Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

by James Swartz

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Part I

In our democratic era it seems unfair that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights focuses so narrowly on political freedom and ignores the right to enlightenment. Should not the Galactic Congress of Sages issue a proclamation declaring inner freedom an inalienable right, empower world governments to grant it to all citizens and establish a judiciary to seek redress when governments fail to deliver?

Democracy and great wealth have certainly affected the spiritual world; seeking enlightenment has become a mass phenomenon. The Dalai Lama, a famous enlightened being, is a media celebrity. Tens of thousands, perhaps more, spend large sums to have their brains rewired for enlightenment by India�s most recent self-proclaimed avatar. An enlightened master can earn a king�s ransom from a month long intensive that involves nothing more than sitting in silence, a practice meant to induce enlightenment. Millions attend Oprah�s webinar to discover the teachings of the West�s guru du jour. If anyone anywhere can walk into a fast food joint for a quick lunch, why not purchase nirvana for the price of a Big Mac?

In a world of billions, the statement by an eighth century sage, Adi Shankaracharya, that a human birth is difficult to obtain, seems to be a quaint relic from a bygone age. And the enlightenment qualifications he lists seem hopelessly outdated: good social position, a religious mentality, scriptural knowledge, �well earned merits of thousands of past lives,� discrimination between the real and the apparent, the grace of God in the form of longing for freedom and an association with a perfected sage�among others.

If enlightenment is merely an experience of inner freedom, even psychotics and criminals qualify. Much of what is defined as psychosis in the West could conceivably be little more than the uninformed and clumsy reaction to unsolicited mystic experiences. Sinners regularly see the light and became saints. But enlightenment is not sainthood. It is the hard and fast knowledge that there is only one Self and that the Self, Awareness, is everything that is�and that I am it. To gain this knowledge the individual needs more than a vague spiritual longing.

He or she needs to be a psychologically healthy human being. Unfortunately, Western psychology does not have a well considered definition of a healthy mind. It concentrates almost exclusively on pathology and tries to fix psychological problems with chemistry. Its failure to address the deeper needs of the soul and adequately treat the neuroses of middle class life, drives many to religion and spirituality.

Self Inquiry is not intended to heal neurotic egos. It works on a mind that consciously relates its suffering to a lack of understanding about the nature of reality, not to problems picked up in childhood and compounded by ill-considered choices along the way. It investigates desires and values, for example, topics given short shrift by psychology. Its psychological program involves managing the likes and dislikes that compromise the ability of the mind to inquire into the nature of reality. It is not a discipline meant to make life work for an ego trying to find meaning in the world. Whether an individual has achieved his or her worldly goals or not, a mature person knows that seeking happiness in the world is a zero sum game.

The qualities listed below are not meant to be seen as ideals. Trying to live up to an abstraction creates conflict and becomes an additional problem that needs to be addressed before inquiry can bear fruit. In fact many of these qualities exist in some measure in most minds. Understanding them makes it easy to pinpoint areas that need work to prepare the mind for inquiry.

An Open Mind

What is a healthy qualified mind? It is an open mind, one willing to question its assumptions about the meaning of life. An open mind knows that the conclusions the ego draws from experience are not always correct. Generally as we age, the mind becomes less and less open and its native purity is sullied by accumulated prejudices, beliefs and opinions. Even a mind awakened to the truth by an epiphany finds it difficult to stay open and inquiring once the epiphany wears off, because it is just the everyday mind dressed up in mystic clothing. A truly open mind will inquire before, during and after any and all experiences, worldly or spiritual. If it thinks a mystic experience is the last word and stops asking questions, it will fail to convert its indirect self knowledge into direct knowledge. An open mind remains open irrespective of what happens, because it is awareness committed to seeking itself without judgments and conclusions. It simply tries to understand what happens as it actually is. It does not attempt to make reality jibe with its likes and dislikes.

Self Inquiry is the knowledge distilled from the experience of countless self realized beings. Most of us believe we are unique and, assuming we have problems, we believe no one else is capable of devising solutions. We do not realize that the same being inhabits every body, that problems are universal and that workable solutions have been devised millennia ago. So even if we are told by the wise how to solve our problems, we reject the advice and keep experimenting until such time as we give up in despair and ask for help. But an open mind learns from the experience of others.

A Reasonable Mind

A healthy mature mind is a reasonable mind, one not inclined to superstitions, opinions and beliefs. This is a particularly important qualification as the most outrageous and irrational beliefs are regularly passed off as truth in the spiritual world. The Buddha is reported to have said, 'Believe nothing you have read or anything you have heard, even if I have said it, unless it corresponds to common sense and reason.' Enlightenment is not a mystery. The Self is not hidden away behind the mind as conventional wisdom has it. However, when something is not immediately available for perception, it is possible to speculate and fantasize. Awareness is self evident, simple and obvious if you know where and how to look. It does not contradict perception and inference. It makes perfect sense.

A Discriminating Mind

Life is rarely what it seems to be. A discriminating mind intelligently avoids the petty dramas, conflicts and indulgences of daily life. To the discriminating person life is a tragicomedy to be acted to the hilt, no doubt, but of no lasting importance. �It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.� A discriminating mind sees its likes and dislikes, memories, dreams, fears and desires for the transitory epiphenomena they are. It does not try to avoid action�action is unavoidable�but it acts for the right reasons. A discriminating mind realizes that action will not produce lasting freedom and avoids pursuits that will only momentarily free it from its concerns, preferring instead to inquire into the basis of its pursuits. It knows that life is a zero sum game because it sees duality playing out in everything: every gain entails a loss and every loss entails a gain. Because it appreciates the frustrating nature of samsara, expectations of object happiness do not unduly influence its determinations.

The definition of discrimination is �the settled conviction that the Self alone is real and that objects are apparently real.� Reality, awareness, is what exists in the past, present and future, before the past and after the future. It exists in and beyond the waking, dream, and deep sleep states of Consciousness. Everything else�which is everything experienced�is apparently real or �not-Self.� With this definition in mind at all times, the discriminating mind will turn its attention away from the world of objects and back to awareness over and over, until attention rests steadily on the Self.

Knowing that life passes through you and that you do not pass through life is discrimination. Knowing that things happen to you, not by you, is discrimination. Liberation is discrimination, the knowledge that separates the real from the apparent. One need do nothing more than know the difference between the real and the apparent to free oneself of attachment to the apparent. Until discrimination is perfect, the ego will get entangled in appearances and suffer.

Objects do not stand alone. They depend on the Self, but the Self does not depend on them. To say that objects are apparently real does not mean that they are illusions. They do exist, albeit temporarily. It means that they depend on the subject, awareness. The Self, the subject, stands alone. A rainbow, for example, exists but is apparently real because it relies on a conspiracy between the eyes and certain physical conditions. When the conditions that brought it into being dissolve�as they do�it ceases to exist. The practice of discrimination is a sure way out of samsara assuming it is supported by the following qualities.

A Dispassionate Mind

A healthy mind is an objective, dispassionate mind, one willing to abandon sense indulgences, emotional passions and intellectual beliefs for the sake of peace. Inquiry works best in a peaceful mind, although it should be practiced at all times, particularly when the mind is disturbed. Every disturbance should be seen as a statement from the Self that your attention is not where it should be. Born of the observation of the defects inherent in samsara, a dispassionate individual sins intelligently, walking the tightrope between attraction and aversion, indulgence and abstinence. When indulgence causes attachment, it withdraws the senses. When abstinence causes cravings that cannot be renounced, it judiciously allows contact with the objects until attachment develops. Both unfettered indulgence and fanatical abstinence produce emotional turbulence and hinder inquiry. A dispassionate mind is not an indifferent, cold mind. It enjoys an ironic, humorous ho-hum indifference toward itself and the world. Usually this qualification is listed after discrimination because dispassion happens naturally when you understand samsaric pleasures fail to deliver what they purport to deliver.

Part II

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012