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A Meditation on Maya


A meditation on maya


         The horrifying US Presidential election of 2016 has left lovers of life here in a serious funk, and we have all been busy consoling each other ever since. It’s hard not to feel heartsick. All the same, there is a powerful groundswell of positive affirmation growing across the country, which is a genuine antidote to the malaise. Gathering together is healing in itself. So we once again set aside the regular maya verse to address the situation directly. We are always guided by Nitya’s frequent exhortations like this one from the end of That Alone 48:


Your realization is to be lived here and now in society where you touch and are touched by other people. Let us bring our realization to the marketplace. But you think realization is so holy and sacred that it must be kept separate, kept apart. That means you cannot live it. If you want to live it, it should be lived everywhere, at all times. Your perfection is a perfection for all time, not just for the church on Sunday. If you are perfect now you should be perfect in everyday life, too.


         Politics, obviously, is a prime example of maya. What looks so real is a fiction imagined by paranoiac people and amplified in multiple directions by media propaganda. Despite this, things get done—for better or for worse—and life goes on.

         The current moment in American politics looks dire, and yet, who knows? There are so many good and talented people spread across the globe that plenty of upside is possible. Many of them are already waking up to a greater or lesser extent from the complacency that so often sets in where life is relatively secure and comfortable.

         Last week I shared the first part of Gayathri’s response to our latest Brihadaranyaka Upanishad study group lesson, as guided by Nancy Y. We took the time to meditate on her full response in the class, reprinted (with permission) next, and it made for a deep settling in and affirmation of the qualities we most want to express in our lives. Below it is the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad excerpt we read out between Gayathri’s 5th and 6th insights, which you might want to read at that juncture. I suggest stopping now and then to really reflect on what these words mean in your own life. Gayathri has added a little to the first part, so don’t skip it:


It is early morning as I sit here in my living room after my daily meditation. The whole house is quiet other than the sounds of the keyboard as I type this. It was a longer than usual meditation. It is the day after the US election and I’m still trying to understand what it means to have Donald Trump as President of the most powerful nation on this planet. I sense a shift in the course of human consciousness – one that is seemingly headed in the wrong direction. Yet somehow I trust that all these events are leading to the awakening of our species to our true nature, because without that we will be the cause of our own extinction. Life will continue, of course, just in forms that don’t include humans. 


So my prayer as I type this, is that all of us who uphold the values of peace, justice, equality, love and freedom – all expressions of our true nature – will continue to keep our hearts open to everyone (including Donald Trump supporters) to see how we can share these values in a way which doesn’t create “otherness”. Wherever there is fear, pain, suffering, there is a natural tendency to resort to our baser instincts of hate, selfishness, anger, revenge, separateness. We’ve seen this play out in this country during the course of this election. The results of this election say that there are enough people in this country who are suffering in this way. The only way to counter this is with true compassion.


Here’s what the Dalai Lama says on compassion – “True compassion is not just an emotional response, but a firm commitment based on reason. Therefore, a truly compassionate attitude toward others does not change even if they behave negatively. Through universal altruism you develop a feeling of responsibility for others: the wish to help them actively overcome their problems.” So let’s keep working to ease the suffering of those who don't have enough food to eat, who don't have the opportunities to make a good living, who don't have access to education, who are living in oppression and fear, who don't have access to good healthcare... Let’s keep fighting the good fight for truth, goodness and beauty in our world. God knows we need it now more than ever.


This response is likely to be one more of those that doesn’t speak directly to the current set of mantras, because I would like to document and share the insights from my recent 10-day silent meditation retreat. I read the commentaries only a couple of days ago and it’s always so uncanny how the commentaries almost always resonate with my experiences/imperiences/insights from the preceding days even if I don’t read them ahead of time.


As was the case the previous two times, my 10-day retreat in beautiful Spirit Rock was a time of deep silence, peace, reflection, meditation, restoration, spontaneous joy, gratitude, beautiful insights and wonder. It also included times of fatigue, frustration, physical discomfort and pain. Our days began at 5:30 a.m. and ended at 9:30 p.m. and included about 9 hours of sitting and walking meditation, two sessions of Qi Gong (which I loved), three delicious and nutritious meals, an hour-long dharma talk every evening by one of the teachers (which I always looked forward to because all the teachers were so fabulous), and some free time after meals which I used for a hike in the hills and to do the work meditation I was assigned (cleaning two showers in the residence hall where I was staying).


As the silence deepened and the mind began to still (it was the end of day 2 for me this time), several insights and experiences began to present themselves. Here are a noteworthy few –


1)   The body is not a solid thing. I had this understanding a few times over the course of the ten days when I experienced my body as an aggregate of sensations with no distinct boundaries – a movement of breath experienced as a sensation in some part of the body, a tingling here, a pulsation there - a distinct feeling of being just another organism through which life was flowing creating these various sensations. It was an experience in which the solidity of the body seemed to dissolve into something much more nebulous.


2)   The self is not a solid thing. This understanding too was reinforced over a few meditation sessions. It was very clear to me that when my mind was identified and caught with the stories that my thoughts were generating, the sense of self felt very solid and rigid. Then there would be times when my mind was very spacious, vast and still. During these times, Gayathri became very soft and smoke-like. Gayathri could be solid like ice, liquid like water or gaseous like steam depending on the state of mind. When I was walking in nature, the sense of self became very wide and open, and when I went to sleep there was no Gayathri at all. So the self is not a well-defined “thing”. It morphs and shifts moment to moment.


3)   In those times when the mind was very still and spacious, I could witness a thought arising and Gayathri (self) arising at the same time. One doesn’t exist without the other. The self needs a counterpart to give it form/existence. I concluded that it’s not so much that the mind needs to think all the time, it’s that the self wants to persist. In order to do so, thinking needs to happen and worlds need to be created.


4)   The world is not a solid thing. It’s many, many worlds arising moment by moment. Each world is uniquely constructed by us and delivered through us to be experienced by us. Each world is a culmination of countless, zillions of causes and conditions that went before – all non-governable by us. I also had the distinct sense that this world-generating phenomenon (or non-phenomenon) is a benevolent, loving one that wants us to know our true nature. It is the Guru. All our worlds, even the ones steeped in sorrow, anger, fear, loneliness and confusion, are all brought to life so that we can discover who we really are. I had a new understanding of the mantra Guru Brahma Guru Vishnu Guru Devo Maheshwara. The Guru in the form of Brahma creates a momentary world for us, Vishnu holds it together for that moment and Shiva comes along and dissolves it so that the next world can be created. Guru Sakshaat Para Brahma Tasmai Shree Guruve Namaha. The Guru is none other than pure awareness/consciousness/the Absolute from which all worlds arise and into which they all merge. Hail to that Guru! It is all-loving.


Atmo verse 33 came to life for me. Each world is one instant of the movement of the glowing twig. We, with our memories and minds, create the figure-of-eights by putting all those instants together.


Knowledge, to know its own nature here,

has become earth and the other elements;

spiraling up, back and turning round,

like a glowing twig it is ever turning.


5)   One morning when I was on my hike along one of the trails on the hills, I saw an incredibly beautiful spider web precariously balanced between blades of grass, dancing in the breeze and shimmering with dewdrops. A large spider sat right in the middle, the Lord/Lady of his/her mansion. The web was so perfectly constructed, each thread precisely distanced from the next. The threads running across were also so perfectly spaced in a design of impeccable symmetry. In that instant, my heart broke open and I was overcome with a sense of unspeakable joy and wonder at just how beautiful this gift of life is. The web took on the form of Indra’s net in my mind, the dewdrops turning into jewels, each one reflecting all the others in an assembly of profound interconnectedness. It was a moment filled with grace and beauty. (“the indescribable glory of Sri” page 449).


6)   This last insight was the most interesting. It felt very ordinary when it came (nothing like the one I had a year-and-a-half ago when my whole body felt like it was in some drug-induced state of ecstasy and I was laughing and crying, etc.). There were a series of events that led up to this moment, but it’s too long to write it all up. I experienced for just a few moments the feeling of “no self”. I wasn’t even in a seated meditation at the time. I was walking from the meditation hall to my room. I had my eyes open. There was “seeing” happening but there was no “I” who was seeing. It was a strange experience that I’m not able to describe exactly. During the seated meditation just before this happened, I understood conclusively that awareness is non-local. I was fully contained in awareness - my body, my thoughts, feelings, sensations, everything. Awareness was not just located somewhere in the recesses of my brain, which is how I usually experience it. And then when this happened, I understood that there are different kinds of “seeing” and that there is a form of seeing that is non-dual. The eyes were definitely operating, meaning there were trees and the floorboards beneath me at the entrance of the residence hall. I could see everything, but there was no “I”. It was like my center had collapsed or dropped somehow and there was a kind of pure witnessing.


After “I” came back (it was only for a few seconds that the self “dropped”), I was momentarily confused and thought I had imagined the whole thing. How could I be registering what I was seeing if there was no “I”? So I clarified this experience with one of the teachers and he validated it for me. He told me it was a form of pure witnessing that is different from a subject seeing an object. It was a taste of the non-local nature of awareness, independent of the self.


To summarize, the body is not real, the self is not real, the world is not real. Neti, neti, neti. Yet every ounce and inch of the worlds we inhabit is infused with satyasya satya, the Truth of truths.


All in all, it was a very precious ten days, especially for someone like me who has young kids and a full life otherwise. I had to hit the ground running after I got back because it was Halloween the next day and then Prahalad’s birthday the day after that and then Diwali parties…


At the end of the retreat, Jack Kornfield, who was one of the teachers asked us each to take a Bodhisattva vow - something we can take back with us and try to live by. He also asked us to write it down and share it with a couple of people. So here it is  - “I vow to perfect my compassion and love and use them as my guiding lights to show me how to be in this world.”


Onward! There is no end to this journey. It is so wonderful to be on the path. Whether or not there is a destination at the end seems irrelevant.


With so much love to all,



         I don’t know how to deformat a list, so I couldn’t put Nitya’s contribution where it was inserted, between insights 5 and 6. It fits there rather well, so if you use this for your own meditation, I suggest doing it there. It’s more of a stream of consciousness, so I read it a bit faster than the rest. It does make a nice connection with the Maya Darsana:


Look, here is that Person. Where did you see him last? In the morning sun. It was as if his hair and beard were on fire. There were shooting beams of golden rays finer than hair filling the entire sky. His beard was of a brighter hue of silver and gold filling the mountains and valleys, making the atmosphere and the world of cities, pastures, rivers and gardens. Something flitted by like an oriole—such deep yellow in the wings that were spread across the sky. Or was it only an illusion? All that we see now is this large flock of sheep grazing in the pastures. What a snow white apparition! It’s all gone. Wonder of wonders—one moment it is all blue and the next moment a brilliant red changing into violet. Is this true, or is the whole world burning away in a conflagration of flames? Oh what a beauty—from the very heart of the flames there comes that white lotus with supremely brilliant petals. There is no fire there. Otherwise there could not be those dripping dewdrops all over the petals. In the morning glory of the sun, every drop changes into many-faceted diamonds. It is certainly hard to look on when dazzling light blinds you with a terrific brightness. Have no fear, it is no longer shining. It is only like a stray lightning. This is fantastic. We have heard of the indestructible glory of Sri. Now it is as if we are bathed in it. All through, we have been asserting “it is, it is,” and the next moment, with equal conviction, “it is not, it is not,” neti neti. However, one thing is sure—if you have seen it, you have not seen it. Before, you had only heard of the indescribable, but now you see it, hear it, feel it, yet you have no words to describe it. Have you no name for it, just to mention it to somebody else? Maybe we can say truth of truth (satyasya satya). Is it truer than your breath? Of course. Breath is truest of all we know, and yet this is truer than that. This is the truth of truths. And where is it? In your right eye. Yes indeed, in my right eye. (448-9)


Every molecule has an in-built consciousness. Each conscient being has a muffled articulation replete with the memory of everything it has passed through. However molecular it is, each one has a repository of the grand tales of life that are recorded and passed on from one transit to the next over several lives through millennia. What is it?—a specificity of conditioning. Is it a mutant, mechanical fixation? No. Each fragment of it has in it the appropriate knowhow to relate itself to what precedes it and what follows it. The most ingenious performances have their blueprint already maintained in a teleologic causal expression. That means every vasana is born of vijnana. From where do they come in such an orderly way that they have a sequence in their system and an efficiency in their manifestation?

         This is the wonder of wonders. Individually they are bricks. Collectively the plurality disappears in unity and there stands a mansion of magnificent magnitude. Are they real? Real enough to tempt. Real enough to strike fear in the onlooker. Real enough to evoke the desire to possess. What are they actually? The normative notion with which we measure our fantasies. You mean maya? Yes, indeed. But don’t we experience it? Yes, we do. Aren’t we all clothed in dignity? But you will not allow the ounces of your clothes to be pulled off one by one. That will put you to the shame of nakedness. So what is real, the yarn or the cloth? Or the dexterity of putting the yarn in a certain way which answers the needs of the consumer? Where does the stuff belong? (450)


         We had a very nice discussion afterwards, and it might have gone late into the night if we were younger and less busy, but we had to cut it off in full flood. Hopefully these ideas will continue to stir in us for a long time.

         After a long period of silence, Susan got the ball rolling:


I appreciate Gayathri’s last statement about using compassion and love as guiding lights. My daughter, who is just becoming independent in life, is going through some housing issues and is deciding how she wants things to be in the future, just as we are all worrying about the election and obsessing over predictions and assessments. Gayathri’s idea reminds me that there can be different outcomes than we anticipate, and to trust in the rightness of how things unfold and not be so rigid. I am not saying that we should roll over and not fight for what is right, just that there needs to be more space between our mind’s many thoughts (those that insist on who we are, as Gayathri said) and what is real. Love and compassion are also very real.


         I felt I should state the obvious, as usual, in case it wasn’t obvious to everyone yet. Maya is not something we can or should simply shrug off—it has a bite, and it matters to us very much. It is life, after all. Yet somehow we are learning to stay steady in a grounded state even as we soar with the wonder or recoil in fear from the looming jaws of hatred. How fortunate we are to even know that a balanced state is possible and actually advisable! The “heavy” emotions like anger, fear and hatred are very alluring, and tend to be self-reinforcing. They build toward an explosion, and that may well be in the works here in the US. But the class witnessed the calming power of wise words as we meditated together, leading us as they do to a quiet place where words are not necessary, and our souls could be refreshed. If we are going to act, it is best to do so from just such a grounded condition.

         This is why the gurus are inviting us to move toward subtle values and away from those heavier ones that can entrap and hold us fast. We can even stop all activity, and yet we continue to exist. In fact, the quality of our existence is enhanced by sitting in emptiness for a time. This kind of wisdom—or really, basic knowledge—is very much outside the box, unfortunately. Because people are taught to fear emptiness rather than welcome it, they are always seeking ex-amples—outward pulls—to give them the appearance of existing. I reprised my favorite personal observation of people who never stop talking. I realized after working with a few of them (for years in fire stations, where it was impossible for me to escape) that silence carried with it the fear of ceasing to exist for them, so they talked to prove to themselves that they were still alive. They didn’t even need an audience much of the time, only to generate some kind of vibration that they could incontrovertibly perceive. Anger and hatred of the ‘other’ serves the same purpose, and as we so often see, such emotions drag those who rely on them into dire excesses. As Deb said, one way to feel solid is to have something to fight against.

         Eugene noted how people play up their victimization for the same reason, which is a very helpful insight. In a way it’s the flip side of anger and rejection of the other—anger and rejection, usually exaggerated, of our self. He added in our talk after class, how he could hear the ugliness behind the laughter and gaiety of his friends’ drinking parties, for instance. An ebullient exterior hides our true feelings, just so long as no one really pays attention to them. Feeling like a victim resembles the nostalgia we talked about a while back, where the intensity of the emotion creates a sense of aliveness. It doesn’t matter if it’s positive or negative, just so something is there. Again, who will dare to try to see what remains when all the superficial glamour is discarded? When the noise dies down? When the guns have been locked up in their cabinets?

         Deb agreed with Gayathri that the self wants to persist and the self needs thoughts. This makes it stable. She wondered how we can do two opposite things at the same time? We want to be aware and attentive and have the courage and presence to stand up to what is destructive, and we want to be in a place of compassion and acceptance. Being in both with clarity is not easy. This is the conundrum we repeatedly find ourselves in.

         I recalled that on a run earlier in the day I had been musing on the terrible possibilities of having Not-sees in power in my own country. Anger and vindictive thoughts surged up here and there, reminding me that yes, I have those levels of reptilian behavior embedded in me too. Despite a lifetime of caring and gentleness, they haven’t completely gone away. The difference was I didn’t cling to them. I didn’t decide on an explosive course of action because of them. I watched and accepted them, but then let them go. I didn’t even beat myself up for having them—they were perfectly natural. And while apparently there are many saintly people in this world who don’t have such layers of ancient conditioning, those of us who do should not consider ourselves hopeless cases. The gurus teachings are for us, not for already realized beings. What would they need? But for those of us with flaws, we should not go along with the religious tendency to consign ourselves to hell. We have work to do, that’s all. We aren’t quite ripe yet.

         Jan concurred, admitting that intense reactions can be raised by difficult situations, and this is where we have to be compassionate to ourselves. We need our own compassion. We need to find a deeper place within ourselves where we are centered. Again, this is the exact opposite of the extroverted attitudes enshrined in our society, of blaming the other and trying to wipe them out. Somehow we have to stay active, but not reactive. It’s a very subtle business.

         Nancy recalled a talk she and Bill attended by the Dalai Lama, where he said that compassion wasn’t about fixing things. We want to make the other more like us, but that leads to conflict. True compassion is identifying with our common humanity, of joining the other instead of pushing them away. We think we know what moves them, but we only delude ourselves. Bill added that pity was totally different from compassion. As Nitya often pointed out, there is an implied sense of superiority in such attitudes, which pushes the other person away. We seldom listen, and instead instruct. Then we feel superior and disdainful—certainly a failed strategy.

         Bill agreed that the current political situation was most distressing. We hold to certain basic human values—love, compassion and all that—and to see them publically challenged so severely is disheartening. It makes him resolve to be the clearest he can be, to stand up for those worthy values. I think there are a lot of people feeling the same way.

         Andy resonated with Gayathri’s verse 33 affirmation, that all this, all the ups and downs, was how the universe exposes us to our true nature. The key for Andy was a deep connection with a central element, the central rightness of it all. In any highly polarized situation we think, “How do I fix it; how do I make it right?” We have to understand that the other person is okay, that they share the commonality of this life that is pouring through us. That was my favorite line of all Gayathri’s essay, in her first insight: “a distinct feeling of being just another organism through which life was flowing.” That change of perspective from being the doer-in-charge to being like an instrument through which life is pulsating, can make a huge difference, initiating a quantum evolutionary leap. In the Karma Darsana upcoming, it is said that “remaining actionless, the one alone beats, murmurs, and pulsates in the nerves.” We really will be moving in the direction indicated by Andy and Gayathri, if we can ever get ourselves out of the Maya Darsana, which seems to be drawing example after example to electrify us. Will it ever end? Maybe.

         Scotty agreed, and gave the example of his adult children: whenever he tries to be a role model to them, they reject him out of hand. He has to be confident that he is already an example, and not try to hit them over the head with it. Just be. I am already That.

         I repeated that we need to turn the arrow of interest back toward ourselves. Where we have an urge to preach to the other, to show them the errors of their ways, we should use the encounter to look deeply into our own psyche. We should listen carefully, taking what is happening as a learning situation provided by the flow of life, rather than an invitation to show how smart we are. It goes against so much of our developmental training in school. Yet it seems to be the only way out of our panoply of dilemmas.

         Deb summed up that we keep trying to make reality heavy, but in essence it is light, utterly expansive. One way to make things heavy and solid is to have something to fight against. Moni suggested that if instead of fighting the system you walk with it, eventually it will reveal itself. She may have meant the political system, but it could just as well have referred to the universal system with its all-embracing maya. Thinking of it, in the midst of tragic conditions, not as an enemy but as a guiding principle is our challenge. As Nitya concludes That Alone verse 95: This is a happy day for us, being with maya.

         Let us welcome the opportunity to wake up in the new ways that life is always kind to offer us. Our challenges are reflections of what is in us, not chimeras we must escape from. Of course, we have to stay safe in a dangerous environment—there is no reason not to be cautious and wary—but we need to be courageous as well. The universe invites our expert participation. Aum.


*         *         *


Several people have already responded to Gayathri’s thoughts from her first three paragraphs that I shared last week, in the immediate aftermath of the election, and they can be applied to a variety of circumstances. Stephanie wrote: This is so beautiful and one of the few comforts I have had. Thank you so much for sharing this. This is the perspective I needed. Since it did so good for my heart to hear this..... would it be possible for me to share Gayathri’s words with others? [Gayathri agreed wholeheartedly]


         Jay wrote: Here was my response: “Mudai Lakh Bhala Chahe To Kya Hota Hai Kuchh Aisa Hota Hai Jo Manjure Shaytan Hota Hai.... It's not time for Pandits...they are proven wrong.... It's time for priest... PRAY America.....:(...


meaning events may wish all the best but devil wins...

And now I think :


God, give me strength to accept

the things that cannot be changed,

Courage to change the things I can,

and the Wisdom to know the difference.


         And Dipika:


This is so sweet & positive

The world over everyone is giving out negative vibes to Trump

And here we are with Gayathri who is looking at not creating further ‘otherness’


Much love 


         For myself, I could only add Friedrich Schiller’s famous bon mot: “Against stupidity even the gods struggle in vain.” It makes me wonder if there is an alternative way out of ignorance, other than bumping into its disastrous consequences….


Scott Teitsworth