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Nitpicking and Neo Advaita

It is a staple of a lot of contemporary neo-advaita writing that we are awareness itself and what happens – the whole of our living – happens inside of us. Here is how John Sherman, a teacher I admire a great deal, puts it.

I say, ‘There is nothing but you anywhere to be found’, and it sounds like this is some big spiritual pronouncement. But just check it out. You can’t find anything but yourself anywhere. You will find all these things that come and go in you. It is all you . . . You are the container of it, that’s all.

John’s point is that there is no time or place or experience from which we are absent. Living is continuous, without gaps. Absent awareness, what could possibly exist?

This is logically sound and we can experience it and the experience can be – especially when it is new – quite profound. We can, as John suggests, look into this experience in a sustained way and see what it is all about. What does it teach us about what we are in truth? John again:

So, always, in all cases, the opportunity is present to just look at this underlying reality. Just to look at it, not to get it, not to become it. That’s absurd, since you are it. Not to get it, not to become it, not to understand it. Just to look at it . . . That’s the inquiry. The inquiry is looking at reality as often as you can, looking at what you know to be unmoving, everpresent presence itself, as often as you can . . .

I agree with John that this is a helpful practice. I use the phrase “give attention” but the basic process is the same.

Where I deviate a bit from this neo-advaita posture is in the conclusion that this “unmoving, everpresent presence” is the self. As John puts it, we are the underlying reality. And I would say that differently. I would say something like “we are manifestations of the underlying reality that can, by virtue of our structure, sense that reality and reflect on it in language.”

I suspect John (and others) would say I am complicating things, or being too intellectual. Just look! Stop being so nitpicky and wordy. Stop being the guy who always says “yes, but . . . ”

Well, yes. But.

You see, we don’t actually know what the underlying reality is. We can intimate its presence and we can investigate it and think about it, but we can’t actually know it. Our structure – which is creative, in the sense that it brings forth a world – is also prohibitive. It is also a limit on experience. We can’t walk through walls or see molecules unaided or smell lilac bushes from a mile off. We can look inside – intensely and deeply – but there is no assurance that what we encounter is consistent with reality. As Francisco Varela puts it, “there is no a priori reason why introspection should have access to the process (es) that generate it, and thus introspection itself is useless for the elucidation of its mechanism.”

Given that simple fact, epistemic humility is in order. I am not contesting that we experience a sense of presence – of awareness – forever attending our living. I am suggesting that we not rush to any judgment about what that means. I am saying it could simply be what it feels to be a human observer, one with a brain and kidneys and a history that will terminate at death and all that.

What tends to happen is that folks confuse the structure by which they sense a reality for the reality, as if there were a 1:1 correspondence. And the suggestion I am making is that we can’t be confident there is a 1:1 correspondence. All we can say for sure is that there is a correlation. It is like seeing a red rose and concluding roses are red. Well, for most human observers, sure. Roses are red. But for a dog, no. For an ant no. For another rose, no.

Thus, the work is to go slowly, to keep looking and to remain in dialogue with experience, with living itself.

Now, part of why I am an advocate of going slowly, especially in dialogue, is because it allows us to focus on how we appear / show up / are implicated in language. That is, what words are we using, how are we using them, how are we responding to the words of others and so forth. In my experience, this is a helpful way to clarify and intensify our shared experience of living.

For example, here is the late Nathan Gill, another writer and teacher in the neo-advaita tradition whose work I also admire.

In the play of life the desire to come to rest in your true nature takes the form of seeking for awakening or enlightenment. The paradox is that your true nature is always at every moment completely available, but is obscured by seeking for it. In turn, the agitation felt by seeking serves as a goad to further seeking.

When the nature of this seeking process is understood and then undermined by living in the acceptance of every moment of life just as it is, then seeking and agitation soon naturally fall away. Your true nature is then revealed to be none other than this awake space or awareness in which everything appears.

Here, Nathan uses the phrase “true nature” rather than John’s “self.” That is more resonant for me because it is less categorical than John’s phrasing. There is a subtle but nontrivial difference between saying “I am the underlying reality” and “my true nature is the underlying reality.”

I say all this this way because I tend to use the word “love” to refer to the underlying reality, whatever it actually is. I am not saying that Love is our reality; I am saying that love moves us in ways that accord with reality. Our living is fused intimately to love: the ecstasy and joy of making love, baking bread, pouring tea, walking to the river, telling stories after dark . . . Even with all our technological progress, our fundament is as it ever was: love itself. We are joined – are as one – in the care and nurture that is the sustenance of life.

It seems to me that whatever is going on, what guides us in and through it, what welcomes us to it, what instructs and informs us in it, is love in its ordinary embodied natural simplicity.

Thus, the work is to see the way in which we are obstructing the free flow of love. Love, as A Course in Miracles points out, is our natural inheritance but in our confusion and misidentification, we obstruct both acceptance and extension of that love. So the work is to see the obstructions. We don’t have to undo the obstructions; we simply have to see them. Seeing them is how they are undone.

This is another way of saying that what we are doing when we give attention to the self and the other and the world is that we are recovering our true nature. We are remembering our true identity. Here is how Nathan Gill puts it.

All I can do is to remind you of your true nature until it becomes simply obvious. We are all the very same one. Our true nature is awareness, acknowledgment of which allows exclusive identification as the individual character to be seen through. There is no awakening in the sense of some fantastic future projected enlightenment event. Rather, the simple acknowledgement of your always-present nature as awareness undermines the whole seeking movement, which is your agitation or dis-ease.

Thus, we give attention to what appears. We make a gift of our capacity to attend: we become students, lovers, sherpas, disciples. We decline to conclude – to finish – and instead go on slowly, continuing to serve one another and love one another. We go on clarifying and refining experience so that love might be brought forth in our living in precisely the way it longs to come forth.

We do this this way because love fixes everything. Love is the light which all our problems are solved, all our distractions set aside. Not right away and not perfectly, at least as we perceive it given the nature of our structure. But love either heals the world or gives us more patience and humility and perseverance to go on offering healing to it. Love makes us happy and happiness girds us against apparent sacrifice and loss. It shows us the next step and holds our hand while we take it.

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