Consciousness As the Portal to the Absolute
Stephen Wolinsky is a direct student of Nisargadatta Maharaj, the author of I Am That, a book which swept the community of consciousness in the 1970s and still has a strong influence today on those who are seeking. The path Nisargadatta Maharaj taught is Advaita Vedanta. As Wolinsky explains it, “Advaita means one substance, not two and Vedanta obviously means the end of the Vedas.” Wolinsky applies this understanding that everything in the Universe as being made up of one substance to fields such as Quantum Psychology, a fine-tuning of psychological theory which he defined based on Maharaj’s teachings. A seemingly simplistic phrase to illustrate this in Sanskrit is neti neti: something is not this and not this. Since everything is one substance, everything is illusory – it is not one thing, and not another. Everything we see is not this and not this. By its very nature, because of the fact that language is dualistic, defining, it can be a challenging concept to perceive and to understand. But it can be liberating. This is the basis of the Science and Nonduality Conference being held in October: that from both the view of scientific discovery and the world-view of Jnana Yoga (the path of knowledge) teachers such as Nisargadatta Maharaj, the illusory nature of the world keeps us from seeing the real truth that everything is One.
Felicia M. Tomasko: How did you connect to your teacher, Nisargadatta Maharaj?
Stephen Wolinsky: I was given the book I am That, in 1976. I went to see Nisargadatta Maharaj in 1977 in a very flippant way. I didn’t even see him; I I I went midday and then left. I went back in 1978 and that’s when I really connected with him. The main teaching of Maharaj is that there are three basic principles of Yoga, no matter what Yoga.
You’re not the mind, you’re not the body and you’re not the doer.
For Maharaj, spirituality was defined by one thing and one thing only and that was the realization of who you are. It didn’t matter as far as path or technique. Either you know who you are, or you don’t know who you are and his entire focus was to get you to know who you are.
The approach that he used was very confrontational. “Whatever you think you are, you’re not. Whatever you think or believe yourself to be, you’re not.”
It doesn’t matter if I’m happy, sad, loving, kind or compassionate, if I’m a great yogi, if I believe the world is one substance. This has nothing to do with who you are. These are thoughts, ideas; these are pointers at best to point you in the direction to find out who you are. There is a famous Zen saying: “The finger that points at the moon is not the moon.”
For most people, the path becomes their religion. They’re more attached to how they’re doing it, then what they’re actually doing it to get. Because how you do it doesn’t matter, really. The only thing that matters is: Are you going to find out who you are or not?
Maharaj, said “Forget me, forget Maharaj, even forget the teachings, and just stay in the consciousness, and your own unique path, whatever that may be, will emerge for you.” That is significant because it levels everything. The right thing for me is going to be different from you and from somebody else. If they stay in the consciousness, everybody is going to have their own “unique camp” that will emerge for them. I think unfortunately in spirituality, everything is one size fits all. Everyone gets the same mantra, tantra, yantra, the same thing to do as if it is all right for everybody. I think a lot of the problems that people have or pain that they face is because they take on somebody else’s system and try to fit into it rather than stay in the consciousness of their own self and their own system and see what emerges.
FMT: It makes me think of Krishna’s teaching in the Bhagavad Gita that it is better to do your own dharma badly than someone else’s well.
SW: Absolutely. Depending on who was sitting in front of him, Maharaj would try to find the key that unlocked their door. For example, Maharaj said to one of his students, “Your practice is to study quantum physics.” It’s not that quantum physics as a model is significant. What’s significant is that the Yoga understandings could come through quantum physics because of the way this person’s mind is organized. For somebody else, they might come through chanting. For somebody else, they might come through meditation.
FMT: I It explains why there are so many different paths. A skilled teacher will be the teacher who helps you unlock your specific path.
SW: If you look back 1,000 years or so to stories by the Sufi masters, let’s say there are ten Sufi masters and you go to Sufi master number one. He sits and talks to you and says “I’m not the right Sufi master for you, go to Sufi master number five.” After sitting and talking with Sufi master number five, he says, “You need to see Sufi master number seven; he’s the guy that’s best for you.” At that point the “practice” is student-centered, not teacher-centered. I’m going to send you where you might need to go, rather than keep you around because I need you.
When Maharaj said, “Forget me, forget the teachings, forget Maharaj, stay in the consciousness as the portal to the absolute,” what he’s saying is, if you don’t depend on your thoughts, memories, emotions, perceptions, associations, whatever, you can always reach a no-state state. You don’t depend on the mind, or the subtle body. The no-state state is the state of “I Am.” What makes Maharaj unique is that he’s saying this is a temporary state; a station. As you’re in no-state state, not depending on thoughts, memories, emotions, associations, perceptions, et cetera, then it is quiet, its still, and you’re conscious of the no-state state. If you let go of that “of” then it’s just the consciousness.
Maharaj approached this in two ways. One was the classic neti neti Advaita Vedanta: not this, not this. Not my thoughts, memories, emotions, association, perceptions, et cetera. The other approach is that everything is consciousness; nothing exists outside of consciousness. If I AM the consciousness, then I’m not my thoughts, feelings, memories, emotions, associations, perceptions, et cetera. I only know of one other person who spoke this way in the last 2,000 years, and that was Nargajuna, the founder of the Middle Way, Madhyamaka Buddhism.
The consciousness is a state, an appearance, something that appears on me. It’s not me. I am prior to consciousness. That probably is the most unique statement: complete realization is realization prior to consciousness, prior to the emergence of consciousness itself, including its very subtle brother or sister emptiness. Emptiness and consciousness are the same substance, two sides of the same coin. Emptiness is consciousness; consciousness is emptiness. Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. The emptiness is a subtle form of consciousness, but I am neither. I am the absolute prior to consciousness.
FMT: So if emptiness and consciousness are part of the same thing and we live in a world of Purusha (consciousness/emptiness) and Prarkiti (manifestation) where duality is expressed, what is the relationship between duality and nonduality?
SW: There is no such thing as duality and nonduality. Nonduality and duality only exist in language. Language is binary and dualistic by nature.
FMT: So it exists only in language.
SW: Wittgenstein called it a language game. Nonduality is a concept which does not exist outside of language. People are trying to understand it with the vehicle of a concept. There is no such thing as nonduality, how could there be? It requires another perceiver. Narajuna’s basic principle is that there is no unity, there is no similarity. There are no differences; nothing arises, nothing subsides. Nothing is similar, nothing is different. There is no unity; there is no duality, prior to language. It is a language game.
FMT: How does Bhakti and the current emphasis on devotion within the Yoga community fit into this?
SW: If you stay in the consciousness, your own unique path will emerge as a portal to the absolute.What the ultimate bhakti or bhakta wants is for the lover and the beloved, the devotee and the object of devotion, to become one. For Maharaj, when you focus your attention on your own consciousness, that’s Bhakti Yoga and the mantra would be, “Being the consciousness is worshipping the consciousness.” People asked him, “Why is there no Bhakti in here?” He said, “I’m a bhakta; I’m an atma bhakta. I worship the consciousness. I worship myself.”
FMT: I think people often see those things as being opposed to each other. That it’s an either/or.
SW: It’s not. Everything falls away as not this not that. Everything falls away as an appearance made of consciousness. By focusing your attention on the consciousness, you are worshipping the consciousness, the two have become one. And in that process you have the neti neti of Advaita Vedanta because when you become the consciousness, everything else falls away as not this, not this. Everything falls away that’s not prior to consciousness.
Maharaj’s primary teaching, for ninety-five percent of the people was, “Hold onto the ‘I Am’ and let go of everything else.” If someone came in and said, “I’m not the’ I Am,’ I’m not my thoughts, memories, all that other stuff, I’m just the I Am,” he would say, the I Am is a temporary state, it’s a station. If I were in San Francisco and I were taking a train to New York, there’s Salt lake city, and Denver and Kansas city; there’s all these stations. New York is the destination, metaphorically – there are all these stations. Why would you want to get off at any particular station? What made Maharaj most unique was that consciousness was a station.
FMT: Why is this conference combining science and nonduality important now?
SW: There’s a famous Sanskrit saying, drishti shristi vada, the world is only there as long as there is an “I” there to perceive it. Science is a model, it’s a map. It’s dependent on a perceiver; that’s obvious. The “I” arises after the fact, after events have already occurred, so how could you be the doer? Maharaj once said, “Fluids come together and the ‘I Am’ appears.” He summarized eighty years of neuroscience in one sentence. Neuroscience has proven that the nervous system is late and the perception of “I” arises through a biochemical reaction in the brain after the event has already occurred.
An atom is mostly empty space. If you took the nucleus of an atom and the electron that goes around it and expanded the size of the nucleus to the size of the sun and the electron to the size of the Earth, you would see that an atom, like the Solar System, is more than 99% empty space. And our world is made up of atoms. But the nervous system and the brain use a process of abstraction or omitting to fill in our view so we see a solid world, all the emptiness is gone. An illusion is defined as seeing or experiencing something which is not there. Y You’re not seeing emptiness; therefore what you see is an illusion. The body that I look at is an abstraction. I’m not looking at my hand and saying, “There’s emptiness floating out there.” I see hands. Why? Because the brain and the nervous system have omitted all the emptiness. Therefore I I’m seeing something that is an abstracted representation of something that doesn’t exist.
This validates the three basic principles of Yoga. I’m not the mind (thoughts, memories, emotions, associations, perceptions, and so on). Obviously, I’m not the body because the body is an abstraction. I I’m not the doer; the “I” arises after the event has already occured. I am not the doer.
I’m using science as a thorn to remove a thorn. That thorn, called, “The ‘I’ arises after the action or event,” can now unpack and deconstruct all the thoughts about who you are, what you did, what you didn’t do, all your memories, everything is deconstructing itself based on several scientific facts. Maharaj wouldn’t say you have to believe in science, you have to use a thorn to remove a thorn.
The “I” arises after the fact; that’s a fact. That means I I’m not the doer. That deconstructs all your ideas about psychology, all your ideas about self. I experience myself as a self or a person because it’s a biochemical process in the brain. If there’s no biochemical process in the brain, then I have no experience of being, I have no experience of self, let alone psychology or spirituality.
It’s just story, it’s just an abstraction. It doesn’t actually exist. But you will suffer to the degree that you believe the language games. Cause and effect are just a way of thinking about things. In 1964, John Stewart Bell, in what is considered the most significant discovery of science, demonstrated that not only was there no locality, there are no local causes. There’s only one thing and you can’t separate it. You can’t say that this isolated thing over here caused this isolated thing over there. But the mind, the thoughts, memories, emotions, perceptions, associations, all want a cause and want to say, this happened because of this.
There’s a famous saying that one of the purposes of the nervous system is to organize chaos. The third definition of chaos in Webster’s Dictionary is the empty space that preceded the creation of the universe. The nervous system has to abstract order from chaos. The sense of self is not something spiritual; it’s a biochemical reaction in the brain. When the body dies, the chemicals won’t come together.
FMT: Is there a purpose to psychology as it is presently in our society?
SW: If you look at psychology and go back 2,500 years to Socrates and the early Greeks, their main question was inquiry, inquiry, inquiry. It changed with the Industrial Revolution, when we were asking people who lived in tribal societies and farming and so on, to move to the cities and be nonhumans and work in factories on assembly lines. Psychology shifted from trying to find out who I am to getting you to cope in an insane society. How can you be fixed so you don’t mind driving an hour and a half in traffic each way and don’t mind working nine to five and having two weeks off. So psychology moved from inquiry and “Who am I?” to, “How do I and can I cope?” How I be more, do more, have more, have more money, get better sex, have a bigger house. The question “Who am I I’ has been gone for 150 years. Everybody went outward with psychology instead of going in to the consciousness prior to the thoughts, memories, emotions, association and perceptions. Quantum psychology tries to bring it back to its roots. Basically the theme is, “Anything you think you are; you’re not.”
FMT: People search because of the pain that they’re in, whether it’s the pain because they’re living in an insane world, or it’s the pain because they’re attached to perceptions and thoughts and emotions. Do you think the process of inquiry ultimately helps people find the place that has nothing to do with the pain?
SW: The question is, “Who is the person?” This is not an easy process. I I didn’t get involved in this because I wanted to serve the world. I got involved in psychology and spirituality more than forty years ago because I was in pain. I was suffering and I would do anything to get out of the pain. I wasn’t sitting around with Maharaj in bliss. I had bliss but I had a lot of piss.
However, when we’re talking about identification with consciousness – we’re talking about big jumps here. Most people, said Maharaj, most people who get the teachings stay in the “I am” and let go of everything else. The most difficult step is realizing you’re not your thoughts, memories, emotions, perceptions, associations, whatever. Most spiritual practice, that’s what it is, you’re realizing you’re not your thoughts whether you’re using a mantra, Yantra or Tantra, you’re trying to get your mind in a quiet place. It will never
happen, no matter how hard you try.
You know this: thoughts arise and subside and there’s a space. The problem is that that space is made of the same substance as a thought, and the space and the thought are holographic. When I go into the space, when I come out of the space, everything is going to come back. Why? Because, the space and the thought are made of the same substance – of course it’s going to come back! So the space and the thought are the same substance, but they’re both made of consciousness. You gotta get to the consciousness, if you don’t get to the consciousness, then the space will create thoughts back.
FMT: It seems to be part of language again; we perceive the space and we perceive the thoughts.
SW: There’s a perceiver there. Again: drishti shristi vada. There’s only a world there if there’s a perceiver there to perceive it. There’s a saying by the Buddha that no being has ever entered Nirvana. Why? Because Nirvana means extinction. No being has ever entered – for an extinguished being to enter something that doesn’t exist, cannot happen.
FMT: It goes back to using the thorn to pull out the thorn, using the tools of language to talk about something that exists beyond language.
SW: Right. When you say prior to your last thought, who were you? There’s really no such thing as prior. But if I say, prior to your last thought, prior to this whole conversation, is there duality or nonduality or neither? Obviously, there’s neither. All you can do is use language to point you the consciousness prior to thought. Maharaj’s basic thing was, “All you can teach is understanding; the rest comes on its own.”
FMT: There’s a difference between being able to intellectualize something and being able to actually know it and to experience it.
SW: I agree. Many people understand it as a map. You’re not your system, you’re not your past, you’re not your memories and emotions and so on. You’re not the space; you’re not the “I Am-ness.” I’m not here now, I realize the now is perceiver dependent, I’m not the now, I’m not the presence, I’m not the consciousness, and that ultimately I’m the absolute prior to consciousness. Okay, I get it now. All that is a map for you, it’s a story. Who you are is prior to the story.
Maharaj gave concepts as thorns to remove thorns. One of his statements was, “My words if implanted in you will destroy all other words and concepts.” If you just believed Advaita (One substance, not two), from only one substance, that would deconstruct everything. If there’s only one substance, there can’t be cause and effect. Meher Baba had an interesting statement, “The ego or the ‘I’ is like an iceberg: ninety percent of it is under water. When you are watching, it comes to the surface and it dissolves.” It is another way to describe neti neti. You’re in the neti neti or you’re worshipping the consciousness as a Bhakti, by focusing on the consciousness, putting your attention on the consciousness, that is devotion, until the worshipper is one with the consciousness, it is an internal process.
FMT: It seems to be an internal process you repeat over and over again.
SW: Someone asked Maharaj how long it would take and he said, “To get established in this condition, it might take some time.” He also said, “Hang onto your beingness only. Hang onto the sense of ‘I Am’ and everything else falls away.”
FMT: What would you describe as his bottom line, the essence of his message?
SW: “Forget me, forget Maharaj, forget the teachings. Stay in the consciousness as a portal to the absolute.”
Stephen Wolinsky will be speaking at the Science and Nonduality Conference, October 21 - 25, in San Rafeal California: