- Understanding Mind, Experience and Duality
- Why Choiceless Awareness for Understanding Mind and Experience?
- Understanding the Nature of Experience
- All objects are impermanent
- An illusory Thinker-Doer-Experiencer tries to continuously manage these impermanent objects
- The Thinker-Doer-Experiencer as the cause of suffering
- Choiceless Awareness and Compassion
In the stages of Self Inquiry that I teach towards liberation, the first step is the teachings of J Krishnamurti by which a seeker is prepared for the more subtle and philosophical inquiries required in Jnana Yoga/Yoga of Knowledge of Advaita Vedanta. In traditional Advaita, the mind is prepared for Jnana Yoga through the more traditional paths of Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Raja Yoga. However, in my teachings, I use the teachings of J Krishnamurti instead of the traditional paths, because of their modern context and also because they do not require any faith in God: which, the other traditional paths require as part of their philosophical framework. Since creation and a creator God is ultimately negated in the highest teaching of Advaita, it is very clear that God is used only as a provisional concept in Advaita. So, for those who are ready, Krishnamurti’s teachings, in my opinion, are an invaluable source for preparing the mind for Advaita. His language is simple, modern, shorn of all technical jargon and yet profound. They easily appeal to the modern, cosmopolitan mind, opening the gates of truth, freedom and bliss, right in the midst of our urban technopolis, instead of making one beat a retreat to the forest glades and caves.
The lynchpin of Krishnamurti’s teachings can be summed up by the words – ‘choiceless awareness of what is’. In my stages of self inquiry, I utilize Krishnamurti’s teachings in two phases
This particular article explores meditative inquiry, which is the study of mind. While Krishnamurti was entirely psychological in his treatment of mind, and it’s states, in this article I am attempting to blend psychology with philosophy to illustrate what is meant by meditative inquiry through choiceless awareness of what is. Such an inquiry enables the seeker to understand the nature of mind and life in totality rather than the fragmented understanding one arrives through analysis. Thereby it also serves as a bridge to access the most subtle non-dual insights of Advaita.
Understanding Mind, Experience and Duality
Duality is the normal mode of experiencing oneself. We consider ourselves to be individual subjects interacting with a world of other subjects and objects. In philosophy, duality is a name or a conceptual label by which we designate this form of experiencing which sustains a division of the subject and the object. When one begins inquiry, of course, one is not at all aware of this division. It is so deeply rooted and so much a part of our conditioning and normal mode of functioning that, leave alone questioning it, one does not even have knowledge about the fact that there is any other mode of experiencing life. However, a continuing, penetrating and deep inquiry, eventually brings a seeker to examine the very nature of experience as the root of conflict. In the Psycho-Philosophical Inquiry stage one starts inquiry with the dual nature of experience in background. At this stage inquiry is about understanding the outer world of relationships and systems and how they create conflict and suffering. The end of Psycho-Philosophical inquiry is reached when the student realizes that the root of all his society based conflicts and suffering is “psychological becoming” – the gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what should be’. One can read more about it in my article What is psychological becoming and how it causes suffering?
Once psychological becoming has thoroughly been understood by a student of self inquiry, he/she is freed from the entire field of psychological involvements which dissipates his/her mental energies towards the outer world of objects. One is trained to become rich, famous, powerful, knowledgeable or erudite. This constant becoming is fuelled by the gap one perceives between ‘what one is’ and ‘what one should be’ as conditioned by society. Once one understands that all these aims of life, not only create conflict of constant becoming, but grant only temporary happiness, one shifts his journey from becoming to being: from the socially conditioned compulsion of becoming to the silence of understanding being.
Coming to this realization is the basis of further and deeper self inquiry. Till one is involved psychologically in any of the social organizations or institutions, either materialistically, socially, ethically or spiritually, one is a soul torn apart or perpetually trying to manage the conflicting demands of work, society and relationships. The energy of such a mind is divided and dissipated. At some point one has to make a decision to wholeheartedly devote oneself to self inquiry and align all one’s activities of life along this axis. This process of cutting down all energy dissipating activities, doing only those which are necessary, and utilizing the rest of time for self inquiry is called upariti in Advaita. And this is the beginning of meditative self inquiry.
Many people associate meditation with some form of control or practice delimited by time and space. However, the kind of meditative inquiry I teach is based on Krishnamurti’s teachings of “Choiceless Awareness of What Is“. This is a mode of non-judgemental observation of thought which one comes to when one is sincerely and deeply interested in understanding the mind rather than merely superficially solving psychological problems through analysis. One may also read my articles The Difference Between Thinker and Observer in Advaita: A Dialogue and The Network of Thought and the Mind’s Need for Answers: A Dialogue in this respect. At this stage what happens automatically is, instead of using our mind as an instrument for acquiring objects and experiences, meditative inquiry trains the mind to understand the very nature of experience.
Thus, meditative inquiry is the leap which happens in our journey when we shift attention away from the content of experience and toward its structure. To see things as they are is to unearth our hidden assumptions about ourselves and our world, to bring them into the light of full consciousness, and to notice how, on close inspection, these assumptions often contradict our actual experience. This is the phase in which we slowly hone into the subject-object duality that is stamped onto the nature of our normal experiencing mode. Until now this dynamic was working under the hood, silently and treacherously handing us over to conflict and suffering.
Why Choiceless Awareness for Understanding Mind and Experience?
Psycho-Philosophical inquiry would have made it clear to the seeker that psychological becoming is fuelled by the gap between “what is’ and “what should be”. While in this stage, the “what is” and “what should be” is uncovered in terms of personal psychology vs social expectations dependent upon the cultural context one is embedded, and operating in, the same insight is pushed further in meditative inquiry to understand that the root of the division between ‘what is’ and ‘what should be’ is not merely psychological. The individual psychological dynamic of becoming, in fact, is just a manifestation of a much deeper falsity operating, one that is not dependent on mere cultural circumstances. In fact, it is stamped on the very nature of conditioned human experience. This is the duality between the thinker and the thought. While modern society elevates the thinker almost to the status of God, a student of self inquiry smells a rat in this very elevation. A slew of questions can be asked about this deification of the thinker.
- Who is the thinker?
- Is the thinker really different from the thought?
- What is the standard by which the thinker controls the thought?
- Why does the thinker control thought?
- What would happen if the thinker does not control thought?
The above are a fascinating set of questions. A keen reader would have noticed that at this point self inquiry has reached the state where the thinker has started asking questions about itself, it’s very own nature. Mind has kind of turned back to itself to study itself. This is the beginning of meditative inquiry. Until this point mind was utilizing the thinker as the instrument of inquiry, but now it has come to the point where the very tool being used for inquiry needs examination. How can this be done? How can mind shift its attention from the content of experience to the very nature of experience conditioned by the duality of the thinker and the thought? It can do this, and know the answers to the questions raised above, if it shifts from the choosing and controlling function of a thinker to a mode of choiceless and passive observation. I have discussed the dynamics of this shift in three of my previous articles. These articles deal with the deconstruction of the duality between the thinker and the thought.
- The Thinker, Controller, Commentator vs the Observer: A Dialogue
- The Network of Thought and the Mind’s Need for Answers: A Dialogue
- The Difference Between Thinker and Observer in Advaita: A Dialogue
Since the matter of how to make the shift, as well as the reasons to make the shift, have been adequately discussed in the articles above, I am not going to delve into it again for the purpose of this article. Instead, I am going a step further and examine the deep philosophical and experiential insights such a mode of meditative inquiry reveals for the student. For, once the duality between the thinker and the thought is negated, there arises a previously unprecedented opportunity to examine the very nature of experience. Thus, choiceless awareness of ‘what is’ is the main tool of meditative inquiry to examine the nature of mind, experience and subject-object duality. While the duality of thinker and thought has been negated at this stage, one shall see that there are other levels of subject-object duality still in place, which have to be penetrated.
Understanding the Nature of Experience
As minds of all beings are naturally conditioned to attend and be incessantly pre-occupied with objects, non-dual self inquiry also follows the natural bent of mind in its examination of objects, proceeding from gross ones and subsequently moving to subtler ones. In the beginning stage i.e. Psycho-Philosophical Inquiry, we saw that the inquiry was about understanding the reason for conflict and suffering due to the gross external world. At this level, the duality of thinker and thought was too subtle to be questioned. As the student moves deeper into meditative inquiry, the domain shifts from the gross world to the subtle world objects of the mind, where the duality of thinker and thought is questioned and negated. Post this, the stage of inquiry is set to shift from understanding experiences, to understanding the very structure of experience. There are three primary insights one gains in this inquiry, which I am taking up for discussion
- All objects are impermanent
- An illusory Thinker-Doer-Experiencer tries to continuously manage these impermanent objects
- The Thinker-Doer-Experiencer as the cause of suffering
It is only with the harvest of these insights that a student can enter into the highly subtle teachings of Advaita Jnana Yoga: not before. The shift here is akin to the shift one makes from Newtonian Physics to Quantum Physics. At the stage of Psycho-Philosophical Inquiry one is only understanding the gross world as done by Newtonian Physics. This is the world which appears to our senses: a physical reality like a giant machine that ticks forward in time, changing its configuration predictably according to deterministic laws. These laws are ultimately responsible for all the complexity and diversity of natural phenomena. Likewise, all phenomena, no matter how complex, can be understood in terms of these simple laws. Quantum physics, on the other hand, unearthed the fact that underlying this apparent world of relative stability presented to our senses, there is such a teeming atomic world of probability and change, that even defies labelling objects as a particle or wave. Similarly, meditative inquiry unearths the dynamics of impermanence of all objects, which one had previously assumed to be relatively stable, giving us a gumption of a world of stability and order.
Understanding Impermanence of All Objects
It is fairly obvious to everyone that all objects are impermanent, i.e they are subject to the six modifications of birth, continuance, growth, transformation, decay and death. What is not obvious is the way we all seem to conduct our lives, either flagrantly disregarding these characteristic modifications of all objects, or escaping this truth about them. When we come to meditative inquiry we actually start directly experiencing the impermanence of objects: rather than it being just a morbid concept we have pushed in some deep corner of our minds, or a falsity that is operating under the radar of our awareness due to an ingrained conditioning. This shift, as we shall soon see, is very well illustrated by the difference between quantum physics and classical Newtonian physics, I have mentioned above. Meditative inquiry gives us the hidden quantum view of the relatively stable world of objects, laws and processes we are accustomed to in the Newtoninan world.
Most of the time, change happens slowly enough that we are not fully aware of how everything around us is in a continuous state of flux. Things look stable—that is, they look like well-defined, solid “things”—but the fact is, they’re not. My new shirt looks more or less the same from one day to the next. But what about from one year to the next? And what if we increase the interval to five years or ten? Over such long periods of time it’s quite likely that I’ll notice changes—like wear at the cuffs or collar—that were obviously happening all along, but slowly and below the level of normal perception. The shirt is, in effect, always leaving me, slipping away, though I don’t generally notice. I see only an “object,” a “thing,” rather than a continuous flow of changing events. On the other hand, change can happen very quickly as well—I can accidentally tear my sleeve on a nail, for instance—in which case it most often comes as a shock. The same holds true for our relationships with friends and family. We don’t normally notice how people are continually ageing, and when on occasion we do it catches us by surprise. 
Most of us don’t notice impermanence until it’s shoved in our face. We’re too busy, too focused on having and doing. The case of death is one such example. People are dying all around us, but we don’t see it happening; we don’t want to see it, and for the most part we manage to keep it hidden. Back in the 1970s, the writer Ernest Becker won a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Denial of Death, in which he argued that American society is fundamentally committed to not seeing death. 
However, once we begin to have a particularly intimate encounter with impermanence, we see that there is no stable, unified core to experience. Permanence in the world of objects is nothing but a mental construct, a phantom’s mask covering the reality of change. I grow old. It’s happening all the time, right in front of my eyes, but I don’t notice it because the changes are so gradual. From time to time, though, I’m jolted out of complacency by comparing the face in the mirror to old photographs, or to a memory of an earlier self. It is inconceivable that this “I”—this peculiarly intimate experience of myself as an individual passing through time—could at any moment be snagged on the rough edge of time and ripped apart like the fabric of an old, treasured shirt. Torn beyond repair – dead. And yet this is an undeniable fact. 
In fact, my own inquiry started with the question of death. I realized that death was the enigma that needed to be penetrated. I have written two articles on my quest to understand death, and it’s significance in self inquiry
While the above articles have discussed death with a metaphysical perspective, the reality of death can become a means of microscopically zooming into experience to see its signature every moment, rather than waiting for death at the end of one’s life. In time-lapse photography if you had a series of photographs taken at appropriate intervals—of that favourite shirt, for example, or of the people you love—you could visually track an unbroken process that moves from new, to not so new, to old, wrinkled, and worn. We can observe this same process in choiceless awareness of ‘what is’. 
First, close your eyes and focus your attention on the sensation of breathing. Then, once the attention is more or less settled in, notice how the movement of the breath is no single thing but rather a complex flow of continually changing sensations. Cool air moving in, warm air moving out, a slight tickling at the rim of the nostrils, muscles in the abdomen stretching and contracting as the diaphragm rises and falls. Now direct your attention to the itches, tinglings, and throbbings, the pulsing of the heart, and all the rest of the tiny, constantly fluctuating sensations that together make up the first-person experience of what we call “the body.” Finally, turn your awareness to the arising and passing of thoughts. Notice how, at this very subtle level of experience, ethereal mental objects flit in and out of awareness like fireflies or spirits, appearing and disappearing so quickly and quietly that they can barely be said to exist. 
Impermanence means that the appearance of stability we take for granted in everyday life, for practical purposes, is ultimately an illusion, the construction of a mind infused with desire and fear. Behind the facade of language and conceptual thinking, there are no stable, well-defined “things” or “people,” only a ceaseless, ungraspable stream of events, like the flow of a river or like waves undulating on the surface of the ocean. 
And all this becomes an experiential insight rather than being just a faint conceptual acknowledgement, with choiceless awareness of ‘what is’.
An Illusory Thinker-Doer-Experiencer Tries to Continuously Manage these Impermanent Objects
The above discussion on impermanence has shown that here is something seriously amiss in my assumptions about what it is to be a person in a world. My day-to-day perspective makes sense only in some limited fashion, because it fails to take into account the fact that there is nothing about me that isn’t in motion, always already torn and lost. My empirical day-to-day perspective is rather that of a permanent thinker-doer-experiencer who is there like a tiny homunculus sitting somewhere in my head, just behind my eyes, perhaps, making decisions and choices, pulling levers and pushing buttons, causing my arms and legs to move, calling words and thoughts into being. It’s a view of the self that we take for granted in everyday life. But does it hold up on closer examination? 
Because I have a whole lot invested in this idea that I’m in control of, at the very least, my own body and mind, the mere suggestion that this sense of control might be illusory appears on the face of it to be absurd. Then again, at a certain level it’s completely obvious that if I were in control of my body, I would probably not choose to make it vulnerable to old age, sickness, and death. And if I were in control of my mind, why would I choose to call up worries and regrets? So when it comes right down to it, who is this “I,” this puppet master, presumed to be totally separate from the body and mind that it so effortlessly manipulates? Once again, there is some sort of problem here, some sort of unexamined contradiction in my assumptions. 
Now let us use the tool of meditative inquiry – choiceless awareness of ‘what is’ to see whether there is actually any permanent centre like a thinker-doer-experiencer trying to manage all impermanent objects or that this centre is just another illusion. By closing your eyes and focusing your attention on the sensation of breathing. When you’re settled, notice how the sensations come and go spontaneously, how the process of breathing happens all by itself. Fortunately, I don’t need to consciously control my respiration; all of this is managed quite nicely by the autonomic nervous system. The same can be said for the beating of my heart or the digestion of this morning’s breakfast. All these metabolic functions take place on their own, without any intervention on my part. In this respect, such “internal” processes are no different from things “out there” in the world, like the wind and rain, or the sound of a car passing outside my window. It all simply happens, without any assistance from me. 
Notice, now, how the same is true for thoughts—memories, hopes, expectations, regrets—all of them coming and going on their own. I don’t make them come and go, nor can I make them stop. It’s all simply happening, spontaneously arising and passing away. To take notice of sensations and thoughts in this way does not mean to think about how they come and go. It means, rather, to open a space of attention, a kind of watching that feels, in experience, separate from what is watched. Drawing a distinction in first-person, direct experience, between “watching” and “thinking,” is a subtle undertaking, primarily because awareness is so easily and habitually conflated with thought; but with continued practice a line can be drawn. Or, to be precise, the line between “inner” and “outer” can be re-drawn in this peculiar way. Like all dividing lines, this new line, too, is ultimately false; but beyond its falseness there are no more words. 
As a final exercise, try watching for the decision to open your eyes. Sit quietly, eyes closed, and observe, very carefully. See if you can catch yourself, as we say, making this decision. Or is it that, in direct experience, what we call a “decision” happens all by itself, like any other sensation or thought? After all, I never know in advance what I’m going to decide; I only know what has been decided after the fact. If I look very closely in this way, it’s possible to see that I only imagine I make decisions. 
Thus, meditative inquiry or choiceless awareness of ‘what is’ shows that the appearance of an unchanging, individual agent who makes things happen is mere appearance, the construction of a mind infused with desire and fear. Behind the facade there is no such self, only the ceaseless, ungraspable stream of events that spontaneously emerge and disappear. 
The Thinker-Doer-Experiencer As the Cause of Suffering
Now that we have understood as well as very deeply experienced the impermanence of objects, and how an illusory centre of the “thinker-doer-experiencer” continuously tries to manage these objects, we are now, for the first time, in a position to understand one of the deepest reasons for suffering – clinging.
A chronic discontent that underlies and infuses our constantly shifting experiences of pain and pleasure. As it happens, the very things that bring us the most happiness in life are themselves causes of suffering, because they are tenuous, fragile, and ultimately subject to loss. This includes not only material things but also and especially our genuine accomplishments, the successes that bring us recognition and social status. And, perhaps most significantly, the company of people we love brings us suffering, because we know full well that each one of them may, one way or another, leave us at any time. 
This is not something I want to think about. And precisely for that reason, I find ways to not think about it: by staying busy with purposeful work, by immersing myself in entertainment and social games, and, ultimately, through the uniquely human capacity of denial. But denial, as Freud pointed out, exacts a psychological toll. It comes at the price of an all-pervasive anxiety that infects everything, making it impossible for us to experience any genuine happiness in life. This is the meaning of suffering. 
The thinker-doer-experiencer is the illusory dynamic that not only makes us feel that we can control and manipulate objects to our advantage, as we have seen in the earlier section. But more profoundly, it creates the capacity to deny the truth of the impermanence of all objects. It masquerades as a sort of permanent centre where actually none exists. Because it is unreal, this centre has to be continuously maintained in the face of all impermanence that life continuously hurls. So let’s be clear: suffering is not experienced by the personality; suffering just is the personality. To be somebody—anybody—is to continually suffer.
To penetrate the accumulated layers of denial and consciously connect with this level of continual suffering is not easy. It’s like breaking an addiction. The first difficult obstacle is that I resist thinking of life, especially my own life, in these terms. I don’t want to think of my constant search for pleasure in objects as a kind of addiction, a form of suffering. I don’t want to think about how my sense of control may ultimately be an illusion, how any identification whatsoever with the elements of my individual self and its world, which includes everything subsumed under the heading of “personality,” entails suffering. I don’t want to seriously contemplate the possibility that underneath all my pleasures the dark current of suffering flows like a subterranean river, polluting everything with the stench of an insatiable hunger and fear I cannot afford to acknowledge because it would make my present life intolerable. 
Choiceless Awareness and Compassion
Krishnamurti used to often say that there is no love without intelligence. By the word intelligence, he did not mean the IQ of the intellect that is merely useful in technical matters, nor did he mean intelligence to be any measure of worldly success which is nothing but cunningness, craftiness and greed. What he meant by intelligence is the action of insight that arises when one sees things as they are through choiceless awareness of ‘what is’. Only then one has unmasked, not only the inherent impermanence of all objects but also the false dynamic of the illusory thinker-doer-experience which denies or masks this impermanence.
Do these experiential insights make us withdraw from life and make us nihilistic? Does seeing the impermanence of objects necessarily lead one to detachment, fatalism and a renunciation of all life? There are many spiritual paths and approaches that extol these virtues as a means of enlightenment or freedom from suffering. But this is not the direction taken by the teachings of Krishnamurti. Also, in traditional Advaita, while renunciation is elevated as a means of liberation in many places, there are also books like Bhagavad Gita, Ashtavakra Gita and Avadhuta Gita where it is not felt necessary to renounce the world in order to end suffering.
How does one actually see the impermanence of all objects, along with the illusory nature of self, yet continue to have relationships endowed with love and compassion, instead of retreating from the world as a renunciate, is not within the scope of this article. For that one has to advance much further from this meditative inquiry stage into the Advaita inquiry stage which ultimately ends up with deconstructing every form of subject-object duality and everything is seen as Brahman/empty Awareness.
For now, it is enough to say that when one has seen through the impermanence of objects and the illusory nature of the thinker-doer-experiencer, instead of grasping and clinging to life, and it’s experiences, there is an openness – an empty space in the mind where experiences are not dammed or channelized but flow like a vibrant, sparkling river. Krishnamurti says:
“Most of us are everlastingly thinking about ourselves from morning till night, and we function within the pattern of that self-centred activity. All such activity, which is a reaction, is bound to lead to various forms of conflict and deterioration. I don’t mean living off by yourself in some mountain cave, and all that kind of thing; but is it possible to live in this world and to function as a total human being from a state of emptiness – if you will not misunderstand my use of that word? Whether you paint, or write poems, or go to an office, or talk, you can always have inwardly an empty space, and through that empty space, work?”
~ Saanen, 1984
It is only in such an empty space of mind that compassion can be born.
All paragraphs marked  to  are taken from the article “Seeing Things as They Are – Understanding the 3 Marks of Existence” By C. W. Huntington, Jr., which appeared in Tricycle Magazine at https://tricycle.org/magazine/seeing-things-they-are/