People who have spiritual awakenings are absorbed momentarily in the bliss of being, the kinesthetic ecstasy that comes when the awakening Self is experienced free of the barriers of the personal identity. They may describe the experience as expanded, ecstatic, unlimited, wise, loving, unconcerned with whatever was a problem before, or being free of themselves. Almost always, the restless mind gradually slips back into their lives and they find they have re-identified with some of the old patterns, habits and desires of their former limited self. This is the seduction of the mind. It is hungry to engage us in the patterns of our humanness. When people are seduced by thoughts, they may begin to question the authenticity of their awakening.
Even more sadly, they may question their own essential goodness, because they fear they have lost something precious and they do not understand why. They want to know how to regain what they perceive they have lost.
Finding Identity Through Desire
We are conditioned to pursue our desires, our fulfillment, and all forms of sensual and material pleasures from infancy. As we come into the world we need the senses to awaken through touch and sight and sound and smell and taste in order to get oriented in relative existence. Children who never get this have trouble enjoying life at all, and if there is any true function to existence it is to find the beauty and play within it. This meeting of consciousness with life is essential within our human experience.
But early on these natural pleasures become diverted by the drive to accumulate objects and accomplish goals. We may want to accumulate more sensual experience, but we also want to accumulate many other things. We learn to discover and seek what we want, and to be unhappy if it is not forthcoming. If we chance to hear eastern spiritual guidance related to giving up desires we tend to discount it, seeing it as an unnecessary asceticism, a cultural anomaly, and clearly un-American. After all, how would we know who we are if we did not question what we wanted and then pursued it? How would we individuate and express all of ourselves? Our identities are entrenched in the pursuit of happiness through intellectual, relational, sensate and material accomplishments. So it becomes difficult to understand the relationship between desire and the realization of true Self. Even our pursuit of spirituality is often based on the desire for peace, bliss and spiritual phenomena, or even spiritual standing and position in the world.
But this issue of desire, so earnestly addressed in some of the Vedanta scriptures, is much more subtle than we imagine. These desires, arising from the mind with its aspects that are personal (based on our conditioning) and impersonal (the way the universe uses us to expand and continually recreate the collective dream), are the very maya or delusion that prevents us from knowing our true nature. Everything relative begins with mind, with concepts that emerge and blend and flow into our lives, and are the blueprints for how we think as individuals, as groups, as world communities. Aside from the natural world, existing in the collective mind of the whole, what other object came into existence without a preceding thought? What attitude or belief is not merely a thought? What emotion is not the correlate of thought? What understanding or knowledge is anything more than the accumulation of thoughts woven together in patterns particular to the thinker? Great books are collections of thoughts. Institutions reflect the thoughts of a community of thinkers. Thought is essential to the weaving of the world as we believe it exists, and it feels that to question thought is akin to questioning our own existence. And desire is linked to thought.
Desire is Response to Thought
Desire is a response to thought, a personalizing of a certain thought or group of thoughts. I may desire love of a certain kind – based on my thoughts. I may desire a great career – based on what I think that would look like, or get me (admiration, money, satisfaction). I may desire to block out thoughts through addictive substances or practices. I may form a self-image entirely around my thoughts about whether or not I can meet my desires. If I feel fear I may manage my life with great limitations because of thoughts of helplessness, brought on by thoughts of bad things that can happen to me or to someone else, or even to the whole planet. These responses form our lives and can lead to expansion or contraction in multiple ways every day of our lives. On a national level you can see the waves of expansion and contraction that roll through the media, the politicians, and the ordinary populace in response to thoughts that occur around events that are felt collectively. It is not the event that creates the long-term trauma so much as the thoughts and responses to it. If the response is a desire not to feel fear, to exact revenge, to ignore what is needed by those who felt the trauma most intimately, then those desires will color the collective mind and overwhelm many individuals.
Have you ever worried about someone you love and become overwhelmed by your thoughts? Or do you become anxious about an upcoming event and become overwhelmed to the point you cannot even function clearly? Mind and thought do not have your best interest at heart. They are a mechanism of delusion that exist to keep us believing in the relative world and our separate existences. They churn up positive things like creativity and negative things like suffering, and these energies are indifferent to the results, just as your computer is indifferent to whether you are writing about pain or joy, or looking at pictures of peace or violence. They are simply a mechanism of energy generated to allow the dance of human existence to move as waves out of the ocean, in a multitude of patterns. You are not the thinker or the doer of your thoughts. It is an impersonal universal mechanism. Most humans stay within this dance unconsciously, from birth to death. To awaken to yourself as something other than this is called realization.
The Impact of Realization
Those who have had a realization, a direct experience of their beingness completely free of thought but obviously still present, have perceived a truth so counter to what we have been taught that the implications of this experience are missed. Instead it may seem like a random event, a grace, an entry into another world, emptiness, aloneness, or even insanity. This awakening encounter is not recognized by the cultures in which we live, and so we miss an opportunity to know the source of true peace and happiness. The mind doesn’t know this experience, can’t know it, and the cultures we share are cultures of mind. The best we can ever hope for is that enough minds in the culture believe (because minds function by belief or concept) in the possibility of such a realization, so that we are pointed inwardly to discover it for ourselves. Those who have followed this pointing, and seen the truth, are often transformed by it, but also generally find that on re-entering the world, they re-enter the confines of their mind, along with its tendency to accept and reject whatever is placed before them. This pulls them inevitably back into maya (or illusion), at least temporarily.
The Restlessness of Mind
There is ultimately only one way to rest peacefully in the fullness of who we are, and that is to break through identification with the patterns of our minds. This should not be seen as a destruction of the mind, only seeing into its limits and irrelevance. The nature of the mind is restlessness, and in the same way that waves arise on the ocean, concepts and longings arise in the mind.
In the Advaita Vedanta teachings of India, this restlessness of mind is called ignorance or nescience. Nescience is the source of those tendencies and predispositions that cause us to believe we are separate and independent from others, and make us feel like an individual instead of knowing we are the awakeness underneath. This separate me has only a momentary existence even though it is felt as if it were permanent, and we attempt to cling to it as who we are. Every thought, whether positive or negative, helps us reconnect as me. But this me cannot be grasped and held forever because it is only the energy of memory and conditioning rising and falling, continually in flux. This me of collected thought is not the same set of thoughts you had at age 5 or 15 or 30 or will have at age 80. Life as it flows in the wake of mind collects new concepts, evolves new fears and positions, generating acceptance or rejection along the way. What is stable, and what gives one the illusion of permanence, is the basic sense “I am” that came into existence with form. To release yourself from the restless mind is to discover the freedom of knowing the “I am” when there are no patterns, concepts or cravings attached to it. Jesus referred to this experience when he said, “I am that I am”. Only this.
According to a great Advaitic Scripture, the Yoga Vasistha, when one attains victory over the mind one attains self-knowledge and abandons cravings and desires. It advises that this can be done by developing the proper attitudes. It tells us the “individualized consciousness is absorbed in the infinite consciousness when its individuality is broken through. This is easily accomplished.” It tells us that only when one “severs the very root of the mind with the weapon of non-conceptualization, can one reach the absolute Brahman which is omnipresent, supreme peace. Conceptualization or imagination is productive of error and sorrow and it can easily be got rid of by self-knowledge – and when it is got rid of there is great peace.” 1
When the mind is conquered all interest in conquering other worlds collapses, one knows the self is deathless, and is unaffected by separation from friends and others. The feelings this is “I” or this is “mine” are the mind, and when they are removed the mind ceases to be a problem. Then one becomes free of fear.
“It is the work of this restlessness of the mind based on the infinite consciousness that appears as this world.” When mind is deprived of its restlessness it becomes absorbed in the infinite consciousness and there is peace. 2 (p.140)
The Method is Inquiry
The method for destroying the attachment to mind is inquiry. To inquire is to question the validity of concepts, all concepts. It is to end the naïve accumulation of beliefs and stop holding our identity together with this framework, in favor of being that which is an innocent awareness we might call presence, which is rooted in a vast and inexplicable wisdom beyond time and space. This sounds a bit pretentious, as if it is some miraculous event, but it is not. It is simply a natural state in which trust in being is inherent. It is becoming like a child, as Jesus put it. This trust allows a direct understanding and response to what is needed in the moment to arise from our depths. It is a new way of functioning, no longer dependent on mind and all of the traps it holds. It is quieter, more peaceful and more content with the simpler pleasures of life. Without the dominance of mind the wonder of true intimacy with the dream of the universe can be enjoyed. We are at once detached and yet more connected than we have ever been, for we see it is something we, the awakeness, created for itself.
Inquiry happens when we fully enter into a question with presence, and we do not go to mind for a solution. What is this? What is the truth? We stand as awakeness, wondering. How can this be so? Am I really this person who must have such and such? Who is she or he? We penetrate this as we would penetrate water when we want to reach a treasure hidden at the bottom of the pond.
Sometimes we find at our core a belief that “I will not exist if I do not get what I want.” But is this so? Who will be the one who doesn’t exist? What would be left? Do I know absolutely with certainty that this desire is the fulfillment of permanant happiness? How many relationships turn sour when this illusion of finding happiness in another is seen through, when the perfect partner becomes less than the fulfillment of all one’s dreams? How many wonderful jobs change in the passage of time? How long will great beauty, academic discovery, or even your new car, actually last? Everything that is chased with the mind is in the relative world, subject to the vagaries of fate and time. Question your assumptions that happiness lies here. If you have had an awakening you already know where happiness lies. Your mind is only teasing you back into the old identity. Where do you really want to be?
Ultimately inquiry is seeing through the dream-world of thought and remembering yourself to be the step behind; you are the awareness that existed before that thought ever arose. Relaxing into consciousness with no object and laughing at the dance of thought which so intrigued you and others through eons of lifetimes. We surrender to this over and over again until the tendency to follow the thought is dissolved. This is the road to peace within and peace without. Just as when we awaken from a dream at night any fears or pursuits or desires related to the dreamworld fall away, and we discover another world of living, when we awaken from the dream that is just thoughts churning away in our head we discover another whole way to experience life. The new world is softer and more sweet, because we are moving from heart and beingness rather than head. The inclination of heart replaces the compulsive desire of thought, so our movement is more authentic, more in service to universal need. Problems do not end, and pain does not cease, and our hearts may break open over and over with compassion, because we are still present in the dream world, and we see more clearly the inevitable mental struggles of others. But we are not of it any longer, and thus we can respond from a wiser and more whole perspective. In this process we may lose the wild ecstasy of the first awakening but we find a quieter joy that is ever-present, and an acceptance and appreciation for what is. This is how we are absorbed into the One.
1. 1991, Venkatesananda, S. The Supreme Yoga: a New Translation of Yoga Vashistha, Vol. 1, The Divine Life Society, India, p. 138.
2. 1991, Venkatesananda, S. The Supreme Yoga: a New Translation of Yoga Vashistha, Vol. 1, The Divine Life Society, India, p. 140.
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