. We come to recognize the madness of self-centeredness from the freedom beyond it. As Paul Hedderman often says, in this state, “you’ll see the problem from the solution.”
In closing, let us consider the words of Nisargadatta about the process of sadhana and Self-Realization unfolded for him:
“I was a simple man, but I trusted my Guru. What he told me to do, I did. He told me to concentrate on ‘I am’ – I did. He told me that I am beyond all perceivables and conceivables – I believed. I gave my heart and soul, my entire attention and the whole of my spare time–I had to work to keep my family alive. As a result of faith and earnest application, I realized my Self within three years. You may choose any way that suits you; your earnestness will determine the rate of progress. Establish yourself firmly in the awareness of ‘I am’ of pure being. This is the beginning and also the end of all endeavour.”
~ Nisargadatta Maharaj
Part of a series on Nonduality: