“The truth that transcends the intellect will not be seen by means of the intellect. The point of non-action will not be reached by means of deliberate action. If you want to achieve the point of non-action transcending thought, sever the root of mind itself and rest in naked awareness!”
~ Tilopa, Mahamudra Upadesha
Meditation and self inquiry are actually two aspects of one path to Samadhi. In quantum physics light is seen as both wave and particle, depending on whether the observer is present. Similarly reality becomes more wave-like when the observer starts to merge into the observed in meditation. One experiences oneself as a free flow of sensation or inner energy as the observer merges with the observed. Or more precisely, there is actually no merging that happens but rather the illusion of separation falls away, or a higher (timeless) perspective is realized. This falling away can happen in progressive stages of meditative absorption, or awakening can happen in an instant. In Zen they say that at first a mountain appears to be a mountain. Then as one goes deeper it becomes clear that a mountain is no longer a mountain. Then upon realizing the final truth, a mountain is once again a mountain. When we observe gross physical reality single-pointedly without reaction, the wavelike ocean of prana is revealed. If we continue our inquiry, both solid form and wavelike energy are realized as identical to awareness itself. The mountain is once again a mountain, identical in every way to when you started. Yet in the final realization the mountain is not something separate from awareness; you are that.
If a meditator oscillates between gross material reality, and pranic or subtle states of consciousness, it is still a game within duality. In this game one might learn how to let go of gross physical reality, experiencing subtle inner energy which becomes free from running in conditioned patterns. On the flip side, the subtle energy state can change to gross reality again. One can experience one or the other, but not both simultaneously. In the double slit experiment in quantum physics we cannot observe the photon as a wave and particle simultaneously. For this to happen the observer would have to be both present and not present at the same time, which makes no sense from a time-bound linear perspective. Yet this is exactly what happens in Samadhi; the rigid time-bound observer disappears or lets go of its perpetual seeking of one state or another, and one awakens as the timeless awareness present everywhere and nowhere. The seer, the seeing and the seen are realized as one. The photon particle, wave and observer are realized as one.
“Like the sun behind the clouds, one’s true nature is always shining but is obscured by the clouds of mind.”
Whether we call our practice meditation or self inquiry, we begin in a state of dualistic separation and perceive a particle-like world of things which is generated by the limited mind. We observe a body made up of discrete parts upon which sensation, feeling, thought and phenomena arises, and our experience of life and self is filtered through this reducing valve. If we stay with whatever meditation object we are using (whether it is the breath, sensations, or awareness itself), not reacting to any sensation or phenomena that arises, then the process of jhana or meditative absorption continues until either one stops meditating, or the observer and observed are realized as one. The mind, which is always changing and becoming, always in motion, merges with or is revealed as pure awareness, which does not move or change. The dimension of stillness is not elsewhere, but inherent within and identical to mind.
Any meditation technique being employed is part of the conditioned mind, or part of the self structure and must eventually dissolve into non-doing. We always begin any practice (consciously or unconsciously) by working to dissolve the illusion of the limited self, otherwise we would already be in Samadhi and there would be no practice. We sever the root of the illusion by letting everything be as it is, without manipulating reality in any way, or responding to illusion. This takes both discipline to remain present with and penetrate into what is, and a capacity for inner surrender or non-resistance to what is as the practice unfolds at deeper and deeper levels. The ancient practices of tranquility and insight, samatha and vipassana, when seen from the perspective of the perennial teaching, are fundamental to all meditation techniques that serve to strip away identification with the self structure. Samatha can be practiced simultaneously with vipassana, and like two wings of a bird these two aspects of meditation, if in balance, carry one to Samadhi.
One gains deeper levels of meditative absorption when one is able to meditate/inquire for longer periods of time without reaction, without identifying with the phenomena that arises, remaining in an equanimous and tranquil state of presence. One perceives subtler and subtler sensory phenomena, subtler energies, until the senses become clear and transparent, flowing freely with prana, and the mind becomes purified of unconscious habit patterns, which are preferences of one sensation over another. In this way the illusion of the limited self loses its power and the clouds of the mind dissipate, revealing primordial awareness which was always already present.
“Meditating for a day on the meaning of the true
nature of things brings greater spiritual benefits than
hearing and examining the Dharma for many aeons.”
One can spend decades meditating using a conditioned technique and never realize one’s true nature if the self inquiry component is missing. If one is clinging to a meditation technique then the technique itself becomes a tether to the known. On the other hand if we only do self inquiry to reveal our true nature, the conditioned self structure will likely not be purified to its depths, because it is difficult/unlikely to reach the deepest sankaras without doing long periods of meditation. One might temporarily have awakening experiences as a result of self inquiry, but if the human vessel has not been purified at the root then the old conditioned patterns will return. Like a weed that has been cut only at the top, one’s delusion will grow back again. When either self inquiry or meditation is practiced deeply touching the root of craving and aversion, then each encompasses the other. When meditation and self inquiry become inseparably one, that is the practice that leads to Samadhi and liberating realization.
Some meditation systems (Buddhist, Yogic, Taoist) emphasize techniques such as observing the breath, and bringing awareness to bodily sensations, inner energy or thoughts. Others such as the nondual or self inquiry traditions (such as Vedanta, Dzogchen, Zen and Mahamudra) emphasize letting go of all conditioned techniques and resting as awareness itself. So which doorway to use?
Both doorways lead to the one Samadhi.
The great illusion within duality is that there are in fact two doorways, when the truth is that meditation and self inquiry are two ends of one continuum. The continuum is the human experience through time, from consciousness identified on the gross physical level, to the subtle aspects of energy and mind, to causal awareness. Most people don’t do either meditation or self inquiry deeply enough or long enough to realize them as one (to realize Samadhi). If you practice long enough, there is a process of meditative absorption or “jhana” that happens, as the meditator merges with the meditation object. The word jhana is the same word as “dhyana” in sanskrit, which the 7th limb of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga. It is the same word as “Zen” and “Chan” within those traditions which are named for it. The Buddha describes his night of enlightenment:
“Tireless energy was aroused in me and unrelenting mindfulness was established, my body was tranquil and untroubled, my mind concentrated and unified. Quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, I entered upon and abided in the first jhana . . . the second jhana . . . the third jhana . . . and the fourth jhana.” ~The Samannaphala Sutta
When the alchemy of jhana happens the technique falls away as you lose yourself into the meditation object and move from an experience of gross reality to experiencing the pranic field and subtle layers of maya or self, to realizing the causal emptiness of consciousness which is inseparable from the other layers. If you are able to remain non-reactive to any state that unfolds, then you will be in the optimal state for the pranic field or Buddha-mind to self-awaken and for the great reality to be revealed. Similarly if you inquire deeply enough into the Self, the hidden sankaras/ samskaras (unconscious conditioned habit patterns) will start to rise from the depths, and the self structure has the opportunity to be purified of them by remaining equanimous with what is without resistance.
If you are looking for guidance in this process, the Samadhi meditation series (available for free) starts with techniques and then gradually moves toward less and less doing, until one reaches the still point where there is simply presence of the immanent Self or selfless-self. “Still point” is not the right description, but rather it is more of a dynamic stillness or pregnant emptiness; a non-dual plenum that transcends opposites. One comes to a place of pure choiceless awareness, the ground of one’s being, or natural state unmediated by a limited self. Even while one is practicing a technique, one can be aware of WHO or WHAT is practicing. For example if you are abiding with the breath it is possible to be simultaneously aware of awareness. The mind’s limited attention or first attention can be on the wide or narrow breath, and like the focal lens of a camera it can be narrow or wide, and one can point it or change the location within the sensory field that it is focused on. There is simultaneously an awareness that is simply aware of its own being, inseparable from these changeable qualities of limited attention; an awareness that does not change or have any quality whatsoever. This absolute awareness is not a mental activity, not a separating or discriminating of phenomena into “things”, but could be described as the space in which mental activity arises. Yet the word space is not right because there is no location; it is a space/emptiness/stillness or center that is everywhere and nowhere. Absolute awareness is what is simply aware without any object, while the mind’s attention is always aware of some thing. You can be attentive to the breath using the mind, and be simultaneously aware of who or what is watching the breath. The seer, the seeing, and the seen are recognized as one.
Practice both meditation and self inquiry simultaneously until you realize them to be one.
Throughout this writing I will be using the terms awakening and enlightenment in a specific way.
One of my favorite Zen phrases is “not one, not two”. Awakening and enlightenment can be seen as “not one, not two”.
What is awakening?
Awakening is recognizing your true nature beyond name and form. Awakening is waking from the dream of a limited self. To one who has not experienced it directly, these are just words and are incomprehensible to the mind. Primordial awareness becomes aware of itself as all things, or you could say all levels of mind/self are realized to be empty awareness. There are many levels of awakening (jhana), but when there is a total cessation of the entanglement or identification of awareness with mind, then one’s true nature is revealed. It has been called Moksha, Nirvana, Nirvikalpa Samadhi, Fana, Kensho, Hesychia and many other names throughout history. In Vedanta what is realized is referred to as the Self with a capital “S” or true self, and in Buddhism it is called “no self” or anatta or shunyata. In Hinduism what is realized is Parabrahman, or Paramatman, and in mystical Christianity it is the godhead which has no qualities except unity/ being; it is the impersonal being of God as opposed to an aspect of the trinity.
Even though the language between traditions may differ, the traditions that reflect the perennial teaching all point to the fundamental reality of the awakening experience, which is the common experience of realized beings. Although even saying this is not quite true; it is not really an experience since it is the collapse of the duality of experience and experiencer. Words are never quite right when we attempt to convey it.
Most who get a taste of the awakened state will lose it, falling back asleep and falling prey to the fluctuations of the mind and self identification. In the Sandokai, a famous Zen poem, it says: “To merely encounter the absolute is not yet enlightenment”. From the absolute perspective, awakening to your true nature is the beginning and end of the spiritual path, or realization that the destination was always already present from the beginning. From the absolute perspective there is a recognition of that which was never born, that awareness which simply is.
As Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” At first when you attempt to turn awareness toward the sense of “I AM” or the Self, it will be the false self that you see. But if you are unswayed by the many layers and levels of illusions that arise, and are persistent and earnest in your inquiry, then the limited egoic self will give way and Samadhi will be realized. It is in this merged state that the dawning of prajna/wisdom is possible. Even a taste may change your life irrevocably, as there will be a knowing that you are not merely this limited, ephemeral self structure.
Awakening is the potential beginning of the enlightenment process, which is an accelerated period of inner development that purifies the human vessel, allowing one to stay in the awakened state so that Samadhi does not come and go. The truth is that most people will go back to sleep because they are not willing or able to give up the conditioned activities and preferences of the ego. The limited self is only interested in the concept of awakening, but it can not awaken. It will manufacture a facsimile, a spiritualized persona or ego construct around any awakening experience. The awakened state leaves no traces, no sankaras or conditioning and is not something that can be remembered. Any memory of one’s awakening is just a mentalized construct and must be let go of; one must always start with a beginner’s mind if one is to realize it again and again. Any knowledge of what the awakened state is, is a false screen or filter over awareness. As Socrates said, “I only know that I don’t know.” Awakening means the limited mind becomes a servant, and it will no longer be the master of one’s life. It is no longer “my will”, or “my knowing” but higher will or the heart’s will; one surrenders to the flow of the unfathomable Tao, the wisdom of the great reality.
One of my teachers (Nicolas) always asked “What are you willing to pay?” There is only one acceptable currency with which we can pay; ourself. But most people will not pay because the price is too high and the conditioning is too strong. People don’t want to allow pain or give up pleasure in order to transcend them both. One must allow good and evil to co-exist inside so that their alchemical union transmutes duality into something new. The “you” that you are becomes the dead soil out of which a new reality is born. The best use for the limited self in this process is to realize its own limitations, and to learn how to let go of dualitic thinking, preferences, manipulations, discrimination of this and that, craving and aversion; essentially to learn how to die.
What is enlightenment?
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj said, “One must know the [limited] self before one can transcend the [limited] self.” One must know the conditioned, limited ego for what it is, and the place from which it arises before one can become free of identification with it. When we speak of any “system” or progressive journey of coming to know the self through stages, then we are always talking about what is relative. We are talking about the enlightenment process, which is about exploring, developing the mind and self structure and making the personality transparent to primordial consciousness. It is a process that takes place gradually through time since the mind is a growing, living structure.
No technique or system can force or bring about prajna or liberating insight, but they engage one in a process of inner purification which makes it more likely to happen. There is a Zen saying that awakening happens seemingly by accident, but practice makes one more accident prone. Some Christian mystics have said that God meets us halfway, or God helps those who help themselves. We must do our part to uncover and surrender the egoic self, and through grace the divine will reach out to us. This grace is the dawning of the truth of who and what we are.
Enlightenment has two aspects: purification, which is becoming free from existing conditioning, and inner development, which is the growing or expanding of the self structure into higher levels of mind. Enlightenment is BOTH the expanding into the higher levels of self, and the purification or detaching from all levels of the self structure/soul. This is a process that happens through time, which results in a human vessel that will be increasingly fit to support or house primordial consciousness, or to let the sun shine through unobstructed by clouds.
Enlightenment is the development process which allows the awakened state
to become a permanent stage which does not come and go.
Enlightenment is both becoming free of Sankaras, or free of the conditioned patterns that entangle awareness in maya, and it is the expanding into new, more subtle dimensions of self. Beyond the mental and physical layers of existence are the energetic or pranic layers, higher mind/ spiritual realms, and the non-dual bliss realms.
Primordial awareness, which is our true nature, of course needs no enlightening; it is perfect as it is. The enlightenment process is only for the limited self. Upon realizing Samadhi one sees the absurdity of seeking awakening, since the awakening is identical to the dropping of all seeking and the seeker! Or more precisely the seeker, the seeking and what is sought are realized as one with all that is. One wakes up but continues to become enlightened, continues to develop the self and to grow, expanding the tree of life to become a continuous bridge between the world of form and the formless, while at the same time realizing the illusory nature of the limited self structure. Those who have realized the ultimate truth may laugh at the absurdity of the human condition, and the seeking and striving that is both futile and necessary if we are to awaken. One laughs at one’s efforts to find something that was never lost, and to seek something that is only obscured by seeking itself.