For those who wish to pursue self inquiry personally, and for those who wish to learn self inquiry under my guidance, the following are the stages of self inquiry I pursued.
- The Purpose of Self Inquiry
- My Path of Self Inquiry
- Does One Need a Teacher for Self Inquiry?
- Choosing One’s Path
- The Beginning of Self Inquiry
- Stages in My Self Inquiry
- Emptiness of Awareness: Awareness is a Non-Affirming Conceptual Designation for the Nature of Phenomena
- A Note on the Path of Advaita Jnana Yoga Followed by Me
- Learn Self Inquiry from Me
The Purpose of Self Inquiry
Self inquiry is about understanding the nature of suffering within oneself, and the ending of it, without resorting to any belief. It seeks to understand what is world, mind, body, thought, action, experience and death to alleviate suffering. While most people do not find the need for this, some people do: at some point in their life. Depending upon the intensity of this need, self inquiry becomes one and only important thing in the world. Self inquiry is also called Jnana Yoga: the path of non-dual realization, in which one sees through the illusion of subject-object duality at every single level. This removes all sense of separation one feels between oneself and the world, the root cause of all suffering. It is because of this basic duality that one sees difference, giving rise to fear and desire, the twin movements which originate karma and the endless cycle of transmigration. I use Jnana Yoga as a generic term for all kinds of non-dual inquiries which have the aim of liberation from suffering created by duality/sense of separation without resorting to any belief.
“Non-dual” means “not-two,” which implies there is no true multiplicity of phenomena. While non-dual self inquiry eradicates suffering admirably, the focus is not on how to have a comfortable life or desirable experiences, but rather to understand the nature of all phenomena. Are they really what they appear to be? Non-dual inquiry keeps penetrating all levels of subject-object duality, starting from gross to the subtlest level, to finally reveal that reality is non-dual without any inherent subject or object. All phenomena are empty awareness even in their multiplicity. There are no substantial, solid, independent, and autonomous phenomena. Even the “person” whom we take ourselves to be – a distinct subject – is found to be empty: a mere conceptual entity or a name-form. Reality is always non-dual, but its true nature is screened from us due to the errors of dualistic thought patterns that condition us, which is otherwise called avidya or ignorance.
My Path of Self Inquiry
My path of self inquiry did not follow one particular school. The only thing constant in my journey was the desire to end suffering without any form of belief or authority. As I proceeded on this journey, I got exposed to various paths and schools. In my engagements with them, I started realizing that the root problem was the subject-object duality. Moreover, my predilection was towards those paths and methods that employed more of self inquiry rather than meditation (though which is useful as a tool to stabilize the mind), so I gravitated towards them as a solution to deconstruct the subject-object duality. Thus, rather than getting affiliated to any non-dual path or school and their polemics, I consider the various methods in different schools as helpful tools/means for different stages for different predilections of people entering self inquiry, to deconstruct subject-object duality.
In traditional Advaita, the non-dual path I followed, if one is a householder as a seeker, then he/she first enters into the preparatory path of Karma Yoga, and after attaining sufficient mental purity, he becomes qualified to enter the direct path of liberation called self-inquiry/ Jnana Yoga. If a seeker directly wishes to enter Jnana Yoga, he/she has to renounce the world and take sannyasa in most cases. Technically it is called vividisha sannyasa in Vedanta.
However, neither did I renounce the world, nor did I enter Karma Yoga. Instead, I entered Jnana Yoga directly through the unique teachings of J Krishnamurti. In my mind, this is a phenomenal and novel contribution of J Krishnamurti to the world of spirituality. I left his teachings at an advanced stage to enter Advaita because I felt the need for a more metaphysical structure for further inquiry. Suffice to say here that a seeker can realize the potential of his teachings to enter Jnana Yoga of Advaita directly, while being a householder and, without entering the traditional teachings of Karma Yoga, which rely on the concept of God. (Later the concept of God is negated in Jnana Yoga). See my article “The Place of Devotion/Bhakti in Shankara Advaita”. With Krishnamurti, one can enter deconstructive Jnana Yoga, right from the word go! One has to see for oneself if one can take this path as it requires extreme dedication and intellect. For most, it is advised that they go through the preparatory path of Karma Yoga before coming to Jnana Yoga if they take up Advaita.
Having said this, there are many points of divergence and contention, along with innumerable similarities, between Jnana Yoga of Advaita and Krishnamurti’s teachings. So it is unwise to conflate both the teachings and assume that they are saying one and the same thing in terms of methodology.
I use Krishnamurti’s teachings for the first two phases of teaching self inquiry for their modern appeal, i.e for the Psychological Inquiries and Meditative Inquiries; and I teach Advaitic Inquiry for reaching the Witness stage for its logical clarity. For post Witness stage I teach Direct Path Inquiry. The Direct Path is a form of Advaitic inquiry based on the no-creation theory of Gaudapada called Ajativada.
Does One Need a Teacher for Self Inquiry ?
Theoretically speaking, if one has the prerequisites in terms of enormous zeal for self inquiry, enormous dedication to make it the only important thing in one’s life, one does not need a teacher in person. The books and writings should do. I did not have any appointed teacher throughout my own journey. I did have a number of philosophical dialogues with some teachers online in order to discuss certain very subtle issues. For my post Witness stage I have a lot of online dialogues with Greg Goode – Teacher of Direct Path. Nonetheless, I can say that a large part of my journey was almost without a teacher in person : just the books and the teachings. But this scenario is extremely rare.
For the majority of people, I have seen that they benefit, rather require active support and guidance of a teacher. I have written an article on Self Inquiry and Issues Related to Teachers to help seekers find a true teacher. The rule of thumb is that if you are very serious in your self inquiry, the teacher shall appear at the right time. It may not be one single individual, and it may not be a teacher who hands truth to you. I had several people whom I encountered in my journey, who taught me a step or two in the direction of the final destination. They all came to answer, it seems to me in retrospect, those questions I was holding most intensely at that time. So one definitely needs to have a lot of dialogues with like-minded people in one’s journey of self inquiry, apart from one’s personal readings.
Choosing One’s Path
Inexperienced seekers labour under the illusion that all paths lead to the same truth. However, non-dual paths are completely different from dualistic paths in terms of the ultimate reality. Even amongst non-dual paths, the practices of different paths may be diametrically opposed to each other. For example almost every seeker believes that spirituality is to do with meditation. This is the case mostly for Yoga based schools and devotion based schools. In many non-dual inquiry based schools, the emphasis is more on transformative knowledge; meditation is an invaluable aid (for mental stabilization) but not the direct means to gain insights (For further understanding, one may read my article “Shabda Pramana: Enlightenment through Words in Advaita Vedanta: Presenting a Dialogue) Nowadays, the teachings of Yoga schools are mixed with the teachings of Shankara-Gaudpada Advaita Vedanta. I have touched on this issue in my article Difficulties in Finding the True Method of Advaita Vedanta of Shankaracharya – Part 1. It talks about numerous sub schools even within Vedanta. So any inquirer should be sure of two things
- Every path is different depending upon whether it is dual or non-dual.
- Every path has a different methodology for reaching their goal. At times these methodologies or practices conflict with each other.
One must study the path carefully and see if it suits his/her purpose. For instance those inclined to bhakti very strongly may not be inclined to Advaita Vedanta of Shankara/Gaudapada, unless they are willing to consider God as a helpful illusion at an initial stage of their journey to arrive at non-dual Awareness.
The Beginning of Self Inquiry
Self-inquiry begins when one has an inexplicable and inextinguishable desire to gain freedom from all suffering. Vedanta shows that human life has four main aims : Dharma (Duties), Artha (Wealth), Kama (Pleasure) and Moksha (Freedom). The first three aims are actions which result in impermanent results. Being impermanent and transitory in nature, we are unwittingly tied to this ‘wheel of activity/samsara‘: both in this life, and in the next, through the cycle of karma/action, death and rebirth.
Once an individual comes to understand vaguely the futility of the first three aims of Dharma, Artha, Kama, and begins questioning them to find if there is something beyond this mechanical process of desire and suffering we call life, the fourth aim of Moksha appears on the horizon. Self inquiry, thus, kicks in when one is discontented with all the goods that life has to offer. If the self inquiry is really genuine one shall leave no stone unturned to completely end the teeming discontent of life.
Stages in My Self Inquiry
Basically my journey of self inquiry till now can be divided into five phases, therefore the reader finds my writings divided under three headings of self inquiry in this website. The last three stages are combined under the heading Advaitic Inquiries. These inquiries are arranged in a hierarchical order as –
- Psycho-philosophical Inquiries – Understanding self and world
- Meditative Inquiries – Developing Qualifications for Advaita Inquiry
- Advaitic/Direct Path Inquiries – Knowledge of Non-Dual Awareness
- Witness Stage – I am Awareness/Vivartavada Stage
- Collapse of Witness Stage – Everything is Awareness/Ajativada Stage
- Stabilization in Self Realization
Common to all these inquiries are the three processes of Jnana Yoga/Knowledge Yoga, called:
- Sravana/Reading of Scriptures/spiritual literature
- Manana/Reflecting on them so that no doubts remain
- Nidhidhyasana/Contemplating on the truths ascertained through reflection
These processes remain the same, but they became deeper, as self inquiry progresses. Meditation is also an invaluable practice for the mind, both for getting the insights of Jnana Yoga and also stabilizing in them.
1.) Psycho-philosophical Inquiry (Lasted twenty years for me)
This stage is about psychological preparation of mind: freeing itself from all worldly engagements of Dharma (Duties), Artha (Wealth), Kama (Pleasure) and orienting it towards Moksha (Enlightenment). For this stage I was primarily benefited by the psychological teachings of J Krishnamurti and Ken Wilber.
Krishnamurti’s inquiries are quite demanding, unsettling and penetrating. They are meant to question the ego and free it from all its commitments and attachments to all worldly projects, going deeper into the mind, ultimately leading to questioning the very nature of thought. In my case, it took me about twenty years to get completely finished with all the psychological bindings to the world.
The basic purpose of all psycho-philosophical inquiries is to understand that the root reason for all conflicts one faces in the world is due to the gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what should be’. Our society conditions us since childhood to the path of psychological becoming. 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.
Ken Wilber’s stages of development of consciousness was an imperative tool for me to chart my journey. A developmental approach is highly negated by Krishnamurti, but I felt the need for such a map and Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory Model filled this need for me beautifully. In fact, it was this model that finally led me to Advaita later on. Strictly speaking, it is the spiral dynamics model of his Integral Theory that appealed to me most which was originally developed by Dr. Clare Grave’s emergent cyclical levels of existence.
All these psycho-philosophical inquiries result in steering our minds and senses away from their perpetual engagement in the outer world of becoming, and fixing them on the ultimate aim of Moksha/Liberation. This steering away from the phenomenal world by mind and senses is respectively called sama/withdrawal of mind and dama/withdrawal of senses in Advaita.
2.) Meditative Inquiry – Developing Qualifications for Advaita Inquiry
Many people associate meditation with some form of control or practice delimited by time and space. However, the kind of meditative inquiry I did was 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 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, gradually, samadhana/one pointed focus in self inquiry is achieved; what happens automatically is, instead of using our mind as an instrument for acquiring objects and experiences, meditative inquiry trains awareness to the activities of the mind itself. The mind turns back to look at itself, instead of looking out at objects.
Thus, meditative inquiry is basically the process of learning about the mind, while it is acting in its daily life of work and relationships, without making any choice – “Choiceless Awareness of What Is”. Initially, when one’s mind is still active in the world, choiceless awareness implies facing all the dualities of life – pleasure and pain, praise and insult, good and bad, right and wrong, happiness and sorrow – without modifying or escaping any of them. This phase is called titiksha/ endurance of opposites in Advaita.
Titiksha neutralizes all likes and dislikes thereby silencing most of the movements of mind. With this, one develops vairagya/dispassion towards most actions of outer life to gain wealth, success, and pleasure or fulfil social duties. Inquiry becomes the only theme in one’s life, even physically. This stage is a deeper stage of mind developing upariti/ total attention on thought which is free from outer objects. The moment mind enters the zone of thought which is free from all outer objects, it has come to the deepest form of inquiry – Philosophical Inquiry/Advaitic Inquiry. Here the higher mind or buddhi/starts playing the predominant role.
3.) Advaitic Inquiry – Witness Stage: “I am Awareness” Stage and Vivartavada
Once the mind has become psychologically mature – or in the words of Advaita school – an adhikari (qualified seeker), it becomes fit for an intense philosophical inquiry into the nature of truth and non-duality. At this stage come in the teachings of Advaita Vedanta – a traditional Indian school of Non-Duality.
Advaita is a non-dual school based on Vedanta. Its central teaching is: the root of all suffering is the ignorance we have about the ultimate nature of our reality. Relying on the revealed knowledge of Srutis/scriptures called Upanishads, Vivartavada of Shankara shows that due to metaphysical Ignorance/Maya, we take ourselves to be this limited mind/body/intellect. But with the help of the teachings in the scriptures, along with a qualified teacher who knows the traditional way of teaching, a seeker is systematically led to the Knowledge that he is not actually the limited mind/body/intellect which takes birth, dies, subject to suffering and endless cycles of birth and rebirth. In actuality, we are Self/Brahman/Sat-Chit-Ananda or Eternal Existence–Consciousness-Bliss. We are actually immortal, unborn and undying.
The traditional method of teaching Advaita starts by accepting the falsities that are superimposed on a seekers mind; then gradually, one by one, peeling these layers through a process of negation, till all layers of falsity superimposed on one’s true nature are discriminated, Self-Knowledge being self luminous reveals itself, and the seeker gains direct Knowledge of his true nature as Self/Brahman/Awareness/Witness. The main tool used for this operation, as noted earlier, is the seeker’s higher mind or intellect (called Buddhi in Advaita). Thus, this path requires a very sharp intellect. Only through such a sharp Buddhi/intellect, does one, posses the Viveka/discriminatory power to isolate Self/Awareness/Witness from all false layers of identification. A mind which has passed all the previous stages I have outlined is at last engaged in the subtlest contemplation/Nidhidhyasana to discriminate between Awareness and all the objects that appear to Awareness. The most subtle object to be discriminated is the thinker-doer-experiencer, the individual subject, which we take ourselves to be.
As one continues in this contemplation/Nidhidhyasana, at some point – a thought, called the Akhandakara Vritti flashes in the mind. At that very instant, Self/Awareness/Witness/Brahman, on which the thinker-doer-experiencer that had been superimposed like a film on a screen, is revealed, and one’s identity shifts from being the mortal thinker-doer-experiencer to being eternal Self/Awareness/Witness/Brahman. I have written about this in greater detail in my article – Self inquiry and insight into one’s true nature/Self in Advaita. This is called the “I am Awareness” or Witness stage. In this stage, all thoughts, feelings, sensations, body and mind appear to Witness. So Witness is not a personal seer. It is that to which the entire universe appears and disappears, including one’s own body and mind.
A person at this stage, according to Shankara, is a Jnani/Jivanmukta – a person who is Self Realized. While a Jivanmukta is freed from the sufferings of two kinds of Karma – Sanchita Karma/stored Karma of past lives and Agami Karma/ Karma resulting from future actions, he still has to experience Prarabdha Karma/Karma which has produced the current birth of body and which has already become operative. When the Prarabdha Karma wears out completely, his body drops and the Jivanmukta dies. He cites this in his commentary of Chandogya Upanishad (6.14.2) and in his Brahmasutra Bhashya (4.1.15). Thus, in Shankara’s scheme full enlightenment happens only in the time of death, when all Prarabdha Karma is exhausted and the Jivanmukta attains Videhamukti – the fall of the body.
In Shankara’s Vivartavada, Awareness is the eternal Witness. There is still a duality between the Witness and the world, which Shankara shows to be a creation of Maya. As mentioned above, in Shankara’s system this duality between the world and Maya ends only on death with the exhaustion of all Prarabdha Karma. However, I got very intrigued when I came across the Direct Path book of Greg Goode and noticed that he talks of the dissolution of the Witness too and the complete ending of duality between Awareness and the world (of objects) while alive. My curiosity made me go to Ajativada and the Direct Path.
4.) Advaitic and Direct Path Inquiry – Collapse of Witness Stage: “Everything is Awareness” and Ajativada
Out of curiosity to understand the dissolution of Witness I had a number of online conversations with my friend and guide Greg Goode who finally led me to Ajativada of Gaudapada found in his Mandukya Karika. He also opened my way to the Direct Path teachings of Sri Atmananda Krishna Menon which are a modern unfolding of Ajativada. In his approach I found what I was looking for, a self inquiry approach to deconstruct the subject-object duality completely. Greg Goode has authored some excellent books on Direct Path, with even more incisive and detailed deconstruction of subject-object duality than one comes across in the original teachings of Atmananda. Of course, Greg directly derives the main principles from Atmananda.
In Ajativada one realizes that Awareness never gives birth to, or even “appears” as the plural world, the latter being the case in Vivartavada. Ajativada means creation of world never happened so even Maya of Vivartavada is rejected; it is seen that this very world is Awareness itself, unlike the case in Vivartavada where the word is seen as an unreal appearance of Awareness. All causality is deconstructed. Thus, the Witness is seen through as the most subtle superimposition on Awareness in the teachings of Direct Path. Once a seeker, who has stabilized in the Witness stage, enters Ajativada and Direct Path, further inquiry into the seeming duality between the Witness and objects dissolves the last standing subject-object duality. The construct of Witness collapses and everything is then seen as Awareness without any subject and object duality. All phenomena that were taken as objects appearing to a Witness are seen to be Awareness itself without any seer. In Ajativada one realizes the following statements of Gaudapada from Mandukya Karika.
Verse 3.48: No Jiva is ever born. There does not exist any cause which can produce it. This is the highest truth that nothing is born.
Verse 4.91: All Dharmās (phenomena) by their nature are well determined as enlightened from the very beginning (adibuddha). One who has such self-sufficiency is fit for the deathless state.
Verse 4.92: All Dharmās indeed are quiescent from the very beginning, unoriginated, and happy by nature itself, homogeneous, and non-separate, [reality is] fearless and unoriginated sameness.
These statements show that “Sat/deathless – Chit/consciousness – Ananda/bliss” is the very nature of everything in the world, right from the beginning, which was only obscured from one’s view due to ignorance. Our previously existent and deluded view that the world consists of self existent subjects and objects/phenomena is sublated.
Greg Goode clarifies this stage in terms of the collapse of the Witness aspect of Awareness:
“When your experience isn’t characterized by comings and goings, awareness has no witnessing aspect. This is referred to as ‘pure consciousness,’ or ‘consciousness without objects.’ Through deep, experiential inquiry, the witnessing aspect becomes more and more salient and then becomes more and more subtle. Finally, the witnessing aspect collapses or fades away. This point is sometimes referred to as ‘non-dual realization’ or ‘self-realization.'”
~ After Awareness – The End of the Path
Speaking about this stage in a similar vein, Gaudapada says in Mandukya Karika:
Verse 3.32: When the mind does not imagine on account of the knowledge of the Truth which is Ātman, then it ceases to be mind and becomes free from all idea of cognition, for want of objects to be cognised.
Commentary by Shankara:
How does the mind become naught? It is thus replied:—The Ātman alone is the Reality like the clay; as in the Śruti passage, “All modifications are mere names arising from efforts of speech. The clay alone is real.” That knowledge of the reality of Ātman comes through the Scripture and the teacher. The mind having attained to that knowledge does not imagine, as there remains nothing to be imagined. The mind then is like fire when there is no fuel to burn. When the mind thus does no longer imagine, it ceases to be mind, that is, the mind, for want of any object to be cognised, becomes free from all cognition.
The above actually corresponds to the stage of amanastam – No Mind. Both the quotes of Greg Goode and Gaudapada combined show that the Witness collapse occurs when one reaches the state of no-mind due to discrimination possessed by a seeker of Self Knowledge. In Shankara’s system, total ignorance is destroyed only on death but Ajativada shows the possibility of total ending of ignorance and thus total ending of all duality while living.
Thus, this stage brings to an end the seer-seen duality. I have yet to reach the stage of “amanstam – No Mind“
After Non-Dual Realization
As mentioned in Gaudapada’s Mandukya Karika, the state of no-mind brings about the total end of suffering. Nothing needs to be done after this. We have the following verses:
Verse 3.36: (This Brahman is) birthless, free from sleep and dream, without name and form, ever-effulgent and omniscient. Nothing has to be done in any way (with respect to Brahman). [after knowing it]
Verse 3.38: In that Brahman which is free from all acts of the mind, there is neither any idea of acceptance nor any idea of giving up (of anything). Established in the Atman (Self), knowledge attains to the state of birthlessness and sameness, that is to say changelessness.
Emptiness of Awareness: Awareness is a Non-Affirming Conceptual Designation for the Nature of Phenomena
When the Witness collapses, signalling the end of all subject-object duality, we understand that Awareness is not some “substance”, “thing”, “essence”, “attribute”, “process” or “relation”. While all this was clear in the Witness stage itself, however in this stage, Awareness is conceptualized as “Eternal Subject”, “Witness” etc. as opposed to changing forms/objects of the world, in Vivartavada of Shankara. (Though, most commonly he translates Awareness as non-dual Knowledge, which is its deepest meaning and which remains unchanged even after the Witness collapses). With the collapse of Witness these last standing dualities too drop. The Witness realization had seen through the illusion of a personal self as subject, whereas the collapse of Witness realization sees through the illusion of an impersonal Self as a Subject. In the Direct Path Witnessing Awareness is taken as a tool to examine all objects that appear to it. These were helpful conceptions to negate all other forms of duality before finally obliterating the subject-object duality completely. It’s like you first sweep all the dirt of a room into a neat pile, and then you sweep out the pile away itself. So at the end, one is not left with any Awareness as an essence, substance or view. You sweep the room/view clean of all dirt of duality without any pile of dirt/duality remaining in the end.
Everything is Awareness means that all phenomena are Awareness. It means that there are no foreground phenomena separate from a background of unchanging Awareness as a subject. Nor does it mean that Awareness is some kind of substance that is moulding phenomena the way gold is moulded into different ornaments. Awareness is a “non-affirming” description of the nature of phenomena/appearances. It is a non-affirming designation that negates all four extreme views of the existence of phenomena. Thus, talking about Awareness, Gaudapada says in Mandukya Karika:
“Verse 4.83. Childish persons verily cover It (fail to know It) by predicating of It such attributes as existence, nonexistence, existence and non-existence and absolute nonexistence, derived respectively from their notion of change, immovability, combination of both and absolute negation.”
In my path of Jnana Yoga I have followed various paths which have been closely aligned with each other. I started out with J Krishnamurti, moved to Advaita and then finally to a variant of Advaita called Direct Path. This does not mean that each path was in any sense incomplete. I jumped the raft of a path whenever I did not find a teaching serving my purpose and predilection which leans heavily towards deconstructive philosophical inquiry and contemplation rather than Yoga based approaches which demand any form of repetitive activity.
“That path alone, by following which a man becomes grounded in the knowledge of the reality, is the right path for him. There is no one single path which suits all alike.”
This is what Sureshwaracharya, the great disciple of Shankara says. No attempt needs to be made to reconcile the different methods followed in the paths I have listed. There may be no difficulty if one can carefully discern the point of view underlying each prakriya/method listed in the different paths. If this is not possible, one need only hold fast to the prakriya which appeals to one. This is a very subtle point that can be understood by a student who is very far advanced in the journey of non-duality.