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Darsana Three - Introduction, Part II


Asatya Darsana Introduction, Part II


         It felt great to get back to our Darsanamala study, which for many of us is a chance to sink in to an all-too-rare state of blissful and quiet alertness. A rather delectable rhubarb pie set the stage, with its yogic balancing of sweet and sour nourishment floating above a solid yet flaky ground of crust. Face it, mmm and aum are very closely related.

         The introduction to the third darsana is a solid presentation of some of the key concepts in Narayana Guru’s philosophy. While none of them are particularly foreign to the modern seeker of truth, they have a unique tinge of gentleness and compassion that invites us in as valued human beings. I just ran across a fan letter for one of my books that reminded me of how this philosophy differs from the norm. The “help” he says I offer is merely to pass along the wisdom I have been privileged to have been served by Guru Nitya and company:


Most often religious or spiritual literature either seems heavy on doctrine divorced from the reality I know, or makes me feel horrible about who I am…. I’ve been reading and studying religion and spirituality my whole life and more times than not it would leave me feeling depressed and sad knowing I could never achieve the rarefied heights of god-realization or sainthood. With your help, I’m getting over that. To view everyone and everything as revelation of the Absolute is quite different than considering the world a fallen and evil place that somehow I am responsible for.


We could say that Narayana Guru’s transformation of his world had a lot to do with converting the prevailing hierarchical view of spirituality, brimming with top dogs and under dogs, to a democratic one in which all are equal as manifestations of the ultimate reality nested in the heart of plurality. We are striving to make that vision real in our own lives, not as a mere idea but as a conviction. Nitya highlights our best tool to accomplish this:


We should adopt an attitude of wary skepticism coupled with relentlessly critical scrutiny when seeking the path of our intended search for the nature and meaning of mind. It is paradoxical that the same mind which brings all kinds of bondage and suffering can also lend itself to be the most efficient weapon to prove, analyze, scrutinize and lay bare the truth of itself.


We in the class compared our efforts with those of scientists and were able to isolate an important difference within the similarity. Philosophers can dare to posit a ground of being, while scientists prefer not to rely on it since it is likely to affect their abstract reasoning. Nonetheless, we are all seeking the same thing, the discovery of the fundamental reality of existence, which is, after all, the ground of being. Where scientists aim to comprehend and delineate reality from a detached vantage point, a spiritual seeker aims to participate as fully as possible in it.

         Prabu cited Kant, who asserted that we can’t know any thing-in-itself, but at best develop only a rough interpretation of it. Prabu rightly saw this as also the starting point of Vedanta, to accept that what we perceive is not reality as such but a partial reconstruction of it. The brain famously erects its world from a tiny handful of suggestive impressions. With diligence we can always add more impressions, but never enough to fully match the original, and even then there is sure to still be a gap between them.

         Despite this limitation, scientists and philosophers both persist in refining what we can know of the thing-in-itself. It makes for the unfolding of history! So what if we are not going to come to the end of it? That’s a good thing. We will never run out of life to live. Only if we falsely believe we have grasped the entire picture do we hit the wall and come to a halt.

         Deb argued that the difference in Vedanta is that we can believe that it is possible to access reality, that we can get out from all the blocks and conditionings that limit our understanding. Yet I would say that for the most part this is a delusory belief, or at least it may be that we surrender too soon. We can certainly improve our vision, but as soon as we stand pat on what we believe to be finalized truth we come up short. There is always more knowledge beyond our grasp. Realization does not depend the accumulation of knowledge, period. And this is another very good thing.

         Nataraja Guru puts this beautifully in his own commentary on Atmo verse 16, with a nod to its author, Narayana Guru:


The sound that opens the eye of wisdom is an ideogram familiar in India, and the recluse of full self-discipline is also a model popularly understood. The main point that we have to notice here is that wisdom gets established not by labored graded steps, but that it happens when the personal attitude and the intelligence work together to usher in the result. No staircase is needed to ascend to wisdom. The duality between ends and means is abolished. Further, speaking as he must be from his own personal experience, this view has to be given the full credit it deserves as a direct wisdom teaching of rare value.


         Fortunately we don’t have to have a perfect understanding in order to be an enthusiastic participant in the universe. Participation is our native state. As is ignorance—we will never come to the end of what is possible, so that we could finally say “That’s it!” Or, with a short-lived movement from the 1980s: “I Found It.” As soon as you say such a thing, the limitation of your idea stands exposed for the ignorance it is based on, and that will never come to an end.

         Nitya specifies the central role of the ground of being even in Western philosophy:


According to Sartre, there must be some form of existence which is antecedent to the essence of any experience. He prefers not to call this existence “God,” but he is willing to qualify it as “Godlike Beingness.” We need not get into controversy with Sartre, but his “Beingness” is no more helpful than “mind.” So it is advisable that we deal with the word “mind” even though it is now appearing to us as vague, ambiguous, and somewhat strange.


We should note that mind in this perspective is coextensive with God or the ground of being, which is why leaving the mind is such an immense challenge. The entire universe resides within the mind, or better, as the mind, so there is nothing outside it. Where else could you go?

         Scientists have intentionally deleted even the presumption of a ground of existence. We can see how it is implied in their thinking, as Nataraja Guru examined in The Search for a Norm in Western Thought (now part of Unitive Philosophy) but they will deny it, and that’s perfectly right. It is all too easy for any assumption, no matter how basic, to expand beyond its boundaries to sabotage the purity of the truth as it is interpreted.

         Another essential aspect of Narayana Guru’s (and other’s) philosophy is that we are not made up of our beliefs and ways of thinking. We are learning to let go of the ideas we cling to, to discover what is prior to them. It’s a very liberating realization to see that we don’t disappear when we give up believing that we have to know everything. It’s basically a school-induced obsession. As we let go of our cherished beliefs we don’t vanish; our real basis comes out more and more. I’ll clip in Ram Das’ realization of this, an oldie but goodie, as Part II.

         Deb recalled the image of the sculptor paring away the extraneous parts of the stone to reveal the glorious sculpture hidden within. It caused Bill to quote Patanjali, who famously advocated the restraint of mental modifications. When I asked the class what restraint actually meant, it sparked a lively discussion.

         Deb said it meant you don’t allow yourself to get carried away by your reactions or your enthusiasm for the social consensus of the moment. That’s a good starting point, and when we look at the utter chaos echoed and amplified by the popular media, there is ample room for restraint in our everyday awareness. As Nancy put it, we are like pool balls, always crashing into each other so long as we stick to our chosen trajectory. Some day soon we may have cars with built in anti-crash features, so we never collide—we sometimes act that way ourselves. But again, this is just relating to the transactional aspect of life. What might spiritual restraint look like? Would it be any different?

         Many people take psychological restraint to mean you squelch uncomfortable feelings and thoughts whenever they threaten to surface, but as we know, that’s a recipe for mental constipation or worse. What Nitya suggests is taking a good hard look at your mental modifications, without necessarily broadcasting them far and wide. When we do that, they may be seen to be much less important than we thought. Or our interpretation changes in a positive way. Once they are seen to be of secondary value, they dissolve on their own. Putting things in proper perspective in this fashion is known as wisdom.

         Jan always reminds us that our energy is better spent in understanding our blocks rather than trying to keep them repressed out of sight. Like her, once we have a measure of success in intelligently releasing the hold of our confusion, it lends us the courage to enjoy the process despite its difficulty. She thought it was pretty easy to question ourself, so what’s the big deal? It’s a form of common sense, really. But can we go with the flow, trusting that our inner resources are guiding our prospects for the best? That’s a bit trickier. We have to trust that our ego is riding on a vast, intelligent system that supplies all our “divine intervention.” Inviting that in helps to pry us out of our constrictive mentalities.

         In keeping with the goal-orientation of the diagram reproduced in the last notes, Nancy took it to mean that we postulate a solid truth and then work to get to it. She also was sure that it gets easier to let go of our blocks as we age. They just don’t seem so important any more. I’d add that this is partially because we have already examined those issues, perhaps many times.

         Ultimately mental modifications are restrained from within, by being subsumed in a greater awareness. Per the Gita, when the One Beyond is sighted, the urge to revel in unhelpful ideas disappears. The image is like exploring a cave with a dim and spluttering torch, when someone switches on the electric lights. The torch may still be burning, but you can’t even see it anymore. And you no longer need it.

         A couple of us cited Nataraja Guru saying one of the most important ways to restrain yourself is to give up the desire for things, which is a well-known concept, but one that tends to make an end run around our intentions unless we are a thoroughgoing absolutist. There’s a lot of pretence in this area. I prefer Nitya’s take, from That Alone, where we are to restrain our small ideas in favor of broader ones. He concludes his spectacular verse 56 commentary with an invitation:


To my mind, the ice-creamlike grace for which you crave is only one tiny little drop of the whole truth. The greatest grace is to have an insight into this great truth from inside…. You are breaking up the real grace, and throwing it away into meaninglessness, when you lift yourself out of the whole. I’m not taking grace away from you. I am asking you to trade in your childish grace for the real grace. You attain a greater freedom when you give up your small freedoms. (388)


Deb echoed this with a quote from Nitya’s Brihadaranyaka Upanishad commentary we are simultaneously studying with Nancy Y. online: “By simply seeing [Isvara] the manifested ego is corrected of its relativistic weakness.” Just make sure your ego isn’t pretending to be Isvara, and all will be well.

         In a sense we are trying to get outside our self in order to be our Self. The self we have made is like a too tight set of clothing we have outgrown, and it squeezes. Some of it may burst from the strain, but we can also strip some of it away and give ourselves more room to breathe.

         This can feel like entering unknown territory. Having guru-exemplars demonstrating the freedom that comes from having relinquished their restrictive self-identity can give us courage. Remember the first time you dared to swim into the deep end of the pool as a child? Scary at first, and then so delicious! Better than pie, even. Nitya says:


In our search for a starting point, or some fundamental principle on which we can have a firm footing, we shall have to take the risk of making a plunge into the unknown. From the darkness of the unknown and from the mystery of the unconscious will arise our first glimpse of the intimation of an awareness. However intangible the origin of this awareness is, we should step onto it as the alpha point of our search.


Part of the class notes on the first part of this introduction is worth repeating. Remember, we were discussing memory’s role in shaping us, but also in limiting us:


What it amounts to is that our memories pile up and take over from any unfettered perception of the present moment we might otherwise have. After a while the infusion of new growth via inspiration is brought to a halt, and we replay the same familiar scenarios over and over, even if they are painfully constraining. The fearful mind always wonders what woes the unknown may intend to add to our state of mind. It is a significant achievement to attain an optimistic attitude about our inner being so that we can welcome its input instead of shutting it out. The accomplishment is made even more challenging by the negative pronouncements of unenlightened social and religious proponents.

  When we get bogged down in memories and social constraints, our own personal being is suppressed, which leads to depression, malaise, and the inability to accomplish much of interest. Our inner being is always trying to find ways to be expressed, and if we don’t permit it, we suffer…. Once we realize that all transient expression floats on the solid reality of the Absolute, we can take joy in everything.


Nitya puts it this way:


What has eluded the comprehension of philosophers, psychologists and theologians is an understanding of the real and fundamental cause, which gives rise to the presentation of an eidetic origination of consciousness, together with that which can release consciousness from the inhibitory clutches of the seemingly factual and psychic into the realm of transcendence.


Nitya then describes the meaning of the diagram presenting the fourfold scheme of correlation. Despite looking static on paper, it represents a dynamic movement within the psyche. As we travel through life, we are going forward from the alpha to the omega, which is from the bottom to the top in the diagram. Nitya always talked about a corresponding movement from the top down, meeting us exactly where we are. Or really, from in front: the beckoning of the mystery for us to enter into it. I added a thought last night that just occurred to me: the vertical line of our forward progress is actually more like an inverted cone. It emanates from the apex at the alpha end, but our progress through life is ever-expanding, accessing wider ambits all along, in all directions. It’s more like a misshapen cone, because we sometimes strain to hold back on the expansiveness, or get stuck at certain levels. But the lure of transcendence permeates the whole of our being. As Robert Frost so beautifully put it in his poem Mending Wall: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.” He amusingly adds, “It’s not elves exactly.” In fact, it’s nothing we can put our finger on. Here’s how Nitya expresses the innate urge for transcendence this time:


At the negative alpha pole, the first modification of consciousness – signalling the origination of an individuated awareness – begins a movement up the vertical pole to culminate in the omega point of the transcendental or universalized consciousness. From the universal or transcendental consciousness there arises a counterpart of the individuation of awareness moving downward. The awareness from the alpha point and the awareness from the omega point meet at the center. The whole pulsation of awareness operates in the individual from the central point of conjunction. This enables the individual to contract consciousness to a pinpoint of awareness, and also to expand it simultaneously to locate that specific experience as an integral part of a universal field of experience. This is like a constant dialogue going on between the dual principles of immanence and transcendence.


It’s well worth taking this to heart, for as Nitya says, “If you can follow the instruction of the Guru thus far, you can also comprehend how the individuated self can become universal.” First we comprehend it, then we realize it. Not a bad game, isn’t it?


Part II

         Here’s a reprise of Ram Das losing his various personalities and finding his soul, thanks to psilocybin, a psychedelic medicine. As retold by Don Lattin, in The Harvard Psychedelic Club (New York: Harper One, 2010):


Alpert really started coming on to the psilocybin. There was too much talking in the kitchen, so he walked into the living room, a darker and more peaceful setting. He sat down on the sofa and tried to collect himself. Looking up, he saw some people over in the corner. Who are they? Were they real? Then he started to see them as images of himself in his various roles. They were hallucinations, but they seemed so real. There was the professor with a cap and gown. There was a pilot in a pilot’s hat. There was the lover. At first, he was a bit amused by the vision. Those are just my roles. That role can go. That role can go. I’ve had it with that role. Then he saw himself as his father’s son. The feeling changed. Wait a minute. This drug is giving me amnesia! I’ll wake up and I won’t know who I am! That was terrifying, but Alpert reminded himself that those roles weren’t really important. Stop worrying. It’s fine. At least I have a body. Then Alpert looked down on the couch at his body. There’s no body! Where’s my body? There’s no-body. There’s nobody. That was terrifying. He started to call out for Tim [Leary]. Wait a minute. How can I call out to Tim? Who was going to call for Tim? The minder of the store, me would be calling for Tim. But who is me? It was terrifying at first, but all of a sudden Alpert started watching the whole show with a kind of calm compassion.

         At that moment Richard Alpert met his own soul, his true soul. He jumped off the couch, ran out the door, and rolled down a snow-covered hill behind Leary’s house. It was bliss. Pure bliss. (54-5)


Scott Teitsworth