Jnana yoga, also called gyana yoga, is the yoga of true knowledge. It is based on the Hindu philosophy of nondualism, called advaita (nondual) vedanta (Vedic knowledge). A similar nondualistic view of reality is held by many branches of Buddhism, including Zen, by Taoism, by Islamic Sufism, as well as by some branches of Christianity that follow the Gospel of Thomas. Some of the best-known Hindu teachers of Jnana Yoga are Vashishtha, Adi Shankara, Ramana Maharshi, and Nisargadatta Maharaj.
Jnana yoga looks into the truth about who we are and what we are experiencing. The full realization of this truth brings enlightenment. Of course, all yogas offer a direct road to enlightenment if followed fully. Whether a particular road is suitable to reach this goal is a personal matter, largely depending on where you are coming from (see also "What is the best yoga ?")
Jnana yoga can serve all people, whatever path they take. It keeps the true objective of yoga in sight and offers the blessing of truth getting closer at every step. But that does not make Jnana Yoga the only or even the best yogic path for everyone. Most yogis will combine jnana yoga with other yogic paths, such as bhakti yoga, karma yoga, and tantra yoga.
- The Truth
But how to recognize truth? When we want to know the truth about something, we do not want to be fooled by appearances, by that which only appears and then disappears. Knowing truth cannot mean to know now that this is that, only to become something else later, depending on circumstance. So truth is that which lies beyond appearance and thus is never changing. If truth were changing all the time, how could it be truth? If a person tells you one day that he went on a vacation trip to China , only to tell you the next day that it was Switzerland , what can it tell you at all? Truth requires consistency.
Of course, appearances also have some truth, some reality. They may be called relative, temporary, or partial truth. In jnana yoga, however, the objective is to know the absolute truth about life, the truth that is never changing, eternal. To come to the absolute truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about yourself and your experiences, you have to look beyond the mere aspects of you and your experiences that change all the time. You have to find that which is essentially you and is essential to all your experiences.
Today we start with the first class of a series of classes on jnana yoga. The subject of today is the truth. So before, I have only been telling you lies. Now, today, i give you the truth. Of course, before, those lies - they were only more relative truths, while the truth of today is the absolute truth, and nothing but the truth.
It’s the truth about, “Who am I? What’s going on? Where am I? Why am I here,” and all these w’s. This truth is answered in the philosophy of advaita vedanta, which is the essence of the vedas, and the essence of what was before the vedas. Like we already find it in the famous gayatri mantra. It is the very essence of yoga, on which all yoga is based. Even though different yogas may have different opinions about it, it is actually all the same one truth.
It’s a difficult subject. Like you could imagine we have some visitors here from a country where there is no sugar, and we’re going to give them a class about how sugar tastes. It is very difficult. We can compare it to honey, which they might know, or the sweetness of fruits. But still, that will only be talk. You’ll never really tell them how sugar tastes. You should just give them some sugar, and then, problem solved. But with the truth, it’s a bit more difficult, because I can’t just put the truth in a cup and say, “Here you go, drink it, then you’ll know.” No, it doesn’t work that way with the truth. It’s a very hard thing to describe, to name. Words are just not enough. And so we can talk around it today, try to get close to it. But the real truth is behind the words. So today, especially, you have to sense for it, in between the lines, in between the words, and then you will know this truth. Because though it cannot be expressed in words, it can certainly be known.
Today, I’d really like to keep this talk pure. There are lots of talks on the truth, there are lots of books on advaita vedanta, but you don’t find so much the truth in there. Partially, well, as I said, it’s hard, it’s not in the words. It’s beyond. But also for other reasons, the truth often when told becomes less pure. Partially this is because truth is very simple; you don't need a book to describe it. A few pages, maybe, but not much more. So what the author has to do to make a book with many pages, is make the truth a little more complicated, or translate it to different subjects or areas of life, but that is often just more confusing.
The truth is very simple. And truth is so simple that it’s also very hard to accept. And not just because it’s simple. It’s very hard to accept, because it goes against a lot of what we believe. It goes against a lot of the things to which we are attached. It goes against a lot of us. So that’s another big reason why truth also gets a little distorted, by resisting it.
Some people will also make the truth a little different than it really is, because they think that - the real truth - most people can’t handle it. It might make them socially irresponsible. Free thinking, which is that which the truth brings. It makes you a free person. Then you start free thinking, and society can’t have too much free thinking. So, I’ll do my very best not to take all of that into account, just try to bring the truth as pure as it is. You are all very socially responsible people, and I’m sure you can handle it properly.
Truth even gets more distorted when we start talking about how to get to it, how to live it, how to feel it so fully that you never forget it, which is the basic objective of yoga. But that’s not for today, which is the reason why I’m not doing this today, because then, when you say, “You are here, and truth is somewhere over there,” it’s hard for people to accept. They can’t just jump very easily from here to there. So then you say, “Well, truth’s there,” knowing very well that when they get there, they’ll find out, “Well, this is not a bad direction, but still not total truth.” And then you say, “Okay, now you go there. There you’ll find the truth,” and then they go there, and they find more truth, but still not the truth. So when we talk about technique, how to get there, then especially, also, we’ll have to a little bit cover up truth, because, in truth, you don’t have to go anywhere to find the truth. The truth is right here. It’s the truth about what is right here that we are looking for! So no need to go anywhere.
When we look at this reality around us, we know there are different angles. That’s another problem with the truth, it seems to change depending on how you look at it, what you’re looking at, from what angle, who is looking. So that’s not what we’re after. We want to find that one absolute truth, which doesn’t change. And that definition of truth, as that which doesn’t change, is a very essential part of advaita philosophy. But it’s not because it’s a philosophy that we cannot easily understand it as true - because, of course, that which changes is an illusion. That which appears to be there and then again disappears, well, it was maybe relatively true at the time when it was there, but not absolutely true, otherwise it would not have disappeared. Like if I say, “I am thirty-two,” and then a little later I say, “I’m forty-six,” and then even later I’ll say, “Well, I’m actually sixty-five.” What’s the truth? If the story keeps changing all the time, I’m just telling lies. So truth is that which never changes. We will hold that in front of us as our beacon, as our way to find out what is truth and what is not truth.
Let’s be clear: this whole world that we see might be a dream. I’m not saying it is, but it might be. And why can we say that? Quite simply, in a dream, we also believe that what we see there is true. It’s only afterwards, when you wake up, you say, “Oh, that monster chasing me was just a dream.” But when the monster was chasing us in the dream, we felt it was true. So, maybe we will wake up from this dream when we go to sleep. It’s a little difficult then, to find that which is not changing.
Me and my experiences
There’s actually only one thing we can find. The one thing we can say which will always be true is, “There is a me, and I’m having some sort of experience.” And you probably all can say the same for yourselves, but for me, you are just part of my experience, so I don’t really know if you are just a dream, or reality. But that one thing I can’t avoid, “I’m there, here, somewhere, somehow, I have some kind of existence. And I have some experiences.” So let’s have a look at this me and those experiences, and we’ll start with the experiences. That’s maybe most easy.
Let’s take an example. We have here a bell which is now part of our experience. And when we see this bell, it immediately becomes apparent that our experience of it happens entirely through our senses. We have five senses only. I can see it. I can hear it. I can taste it. It doesn’t taste like much. I can feel it. It feels rather cold. And I can smell it. Also, there, not so much input. That’s it. My experience of this bell depends entirely on my five senses. So if we want to understand our experiences, then we have to understand our senses, see how real they are, how good is our apparatus for having all these experiences. Then we encounter a really large number of problems, or faults in our system.
The Illusion of the Senses
Let’s take sight, for example. We see this bell, but we don’t really see this bell. What we see is the light that is reflected on the bell in my eye. That’s what I see, but not really the bell. Like if I take another thing which has more color than a silver bell, this is a blue lighter, then the reason why I believe this is a blue lighter is because it reflects blue light. All the other colors of the white light that are falling on it, it absorbs. The only one color it doesn’t want is blue, it reflects it. So I’m saying, “This lighter is blue,” while this lighter is doing its utmost best not to be blue. It’s repulsing all the blue light. So a little difficult, this sight thing.
Scientifically, I also know that this object that looks very solid, isn’t solid at all. I mean, technically speaking, of course, it is solid. But, technically speaking also, it consists of many atoms, and in between those atoms, there’s a lot of empty space, but by magnetism and things like that, it keeps together pretty well. And then if I look into each one of these atoms, then I find even a lot more empty space. If an atom is big like this, then the more tangible part of it is maybe big like the tip of my little finger, I have no idea, but very small. Then there are still much smaller particles flying around there, they're called electrons. We don’t even really know if they are really particles or just light, or energy.
Anyhow, this thing which I see as solid is largely made of empty space and a little stuff in between. So we don’t see very well. A cat could easily see the temperature of this bell from far away, because it can see infrared light, and infrared light is light emitted by everything according to its temperature, according to its heat. It’s a heat ray. And I can’t see that. I can feel how hot or cold it is, but if I put it there, and look at it, I can’t see that. So I’m pretty blind in that respect.
If you look at how animals can see different rays, it’s so amazing. They have a completely different picture of this universe. Like cats, they don’t see any other colors, they just see these shades of red, which indicate temperature. That’s how they perceive the world, a pink world. And then some red, and maybe shades of yellow, I have no idea, but that’s about it. Then there are other insects with eyes which are made out of hundreds of eyes, and each of these eyes brings an image, so they have a view of the world in hundreds of images at the same time. You can’t even imagine. You can’t even imagine how they perceive the world. There are so many strange creatures. And there are strange humans also. Some people have this disease called Daltonism. They don’t know the difference between red and green. Can you imagine? To them it’s the same color. So they also get a rather different picture. And they’re people also.
Also it changes with perspective. If I put the bell like that, you get a completely different picture than if I put the bell like that, or when I put it like that, or maybe, like that. It’s a different bell every time it moves. So it’s the same with the other senses. Our sense of smell is nothing. A dog could probably smell on my bell how many cats I have, while I can hardly smell the bell. And hearing, for starters, if you record your own voice and you listen to it afterwards, you think, “Oh, that’s not me.” Because what other people hear are soundwaves coming out of my mouth, but I hear them also from inside, through my skeleton and brain and flesh and everything. But even then, sound is very abstract, how it travels very far. And it’s airwaves, but even then in empty space, there can also be sound. Then how does that work? I have no idea. But we certainly don’t hear very well.
Again, dogs, they can hear a lot more than we can. There are lots of frequencies which we don’t know. We just discovered actually that elephants can talk through a little hole here in their forehead, where they make some ultrasonic sound, I don’t really know how to describe it, but, in any case, we can’t hear it. And they’ve been talking to each other forever while people were around. You have these working elephants, you have no idea what they’ve been talking to each other about, maybe us, all the time. Amazing. So, in any case, we don’t hear very well, we don’t see very well. We don’t smell very well, and touch, that’s another one. So this bell is largely empty space, then my hand also must be largely empty space, so I can’t even touch this bell. It’s the empty spaces of my hand which are touching the empty spaces of the bell.
The taste of things changes, depending on which order you’ve eaten them in. If you have a professional wine taster, he will have some bread in between every bit of wine, otherwise one wine will affect the taste of the other. So it’s all very complicated. We have no clue what’s around us. And I’m not saying that from this, we can say there is nothing around us. There’s something here, definitely, but what we experience from it is certainly not the truth. There’s a very personal, human way of perceiving things. And we do a lot of recoloring, also. We fill in a lot of blanks with what we’ve seen before. Like when watching TV, TV is a flat screen, but all the time we fill in the 3D. Somebody’s coming and we say, “Oh, look, behind your back, a bad guy’s coming with a knife.” There’s no behind the back anywhere on the TV screen - it’s a flat screen. But we still do that, and we actually do that a lot in real life also, when we see 3D through our two eyes. A lot of that we actually just compute in our mind. Our mind gets all these signals, energies through the senses, and from that, creates a particular image. So this reality, we can’t really say that what we get there from our senses is in anyway relevant. It’s relevant for living maybe, yes, but not relevant for understanding anything, for finding the ultimate truth.
It’s like in this movie, the Matrix, that’s nicely done. They have this guy, and at some point he understands the illusionary nature of that universe, created by a computer, and then suddenly starts seeing everything as just energy, or data, moving everywhere, but nothing real. It’s the same thing that we are experiencing, that’s what science would say. If you ask what is around us, they will say, “Well, it’s just a play of energy.” Energy moving. Energy becoming more condensed and then it looks like matter, or less condensed and then it becomes like air, or maybe, more vibrating, and then it looks like fire, or light. That’s just all energy.
The Illusion of Words
The whole story even becomes more ridiculous when we start defining what we experience. Like, this bell, is it a big bell, or is it a small bell? Most people will say this is a small bell and then they’ll compare it to the bigger bells, which are probably around in the world in a rather big majority, up to the bell in the tower of the church. But I have another bell, a very tiny bell, and if I put that next to this, then this is the big bell.
So that’s really another problem: when we start saying things about things, then we’re just comparing. Whatever we say, we just compare one thing to another. It’s either bigger or smaller, lighter or darker, more or less red. These are funny things. Is it hot or cold today ? Well, for people from India it would be rather cold. For people from Belgium, it’s quite nicely hot, maybe a little too much. Am I old, or am I young? Am I happy, or am I unhappy? Whenever you feel unhappy, just think about somebody who feels more unhappy, then you’ll feel happy. Think about all those people in the world suffering in famines, wars, depression, boredom. Then you feel, “Okay, I’m not in such bad shape.” So that’s part of the problem.
Another problem of our experiences is that they change so much according to our desire. Like this nice silver bell. People here who don’t have such a bell, they will look at it differently than people here who might have also such a bell, or even one which is a lot nicer. This will change the perspective. The ones who are already having something like that are probably now not looking at the bell, but they are probably looking at something else which they don’t have. So our desire very much changes what we look at, what we see. There’s millions of things that we see in one day, millions. But we don’t see them all, we just see those things which are interesting to us, which we desire, or don’t desire, with which we have some sort of relationship. So that also changes our perspective.
It’s an economic law - something becomes valuable if it’s scarce, if you don’t have a lot of it. And if you have a lot of it, then it’s not so valuable. Like diamonds, they’re valuable because they’re scarce. If the streets would be paved with diamonds, nobody would wear them on the ring or something. If charcoal would be very scarce, we’d put that on a ring. And charcoal and diamonds are actually the same, just coal, pure coal, but in diamonds it’s very compressed, so it makes it beautiful, shiny. There’s an understanding of why diamonds are a girl’s best friend, and it’s got to do a lot with the scarcity of it.
Our perception also very much depends on our mood. That’s also been well described in science - how our mood affects our senses through neurotransmitters. Somebody who is angry will have a completely different perception, even of a very physical object, like a bell, than somebody who is in a very peaceful mood, or in a very happy mood, or in a very loving mood. That changes perception.
Everything is beautiful. Some artists also play around with that. They take something which most people would think is ugly, and they’ll make it into a piece of art to show there is some beauty there also. Even some really disgusting artists making art with dead carcasses, and if you are emotionally involved, you see this as something which used to house a living being. Then you can’t really look at it and say, “Oh, beautiful,” because you feel this is revolting. But if you can forget about all that, and just look at it peacefully, then you will see that even this rotting flesh has many different varieties of colors, and let’s not talk about the smells. So beauty is in the eye of the beholder, very much depending on how you look at it and how you feel.
And then the really big problem with our experience is that we have the illusion that by giving it a name, by giving things a name, that we actually understand them. Like, again, take the bell. This thing isn’t called a bell. It doesn’t know it’s a bell. It’s got nothing to do with these three characters: b, e, l. Nothing to do with it. Who first named this thing a bell? It must have been ages ago. But still, every child, at some point, somebody comes and says, “Hey, a bell,” and then the child says, “Okay, that’s a bell.” And they’re done with it. It’s known, that’s a bell, what’s next? And that we do with everything. We put a name on it, and then it’s classified, no longer really interesting, no longer really important. While all these names are just concepts, and there’s a definition behind it.
A bell is something which makes a sound when you move it. But even there you have a lot of useless words. A bell is something - that’s already a very, very tough concept. It’s something which makes a sound - okay, sound, again a difficult concept. It makes a sound when it moves - we could talk one whole night about each of these three words. What does moving mean? What is sound? And what is a thing? We don’t know what all these things are, but we say that a bell is a thing which makes a sound when you move it, and we’re happy. But that’s just to make the child happy, to make it accept, “Okay, nothing wrong.”
In the prehistoric times, as it is described in western science, when the first words emerged, it was a kind of magic. By naming the sun “sun,” by naming the moon “moon,” by naming the earth “earth,” people felt they could control it. They no longer needed to fear all these things. They knew it. And there’s truth there also, that by naming things, some control is begotten. But only a little bit of truth. Still, for the rest, all these words and names are useless. We want to find the truth.
When we talk about the bell, then it’s still quite easy to decide, maybe after an evening talk, what is a bell. But it gets a lot more difficult when we get into philosophy, when we start thinking, “Okay, what is the soul? What is meditation? What is thinking? What is not thinking? What is enlightenment?” Very, very difficult.
For every word we use, we have in our brain an image. Somewhere in my brain, there is an image of a bell, having a very general bell-like shape. And then there we say, “This is a bell.” So that’s how this works, we have an image, and then we have words, like in an encyclopedia. And then not all our images are the same. When we talk about things, we use words, and we think that other people are having the same understanding of these words, the same definition of these words, the same image behind these words. But actually, that’s often very different, especially if we start talking about philosophy.
Even in a very simple way, if I say that, “Yesterday, I went riding on my horse.” Then you can picture me, as I am already sitting here, but you’ve never seen my horse, so you’ve gotta decide: is it a white horse, or a black horse, or a brown horse? Is it a lady horse, or a guy horse, is it a big horse, or a small pony? You don’t know. And I don’t have a horse, so we’re talking a little nonsense here. But that’s the problem with all these words. Then especially if we talk about enlightenment - what picture do you have there? What definition do you have there? It’s useless to start even talking about it, because all the words we use, we are having different opinions about, so it’s difficult.
Then with our experience, there’s another problem. You see here, I have this bell. Now I’m gonna hide it behind my back. The problem now is that, you are no longer seeing it, and you can’t be one hundred percent sure that it’s still there. Maybe it’s a magical bell, which I got from a very powerful saint, high in the Himalayas. I’ll tell you the story. When he gave it to me, he had difficulty parting with it, but he said, “Well, it’s meant for you, I’d still like to keep it for myself, but I have to give it to you. So whenever you are not using it, whenever you are not looking at it, it will come back to me. And the moment you again look at it, the moment you again want to use it, it will again appear.” So it’s a very magical bell. It’s not there right now. I’m not doing anything with it, I can’t see it, nobody can see it, so it’s in the Himalayas. He’s having fun, ringing and listening.
Okay, funny story, but we don’t even know who we are, so who are you to say that this can’t be true. Let’s be real. Let’s be honest. Let’s be a little humble. We don’t know all that, and that’s the problem with this whole universe. In meditation, when you shut down the senses, pratyahara, go deep inside, then you’re no longer sure if the world is there or not. Of course, when you open your eyes, it is again there, but that’s not proving anything. If you’re in there, you don’t know.
Einstein also had his cat in a box story. If the cat’s in the box, and you can’t see through the box, you can’t hear any sound from it, and the cat’s in there, you don’t really know if it’s in there if it’s closed. When you open it, okay, it comes out, but as long as it’s closed, you have no idea. And he came with that story as a result of very, very important scientific experiences of tiny particles, where this seemed to actually happen. When they would be looking at a particle, it would be there, but when they would be looking at another particle, the first one would appear to disappear. So it’s a strange reality we have. Look, the bell came back!
Truly, we can go on a long time, but I think it’s getting rather obvious, if not even boring. Our experiences, we can’t learn much there if we’re looking for the truth which never changes, because these experiences are very relative and very temporary. Also, this bell is metal, so it won’t really disappear very fast if you bury it in the ground somewhere, but if you wait long enough, it’ll be gone. So this is the same with everything in the universe. Everything comes, and after some time, it goes. So experiences, no truth there.
Who Am I
So what that leaves is me. I’m not sure about anything anymore here. Sorry. I’m still sure I am here, I am, and I am having some experiences. So now let’s find out - who am I? Well the first thing that comes to mind is, “I am this body.” But again, this body, how can I experience it - only through the same five senses, which we discussed at length. I can see it, I can touch it, I can smell it, I can taste it, I can hear it, but that’s all. And all those sensory experiences are just as limited as before, so it’s really difficult to say much about it.
The funny thing with this body is that I can feel I am here somewhere, I can feel that. And if I feel that I am in my big toe, then yeah, there I am. Or if I feel that I am in my head, then okay, there I am, and if I feel I am in my hand, then I am in my hand. But the funny thing is, if somebody cuts off my hand, I’ll still be there. The hand will just be like a little steak. In hospitals, they just throw that in the dust bin. No use to anybody.
Talking about changing, this body which I think I am born in, is not really the body that I was born in. All these cells have changed. Some cells change very rapidly, like in the last few weeks, some change not so fast, months, maybe years, I have no detailed knowledge about that story, but it’s quite clear that all these cells change, except for the brain cells - with those we have to work our whole lives. But if we look inside the brain, the number of cells might still be the same at the end of our life, but the brain will look very, very different at the end of our life. Because of all new kinds of patterns, connections, shapes which have been created there by our experiences. It’s a fantastic finding of modern science - this understanding that we are here, changing all the time, and even if we have some patterns here that are not so practical, developed maybe in childhood or somewhere along the way, the fantastic finding there is that we can actually change that. It takes hard work and time, but we can take this one pattern, and take a new pattern, and replace that old pattern with the new pattern. If you could see with a microscope in your brain, you can actually see this happening physically. The main thing to know about it, for our discussion here, is that these brain cells, they change all the time.
A little more about this body, because this body identification is so strong, so we can’t go too quickly through that. This, which looks like me, is nothing but five elements. If you take a picture of me, then that picture will have the same elements - earth, fire, air, water, and ether - as me. If you burn my body after death to ash, and you take that ash and compare it with the ash of a pig, it will be quite the same kind of ash. And these elements that are in here, used to be out there. This is a bit of apple, and bread, and mustard seed, and spinach. This is just food, made out of food. So the food can’t be me, so if this is made out of food, then how can this be me? It’s quite clear, we can say we are in this body, that’s difficult to deny. But we can’t say, “We are that body.” That’s why we say, “my body,” it’s our thing, but it’s not us.
So we’re looking for me, where else should I be then? Maybe I am my personality. Hard to describe, for starters, and ever-changing, throughout the day even. Now, I am teaching, and the next moment I’ll be a cook, and the next moment I’ll be dad, and then I’ll visit my mother and I’ll be a son, and so on. So this personality, this identity, changes all the time, depending on the role I have to play, or want to play. Maybe I am a yogi, or some people would say I’m an atheist, a muslim, a buddhist, a racist, a humanist, or some other -ist.
We’re so attached to our opinions, but we hardly have any opinions that we can call ours. For starters, it’s all borrowed. We may have made a little remix, but hardly any original idea. Also this story today, it’s not my story. You take two muslims, or two buddhists, or two hindus, and they’ll have a different opinion of what it means. These are just other concepts, it’s again not me.
Who else could I be? Or what else? Maybe I’m a man. But again, that’s a rather difficult subject. Because, I can say, “I’m a man because I have the body of a man,” but there are some men who will not agree with me. They will say, “Well, I am a woman inside a man’s body.” Then they’ll dress up as ladies. So it’s not so dependent on the body. Then if it’s not dependent on the body, we can talk about, “Okay, what is a man as opposed to a woman, in a general sense?” And we won’t finish tonight, and we won’t agree, in any case, on what that really means. We all have a male side and a female side, and we might say that in males, the male side is a bit more, and in females, the female side is a bit more. But that’s about as far as you can get, I think. But it certainly doesn’t define me, to be a man.
So maybe I’m just Peter. If somebody calls, “Peter,” I am interested. I respond. But that I have learned. And the two people who gave me that name, they didn’t even know me when they thought of that name. I was just in the belly of my mother, my mother had some sense of me, but had never really seen me. And my father certainly hadn’t. So they just came up with that name somehow, I had no idea, and said, “That’s Peter.” It took them a long time to teach me, “I am Peter.” At first, I didn’t want to be, as most babies take some time to recognize their own name. So I’m not this name.
So where am I? Maybe I’m in the past, like created by the past, or I can be found as the result of all those past experiences. But I’m trying to remember all those years and it’s a big problem. In one day we experience millions of things, and there’s many of those we don’t even see, or really register. And then to remember even ten things from yesterday, it’s very hard. To remember one thing from every day of my life, it’s impossible, it’s quite impossible. I can see big beacons, big events, maybe even some small things which somehow were big. Of course, they had an impact on my personality, on how I react, but that impact can be changed, as I was explaining before with neural patterns. That’s all changing, that’s all not really me.
Maybe I can’t find myself, because I’m not yet myself. Maybe in the future I will find myself, because then I will be what I really am. That’s not an answer either, because the future, who can talk any sense about that? I don’t even know what’s going to happen in the next minute! Strange. Maybe I'm just the thoughts, the feelings that I’m having right now. If something changes all the time, it’s that, it’s thoughts and feelings. You can’t get a hold of it, a thought is gone before you know it. You can start a very good exercise, it’s actually very helpful if you have a sleeping problem. It’s to think backwards, to try to retrace your thoughts and think, “Okay, I’m thinking now this, so what did I think before that? And what did I think before that? And before that?” And if you get that far, already you’ve done very well, because it’s very, very hard.
Thoughts just come and go as they please, and feelings certainly do, too. We are constantly fighting our thoughts and our feelings, because they are sometimes not so fun. So still they come, and sometimes we have a hard time chasing away unhappy thoughts and feelings, so they can’t be us. We can observe them, also. And we can also say they are ours. “It’s my thoughts, my feelings, my car, my body, my breath, my eyes, my experience.” All these things which I can call mine are objects. They are not me. So where are we? It’s difficult. “I’m not this, I’m not that, I’m not that, I’m not that. Who am I?” Only emptiness you get from this question. I think we really should all go to the police station and report ourselves missing, maybe they will come up with a solution.
Fortunately, we had some tea. And when drinking tea, I was thinking, “I drink tea, so I am.” We may still not know who we are, but we still exist, so nothing to worry about. Don’t let this whole story make you afraid. We are. I am. I still don’t know about you guys, but I know I am. Who else could lose himself? Who else could get lost? Who else could ask the question, “Who am I?” ? I am. That is quite clear.
When I was in my twenties, I had an experience which kind of clarified that subject. This experience was actually a car accident that I had on a highway. Youthful folly, not taking much care of my driving. I had a big accident - the car was rolling over. I still remember my safety belt was keeping me there, tight. In the end, the car was completely wrecked, but I hadn’t hit anybody. And also myself, I had nothing wrong. I could get out of the car and stand there, and laugh. I laughed because of the experience that I had while this accident was going on, which was just seconds. In those seconds, I was probably screaming my heart out, trying still to keep it from happening, but at the same time, I was completely separate from it. That I remember very clearly, that while this was happening, I was observing it, witnessing it. Not having any particular thoughts about it, or even feelings about it, except for maybe a rather peaceful feeling. Maybe thinking, “Okay, I might die. Okay, what’s the problem?”
This distance was there, between me and the experience, and the screaming, and the thoughts, and feelings. Whatever was happening there was happening there, and I was here, and I was having no problem at all. It was a very fortunate experience if I look at it afterwards. And I was, of course, very fortunate not to have any physical damage, so that I could actually get out of this car, and enjoy what I had experienced, rather than scream from pain and fear, and things like that. So what I experienced there was my innermost being, which is often called the witness consciousness. But of course, it’s just again a name. But it more or less describes it.
I am behind these eyes. I am behind these thoughts. I can watch all of it without being involved. And that is also what we try in meditation. If we want to find the one who has all these experiences, we have to stop the experience. We could also organize, maybe, accident classes, but then we’d have to hope no real accident, no real damage, is happening. We’d need a big insurance policy I guess, but that’s not really the thing. But in meditation classes, we try to give people the same kind of experience of the witness consciousness, by teaching them how to exclude all other experiences. Then only the one who experiences remains. If the experiences are there, the one who experiences gets lost, so to speak, in all these experiences. You can’t experience the experiencer. You can’t witness the witness. It’s like trying to touch yourself in a mirror, it doesn’t work. Thoughts, ideas, actions, they are like mirrors that maybe say something about this witness, but cannot really describe it.
One of the most important experiences in meditation is the experience that everything is gone. Sounds are gone, thoughts are gone, and I can still feel that I am. I can still feel that I exist. And this I which exists, at that time, is really me. My most essential me. Trying to describe it is very hard, because this essential me has no particular shape or quality that I could put a label on. I can’t say what color it is. I can’t say if it’s big or small. I can’t say it is square, or round, rectangular, octangular. All these ways that we have to describe our experiences are useless when I want to describe my innermost me, because this innermost me is formless, shapeless, devoid of quality. Because of that, it never changes. It cannot.
You imagine something here, formless. Okay, and now imagine something formless which is different than the one formless thing we had before. Or I’ll put it like this, we have something formless here, and we have something formless over here, and now, try to see, which one is bigger or smaller, or more green, or yellower, or nicer, or less nice. You can’t. So if there can’t be any difference, then there can also not be any change. What can you change? There’s nothing to change. I cannot change. I do not change.
It is also the experience that we have when we look in the mirror. When we look in the mirror, we still see us. And we feel that this me is the same me that I was ten years ago, or when I was a boy. That’s still me. We really have to focus to see, “Okay, my hair’s a little more grey,” and things like that. But it doesn’t feel like that, it feels like this has always been me. It feels like I haven’t changed. And then, of course, when you think about it, you say, “Oh yeah, I have changed, I’ve become maybe more stupid, maybe more wise, maybe more this, more that,” but that’s just personality stuff, not me. This essential me can never change. It’s always been the same, from birth, from before birth, till death and beyond.
Because it is formless, and because it doesn’t change, it doesn’t move, it’s unnoticed. That makes it hard to find. It’s very subtle. It’s very humble. Only when you stop all the other nonsense, it comes out. And then it clearly is. It’s empty, and it’s full at the same time. It’s empty because it has no quality, no form, no shape, no color. But it is full. I am That.
And one other thing which we can say about it is that it is absolutely essential to everything. I can’t do anything without it. That’s pretty obvious, of course. How could I do anything without me? I can’t move my hand without me, without this witness consciousness behind it. How could the body, the mind, the intellect, whatever is involved, manage it, if there weren’t one place where everything is witnessed? Every piece of automatic machinery has some system or other that follows what’s going on, that witnesses what’s going on. It’s the same with this machine. It can’t work if there is not this consciousness, this essential me, behind it.
This witness consciousness is often described, or compared, to the screen of a movie theatre. There may be love stories on the screen, there may be blood on the screen, tears, flowers, everything, but when the movie stops, then the screen is white as ever. This is the same with me. Whatever happens in this movie of life, does not affect me. I am unchanging. I am formless. So this essential me is not having any problems. If you’re wondering, “Why are we talking such a long time about a lot of nonsense?” Then that’s the main reason. We’ve just found out that essentially we are not having any problems at all. All these problems belong to things that we have, to our possessions, such as our car, or our thoughts, or our opinions. They all have problems. But we don’t have any problems, and that’s worthwhile talking about. That’s worthwhile knowing, and life seems a little different suddenly, more easy.
We say that this essential me is satchitananda, which can be translated as truth, being, and bliss. There’s being, of course, but being is also truth, because it never changes. And it is bliss, because it is always in bliss, it is always at peace, and is never having any problems. Because this essential me is always at peace, it also has no desire. What could it desire? It can’t change, so what is there to desire? It’s always at peace. It is always in bliss. So our witness consciousness is desireless. Actually, from it, come all good things. From this peace, this desirelessness, what bad could come forward? Bad things only come when there is lack of peace, lack of happiness, from our desire. But out of this peace, out of this bliss, comes helpfulness, courage, gentleness, love, understanding, beauty.
Like a really good artist, when he is making or playing a new piece of music, he knows his witness consciousness, he knows where to focus. He is not having any thoughts about what he is doing. He is not having any feelings about it. He’s not going to wonder, “Are people going to like it or not?” He’s just silent, and then listening, and then playing what he hears, without being involved. And that’s how a masterpiece comes. That’s how anything beautiful comes. Anything remarkable comes out of this inner self. So we are free. Timeless. Problemless.
What a relief! We’ve not only found ourselves, we’ve also found that these inner selves are not having any problems. Although, I still have one problem, because everything I’ve been saying is only about me. I still have no idea if you are there. But suppose, suppose you are really there. Then it is very logical to assume that inside each of you, there is also this witness consciousness. Because if I can’t move my hand without my witness consciousness, how could you people do anything without some witness consciousness? It’s impossible. So if you exist, then you must have also this witness consciousness. That is very obvious.
Let’s just suppose you exist and you have this witness consciousness. Then I can wonder, my witness consciousness and your witness consciousness, and your witness consciousness, what difference is there between them? Because my witness consciousness, all of these witness consciousnesses here, they must be formless. And if they are formless, there can be no difference. I can’t say, “My witness consciousness is bigger than your witness consciousness.” I can’t say that. It’s formless, so it has to be the same. We are the same.
So I’ve not only found myself, I’ve found you also, and you, and you, and you. You are all me. We are me. Or we are you, I don’t mind. We are all the same. All differences between us are anyhow regarding things which are not true, are only relative truths, having a very short time of existence. I can close my eyes, and I can imagine that instead of this body which is around me, there’s your body which is around me. I can imagine that. I can imagine that very easily, that I am now looking like you, thinking like you, talking like you. Very easily, because we are interchangeable. Absolutely.
All these people around are this witnessing consciousness. If I look at that as all the same, then we’re getting in the direction of cosmic consciousness - six billion people, one consciousness wearing different robes. But still the same. Let’s take it a little further; we shouldn’t really stop at people. If I look at a pig, even a pig can’t lift its feet, or eat an apple, without the same witnessing consciousness behind all those actions. So, if it has this witness consciousness, like me, then if I compare my witness consciousness to that of the pig, then I have to be very honest and say, “Well, they are the same.” Essentially I am also a pig. And a rabbit, and a peacock, and a little squirrel, and an insect, and a worm, and a fish. Behind the eye of the fish, there is this same me. Even very small organisms, single-celled organisms in the water, or the bacteria floating around in the air now, they all have this same witness consciousness. Even though I can’t see them, I have to accept that.
So this makes this cosmic consciousness like a big ocean, which we are all floating in, a big ocean of cosmic consciousness. Plants, also, it’s a bit more difficult because they don’t really move, but that’s not even true. Look at trees, they will reach out to the sun and open their leaves or flowers. And you have flowers who follow the sun, then during the night they go back, and wait for the next sunrise. How can that happen, without somebody, not some body, but some consciousness behind it? If bacteria have it then viruses, there are lots more, but they must have it. And viruses are strange things, because they can crystallize and become stone material, and stay like that for a thousand years, and then maybe some water comes, and they wake up. Again they start acting like viruses. So even stones, this bell, it will certainly become a very different thing, because it must have something there to exist. But that’s hard to follow. It’s not even so relevant to what I want to say.
What I want to say, even if you just take living beings, is that we are in a sea of one consciousness, like little pots, or beer cans, floating in this sea. These beer cans, or these pots, they don’t have a lid, they are open. And this consciousness, this water, flows in and out, and when the water is in, it thinks, “I am the pot,” and then it comes out again, and it’s again the ocean. This is the truth. This truth is, of course, also called God. Even atheists will accept it like this. Cosmic consciousness is quite easy to understand. You chose whatever name you want, and God is just one more name.
And like they say, God is omnipresent. That’s just what we’ve been establishing, right, that God is everywhere. I am everywhere. I don’t have to want a Rolls Royce - I already have many Rolls Royces. All the Rolls Royces in this world are mine. God is omnipotent. Of course, nothing gets done without him, we’ve been saying that also already, nothing possible without it. So it does everything. God does everything. Omniscient, knowing everything. Of course, everything which there is to know, is known by that one consciousness, which we all are.
Energy or Prakriti
It’s in a way quite funny that we’ve looked at our experience and didn’t find any truth there, then went to me and didn’t find much truth either, except when going deep, deep, deep inside, and then suddenly finding, “Yes, here I am.” And then again, we are moving outwards. I first wanted to give you some sort of existence, then came to cosmic consciousness, which is all around me, and so then truth is also there, all around me, in this whole experience. But not as I see it with my eyes, but as I can feel it, with my innermost me. And you will remember, and that’s another important aspect of this truth, that we concluded the whole study of our experience by saying that this experience is mostly made out of energy. Science is also saying this, and this is also the view of advaita vedanta.
Energy is called prakriti, which also means nature, which also means the most essential energy, from which everything is made, which always changes. And in that way, it doesn’t change. It always changes, but it always is what it is. It is prakriti, it is energy. That can’t really be so much excluded from the truth. In yoga, we know this energy very much as prana - the energy that we take in by breathing, the life force. It’s not really electrical, but it’s hard to find other words, but energy which is everywhere. If we go in deep meditation, and we are there in our pure consciousness, we can also understand. We can also there, in a sense, experience energy being there. But no more the energy which makes all these forms, and shapes, and diversity, but this pure energy, which is so closely connected to our inner consciousness, that you cannot really separate them.
This energy and this consciousness are two sides of the same coin. You look at it from this side, you say “Oh, it’s energy,” you look at it from this side, you say, “Oh! It’s consciousness.” Only intellectually can we separate them, but in truth, we will never find energy without consciousness. We will never find consciousness without energy. They are one and the same. And that is why, what we are in essence, is not consciousness, or not only consciousness, it is conscious energy, or energized consciousness. There’s no word for it that describes how these two go together. This is the final duality, which is an illusion like all other dualities and diversities, for which we have no clear descriptions, except we can say - it is being. It is the self. It is God.
With every breath of prana which we take, we are not only taking energy. Attached, as it were, to every little bit of energy, there is consciousness. So we’re not just breathing energy, we are also breathing consciousness. In that way, the whole idea of the pots and the ocean, and the water floating in and out of the pot, becomes very much a reality. My consciousness is floating into your consciousness, is floating into his consciousness, and everywhere. There really is a sea, an ocean, a universe of being.
And this being consists of consciousness and energy, of purusha, and prakriti. When we try to find ourselves, we first naturally end up with purusha, with consciousness, because energy cannot say, “Who am I?” Consciousness can say, “Who am I,” because it is conscious that it exists. But when it answers this question, it should not just say, “I am consciousness, I am purusha.” It has to understand that it also is the energy, that this energy and consciousness, this prakriti and purusha, are truly one, and that it is the one being that we are. Both are inseparable. Both are just as valuable, as essential, to everything.
The Big Why
Why? Why create this whole universe? Why is it there? What’s the use? Looking at all the problems and misery, you might ask the question, “Why is God,” to just give it a name, “doing this? Why did we do this? Why are we here?”
Now just imagine, God, cosmic consciousness, is there with energy, purusha and prakriti in unity, and nothing else. That is, of course, also the truth. Because it is everything that is, nothing else. But nothing else in the sense of none of these forms, none of these shapes, no universe. Well, imagine, God is being there for a year, for a hundred years, for a million years, or a billion years, in peace, in bliss, nothing happening. Boring. It’s boring. So after some time, God just says, “Let there be light.” And the moment he says that, there is also darkness, and the whole game starts - the universe is created. Why? For the fun of it, for the experience of it, for the entertainment. That is the reason. That is the logical reason. That is also the reason given in the scriptures.
Purusha and prakriti are there in an eternal embrace, and apparently, prakriti, Shakti, says, “Come on, it’s fantastic, but I’m getting bored. Let’s play. Let’s make a universe. Let’s create all sorts of things, and be all those things. And then we can play hide and seek. I love you, don’t worry, I will always be there for you. But it’ll be a little more difficult to find me, and that will be fun. And then after some searching, we meet again, and then it will only be much better than it is now.” And then purusha, Shiva, says, “Okay, I understand you are energy, you like to play, you like to move around, but I am consciousness. I always stay in the same place. I always stay in my peace. I can’t really live in your world.” And prakriti says, “Hey, don’t worry about it. I got it all figured out. You can be at the center of everything in this universe, and I will build channels to you, called mind, and the senses, and the intellect, and hands, and feet, and all you need, so that you can enjoy and play, and try to find me. And, at the same time, you will be completely undisturbed, because everything will turn around you, and you will be in the center, you will be not moving, and you will be in peace.” It’s one story of how you can explain it.
And actually, this need for entertainment, we can also very easily experience it in ourselves, just the moment that we try to stop the entertainment, when we are meditating. When we are meditating, we are there, we are in peace, “Wow,” then after sometime, something in us comes around and says, “Oh God, this is boring. Let’s do something else. Let’s have a cup of tea, let’s go somewhere. I’ve had enough.” It’s the same thing.
In this way, creation happens all over again, and again, and again. We are here because we want to play. It is said that if we really don’t want to play anymore, if you really say, “Stop,” and you stop, then you are instantly enlightened. Then everything for you will stop. It’s your choice. We are here by choice. We are playing this game, this leela, this theatre, this movie, for the sake of our entertainment. So that is the answer to the big why, nothing more serious than that.
Of course, getting back inside, getting back to the source, getting back to that eternal embrace, in peace, and bliss, in happiness, of purusha and prakriti, in perfect balance, is the most entertaining part of this whole experience. If the game of life would be like a computer game, with different levels, this would be the last level. After you are bored with all the other levels, then you get that, it’s quite a big level, becoming enlightened. But the world was not created for us all to become enlightened, because we were already enlightened before it started. God was already enlightened before he started hiding himself in each one of us. And he still is there, anyhow, enlightened, and can enjoy the show, knowing it’s all just an illusion.
We get all these levels, you find them in the chakras. The level of existing, the physical body, the sensory enjoyments, the enjoyments of challenges, realizing something, being somebody, doing something special. The enjoyment of love, of different kinds. The enjoyment of understanding in the fifth chakra. The enjoyment of inner peace, clairvoyance, in the sixth chakra. Then the enjoyment of the journey from sixth to seventh chakra. Then the enjoyment of finally leaving these hard levels of this game of life.
If it’s too easy, it’s no fun. We need some challenges. That’s actually the answer to the next “why” question, which is, “Why can’t we then make this place more agreeable, avoiding all the suffering, and disease, and war, and fights between people, unhappiness, depression, Prozac, and so on, why do we need all that?” But again, we can’t do without. If we want to play this game, we’ve got to take the suffering, because that’s just the other side of pleasure. If we want to have the pleasure, we’ve got to take some suffering, because the pleasure and the suffering are experienced in the same way.
My tongue can taste great chocolate ice cream, and this same tongue also can taste something tasting awful. My eyes, they can see a beautiful painting only if they can also see a really ugly thing. Even to value really good chocolate ice cream, I have to be able experience something which is a little less good, and then a little less nice, even, and then really something you’ll eat just because you’re hungry, and then something which you wouldn’t even eat if you were hungry. So you’ve got to have all this variety, it is like a scale. You can’t just say, “Well, I’ll cut off that part of the scale because I don’t like that.” No, you can’t. You need to have the whole scale. You need to have the suffering.
There’s enjoyment at some point, to learn how to be a good person. How could that be, if you don’t have the choice to be a bad person? It wouldn’t be any fun if God would just say, “Okay, from now on, everybody is good. I decided, magically, it is done.” Then this world would become like a world of robots. We’d all be so pre-programmed to be good, it wouldn’t be much fun. It wouldn’t have any value at all. If you have a liking for the color white, and you want everything to be white, then there’s nothing more to see. Because if everything is really white, without any shades, or anything, then it’s like a big flash of white light. You don't see anything. You gotta have white, and a little less white, at least, to be able to see something. And then that will create shapes, which are more, or maybe less, beautiful, and there you go, there it starts. So the whole suffering part is needed if you want the fun part.
It’s a difficult subject, I understand. From this whole story I am telling today, this is the most difficult part for people to digest, but it’s still the truth. Let’s take something awful: a woman loses her child. It’s a very terrible thing. But the truth about that is that if we want to have the beauty of having children, we also need to accept that they can be lost. For this woman, this one woman who lost the child, this is, of course, a heavy burden. But she is really bearing that burden for all the other moms and dads, who are enjoying their children, because that could not be, if there were not some moms and fathers who lose their children. That’s the truth. I said I wasn’t going to adapt the truth today too much to what people can understand or accept. So this is it, this is just the truth. All this suffering happens, because of the pleasure that also happens. So try to enjoy the pleasure, and ignore the suffering.
Suffering, also, is very, very relative. From suffering you learn. If nobody here would have no problem, no suffering, then nobody here would be here, in this yoga class, to learn about life, and how to have a better life. So it’s like a rose bush. If you don’t cut it regularly, it’ll grow so wild and without good structure, that it’ll die quite fast. But by cutting it, and giving it a little bit more of a challenge, it becomes strong.
So our suffering makes us strong, but that’s not the reason for it. God is not sending us suffering to make us strong, or to make us more spiritual. Because, that, of course, is also what suffering does - it makes us turn away from that which disappears, from that which is only an illusion, because it appears and then we get attached to it, and then it again disappears. So suffering makes us more detached, and in that way, suffering is very spiritual, and can bring you to a very different level of understanding and living, and a very different level of happiness. So, in that way, suffering is not as bad as it looks.
And pleasure, in the same way, pleasure makes people lazy. It’s fantastic, nothing against it, but too much of it makes you lazy, makes you dull, stops you from trying to learn. You get too much of it, you end up being nobody. Many kids from rich parents can attest to that, at least, if those parents were not giving the things they also need and which money can’t buy. It’s like when kids play a game - hide and seek. The seeking is not so much fun. I mean, it’s fun, of course, but if it’s difficult, then children can be a little bit like, “Oh, I’m not finding anyone,” and then finding someone, “Oh, yeah, I found you!” But they accept that there is a part in it that is not so nice. If you play a soccer game also, it’s not so nice. There’s a lot of effort, a lot of sweating, maybe also some pain. You fall down, or whatever, and still, they want to play it, because there’s also the good part. They are willing to pay.
We are all willing to pay. We know there are winners and losers in every game in life, and we’re willing to pay. We have a lot of choice there also. Some people always choose the easy path, try to stay on the safe side. Other people look at them and say, “They’re like plants, they don’t really live, they just exist somehow.” And they look more for challenges, look for difficulties, knowing that if they can surmount them, they’ll grow, and have a nice feeling about it. There’s a choice there. There’s learning there. And there is you behind it, who essentially knows it’s not happening, and that the suffering is not real. Sometimes people are angry with God for putting us in such a mess, but God’s here. He’s also in the mess. He knows it’s not really a mess. That’s the difference.
The Leela of Love
The right way to live is to play the game, knowing that it’s just a game. Without getting attached to things, without being too serious about it. Like a playful child, enjoying it. And when some suffering comes, okay, go back to the source and smile, and say, “Okay, somebody’s got to do it. Okay, I’ll suffer a little,” and then again, we come out. That is the true purpose. The true entertainment is there, to be fully aware, fully enlightened, fully knowing this is a game, and playing it as if it were real. That is the purpose.
Like in the story of Shiva and Shakti, it is very much also a game of love. A game of love, which means that this duality of either playing or going back to the source is resolved, because in love, we are playing with each other, and so we are together. We are, in that way, at peace, and happy, while still the game is going on, while still the entertainment is there. If we truly see that we are one, that nothing of this is really happening, then together we can really play it well. That really is divine play, divine leela, and the whole idea of this game. Then we have it all. Then we have that which is found deep in meditation, away from this world, but we will still have this world, because that which is found there, we will see everywhere, in each and everyone, and love it.
So, that’s enough truth for today. Thank you very much.
Leela is the ancient vedic name for the theater of life. Life in all its forms is an illusion behind which we can find the ultimate truth of pure Being. Yet life is also a divine theater, a spiritual game played by us, the actors. Yoga allows us to hold on to the bliss of truth while playing the game. And also this yoga is a game, which we can only take seriously if we do not take ourselves and this game too seriously. That is the meaning of Leela Yoga, nothing more, nothing less. So, Leela Yoga is a vision on yoga and also a name for a simple organisation that allows me to bring this vision into practice... more about Leela Yoga & Peter Marchand
Belgium : www.leela-yoga.be
Harish Johari students sangha : www.sanatansociety.org
|in sweet memory
of Harish Johari
As the destination is the same for all, it is easy to make the error of assuming that the path must be just as universal.
The attachment that happens in the pursuit of happiness is the main source of unhappiness.
Don't think of going somewhere, because this somewhere will come along with you wherever you go, as you are already there.
Yoga requires unity between enjoyment and suffering, between bhoga and yoga, even between attachment and detachment.
How can anyone be "good" without a choice between good and bad?
While the mind creates the illusion of the universe through the senses, the intellect creates the illusion of understanding it.
When our day has been entirely ego-centered, then our meditation will probably have similar poor quality.
When the focus on the self is held strongly enough, the flow of kundalini energy happens on its own, naturally.
Tiptoe inside, don't make a sound, don't scare away that which cannot be found.
Enlightenment is nothing more or less than the final level of the game of life.