Self-inquiry: the Personal and the Impersonal

Self-inquiry: the Personal and the Impersonal

What follows is an excerpt from Part I: Personal Inquiry in Swami Shankarananda’s book “Self-inquiry: Using your awareness to unblock your life. His method of Self-inquiry bridges the gap between the inner and outer worlds. Swamiji teaches that when our lives are blocked or confusing we can investigate, recognise and uplift the tension and stress that shows up in four chakras. If practiced with the intention to become free of negative emotion, there will be a return to peace and harmony. 

All paths end in inquiry. Why not pursue inquiry from the beginning?
Sri Ramana Maharshi

Real inquiry marries the head and heart. Thought, which has been wandering in its own bloodless world, feeding on itself, is connected to feeling. And like two wires touched together, a spark of energy occurs. Inquiry is also the conjunction of the personal and impersonal. The ancient yogic paths emphasised the impersonal. They insisted that this world does not exist and you are not a separate person.

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Swamiji speaking at a program.

In Indian culture, you are expected to fit into your particular role in life, your caste, your stage of life. You are to do your duty and any deviation is tantamount to insanity. The single social option to the non-conformist is the possibility of renouncing the world and heading off to the Himalayas to be a wandering monk.

In the West, on the contrary, we hear everywhere the cry, ‘What about me?’ We are obsessed with our individuality and our individual expression. The West is totally focused on the person. In India, the yoga is impersonal, connected to the highest truth, caring little for the person. One must maintain an appropriate silence about personal problems and simply do sadhana and one’s duty.

Yoga says that within each person, in the subtle body, are seven yogic centres, seven chakras, which have to do with different aspects of life. The three lower chakras govern the physical life; the heart chakra is the locus of emotional life; the fifth chakra, in the throat,has to do with communication; the third eye, the sixth chakra, is the place of intellect and higher wisdom. Here we have insights and visions but we are still within the personal realm. When you go beyond the sixth chakra to the seventh, at the crown of the head, you contact a different aspect of yourself. It is transpersonal; the dimension of the impersonal Self.

Western psychology was traditionally unaware of this dimension. In the past 30 years, however, a ‘transpersonal psychology’ has developed, acknowledging that divine, impersonal aspect. Jung knew of it but Freud did not. It exists within all of us, represented by the seventh chakra. What should we make of this knowledge of a higher reality? The first impulse is to try to override the person with the impersonal. A noble goal, but significantly difficult to attain. I tried to achieve it: I threw myself on the altar of impersonality again and again. Each time, the person returned. That the higher power does exist is beyond doubt, but the mystical play between the personal and impersonal has to be discovered.

My Guru seemed to me to be a man who was in cosmic awareness. He was always connected to the Self, and never unconnected. Yet, he was also very much a person. He wasn’t like some of the mind-borne ‘holy men’: ‘Hello my son, at last you have come . . .’ He wasn’t like that at all. He was completely vibrant and immediate and totally himself—to an alarming degree, in fact. He was a unique combination of the personal and the impersonal. He was a force of nature, all right. Like a stone rolling down a hill, and loving it.

Self-inquiry connects the personal with the impersonal. It respects the person. It doesn’t try to kill the person, but it also acknowledges the transpersonal. It seeks connectedness so that the person flowers within the impersonal and discovers the impersonal within. A life without the impersonal is dry and empty. You want the universe to flow towards your personal advantage, but, alas, the universe is indifferent. What chance does the poor little person have? The whole universe is arranged to frustrate or be indifferent to your desires. There is no joy in being merely a person.

You are so blinded by what is personal,
that you do not see the 
universal.
The blindness will not end by itself—
it must be 
undone skillfully and deliberately.
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

Sometimes we feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. It might be a political movement, or even a crowd cheering for a team at a football game. It is a rewarding and liberating feeling. Our individuality dissolves in the group, and, at the same time, participates actively. But when the event is over or we leave the group for some reason, we feel a kind of loss—we’ve returned to the merely personal. Such an experience is only temporary, but it is a taste of something real and intrinsic to our true Self. We are actually part of something greater, and when we live in harmony with it, our stress and fear fade away.

Through the process of inquiry, we recognise the dynamism running through us. We become liberated from doubt and concern when we no longer try to hold the universe at bay, but surrender to it, and welcome it. Our actions become effective and powerful, because they are aligned with this great impersonal process. And we have the delightful experience of playing our part in a larger drama.

Self-inquiry seeks to unblock all areas of life: health, career, relationship and spirituality.

Some more thoughts on Self-inquiry:

  • Blocks are tensions in our inner world.
  • Desire and fear create blocks.
  • There is one subject and many objects.
  • First force initiates, second force resists, third force enables.
  • Second force as blocked inner feeling is the main focus of inquiry.
  • Right method increases third force.
  • Self-inquiry harmonises our thinking, feeling and doing.
  • Wisdom power is where thought and feeling merge.
  • Everything undergoes five processes: creation, sustainment, dissolution, concealment and grace.
  • Concealment is the universal principle of separation.
  • Grace is the universal principle of oneness.
  • Our encounters in life are marked by emotion.
  • Our negative reactions are stored inside and may reappear later.
  • A yogi burns negative reactions to sameness with Consciousness.
  • Truth has a feeling of harmony and peace.
  • Self-inquiry is the main instrument in the wisdom path, yet it includes devotion.
  • Shiva Process Self-inquiry focuses on the higher Self.
  • Emotions are starting points for inquiry.

I Love God

I Love God

The heart of Mira is entangled in the beauty of her Guru’s feet; 
Nothing else causes her delight! 
He made her happy in the drama of the world; 
His knowledge dried up the Ocean of being and becoming. 
Mira says: My whole world is Shri Krishna; 
Now that my gaze is turned inward, I see it clearly.

Mirabai

When I was around eight a friend that I often played with on the weekends asked me if I believed in God, and I told her that I didn’t know because I wasn’t sure what God was. She told me that God was love and that He loved everyone. Her conviction awoke a curiosity in me.

I asked her where He lived and she said that He was in heaven and pointed to the above sky. I looked up trying to imagine where exactly in the sky God lived and what he looked like. As young as I was it seemed unlikely that he lived up there, but on the other hand it was likely there was a place where he did live. She said that God was also in her church and that if I wanted to meet Him I could come to church with her and her family but that I had to ask my parents.

God
Is God in the sky I wondered?

One Sunday morning I crept into my parents’ bedroom and woke my mother. I asked her if I could go to church with my friend and she groggily mumbled yes.

There was a subtle current of anticipation as I thought about meeting God. When we arrived at the church all the children were ushered into a classroom very much like a school room. My friend told me that children were not allowed to hear the sermon by the minister.

We sat at children’s desks while a young woman talked to us about Jesus, sinners, evil and saving lost souls. I could not grasp how children could be sinful or evil. I felt myself recoil as my mind drifted away from her voice. I fantasised a God that was different from her version, different from the ordinary. When I thought about how God might be for me, I imagined Him to be bright and loving, but mostly magical.

When I got home I asked my mother what religion we were and she told me that we were Presbyterian. I asked her why we did not go to church. She said that she did not go to church when she was a child either.

‘Your grandmother was an Orange woman and hated Catholics’.

I was not sure what this meant, but I realised I was not going to get an understanding about God from my parents. I thought they knew less about God than my young friend and so I put aside my questions. When I went to play with my friend the next time her mother came to the door and told me she could not play with me again. I only saw her from a distance and I felt sad for her.

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Everything is Consciousness according to Kashmir Shaivism. This too is God.

From then on I would occasionally wonder about God’s existence. I asked my girlfriends if they went to church but none of them did, nor did their parents. I wondered why some families believed in God and some did not. And then one of them told me that people who did not believe in God were called ‘atheists’ and people who did not know whether God existed or not were called ‘agnostics’. I put myself in the category of agnostic because I was aware that some part of me wanted to believe that God existed.

The first time I felt God was the first time I met Baba Muktananda. In his company I had my first meditation experience, a profound and deep knowing of the Self. In hindsight I realised that I had had a God experience. As I meditated over the years, love for God grew in me, as did love of mankind, love for the Guru and love of Self.

The other night in the Mother’s day Satsang Guruji was teaching from Anandamayi Ma. As he was speaking I felt myself sinking into meditation. Then I vaguely heard him say my name. He was calling on me because I was supposed to lead the meditation by reading from Mirabai’s poems.

‘Oh my God,’ I said as I returned to consciousness, ‘I was so deep’. I was aware all eyes were on me but was unselfconscious because I was still in meditation. If the person sitting behind me hadn’t poked me I would not have come out of it. Forty-five minutes had passed and I had missed Guruji’s whole talk.

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Meditation is a gift from God.

It is difficult to describe the state I had been in. Yes, it was nirvikalpa samadhi, but deeper than I had ever felt. Yes, it was like deep sleep, but somehow deeper and darker and more peaceful. I didn’t know that was even possible. Yes, it was like a death experience, but comforting and warm, safe and indescribably delicious. It was the deepest state of samadhi I had ever experienced. It was total absorption in the depth of my being.

God had embraced me, held me, rocked me, loved me, healed me, and He then threw me back to the world with a deeper connection to myself. I knew that it was nirvikalpa samadhi but it was extraordinary samadhi.

I was wondering where my consciousness had gone. I found a Wikipedia article on nirvikalpa samadhi as described in Raja Yoga:

Nirvikalpa samadhi, on the other hand, absorption without self-consciousness, is a mergence of the mental activity in the Self, to such a degree, or in such a way, that the distinction of knower, act of knowing, and object known becomes dissolved — as waves vanish in water, and as foam vanishes into the sea.

This probably comes closest to what I experienced. Then another definition by Swami Shivananda:

All the seeds or impressions are burnt by the fire of knowledge. All thought forms which bring on rebirth are totally freed up.

All mental modifications that arise from the mind-lake come under restraint. The five afflictions: ignorance, egoism, love, hatred and clinging to life are destroyed and the bonds of Karma are annihilated.

It gives deliverance from the wheel of births and deaths.

I was free from all thoughts and afflictions but I am not sure about ‘deliverance from rebirth’. Nor is that an issue for me; I am not averse to rebirth. An astrologer told me some years ago that my chart indicated that I had made a vow to come back.

I would not know how to achieve that deep state again. It was not by any effort I made in the moment that caused it. It was God’s grace. As the experience fades the memory lingers in my mind as a possibility, a potential that is within me. A part of me is still connected to that space, like an anchor that holds a ship steady in the rocky ocean. I am left in awe of that small miracle that brought me the magic of such deep meditation and peace.

I Am A Disciple

I Am A Disciple

One Christmas when I was around fifteen I was watching a movie about the life of Jesus. I was terrified and shocked by the crucifixion and the horror people could perpetrate. But I was also in awe of the disciples. As I watched a scene in which a disciple spoke of his devotion to Christ I was moved to tears. ‘Too bad,’ I thought, ‘that a relationship like that isn’t possible today. I would like to have that experience. I would like to be a disciple.’

Many years later when I met my Guru I was overjoyed to discover that discipleship was still available. I understood that Jesus was a Guru and that Gurus exist now and will exist always.

The love of a disciple for the master is beautiful, vulnerable and poignant. A disciple who has surrendered to the Guru is naked. A disciple offers their ego to the Guru to banish individuality and to lay bare the darkest secrets of his or her psyche. The desires to remain an individual, to do well, to have approval, to be loved and accepted, to be first among many, must die.

Once before God, before the Guru,  I was riding the bus downtown. As I sat there, I was aware of an ache in my heart. I looked around at the passengers wondering if their hearts also ached. As I watched them the veil between me and them faded. I could see suffering etched on their faces, masks of ugly pain. It was as though every hurtful event had left deep emotional scars. The past somehow doomed them to misery.

The vision scared me. I wondered, ‘is there a way to escape the pain of life? Is there a way to be happy? Is that going to happen to me? Is suffering going to scar me? What is the purpose of all this? What does life mean?’

Some kind of discipleship is necessary if we are going to learn anything. As children we disciple ourselves to our parents, to our teachers, and to our friends. I loved horseback riding and became a kind of disciple to my teacher, whom I loved very much. I could not find that same love or feeling in school.

By the time I could read and write I had lost what little enjoyment I found in school. My mind rebelled against using my intellect. Language was the only subject I liked because it came easily. Nothing the teachers said gave me a sense of purpose, love or self-knowledge. I was bored and the teachers seemed as uninspired as I was.

My mind wandered into gloomy feelings of doubt, disappointment and frustration.  If a subject had interested me then I would have applied myself. But none did. Instead my mind dwelt on the psychic discomfort in my inner world. And, there was no subject to address it.

Disciples, on the other hand, mostly learn by osmosis, by watching and observing the Guru, by being in the Guru’s company and by soaking up the spiritual energy, the Shakti.

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Waving the lights in Satsang at the Mount Eliza Ashram.

I love to learn at the feet of the Guru. To sit with fellow devotees in Satsang and hear the teachings on the Self, the Shakti, the Guru, and other spiritual matters is sublime. Satsang is the best company. Satsang never fails to uplift, is never dull, and always inspirational.

Studying and learning with Guruji however, is joyful, especially if the subject is Kashmir Shaivism. There is an inherent aliveness in Shaivite texts. But even Patanjali and Vedanta are pleasurable. Guruji has always taught from esoteric yogic texts with humour and warmth. He had the capacity to make clear the hidden meaning in the aphorisms. He fields questions with sensitivity and wisdom; he invites discussion, objections and skepticism.

When I first started studying these texts with him I was surprised that I could understand even the most mysterious ones. Naturally I have my own quirky way of relating to them. But that is the greatness of learning with the Guru. A wise teacher will encourage a student to take what makes sense, and discard what doesn’t. When learning with the Guru I feel the presence of God and the meaning becomes clear.

In his book Satsang with Baba, Baba said:

The Guru’s feet refer to the Being in whom the Guru stands rooted, and that Being is the Supreme Being, and that Being is the highest truth. The source of worship is the state of the inner centre in which the mind completely merges in meditation. The water of the Guru’s feet flows from the Guru to the disciple. When one attains the state beyond the distinction of you and me, beyond the distinction of mine and thine, outer and inner, Guru and disciple, then one can drink this nectar, the water of Guru’s feet.

Baba goes on to say that when a disciple merges with the Guru principle he or she becomes one with the source of stability, where the Guru’s Consciousness is anchored. That is worship, that is the source of love, that is oneness with the divine.

A disciple of a Hassidic master said:

‘I don’t come to listen to him speak, I come to watch him tie his shoe laces.’

I go to soak up Guru’s grace.

Sitting with the Guru is darshan. In darshan an alchemical synergy flows between the Guru and the disciple. It is a more intimate experience of Satsang. Like Satsang, it ignites the experience of God, the Self, and divine love. Shakti moves between guru and disciple in a Tantric flow of blissful energy. The Guru transmits grace and the disciple receives grace. This is the experience available to us when we sit with a true Guru.

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Baba on his perch.

Once in Baba’s Ganeshpuri ashram in the early morning I was working in the courtyard. My shift finished and I sat to meditate. Baba was sitting on his perch. His perch was like a shelf, with room only for him, some precious photos, his peacock feathers, some statues and other gifts to give away. He routinely sat here. Managers, devotees and ashramites would come and speak to him.

As soon as I sat the electric current of the Shakti moved between us. No words were necessary. I was one with him; he was my very own Self. People approached, spoke to him and walked away. These movements did not disturb the divinity that connected us. We were one being. The intimacy, love and acceptance was beautiful. I thought only about God and the present moment. I relished the love for about half an hour. Slowly as more people came my mind became distracted and I lost the thread. I still felt the connection but it was less intimate.

Sometimes darshan is divine but sometimes it can bring up the most painful and fearful thoughts and feelings. The Shakti moves to wash away negativity, blocks, all of the obstacles to the divine experience of darshan. It is painful if we let fear or desire get in the way.

Discipleship is not a career choice, it is a calling. To surrender to discipleship is a kind of self-acceptance, an acknowledgment of the yearning to know God. To deny the calling can cause unbearable pain. This yearning may make no sense from a worldly point of view. It only makes sense from an inner point of view.

Baba once said that a worthy disciple is one who becomes absorbed in the Guru. A good disciple merges with the Guru’s highest state of Consciousness, and eventually attains permanent oneness with the Self. This is my goal in life–to know God, to be close to God and to serve God.

I haven’t always been the most compliant disciple, or the best disciple or perhaps the most worthy. But, I am a disciple and, God willing, I shall always remain one.