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Advanced Yoga Practices
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Lesson 350 - Practices for Moving Beyond the Witness Stage (Audio)
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New Visitors: It is recommended you read from the beginning of the archive, as previous lessons are prerequisite to this one. The first lesson is, "Why This Discussion?"
Observer, Process of Observation, and Object
First, let's take a look at the structure of things the witness and its relationship to our sense of self, the mechanics of perception, and the objects of perception. It is this relationship that we seek to enliven in a way that enables us to move beyond the limitations of time and space, and the suffering that is inherent in the human condition, even while remaining fully human and engaged in life for the betterment and happiness of all.
Since the beginning of the AYP lessons, from the time when we first provided instructions for deep meditation (see Lesson 13), we have used various phrases to describe what we are cultivating with our practice abiding inner silence, stillness, pure bliss consciousness, sat-chit-ananda, the witness, etc. All of these add up to the same thing an increasing sense of calmness, steadiness and peace coming up behind our sensory perceptions, thoughts and feelings. At some point we notice that, while everything within and around us is moving, something fundamental within us is not moving. We have called it "the witness." So steady is this silent awareness, that we also have recognized it as being at the root of our sense of self. Even so, we have still been in duality with the witness, meaning we are "in here" as the immovable witness, and at the same time involved in everything that is "out there" in motion, including our thoughts, feelings and sensory perceptions, all of which are external to the witness. While we know ourselves to be separate, we have also known ourselves to be in the world of our body/mind and everything else. So our sense of self, our "I-sense," is divided into "me" unmoving in here, and "me" still engaged in everything out there. It is a condition of duality. This sense of duality actually becomes amplified when we first notice our witness quality, because we sense ourselves alone and separate from the events occurring within and around us. This amplified sense of duality in early witness stage is normal and only temporary, as we shall see.
The duality we experience in everyday life is found in the dynamic of the observer (subject), the process of observation (perception), and object of observation. It is "me" and the other two. Before the witness (pre-witnessing stage of mind see Lesson 327), the observer was considered to be the body/mind, as in, "I am the body/mind observing these objects." In this situation, the subject ("I") is identified as the object. It is the object (body/mind) masquerading as subject and viewing other objects an object-to-object duality.
This is the stickiness of awareness, self-identifying itself with an object, the body/mind, creating a false sense of self, what we call ego. Awareness is so sticky that we may even consider our possessions to be extensions of our self my house, my car, my money, my family, my nation, etc. The consequences of this kind of self-identification are well known. Just read todays news headlines. Surely we can do better.
With the witness coming up, all of this object-identification begins to recede, enough so that while we may still feel we are the body/mind, we also know that we are beyond it in abiding inner silence. It is still duality, but a more liberated kind of duality, and this begins to be noticed in our perceptions and actions. It is our true self (witness) seeing objects instead of a false self (ego) seeing objects. A big step forward. As we experience the abiding witness, it is duality in transition. Taking it to the point where our sense of self is able to release entirely from identification with the body/mind and other objects of perception is the next step. It is a step that can take some time of gradual uncoupling of the self-identification (stickiness) of awareness. The more gradual the uncoupling, the more stable and lasting the result will be. Some have claimed the uncoupling to happen suddenly, with or without measures taken beforehand to stimulate it.
Sudden transformations of self-identification are possible. They are often accompanied by physical and psychological trials, and repeated setbacks. Rome was not built in a day, but one way or another it will be built! In the AYP approach, with all the practices we have available to us, we have been cultivating the witness directly in deep meditation, and begun moving stillness with samyama and basic forms of self-inquiry. With all of this, our sense of self has been slowly receding from the objects of perception, including the body/mind.
During this gradual receding of self-identification with objects, the relationship of observer, process of observation, and object of observation remains intact. It does not change. What changes is our sense of self, our I-sense. It moves out slowly from the objects of perception into our emerging unbounded awareness. As it does, the initial duality between the witness and the objects of perception becomes gradually less dual and more non-dual. This means that the two gradually become One. At the same time, our sense of self expands to become increasingly universal, not tied to any particular object, but found to be underlying all objects of perception. Not self-identified with objects, but underlying them in a way that we no longer see ourselves as being in the world, but instead, the world being in us. At that time we are justified in replacing the small "s" with a big "S." We have gone from being a small identified self, to being the big universal Self. This is not philosophical. It is experiential. It is not a concept. It is a condition that we find ourselves in 24 hours per day.
As this shift occurs over time, it can be said that we are moving beyond the witness, because we are no longer observing objects as being outside ourselves. Even as everything is still moving, we do not see it moving, and this is the condition of no objects subject only. What we see is stillness moving, only One, a paradox for sure, a different experience than the two of observer and observed, though the mechanics of perception are still operating as before within this rising unified non-dual experience. What has changed is our sense of self in relation to all of that. What we see, no matter what we are looking at, is only Self. The duality of observer, process of observation, and object of observation is still functioning, but it has become transparent to us, much the way the detailed functioning of many aspects of nature are already transparent to us, including the multitude of activities occurring automatically within our physical body. We see the whole body and not the millions of activities that are occurring within it. Like that, as we become consciously the whole of infinite awareness, we may barely notice the many events that are occurring within our Self, including the body/mind. We engage and we are involved, but our sense of Self is beyond the details, which are constantly radiating divine love coming from our omnipresent center, our Self. We are That.
But we are not to be completely transformed to this condition of freedom and divine radiance in a single day, or even a single year. It is a process, a journey, first to the witness stage, and then moving steadily beyond the witness stage into Oneness. Along the way the temporal world as we have known it dissolves in the blazing light of Being, even while we have gone nowhere, and not even changed our daily routine of activities. It is a journey from here to here, as we discussed in Lesson 348.
The Techniques of Jnana Yoga Advaita (Non-Duality)
Assuming we are up for it, having a burning desire to be liberated from the suffering of self-identified awareness, let's see what can be done to move this natural progression along. Indeed, many have been clamoring for more as the witness has been rising in everyone, particularly those who have been engaged in daily practices over the years. The methods we are looking at here are called Jnana, which means the yoga of knowledge. It is the same as Advaita-Vedanta, which is the knowledge of the non-dual nature of life.
The logical approach has been to attack the problem with the mind, which in many cases turns out to be like appointing the bandit to be the policeman. Not that there is anything wrong with the mind. But if we are still self-identified with the mind, even with some presence of the witness, solutions will be hard to come by unless an understanding is developed, and means applied that enable us to slip through the snares of the intellect. In other words, this is not an intellectual challenge. Pure intellectuals are certainly the worst-equipped for self-inquiry. Rather, it is a journey of the witness in relation to everything else, necessarily with the application of specific mental techniques in some cases. It is much the way deep meditation and spinal breathing pranayama involve the use of specific mental techniques that enable us to transcend the mind and its objects, cultivating the core qualities of enlightenment stillness and ecstasy. Now we want to expand these core qualities onward through the stages of discrimination, dispassion and unity. In this way, we can go beyond the witness stage. We have taken important steps in adding structured daily samyama practice (see Lessons 150 and 299). This cultivates in us the habit of releasing intentions and inquiries in stillness, making everything we do more fluid in expressing the divine flow. Once we have developed the habit of samyama, we find ourselves in an excellent position to travel the road of self-inquiry.
In previous lessons, we discussed several classes of self-inquiry, and how they relate to the evolving stages of mind. We can further expand on them and categorize them in this way:
There may be significant overlap between these in any given system of practice, or in the preferences of the practitioners. In considering these categories of self-inquiry, the thing to take note of is where we are on our path right now, and how that resonates with the variety of inquiry methods available. The goal is not to jump immediately to the method furthest down the list, but to find one that resonates with our current condition. By "resonates," we mean it improves our sense of wellbeing (however we perceive that), without making a mess of it. For many who are coming to self-inquiry with serious intentions for the first time, the method will be jnana-natural leading into jnana-releasing, which are concerned with practical self-inquiry addressing our immediate issues in everyday living. That is where it begins for most of us, yes?
With a daily routine of effective yoga practices, we will find abiding inner silence coming up, and an increasing fluidity of our thoughts, feelings and actions flowing out from stillness on the wings of rising ecstatic conductivity and radiance. What to think about all this as it is happening? We will obviously be thinking something about it as we go about our daily life. In time, we come to realize that our sense of self is shifting naturally from the objects of perception to this inner silence that has arisen underneath all of our life experiences, including our inner processes of perception, thinking and feeling. It is quite easy to go with that shift in our I-sense, and this is what we can call the advent of natural advaita natural non-duality. It is also natural jnana yoga, which is the same thing.
Recall that all the limbs of yoga are connected, so it is not out of the ordinary for progress in one area of yoga to stimulate progress in other areas of yoga. The more areas of yoga we are engaged in, the more synergies will be arising, and the more rapid our progress. The wisdom inherent within us (our inner guru) knows this, so as we find natural advaita arising, we will be inclined to inquire. It can be an intuitive kind of inquiring occurring as we go about our daily business something as simple as, "Who is it having this experience?" and release. It can take many forms, limited only by our imagination. The underlying feature in all true self-inquiry is that it is released in stillness. This ability is what we have been developing in samyama all along. With daily deep meditation and samyama, relational self-inquiry (in stillness) is inevitable. The rise of the witness and our ability to release our intentions in it is the foundation of effective self-inquiry.
Along the way, we may be inspired to add more structured forms of self-inquiry. How we go about it will depend on our personal inclinations. Even if we do not have strong bhakti for a far-reaching ideal of non-duality, styles of self-inquiry that deal with the issues we encounter in daily life are very effective and will lead us forward. It is an easy place to start, and brings practical benefits in the here and now: in our relationships, in our work, and in theincreasingly illuminated way that we see the world in general. With the witness, we begin to see our thoughts and feelings as objects, and in doing so we find ourselves with the option to release or transform inner patterns to support our best interests. In time, this will have far-reaching implications. All of this comes up naturally through through daily yoga practices.
With abiding inner silence (the witness) coming up, our thoughts and feelings begin to be perceived as the objects that they are. Before that, we may have identified with these perceptions as our self, taking our thoughts and feelings more seriously than was for our own good. The first step on the road to traveling beyond duality (subject and object) in witness stage is a deepening of our understanding of thoughts/feelings being not our Self. With daily deep meditation, this will begin as a natural realization. If we choose to take a more active role, we can engage in more structured practical inquiry into our everyday thoughts and feelings, releasing and/or transforming them to improve the quality of our life. At the same time, this kind of everyday inquiry will, over time, move us gradually toward the non-dual condition of unity.
Lester Levensons "Release Technique" (also known as "the Sedona Method"), and Byron Katies "The Work," are practical self-inquiry approaches of this type, and have been shown to be effective over the years. No doubt there are others. Systems of this kind are a good starting point for practitioners looking to undertake a basic form of structured self-inquiry. That is assuming abiding inner silence (the witness) is being cultivated.
The jnana-releasing style of self-inquiry involves inquiring into and making conscious choices about our thoughts and feelings, regarding them as objects. An inquiry can be about the truth of a particular thought or feeling we are having, how it is affecting the quality of our life, and how our situation and state of mind would change without continuing our identification with it. Very often what we discover when inquiring about our thoughts/feelings is that they are mirrors of our own obstructions. What we think is coming from outside is inevitably coming from inside, an interpretation being made by our identified awareness trying to protect itself. With this recognition in relation to any particular thought/feeling, the energy of the thought/feeling automatically begins to discharge. We then may choose to release the thought/feeling altogether. There are a variety of ways to release and transform thoughts and feelings. It always involves choosing in stillness, and this cultivates our sense of self beyond the body/mind. It is suggested to review the teachings of Levenson and Katie, and others in this field, for particular methods.
For spiritual purposes, no system of self-inquiry is recommended to be undertaken as stand-alone. As a minimum, daily deep meditation is recommended in order to cultivate the necessary abiding inner silence. Jnana-releasing techniques can be undertaken prior to the emergence of the abiding witness without causing undue strain. More direct forms of jnana (affirming, negating and transcending), as discussed below, are not recommended to be approached before there is at least a beginning sense of abiding inner silence. We'd like to avoid putting excessive non-relational effort into methods of self-inquiry that look beyond the course of our ordinary daily activities. Non-relational self-inquiry can cause disruption in ones sense of wellbeing and reduce the desire to pursue a spiritual path (see Lesson 325). With prudent self-pacing of self-inquiry in relation to our rising inner silence (witness), such difficulties can be avoided, and the results with self-inquiry can be positive at every step along the path.
If we have been delving into natural self-inquiry for a while, or have been doing a structured form of jnana-releasing style of self-inquiry, at some point we will be looking to do more than processing the thoughts and feelings associated with ordinary everyday living. We may find ourselves looking beyond our health, our relationships, our work, our bank account and possessions, and so on. Not that these things will not matter anymore. It is only that they will be taken care of in stride, and our perspective will begin to transcend them to the more fundamental question of who we are in relation to the world from a perspective that emanates from beyond our body/mind and worldly concerns. This is caused by the continued shift of our sense of self beyond the objects of perception. At this point, we may become convinced that who we are is beyond all observed objects and phenomena. It is a revelation we can feel, and it may be interpreted by the intellect as, "I am That. You are That. All this is That." It is an ancient revelation, dating back many centuries to the Upanishads and Brahma Sutras, and we continue to verify the profound truth of it today.
But that is only the intellect picking up on a feeling. It is the feeling of an expanding sense of self. This is not an expanding ego, though it can turn in that direction if the mind grabs on and attempts to own that feeling without sufficient ability to release it in stillness. Ego is the child of mind, while the Self is eternal bliss consciousness. Ego holds on for dear life in time and space, while the Self holds on to nothing and is beyond time and space.
What the mind affirms for itself is of little importance, and can become an obstruction on the path if pressed excessively at the wrong time. True affirmation is not an act of the intellect. It is an act of releasing intentions of the intellect in stillness. Intellect seeks more intellect. Affirmation seeks the Self, which is beyond intellect. So an affirmation is picking up an intention and letting it go. Once released, the intention is absorbed in stillness, where it moves in stillness as ecstatic divine flow.
The Self affirms nothing, even though it is everything. It is not for the mind to say. It is for the mind to surrender its impulse. Near the end of the journey, the mind can proclaim, "I am That!" But the words themselves are not That. Only when it is released in stillness can an affirmation be an aid. It can be done with any aspect of ones chosen ideal "I am God," "I am Shiva," "I am Jesus," etc. These are all synonymous with Self when released in stillness. Anything is.
This is the habit of samyama, and, as is always the case, its outcome will be according to divine flow, not necessarily our surface mental intention. The outcome of an affirmation is unfathomable. That is okay. We will get used to it. This is the way of active surrender to the divine. This is the way of the Self. It is life in eternal love and happiness.
Depending on our nature, we may feel inclined to take a different tact in self-inquiry. An ancient method involves negation, which is the systematic denial of the ego and the world as we have known it. This is the step-by-step destruction of the self-identification of awareness with all objects, including the body, thoughts, feelings, and the mind itself. The premise is that awareness is eternal and that everything else is unreal, has no substance, and is to be negated. This is the mental process of inquiring on everything with the conclusion, "Not this, not this" (neti neti).
When we say that awareness is eternal, we do not mean that the idea of awareness is eternal, or that even the experience of awareness is eternal, for both of these are in the realm of thought and relative experience. Eternal means never born, never dies, never known. In jnana-negating, we become the Self by discarding everything else, just the way the emptiness of a hole is revealed by removing all the dirt in the place where the hole is. It is like finding a beautiful statue by chipping away all the marble that is not the statue. This is the process of neti neti. It was championed by none other than Adi Shankara many centuries ago, and most recently revived in the public awareness largely by Nisargadatta Maharaj in the 20th century.
There is significant risk in this approach, as it is easy to get into trouble with it if undertaken as non-relational self-inquiry (not released in stillness). As mentioned in previous lessons, negation in self-inquiry is not a negation of life. If we are removing the dirt, it is presumed we will find the hole of the luminous Self, if we have abiding inner silence (the witness) to begin with. In that case, it may be logical and natural to drop (let go of) objects, thoughts and feelings, regarding them as unreal. However, if we don't have the witness pre-cultivated, what we may find with neti neti instead is a sense of hopelessness, fear and despair, because our sense of self will not be found in stillness yet. In that case, neti neti is not only the annihilation of our ego and the world as non-self, it is also the annihilation of our sense of self altogether! In short, the witness is not easily cultivated by neti neti alone. However, the witness can be uncovered and enlivened by neti neti if it has already been cultivated in deep meditation.
To complicate matters, some teachers strongly encourage the practice of negation early on the path, which can be psychologically (and even physically) destructive to the wellbeing of the practitioner. When such an approach is backed with the energy of a spiritual teacher, there can be a high price to pay. Much better to start slow and advance gradually. Again, Rome was not built in a day.
As is the case with all practices offered in AYP, self-pacing is recommended as necessary to maintain progress with comfort. It does not help anyone if serious overloads and dislocations occur that may take weeks or months to recover from. Of all the methods of self-inquiry, negation carries the greatest risk when overdoingoccurs, as it can negatively impact every aspect of our life by greatly diminishing our will to engage, which is not a characteristic of rising enlightenment. It is spiritual practice run amuck.
So, with those cautions duly noted, the jnana-negating path of neti neti self-inquiry may still be attractive to some. If the negation is loving and joyful, you will know there is the resonance of inner silence for you there, and it can work marvelously. On the other hand, if negation is approached as a mechanical war-like process of logic, without sincere bhakti, it will not work. This is true for all forms of self-inquiry. The body/mind, ego and world are not the enemy. If we treat them as such, we will pay the price.
Ramana Maharshi, one of the greatest sages of the 20th century, offered a unique approach to self-inquiry that does not deal with the objects of perception at all. His enlightenment occurred outside the mainstream of traditional jnana and advaita in India, outside the guru system altogether. His approach is innovative, effective and safe. It is perhaps the most direct approach to self-realization, if it is undertaken relationally, with the witness pre-cultivated in deep meditation, and with the habit of releasing intentions in stillness established (samyama).
The method is a direct inquiry into who or what the I-sense is. The famous question, "Who am I?" is at the heart of this style of self-inquiry. But first we must notice the I-sense. So before we ask "Who am I?" we ask "To whom is this experience right now occurring?" The answer is obvious: It is occurring to "I." Then we ask, "Who am I?" and let it go.
This is a process that bypasses objects of perception, because we are first asking who is experiencing them ("I"), and then inquire as to who or what is "I." Because this approach immediately goes beyond the subject-object relationship, we call this approach jnana-transcending.
If we look at this technique within the structure of the dynamic of observer, process of observation, and object observed, we will see that we are beginning with noticing a perception and inquiring back to the observer straight away. If our sense of self is out in the body/mind, we are still being directed back through perception to the observer. This can be easily seen with the simple inquiry, "By whom is this body/mind being perceived?" The answer By "I." Then, "Who am I?"
Some may prefer to ask, "What am I?" It doesn't matter. The key to this method is identifying and inquiring on the I-sense, or the I-thought, and releasing the inquiry in stillness. It always comes back to that.
The question, "Who am I?" is not to be deliberately answered in the mind. It is to be released in stillness. This is not a process of intellect. This is simple samyama that can occur to us as we go about our daily business. It should not interfere with our motivation to be active in life. If it does, we may be overdoing it, and self-pacing will be in order. More likely there will be a rising enthusiasm in life, coming from the effulgent Self we are revealing every time we release the inquiry, "Who am I?" in stillness.
It should be emphasized that this is not a mechanical process. Asking the question "Who am I?" a thousand times without release in stillness will pale in its effect to doing it just once relationally (in stillness) with sincerity. Ask yourself now, what is the feeling of that question mark in "Who am I?" Do you really want to know who you are? If you do, and have abiding inner silence, this approach to self-inquiry can work wonders.
Love of the Self
Whatever our approach to self-inquiry may be, the character of the witness will steadily evolve from a flat separate awareness to a luminous flowing aliveness that we will see expressing through the nervous system and everywhere. We have called it a divine outpouring and stillness in action. Whatever we call it, we come to realize that this is not only who we are and the Self of all, but also that it is unbounded love flowing for us, through us, and for everyone.
It is impossible not to fall completely and totally in love with this Self. We may call it God, or by any name that resonates with our perception of the divine. It is Self. It is God. It is the object of our bhakti, and has been the essence of our chosen ideal since the beginning. The bhakti we have experienced has always been an expression of That. We have never been alone. And now It comes before us in fullness, expressing through the vehicle of our nervous system. The experiential recognition of this is a milestone in dissolving the limited self in the eternally joyous Self. We have been that in seed form all along, and by our dedication and effort, we can move beyond the witness stage and realize That in fullness.
We will continue the discussion of jnana yoga/advaita-vedanta in relation to the full scope of yoga practices, with the aim of suggesting additional practical tools that can aid us in moving forward from wherever we happen to be on our path.
The guru is in you.
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Note: For detailed discussion on the practical fundamentals of self-inquiry, and its relationship to the rise of non-dual unity, see the Self-Inquiry book and the Liberation book and AYP Plus.
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