This entry often deals with things that are beyond the reach of words, even beyond the realm of thought, and thus the mind itself. They are states which can only be experienced; there is no subject-object relationship, thus no observation or examination, in the usual manner. I shall endeavour to be as precise as possible, yet the use of metaphor, analogy, allegory, and other poetic devices will be inevitable; as will the deployment of Sanskrit terms. As many have observed, Sanskrit, with its compound words and personification of inner states, seems to be a language specifically devised to deal with issues of the soul and consciousness, of life’s quintessential reality. I shall explain the Sanskrit to the best of my ability, but the reader must be aware that all translations are imprecise, often unable to convey the root forms of words, and thus losing deeper resonances carried within them.
Here we go:
In my last entry we arrived at a point where I had begun to study and practice Buddhist forms of meditation and philosophy, setting aside the Yogic method into which I had been initiated nearly 40 years earlier. What is the difference?
Perhaps I can best summarize it like this: the Yogic idea runs, you are aware of your body, therefore you are not your body; you are aware of your thoughts, therefore you are not your thoughts; you are aware of your mind, though not in sleep, therefore you are not your mind. What you call a ‘self’ is merely a collection of disjointed memories, shifting emotions and ever-changing ideas; this does not amount to a self. The real self is unchanging, does not act, but is merely a witness of actions, feelings, and the rest. True reality, the Self, or God, the Yogi would say, is Sat Chit Ananda, which can be rendered as ‘Existence, Consciousness and Bliss’. When the Witness witnesses this state, he or she has achieved moksha, or ‘Liberation.’
Now, the Buddhist teaching closely follows this same form of self-inquiry, but the Buddha adds, You are not the Witness either. So where does this leave you? The disconcerting conclusion can easily be that there is no ‘you’. One translation of the term Nirvana, a stated goal of Buddhist practice, is ‘blown out’, or, in other words, snuffed, ceasing to exist. Nothingness and non-being are terms that frequently seem used where others might use ‘God’. Most people know that the Buddha’s first Noble Truth is that All life is suffering; but few are aware that ‘suffering’ is more accurately translated as ‘unsatisfactory’. This makes the teaching far more comprehensible, since we have all experienced the fulfillment of desires and ambitions, no matter how great or small, as anti-climatic, nothing like they promised to be. Watching a child after all the Christmas presents have been unwrapped sums this up succinctly. We come to learn that desire is like an itch: scratching appears to relieve it, yet in fact only makes it worse. No one ever has enough of anything until he or she learns the truth that enough is in fact enough. In our culture, all too often, enough is defined as ‘too much’. The fact that we will all die cannot be termed suffering, although it may entail some, so much as an unsatisfactory ending to all our endeavours. Besides, no one believes they will die – a globally ubiquitous notion, pointing, surely, to something fundamental in the human psyche? In the Bhagavad Gita (Song of God), the god Krishna tells his friend and devotee, Arjuna, on the eve of a great battle, that the soul is never born, thus it cannot die, simply moving from body to body in a ceaseless round of reincarnations, whose purpose is that the jiva (analogous to our ‘ego’) will come to realise that its sense of separation from God is an illusion, thus it is itself an illusion; at which point it merges into the divinity, its existence and consciousness acquiring the bliss which is its true nature. A common image is that of the water droplet falling into an ocean: although it is now no different from the ocean, does it still not continue to exist? [Don’t apply molecular biology to metaphors]. In Sanskrit, another word for the individual soul is Atman, whose relationship to another word for God, Paramatman’, is irreducibly precise.
Hinduism, in its subtlety, complexity, generosity of spirit, and sheer breadth of scope makes all other religions pale by comparison. Yet it is not really a religion itself, so much as a portal into ways of experiencing the divine. These ways range from selfless work (karma yoga), through worship of a symbol or divinity (bhakti), to intensive meditation on the nature of the Self (advaita, or ‘non-dualism’, which is not monotheism at all, acknowledging that everything in the universe is one, and this One is God). This latter form most closely resembles Buddhism, yet it can also employ in its doctrines the Hindu myths and metaphors in order to illustrate points impervious to language. Non-dualism, which is purely experiential, without dogma, theology or ideology, is a hard path to follow for most, yet its freedom from religious trappings gives it a wider appeal to those who find their inherited religions lacking in essential substance. I will explain, in a later entry, and with extensive quotations, why I find the Indian philosophy, or spiritual science, by far the most profoundly wise yet pragmatic guide to self-realization the world has ever known, and the probable source of all human civilization.
Now to my own experiences with Buddhist teachings as revamped by contemporary Western ‘gurus’, and even by transplanted Eastern ones.
What is the purpose of meditation? It is, essentially, a way of stilling the mind by attempting to hold its activities to one single thought alone. This thought can range, depending on the practitioners’ preferences, from a sacred word or phrase, through sacred images, of divine beings, or symbolic objects and art works, all the way to focusing exclusively on one’s breath, or even on a blank white wall. No technique is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, though some may be better suited to one person than another. But why reduce the mind’s activities to one thought? The scoffers deride this process, saying that the mind is designed to think its thoughts. This is perfectly true, yet it rarely performs this function at our instigation. Everyone has the experience of having one idea embark on an associative chain of memories, fears, worries, and so on, ending up in some irrelevancy and then wondering how one arrived there, sometimes able to retrace the chain, sometimes not. What this ought to make apparent is that there has been thought, yet no thinker. The random chain of thought has generated itself. This is not the same as directing the mind to perform a function, like write, or solve an equation in algebra. Holding the mind to one thought, contrary to the skeptic view, sharpens its ability to be a tool of the will, rather than stultifying it. Yet this one-pointedness is only an initial stage of real meditation, and is usually termed ‘concentration’. True meditation itself only proceeds once the rippling thoughts have been entirely stilled, and, in William Blake’s words, the doors of perception have been cleansed. Then, he says, everything will appear as it really is: infinite. Let us try to understand what mystics mean when they declare that the world is an illusion. In dreams, we can create whole cities, landscapes and people, often in great detail. Yet upon awakening we no longer think that these dream creations are real. The world we do regard as real, however, is perceived as so purely from the sense perceptions processed by our brain. Someone born with no sensory organs – no sight, smell, touch, taste or hearing – would still exist. But where would they exist? Their universe would lack every quality by which we define our own: no shape or dimension, no solidity, no up or down, no time or space, and no good or evil. Thus, a reality exists independent of brain and mind, of subject and object. Consciousness is that reality, and deep meditation takes one into this consciousness, which is seen to permeate everything that exists, binding stars to atoms, and the individual self to a single Self. This Self, within all yet beyond all, is what we call God. “I and my Father are one,” says Jesus. “Everything that lives is holy,” declares Blake. One could quote from all faiths the same message, which is the sole Truth: that the universe is a unity, the consciousness of its Creator within every particle of it. Asked to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot, the sage Hillel said, “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” Because there are no ‘others’ when all is one. Is there a form or character of this divinity? Asked his name by Moses, God says simply, “I am that I am” [which can be translated also as “I am that I will be”, the Hebrew tense in some manuscripts being uncertain]. Questions such as why suffering exists, or why babies die, cease to be asked when the doors of perception are cleansed. Since deep-state reality shows that death is an illusion, causes create effects, and, to quote Shakespeare, there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. When the mind is controlled it makes a wonderful servant, but, as Plato observed, is usually like a ship on which the crew has mutinied, killing the captain and pilot, and unable to navigate any course, blown hither and thither at the mercy of capricious winds. It is thus essential to keep our captain and pilot in control. For the world and nature are not what we want them to be, and nor is life. We are not apart from nature, we are of nature, and must see its processes as they really are, not as we would wish them to be. Nature devours itself, life feeds upon life – and this is the reality in which we must learn to place ourselves in order to be fully alive. Only an awareness of pure consciousness can enable us to do this. And the various forms of Yoga are the only tools for achieving that goal. This is why I meditate, but the practice is not without its dangers.
In changing from my old practice of concentrating on an image and the repetition of mantra, I began various Zen Buddhist methods, mainly breath-control and a focus on emptying the mind of any image or concept. The goal was a state of no-mind, or emptiness, a journey towards something called Nothing.
One day, deep into a state where my only consciousness was of breath going in and coming out, I began to forget about the ‘I’ witnessing this activity altogether. I started to feel as if falling through endless space, a space in which there was nothing at all, and where my fall would continue for all time. The bottom dropped out of my plexus, just as it does when a rollercoaster begins its descent; yet this rollercoaster had no ascending phase. It only plunged on down into nowhere. It was an indescribably terrifying feeling; not like the ego-death of an LSD experience – which you have been taught to expect, and is followed by a simulacrum of bliss – but like an utter eradication, a dissolution into the Nothingness of which everything seemed composed. No light, no love, no union with an ineffable, no meaning, no purpose, no wisdom, no compassion: just Nothing. Surely this was not the state of emptiness to which people aspired and devoted thousands of hours in rigorous practices? It was when this thought arrived that I realized a witness had returned; there was still an ‘I’. Forcing my mind to resist its own emptiness, I repeated my old mantra, and prayed to all I held sacred to restore me to this world of illusion. Quite suddenly, the nightmare descent ended, and I was back in my familiar room, seeing it with new eyes, no matter how blurred and faulty they were, and with love. The clock told me four hours had passed since my sitting had begun. But time had meant nothing in that void. I wished dearly that I had a teacher or guru from whom to seek guidance on this experience, but I had no one any more, at least not on a physical plane. I had only my audio books, which I now reviewed carefully, finding that many warned readers of practicing deep meditation without a teacher. There were snares and traps unknown to normal consciousness, and only someone aware of such menaces could advise the student about dealing with them. Were these states, I wondered, the Dark Night of the Soul, or the Valley of the Shadow of Death? But little is written about them, largely because meditation techniques are taught under conditions of secrecy that no written text can provide; not because there is much to be secret about – apart from arcane practices that would be misunderstood by the casual reader, or, like certain arduous breath-control exercises, hazardous in the extreme without proper preparations and guidance – but because no student requires the same instructions as any other.
When next I sat in meditation, the fear of entering that void once more made the practice impossible. I felt the message being delivered was that I needed to wait, to purify myself, to create more order in the chaos that had, for so many years, comprised my life. I would listen to books, walk in the beauty of nature, restore my health, and pray. But I yearned also for work.
All I can really do is write, however, and, since writing is in fact actually rewriting, which entails reading, I feared that I would never be able to write again. I could scribble a first draft, but I could not read my handwriting, so the work could not progress beyond a stage too basic even to show anyone. Nabokov characterized showing first drafts as “dangling your sputum in the public’s face”. God forbid. My method of writing was always to go over and over a text until I could find no more to add or change. Sometimes 50 drafts, with more discarded than used. Even then, on reading a publisher’s galleys, I usually found my books unreadable. But I never had the luxury of being able to set aside a work for several months, then revise it again, refreshed by the space away from it. I wrote to deadlines and for money. It was prostitution in the name of mortgages, children, clothing, and all those things that flesh is heir to. I will never do that again, especially since big publishers are little better than criminals, exploiting writers shamelessly, their sales figures and accounting practices impossible to fathom, their costs far less than they pretend, the author’s share of profits a joke – since there never seem to be any profits. I now even find my books pirated in digital form, without my authorization or notification, by publishers whose contracts may have included ‘electronic rights’, yet were drafted long before the so-called E-Book existed, thus can hardly argue they own that right. Never have I received a statement from any publisher, except to say my advance is not yet earned out. Only once did the publisher of one of the world’s three major houses, who was also a close friend, tell me my book sales showed I had been heinously underpaid, by as much as six figures. He clearly had access to such inside information, as all publishers do, yet he was leaving the business in disgust, so placed little value on its secrets. He did not, however, tell me how to access the source.
Thus, bereft of God, unable to write, I faced a new life with trepidation, yet with hope, and faith. My next entry will be on this and the riches of Indian wisdom. And so I remain, as always, sincerely, Paul William Roberts.
Gods, Demons and Others by R.K. Narayan. A retelling of Hindu myths and legends by one of India’s greatest writers in English. Graham Greene hailed Narayan’s novels as masterpieces revealing the Indian soul more acutely than any other work in the language. Here, in the persona of an old village storyteller, he brings to vivid life the beauty, wisdom and subtlety of tales that have fueled and fired the Indian imagination for millennia. An education disguised thoroughly as superb entertainment. Indispensable.