Monday, June 24, 2019

The Movie of Life: Understanding Advaita through Film

In the old days a movie theatre used to be known as a “bioscope”. From the perspective of Advaita, this is a beautiful word, loaded with meaning. “Bioscope” is a combination of the Greek words “bíos” = life and “skopéō” = I look at. So, when I’m at the cinema, I am looking at life. Now, according to Advaita, you are always at the cinema, namely, the cinema of Consciousness, witnessing the movie of life. Thus, ever since Ramana Maharshi, film has been a beloved metaphor among Advaita teachers.

The peaceful screen

Especially the relation between screen and film is frequently used to clarify the relation between Consciousness and the phenomena appearing in Consciousness. Just as the screen is not dependent on the main character appearing in the movie, so Consciousness is not dependent on the person we are so intimately aware of. In other words: C
onsciousness isn’t personal, because the person is just one of the countless objects appearing in Consciousness. Consciousness is trans-personal, the Universal Self underlying everything and everyone.

All our thoughts, feelings and sensory experiences appear in Consciousness, but do not touch it. Consciousness remains unmoved, just as a movie screen remains unaffected by the film appearing on it. It doesn’t matter what kind of film it is – war movie, romcom, slasher movie, porn flick, historical epic, psychological thriller – the screen in itself remains the same: empty, colorless, spotless, receptive to all images. In the same way, Consciousness can host all possible experiences, thoughts and feelings, but is not affected by them.

There can be intense sadness, but the Consciousness perceiving this is not sad. There may be happiness, but the perceiving Consciousness is not happy. There may be confusion, but the Consciousness witnessing this confusion is not confused; it is rather absolutely clear. Whatever appears in Consciousness, the latter always remains the same: pure, empty, light, spacious, boundless, open to all possible phenomena. As the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (3.5.1) puts it: Consciousness – the Self, the Atman-Brahman – is “the one who is beyond hunger and thirst, beyond sorrow and delusion, beyond old age and death.” Thus, Ramana Maharshi used to say that E
nlightenment is like realizing you are the movie screen and not what appears on the screen:

The burning house from Lynch's Lost Highway.
"So many pictures pass over the cinema screen: fire burns away everything; water drenches all; but the screen remains unaffected. The scenes are only phenomena which pass away leaving the screen as it was. Similarly, the world phenomena simply pass on before the sage (jnani), leaving him unaffected." (Maharshi 1955: 457)

The self-aware screen

From the viewpoint of Advaita, however, the comparison of Consciousness with a movie screen is not entirely perfect. After all, this analogy leaves a number of separations intact, namely, between the screen, the projected film images, the projector and the popcorn-eating audience. To make the film metaphor better suited for Advaita, we should add that all these elements are one. That is to say, Consciousness is like a television or computer screen that produces the film appearing on it and is simultaneously its own audience, i.e. the screen perceives itself. Rupert Spira in particular uses this metaphor of “the self-aware screen” to great effect. His book Being Aware of Being Aware is almost entirely built around this metaphor:

“Knowing or being aware is in the same relationship to all knowledge and experience as an aware screen would be to a movie. Unlike a conventional television screen that is being watched by someone sitting on a sofa, the aware screen of pure knowing […] is watching the movie of experience that is playing upon it… However, just as the screen tends to be overlooked during a movie due to our fascination with the drama, so […] awareness itself usually remains unnoticed due to the exclusive focus of our attention on the objects of experience… Just as the screen never appears as an object in a movie, although it is fully evident throughout it, so knowing or being aware never appears as an object of knowledge or experience and yet shines clearly within all knowledge or experience.” (Spira 2017: 15-17) 

Identifying with the main character
As the quote from Spira indicates, the medium of film is also suitable to explain the Advaitic view on ignorance (avidya) and how it works, i.e. the mechanism of superimposition (adhyasa). Ignorance, according to Advaita, consists in the fact that we, as Consciousness, confuse ourselves with what appears in Consciousness, especially the person whose fortunes and travails we experience from within. Superimposition means that we project the properties of the perceiving Consciousness – such as immutability – onto the perceived person, with the result that we suffer: after all, body and mind change constantly, eventually they deteriorate and in the end they die…

George Costanza realizing
his essential nature as the
popcorn eating witness
of the movie of life...
Something very similar to superimposition happens with a good film: we sympathize with the main character to such a degree that we feel what he or she feels. We become excited when the main character is in danger, we get angry when he or she is treated unfairly, we feel romantic when he or she falls in love, and so on. In this way, we temporarily forget who we really are, the popcorn-eating viewer slumping on the couch. Likewise, in ignorance, we forget what we really are, the witness (sakshin), as we confuse ourselves with the fascinating life we are witnessing. And so we suffer: we see the ups and downs of the main character in the movie of life as our own ups and downs. Enlightenment, to repeat, is the liberating insight that we are not – or not just – that character, but first and foremost Consciousness, the spotless white screen on which (and to which) the film of life appears.

Point-of-view shot
It is a legitimate question, however, why film should be better suited to clarify the nature of ignorance than, say, theatre. After all, with a theatre play you can also sympathize with the protagonist to such a degree that you forget you are only a spectator. In addition to the film metaphor, therefore, Advaita teachers also sometimes use the comparison of Consciousness with a cosmic theatre that writes its own plays, creates its own decors and actors, and is its own audience as well. Ramesh Balsekar, for example, says: “Consciousness has produced this play. Consciousness has written the script. Consciousness is playing all the characters. And Consciousness is witnessing the play. It’s a one man show.” (Balsekar 2006: 245)

Nevertheless, film has a great advantage when it comes to understanding how ignorance works. Film has the extra dimension of camera work, which allows the director to play with the perspective from which a scene is shot. This playing with camera perspective can make empathic identification with a movie character almost irresistible. This holds in particular for the so-called point-of-view (POV) shot, where the camera takes the position of one of the characters: the viewer sees what the character sees. The hero runs through a city centre in a wild chase, grabs his gun and finally shoots the bad guy; with a POV shot, you see the scene almost literally through the eyes of the hero. Remaining an impassioned spectator is then nearly impossible.

With POV shots, you are irresistibly pulled into the character from whose perspective you see the scene unfold. In the light of Advaita, we could say that Consciousness is the most brilliant film director who uses only POV shots. Thus, we continuously see the film of life from the main character’s perspective – and we not only see it, we also experience smelling, hearing, feeling, thinking and willing from that individualized perspective. In that sense, conscious experience is the ultimate POV shot, including all sensory and psychic modalities. This makes for a very compelling movie, vastly more so than anything Hollywood can hope to produce. Complete dis-identification with the main character in the film of life, then, is almost impossible.

But not completely impossible. Overcoming ignorance becomes possible to the degree we see through the illusion of identification with the main character in the movie of life. And seeing how POV shots function in film is a great help in this. Just as a POV shot is in the film you are watching and is not your perspective on the film, so the individual perspective of experience is not a perspective on experience but in it. The perspective of experience seems to be the perspective of the perceiving Consciousness, but in reality the perspective is ingrained in the experience which is neutrally perceived by Consciousness.

In short, the perspective is in the observed, not in the observer. The observer himself is without perspective or – what amounts to the same thing – the observer perceives everything from “God’s point of view”. For Advaita, after all, God is Consciousness, Atman is Brahman. In Brahman’s cinema there is only one spectator, watching an endless film with countless main characters.

Embracing the movie of life
The film metaphor, however, must not be misunderstood. Its meaning is not that we are merely screen and spectator in one, that is to say, pure Consciousness, as if we have nothing to do with what appears in Consciousness, the movie of life. As if we have to give up all identification with the main character and every involvement with the other characters in that movie. Sometimes Advaita seems to advocate such cold detachment, but ultimately that’s not what Advaita is about.

To make film an even more suitable metaphor for Advaita, then, we also need to eliminate the duality between film on the one hand and the screen-spectator on the other. That is to say: what appears in Consciousness is ultimately not separate from Consciousness itself. So, instead of a conventional film screen on which the images are projected from outside, it is better to compare Consciousness with a television or computer screen that itself produces the images appearing on it. In a similar way, the film of life is an expression or manifestation of Consciousness itself. As soon as this is recognized, the cold detachment that Advaita at first seems to suggest suddenly tilts into its opposite, into all-embracing love. Francis Luc
ille, the teacher of Rupert Spira, explains this dialectical turn as follows:

“It is necessary to make this distinction because we usually identify with an object, a fragment. We don’t think “I am the table, I am my clothes, I am my car”. However, we do think “I am my body and the rest is not me”. In order to remove this identification the Advaita tradition uses a two-step process. In the first step it says “You are not that which is perceived, you are the perceiver”. In this step we reject everything that is perceived as not being ourselves. We reject the table, the car, the clothes, the body, and the mind, and this leads us to the experience of pure consciousness. Then, as the universe of names and shapes reappears, it is understood to reappear in the light of consciousness, out of consciousness, as a projection of consciousness. Therefore, the second step is: “Everything is consciousness. Consciousness is the source and substance of everything.”” (Lucille 2006: 109)

When we realize “I am that Consciousness”, the cold detachment of the first and negative phase turns into the all-embracing love of the second phase, as if you suddenly find yourself embracing the entire world with your consciousness – which, in a way, is indeed the case. You realize that your essence, pure Consciousness, manifests itself in all phenomena, being “the source and substance of everything”. You literally become the Love that lets everything be. In a sense, you are again your body and mind, but to the same extent that you are the entire universe. The limited identification with the body-mind is exploded to cosmic proportions and becomes identification with reality-as-a-whole. You are no longer that singular main character in the film of life, from now on you are the film as a whole, with all its characters, dramas and changing stages – a film which you now experience as the most intimate expression of your deepest essence.

-Francis Lucille (2006), The Perfume of Silence, Truespeech Productions.
-Ramana Maharshi (1955), Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Shri Ramanashramam.

-Ramesh Balsekar (2006), Consciousness Speaks, Zen Publications.
-Rupert Spira (2017), Being Aware of Being Aware, Sahaja Productions.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Non-Duality 101

Non-duality is the experience of reality as one cosmic whole, of which you yourself are a manifestation. There is, then, no more duality between you and the world around you. In philosophical terms, there is no longer a duality between subject and object, i.e. between observer and observed. As an observer of the world you are an inseparable part of the whole. Your consciousness of reality – in the form of everything you see, smell, taste, feel, think – is the consciousness that reality has of itself. Reality experiences itself through everything that sentient beings like us experience. What we do in the world is what reality does with itself.

The purpose of non-dualistic forms of spirituality – such as Vedanta, Buddhism, Daoism, and Tantra – is to see non-duality as the ultimate truth, through both rational thought and immediate intuition obtained through spiritual practice (yoga , meditation), in order to achieve a state of permanent Enlightenment and Liberation of Suffering. Non-dual insight frees us from the illusion that we are isolated beings, separated from each other and from an indifferent outer world, in which we have to struggle to maintain and assert ourselves. According to non-dualistic forms of spirituality, this illusion is the source of all suffering. 

Selfishness, greed, indifference, exploitation, feelings of inferiority, hatred, abuse, violence... All these thoughts, feelings and behavioral patterns originate in the single idea that I – as this person, with this body and this mind – have an entirely separated existence, separated from the other people around me, from nature, from the universe, from the whole. As soon as it is recognized that this separation is no more than an illusion, all these negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors lose their driving force. There is, then, a liberation of suffering. When the illusion of the separate ego falls away, all its petty ambitions, worries, fears and unfulfilled desires fall away too. What remains is a deep peace of mind, a serene bliss and a deep sense of loving unitywith everything and everyone.

In Eastern spirituality, this enlightening aspect of non-duality is often illustrated through the comparison of the human mind with a mountain lake that reflects the sky and clouds above it. Normally the water of the lake is restless, as the ever-changing winds of our thoughts and emotions cause smaller or bigger waves, creating a distorted reflection in the water. In that case, the lake is not a true mirror of what is above. But with the experience of non-duality, the water calms down, as the storm of thoughts and emotions settles. As the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad puts it: "Like clear water becomes the seer who sees non-duality." (4.3.32) Finally, the lake becomes as smooth as a mirror and faithfully reflects the blue sky above it, with the shining sun at its center – the source of all energy and life, the creative essence of the universe, which you now realize to be your deepest Self.

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Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Quotes from Nisargadatta's "I Am That"

The following quotes are taken from I Am That: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, edited by Sudhaker S. Dikshit, translated by Maurice Frydman, Chetana, 2009.

You are pure awareness

“I saw that in the ocean of pure awareness, on the surface of universal consciousness, the numberless waves of the phenomenal worlds arise and subside beginninglessly and endlessly… There is a mysterious power that looks after them. That power is awareness, Self, Life, God, whatever name you give it. It is the foundation, the ultimate support of all that is, just like gold is the basis for all gold jewellery.” (p.28)

“You may say it is a point in consciousness. Like a hole in the paper is both in the paper and yet not of the paper, so is the supreme state in the very centre of consciousness, and yet beyond consciousness. It is as if there were an opening in the mind through which the mind is flooded with light.” (p.32)

“M: Just like a ray of light is never seen unless intercepted by specs of dust, so does the Supreme make everything known, itself remaining unknown.
Q: Does it mean that the Unknown is inaccessible?
M: Oh, no. The Supreme is the easiest to reach for it is your very being.” (p.62-3)

“As you watch your mind, you discover yourself as the watcher. When you stand motionless, only watching, you discover yourself as the light behind the watcher. The source of light is dark, unknown is the source of knowledge. That source alone is. Go back to that source and abide there.” (p.180)

“The body appears in your mind, your mind is the content of your consciousness; you are the motionless witness of the river of consciousness which changes eternally without changing you in any way.” (p.190)

“I see as you see, hear as you hear, taste as you taste, eat as you eat. I also feel thirst and hunger and expect my food to be served on time. When starved or sick, my body and mind go weak. All this I perceive quite clearly, but somehow I am not in it, I feel myself as if floating over it, aloof and detached. Even not aloof and detached. There is aloofness and detachment as there is thirst and hunger; there is also the awareness of it all and a sense of immense distance, as if the body and the mind and all that happens to them were somewhere far out on the horizon. I am like a cinema screen – clear and empty – the pictures pass over it and disappear, leaving it as clear and empty as before.” (p.256)

“Have you felt the all-embracing emptiness in which the universe swims like a cloud in the blue sky?” (p.330)

“Unperceived, it causes perception. Unfelt, it causes feeling. Unthinkable, it causes thought. Non-being, it gives birth to being. It is the immovable background of motion. Once you are there you are at home everywhere.” (p.364)

“True awareness (
samvid) is a state of pure witnessing, without the least attempt to do anything about the event witnessed. Your thoughts and feelings, words and actions may also be a part of the event; you watch all unconcerned in the full light of clarity and understanding… It may seem to be an attitude of cold aloofness, but it is not really so. Once you are in it, you will find that you love what you see, whatever may be its nature. This choiceless love is the touchstone of awareness.” (p.365)

“[A]ll names and forms are but transitory waves on the ocean of consciousness […].” (p.375)


“The idea of enlightenment is of utmost importance. Just to know that there is such a possibility, changes one’s entire outlook. It acts like a burning match in a heap of saw dust.” (p.96)

“You must face the opposite, what you are not, to find Enlightenment.” (p.292)

“Q: Is there no way of making out who is realized and who is not?
M: Your only proof is in yourself. If you find that you turn to gold, it will be a sign that you have touched the philosopher’s stone.” (p.476)

“The search for reality is itself the movement of reality.” (p.214)

“If you try to understand the unmanifested with the mind, you at once go beyond the mind, like when you stir the fire with a wooden stick, you burn the stick.” (p.340)

“The death of the mind is the birth of wisdom.” (p.346)

“Realization by itself is not an experience… It is the discovery of the timeless factor in every experience. It is awareness, which makes experience possible. Just like in all colours, light is the colourless factor, so in every experience awareness is present, yet it is not an experience.” (p.385)

“Resolutely reject what you are not, till the real Self emerges in its glorious nothingness, its not-a-thing-ness.” (p.503)

Meditate on “I am”

“To take the world as real and one’s self as unreal is ignorance, the cause of sorrow. To know the
Self as the only reality and all else as temporal and transient is freedom, peace and joy... It is like cleansing a mirror… The thought “I am” is the polishing cloth. Use it.” (p.27)

“‘I am’ is true, all else is inference.” (p.190)

“The sense ‘I am’ is the manifestation of a deeper cause, which you may call Self, God, Reality or by any other name. The ‘I am’ is in the world; but it is the key which can open the door out of the world.” (p.191)

“To find water you do not dig small pits all over the place, but drill deep in one place only.” (p.194)

“Once you know yourself as pure being, the ecstasy of freedom is your own.” (p.497)

You are not in the world, the world is in you

“In reality time and space exist in you; you do not exist in them.” (p.196)

“Of course we live in one world. Only I see it as it is, while you don’t. You see yourself in the world, while I see the world in myself. To you, you get born and die, while to me, the world appears and disappears.” (p.253)

“Know the world as your own creation and be free.” (p.363)

“As the tiny point of a pencil can draw innumerable pictures, so does the dimensionless point of awareness draw the contents of the vast universe.” (p.372)

“Realize that all happens in consciousness and you are the root, the source, the foundation of consciousness. The world is but a succession of experiences and you are what makes them conscious, and yet remain beyond all experience.” (p.386)

“Go beyond the ‘I-am-the-body’ idea and you will find that space and time are in you and not you in space and time.” (p.455)

Liberation from the person

“To know that you are neither body nor mind, watch yourself steadily and live unaffected by your body and mind, completely aloof, as if you were dead.” (p.201)

“Q: If I am free, why am I in a body?
M: You are not in the body, the body is in you.” (p.203)

“You, as the person, imagine that the Guru is interested in you as a person. Not at all. To him you are a nuisance and a hindrance to be done away with. He actually aims at your elimination as a factor in consciousness.” (p.327)

“Liberation is never of the person, it is always from the person… The person is but a shell imprisoning you. Break the shell.” (p.327-8)

“Having seen that you are a bundle of memories held together by attachment, step out and look from the outside… You cease to be a Mr-so-and-so, busy about his own affairs. You are at last at peace. You realize that nothing was ever wrong with the world – you alone were wrong and now it is all over. Never again will you be caught in the meshes of desire born of ignorance.” (p.373)

“Happiness is never your own, it is where the ‘I’ is not.” (p.419)

“Once you know that death happens to the body and not to you, you just watch your body falling off like a discarded garment.” (p.444)

Give up all and gain all

“I know there is a world, which includes this body and this mind, but I do not consider them to be more ‘mine’ than other minds and bodies.” (p.32)

“The Supreme is the universal solvent, it corrodes every container, it burns through every obstacle. Without the absolute denial of everything the tyranny of things would be absolute.” (p.85)

“Nothing profits the world as much as the abandoning of profits. A man who no longer thinks in terms of loss and gain is the truly non-violent man, for he is beyond all conflict.” (p.139)

“Increase and widen your desires till nothing but reality can fulfil them. It is not desire that is wrong, but its narrowness and smallness. Desire is devotion.” (p.202)

“The Self is near and the way to it is easy. All you need do is do nothing.” (p.225)

“There is trouble only when you cling to something. When you hold on to nothing, no trouble arises. The relinquishing of the lesser is the gaining of the greater. Give up all and you gain all. Then life becomes what it was meant to be: pure radiation from an inexhaustible source.” (p.246)

“The window is the absence of the wall and it gives air and light because it is empty. Be empty of all mental content, of all imagination and effort, and the very absence of obstacles will cause reality to rush in.” (p.249)

“I find that somehow, by shifting the focus of attention, I become the very thing I look at and experience the kind of consciousness it has; I become the inner witness of the thing. I call this capacity of entering other focal points of consciousness – love; you may give it any name you like. Love says: ‘I am everything.’ Wisdom says: ‘I am nothing.’ Between the two my life flows.” (p.257)

“The ultimate value of the body is that it serves to discover the cosmic body, which is the universe in its entirety.” (p.263)

“To be free in the world you must be free of the world.” (p.340)

“If you know how to do it, you will not do it. Abandon every attempt, just
be […].” (p.472)

“Q: Unless I am told what to do and how to do, I feel lost.
M: By all means do feel lost! As long as you feel competent and confident, reality is beyond your reach. Unless you accept inner adventure as a way of life, discovery will not come to you.
Q: Discovery of what?
M: Of the centre of your being, which is free of all directions, all means and ends.
Q: Be all, know all, have all?
M: Be nothing, know nothing, have nothing. This is the only life worth living, the only happiness worth having.” (p.477)

“You can be happy in the world only when you are free of it.” (p.482)

“To be, just be, is important. You need not ask anything, nor do anything. Such an apparently lazy way of spending time is highly regarded in India. It means that for the time being you are free from the obsession with ‘what next’. When you are not in a hurry and the mind is free from anxieties, it becomes quiet and in the silence something may be heard which is ordinarily too fine and subtle for perception. The mind must be open and quiet to see. What we are trying to do here is to bring our minds into the right state for understanding what is real.” (p.486)

“‘Nothing is me’ is the first step. ‘Everything is me’ is the next.” (p.496)

Let the world-body-mind take care of itself

“Yes, I appear to hear and see and talk and act, but to me it just happens, as to you digestion or perspiration happens. The body-mind machine looks after it, but leaves me out of it. Just as you do not need to worry about growing hair, so I need not worry about words and actions. They just happen and leave me unconcerned, for in my world nothing ever goes wrong.” (p.16)

“When […] I realized my true being, I left behind my human nature to look after itself, until its destiny is exhausted.” (p.29)

“Q: I am asking you a question and you are answering. Are you conscious of the question and answer.
M: In reality I am neither hearing nor answering. In the world of events the question happens and the answer happens. Nothing happens to me. Everything just happens.” (p.33)

See the finite in the Infinite

“A part of the whole seen in relation to the whole is also complete. Only when seen in isolation it becomes deficient and thus a seat of pain.” (p.7)

“No thing in existence has a particular cause; the entire universe contributes to the existence of even the smallest thing; nothing could be as it is without the universe being what it is.” (p.8-9)

-“Would people know that nothing can happen unless the entire universe makes it happen, they would but achieve much more with less expenditure of energy.” (p.9)

Ignorance, suffering, happiness, compassion

“To take the world as real and one’s self as unreal is ignorance, the cause of sorrow. To know the Self as the only reality and all else as temporal and transient is freedom, peace and joy.” (p.27)

“To know itself the self must be faced with its opposite – the not-self. Desire leads to experience. Experience leads to discrimination, detachment, self-knowledge – liberation. And what is liberation after all? To know that you are beyond birth and death. By forgetting who you are and imagining yourself a mortal creature, you created so much trouble for yourself that you have to wake up, like from a bad dream.” (p.64)

“[P]ain and pleasure are the crests and valleys of the waves in the ocean of bliss. Deep down there is utter fullness.” (p.158)

“Everyone creates a world for himself and lives in it, imprisoned by one’s ignorance. All we have to do is to deny reality to our prison.” (p.199)

“Pain is physical; suffering is mental. Beyond the mind there is no suffering. Pain is merely a signal that the body is in danger and requires attention. Similarly, suffering warns us that the structure of memories and habits, which we call the person (
vyakti), is threatened by loss or change. Pain is essential for the survival of the body, but none compels you to suffer. Suffering is due entirely to clinging or resisting; it is a sign of our unwillingness to move on, to flow with life.” (p.258-9)

“The search for reality is the most dangerous of all undertakings for it will destroy the world in which you live.” (p.474)

“Once you can say with confidence born from direct experience: ‘I am the world, the world is myself’, you are free from desire and fear on one hand and become totally responsible for the world on the other.” (p.474)

“With the dissolution of the personal ‘I’, personal suffering disappears. What remains is the great sadness of compassion, the horror of unnecessary pain.” (p.474)

“Be nothing, know nothing, have nothing. This is the only life worth living, the only happiness worth having.” (p.477)

“To believe that you depend on things and people for happiness is due to ignorance of your true nature; to know that you need nothing to be happy, except self-knowledge, is wisdom.” (p.482)

Divine play

“Q: I do not like this
lila (play) idea. I would rather compare the world to a work-yard in which we are the builders.
M: You take it too seriously. What is wrong with play? You have a purpose only as long as you are not complete (
purna); till then, completeness, perfection, is the purpose. But when you are complete in yourself, fully integrated within and without, then you enjoy the universe; you do not labour at it. To the disintegrated you may seem to be working hard, but that is their illusion. Sportsmen seem to make tremendous efforts: yet their sole motive is to play and display.
Q: Do you mean to say that God is just having fun, that he is engaged in purposeless action?
M: God is not only true and good, he is also beautiful (
satyam-shivam-sundaram). He creates beauty – for the joy of it.
Q: Well, then beauty is his purpose!
M: Why do you introduce purpose? Purpose implies movement, change, a sense of imperfection. God does not aim at beauty – whatever he does is beautiful. Would you say that a flower is trying to be beautiful? It is beautiful by nature. Similarly God is perfection itself, not an effort at perfection.
Q: The purpose fulfils itself in beauty.
M: What is beautiful? Whatever is perceived blissfully is beautiful. Bliss is the essence of beauty.
Q: You speak of
Sat-Chit-Ananda. That I am is obvious. That I know is obvious. That I am happy is not at all obvious. Where has my happiness gone?
M: Be fully aware of your own being and you will be in bliss consciously. Because you take your mind off yourself and make it dwell on what you are not, you lose your sense of well-being, of being well.” (p.91)

Thursday, March 28, 2019

The I is the Eye: A Meditation on Solipsism

A drawing by physicist and phi-
losopher Ernst Mach (1838-1916)
The world of my experience exists only in my consciousness.

Therefore, you should all be very thankful
l, because without me you wouldn’t exist (for me)!

But then again the same holds for your consciousness, in which I am allowed to exist (for you)
. (Thanks for that, by the way.)

Just ponder this pure, empty consciousness in which everything can appear
, including your body, your thoughts, your feelings…

This pure consciousness, then, isn’t personal, because the personal is just an object appearing in this consciousness.

You are this pure consciousness, since you are the observer for which the world of your experience exists.

You are, then, not the person you ordinarily take yourself to be
. You are not (just) your body, thoughts, feelings...

You are the impersonal, limitless, open, empty consciousness in which everything and everyone can appear – including your
(empirical) self.

By thus giving room for everything and everyone to appear, you are Love. The Love that lets everything be.

Pure consciousness envelops the world in a loving embrace.

Can you feel yourself embracing the world as you realize it only exists for you?

Solipsism, of course, is absurd when put in terms of individual, personal consciousness
. The world doesn’t cease to exist when this particular individual called Peter Sas (or whoever) dies.

But in terms of pure, impersonal consciousness?

Isn’t that the 'Eye of the universe', the stainless mirror in which the universe reflects itself?

You are that mirror. 

Friday, March 22, 2019

Melting the Ego: Cosmic Non-Dualism and Climate Change

“We melt. We just melt and melt and melt. The heart has to melt and when it does, an indescribable flow of love reveals itself. And we experience something mysterious, this incredible warmth and light and fire and opening that is real, that is not just a temporary emotion, but is a true breakthrough into our deeper self…”
(Paul Muller-Ortega)

In the summer of 2018 something weird happened to me: I had an experience of melting, of becoming fluid, as if the icy bulwarks of my ego melted and dissolved into something like a warm, sticky liquid that flowed into everything and everyone around me. Ok, it sounds a bit gross when I put it like that, but really it was a very uplifting experience: I sort of fused with the world, became ‘one with the universe’ in a feeling of all-encompassing love. In other words: I felt the truth of Non-Dualism, the spiritual philosophy that says we are all manifestations of the same cosmic force, the one creative essence of the universe. Non-Dualism, however, is not just a question of feeling. It is also a question of clear-headed, rational thought. For
the factual truth of some form of Non-Dualism is strongly suggested by what contemporary physicists and philosophers tell us about the holistic unity of the universe and the place of consciousness in it. 

Over and above that, Non-Dualism also satisfies an urgent ethical and spiritual need that is felt worldwide. In that sense, Non-Dualism is a philosophy whose time has now definitely come. This becomes especially clear in light of the many global problems facing humanity, notably that of climate change. In this post I will argue
that it is only by recognizing the truth of non-duality – i.e. by recognizing our fundamental unity with each other, with our planet, and with the cosmos at large – that we will be able to muster the global solidarity needed to deal with these global problems. And perhaps, just perhaps, this is the upside of climate change: that global warming will cause a ‘global melting of the ego’ and thus a global embrace of Non-Dualist modes of thinking and experiencing. In this way, perhaps, climate change will bring about its own solution…

My Long Hot Summer of Love
If you are expecting some raunchy story about erotic conquests on the beach, I have to disappoint you. Partly because I have no such stories to tell (I am a happily married father of a seven-year-old son). But also because I would like to tell you a different kind of story, one of spiritual awakening, or – as I put it above – the melting of my ego. Mind you, the summer of 2018 was exceedingly long and hot. In fact, it was one of the longest and hottest summers ever recorded in the Netherlands (and much of Europe besides), which is where I live. It was simply another bead on the string of meteorological records – heat waves, droughts, tropical storms, arctic ice melting, and so on – that have become so familiar the last couple of years, testifying to the worrisome reality of climate change. The long hot summer of 2018 meant there was a perfectly rational explanation behind my somewhat mystical experience: all those months of sunny weather just made me super relaxed, up to a state of ultimate ‘hippie-ness’ so to speak. Of course, I am very concerned about the potentially catastrophic threat of climate change, not least because of our son whose future is at stake. But the truth is that I also thoroughly enjoyed this amazing summer. I feel kind of guilty saying this, but it’s true.

We live close to the beach, so that’s where we would spend most of our free days: swimming, building sand castles, giving the old frisbee a throw, relaxing under the parasol, reading books on non-duality, meditating, eating ice creams… In short: living the good life! In the afternoon, we would cycle home languidly, take a shower to wash off the salt and sand on our sunburnt skins, and start up the barbecue for another easy diner in our garden. In the evening – my stomach filled with veggie burger, fries, salad and light beer – I would just sit there and look in wonder at the spotless blue vault over my head, with a hint of orange in the west, and watch the acrobatics of the swallows weaving their warp and woof in the warm evening air.

That’s when it would happen, during those days on the beach and evenings in our garden, this ‘melting of the ego’ experience, of becoming fluid and fusing with my environment. I would have glimpses of cosmic unity, of everything being one. I would look at the people around me and have the strange sensation that somehow ‘they are me’ or ‘I am them’. Whatever it was that looked out of my eyes at the world, it also looked out of their eyes. Whatever it was in me that enjoyed the heat of the sun, the coolness of the water, the taste of ice cream, it had the same enjoyment in the people around me. It felt as if the universe was enjoying itself on the beach, tasting itself, feeling itself, playing with itself, throwing frisbee at itself, basking in the light of its own sun, swimming in its own water... And this feeling of all-embracing love would rush up inside of me, engulfing me, engulfing everything around me.

Waking up from the dream of separation
Now, these thoughts – of everything being one – were certainly not new to me. Having a background in philosophy, I am particularly interested in the philosophical tradition of Absolute Idealism, which stretches roughly from the Upanishads in the East and Neoplatonism in the West to the German and Anglo-American Idealisms of figures such as Schelling, Hegel, Bradley, and Royce. Absolute Idealism can be summarized as the claim that everything exists because it is thought and/or experienced by an Absolute Self, which in turn exists because It thinks/experiences itself. Up till the summer of 2018, however, my interest in these ideas was purely intellectual and theoretical. The idea that the universe is one consciousness simply seemed (and still seems) plausible to me in the light of
what physicists and philosophers tell us about the holistic unity of the universe and the place of consciousness in it (the so-called “hard problem of consciousness”). But now, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, it became an experiential reality for me as well. I started to feel its truth.

No doubt, this was in large measure due to the fact that I had taken up meditation, stimulated by my wife who was following a course in mindfulness. I am convinced, however, that the exceptionally long hot summer also played a crucial role here: in making me super relaxed, in almost literally ‘melting my ego’, it made me feel – rather than just intellectually understand – the truth of cosmic unity.
The thing that finally did it for me, that made the penny drop, was reading Christopher Wallis’ wonderful book Tantra Illuminated on the philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism (which is not the thoroughly commercialized pseudo-spiritual sex therapy which is sold as Tantra in the West, though it certainly is true that sexuality plays a significant role in Tantrism). Reading this book on the beach, I came across the following passage:

“Thus all sentient beings […] are simply different forms of one divine Consciousness, which looks out at the universe that is its own body through uncountable pairs of eyes… This perspective brings a sense of meaning and presence to even the simplest acts. When you sit and contemplate a pebble, what is really happening is that the universe is contemplating itself in that form… When you see yourself clearly, there comes a flash of recognition: you are a microcosmic expression of precisely the same divine powers that create, maintain, and dissolve this whole universe. [T]here is a profound shift. Your fear and pettiness drop away as you harmoniously fall into the dance of life energy… An explosion of joy accompanies the realization that there is nothing to do, nothing to achieve, other than to fully embrace the divine powers that seek to manifest through you by expressing the entirety of your authentic being in the fullness of each moment, in an endless flow of such moments.” (Wallis 2013: 56, 62, 67)

When I read this, I literally felt the “flash of recognition” of which Wallis speaks. Bang! There it was: cosmic unity, cosmic love… Clearly, the Tantric philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism with its belief in “one divine Consciousness, which looks out at the universe that is its own body through uncountable pairs of eyes” is one particular instance of the broader tradition of Absolute Idealism. However, in the context of Eastern philosophy, this way of thinking (and experiencing) is usually called “Non-Dualism”. One could say that the Absolute Idealisms of philosophers like Plotinus, Schelling, Hegel, Royce and Bradley is simply the Western variety of Non-Dualism. This is not to say there are no significant differences between them.
Whereas the Western approaches to non-duality are mostly theoretical, more focused on the epistemological, ontological, and theological aspects of non-duality, the Eastern approaches – though certainly not devoid of theory – focus more on the experience of non-duality as an existentially transformative experience, as the key to Enlightenment and the ultimate Liberation of Suffering.

That is, in Eastern philosophy the non-dual experience is usually seen to bring to an end the suffering inherent in being a (seemingly) separate individual, standing over against an independent world, in which the individual must struggle to maintain him-/herself. As the illusion of the separate ego falls away, 
its petty worries and ambitions, its bickering likes and dislikes, its fears and unfulfilled desires, all these obstacles to peace of mind fall away as well. And what remains is just peace of mind, a tranquil bliss, and a deep feeling of loving unity with everything and everyone. This enlightening aspect of non-duality is often illustrated by the comparison of the human mind with a lake that mirrors the sky above it. Normally, the water on the lake is rippled, as the ever-variable winds of our thoughts and emotions create smaller or greater waves, causing a distorted reflection of the sky in the water. But with the experience of non-duality, the waves on the lake calm down, as the storm of thoughts and emotions settles, and the water becomes as smooth as a mirror, finally reflecting the blue sky above it, with the radiant Sun at its centre. Here, of course, the ‘Sun’ is a metaphor for the creative essence of reality-as-a-whole, the source of all energy and life, which you now realize to be your true identity. 

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”
I guess that that’s what I experienced during the summer of 2018, an enlightenment experience. Not that I would say that I am permanently enlightened now (whatever that means). Not even close. For, as many spiritual seekers will testify, such “pink and fluffy” feelings of all-encompassing joy and love, which generally accompany the first glimpse of non-duality, are usually not permanent. They last for a while – from a couple of days or weeks for most people up to a year or even a few years for others – but then, ultimately, at one point or another, daily life kicks back in again. It’s a bit like what happens to mafia boss Michael Corleone (the character played by Al Pacino in The Godfather) who, realizing the senselessness of the mobster life style, wants to get out but finds to his dismay that the ties to his former personality aren’t cut that easily. The people around him – family, friends, enemies, the FBI – still see and treat him as the Capo di capi, forcing him to act accordingly, against his deepest wish. At one point in the film this makes him exclaim the famous line: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” (And the television series The Sopranos, where the same thing happens to mafia boss Tony Soprano, contains some great parody on this.)

Most spiritual seekers who look upon the experience of non-duality as the ultimate Enlightenment, as the end point of the spiritual path, have at one point or another uttered just the same line – “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” – or something like it. They find that the unforeseen events of daily life keep ‘pulling them back into duality’, that is, keep addressing them as separate individuals, who must struggle to find their way through life. You may become sick, lose your job, lose a loved one, fall back into some nasty habit, or simply hit your head very hard against a kitchen cupboard – the trigger could be any negative experience, which suddenly bursts your pink bubble of non-duality. Hence the importance of spiritual practices, what in Indian philosophy is known as “sadhana”, such as yoga and meditation, which help you to stabilize your initial enlightenment experience and to integrate it into your daily life.

The global threat of climate change
In my case, what shook me out of my pink-and-fluffy dream of cosmic love was precisely the very same thing that had put me in it: the long hot summer of 2018. As elated as I was about the melting of my ego and becoming one with the universe, I knew in the back of my head that – from another perspective – this melting was a very bad thing. As if the polar caps themselves were melting inside of me! The looming threat of climate change gave this whole ‘enlightenment thing’ an eerie atmosphere, not least because much of the Netherlands lies several meters below sea level. This is especially the case where I live, in the province of Zeeland, where an intricate network of dikes is our last line of defence against the ocean thunderously bearing down upon us. Lying on the beach, immobilized by the oppressive heat, I would have nightmarish visions of polar caps melting and breaking up into huge chunks, causing tidal waves spilling over the dikes, engulfing our homes, drowning my loved ones…

Thus, by melting my ego, global warming had created my pink-and-fluffy bubble of cosmic peace, love and happiness. But almost simultaneously it also popped that bubble. After all, it has been scientifically proven now that
man-made environmental pollution – and CO2 emission in particular – is the driving cause behind climate change. Even according to moderate scenarios, global warming will bring disastrous consequences within a hundred years, endangering the survival of the Earth’s flora and fauna, including human beings. Although it is true that the Earth has naturally warmed up and got colder again during other eras, such cycles have always been much slower, taking millions of years. But now, within a period of just 200 years, we are reaching levels that in the past brought about extinctions!

If we don’t drastically diminish our output of greenhouse gasses (such as CO2), the average global
temperature will – according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organizationmost likely have risen with 3 to 5 degrees Celsius in the year 2100. (And some estimates put this rise even higher!) In the process, there will be accelerated melting of arctic ice, which in turn will cause a rising sea level, leading to mass flooding of coastal areas. Some small island states will probably disappear altogether. There will be an increase in violent weather phenomena, such as tropical storms, heat waves and droughts, which will endanger the food chain and economic resources, especially in developing countries. Glaciers will melt, resulting in dried up rivers. Vast areas of the Earth will be left uninhabitable, becoming literally too hot to live in. As a result, there will be many, many millions of climate refugees. Already Europe is struggling with a refugee crisis due to the war in Syria. But the number of climate refugees will dwarf those that have fled the Syrian conflict. The result will be increased political conflict, instability, war... 

But even as my pink-and-fluffy bubble was popped by the threat of climate change, this loving awareness of cosmic unity stayed with me. In fact, it became even more important, because I realized that Non-Dualism could just be the right spiritual stimulus triggering people into collective action. Not only to deal with climate change and to save the precious ecosystem of our planet, but also to eradicate poverty, war, racism, injustice, and the extreme wealth inequality that has become rampant after 40 years of neoliberal capitalism. For, in the light of such challenges, what could be more inspiring and motivating than to learn that you, a seemingly separate and isolated human being, are really not separate at all? That you and the other(s) are actually the same, the same suffering being which is suffering precisely because it hasn’t yet realized what it is, namely, a single being? What could be more conducive to global responsibility and solidarity than the knowledge that you and the world around you are one?

Cosmic versus Acosmic Non-Dualism
Here, however, we should note an important difference between two kinds of Non-Dualism: cosmic and acosmic. This distinction is especially relevant to the ethical value of Non-Dualism. In philosophy “acosmism” means the denial of reality to the empirical world of plurality. The universe we observe around us appears to consist of many different individual objects, from atoms and molecules up to trees, cars, people, planets, stars and galaxies. According to acosmism, this plurality of individual objects is ultimately unreal, non-existent, a mere appearance or illusion. Non-Dual philosophers are particularly prone to acosmism, given their overarching emphasis on the fundamental unity of reality: since reality is one Whole, the empirical world of plurality must be unreal – or so it is argued sometimes. Such acosmic forms of Non-Dualism often go hand in hand with a monastic ethics of renunciation: to achieve the final Enlightenment, the individual must renounce the empirical world of plurality – only then will she realize the liberating insight into “the One” that alone is truly real. Such renunciatory acosmism affects both Eastern and Western forms of Non-Dualism. In the East, acosmism is a dominant feature of classical Advaita Vedanta and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Buddhism. In the West, acosmic tendencies can be found in Parmenides, Spinoza, Schelling (at the time of his “Identity System”) and the British Idealist Bradley.

By contrast with “acosmism” we can define “Cosmic Non-Dualism” as a position that recognizes the fundamental oneness of reality yet does not deny the reality of the empirical world of plurality. The cosmos – the infinite universe with its countless stars, planets, living and non-living beings – is rather seen as somehow manifesting the One that alone truly is. For Cosmic Non-Dualism, the One appears as the world of plurality: reality is a unity-in-diversity, an integrated whole with inner complexity, rather than a featureless blob of undifferentiated oneness – which is the view to which acosmism tends. Consequently, Cosmic Non-Dualism does not tend to world renunciation but rather to the exact opposite, world affirmation, a celebration of empirical existence as the manifestation of divine reality, and an associated ethics of universal compassion and solidarity. Enlightenment is achieved not by rejecting the world, but by embracing it as your own Self. This leads to an ethics of active involvement in the world rather than aloofness from the world. In the East, such Cosmic Non-Dualism, with its celebration of empirical reality as manifesting the Divine and its ethics of universal solidarity, can be found in the original Vedanta of the Upanishads and especially in Shaivite Tantrism. In the West, Cosmic Non-Dualism is a prominent feature of the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, who explicitly rejected the extreme world renunciation of Gnosticism, and the philosophy of Hegel, who developed his version of Absolute Idealism partly in criticism of Schelling’s acosmism.

The ethical value of Cosmic Non-Dualism
Clearly, if we want to utilize Non-Dualism as a means to foster global solidarity, we need the cosmic variety rather than the acosmic one, which tends to a nihilist indifference towards the world. This comes out forcefully in Robert Pirsig’s cult novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which is partly autobiographical), where the protagonist – the analytically minded Phaedrus – goes to India to find wisdom but ends up taking classes in Oriental philosophy taught by a professor with a predilection for classical Advaita Vedanta:

“But one day in the classroom the professor of philosophy was blithely expounding on the illusory nature of the world for what seemed the fiftieth time and Phaedrus raised his hand and asked coldly if it was believed that the atomic bombs that had dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were illusory. The professor smiled and said yes. That was the end of the exchange.” (Pirsig 1999, p. 144.)

This is exactly why the difference between Cosmic and Acosmic Non-Dualism is so utterly crucial!
An activist ethics of universal solidarity is precisely what our much suffering world needs today, torn as it is by ever widening divisions – between the haves and have-nots, between different ethnic groups, between secular society and religious fundamentalism, between mass society and the isolated individual, between the dangerous lure of populism and the aloofness of the political elite, between the interests of economic growth (necessary to feed an ever-growing world population) and the interests of a defenceless nature choking in the mind-numbing garbage heap produced by economic growth. These are global problems, affecting our whole planet and everyone on it, requiring a global solution and thus global solidarity. Hence the great ethical importance of Cosmic Non-Dualism. With the separation between self and other overcome, you can no longer remain indifferent to the suffering and injustice in the world. You have to act, simply because in helping others you are actually helping yourself – perhaps not, directly, your individual self, your empirical persona, but first and foremost your underlying Self, the creative essence of the universe, of which everything and everyone is an integral part. The Non-Dualist teacher and therapist Jeff Foster puts this wonderfully well:

“It’s myself in Burma, it’s myself in the earthquake. It’s myself starving in Africa. People sometimes hear the message of non-duality and they think that it’s about sitting back and doing nothing. They think it’s about arrogantly sitting back and saying, “Oh, it’s just a dream, it’s just a story, there’s nobody there suffering so what’s the point in doing anything at all?”… Oneness recognises itself in the face of that starving child and can move to help itself, not out of pity, not because it needs to be a good person, that’s nothing to do with it.
It doesn’t come from a set morality. But in seeing that it’s all One – and this is the mystery of the universe – somehow it moves to help itself.” (Jeff Foster in Gilbert 2011, p.37.)

So let’s just hope that global warming will have at least this positive consequence, that it will lead to a global melting of the ego
and thus to a global embrace of Non-Dualist modes of thinking and experiencing. At least then we have a fighting chance to deal with our problems together, as a single species, in harmony with each other and with our precious planet. That this 'melting of the ego' things is not wholly speculative can be seen from the fact that in non-dual spirituality it is often said that the ego is a 'contraction' of the Whole into a seemingly separate individual. It is also well-known that this separation is experienced physically as a contraction of the muscles: a tightening of the breath, of the muscles around the throat, around the eyes, etc. But isn't such a physical contraction not also stimulated by cold weather? When its cold, you sort of have to contract your body to stay warm. Now, as Tantra in particular stresses, mind and body are one 'thing', the body-mind. So it stands to reason that if the body becomes very relaxed (and thus loses its contraction) through warmth, the mind will relax along with it, and awakening will become easier. Hence, perhaps, the fact that non-duality originated with the Upanishads in the warmer parts of India?

Om & Peace!

You can join the discussion about Cosmic Non-Dualism at:

Gilbert, Eleonora (2011), Conversations on Non-Duality: Twenty-Six Awakenings. Cherry Red Books.
Pirsig, Robert M. (1999 [1974]), Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. London: Vintage.
Wallis, Christopher D. (2013), Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History, and Practice of a Timeless Tradition. Boulder, CO: Mattamayura Press.