Enlightenment - The ground beneath our feet
by Harshada David Wagner
Enlightenment is not an end product, but rather a constant eclipsed by a changing set of variables. knowing this can open the sadhak to the turya state, that golden state of ultimate bliss and freedom
Self-effort is the greatest impediment to realisation.”
The swami’s words felt like a kick in the stomach. We were having lunch together and discussing sadhana and the role of self-effort on the spiritual path. When he said this, immediately, I was ready to argue. I had heard this very swami give talks about the importance of sustained practice, and besides, I was personally insulted. I had worked very hard for many years on the spiritual path and had wagered a great deal on the power of my effort. Effort was the one thing I could do. I could perform seva, I could learn to meditate, and I could memorise the teachings. Effort was something I could sink my teeth into. Of course, divine grace was also equally important, but in my understanding, that grace would only flow when I was ready to step out and act. In my understanding, that grace was something I earned through the sweat of my brow.
My conversation with the old swami over rice and daal became the beginning of a whole new stage in my spiritual journey. The swami explained that our divinity was the most natural thing about us and that all we need to do was to “let go and be That.” After a valiant and arrogant attempt to make this great teacher see my point of view, I finally gave up and tried to practise what he was suggesting. His assignment for me was – “drop all the intellectual stuff and just walk in the garden. Look at the trees, listen to the birds” – that was it. His simple assignment proved harder than it sounds. At the time, I was engaged in serious practice: writing, studying, practising self-enquiry, meditating, chanting and offering many hours of service to the ashram. Following Swamiji’s suggestion, I put my journal and my books away and began my practice of walking in the gardens.
I did the practice in the morning, after lunch, and in the evening when the sun was setting. I tried to follow the instruction of ‘dropping all the
intellectual stuff’– resisting the urge to mentally figure out the assignment.
As much as I could, I just walked, looked and listened.
After some days of this, a new understanding of sadhana began to dawn: the harder I worked, the further away I was. In the tantric tradition of Trika Shaivism, the individual soul is said to have three coverings or “stains”. They are karmamala – the sense that we are bound by our actions; mayiamala – the sense that we are separate from everyone and everything; anavamala – the most basic sense that we are incomplete, that we are small, unworthy and unpowerful.
The soul that is encased in the coverings is totally pure – beyond our actions, one with everything, and totally powerful. Again and again the teachings tell us that at the level of that imperishable soul, we are, in fact, God. The only things that limit our experience of this truth are these
coverings. Sadhana then, is the process of breaking through these coverings and bringing our base awareness deeper and deeper into the radiant self inside them.
When I came to the path I was an American college student with many deeply embedded habits and destructive tendencies – there was much work to do. In the beginning, the practices, my self-effort along with divine grace, were essential to wear away these coverings so that I could begin to glimpse the truth inside myself.
Working in this way freed me to a certain point, and then it began to bind me all over again. The chains were sublime: chanting, meditation, scriptural study – but they were chains nonetheless. The problem wasn’t so much my hard work but rather the wrong understanding behind the work I was doing. The whole time I was practising from an assumption that I am not already God. I was working as a bound soul trying to become God. My work was an affirmation of my limitation – the harder I worked, the more vehemently I was insisting that I was not God.
My self-effort was actually reinforcing anava, mayia and karmamala.
The swami recognised my non-recognition and very compassionately steered me in another direction. Walking in the garden, I gradually relaxed to the point where I could let go and be with the trees. I could smell the fragrances of the garden and simply listen to the birds. As I listened from this open state, I heard the birds telling me what the swami could not: That I was Shiva and that my most intrinsic nature was already “there”. My deepest self was already realised and that all I needed to do was to relax into that state of being. Right here, right now I am there. All those years I was approaching sadhana as “little old me” slowly climbing the immense mountain of liberation. In the garden I began to experience myself as the mountain which included everything even “little old me” down there with his ropes and climbing gear. The swami wasn’t telling me to give up practice, but rather to reframe my understanding of it. Gradually, I began my practices again – now with the affirmation that
I am That. Now, the practices began to help me relax into my true and divine nature.
When I resumed my practice of scriptural study, I discovered the truth that the swami and the bird were trying to teach me in the ancient Shiva Sutras. Revealed to the sage Vasugupta around the ninth century, the Shiva Sutras are 77 aphorisms about sadhana, the nature of the Self, and the state of enlightenment.
The goal of sadhana, the goal of meditation, is referred to in the Shiva Sutra as the turya or fourth state of consciousness – along with waking, dreaming and the state of deepest sleep. Turya is the word used to describe the state of deepest meditation, the state of the radiant witness, the state of ultimate bliss and freedom. The liberated
ones are said to live in unbroken
awareness of the turya state.
When I experience turya, it feels like an all-embracing unconditional love.
I experience a deep connectedness
with everyone and everything. My awareness expands and is both intimately
connected to and utterly detached from everything.
One of my favourite aphorisms in the Siva Sutra comes in the first section and describes the relationship between the turya state and every other state we experience in life.
The bliss of the fourth state can be enjoyed while waking, dreaming, and while in deep sleep.
The shloka says that the state of enlightenment is already in us in its fullness. Rather than a distant goal, liberation is our true nature. The relative experiences of ultimate freedom and daily human life are not mutually exclusive.
The implication of this statement is that enlightenment is not an end product, but rather a constant eclipsed by a changing set of variables. The state of liberation, the turya state is less like a distant mountain peak and more like the ever-present ground beneath our feet.
Vasugupta invites us to enjoy the bliss of turya in the different states of consciousness. In the short aphorism, he generalises listing only the dreaming, waking and deep sleep states. Vasugupta tells us that beneath all of these fluctuations there lies another state – the state of the radiant witness, the state of enlightenment.
I like to think of this as a dinner thali. On the thali there are various vegetables, rice, chutney. But all of the items are united by the thali that is holding them. The states of consciousness: waking, dreaming, deep sleeping, boredom, lust, sadness, anger are the food items – the turya state is the thali holding them all.
Like Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita:
Mayi sarvam idam protam sutre manigana iva (7:7)
…all this is strung on me like so many gems on a string.
The experience that Vasugupta describes in the Shiva Sutra initiates us into experiencing what Krishna is talking about. The sadhana of embracing this luminous ground beneath us is more about letting go than it is about striving towards a goal. When Swamiji had me listen to the birds, this helped me to relax and see through my web of thoughts and feelings and actions. As the thoughts and actions loosened, the light that was underneath my thoughts and the power that was behind
my actions began to shine through.
I saw the string between the clusters of gems, the thali shining out from between the subjis.
Right now you can practise the kind of paradigm shift I’m talking about by looking at the page you are reading. You can choose to focus on the writing – the syllables and words and the meaning of the words – or you can choose to see the white of the page.
At first you have to flip-flop your awareness from one to the other, but after practising for a few sentences, you may be able to fully read these words and experience the blank space between them at the same time. In a perhaps overly simple way, this
illustrates the attainment referred to by the Shiva Sutra: we are fully engaged
in our moment to moment activities and simultaneously enjoying the
bliss of turya.
I must say, however, that this experience is seldom black and white. It is rare to have a purely turya experience that is not somewhat mixed with the various stimuli of waking state or clouded by the drowsiness of sleep state or mixed with fantasies and dreams of the dream state. Rather, our task is to look into whatever our predominant state happens to be and extract the bliss and luminosity of turya from that state.
Deep meditation practice allows us to encounter the turya state in moments when there are less distractions. In meditation, we can cease our outer activities and turn our attention away from our senses. As we sit, we can relax into the ground of turya and enjoy it mostly undisturbed. As we become more familiar with the state, we can practise staying with the turya state in other states of consciousness. Try
controlled experiments. Determine what conditions are most suitable to help you meditate deeply then
practise gradually moving into activity without losing your awareness of turya.
Sit in meditation for at least 15 or 20 minutes. When you are still deeply absorbed in meditation, hold onto the feeling of connection with turya and begin to stir. At first, only open your sense of hearing. Try taking in the sounds around you while you remain absorbed in meditation. Next, see if you can make small movements. Try swaying from side to side in your meditation posture. When ready, attempt to open your eyes, then stand, then walk slowly. If your attention wavers, stop, close your eyes, and reconnect. We can begin this practice in the privacy of our homes and then when it becomes more natural, try it in public.
We can practise like this whenever we remember to. Try right now. See if you can relax and gently bring your awareness inside. Remember the last time you meditated deeply. Let your inner feeling return to the peace you felt inside. Keep reading and see if you can read and feel that inner peace at the same time.
We can even bring this practice into our sleep at night. Some sadhakas watch their breath or silently repeat their mantra as they drift into sleep. Sometimes in dreams you may become lucid and remember the turya state there, wherever you are in your dream.
When we practise with the awareness of turya, we are internalising the goal. Divinity then is not something that lives in an ashram or on a puja shelf. Our access to the space of freedom inside becomes more and more unconditional and independent. We carry the goal we are seeking within us, so it’s there with us no matter where we are. When we learn to discern the bliss of turya in our various states of being, we are learning to keep the company of
our own highest, most luminous, free, enlightened self.