The topic of this post is something I have been wanting to put down in writing for a long time. It’s probably the most classic case of mistaking a description (and all spiritual teachings are descriptions!) for a prescription. What I want to discuss is the idea of the detached witness.
First of all, detached witnessing is not a state we can put ourselves into. Any willing change of state is something that we would have to do. Any doing involves effort and any effort to change how we perceive the world implies a rejecting of what already is. Trying to get into a state of detached witnessing exposes our belief in the insufficiency of our current state of consciousness and reflects our wish to transcend what we would call the ‘existential problems’ of life. This, of course, is exactly the stuff Samsara is made out of: trying to cling to bliss and reject piss. In Zen, meditators who are aspiring to put themselves in a detached witnessing state are called ‘stone Buddhas’. When life touches them, they wouldn’t react. As a consequence, they would not only be just as juicy and energized as zombies but also hopelessly trapped in an utterly dualistic point of view.
The fundamental misconception that leads to such misguided pursuits is the notion that life is painful and therefore to be avoided and decoupled of. Misunderstood meditation instructions seem to give ‘stone Buddhas’ permission to bless their suspicious stance against life with spiritual credentials.
Sooner or later, though, ‘stone Buddhas’ will end up severely frustrated and miserable. It is then that they hopefully realize that rejecting life, in the form of perceptions, feelings and emotions is not the solution to the existential ‘problem’ but the very cause of it.
When the mind neither clings nor rejects and does not ‘move out’ into the world, we enter a space of vivid ‘Now-ness’ and remain serenely unentangled with ‘what is’. This feels like being an uninvolved and benevolent witness (a.k.a. the Godhead). Hence, the detachment or ‘witnessing’ the sages talk about is really non other than a state of surrender.
Again, surrendering is not something we can do and therefore it is impossible to teach. Any attempt to surrender precludes it, since surrendering is the non-disalignment with what already is. In that sense, it is the natural state that we abandon when we want our experience to be different than it actually is. It is not something we can get, it gets us when we sincerely allow it.
There are, thus, tools and methods which can gently but surely trick our minds into submission to the ‘Now’. The way they work is by leading us to the realization that what causes our suffering is the inability to let things go their natural way and this message will become more and more obvious as we ‘progress’. Finally, all objection to ‘what is’ has to let go of.
One of the most powerful ‘tricks’ is to invoke a realization of the innate divinity of all things (called Satori in Zen). It breaks our resistance to ‘what is’ as we realize that all we ever resist is non other than ourselves in disguise. A sage knows that everything from our darkest thoughts and most painful feelings to our most lofty ideals and ecstasies are manifestations of this ‘One’ divinity. There are no wrong feelings, sensations, thoughts or states of consciousness. Acknowledging it all and embracing it all as divine bestows the sages their inner freedom which enables them to truly live from the heart beyond rejecting or grasping.
If we look deeply at life we see that it is neither so nor so. It is blissful and violent, good and evil. Since we are manifestations of life, how could we not also contain bliss and violence, good and bad within us? “I am large, I contain multitudes”, famously sang Walt Whitman to himself. He speaks about the wholeness that arises from the realization that we are part of life as much as all aspects of life are part of us: the light as much as the darkness. That way we don’t have to escape from life anymore by detaching from it but we will relax and serenely surrender into our ‘Oneness’ with it.
“He who knows not that the Prince of Darkness is the other face of the King of Light knows not me.”
~G. Manly Hall
In Indian philosophical schools of thought Maya represents the power of the universe to veil the fundamental unity of things. It is this ignorance about the ‘oneness’ underlying the world of the ‘many’ as we perceive it, which is commonly identified in the East as the cause of all existential suffering. To the great Indian sage Sri Ramakrishna Maya, nonetheless was an object of sincere devotion. He was said to be all love and reverence for it. For him Maya was God.
“Hold on”, you might say, “isn’t Maya the enemy, the darkening illusion we are supposed to dispel by virtue of spiritual discipline under the guidance of a Master or Guru?”
My answer is yes and no. Let me explain.
I would like to define Maya which is often synonymously used as the ignorance about ‘oneness’ or the illusion of duality in different terms than usual. For me Maya is the mistaken belief in the inherent reality of pairs of opposites like good or bad, holy or evil, light and shadow etc.
Whatever we experience through our senses is the interplay of the pairs of opposites. If the world was all white or all black, we couldn’t see. It’s the interplay of black and white and all the colors within the visible spectrum of light between these extremes that make it possible to have visual experiences.
With experiences comes the notion of difference between aspects of the sensory input that make up the experience. In other words, black and white, although they represent but different wavelengths of light, are seen as different, two.
This perceptual duality, in turn, leads to the cultivation of preferences, that is, fear and grasping, aversion and attachment. The tension and attraction that arises out of these mind-states is what motivates all sentient beings to act. This ‘elan vital’ is what keeps the wheel of life (Samsara) turning. Much (if not all of) evolution and progress is owed to this ‘force’. And it is what ultimately causes bliss as well as suffering. In that sense, yes, Maya is the sustainer of this game called life. It is what psychologically binds us tightly to its cycle of creation and decay, birth and death. From that perspective, the perspective of duality, Maya is indeed the enemy.
Therefore, it comes by no surprise that Yogis of some Hindu or Buddhist schools strive to transcend Maya and life’s tensions and attractions altogether. In other words, they are trying to renounce what constitutes life. They want to drop out the game. Thus, their spiritual practices aim at diminishing the will to live (Eros) in favor of the wish for annihilation (Thanatos).
Whenever we strive to transcend or cling to certain aspects of life, however, we are still operating within the realm of opposites, of duality. In that sense, trying to transcend duality exposes one’s dualistic outlook. One can never drop out of the game of life by trying to transcend it, because the very effort is what characterizes the game.
What to do?
To really drop out of the game of constant chasing or hiding from the opposites, we have to drop into it completely. The way out is the way in. This is to say that we have to find a way to accept the rules unconditionally. Because as long as we don’t, we are still playing along. Only in not objecting to anything, we transcend the logic of Samsara which is based on the push-pull forces of opposition and attraction. Just as the only way to stop a train from moving is to jump right on it, the only way to stop life from taking us on its roller coaster is to not interfere but to flow with it. In other words, the only way to drop out of the game of life is to give up completely any attempt whatsoever to abandon or master it. In surrendering to life, we claim our liberation from it.
How to surrender, though?
Maya is only a ‘problem’ as long as we are still enthralled by its hallucinatory spell of duality. Once we see through Maya and realize who we truly are, that is, when we call your own bluff of us and the world being something other than what all else is, we are free. The rules of the game still apply but we lose any objection to them as we know that we are the only player playing our own game with our Self (this ‘One’ that we and everything else fundamentally is). There is nothing that can ever be lost or gained in this game, there are no winners or losers, and there is no particular meaning to it other than to play it. We cannot do anything whatsoever to leave it because we can never separate from it, or transcend it, because in fact, we ARE it. It’s all been a cosmic joke, a hoax, as Alan Watts would say. We alone exist. We will never come nor go anywhere, ever. All there is, is no-thing playing some-thing with itself.
When we realize this, our eyes open wide and we discover that Maya is the most precious gift we could ever have made to our Self. Seen from that perspective, the perspective of unity, Maya is the constant invitation to a deep sense of gratitude and awe. When we realize our Self in everything and everything in our Self, we become the biggest admirer of this apparent ‘many’. Maya, after all, is the tremendous and fascinating expression of our own mysterious divinity. IT is we and we are IT.
To touch this unity is to become a devotee of the multiplicity. Thus, many spiritual masters, such as Nisargadatta Maharaj or Ramana Maharshi, had a deeply devotional side (sometimes to the great confusion of their students caught up in ideas of duality being somehow unreal). Because they are so devoted to their Self in disguise, they see no point in trying to “sell” people their insights. They know that all apparent parts of their Self at any time play their roles in this game perfectly well and with immense dedication and commitment. Their deepest admiration and respect goes out to those who are suffering, and it is in this admiration and respect where compassion has its origin. The sages realize that the game is so exquisitely designed by their Self that it is always in perfect harmony. Pleasure and pain, good or evil, one game, one life. It does what it does.
So, finally, that’s the conundrum of spiritual life: to live truly and wisely means to immerse ourselves into the dualistic world of Maya as if it was a serious matter whilst knowing it is fundamentally not. The Bodhisattva, thus, is somebody who, just for the sake of playing it, sincerely participates in an entirely fictional game. (S)he is like an actor wholeheartedly incarnating a role in an improvised plot while never forgetting that in the end of the day it’s all play. That way (s)he remains grounded in the game while not being rooted in it.
“When someone asks me who they are or what God is, I smile inside and whisper to the Light: There you go again pretending.”
Once upon a time there was a little boy who lived a life infused with the Beloved. He was able to rejoice in the most simple and ordinary things. A sense of magic and awe were his constant companions. As a result, he would never be anxious or regretful for too long but for the most time he would be serene and content.
As the boy grew up to be a young man, though, slowly and unnoticeably, a thick forest started to grow around his house. And at some point, the forest had become so dense that darkness befell his world and turned it into a wasteland. In the absence of light he quickly forgot about the Beloved. Worse still, he got so used to the wasteland that he accepted it as a fact of life.
One day, though, by some curious coincidence he suddenly had an encounter with the Beloved. Having been so long separated, he confused what he had experienced with some kind of artificially induced illusion. While most others would have dismissed it on that basis and quickly returned to business as usual, the young man, however, was curious and his intuition made him seek out people who had reported similar experiences.
These people claimed that the Beloved had never left and that He was waiting behind the forest. And since they were masters in teaching the ancient art of crafting weapons to cut through the forest, the young man followed them with eager interest. It took him a long time sitting with these craftsmen and listening to their instructions, to build his own weapon, which he called ‘One’.
He would keep on enhancing and sharpening it until one day, when he least looked or hoped for it, the Beloved appeared to him suggesting the weapon was now ready. So, the young man set out to the forest determined to root out all plants and trees that separated him from the sought.
The forest was so impenetrable and his weapon so heavy to use it took both hands and wholehearted effort to proceed. It was hard work. Sometimes he did not seem to get ahead, or he cut a branch and a few more would grow out of it. Sometimes he would be paralyzed by fear of what he encountered as he pushed deeper. But whenever the young man was feeling depressed or stuck, he would either be encouraged by the craftsmen or he would catch a glimpse of the Beloved. That’s what gave him the strength to carry on despite all challenges.
But the more he advanced into the forest, the darker it got. Completely unexpected, at the darkest hour, however, a miracle occurred. The young man suddenly stood face-to-face with the Beloved. All that was asked of him now was to let go of the weapon and to fully embrace Him. Because the weapon and its powers had become so dear to him, thought, it took the young man another big leap of faith to eventually drop it. But as he did, and as he united with the Beloved, he re-establish wholeness to every inch of his being.
In this very same moment of unification something suddenly dawned upon him. He realized that neither the forest, nor the weapon had ever really existed. They had all been mind-made, mere figments of his imagination. His separation from the Beloved had been an illusion all along. He had never left the Beloved but in his mind. While this discovery made the young man laugh at his own folly, he cried for everybody else who was unnecessarily suffering because of their delusions. But what he now knew for certain was that he had finally awoken from the confines of the mind.
After having gone through this ordeal, the young man, with his consciousness altered, re-engaged with the everyday world as a most ordinary person. As he grew older he would occasionally act as craftsman, pointing others through the quest of leaving the illusory maze of the mind.
When he died he had a smile on his face.
“Before I tasted the root many times and felt, how delicious.
Today I became the root. How ordinary.”
Nature… the supreme spiritual master