This article was originally published on my blog in September 2008. It grew out of an earlier discussion on the blog in which readers were airing their views on temporary experiences of the Self.
I started to reply to Broken Yogi’s description of an experience he had, and then decided to make a separate post of it. This is what he said:
I have had exactly one such experience in my life, back when I was a teenager. It occurred during my first meeting with the teacher who was to be my Guru for many years thereafter. I came into a small room with him, very nervous, waiting I thought for the “big moment”. I kept chastising myself for being so crassly craving of having “something happen”, but before I could control myself he was looking me right in the eye, and it was as if he could see everything I was doing. I felt caught red-handed, and I could hear his inner voice speaking to me, saying, “Well, here we are. I’m looking at you, and you’re looking at me, and nothing is happening.” I felt crushed, but then all of a sudden he repeated the words “Nothing is happening!” and it was as if I was suddenly slapped in the face. I saw instantly that nothing was happening, that the universe wasn’t happening, that there was nothing happening anywhere, at any time, in any place. The only thing that was real was the Guru, and I was in eternal relationship with the Guru.
Now, the reason I ask the question is that of course that moment of insight didn’t amount to permanent realization in my case – far from it. I remained the same idiot afterward that I was beforehand. So I was wondering what is different about such experiences of “nothing happening” from the real thing. Is it merely a matter of it being permanent, or is it altogether different. I know Papaji has said that there is no genuine experience of realisation prior to realization, so I was wondering what is different, experientially.
First of all, I must say that this sounds like a wonderful experience. I suspect a few readers were thinking to themselves, ‘I wish something like that would happen to me’.
I think quite a few people on the spiritual path have a brief epiphany in which they suddenly become aware, directly, of what is ‘real’ and what is not. The ‘what is not’ turns out to be everything they formerly regarded as ‘real’. As Broken Yogi remarked, Papaji used to say that if an experience comes and goes, it is not an experience of the Self because the Self never comes and goes. However, you could turn that around and say, ‘Since it is mind that comes and goes, when mind is temporarily absent, one gets a glimpse of the underlying Self’. Such experiences may be mediated through a still-existing latent ‘I’-thought, but even so, they are always impressive when they happen.
There is an interesting account by Kunju Swami that sheds some light on this phenomenon. Like Broken Yogi, he had had a wonderful experience in the presence of his Guru, but subsequently lost it. This is his description of what happened:
Because the plague had driven away most of the inhabitants of the town [of Tiruvannamalai], visitors to Sri Bhagavan were very few. I was therefore left alone with Sri Bhagavan for much of the time. While we were together he often used to look at me, and as he did so, I became aware that his eyes had a strange brilliance and fascination in them. Whenever I looked into his eyes for any length of time I saw a bright effulgence. I could not say from where it came but it had the effect of making me forget everything. It was not like sleep for I was fully aware. I was also filled with a strange peace and bliss. After each experience I would come back to my normal physical state with a shudder. This occurred again and again on each of the eighteen days that I stayed with Sri Bhagavan. I was like someone intoxicated. I was absolutely indifferent to everything, had no curiosity to see anything, no desires whatsoever. Whatever activities I did, I did them all in a very mechanical way. So long as I stayed in the presence of Sri Bhagavan, I continued to have these experiences of peace and bliss. Because of the greatness of the presence of Sri Bhagavan I was able to experience the tranquil state of abiding firmly in the Heart.
After experiencing this state for some days the thought occurred to me, ‘Here, in order to join in all the daily routines, I have to interrupt my meditative state. Now that I have this firm experience I could remain uninterruptedly in continuous meditation for days if I stayed at home.’ Furthermore, I felt that it was a sin to eat food from the Guru without doing any service to him in return.
When I conveyed my thoughts to Ramakrishna Swami, I found that he was in complete agreement with me. We informed Sri Bhagavan of our decision and went back to our homes in Kerala. We had decided in advance that when we reached home we would meditate in seclusion, observe silence and be immersed in samadhi. We also decided neither to speak to anyone nor to meet each other.
When I reached home I found that my parents, who had been in a very agitated state because they had no idea where I had gone, were extremely happy to see me. Ramakrishna and I stuck to our resolution by staying in our respective homes and observing silence. My parents did not mind the silence, or anything else that I did. They were quite content merely to have me at home.
As the days passed the meditative state experienced in Sri Bhagavan’s presence steadily declined. I slowly became my old restless self. I did not have any new experiences, nor could I get into samadhi . Only then did I realise how ignorant I had been. I was greatly shaken by this disappointment, but I could not reveal to anyone what had happened. Then, one night, while I was dwelling on my disappointment, Ramakrishna Swami came to my place and revealed that his experience had been the same as mine. We both felt ashamed of our foolishness that led us to believe that we had achieved in a few days the state that aspirants of ancient days attained only after many years of striving in the immediate presence of great sages. By losing the state we had formerly experienced, we also realised fully the greatness of Sri Bhagavan’s presence. Feeling that it would be pointless for us to stay any longer at home, we decided that our only hope was to take refuge in Sri Bhagavan at Tiruvannamalai…
One day, [some time after my return,] while I was doing some work for Sri Bhagavan, I asked him why the experiences I had felt in his presence during my first visit had not continued after my return to Kerala but instead had steadily declined and finally ceased. By way of a reply Sri Bhagavan asked me to read verses eighty-three to ninety-three of Kaivalya Navaneeta, part one, telling me that the answer to my question could be found in those verses. The verses are as follows:
83 On hearing this [instruction from the Master] the disciple, loyal to the instructions of the Master, discarded the five sheaths and the blank [mind], realised the Self as ‘I am Brahman ’, went beyond that and remained as perfect being.
84 At the glance of the Master, who was grace incarnate, the worthy disciple sank into the ocean of bliss and merged as the undivided whole, as pure consciousness, free from the body, the organs and all else, with mind made perfect so that he became the true Self, unaware while awake.
85 After the blessed disciple had remained in that state for a long time, his mind gently turned outwards. Then he saw his glorious Master before him. His eyes were filled with tears of joy. He was full of love and fell at the feet of the Master. He rose up, went round the Master with folded hands and spoke to him:
86 ‘Lord, you are the reality remaining as my inmost Self, ruling me during all my countless incarnations! Glory to you who have put on an external form in order to instruct me! I do not see how I can repay your grace for having liberated me. Glory! Glory to your holy feet!’
87 The Master beamed on him as he spoke, drew him near and said very lovingly, ‘To stay fixed in the Self, without the three kinds of obstacles obstructing your experience, is the highest return you can render me.’
88 ‘My Lord! Can such realisation as has transcended the dual perception of “You” and “I”, and found the Self to be entire and all pervading, fail me at any time?’ The Master replied, ‘The truth that “I am Brahman ” is realised from the scriptures or by the grace of the Master, but it cannot be firm in the face of obstruction.
89 ‘Ignorance, uncertainty and wrong knowledge are obstacles resulting from long-standing habits in the innumerable incarnations of the past which cause trouble [and make] the fruits of realisation slip away. Therefore root them out by hearing the truth, reasoning and meditation [sravana, manana, and nididhyasana].
90 ‘Defective realisation will not put an end to bondage. Therefore, devote yourself to hearing the truth, reasoning and meditation and root out ignorance, uncertainty and wrong knowledge.
91 ‘Ignorance veils the truth that the Self is Brahman and shows forth multiplicity instead. Uncertainty is the confusion resulting from lack of firm faith in the words of the Master. The illusion that the evanescent world is a reality and that the body is the self is wrong knowledge. So say the sages.
92 ‘Hearing the truth is to revert the mind repeatedly to the teaching: “That thou art”. Reasoning is rational investigation of the meaning of the text, as already heard. Meditation is one-pointedness of mind.
93 ‘If every day you do these, you will surely gain liberation. The practice must be kept up so long as the sense of knower and knowledge persists. No effort is necessary thereafter. Remaining as pure, eternal consciousness, untainted like the ether and thus liberated while alive, one will live forever as That, after being disembodied also.’
Sri Bhagavan then summarised the verses and explained their meaning to me. During the course of his explanation he remarked, ‘The experience [of the Self] can occur in the presence of the Guru, but it may not last. Doubts will rise again and again and in order to clear them, the disciple should continue to study, think and practise. Sravana, manana and nididhyasana should be done until the distinction between knower, known and knowing no longer arises.’
After Sri Bhagavan had explained all this to me I decided to stay always in his presence and to carry out the practices he prescribed. (The Power of the Presence, part two, pp. 8-13)
Sravana, manana and nididhyasana comprise the traditional vedantic route to knowledge. Sravana is listening to the Guru’s words, manana is contemplating them and convincing oneself that they are true, and nididhyasana is the practice that results in the direct experience of what they indicate.
The implication of Bhagavan’s response to Kunju Swami is that while the presence or power of the Guru may bring about temporary abidance in the Heart, such an experience may not remain firm unless it is followed by contemplating the truth of the Guru’s words and ultimately experiencing them as one’s own reality.
Question: … it is said that Guru kataksham [the glance of the Guru] is like [an elephant] seeing a lion in its dream.
Bhagavan: That is true. If an elephant sees a lion in its dream, it wakes up startled and will not sleep again that day for fear that the lion might appear again in a dream. In the same way in a man’s life, which is also akin to a dream, it is not Guru kataksham alone, but also sravana, manana, nididhyasana etc. that are akin to the sight of a lion in a dream. As they go on getting these dreams they wake up, and again go to bed and by efflux of time they may some day get a lion’s dream called Guru kataksham in an intense manner. They get startled and obtain jnana. Then there will be no more dreams and they will not only be wakeful at all times but will not give room for any dreams of life but will remain alert until that true and real knowledge is obtained. These lion’s dreams are unavoidable and must be experienced. (Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, 18th May, 1947).
While I was in Lucknow I was surprised to hear Papaji, who generally did not advocate these traditional forms of practice, give this same advice to a visitor. However, when I questioned him about his remarks later, he began his reply by saying that if one has a direct but temporary experience of the Self, it is more useful and effective to find a true teacher who can help one establish oneself firmly in that state:
David: A couple of months ago a boy came up to you in satsang to tell you about an experience of emptiness he had had when he was ten years old. The experience later wore off. Later that morning, as you were reading the Panchadasi , you read out a verse that stated that one should do sravana, manana and nididhyasana if one wanted to become stabilised in the truth. You stopped and said to the boy, ‘You should have done this when you were ten. If you had done this, the experience would not have left you.’
Papaji: When you get this kind of experience, you should not reactivate the mind by thinking about the truth. If you want it to stick, you should go to a true teacher who has established himself in the truth. Such a teacher will not tell you to do anything else. He will tell you, ‘You don’t have to hear anything from anyone else. There is nothing more you need to do. Stay where you are and be as you are.’
This boy didn’t know what the experience was, nor did he have a competent teacher who could evaluate it for him.
The same thing happened to me when I was six years old. I had a direct experience, but no one was there to tell me, ‘This is the truth. You don’t need anything else.’
Instead, everyone told me, ‘The peace you enjoyed in that state came because of Krishna. If you start worshipping him, he will appear before you and make you happy.’
I was already happy but somehow these uninformed people made me do sadhana because they thought that I needed new experiences. Because I had no one who could say with authority, ‘You need nothing else. Stay as you are,’ I ended up spending years looking for external gods.
There has been no change in my understanding, my experience and my conviction since I was six years old. From the age of six till now, when I am over eighty years old, there has been no change, but this truth, this understanding, was not fully revealed to me until I met the Maharshi. This is the role of the true teacher: to show you and tell you that you are already That, and to do it in such an authoritative way that you never doubt his words. Over the last few months I have been reading out books by some of the great teachers of the past. Again and again they say, ‘You are That. You are Brahman. This alone is the truth.’
All the teachers are saying this because they want their students to have the firm conviction that this is the truth, that this is who they truly are. This is the function of the true teacher: to remove your doubt that you are not Brahman and by doing so to allow you to see who you really are. (Nothing Ever Happened, vol. 3, pp. 388-89)
Although Papaji began his reply by appearing to disparage the traditional practices of manana, sravana and nididhyasana, in the second half of his reply he is clearly advocating them since he says that one should go to a true Guru, listen to him proclaim ‘You are That’, and then abide in that state which is being pointed out by the words.
I showed the Kaivalya Navaneeta verses that Bhagavan recommended to Kunju Swami to Papaji and asked him what he thought of the advice they contained. He replied:
Papaji: The disciple should come to the Guru with an open heart. If he does, one word will be enough. But if he doesn’t, you have to give out instructions like these. Somehow the student has to generate a conviction that the Guru’s words are true. (Nothing Ever Happened, vol. 3, p. 391)
Papaji then read out all the verses, commenting on a few of them. At the end of verse 89 he remarked:
Papaji: This is the advice one has to give to those who do not yet have the conviction that they are Brahman. They are advised to stay on with the Guru till the end of their life. There should be no problem with this. What else can you do with this life? You have already gone through millions of incarnations. In those lives you have already done everything that it is possible to do in a body, but you haven’t found out the cause of all these births, and you haven’t found out how to end them. This is something very new for you. Why don’t you stay and get this liberating knowledge? (Nothing Ever Happened, vol. 3, p. 394)