Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

A Critique Of John Wheeler’s “You Were Never Born”
Dr. Vemuri Ramesam

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The following is a review of the book 'You Were Never Born' by John Wheeler.

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I felt truly humbled and very fulfilled reading John’s book, "You Were Never Born" (Non-Duality Press, 2007, pp: 260, ISBN: 978-0-9553999-2-3). 

“You Were Never Born” begins with about 25 pages on the basics of John’s approach to Advaita philosophy and proceeds to present 77 dialogues (chiefly e-mail correspondences) with seekers. At the very end is a very candid interview given to a Dzogchen Practitioner. I am amazed at the humility of his stance, clarity in expression and his ability to hold the questioner's feet firmly on the ground while demystifying Advaita, but in the same breath conveying, in simple straight forward terms, the great Gaudapada's highest philosophy of 'ajativada' (Karika III-48). John is not condescending in his responses to the questions nor does he adopt a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. No mumbo jumbo either. He exposes in his dialogs a missed dimension in the Questioner’s perspective and patiently deconstructs our usually taken-for-granted worldview. One is reminded of the depth of Ashtavakra Gita (I-12) in his replies.

The dialogs # 52 (“Objects Appear, But You Exist”) at p: 145 - 148 and # 68 (“The Simplicity of Presence-Awareness”) at p: 185 are key essays and perhaps could have been at the head of the Book. They constitute the heart of the matter.

What To Do:

John doesn’t go with the radical positions adopted by some of the Non-Dualists who say that there is nothing that can be done, as “there is no one to do anything.” He is categorical that he would never say that. He questions, “If there is nothing to do to end seeking and suffering, why talk about all this?” (P: 97). Similar views are repeatedly expressed in the book.

Richard, a pen friend of mine sent the other day a link to Mr. David Godman’s blog on What To Do?

I quote from the above link:

“When the Guru says, ‘You are the Self, you are Brahman,’ the disciple often responds by saying, ‘Yes, I understand, but what do I do to attain it? How do I discover this for myself?’

The asking of such a question means that the disciple thinks that Brahman is something he should become, through effort, rather than something that he already is. The assumption implicit in this world-view is the premise behind all sadhana.”

To this Ramana Maharshi’s response was:

“He who instructs an ardent seeker to do this or that is not a true master. The seeker is already afflicted by his activities and wants peace and rest. In other words, he wants cessation of his activities. Instead of that he is told to do something in addition to, or in place of, his other activities. Can that be a help to the seeker?

Activity is creation; activity is the destruction of one’s inherent happiness. If activity be advocated the adviser is not a master but the killer. Either the Creator (Brahma) or Death (Yama) may be said to have come in the guise of such a master. He cannot liberate the aspirant but strengthens his fetters. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 601.)”

John too does not advocate any ‘method’ as all methods do deflect the individual from focusing on that which really makes one ‘aware.’ He desists from recommending even reading his books. But he also does not leave the seeker in a vacuum while he himself talks from the position of ultimate Oneness. He holds his hand and unwearyingly guides him to be ‘aware’ of that very background which gives him the undeniable fact of ‘presence and awareness’ the twin principles of ‘existence – knowledge’, which the Upanishadic teachings point out. He suggests a variety of pointers to bring the gaze of the seeker on track from a misfocus on worldliness or a “me”. His standard comment is “You have to be present to be ‘aware.’ You have to be aware to be ‘present’. So the ‘presence-awareness’ is undeniable.” What he suggests is to continue questioning all that appears as a physical or mental object until you are aware of your awareness and nothing else remains with a subject-object differentiation. That is same as the Drik (Potent-Looker) state beyond triputi in Vedantic argot.

There is no glorification of advaita or statements misleading the reader with false hopes of redeeming one from worldly problems of hunger, penury etc.  While physical pain and sorrow are admittedly unavoidable in the relative world, 'advaita' can free the individual from 'psychological suffering'.  ‘Psychological suffering’ for him is “emotional turbulence, doubts, worries, fears, concern about ‘myself’, what people think of ‘me’, the feeling of being a separate individual etc.” (p: 245). The key is about one's shifting the focus from a memory-based fictitious ‘persona’ of autobiographical 'self' to that very  'awareness' which 'awares' (for lack of a better word) within oneself. 

John’s statements like "I am an advocate of taking appropriate relative steps. The same goes with medical issues, job issues and so on." (p: 178) and “Appearances are meaningful at the level at which they appear. Engage in them and make use of them at the appropriate level. There can still be a relative enjoyment and interest in things.” (p: 188) clearly indicate an unambiguous pointer to guide us in our daily life at transactional level pertaining to matters in the mundane world. At the same time, his profound words like "At this point you can dispense with making a division between thoughts and awareness" (p: 183) transport the reader (or what remains) to sublime unseparating "Oneness." The book abounds in many quotable gems, each with its own flavor and uniqueness of appeal to individual spiritual aspirants.

Snake – Rope Classic Advaita Metaphor:

“From ignorance of oneself, the world appears, and by knowledge of oneself it appears no longer. From ignorance of the rope a snake appears, and by knowledge of the rope the snake appears no longer”, says Ashtavakra Gita (II-7) using the classic and well-known snake metaphor to denote the apparent world. Aparokshanubhuti (Verse 96) too holds that “the substratum being known, the phenomenal world disappears completely.” However, John is more realistic. He thinks that the metaphor of a mirage, which continues to appear even after it is known that it doesn’t contain any water, more appropriately describes the position of a Jivanmukta (vide his e-mail of April 8, 2008 to me). He explains adding, “As long as there are sense organs, mind, consciousness, etc., in working order, the appearance will be there. The whole purpose of questioning the reality of the appearance is to dismantle the fixation on it and identification with it, not to deny that sheer fact that an appearance happens.”

‘Nothing’ From A Guru:

John’s clarifications that come out during the interview with the Buddhist Practitioner given in the Addendum are an icing on the cake. It stands out in brilliance softly illuminating any remaining dark patches of confusion in the mind of the reader. John expresses himself and his own past struggles to understand Truth with child-like innocence but the understanding of a complete sage. He describes vividly his own thoughts and feelings before he met “Sailor” Bob Adamson who helped him to demolish the “me” in him. He rightly sums up, “Even though I got nothing from “Sailor” Bob, I will be forever grateful for that nothing” (p: 255 – italics mine). There is truly nothing that Guru can give!

Continuing Questions:

Advaita doesn't explain the why or how questions re: the appearance of phenomenal cause-effect relational world or modifications thereof (except through ‘unfalsifiable’ explanations which are no more than ‘concepts’ within the mind); or the variety of widely contrasting disparities in skills in individuals or their differing ‘pains’. There is a mathematical precision and order in everything – whether it is nucleosynthesis in a star or the working of a molecule in DNA. John says that pain exists in nature. He talks of “inexorable law[s]” like death of what is born etc. Whose laws are they? Why should they be there in the first place? We have no answers for such questions even from Sages like Shri Nisargadatta Maharaj.

We do not know as on date, but science searches these issues and continues to do so, constantly verifying, crosschecking and modifying itself. The way Science is progressing, it does not merely deal with material things any more.  It has entered the traditional terrains of philosophy probing issues concerned with 'consciousness', 'self', 'awareness' etc.  

Science has been able to tease out the neuronal working during the states of wakeful, dream and deep sleep conditions of brain.   These states are more tangibly understood and dreams are not that much an enigma as they were even ten years ago, though the last word is still to emerge.  We can, however, see that the non-existent world of 'dreams' does leave its footprint in the brain (in form of spindles waves) of a man sleeping in the relative phenomenal world.   

It is also known now that the medial prefrontal cortex (MPF – behind the eyes) has a set of neurons that function as a gateway in processing the autobiographical memories giving rise to a sense of ‘self’ and there may not be a single ‘spot’ within the brain as self. We derive a sense of self from:

  • Continuity: of my self and personality in time
  • Coherence: my self is one though the thoughts and experiences are varied
  • Ownership: I own a body
  • Doership: I decide to do or not to do.

The above four characteristics are helpful to the organism (mind-body) in self-preservation and propagation. This device of an identity as ‘self’ has been useful to the organism in constantly assessing its environment and to read the ‘minds’ of others for its own survival in the wilderness, particularly under circumstances of ‘unpredictable futures.’ In the millennia of years of its struggle for existence, the organism has learnt newer and newer tactics of survival which it piled layer by layer in its neuronal system without deleting the older versions. As a result, it is a ‘kludge’, a rough contraption poorly designed but workable for the moment that has developed. We now call it ‘mind’ and find it totally unsuited to the present living conditions of security and social relationships. In terms of group living, the ancient hardware that is existing as brain whose neurons stacked all the past experiences in their own code is found today not only inconvenient but downright detrimental for our living as a harmonious society. What has taken millions of years to build cannot be undone in a day.

Neuroscientists are now understanding how neurons code information, how memories are stored and how they work as networks and singly and what set of them produce the sense of ‘self’. A ‘Jivanmukta’ that transcends the use of the ‘self’ node in the brain and clearly lives with a shift in ‘focus’ without calling into action the networks of neurons that direct his/her functioning from ‘self’ node may be functioning using a distinctly different node of neuronal networks. Let us call it the node of “Universal Self.” A day may come, hopefully, when the possible signature of "Universal Self Of Oneness" node too could be found in the brain! Then everyone may know the way to shift ‘focus’ from the troublesome ‘self’-node to that of ‘Awareness’-node while still functioning in the world that appears as a mirage, as John says.

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012