"My thesis is that for both these questions -- objectification of the ego and of the Self -- his followers tend to stumble, making the classic error of Westerners, which is to objectify and thus split the world in two. In their expositions of Ramana they make the ego into a "bad guy" self that is very difficult to get rid of, and they make the Self-Atman into a kind of sacred cow whose ultimate embodiment is Ramana himself. In other words, they make religion out of Ramana and his gospel. In this ersatz religion "enlightenment" is an impossibly glorious shangri-la, while ego-ignorance is the illusion that refuses to go away.I'm not really familiar enough with the "western followers of Ramana" to say whether or not they are making dualistic errors that objectify the ego or make Ramana's teaching into a "religion of Atman". Perhaps some do. Perhaps many do. It's my own vague impression from what I have come across that this is not really the major problem with westerners who become involved with eastern non-dual teachings, whether Ramana's or that of others. If it's the case, it's due to looking at the eastern teachings of non-dualism from a Christian guilt-complex perspective, in which the ego is made into "the devil", and thought of as some evil entity who must be destroyed. Ramana clearly laughed at such notions, and did not teach the destruction of the mind in that kind of context.
You know that is the case, because when you tell them you are familiar with the Atman, or that you have no problem obstructing the Self with ego, they will immediately go into reactive fits. They have made the practice of self-enquiry into an earnest undertaking for their own egos, and for this reason they feel obliged to frame the rest of the world as living in unwashed ignorance -- the infidels, if you will.
I am not sure how many people in India would have this same problem; but India, as we know, is the place where spiritual intuition is alive and active everywhere. Non-verbal planes of recognition are natively conscious in a large percentage of the population -- certainly far exceeding the intuitive talents of Americans.
So when Ramana speaks of the Atman, a great many Hindus know exactly what he is talking about. They have tasted the Atman. Even though they may find themselves still "grasping at form", they have experienced "the interval between two thoughts" and are thus able to confirm, in themselves, the teaching. They sit stunned to inner silence before this great guru.
One of the benefits of Christian non-dual paths such as The Course in Miracles is that they tend to address the emotional aspects of guilt and egoity directly, and make them the centerpiece of their teachings, whereas Ramana and other eastern teachers simply don't much encounter that entire culture of guilt and sin, and thus don't put much emphasis on it. Westerners with strong Christian backgrounds, like Elias himself, tend to be vary wary of the possibility of imposing that whole complex of sin and objectified evil upon non-dual teachings, perhaps to a degree that exaggerates the actual occurance of such things, based on their own experience with Christianity. It's a real enough possibility to make mention of, and I wouldn't want to diminish the seriousness of the error, and how it could lead to terrible misinterpretations of Ramana's teachings. I'm just not sure that I see very much of that occurring these days. It seems that the greater error going on in western circles of non-dualism has to do with the very notion of self and self-image.
Elias is perhaps right that Indians have a more basic understanding of not just the concept, but the experience of Atman, than most westerners. Of course, most westerners don't give a fig about eastern non-dual teachings, so we are really looking at a fairly select group of westerners already, if we are considering those with serious interest in non-dualism. Among that group, I wouldn't say that the experience of Atman is all that rare. What is lacking tends to be a cultural understanding of the naturalness of the Atman, and the foundation of a natural, loving, devotional relationship to the Atman, and Elias is perhaps right that some fetishization occurs not just about the experience, but the status of realizers like Ramana, and to an even greater degree, westerners who have set themselves up as enlightened Gurus, like Adi Da, Andrew Cohen, Saniel Bonder and the entire wave of Advaitic micro-gurus.
Some people (not Elias to my knowledge) attribute the sins of the western neo-Advaitics (and even eastern devotees) to their tendency towards an excessive devotional regard for these Gurus and the whole process of non-dual practice. In my view, this has it exactly backwards. If there is anything that keeps Indians sane in the process of approaching non-dual teachings about the Atman and realization, it is their firm foundation in a devotional approach, which keeps the direct relationship of natural love for the DIvine at the center of one's approach to these potentially abstract ideas about truth and reality. Westerners tend not to have that natural devotional attitude, and even scorn it to some degree, or substitute a fetishized form of devotionalism that worships concepts and status rather than the living process of loving, feeling surrender to the reality before us.
The problem, as I see it, is one of narcissism, both in the psychological and the spiritual sense, and the inability to distinguish between narcissistic forms of practice and the natural, loving approach to spirituality. Westerners tend to be steeped in psychology rather than devotional love, and they tend to use eastern non-dual teachings to solve psychological problems they are not intended to address, and in so doing they distort the teachings and fall into deep personal errors of judgment and cognition that can be almost impossible to dig oneself out of.
There's a great, short psychological book on narcissism that I've found very useful, and would recommend to anyone interested in the topic, "Narcissim: Denial of the true Self", by Alexander Lowen, M.D. Lowen was a working psychologist in the sixties and seventies who noticed a profound shift in the kinds of patients who began coming to him for help. Trained in the traditions of Freud, Lowen had come to see most of his patients as suffering from repressive neuroses that required a particular form of therapy aimed at peeling back these repressive patterns and allowing the patient to "come out" of their interior shell, and experience a greater fullness in life. But more and more he began to see patients who were in many respects already "out" and unrepressed, but who were suffering from the opposite problem, of being trapped in narcissistic patterns of self-indulgence and an extroverted objectification of their internal problems. Classical Freudian therapy considered narcissistic patients to be virtually untreatable, and fortunately rare, but Lowen found that due to cultural changes brought about by the original Freudian revolution, these problems seemed epidemic and required not just a very different approach, but a deeper understanding of what narcissism actuall is.
Lowen's basic thesis about narcissism is spelled out in the title of his book: it represents a denial of our true self. In Lowen's understanding of human psychology, the true self is represented by the physical body and our life in the material world. To be grounded in reality, is to have a strong sense of one's own bodily life, and a healthy relationship to the body and the world. An essential aspect of that relationship is the formation of an accurate self-image, which is an image of ourselves we carry in the mind of ourselves. Lowen found that having a self-image is cannot be avoided, it's simply how our minds work, and that if the developmental process of forming a self-image is disturbed, particularly in early childhood it can lead to serious problems.
Narcissism occurs when the self-image begins to depart seriously from our bodily life, and we begin to form an image of ourselves that has less and less connection to material, bodily reality. This can take the form of grandiose illusions about ourselves, or extreme forms of self-negation. The key factor is that at some point the individual begins to live in a world formed by the self-image, rather than the world of the body itself, and this creates a disassociative schism in the self. Rather than allowing the self-image to merely be an adjunct to normal cognitive functioning, helping us make sense of ourselves and the world around us, the self-image begins to take over our life and mind entirely, and the individual confuses the reflective property of the internal self-image with the perceptive faculty of seeing the world as it is and our own bodies as they are.
Narcissists therefore tend to have extremely an poor relationship with their own body. They may become drug addicts, living in a world fueled by internal feelings of pleasure that ignores the damage being done to their bodies, or anorexics, who have such a distorted body image that they think they are fat when in reality they are extremely thin. Or, they may not have exhibit any outwards extremes, but nonetheless live in a world of their own mind, forming ideas of themselves and the world that has little to do with the physical realities of the body or the world as it actually is. Religion, unfortunately, has a long history of feeding such people exactly what they want to hear and believe, and rather than returning them to a state of healthy relationship to the body, it exaggerates their problems by fostering this notion that the bodily life is unreal, and that reality is to be found in their minds, in the imagery of the mind itself, which is often counter to the bodily reality. If we looked at the long history of religious error and even outright evil, we will usually find just this kind of narcissistic distortion of bodily reality and self-image at its core. Religious repression of the body is merely one side of the story, the other side is the cultivation of interior notions about the world, and about oneself, that have no relationship, or even a hostile one, to the material world and the body we live through here.
This kind of narcissistic problem can be exacerbated by exposure to eastern teachings such as Advaita, which teaches that we are not the body, but are in reality the universal and Divine Self. Westerners inclined towards a narcissistic self-image, which as Lowen notes is a great many of us in this day and age, tend to interpret these teachings as a justification for continuing to deny their own bodily self its proper place in the mind, and instead to identify with a self-image of themselves as being a great, expanded, even universal "Self". In this view, the eastern notion of Atman is replaced by a disassociated, narcissistic self-image on the grandest of scales. The result is often an extreme form of sociopathic narcissism leading to all kinds of abusive behavior, exploitation, and degraded relationships with others, and an increasing reliance upon grandiose internal self-imagery to justify these. We see examples of this in Adi Da, Andrew Cohen, and many others. Even relatively respectable teachers can fall into these traps as they begin to disassociate from their bodily self, and identify more and more with an intangible internal reality that is primarily the product of their own mind's self-image making machinery.
Indians are susceptible to this same problem, and there is no lack of examples of spiritual teachers and followers who have fallen prey to this problem in themselves and in relation to others. Indians, however, tend to have cultural mechanisms in place that have been developed over the millenia to help deal with this problem. As Elias points out, when Indians refer to Atman, they understand that it is referring to something much deeper, and yet also much more natural, then the mind's own self-imagery. When teachers like Ramana point out that our primary error is identification with the body, they know that Indians will understand what he means by this, and what he does not mean. Westerners, however, require a greater degree of psychological preparation before they can work with these teachings, because of their strong cultural inclination towards narcissism.
Ramana's exposure to westerners was relatively brief, from the late 1920's to his death in 1950. During that time, western culture had not yet slid heavily into the narcissistic void that engulfed our world from the 1960's on. Most westeners who came to him were relatively sophisticated world travelers who already had exposure not only to many eastern religious teachings, but to western psychology as well, from Freud to Jung and others. So Ramana did not have to address this issue in great detail, but simply tried to make clear that his admonition to "find out who you are" was not directed at developing a self-image in opposition to the body and its life in the world, but of finding the very nature of our own conscious existence at its core. It was not until long after his death that his and other eastern teachings began to find their way to the west en masse, and when they did they were subjected to a spontaneous eruption of western narcissism. The classic hippie spiritualist was someone enamored with the creation of an image of themselves adorned in all the accoutrements of spirituality, with none of the reality. Over time, of course, many westerners overcame these narcissistic tendencies, and developed a real understanding of what eastern non-dualism was really about, and this resulted in a kind of "crashing down to earth" that proved very helpful, if jarring, to many.
But there have been a number of waves of narcissistic spirituality that have been similarly educational to those who managed to survive them, if devastating to those who did not. Adi Da's "teaching demonstrations" represented one such wave, but there were a great many others as well, from Andrew Cohen's silliness to Ken Wilber's descent into AQAL mind games. One of the more widespread of these waves was instigated by Poonja Swami among the flood of westerners who suddenly began showing up as his home in Luchnow in the late 1980's and early 1990's. Many of these westerners were former devotees of Rajneesh, whose organization was one of the largest forums for narcissistic spiritual seeking during the previous two decades, and whose collapse followed the path of classic narcissistic cult implosion. Papaji was faced with a crowd of westerners the like of which his Guru, Ramana, had never had to deal with. He recognized that many of them had been badly damaged by their relationship to their previous teachers, and that many of them were hardly prepared to practice genuine non-dualism. In many ways, his interactions with these people was loving and kind, but there was always a dance going on between their genuine response to these non-dual teachings, and their own tendency to become immersed in mind games and conceptual illusions. Poonja Swami often warned them that their ideas about enlightenment, like their ideas of unenlightenment, were just concepts, and that concepts were not reality. But it took a good deal of time for many of these people to grasp the point. In the process, Papaji at times fed their narcissism by telling many of these people that they were fully enlightened, and seeing what came of it. In some people's cases, it brought a kind of sudden awakening to the Atman, and often people didn't know what to do with that. Often, these awakenings collapsed into a form of narcissistic self-imagery, and these people declared themselves enlightened and went off to teach others.
Andrew Cohen is one of the earliest and worst examples of this kind of narcissist. There were many others whose narcissism was not quite so severe however. They went back to the west, began giving "satsang", and tried to recapture the magic of their time with Papaji and share it with others. In most cases, this failed Papaji himself made it clear time and again that while many of these people had genuine awakening experiences, none of them were truly enlightened, and they should stop pretending they were. What occurred in these cases was that the experience was transformed into a self-image, and rather than transcending the mind, they were trapped in a "spiritual" self-image that was just as deluding, if not more so, than their previous state of mind. This period represents, looked at positively, as a great lesson for westerners, even if they have not yet come to understand it quite so plainly. Those who fell into the deeper pits of this collective narcissism may not see it so positively however. In both cases, of course, there is nothing but lessons to be learned from these kinds of incidents, but people clearly learn lessons at their own pace and we cannot force the issue.
So it's important to repeat that the practice of self-enquiry is not an exercise aimed at one's self-image. It is trying to look past self-image, and all concepts we create about the self, in order to find the underlying conscious source of all these. The psychological self has its origins in the body, as Lowen well describes, because the psychological self is the result of identification with the body. There is a healthy, functional relationship we enjoy with the body that is not to be destroyed by self-enquiry or any other kind of non-dual approach. In fact, I would suggest that the process of forming a self--image is itself not separable from the basic facts of reincarnation - that our mind exists at a deeper level than the body, and that it forms a spiritual relationship with the body, and it needs to form a healthy image of that body in order to function properly in relation to it. So self-image has a great spiritual significance, in that to grow the deeper spiritual connections to the body means that we have to submit ourselves to the body as it is, and work with it as it is. It defeats the purpose of incarnation if we allow ourselves to become enamored of the self-image itself, and allow it to depart from the reality of our connection to the body. That leads to spiritual distortions in our being that obstruct the process of incarnation and spiritual growth. So even while acknowledging that our mind is a spiritual phenomena, it's important to keep our bodily self-image intact.
When Ramana is criticizing the "I am the body" notion, he isn't referring to psychological self-imagery, he's referring to the fundamental separation of consciousness from its source, by identifying with an object that is not the true Self. There is a world of difference between this and identification with a false image of our body through the conceptual and imagistic capacities of the mind. When Ramana speaks of "destroying the mind" he is not speaking of destroying the body and its psychological functions, he's speaking of the primal 'I'-thought, which is not the same as the psychological bodily self-image.
In another essay-response to this blog, Elias contrasts some quotes from Ramana about the practice of self-enquiry with a news report of a terrorist bombing that killed 22 people in Somalia, sarcastically saying:
"So sorry, Sri Ramana, but my mind is greatly agitated after reading the above account. Should I sit in silence for a bit and contemplate your blissful photograph?Sarcasm aside, this demonstrates a lack of understanding of what Ramana is talking about when he speaks of enquiry into the Self. He is not describing a practice which disassociates from the body or the world and excuses its sufferings by creating an alternative reality in one's mind. He is not arguing for a narcissistic approach to life, in which one denies the realities of the body and its relationships and sufferings. He is pointing out something much more real and profound - that the collective source of all of our experience, internal and external, is in consciousness, and we should be attentive to that source- reality at all times - even when terrible things happen. In fact, especially when terrible things happen. Otherwise, we are swept away by the sheer miseries of this world at every step, because everything here is in the process of dying, whether by suicide bomber or cancer or just old age. Self-enquiry is not something one practices to deny this reality, but to find its source in consciousness. It does not deny the body or its various vulnerabilities. It only wishes to know where all this comes from in consciousness, and in so knowing, be freed of all illusions about it.
Oh, I see...I should turn my attention away from these dream-like events in Somalia and find the "I-I" within... And then I should enquire "Who am I?" until the illusory "I" is found not to exist, and the timeless unborn "I Am" comes forth and I am liberated from the world of appearances.
Oh thank you, dear Master. The chunks of flesh and pools of blood and ruined lives are but a dream to me now that I have succeeded, with your help, in destroying the mind!"
But it's common to react to non-dual teachings like Ramana in the manner Elias demonstrates. It's not even an unhealthy response, in that it is rejecting a tendency to disassociate that is real enough and has nothing to do with the spiritual process. That tendency should be rejected by everyone, especially if they cannot grasp what Ramana is actually teaching. It's better that people reject Ramana and his teachings than embrace them with a false understanding of what they are about. Ramana was certainly not concerned with having large numbers of followers. He was only interested in having his teachings understood and practiced for real, and not having tons of people staring at his photograph and imagining themselves as spiritual advancing by how disassociated they have become from this body and world.
On the other hand, the actual process of self-enquiry, or devotion to Ramana as Guru, is nothing like Elias sarcastically describes. It entails a process of deepening sensitivity to the body and its relations, not a disassociation from them, or a narcissistic immersion in a spiritual self-image of oneself as Atman. Unfortunately, there are quite a few people who think that forming such a spiritual self-image is precisely what Advaita is about, and they will defend that self-image as the very embodiment of Advaitic teachings, which it is not. These are people who cannot understand that the bodily self-image is simply an ordinary part of the mind and life, and not something to destroy. It could be said that when the 'I'-thought is destroyed in liberation, there is no self-image anymore, but even this would be incorrect in the functional sense. Ramana had no trouble relating to his own body, or the bodies of others. Nor did any of the genuine Jivanmuktas I'm aware of. Liberation from the ego does not equate to negation of the body. Quite the opposite, it seems to allow the body to fulfill its natural spiritual destiny.
I remember my first encounter with Papaji, when I was just sixteen and visiting Switzerland to attend the summer lectures of J. Krishnamurti. I remember sitting in the audience, getting a little bored with the lecture, and I began looking around at the audience members, many of whom had clearly been following Krishnamurti around for decades, and some of whom were quite old (to me at least). I noticed one fellow in particular, an older man in his sixties or seventies, who was hunched over and listening extremely intently to what Krishnamurti was saying. He was clearly thinking through every single statement Krishnamurti made, and nodding his head when he "got it". He would make this little ritual nod, as if he were trying to turn his mind into whatever Krishnamurti was trying to describe, as if this would lead eventually to some kind of liberating realization. But as I looked at the man, what he actually had was a tight, contracted, deadening mind, and a wasted body that was just getting old and tired. I thought to myself, is this what I want to become some day? It seemed that was what spirituality was to some people, particularly in the Krishnamurti crowd. I didn't find it terribly attractive.
Contrast that with seeing Papaji (Poonja Swami) come out of the tent behind me after one of the lectures. I had no idea who he was, but as he walked towards and past me, I simply said to myself, "Wow, so that's what a real man looks like". I had no idea that he was even a spiritual teacher, but he sure looked like what I thought a real one would look like. He exhibited no tension in his body, but no disassociation either. He was just solidly present and coincident with his body, which was strong, relaxed, and with an unmistakable quality of simple maturity to it. I got more from the one glance at Papaji than the entire summer lecture series of Krishnamurti's. I don't think I'd ever seen a real man before. Everyone I had met was just a sort of large child, confused, immature, filled with strange motivations and doubts, not at all at ease with their own body.
And that's the point, realization leaves the individual completely at ease with his own body and the world. It doesn't negate the body, it restores it to its natural state of reality, maturity, and real functionality. It doesn't burden the body with identification, but it doesn't spurn the body through rejection. And it relates to the world in the same way. It recognizes the common source all have in consciousness - even when a suicide bomber is wrecking havoc among innocents. it laughs and cries appropriately, in response to whatever is occurring. Even self-enquiry does not impose a conceptual understanding on what it observes. It doesn't say that the world is either real or unreal, it merely tries to know who we are who experience all the possible experiences of the world, good or bad. It seems like an appropriate response to any occasion, but it does not pre-empt the natural bodily response of either horror or help that occurs when we encounter something terrible like this.
Elias makes another good point, even while confusing the nature of self-enquiry:
Which brings me to my next point: you can think about this stuff, but you cannot persue it like a treasure-hunt. You can't take up "the practice of self-enquiry" and expect to get anywhere with it. The Self comes after you. The Atman-Brahman makes its move when the time is right. At the point when you are ripe, the practice of enquiry begins spontaneously.The naturalness of self-enquiry is not impeded by instruction and practice, it is actually accentuated by them. What impedes self-enquiry is not practicing it correctly. Which may mean using it as a process of self-image making, rather than one of merely observing the mind itself as it goes about its business, and enquiring into the observer. Self-enquiry has no actual content, and no images to latch onto. Whenever one encounters an image, either of oneself or something in the world, self-enquiry merely directs attention back to the one who is observing. It does not say "this is unreal, let's reject it". In fact, that's precisely the method of neti-neti that Ramana criticized. The notion of "unreality" is merely a matter of perspective. From the point of view of the ego, everything is unreal, because it depends on the ego, which is unreal, but always trying to create a reality it can hold onto to achieve reality. The Self has no need to create reality, because it is already real, and need do nothing to become real. As Elias points out, the ego does not become realized, it merely is seen as unreal. This, paradoxically, does not make the world or the body unreal, it actually restores them to reality. It restores them to the reality that does not depend on the ego.
Who finds the Real Self? Not the ego. The Real Self, the 'I' of being beyond the illusions of the mind and its mirrors, comes with the force and clarity of Nature. In that sense, to practice the meditation of "Who am I?" is no different than practicing "neti-neti". Unassisted, it is entirely reductive, tending to neutralize or destroy aspects of ego -- but "the shining" that results will be no more than a temporary samadhi.
Then, as illusions re-coalesce and as "the mind of grasping" reasserts its dominion in you, the best you will end up with is a religion in which you objectify the truth as a totemic man -- Ramana Maharshi -- who symbolizes your forgotten Self.
In reality, the body is not an ego, and it is not separate from the Self. It is the radiant life of the Self, not in the least bit separate from it. So self-enquiry does not aim at the elimination of the body, or look for some confirmation of its unreality. It only looks to see the unreality of the ego which we mistakenly presume to be identical to the body when consciousness mistakenly identifies with the body. The life that ensues from this understanding is a purely natural one. And the practice of self-enquiry, long before it achieves final liberation, produces a natural life that is not at war with the body or the world. The practice itself is simply natural to us all. There is nothing more natural than knowing who we are. It is unnatural not to know who we are, and thus it is perfectly natural to wonder who we are, and to give attention to our self. One can turn that into a methodical mental quest, like that guy sitting in the audience at the Krishnamurti lecture, or we can simply let it be a natural quest that is aided more and more by the instruction and blessing of those already established in the peace of the Self. Living under the illusions of the false self is a recipe for suffering that can only be corrected by knowledge of who we really are. No political solution will ever do the trick. Even if we lived in a world without suicide bombers, we will all still die here one way or another. It's important to know who it is who dies.