Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The Assimilation of Experience
by James Swartz

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Part I

The Ropes

Experience requires two factors: a conscious subject and an object. Consciousness, of which our personal everyday Consciousness is a pale reflection, is radiant light. It is not physical light. Light, however, is a fitting symbol for Consciousness because it illumines physical objects just as Consciousness illumines physical light and subtle objects, the inner world of thoughts and feelings.

Consciousness is self luminous. It does not require another principle to illumine it. If a light is shining in a room, it is not necessary to turn on a second light to see it because it is illumined by its own light. Consciousness is like a limitless light bulb that was never created, that shines endlessly without being connected to a source of electricity. It was shining before the universe came into being and it will continue to shine effortlessly once the universe has packed up and gone away. No object can reveal this light because it is subtler than all objects. It is easily known, however, because it is self revealing.

The creation is an object from the standpoint of Consciousness. Experience takes place in the creation and Consciousness is free of experience. There are a number of theories about how the creation came into being but there is no reasonable way to determine if they are true. It is apparently here. It is known. And it is the field in which we pursue happiness.

Animals and plants do not seek happiness, because they do not have intellects. Without an intellect, it is impossible to evaluate one experience with reference to another or with reference to other standards. If pleasure happens, it is accepted. If pain happens it is accepted. Because they do not enjoy free will, the idea that pain can be eliminated does not occur to them. Humans experience pleasure and pain too, but they can do something about it because they are self aware; they can think. That pleasure is the natural state is indicated by this fact: when pain comes we immediately seek ways to eliminate it, but when pleasure comes, we cling to it tooth and nail.

If experience was under our conscious control, everyone would be happy all the time. However, we are not completely helpless with reference to what happens because we have been blessed with the ability to think. We can make inferences, choose between alternatives and interpret experience with reference to various values. If we want to be happy, it is possible to understand all the subtle and gross factors operating in the field of existence, apart from our own actions, that impact on our experience.

Although it is nondual, the vast field of existence can be divided into three levels for the purpose of understanding: causal, subtle and gross. Human beings experience on the subtle and gross levels of existence. The causal level causes experience, cannot be experienced and is known by inference.

Our thoughts and feelings, memories, dreams, beliefs, opinions, fears and desires, etc. take place in the subtle body. The senses provide access to the gross level, the objects outside. Experience is not only a transaction between a given subtle body and the physical world; it is a transaction between subtle bodies as well. Consciousness shines incessantly on the subtle body and illumines what is happening in it, making knowledge of ourselves possible.

There is probably not a human alive that does not want the continuous, radiant, charismatic experience of unalloyed happiness. Assuming it is possible, what factors are in play that help or hinder this experience?

The subtle body is sandwiched between the Self and the world. It is the instrument through which the Self, Consciousness or awareness, observes itself as the world. It functions as intellect' the discriminating function; as mind' the feeling function and as the location of ego or 'I' sense. These functions are conditioned by a forth factor, the chitta, the causal body. Much more than a memory, the chitta is the most powerful function of Consciousness. It retains both the essence of experience and the individual's interpretations of it, in the form of samskaras. It controls the lives of every being in existence. It causes desire and karma.

The chitta is described in Vedic science as a rope with three strands or energies. These energies affect all the beings, objects, forces and processes on the gross and subtle levels. They are called ropes because they bind conscious beings to gross and subtle objects. They are called sattva, rajas and tamas and need to be understood if you want to consistently experience radiant, charismatic unalloyed happiness.

Because our culture suffers from a lack of understanding of the Self and the causal body we need special terms, even though these energies are known to everyone. They do not describe esoteric mystical states, although they impact on them and the interpretation of them. As we unfold the meaning of these, words you will see that they accurately describe the quality and texture of everyday experience. Although some of our words accurately describe aspects of these energies, no English words convey their complete meaning.

Only when they are identified, can we cease to identify with them. Identification with rajas and tamas stands in the way of happiness, whether or not we are committed to seeking enlightenment. A human being may have a preponderance of a particular energy at a particular time, but energy does not define the Self, because the Self is free of energy. Once the three energies are identified and controlled, there is virtually no limit to the experience of radiant happiness.

The root of the word sattva is sat. Sat is radiant self-aware Consciousness. In its most subtle manifest form, Consciousness is called sattva. Sattva is Consciousness but Consciousness is not sattva. Sattva makes knowledge possible. Nothing in the creation happens without knowledge. If the subtle body, the apparently conscious being'me' was one hundred percent sattvic, I would experience radiant, unalloyed happiness all the time. I would be charismatic and attract many people. Life would flow with unspeakable ease. When I feel present, wise, happy and free of desire, my subtle body is under the influence of sattva. When a creative idea makes perfect sense, a thought is completely appropriate for a given situation and attention is fully present to deal with what comes, sattva rules the subtle body. Unfortunately, everything in the chitta is impermanent. Therefore, sattva must give way to tamas and rajas.

Rajas, the projecting power, often called the mode of passion, is the second of the chitta's three fundamental qualities. On the macrocosmic level, it makes things happen. To create, action is necessary. You need knowledge, you need a substance, and you need the power to shape the substance according to your idea. If the physical universe is the result of a 'big bang,' as inference seems to suggest, some power is causing the matter to travel away from its point of origin at astronomical speeds. On the individual level, rajas is a spiking, agitating, extroverting energy. It makes you move physically, emotionally and intellectually. It is desire and the emotional agitations that desire morphs into, when it is unfulfilled: anger, anxiety, frustration, hatred and aggression. It is responsible for the feeling that there is never enough of what one wants and too much of what one does not want. It is responsible for obsessions about what might happen. It causes the mind to hop uncontrollably from one thought to another and limits the attention span to a few minutes, sometimes a few seconds. Attention deficit disorder is a mind completely dominated by rajas.

When it emerges from the chitta and appears in the subtle body, as it inevitably does, it takes over from sattva and happiness disappears. When the mind is under its influence, inquiry is very difficult. A detailed description of the effects of rajas on the subtle body can be found below, in the section entitled 'the assimilation of experience.' The point is, however, that rajas' desire' is the enemy of happiness. In fact, the statement 'I want' means 'I am not happy.' The best one can hope for in this state, are intense fleeting moments of joy. The obvious conclusion: if you want to be happy, you can wait for the next period of sattva or you can transform rajas into sattva. The upside of rajas: it is a great motivator. If one's goals are clear and the environment is conducive, success comes quickly for those in whom this type of energy is predominant.

To say that desire is the enemy of happiness does not mean that happiness is only possible when desire is completely eliminated. To transform the mind into a pure vehicle for Self Inquiry, the desire for object happiness should be sublimated into the desire for Self realization. Whatever desire remains, need only conform to dharma. When a rajasic person's self esteem is particularly low, it may produce strong desires which result in violations of dharma and cause conflict. Desire need only be reduced until the actions it engenders will not conflict with dharma.

The third strand of the chitta is tamas. On the macrocosmic level it is substance, matter. It is inert and insentient. It has no power to act or think. On the individual level it is the body and a very uncomfortable state of mind. Tamas means cloudy. When it emerges from the causal body and replaces rajas or sattva, it conceals the subtle body under a heavy dark cloud. It is dullness, torpor and sloth, the morning after a night of revelry or a twelve hour shift, for example. It keeps you from seeing what is, as it is. It twists what you do see into what you want to see. A detailed description of the effect of tamas on the subtle body can also be found below, in the section entitled 'the assimilation of experience.'

The experience of radiant unalloyed happiness is not possible when the mind is tamasic. The best an individual can hope for in this state are dull sense pleasures. The obvious conclusion: if you want to be happy you can wait for sattva to take over the mind and provide a few moments of happiness or you can transform tamas into sattva. The means for creating a predominately sattvic mind and therefore radiantly happy life are explained at the end of the following section.

Enlightenment and the Assimilation of Experience

Experience is an unbroken series of inner and outer events and the reaction or response to them. The reaction of animals to experience is totally programmed. Humans have the upper hand in the evolutionary game because they have the power to think. They can study their experience and extract knowledge from it, freeing them to some degree from their programming.

Spiritual growth is accomplished through the proper assimilation of experience. Just as partially digested food inhibits the efficient functioning of the body, partially or improperly assimilated experience compromises the development of the soul. Because Consciousness illumines the body-mind entity, it is propelled along its life track to its ultimate destination: the realization of its non-separation from everything. As long as the meaning of life's experiences is unknown to it, the soul is little more than an animal and cannot fulfill its destiny.

Like an animal, a human infant unknowingly lives out its subconscious tendencies. It grows physically, but it does not evolve. It has no control over the direction of its life, because it has insufficient experience and knowledge to make informed choices. Once its intellect develops and it assimilates certain values, it can evaluate its experiences and begin to evolve.

The longer an experience remains unassimilated, the more problems it causes. Let us say that your father was an alcoholic and abused your mother, so that she fell into a lifelong depression and was unable to raise you and your siblings properly. Because you were the eldest, you ended up parenting your younger brothers and sisters. You did it because you had no choice. You developed a deep resentment toward your father for robbing your childhood and a deep sympathy for your poor victimized mother. In reality, she was not blameless, because she never stood up to her husband; she actually enabled his alcoholism in subtle ways. Nonetheless, you saw her as a martyr and loved her for it. Your father died, but your hatred lived on. You believed a grave injustice had been done and it colored your feelings toward men in general.

One day, a nice man wanted to marry you and in the excitement of first love, you agreed. You married, but as time went on certain things your husband said or did reminded you of your father. This brought up old feelings of resentment and rage. You began to pick quarrels with him for no reason. Your fears slowly got the best of you and you incorrectly imagined that these small things he shared with your father'a certain inflection in his voice when he was stressed, for example'revealed a selfish and abusive nature. You accused him of 'changing' and said he did not really love you, which was not true. Your relationship deteriorated and your children started to become neurotic. You confided in one of your divorced women friends who came from a similar background and was holding a grudge against her ex. She showed so much concern for your plight that you fell in love with her, left your husband, abandoned your children and became gay. But after a while your new identity did not work, because you loved her for the wrong reason: she was not a man. Had your mother been the abuser, you may have hated women and loved men. We can make this story go on and on for fifty years or more, each tragic event unfolding out of the preceding event like clockwork, until it becomes impossible to work back to the beginning and discover the reason for the suffering and heal the wound.

Experience does not interpret or assimilate itself. The intellect interprets experience. It sits behind the mind and evaluates what happens. There is nothing wrong with it. This is what it is supposed to do. If experience conforms to the soul's desire, it gives the thumbs up and positive feeling arise. If life delivers experience contrary to the soul's desire, it gives the thumbs down and negative feelings arise. How it interprets experience depends on acquired knowledge and ignorance plus three factors that are normally beyond its control. Two of these factors inhibit its ability to discriminate and one facilitates it. The factors over which the intellect has limited control are rajas, tamas and sattva.

How does rajas affect the assimilation of experience? If the individual's values are materialistic and the mind is predominately rajasic, the intellect uses its power to design and execute strategies to accomplish worldly goals. If the values are spiritual, it evaluates progress with reference to its idea of purity or enlightenment. A rajasic intellect is not concerned with the truth of experience, only in whether or not what is experienced relates to the fulfillment of the soul's desires.

Whether the goals are worldly or spiritual, and whether or not they are realized, rajas is a source of frustration because everything gained is inevitably lost. An object gained causes attachment and an object lost produces grief, neither of which is conducive to happiness. Rather than accept the impermanence of life as a fact and be satisfied with what is, rajas causes the soul to continually seek fulfillment in new experiences. Even though the individual knows better, rajas can cause such a lack of discrimination, that the individual will consistently repeat actions that produce suffering. It often generates so many actions in such a short time, that the intellect can never determine which action was responsible for a given result, thus preventing it from learning from its experiences.

When a pleasurable experience ends, rajas brings disappointment, because it wants the pleasure to continue, even though the intellect knows that pleasure is fleeting. If an experience is mediocre, it wants it to be better. If it is bad, it should end instantly and not happen again. If experience repeats itself over and over, as it does owing to conditioning, rajas causes boredom and produces a strong desire for variety. More-better-different is its holy mantra. It produces an endlessly active time constrained life of loose ends, a life of shoulds and should nots.

A person under the influence of rajas feels that nothing is ever completed. No matter how much is accomplished, the list of things to do never shrinks. It is a closet, garage, basement and attic overflowing with a confusing assortment of neglected and unused objects. It is late tax return, a forgotten appointment, an unreturned call, a frantic search for one's keys. Rajas' aggressive extroverted thrusts are inevitably accompanied by tiredness and insomnia. Because it cannot sit still, it is often referred to as the monkey mind in spiritual literature.

Assimilation of experience only takes place when the mind is present. Therefore, when rajas dominates the subtle body, the innate wisdom of the Self, much less common sense knowledge, is not available to help the intellect accurately determine the nature of experience and resolve doubts about it. A resolved experience leaves attention fully present, so that it is able to engage the next experience without prejudice. Because life is an unending procession of experiences, it is important to lay each experience to rest as quickly as possible, preferably as it happens. A successful inquirer processes experience as it happens.

Part II

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012