I’m working on a rather large article, reframing the stages model a bit. But this month has been unusually busy with family, so it’s been sitting for a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, in a non-duality forum, there has been an extended back and forth over the last week or so. In response to a series of questions, I replied with the following comments. I’ve lightly edited them for context…

We could say Self is the experiencer rather than the experiencing or content of experience. Thus Self is not an experience, it is what is experiencing. Another word for Self is consciousness. (in the universal sense of the word)

It is first noticed typically in samadhi or transcendental awareness. This may occur in deep meditation or when awed by beauty or “in the zone”. There is an opening or letting go and we notice simple being. This becomes much more clear when we begin witnessing, recognizing ourselves to be the detached observer of our mind and senses/ experiencing. This is the Self or Atman.

Many do indeed confuse the contents with the container. We’re so caught up in our experiences, we think of them as me and mine. But who we are is a step back from all that.

We can say there is 3 aspects to experience – the experiencer (consciousness or subject), the process of experience, and the object of experience.

While we might identify ourselves as this body/mind (an object), this is not what the experiencer is. The subject is what experiences through this body/mind.

Where this abstraction is useful is in understanding the stages of development. Most adults identify with their body-mind and thus perceive themselves to be objects. Objects are real, subjectivity is variable and unreal.

After Self Realization, it switches. The inner Self is eternal and boundless consciousness. That is real. The outer world is seen as an illusion. So now subject is real, object illusion.

With Unity or non-duality, the object is also recognized to be Atman or subject. Both the world inside and the world outside are seen to be the same thing. Subject and object merge, leaving only experiencing. Hence the term “non-duality” – there is only one here.

Of course, much more can be explored about this, but that’s the main point. You are not an object. You are that which experiences both yourself and the world around you, that which is behind the questioning mind, that notices the questions in the mind.

This is not something to believe or make a mood about or work out with the mind but rather to recognize for yourself. That’s where samadhi can be useful.

Prior to awakening, samadhi is simple being, pure awareness, being present. (there are some variations in the style of it) After awakening, the transitory state becomes the lived reality, underlying all experiences.

Lila we could say is the play, seeing life and the world as a divine unfoldment. This is a different perspective than Maya, generally understood to be world as illusion. While we can ascribe maya to Self Realization and Lila to the perspective that arises as that refines and develops, it’s useful to understand Maya more deeply. It explains how one evolves into the next.

In the Vedas, they describe the world (maya) as being formed from combinations of the 3 gunas: Sattva, Rajas and Tamas (purity/clarity, energy/activity/fire, and inertia) Shankara noted that a person will have one of the gunas dominant and this influences how they see the world. When tamas is dominant, the world behaves as a covering that obscures the deeper reality of life. World is real, inner life is not. When rajas is dominant, the world behaves like an illusion or veil – this is how most people understand the term “maya”. And when sattva is dominant, maya behaves as a ladder home. This perception evolves into Lila when the origins of Maya come to be known.

Essentially, spiritual practice and pure activities increase sattva. That which you know to be right, and so forth. But you want to be sure to ground practices with activity and not just live in the upper chakras.[Rose calls this spiritual addiction]

To get inertia to sattva though, we go through rajas. They say rajas burns tamas allowing sattva to arise. Tapas means warming. Many interpret that word to mean austerities but that’s just one form of it. Essentially it means what purifies the way and enlivens consciousness. And that is much the same as above.

And remember, we’re not in this alone. As the worlds consciousness continues to rise, it will shake up the inertia and push people to evolve. If they try to hold on, their struggles will increase. This is why it becomes increasingly important to understand what is happening and learn not to fight it.

There is an old analogy used in India of dying the cloth. You dip the cloth in the dye, then put it out in the sun to bleach. The colour fades. Repeat. Eventually the colour is fast and doesn’t fade. Likewise, you dip into samadhi, then go out into activity. If you simply meditate all day, it would be like leaving the cloth in the dye. Lots of dye but it will not last. Bleach and repeat and it will.

Activity itself is grounding. But the approach you bring to it is also important. Are you forcing and resisting life? Or do you act in the world with ease and allow life to be what it is? Most of us are of course a mixture. Some things are smooth, other things trigger us.

Purify refers to clearing the energy physiology. The astral debris, the granthis or knots, and so forth. This allows the light of consciousness to shine through and thus take away ignorance. The light of the sun is always there but removing the clouds helps this to be known. Ignorance isn’t a thing, it’s an absence. In Sanskrit it is avidya, not-knowledge.

With purity, that light shifts our perception of the world in stages. At some point, it becomes obvious it is Lila. For some, this means going through the stages of Maya. For others who came into this life with more sattva already cultured, Lila may become obvious sooner. But the depths of understanding Lila often come in later stages of enlightenment.

Part of the evolutionary process is learning to surrender more and more deeply. Letting go of our resistance and identifications. Ironically, what we let go of we don’t lose but actually gain more. We let go of the ego, for example and become cosmic. Then discover the ego is still there, but now as a function, not what we identify with.

This surrender happens not with the mind but with the deeper connection to our source. When we experience, for example, that life is literally bliss, that the flow of prana is ananda, we come to experience life differently and trust grows and thus surrender. Later, we come to experience the world as flowing consciousness. Experienced in the heart, it is divine love, beyond any emotion you will ever have experienced. Some poets like Rumi talk of this.

Lila is not just an idea that the world is divine play. It is the literal, direct, and intimate experience that the world is the divine. It is a big change in perspective. Beyond any imagination.

if you understand that life is an expression of consciousness that is built in layers, we come to realize that death just means letting go of the outer layers, depending on spiritual progress. Like taking off a couple of layers of clothing. Who we are has never died. If we have resistance and unresolved energy on the surface levels, this will draw us back into physical form and another lifetime to resolve them. But if we let go of the baggage – and this gets much easier to do en masse further along – then we don’t need to come back again. We can finish our evolution as a subtle being.

You dive within consciousness, then you come out into the world and act. You don’t try to be conscious while acting in the world. That just divides the mind. And samadhi is deeply introspective so you can’t act while in it.

By alternating samadhi and activity, the clarity of consciousness grows and then starts to become present at all times. This is presence – present awareness. It’s not something you can fake. If you have developed presence, then it can be lightly favoured and noticed. But if it’s not really there yet, we would just be practising a concept of it. This is something to be lived, not pretended.

The Vedas speak of noticing presence. If that’s not effective, meditation (to develop presence). If that’s not effective, activity.

As for the original question, any activity can be spiritual activity. It depends only on what we bring to it.

Pay attention to life and what is showing up. Being OK with it. Seeing it as a school can be useful – just be careful you’re not seeing it as a punishing school. More a way to fine tune to the flow of the river.

Just keep in mind that non-duality is a more advanced vantage point. We can use it as a pointer, but you want to speak to people on their level of experience and show what is next, where they can give their attention to grow. It is not one step from “ignorance” to non-duality.

It’s also worth noting that non-duality is also not the end of the process. There is a stage beyond non-duality. Beyond even the very subtle dualities of being or non-being, of consciousness, and of Lila. But that is another topic.

We discover what we’re looking for has been within us all along, Even the approach to awakening brings a great settling. One of the key qualities of Self Realization or Cosmic Consciousness is a deep inner peace.

In the non-dual state of Unity, this is even more the case because then we experience all others as ourselves. Why would be want to attack ourselves?

Violence comes from being alienated from others and ourselves. It is fire arising, attempting to break out of inertia. (those gunas again) But we’re acting from ignorance and thus bring pain.

There are three major stages in the development of what is often called enlightenment. Each of them also has a refined version related to the perception of the mechanics of the world, relative to the stage itself.

First stage is what is typically called Cosmic Consciousness or Self Realization. We shift from seeing ourselves as an individual me to recognizing ourselves as cosmic being or Atman. Different traditions frame this a little differently – it depends on how the exponents experienced the process. We are the inner observer or witness to the apparently illusory world or Maya. Presence is 24/7. We are boundless peace. In its fullness, it is absolute bliss consciousness or sat chit ananda.

Second stage is called Unity or advaita/ non-duality. In this stage, the world is also recognized to be none other than the Self or Atman and we become intimate with all things. The Upanishads describe this in such well-known phrases as I am That, Thou art That, all this is That, That alone is. Much of the unification takes place as a series of experience and become “events”.

The third stage is much more challenging to describe and is certainly not something the mind can grasp. It’s also still much less common, though I’ve seen some remarkable transitions in the last year. Essentially what happens is that consciousness (atman, the Self) becomes aware of itself fully enough that it recognizes its nature as both global awareness and awareness at every point within itself. Then it turns from forever looking in on itself and its expressions to looking outside of itself and seeing its own origin.

There are some very advanced souls who would reject this outright as the Self is eternal and infinite – how can it have a beginning? But this is the nature of these stage changes – they are a complete revision of our reality or perspective.

This shift is known in the Vedas as the Great Awakening. It is called Brahman. It is the surrendering of Unity. Recently, a teacher called it Beyond Consciousness because it is a shift where we transcend Atman just as we previously transcended the ego. We step beyond being or non-being, beyond consciousness, and so forth. Obviously, this makes it difficult to describe. The nothing that is more than everything? As the Tao says, the Tao that can be described is not the Tao.

I’ll note that some describe Self Realization as a non-dual state. This is incorrect. As long as there is a separate world, even if it’s seen to be illusory, it is duality. The Vedas call this stage Dwaita, not advaita.

This confusion has arisen for several reasons. For one, the westerners hope for “instant enlightenment”, forgetting that all human development comes as a process. They want one magic experience. But enlightenment is not an experience. It is punctuated by key shifts but like your own childhood, there is a process to integrate those changes and live them.

Secondly, some teachers discourage talk of stages as concepts that are barriers to living it. And while this can be true, many equally develop a concept of no stages. Or a concept of no concepts. This to me is an even greater barrier. What happens when your experience goes past the model? This has confused a number of people in recent times. You really can’t avoid concepts – it is the nature of the mind to make a story about its experiences. Better to have ones that serve you.

I see it more like a map – a conceptual framework we can use to put teachings and experiences in context. Like puberty, it’s still very useful to understand what is unfolding. It’s true that once we arrive we don’t need the map. But it’s useful to get there. But we need to understand it is never more than a map. A map is not the territory.

Great sages of yor, like Vasishtha (Rama’s guru), spoke of the importance of not stopping at Self Realization.

The map is also useful in understanding where a teacher is speaking to. Most Buddhists, for example, have lost the understanding of stages. Yet if you read Buddha’s recorded teachings from this context, it quickly becomes clear that he was speaking to different stages at different times. He was not contradicting himself.

I’ll also note some may use the term ‘Self Realization’ to mean the full realization that the Self is all. But usually it’s used in conjunction with Maya, an indicator of the first stage above.

What can further muddy the waters is that some don’t go through the refined versions (development of sattva) of the stages and thus don’t shift from the perspective of Maya to Lila. There are even some teachers who discount Lila and the related God Realization as a mythical throwback.

No, you needn’t have an exact concept of ego. The non-dual process is not about concepts but direct experience. You understand when its known directly.

There is a distinction between mind and ego but it depends a little on what you mean by “ego”. There is, for example, the Sanskrit term Ahamkara which is often translated as ego. This is the individuating principle we could say and is part of the foundation of our expression as an apparent person.

On the other hand, there is also the mind’s group of concepts of a “me” that is more commonly used to mean ego. This is what ends with Self Realization. The identification with concepts of a me falls away, allowing the Self to shine through. Or to put it a better way, the Self wakes up to Itself through an apparent person and the ego concepts are seen through. It is typical for the centre to fall out at first, then various other bits fall away over time. A single realization but lots to process.

And some use ego interchangeably with a word like person, in a very general sense.

In the Vedic understanding, mind, ego, and intellect (manas, ahamkara, buddhi) arise as the foundation of a person and are distinct. This is explored in the Samkhya darshana, one of the 6 systems of philosophy.

In the sense of ego as concepts, it’s not really different from mind.

It should be noted that these aspects all reflect (are mirrors of) cosmic values that can be discovered as the experience of Atman deepens.

Note that Self Realization is not to be sneezed at. It is the foundation of non-duality and indeed, the reason some confuse it with non-duality is because they experience an inner non-dual state and the outer world can seem completely unreal. So it seems to be a single reality. But it is not yet complete.

It is like the bud of a flower. As some friends have said, like kindergarten. It is the beginning of a profound flowering. Much more of Atman can become known, much finer values of experience, and there is a fullness beyond imagination that we can not only experience but become. (actually, discover we always were). 😉

It’s not so much that “effort” is needed as focused attention. And focus is best achieved by the correct use of attention, not by effort. In other words, by giving our attention to a vehicle like a mantra or a deity, the attention becomes focused within and settles into samadhi.

While effort can be used to achieve that, the “effortless” meditations do it more easily and reliably. I’ve seen that both in experience and comparative scientific research.

I’d also note that it’s not so much mind that is split but attention. Mind seems divided because we perceive a divided experience: self and other, inner and outer, and so forth. But that’s an illusion from identification. The divided mind is just an effect of that. If we expose ourselves to what is undivided, it is soon found in everything. The mind and experience merge when attention merges. Put another way – it’s all about consciousness. Everything else is an effect of that.

…Our form is bliss and bliss arises from our nature. But bliss too is an effect of who we recognize ourselves to be. It is the lively edge of flowing attention; it is life itself. But who we are is behind all that.

Perhaps this seems nit-picking. Subtle distinctions. But at that level, it’s very important to recognize cause and not get caught in another value of effects.

It’s worth mentioning that when bliss becomes established, it unfolds in layers. Rather than coming and going as an experience, the fog lifts and it becomes ever-present. (nirvana or sat chit ananda) It can rise in awareness quietly until we simply notice there is always a background of happiness. Or it can come on with a bang or rapture which we surprisingly quickly get used to as normal. As a few people have joked, you hope that the second doesn’t happen in public.

But this is not the end of it. The Upanishads describe 10 layers of progressively greater bliss, each 100 times the previous. Of course, experiences will vary, but as the deeper layers of consciousness unfold, the bliss of those values kicks in too.

The point – awakening is profound but it’s only the beginning. 😉

Well, really, it’s just a matter of degree. All of us have experiences of profound happiness from time to time. But unless there is some content or association with that happiness, it doesn’t leave a memory impression and may soon be forgotten.

Also, I’ll again note that bliss is an effect. It is not in itself a good goal but rather the result of becoming established in our true nature. Until we realize the Self, happiness will come and go. But once the Self is realized and integrated, it is nirvana or sat chit ananda. Then bliss is there in the background (or sometimes foreground) of all experience. The more deeply we become established, the deeper the bliss.

From the Taittiriiya Upanishad:
“Out of bliss these beings are born,
in bliss they are sustained,
and to bliss they go and merge again.”

If we recognize that prana or chi is life itself and these are an effect of bliss, this makes good sense.

Yes, the prana or chi or life force I refer to is the chi of Tai Chi, the prana of pranayama, the energy used by energy healers, etc. This is the energy that runs our subtle physiology. Big subject that includes the chakras, koshas, nadis, kundalini, etc.

But just as we are not the physical body at essence, neither are we the subtle bodies. As I mentioned, bliss is an effect and chi is an effect. It is not who we are (until later). This is why seeking happiness itself is a false goal. Yet it is a very common habit – chasing happiness that comes and goes.

On the other hand, if we seek Self Realization, we will become established in eternal being/ Atman/ Self. Then bliss will be always present. This is because bliss is the lively inner “edge” of self-aware consciousness. It reflects the essence of what consciousness is.

One way to recognize this is that when we settle into silence or samadhi in meditation, there can be a wave of happiness just before or after the silence. This is crossing the threshold. When the silence becomes established, so too will the bliss. (sooner or later)

Now – this is not to say Tai Chi is a waste of time. Learning to clear our energy physiology and work with it can be very useful. The body is our means of experiencing the world and such practices can refine the perception, allowing us to experience the mechanics I describe. It can also aid in the clarity of our experience in actual realizations. Not that realizations are experienced but clarity is still good.

For the Self-realized, life is literally bliss. It is an unfoldment for the divine to discover itself more fully. But it is not the individual who is awakened – it is the cosmic Self that has awoken a little more. As we are That, there is a natural drive to want all aspects of the Self to awaken – all beings to enjoy.

But to speak of this to someone who is deeply caught in suffering is not very useful. They will either discount it or it will be seen as yet another thing they lack. First, you must address the immediate issue to relieve suffering. Then you can perhaps begin to point the way to a better vision of life. One with purpose, meaning, and growth.

It is perfectly natural to want to seek happiness. There’s nothing wrong with that. The only difficulty is if we seek happiness in itself, it will come and go. We cannot hold on to it. It is pure movement or flow. My point was that if we establish the Self within, happiness will no longer leave us.

But we don’t have to wait for some future enlightenment to be happy. Simply the movement towards that, the coming in tune with who we are, will increase the presence of happiness in our life. As Joseph Campbell famously said, “follow your bliss”. Happiness can be a great marker for direction. But the marker is not the destination or goal.

The whole process is something of a dance. You mention having to speak to it from duality. You do need to speak to people on their level. Several of the things I’ve said in recent comments have been mostly true of Self Realization. They’re less true of non-dual stages. This is why I described the stages prior – so that all of this can be put in context. Understanding evolves.

It’s also useful to note that you cannot solve a problem on the level of the problem. Put another way, you best solve issues by changing the cause, not manipulating the effects. A lot of people’s personal problems are related to being caught by their perceptions and not knowing who they really are. So they’re buffeted by life experiences.

We are all on a course towards Self Realization, even if we don’t know it. It is in the nature of life and the universe itself. What techniques do is help you work with that process more smoothly.

Right. It can be useful to understand something of Maya as a pointer until it is the direct experience. But to build concepts and dwell on such subjects is just Maya itself.

In much the same way, ego tries to understand Self and create concepts about it. But those concepts are ego, not Self. So there is this dance that takes place where we seek understanding but at that same time learn not to take any of it too seriously. All our concepts about it have to be released to become it.

Curiously, the closer we get, the bigger the wall we can try to build to it. It does teach us the value of surrender on the path though.

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9 Responses to A Q&A

  1. Clarissa says:

    Thanks Davidya.

    Wonderful read…especially enjoyed the last three paragraphs.

    I look forward to all you have to say.

  2. Davidya says:

    Thanks, Clarissa. You may enjoy browsing the Key Posts page linked on the right. It has some articles on each of the main themes here.

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