We’re All Just Doing What We Do

More Campfire Sitting

“Shankara lived in southern India around 700 A.D,” said Tom. “He was a child prodigy who, by age ten, had memorized most of India’s holy books. In fact, scholars would go to him for council. He believed the material world, the stuff of our phenomenal existence, was illusion and he called this illusion Maya. Reality, for him, was
dualistic. A duality that was separated into the true Absolute
called Brahman, and the phenomenal world of illusion. But, when you got right down to it, the dualistic nature of Brahman and Maya was really non-dualism. Shankara always described the world
paradoxically. He would say, `The world both is and is not.'”

“Why is it,” I interrupted, “that Eastern philosophy always seems to begin and end with paradoxes?”

“I don’t know,” Tom said, “but the sages tell us that what is beyond
language and thought is, by definition, inexpressible—yet real!”

“How can something exist if it can’t be described or known?” John
replied.

“That’s why they call it Eastern philosophy,” I spoke up, “it’s the
opposite of what we do in the West. If we were scientists, we
wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”

“According to Shankara,” Tom said, “reality can’t be known, at least
not in the way we normally `know’ something, but it can be
experienced and I guess that’s another way of saying we can know it.
I can’t know a blue sky or a beautiful sunset, but that doesn’t mean that a beautiful sunset does not affect me, or that it’s not
meaningful. And, it’s not quite right to say that Eastern
philosophers never describe reality. Reality gets described
negatively. In the Upanishads there’s a guy who frequently refers to reality as `neti, neti,’ — `not this, not that’.”

“When were the Upanishads written?” I said.

“Back around the time of Christ,'” replied Tom.

“Well, how is Shankara’s philosophy different from the Upanishads?”

“That’s a good question, I wish I knew,” said Tom. “I’m not a
scholar, I just read books. What I find striking about his thought,
though, is the way he uses the atman/Brahman distinction, the same atman/Brahman distinction found in the Upanishads. In his
philosophy, Brahman, or the stuff that never changes, is the first
cause of the universe and everything in the universe emanates from, subsists in, and finally merges back into this absolute Brahman. For Shankara, the universe is superimposed upon Brahman. That means the universe, as an accumulation of objects, is essentially all Brahman, but we don’t experience it that way, instead, we experience rocks, dust and heat, the stuff called by us `universe’, the stuff of the `world illusion.’ Our job is to see through this illusion and, in doing so, experience absolute existence, knowledge, and bliss. Intuitive knowledge of our inner-self is brought into play here, for our connection with Brahman is linked to our atman, or deepest self.
When a person becomes one with their atman, they enter a
consciousness where the fundamental unreality of the universe
becomes realized. Unfortunately, this is a rare experience; our
normal experience of atman is more commonplace. It is our ego-idea, and that falsehood keeps us in the world illusion.”

“Is that anything like Freud’s ego?” said John.

“Yes and no,” replied Tom. “Shankara’s ego-idea was a more
generalized form of ego. Freud, if I remember correctly, sliced ego
into its personal, social and biological components while, for
Shankara, ego means simply `the object of consciousness.’ In other
words, Freud’s ego, superego, and id are most definitely ego-ideas,
but so to are all other predicates that can be referred to the
subject I. In this way whatever gets predicated along with the `I
consciousness’ becomes an ego-idea. For instance, when I say, `I’m hungry… I’m lonely… I’m unpopular’ –hunger, unpopular, and lonely become predicates of the subject I, thus these `referents’ become ego-ideas. Shankara goes on to tell us what we call individuality is nothing more than a generalized form of this ego-idea and, more importantly, were it not for this ego-idea there would be no particulars in the outside world. First we superimpose our ego-idea on atman then we superimpose a world of multiple creatures and objects on the undivided existence that is Brahman. In reality, though, it’s all appearance, it’s all part of the world illusion.”

“But, if I understand you correctly, how can we be connected to
Brahman by our atman when our atman, in the form of ego-idea, is the same thing that keeps us separated from Brahman?”

“Yes, that’s exactly it,” Tom replied. “Figure that out and you
become a sage, a holy man, or a Saint. In fact, the sages tell us
that the existence of our inner-self, uncontaminated by ego-idea,
makes sense up to a point, but after that we must subject ourselves to a long regime of meditation and yoga before the `real thing’ can be discovered. Shankara tells us that `only that which does not change exists’ and that something is Brahman. Shankara also tells us that world-appearance depends upon ego-idea for its existence. Yet, in order to have an ego-idea of an impersonal, unqualified Brahman, we too must exist as Brahman exists. The key to enlightenment then is to lose our ego-idea. When world-appearance vanishes, absolute existence, knowledge, and bliss follow.”

“You’ve lost me,” said John. “I can understand why some people might say that all knowledge is interpretation, but I can’t understand why any sane person would say that what is being interpreted is all illusion. How could anybody believe that nature is mere illusion?”

“I guess I kind of agree with that,” I said. “There’s just too much
beauty out there, I mean look around, look at those mountains, smell the air, listen to that owl, this feeling that comes over you, if
that’s illusion, if that’s something to be done away with then I
think I’d rather be part of the illusion than separate from it.”

“Hey,” Tom interrupted, “I said I like Shankara, I didn’t say he was God. He’s fun to read, and sometimes exciting, but I’m not sure I even understand what he’s saying. I’m convinced though, that he does have something important to say about the `human condition.’ I also know that this stuff is not for everyone. Wait a minute! I just remembered an analogy that might make him easier to understand.

“Think of nature’s transitions – birth, life, death, creativity,
decay, – as colorful changing patterns on the surface of an
expanding soap bubble. Now, let one of the more mature patterns
represent the human species. Ego-idea objects would now involve
knowledge of the beautiful and sometimes the not so beautiful
phenomena occurring within the soap emulsion patterns. Some of these patterns, maybe most, could be described mathematically. At some point, an ego-idea would predict how those patterns and cycles of patterns relate to one another. Ego-idea would come to `know’ all about the changes in those changing patterns and, as its ability to analyze those changes developed, it would start to `feel good’ about itself. At some point, ego-idea might even come to understand and predict the outcome of its own existence, and even the eventual demise of the surface that it finds itself on. It would however, be extremely difficult for ego-idea to discover the reality underlying its own existence, or the emptiness upon which the bubble rests. In other words, all loving, caring, hating, and suffering– the stuff that animates our individuality — subsists in and finally merges back into the source of all, into Brahman, into the Great Mother, into whatever name you attach to the source. Shankara probably wouldn’t like my use of the feminine gender, but as you have already said, `different strokes for different folks.’ Anyway, that’s about it. We’re all here, doing what we do, but we’re also part of a larger `spiritual whole.’ What do you think? “

“I don’t know about you,” said John, “but my butt is freezing. I’ll
sleep on it, and maybe I’ll be enlightened by morning, but until
then see you in my dreams.”

I sat alone by the fire after Tom and John went to bed. It was an
extra cold night, and the fire was warm. I couldn’t look forward to
a good night’s sleep like John and Tom. I knew I wasn’t prepared for this kind of cold. When it came time to call it a night, after I
built the fire up, I laid as close to it as possible. I slept for
more than an hour before the cold set in. I vowed if I ever went on
another trip, I would have a good sleeping bag.

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About bwinwnbwi

About me: Marvin Gaye’s song, "What’s Going On" was playing on the jukebox when I went up to the counter and bought another cup of coffee. When I got back, the painting on the wall next to where I was sitting jumped out at me, the same way it had done many times before. On it was written a diatribe on creativity. It was the quote at the bottom, though, that brought me back to this seat time after time. The quote had to do with infinity; it went something like this: Think of yourself as being in that place where infinity comes together in a point; where the infinite past and the infinite future meet, where you are at right now. The quote was attributed to Hermann Hesse, but I didn’t remember reading it in any of the books that I had read by him, so I went out and bought Hesse’s last novel, Magister Ludi. I haven’t found the quote yet, but I haven't tired of looking for it either.
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One Response to We’re All Just Doing What We Do

  1. bwinwnbwi says:

    “For Shankara, ego means simply `the object of consciousness’…….how can we be connected to Brahman by our atman when our atman, in the form of ego-idea, is the same thing that keeps us separated from Brahman?” quote from above

    Evolution is not just associated with biology; it is associated also with structure, the structure that connects the “otherness of God/Brahman” (the backside of God) to the face of God! After a sufficient level of evolution/liberation is achieved, the ~~b structure per-mutates into the life/death structure of biological life,” the ~bb structure, and, after more consciousness/freedom liberation, the ~bb structure per-mutates into b~b~bb—the structure that builds civilizations and asks questions like: how, why, when, and where did human consciousness come from? Aesthetic experience (sensory/emotional b~b) and theoretic experience (language, number, logic, identity ~bb–Shankara’s ego-idea) are joined in the experience of b~b~bb. Probably the most difficult (and uncomfortable) thing to apprehend is that all reality/existence is an aspect of the non-being of God—the affirmed/logically implied existence of God not not being God.

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