Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Ramana Maharshi and the Cult of "Pure Awareness."

Who is THE definitive poster boy of modern Advaita Vedanta (Non-Duality), beloved by traditionalists and progressives alike? Without a doubt it would have to be Ramana Maharshi. For those who have been living in a hermit's cave for the last several decades, Ramana had a panic attack when he was 16 years old, described here in his own words:

"...a sudden violent fear of death overtook me. There was nothing in my state of health to account for it, and I did not try to account for it or find out whether there was any reason for the fear. I just felt "I am going to die" and began thinking what to do about it. (...)

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 stiff as though rigor mortis had set in and imitated a corpse so as to give greater reality to the inquiry. I held my breath and kept my lips tightly closed so that no sound could escape, so that neither the word "I" nor any other 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 burnt and reduced to ashes. But with the death of this 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 the 'I' within me, apart from it. So I am Spirit transcending the body. The body dies but the Spirit that transcends it cannot be touched by death. That means I am deathless Spirit." 

After this transformative experience, Ramana maintained silence for many years before eventually being recognized as a guru and having an ashram built up around him. He passed away in 1950.

Among many modern spiritual folks, it seems that Ramana is held in even higher esteem than the iconic and ever-popular Jesus Christ or Gautama Buddha. From all accounts, he was a really nice guy and that probably makes him more of a lightning rod for worship than many modern gurus who have been caught taking part in one or more criminal behaviors. A thriving tourist trade has sprung up around Ramana's ashram in Thiruvannammalai, India and pictures and quotes of his flood social media. The core of his philosophy is that we are an absolute, transcendental Self (capitol "S") that is synonymous with pure awareness. This is the same idea as the ancient Hindu concept of Brahman - the singular, unchanging, timeless reality.

I was once a believer in these concepts but part of my personal experience was a deep, spontaneous questioning of all of the things I accepted as truth. Then I realized that I had just internalized another conceptual system by accepting the tenets of non-duality. I find it impossible to believe any of these absolutist statements anymore so, when I hear my friends discussing them, I recognize the same religious fervor I once held for these ideas. I was also once very good at explaining these beliefs to others and could often cause them to have an "aha" moment and corresponding dopamine rush. Some might even call it an "enlightenment" experience! Many people came to me to talk about these things when I was speaking about them with certainty. Now I wonder if the fascination with "transcendence" is really just hopeful thinking and wish fulfillment. 

I felt, as many do who come in contact with the concepts of Advaita Vedanta, that I had reached "the end of the road" and that I had finally encountered "absolute knowledge." One hallmark of the form is extremely grandiose statements expressed with total authority. "I was never born and I will never die." "I am infinite, timeless awareness." "I am the Truth beyond all appearances." "I am the unchanging reality." When I was really taken with these ideas, I would tell them to my wife and she'd point out that they sound like the insane ramblings of a complete megalomaniac.

Today a friend posted some of these types of statements and, in the resulting discussion, Ramana was quoted and later in the conversation I wrote, "so many beliefs and philosophies are just the fear of death in action." Then I remembered Ramana's "awakening" story and it dawned on me that his entire philosophy was born in the fear of a panic attack!

If you've never had a panic attack, it is a powerful, visceral experience. The easiest way to describe it is the total, overwhelming fear of imminent death. I had many panic attacks in 2013 due to adrenal exhaustion. I eventually got rid of them by nutritional therapy and lifestyle changes but I can still remember their intensity. I often wonder if most "transcendental" beliefs are rooted in the fear of death, for example - the Christian belief in heaven. How different is it to believe that you are a birthless, deathless, eternal "Self"? This idea can feel really good but does it have anything to do with reality? I don't know, and I would be willing to bet Ramana didn't either. Why would we assume that any other human being is closer to truth than us or has esoteric knowledge that we lack?

I'm not saying this is necessarily the way it was but bear with me for a moment... WHAT IF, as a boy Ramana was faced with the idea of death and his young mind couldn't handle the overpowering fear? WHAT IF his entire philosophy was built on the DENIAL of this fear and an escape into wishful "magical" thinking? In his "awakening" story, it says his limbs went stiff and he imagined what it was like to be dead but was he REALLY dead? Of course not.

What do we really KNOW about death? Most of us know what it can look like from the outside but what do we ACTUALLY know about what the experience is like? Yes, we can believe what one "authority" or another has said about it but what do we KNOW about it? I will admit that I don't know ANYTHING about it and that suits me just fine. It seems we can only fear our IDEAS about what we don't know. No ideas = no fear. 

In all of the absolutist concepts, I find a denial of one's unknowing and of one's mortality, I also find a denial of the mercurial, ever-transforming nature of the observable universe. What if the idea of an absolute is just a false refuge for a mind in fear? We see what believers through history have done to protect their beliefs, their certainty. People were burned at the stake for even daring to question the "absolute" knowledge of those in power and still are today. 

These bodies are going to die. My Mother died last December and I went through the whole process with her, excluding the actual moment of her death (she was being cleaned by a nurse when it happened). It was a roller-coaster ride of emotions and experiences. I can see how someone faced with the heaviness of what is happening might want to cling to some comforting beliefs but I have deeply believed and then let go of so many things. What are we REALLY certain about? What if the whole human religious and spiritual enterprise is born in the inability to experience life as it is WITHOUT trying to explain the shadows away? What if we FACE the fact of death and recognize that we don't really know about what it's like to die? Why should we want to deny the natural cycles of birth and death? I told my Mom that consciousness either continues after death or it doesn't and that neither option is that bad. I won't claim to know the answer either way.

In my life, there have been what have felt like profound insights. The first was the recognition that there is something deeper to me than who I thought I was. This aspect can be called consciousness or awareness (among other things) and it must be present for us to experience anything. Many in the Advaita Vedanta movement apparently see this fact and then somehow imagine that this awareness is apart from life. Ironically, this venerated "Pure Awareness" is just another dualistic conceptualization. Life is everything happening, INCLUDING awareness. If we look at our own experience we don't find consciousness apart from what is perceived. In the name of "non-duality," many just imagine another form of separation - "Pure Awareness" from the rest of existence. Though I once believed in this division, this is not my direct experience. 

I can see that often, when we recognize the uncertainty inherent in life we reach out for something "eternal." In seeing death and pain, we seek a way to transcend these and there are plenty of philosophies and religions that claim to offer such transcendence, the cost of admission is belief in the system. Non-duality is no different. Once I started seeing that my new found "absolute truth" was merely just another conceptual system and started sharing these realizations, one of my friends who was still a believer asked me, "What happened to you, you used to be so clear?" I responded, "Every orthodoxy must have it's heresy." I understand the fear that would lead one into absolutist concepts. I have shared this fear. Now I find total security in letting go of the concepts. I see all of our beliefs about the nature of reality as mental poison and avoid them like the plague. Some of the poison is very sweet tasting but toxic, nonetheless. 

We over-thinking primates easily get lost in descriptions. We mistake our concepts for actuality. In my opinion it's so much easier if we can suspend our beliefs and just be openly aware of what is happening. As far as I can tell, our own life experience is the closest we will ever get to any sort of "truth."

I'm not saying that Ramana was wrong, how could I know one way or the other? Many seem to enjoy is teachings and I think there's merit in that, I'm just asking why we should accept the word of ANY external authority as gospel Truth. Instead of parroting ancient, dead "wisdom," I personally feel that we would be better served by looking at life for ourselves. For me, the greatest realization was how little I actually know. It was earth-shaking in it's implications and it freed me from a great many illusions that I had up to that point called "Truth" (with a capitol "T" - of course)!

Obviously I'm no more of an authority than you or anyone else, just sharing the way I see things. I try to keep an open mind towards whatever it seems like life is showing me at the moment. Whatever our beliefs about the nature of life and the universe are, there is so much beyond them.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Getting high on concepts

I used to get high off of the words. Nothing got me higher than the concepts of Advaita Vedanta, that I am an absolute, eternal reality beyond birth, death, time and space. I would have these concepts flying through my head at the speed of light and I got higher and higher and higher. Then, one day, the plug was pulled. I don't know why. Maybe there was or wasn't a reason, but it was shown to me that all of my so-called "absolute" knowledge didn't amount to a hill of beans. I came face to face with my own cluelessness. I had such an unsettled feeling then and such a thankful feeling about it now. It's great when you can die to all of the ideas of others that you've gathered in your life and just be yourself without having to explain to yourself or others who that is. I really don't know. Now I just enjoy living each day for itself. I don't take it for granted that I have another day, I may not. Enjoying the experiences of this life. Enjoying being a father and community member. Enjoying trying to make a better life for my family. Enjoying friendship and fellowship. Enjoying the seasons and the weather. Sunny days and snow showers. Really happy to be here.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The source of disappointment

We live in an uncertain universe--no secret there. Life seems to be in a constant state of unceasing transformation. People and situations come and go from our lives. Expecting things to go in a certain way or others to behave how we think they should is setting ourselves up for disappointment. It isn't the person or the situation that has let us down but our clinging to the idea of how things "should" be. Life isn't compelled to play by our rules. It almost seems like life takes a special delight in questioning our assumptions and shattering our expectations. Ultimately, this is a beautiful thing. Life is a great teacher and by the time we breathe our last breath we'll likely have a PhD in letting go.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A letter to a friend

"What kind of universe is this that people get tortured, children die, there's war and disease, and everything lives only by death?"

I'm not sure if there's any answer to this question, at least not a "true" one. It's obvious that there must be varying qualities for life to be experienced. We just want to be rid of the unpleasant half of the equation but that doesn't seem in any way possible. What certain people have realized is that the majority of our discontent comes from our thinking process. It's unlikely that the uncertain essence of life will fundamentally change but if we can drop our assumptions, expectations and beliefs about it, maybe we can meet and even embrace it as it is. 

For me there have been a few of what could be seen as major "awakenings." The first was to the simple fact of consciousness, the second was the realization of the folly and fallibility of knowledge and the third was the recognition that this too--this present life, as we know it, is the perfect expression of nature, just like a pine cone, that we humans are just another species trying to do what every over species does--trying to thrive. This is one of the things that can happen with cosmic stardust.

A few weeks ago, I was experiencing some new parent hell. There was no point in trying to avoid it, that would only make the suffering worse. There is some challenging shit that comes up in life, no point in trying to deny that. It seems though that everything that we live through has the potential to wake us up to another, perhaps formerly unknown realm of experience and to expand our understanding and compassion. Seeing what my mom has gone through has helped me empathize with old people and seeing what me and MJ have gone through has helped me empathize with parents.

Leaving questions unanswered

Who am I? What is the meaning of life? I think most human beings have asked these questions at one time or another in their lives. There is the bustling marketplace of belief where a great many answers to these questions are peddled with unflinching conviction but one thing that can be asked of all of those offering such wares - how do you KNOW?

For years I sought security in an image of self. Of course I preferred to have a good self image but when something within me would prove that image wrong, I felt crushed and destroyed. A negative self image isn't satisfying either and it can be proven false at any time as well. Now I try to live in the moment and see what it is showing me. All kinds of thoughts and feelings make their appearances. Now I experience life (which includes ourselves, of course!) not as a thing that can be known or comprehended but as being constantly revealed. It's strange how satisfying I find NOT thinking I have the answers.

To me, life is a great mystery. In the emptiness of mind, there is an effortless way of being. Fear is absent as there is no projecting into the unknown happening--there is only what is present. What is present? The only way to know is to be present--preconceptions and assumptions are no help here. It is an ever-unfolding journey. One has no idea where the next step will take them. It is a beautiful journey and I am filled with much gratitude. Even the rough parts of the road reveal hidden treasures and new depths. Expect the unexpected!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Thinking about death...

This morning I woke up thinking about death (a rarity for me these days) and it occurred to me that death is only experienced as a problem if you think about it. What do we really know about death, other than the second-hand ideas we've picked up from one source or another? When I was younger, there was a time when I was obsessed with dying so I read as much about near-death experiences as I could since I figured that they are the closest that we have to firsthand accounts of what it's like to die. I tried to wrap my head around these accounts and come up with a viable explanation for them but really, the more I read the less I could explain them. Now I find it more pleasing or at least, less dis-easing, to not have any preconceptions--I'll find out what death is when I get there (or not).

Looking back on my little stint as a non-duality enthusiast, I can see that often our ideas about being eternal awareness or any such concepts may simply be a coping mechanism for the underlying fear of death. Afraid of non-existence and the relentless river of change that is life, we imagine and cling to the belief in an absolute, unchanging "Self" (with a capitol "S," of course!) that is untouched by anything that happens to us. I can't say with any certainty whether there is such a thing or not but it smacks to me of denial--it denies the unceasing transformation that we experience life as.

The hungry ghost of the conceptual self wants a meal (intellectual Truth) but an imaginary self could only eat an imaginary meal. Truth isn't known, only lived. Learning about ourselves and life is a never-ending journey. It is a constant revelation. Any concepts we cling to only mask what is actually taking place in this moment. It takes a very open mind and heart to be with life without armor and boundaries, then there is only life and no "me" that is believed to be apart from it. This state of openness isn't achieved but is found to be effortlessly present when we quit mistaking thoughts for reality.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


When I look in my son's eyes, I see pure, undiluted wonder. As we grow older, it's hard for us to imagine being back at the beginning, looking at the universe with fresh, unjaundiced eyes but, for him, it is the only way to see. It seems we can access that same sense of wonder any time, no matter how old or young we are, by suspending our knowledge and beliefs about the nature of life.

"Ooh, it makes me wonder..." - Robert Plant