Who or what does Self-Enquiry? Why still the mind? Isn’t this more mind? More beliefs? Neo-advaita | Radical non-duality vs Traditional teachings and practices

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Question: There’s no one to purify the mind. Believing there’s a practice to attain a purified mind is just more mind…Considering you speak from the position of a teacher, come forward and explain who or what would do the practice you propose, who needs or benefits from a still mind, why does a mind need to be stilled and who or what (in time) initiates or ends the practice? We might find your answers are also beliefs.

Tom: ok, challenge accepted 🙂

First of all what I say cannot be proved by words alone, but it can be known through direct experience. So on the face of it, what I write below could seem to be just an elaborate set of beliefs. Hence I do not usually try to convince people what I say is correct, as most people will not accept what I share unless they themselves have had certain experiences/insights or are otherwise drawn to the teaching. What I say also doesn’t necessarily seem to make sense to the mind, at least not initially, but when it is put into practice, then it starts to make sense as one has a direct insight/seeing into the teachings and how they work.

As one more and more puts the teachings into practice, one starts to see the truth in the teachings for oneself, and so one’s faith in the teachings increases. This encourages the practice with greater zeal which eventually yields results (ie. ending of suffering, also called direct realisation) – suffering falls away and faith is no longer required.

Who or what practices Self-Enquiry?

To answer your questions: basically, the teachings are heard by and put into practice/ initiated by the ego-mind in most cases, although it can happen spontaneously too. This is true of any teaching or practice (or non-teaching) by the way. The ego-mind is actually a fictitious entity, but due to ignorance, it is taken to be ‘me’, and it is this fictitious ego-mind (that is taken to be real) that usually engages with the teaching and practice (or any teaching or practice). More on this below.

Maya

The true Self that you are is ever-realised, ever at peace and needs no teaching, but this is apparently not realised due to Maya. Maya is a mysterious projection of mind-ignorance that creates the illusion of multiplicity and of limitation, usually in the form of the belief ‘I am the body-mind’ and ‘I live in a real separate world that contains other things and other people’. This ignorance-belief or ego-mind creates suffering as the ‘me’ believes it is limited, vulnerable and so subject to birth, death, illness, etc, and that other people such as family and loved ones are also subject to the same. This inevitably causes repeated cycles of stress and suffering.

Suffering and its continuance

For most, as long as attention is directed to objects such as mind, body, world, thoughts, feelings, sensations, this sense of individuality or ‘me’ is perpetuated, and suffering and confusion keep on coming back despite perhaps having had insights into non-duality or other similar insights.

The remedy

The teaching proposes a remedy – in this teaching it is called self-enquiry. This teaching is the only remedy I know of that works, although it may go by other names. All other teachings/non-teachings/etc may give rise to temporary insights (for the mind) or temporary feeling states (for the body-mind), but the habitual egotism-ignorance tends to arise again and with it confusion and suffering also arise, leading to further cycles of dissatisfaction and further seeking. The essential teaching I share has remained unchanged for several thousand years, is recorded in the Upanishads and is the essence of all true spiritual teachings that lead to realisation/end of suffering. I think the reason it has stuck around for so long is because it actually works! The teaching may also arise spontaneously, as the entire teaching is actually inscribed upon each of our hearts, so to speak.

So Self Enquiry is usually initiated by the mind, but actually, because the mind turns in on itself during the practice, the mind disappears and what is left is True Self only. Over time, the ego-ignorance-mind is undercut and eventually withers and dies.

Ramana Maharshi states in Day by Day with Bhagavan: ‘The mind turned inwards is the Self; turned outwards, it becomes the ego and all the world’.

The traditional Advaita text Yoga Vasishta states: ‘Consciousness, which is undivided, imagines to itself desirable objects and runs after them. It is then known as the mind.’

Why bother?

You asked why this practice-teaching should be engaged with. The reason this is done is to end suffering – everyone naturally wants to be happy and without suffering, and my experience is that for most people, without this teaching-practice, or something very similar, suffering, confusions and egotism continue. Of course, it follows that if you are not suffering, then you don’t need the remedy, the teaching-practice.

Doesn’t this just perpetuate the mind?

A common objection is that any activity of the ego-mind will simply continue the ego-mind. Whist this is often true, it is not always true, and it is not true in Self-enquiry. Ie. the notion that any activity of the ego/mind will always lead to more ego/mind activity is actually an ideological belief that is not rooted in evidence or direct experience. This is because mind is actually a fiction, so when it is turned to attend to the true self, it disappears. This can be fairly easily experienced for oneself with a little practice and guidance.

A teaching that actually works!

Again, all this above could all just be an elaborate theory, a convoluted belief system, and unless one is genuinely open to the teaching, it may remain just that – another theory amongst other theories. But when put into practice, my contention, and that of many others over several centuries, is that it actually works.

Eventually it is seen that the teaching is also more illusion, as is the idea of a teacher or teaching or seeker, but the teaching is an illusion that leads one out of illusion. How so? A metaphor is given of someone who dreams of a lion, and the roar of the lion wakes him from the dream – the lion (the teacher-teaching-practice) was also a fiction/illusion but it led to ‘waking up’ or realisation. I hope this answers helps you understand what I share.

If you are interested, the path is explained in full here: The Entire Path Explained: the Path of Sri Ramana

It is also explained in brief here: IN BRIEF: HOW TO ATTAIN LIBERATION (MOKSHA)

Ramana Maharshi on Neo-Advaita | Radical Non-duality | Are practices really required?

Also see:
False enlightenment
Are spiritual teachings prescriptions or descriptions? Sudden vs. gradual teachings
3 stories of awakening: no path vs sudden path vs gradual paths to enlightenment
-The problem with radical non-duality or neo-advaita 

Neo-Advaita (or ‘new advaita’), itself a modern-day term, is used to refer to teachings or communications that do not accept the existence of separation or duality in any way shape or form: there is no seeker, no separation, and therefore no need for a teaching or practice or communication even.

The term ‘neo-advaita’ is often used pejoratively by more traditional Advaita Vedantins, who do advocate teachings and practices, in order to discredit the neo-style ‘communications’. I use the word ‘communications’ when describing neo-advaita rather than teachings as often neo-advaita ‘speakers’ do not like to refer to themselves as teachers or as having teachings, as ‘teaching’ can imply a separation between a seeker who needs to be taught and a teacher who knows something and is teaching something to someone.

Below is a wonderfully instructive excerpt from Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi that addresses the apparent conflict between the two types of teaching in talk number 57. It is well worth reading. See if you can see some of the parallels and issues that are raised. This excerpt also explains in brief the method of Advaita Vedanta but is also heavily littered with Sanskrit words which may obstruct the understanding for some. I therefore have added some comments in italicised red which I hope are helpful in fully explaining the text’s meaning:

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Ramana Maharshi: Some people think that there are different stages in jnana. The Self is nitya aparoksha, i.e., ever-realised, knowingly or unknowingly. Sravana [hearing the teachings], they argue, should therefore be aparoksha jnana (directly experienced) and not paroksha jnana (indirect knowledge). But jnana should result in duhkha nivriti (loss of misery) whereas sravana alone does not bring it about. Therefore they say, though aparoksha, it is not unshaken; the rising of vasanas is the cause of its being weak (not unchanging); when the vasanas are removed, jnana becomes unshaken and bears fruit.

In the first sentence of the above paragraph Ramana hints that there are no stages in Jnana. He then goes on to state that The Self is ever-realised. Sometimes the mind ‘knows’ this, sometimes it doesn’t. Either way the Self is ever-realised as it is what we are, already and always.

The argument that is therefore proposed by some is that because we are already the Self – limitless, whole and complete –  just by hearing the teachings that point this out to us (sravana in Sanskrit), we will now knowingly ‘be the Self’ and have a direct experiential understanding of this (aparoksha jnana: ‘direct knowledge’ aparoksha means umediated or direct; jnana means knowledge or understanding and in a spiritual context means liberation or self-realisation), ie. through hearing the teachings alone self-realisation will result. This view is essentially stating that practices such as meditation and contemplation are not required for liberation as we are already fully realised and so no progressive path is required. Only direct pointing out alone is required and all else is illusion.

Ramana then points out the flaw in this argument. He states that the problem with this teaching is that liberation must lead to the cessation of suffering (duhkha nivriti in Sanskrit: duhkha means hurt or pain or suffering; nivriti in this context means cessation) and merely listening to teachings alone does not yield this result. Essentially, whilst mere sravana or listening to the direct teachings can yield direct insight (aparoksha jnana), this insight is weak and not stable, and therefore suffering does not end and the ananda (blissful) aspect of the Self does not materialise, so seeking (which is fuelled by suffering) continues.

This is also my experience with seekers who have been exposed to these teachings. Whilst the can be direct and profound and trigger a realisation of sorts, the effects are often short lived and do not end suffering. This can, in some cases, lead to flip-flopping, in which the sense of liberation seems to come and go, alternating with confusion, seeking and suffering. In many it can also lead to an over-emphasis on concepts, although I am sure this is not the intent.

Ramana explains that the reason why insight is weak is due to the vasanas. Vasanas is a Sanskrit word that I often use in my teachings. It refers to habitual egoic tendencies that, through the force and momentum of ingrained habit, cause us to seemingly re-identify and re-immerse ourselves back into egotism, separation, illusion and suffering. It is the energy and momentum of the egoic vasanas that prevent liberation from appearing to be stable and lasting, even though liberation or the Self is all there is already and always.

Lastly, Ramana states that once the vasanas are removed, then realisation becomes stable and bears the fruit of cessation of suffering, or Ananda (bliss). This is the point of spiritual practices – not to bring liberation about – as that is all there is already and ‘we are That’ – but to remove the habitual wrong notions/beliefs or vasanas that create suffering.

Ramana continues:

Others say sravana is only paroksha jnana [ie. hearing the teachings, sravana, leads only to indirect or intellectual knowledge, paroksha jnana]. By manana (reflection) it becomes aparoksha [direct knowledge] spasmodically. The obstruction to its continuity is the vasanas: they rise up with reinforced vigour after manana. They must be held in check. Such vigilance consists in remembering = “I am not the body” and adhering to the aparoksha anubhava (direct experience) which has been had in course of manana (reflection).

Such practice is called nididhyasana and eradicates the vasanas. Then dawns the sahaja state. That is jnana, sure.

Ramana here explains an alternative theory which in practical terms is a the same argument I explained above as the vasanas have to be removed, but with some technical differences. Here Ramana explains that another view is that listening to the direct teachings (sravana) leads only to intellectual understanding (indirect understanding or paroksha jnana). In order to have a direct understanding or genuine experiential understanding (aparoksha jnana), one has then to reflect on the conceptual teachings (manana) and see the truth of them for oneself in one’s own direct experience. This then leads to spasmodic direct realisation which comes and goes. 

We can see that the only difference between this second theory and the first one is that the first theory states that listening to the teachings (sravana) alone leads to direct realisation where as this second theory adds in another stage in which sravana leads to indirect or mere intellectual understanding and this intellectual understanding is converted into direct experiential understanding through reflection (manana). In both cases what results from sravana or sravana-manana is spasmodic unstable direct realisation which comes and goes and alternates with confusion and suffering.

Ramana proceeds to point out that once we have attained a genuine direct insight, the egoic suffering-causing vasanas rise up with a newfound vigor and so the realisation we ‘attained’ is quickly dispelled.

How to dispel the suffering-causing vasanas? Through Nididhyasana, the 3rd stage of the traditional teaching in Advaita Vedanta (the first two stages are Sravana and Manana). The literal translation of Nididhyasana is ‘meditation’ and there are different forms and aspects of this part of the teaching. Here Ramana explains two aspects of Nididhyasana, firstly a conceptual aspect: knowing ‘I am not the body’ or ‘I am not the body-mind’. The second aspect is to remember the experiential insight or direct realisation-experience that was obtained from sravana-manana and remain there.

What then results is removal of the wrong notion ‘I am the limited body-mind’ and removal of the associated habitual tendencies (vasanas) that obstruct suffering. This then results in what is usually termed Samadhi (the 4th and last stage of the traditional Advaita Vedanta teachings), and the culmination of Samadhi is Sahaja Samadhi, what Ramana here calls the Sahaja state. Sahaja means ‘easy’ or ‘natural’ in Sanskrit, so this is the Easy State or Natural State, a synonym for Liberation itself (ie. ‘Jnana sure’ in the text).

I have written several more posts on this and done a few videos that go into this in more detail, so feel free to take a look:

You are innate divine power
How to recognise false or incomplete spiritual teachings
Ramana Maharshi summarises the entire spiritual path in his Introduction to Shankara’s Vivekachudamani (Crest Jewel of Discrimination)
Essential teachings for liberation: we need a ‘double teaching’ as we suffer from ‘double ignorance’| The ‘two wings’ of the teaching | Buddhism | Vedanta