Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The Assimilation of Experience
by James Swartz

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Part III

Part I Part II

Your head aches. Every muscle in your body is sore. Your mouth tastes like a cesspool. The light filtering into the room through the drapes, sears your eyes. Your mind is so dull you can barely think. You stumble into the bathroom to brush your teeth and get into a fight with your wife, because she used the last bit of toothpaste. Your kids come running up, excited about their outing. 'Daddy, Daddy, let's go to the zoo!' they say, pulling at your pajamas. You know better, but you hate these selfish little bastards, your own flesh and blood. Why can't they leave you alone? Don't they see how you're suffering? They don't care. You promised, and you will have to deliver or they will hate you as much as you hate them. You shuffle to the kitchen, down a liter of coffee and a handful of antacids. You stuff your stomach with fried potatoes cooked in bacon fat and scarf down several cholesterol-laden eggs, wiping up the yolky sludge with a couple slabs of white bread. Sloth is the best friend of cholesterol; it loves fat and carbs but, hey, anything to dull the pain.

All is not lost, however. The hangover makes you smart: it is not that much of a stretch to connect last night's behavior with your present misery. A swell of resolution, born of true knowledge, floods over you. You will become a better person. For the nth (and final, final) time you resolve to quit drinking. This time is for real!

But as the day progresses and the hangover slowly wears off, a few fond memories of last night's bender float by. You remember the liqueur induced bonhomie and the unconscious but great sex and you think, 'Well, maybe my vow was a bit hasty but I'll definitely cut back.' And just as this thought ends, fate seems to agree because good old boy Bob from down the block, shows up to watch football with a six pack'it's only beer, mind you, no harm done'and you settle into your Lazy Boy to watch the Vikings throttle the Rams. At halftime, Bob pops over to the corner store for another six pack.

Life's hangovers make you smart, all right, but not that smart. It takes more than a resolution to change. Inquiry is necessary. In this case, inquiry lies in understanding the big picture. Yes, chasing pleasure is certainly'well, pleasurable. It is a god-given right and sanctioned by the Constitution, 'the pursuit of happiness' it says in black and white. And what does it accomplish? It makes me feel good. And why do I want to feel good? Because I do not feel good as I am. Something is missing. I feel dull, bored and unfulfilled. I work like a dog, bring home the bacon, keep my family in Ipods and Nikes and by the end of the week I am worn out. I need some fun. I get stoned or drunk and my problems go away. But next morning I have the same problems, and the solution to my problem is now a problem sitting on top of the original problem. So is feeling good a solution? I had better have a look at why I feel bad.

To make a meaningful change, one needs to realize that life is a zero-sum game. This is not what we have been told. This is not what we want to hear. If God set up this unbeatable system, he or she is certainly a pervert. You cannot get ahead, no matter how hard you try. Every upside has its downside, every cloud its silver lining. If life is a zero-sum game, why should I do anything? In the best of all possible worlds you would do nothing, but life is not the best of all possible worlds. You have no choice with reference to action. If you are here, you are a doer. Consciousness shines on your causal body and you move till the day you die. You have some discretion over the type of actions you perform and the attitudes that cause them, but you are compelled by your karma to act.

Self inquiry is the way out. It is the power to recognize rajasic and tamasic thoughts and neutralize them, with the understanding that they prevent radiant happiness and the assimilation of experience. In the dramatic and gross example above, our regular Joe has not inquired into the source of his suffering. He feels incomplete, but he does not know why. Therefore, he assumes incorrectly that there is an experiential solution. The solution he devises does not work, because he refuses to believe that life is a zero-sum game. Although he intellectually knows that his solution does not work, he cannot break his habits, because his coping mechanism is built in. The alcohol tendencies are dynamic; they compel him to drink when he feels anxious, angry, bored or depressed. When he is agitated, he relies on alcohol to relax him. It does not really make him relaxed. It makes him dull. Dullness, however, seems like peace compared to anxiety. When he is dull, he relies on alcohol to lift his spirits. It does not really lift his spirits. It just stimulates his nerves for a short time. This, however, feels a lot better than depression.

When you are caught in the rajas-tamas cycle, you are not happy and cannot assimilate the knowledge you gain from experience. Thanks to the samskaras your bad habits keep replicating themselves, your will power deserts you and you stop growing. Therefore, cultivate sattva.

Do not think that because your life is more refined than the life of our mythical hard-living materialist, you are free of rajas and tamas. They function at every level of evolution. Golden chains bind just as tightly as iron and silver chains.

The Value of Values

The assimilation of experience depends on the interpretation of experience, and the interpretation of experience depends on the individual's values. Because the apparent reality is a duality and we have lived in it for a long time, we have inevitably picked up good and bad values. One part of the mind lives in daylight and another in darkness. Such is the nature of duality. Consequently, it often seems as if we are two very different people. Certain sattvic values facilitate inquiry and growth, while others inhibit it. So it is incumbent on anyone seeking happiness in this world'or freedom from this world'to take a fearless moral inventory. Before we enumerate some positive and negative values and how they impact on inquiry, it is important to value the absence of judgment with reference to yourself and others. Absence of judgment means that you do not put yourself up on the basis of your positive qualities, nor do you get down on yourself on account of your negative qualities. By and large, values are unconsciously assimilated and are woven into the very fabric of our being. So it is unrealistic to expect the negative values to disappear overnight, even when we vow to be done with them. Renunciation of negative tendencies, a companion value of absence of judgment and one of inquiry's core values, comes through understanding. When you discover how a particular value stacks up against your spiritual goal, you will be in a good position to cultivate it'if it is in harmony with your goal'or renounce it if it is not.

If enlightenment is freedom from dependence on objects and freedom is gained by Self knowledge, it stands to reason that love of knowledge should be a core value. If you find yourself indifferent to knowledge and enamored by feelings, know that your values are distorted. If you have the right values, you will always feel good. If you focus on how you feel without an inquiry into your value structure, you will never feel consistently good. When you feel bad, it should be taken as an opportunity to inquire into your true nature.

If you value Self knowledge, you cannot but value peace of mind, because inquiry cannot take place in an emotionally disturbed mind. In general, the mind suffers agitation or dullness when a negative value is in play. When the mind is agitated or dull, it is impossible to appreciate and enjoy the Self. This is not to say that inquiry should not be practiced when you are feeling bad. On the contrary, the presence of dullness or irritation is an invitation to pinpoint and renounce the value that is causing the disturbance. When this is done, there is a qualitative shift in your experience. When clarity returns, the light of awareness reflects on the still lake of the mind and you feel good. Eventually, as you consistently examine and renounce the negative values, the mind becomes extremely subtle, the light of awareness shines in it more or less constantly and Self realization is inevitable.

Truth, another core value, is not an abstract principle. It stares you in the face every minute of the day. It is the appreciation of things as they are. Its negative counterpart is a value for getting what you want from the world. When the value for having it the way you want it overrides the value for truth, the mind is disturbed. Wanting what you want, when you want it, at the expense of what reality is presenting to you at the moment is vanity, a core negative value. It is vanity because you believe that life was created for your enjoyment, when the truth is more nuanced: yes, you are here to enjoy but you cannot enjoy properly unless you make your contribution to life. It gave you everything and you have the responsibility to pay your debt. If you do not pay your debt, you are a thief. You are a thief because you are robbing yourself of the opportunity for peace. If you do not value peace, how will you grow spiritually?

Straightforwardness is an alignment of thought, word and deed. It is knowing what you think and acting accordingly. It is the opposite of crookedness, always trying to work the angles. Crookedness, like all negative values, is fear based. You are afraid that you cannot get what you want by straightforward means, so you scheme, manipulate and cut corners to get what you want. Understanding straightforwardness is not straightforward because it is possible to injure others with your straightforward, unsolicited opinions and actions. So it is important to understand this value in the hierarchy of values, in so far as it is trumped by charity and compassion. If you are in love with yourself because you are an honest, straightforward, righteous person, it is wise to cultivate another important value, judicious restraint. Think about the effect of your views on others before you 'share' your feelings. Unless the world sends a written request for your opinion, it is better to keep it to yourself.

Being honest with yourself is an important core value. How can you purify your mind if you do not want to look at your impurities? When there is a preponderance of tamas in the mind, it is very difficult to be honest with yourself. Tamas is responsible for denial, refusal to see what is. If you are honest with yourself, you will be honest with others. If you find yourself cheating or telling lies, it is a sign that you need to investigate your relationship with yourself.

Sad to say, the mind has become so lost in ignorance it has come to think that fear is smart. This is not to say that prudence and caution are other than positive values, only that pandering to society's myriad gratuitous fears is completely unhelpful. Fearlessness, another core value, should be cultivated because it acknowledges the benign, non-dual nature of reality. The world is not out to get you. Rapists and robbers do not lurk behind every bush. You are not condemning yourself to a life of suffering if you do not eat organic vegetables. Nor are you setting yourself up for identity theft if the security code for your computer does not have twenty seven digits including randomly spaced upper and lower case letters interspersed with numbers and assorted arcane symbols.

It is wise to be reasonably critical, but unbridled criticism is a negative value and should be counteracted by cultivating compassion, a core value. Compassion is the understanding that nobody, including you, would be who they are if they could help it. Ignorance is not something you do. It is something that happens when you are not aware of who you really are. You should not make yourself feel bad because you are not a saint. Yes, it is natural to feel bad when you violate life's core values, but you should not wallow in the feeling. Neutralize it with compassion for yourself. Feeling bad is self injury. It means you do not love yourself properly.

Charity, a higher value than compassion, is the appreciation of your fullness. It should be cultivated to counteract miserliness. Like kindness, it is a higher value, because it is more than just the appreciation of your suffering and the suffering of others. It involves actually giving something to yourself and the world. A miser is someone who is so fear oriented that he or she cannot let go of things, especially his or her insecurities, monetary and otherwise. Charity means giving yourself the things you deny yourself out of irrational fears'time off from work, for example. Or giving to others things that are valuable to you but which do not contribute to a pure mind.

Renunciation is an important core value. It is a contrarian value because the samsaric view, which is built into everyone, is that less is never more. A pure mind is a simple, uncluttered, quiet mind. The more activities, relationships and objects you are involved in, the more agitated your mind will be. It should be practiced aggressively, because it is a sure way to break attachment. The one who appreciates this value, lives a simple austere life. Far from feeling deprived, he or she feels rich in peace and leisure. Renunciation, like dispassion, is a companion value of discrimination. When you understand the difference between what is real and what it apparently real, you can easily drop your attachment to the apparently real.

Another core value is non-injury. Non-injury is based on the fact that there is a universal and mutual expectation for non-injury. To cultivate non-injury is to counteract cruelty. Cruelty is so obviously unspiritual it hardly bears mention, but it is much more common than we like to admit. Cruelty, an intense fear inspired by dislike of oneself, motivates us to punish ourselves and others in many subtle ways: the father that beats his children, the wife that incessantly nags the husband, the scammer who robs, the child who puts the cat in the microwave and pulls the wings off a butterfly. To counteract it, develop empathy.

Self confidence, another important value, comes from accomplishing what you intend to accomplish. For a spiritual person, it comes from living up to the teachings, taking a stand in awareness and resolving doubts about who you are on a daily basis. Self confidence is difficult to cultivate in timid individuals, because they often confuse it with arrogance, a lack of humility. It is not arrogant to see yourself as non-separate from everything and to assert your divinity to yourself. Feelings of unworthiness, continuously second guessing yourself and dithering excessively, indicate a lack of self confidence.

If you are conditioned to unspiritual values, your ego will resist your attempt to live the higher values. If you discover resistance, it is important to identify the problematic values and understand why they are not serving you. The most difficult negative value to confront is desire for objects. Why is it a negative value? Because it is an emphatic statement by ignorance that you are incomplete and limited. If it seems impossible to live without craving for objects, know that your relationship to your desires needs to be investigated. Before we set out to do something about it, we need to know that only binding desires need to be eliminated, because they stand in the way of self inquiry. If they are sublimated into the desire for self inquiry, so much the better.

Although we have covered this point before, it bears repeating, because it is important to have a practical understanding of the problems associated with binding desires. When you value your desires unnecessarily, you are asking for anger. Oddly, many worldly people value anger, particularly those who count themselves among the virtuous, because they are filled with pride, another negative value. Jesus whipped the moneychangers in the temple because it was good for them and I am attacking you because you are a godless pagan. But anger is just frustrated desire. A person with desire for objects will always have anger, because the world does not care what you want. It apportions desired objects according to the needs of the total. Obviously, an angry mind is not suited to self inquiry. When desire is valued excessively and the mind is prone to anger, it becomes dull and when it is dull, it becomes deluded and is no longer able to discriminate properly. When discrimination goes, you are finished. When you value desire excessively, you end up living on hope. Hope is an unsuitable basis for a life. It is a statement that you are unable to accommodate yourself to reality.

Although there are many more, here are a few negative values to watch out for: greed, lust, pride, deceit, hypocrisy, willfulness, self glorification and arrogance.

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012