Seeking Perfection Where It is to be Found
There is a river of knowledge
That has no banks, no source and no mouth!
It is light, pure light,
and is hidden in every human heart.
The teachings on non-duality are concerned with our innate desire for ultimate and lasting fulfilment. They provide a way of practice which leads to peace of mind. Peace of mind is not an end in itself. Peace is the inner condition which allows the revelation within our own being of a unique form of knowledge—the knowledge which satisfies forever.
This knowledge is hidden in every human heart. One of the words found in the Upanishads that is used to indicate the nature of this knowledge is Purna—perfection. It can also be translated as infinite, and again as fullness, completeness. The root meaning of purna is to fill. And this knowledge is awaiting discovery within us. It is the supreme wisdom and is perfect in every sense of that word, being free from defect, everlasting, and the essence of beauty and blissfulness.
At this point, we may be thinking that this is all idealism, a utopian vision that has no correspondence with reality. This is because our human experience, with its limitations, seems to prove that perfection is beyond our reach. Our joys in the world are mingled with anxieties and the fear of loss. Our knowledge, however learned we may appear to be, is puny compared with what we do not know. We live our life, and then vanish into an obscurity of which we have no certain knowledge. So this idealistic world view that non-duality seems to stand for, can only be based on delusion or wishful thinking.
And yet, in spite of these limitations, human beings do have a sense of perfection—a sense of something being ‘the best’— that permeates much of our activity. We are forever judging things in terms of good, better and best. We want the best, we feel we deserve the best, and in our secret thoughts, we are rooted in the conviction that we are the best.
There is some truth in the story of the man who was praying aloud, declaring himself to be the worst of sinners. Afterwards, someone who had overheard him asked: ‘Are you really that bad?’ He replied angrily: ‘Bad? How dare you suggest I am bad!’
We have an affinity with perfection, and this adds a speck of insincerity to our professions of guilt. Our understanding begins its further evolution when we realise that true perfection is not, after all, to be ascribed to our individual nature, nor to our personal achievements, however brilliant these may be. This is because the ultimate perfection must be beyond change, whereas our life in this world is subject to continuous change and eventual dissolution.
It is true that our life experience may include moments of perfection—instants when everything seems to be just right. Such instants may extend into minutes, hours, or more. At these times, our focused attention on something pleasurable or pleasing, gives rise in our mind to a timeless bliss. But such times pass, and the combination of circumstances which prompted the joy, cannot be accurately replicated. For enduring satisfaction, we must look elsewhere.
With our growing experience of life, we come to realise that the perfection we seek, consciously or unconsciously, cannot be realised by acquisition, or through any kind of achievement in the outer world. For whatever occurs or appears in the world is transient; it does not last. Yet the means to lasting fulfilment is near to hand. We discover it when we reflect more deeply and carefully on the nature of our own being.
A story tells how the Spirit of Pure Happiness, tired of the incessant prayers of humankind seeking material benefits, sought a refuge free from disturbance. There were many suggestions, each advocating some remote location. In the end, only one idea seemed perfectly right, which the Spirit of Pure Happiness adopted immediately. The advice was: ‘Install yourself in the human heart. No one will ever think of seeking you there.’
The heart is here a synonym for the mind—the inner organ which is the seat of thinking and feeling. In our quest for true happiness—for perfection—the nature of our own mind now becomes our central interest. For, as indicated in our opening verse, in its deeper aspect is to be discovered ‘light, pure light’ that is comparable to a river without banks, source, or mouth— which suggests infinity, boundlessness.
But where within us is this perfection? It cannot be in the thoughts, because thoughts come and go, and in the mind, all we find are thoughts. Where is the perfection?
It is here that the non-dual teachings make some important observations about the nature of our experience. They point to something within us which is over and above thought. The inner world of the mind shares its space, so to say, with another principle which is superior to the mind.
What is this principle? Why don’t we see it? That principle is nothing other than our real being, our real I. We are being told: ‘The highest form of experience is the fully revealed nature of your true Self. It is the ground of pure being which supports the mind, and gives it cohesion and continuity.’
This real I can also be signified as the consciousness in you under whose light the thoughts appear. Everyone is aware of the passing nature of thoughts. From this we infer that there must be a deeper principle of awareness which witnesses the coming and going of thought but which itself does not come and go. This is our consciousness. It transcends the mind, and yet far from being strange or remote, it is the immediacy of the experience ‘I am’ and ‘I know’ which is always with us because it is our true Self. Consciousness and being are two ways of considering the same principle.
It is at this depth and purity of our nature that perfection is to be sought and discovered. It never changes, and therefore is free from the imperfection called change. Being the innermost consciousness, the ultimate awareness, it is never an object of thought. Therefore no defect or fault can ever be discovered in it. And as well as being of the nature of pure being and absolute consciousness, the non-dual teaching is that it is also the ultimate beauty and bliss hidden in the human heart. This is the perfection we seek, and it is to be found within our own being, as that being, within our own consciousness, as that consciousness.
At first it does seem unreasonable to claim that within our own being there is a treasury of higher values, such as light, infinity, perfection and bliss. But when, after innumerable experiments and experiences in the world, we fail to discover lasting joy, we may find ourselves giving closer attention to the teachings about the true Self, and its perfect infinite nature. It is then that a way of inner progress will open to us—an opportunity to pursue the path to inner freedom through self-realisation.
On this path, we find that the methods involve searching within our own being in a particular way. It is not a question of searching and analysing the thoughts, but of quietening them, and of withdrawing our sense of identity from the mental processes to the light that illumines them. In our serenity of mind, we become aware of that deeper principle of consciousness and pure being which underlies all our experience.
Through this intelligent, inwardly directed stilling of the mind, we discover a fresh source of knowledge, which is the very nature of our true Self. This is not a knowledge that is a means to some other end. It is pure knowing, infinite. Such knowledge is its own justification and value. Being blissful and faultless, it is its own reward, its own goal.
We may ask: ‘How can the reduction of thought lead to the enhancement of our experience? How can this inwardly directed stillness of mind, give rise to the blissful knowledge that emanates from the depths of our own being like a sacred spring?’
One explanation of the power of a quiet mind is that in inner quiescence, a higher part of our mind, usually dormant, becomes operative—and through this faculty, called ‘buddhi’, we gain the insight and intuition to see more deeply into our Self, so to say.
Let us learn a lesson from those who capture films and images of shy creatures in their natural habitat. To succeed, photographers and camera crew must be quiet, still and patient, so that the wildlife may not be alarmed by their presence. The slightest noise or movement may cause sensitive creatures to take fright and dart away. But if sufficient quiet, stillness and patience are exercised—almost as if the observers and their equipment were not there—fascinating and beautiful observations may be made of the most timid and reclusive animals and birds.
Compare this with the process of meditation. In meditation we try to curtail the inner chatter. We sit still. We do our practice with calm and patience. And it is as if our personality and our Ego—our sense of being a separate person—are set aside and forgotten. It is under these non-assertive conditions that our mind is quietened. We can turn our attention to the source of our being. And that source is self-illumined consciousness—pure infinite being. This is the nature of our I, and we first approach it in stillness with the help of sentences that have the power and depth to point to its presence.
We have to recognise that the mind is not only of interest and value when it is active in the world of objects. A classical verse points out:
The nature of the mind when it is under control, free from all ideas, and is focused inwardly on its source, is to be particularly noted. (Gaudapada Karikas, 3:34-35)
One final point concerns the cultivation of the mind that is encouraged in the non-dual teachings. So far we have made several references to the need for peace—using similar words, like tranquillity, serenity and calmness. But to consolidate our higher knowledge, something more is needed. Not just pacification of the mind, but purification.
Purification in these teachings is always linked with the conviction that life, in its essence, is a unity; that all life is one; that to harm another is to harm oneself. Therefore, those who follow the path to self-realisation have, what is called in the Taittiriya Upanishad, the unitive outlook. Where possible, they are peacemakers, bridge-builders, and are free from prejudices in favour or against this or that group. As a classical verse expresses it:
How can one who sees the one Self in all, cherish hatred for anyone, any more than he can hate the limbs of his own body?
A little reflection will show that most of the man-made problems in the world are due to the lack of this unitive outlook. This in turn suggests that the human heart is not sufficiently purified of its narrowness and prejudice to realise the underlying unity and treat people accordingly. But once this unitive outlook is valued, our inner transformation can be thorough and irreversible. The perfection of our own true Self and its oneness with the Self of all, will be revealed as the self-evident truth, the true nature of what is—now and always.