Neti-Neti is Not Enough

Neti-neti is roughly defined as “not this, not this,” and appears first in an Upanishad. Shankara advocates it as a method of inquiry, and modern non-dual teachers recommend it as well. It means finding out what you are not: I am not this body, I am not these emotions, I am not this thought or experience, etc. And it is said that finding out what you are not leads to the knowledge of what you are.

And that’s true in one regard.
Atma – the Self – can be identified only by negation of the anatma – the not-Self. The Self has no qualities or attributes of its own by which it can be identified. The Self is not an object. So the theory has it that if you negate everything that is not-Self, you are left with only the Self.

Good in theory. But why can people practice
neti-neti for decades and still not know who they are? Why is the Self not revealed? It’s because we don’t have enough information about the trickery by which we make the mistake of taking objects to be ourselves.

We need more specifics about this trickery, in order to outsmart it. The more information you have about how you make the mistake of entwining yourself with objects (your body, your thoughts, your feelings, your experiences), the more easily you will be able to discern where
YOU are in all of this. We need to learn to discriminate in every moment between what is me and what is appearing in me. This is called viveka in Sanskrit, and it means discrimination. Or to be more specific, atma-anatma-viveka – discrimination between Self and not-Self.

In order to apply the kind of discrimination that ends the mistake once and for all, you need a clear picture of what the not-Self is. It’s partially useful to apply “that’s not me, that’s not me” to everything in a blanket way, but unless you have a good picture of what exactly you’re trying to negate, it will be like trying to repair a rotting wall without knowing the extent of the rot. You’ll be fixing as much damage as you can see, but you won’t even be
attempting to address the majority of the problem which is hidden from sight. Vedanta brings the whole problem to light, so that no rotten place goes unnoticed.

When I first started studying Vedanta, coming from a modern non-dual background which basically denies everything in the apparent reality, the detailed breakdown of the not-Self into things like three bodies, five sheaths, five elements, just struck me as pure bullshit. I knew for a fact that sheaths and subtle bodies were not real things, and I resented someone implying I had to learn a laundry list of unreal things in order to be liberated. And it seemed so outdated – breaking the world down into five elements did not jibe with current scientific thinking – not even close. I really fought the teaching at first, trying to translate what it was telling me into modern scientific terms, so that I could believe in it based on what I think I know about the world.

But I came to realize it doesn’t work that way. This detailed information in the teaching doesn’t have to be the only way to describe how the world is actually constructed, because it’s not really describing the world – it’s describing your mind. Humans do this dividing – it’s not divided up in reality. So a teaching is helpful in as much as it can accurately describe the mental map we superimpose on reality.

Since we all make different divisions and mistakes about the world, one mapping method is needed which understands the common and universal mistakes all humans make, no matter what the culture or era, and so it’s a good idea to use one that has been around for a long time and is proven effective. Otherwise, you might be learning a method that is too narrow to hit all the important points. Vedanta is a proven method, and is broad enough to be guaranteed to address your particular way of dividing reality into a world of objects. “Broad” is not really the word – “thorough” is what I’m trying to say. Vedanta thinks of everything.

A map – a method – is needed because of all the hiding places the not-Self can hang out. If you are unclear on the fact that a desire or a fear is not you, but is an object appearing in you, then you are not likely to negate it. You will be thinking of it as part of you, and legitimate for some reason. You will unknowingly cling to that. This is where a thorough map comes is – it reveals all the hiding places.

“Negate everything!” you might say. Well, I bet there is a lot of stuff flying under
that radar! You are carrying baggage with you as “yourself” that you don’t even know about. Do you think to negate the raging desire, the righteous anger, the brilliant cherished opinion? What about the niggling fear, the undercurrent of anxiety? Do you negate your sense perceptions? Probably not! What about your body, the pains and discomforts that arise in it? Do you see those as objects and negate them as “not me”? What about bliss? Uh-oh!

What does “negating” really mean, anyway? It’s a little misleading to use that word, because it sounds like we are being asked to go around ignoring things that we find to be “not-Self.” But it’s not a matter of ignoring what is not real – it’s more that each moment in which we identify something that is “not me,” the flip side of that is revealed. And the flip side is that I am totally untouchable and pure and always peaceful.

This truth is always present in the moment we identify something to be “not me,” and so there isn’t even any temptation to cling to that desire, follow that thought, whatever it may be. The Self is always shining here in this moment, and the unreal stuff which appears here is just fine. It can stay. It doesn’t have to be ignored. It’s not

In my experience,
neti-neti was not enough. How long did I spend trying to convince myself that I am not this body, not this mind? I understood it intellectually, but that didn’t stop my confusion. How did I know I was still confused? Because I still took my thoughts and opinions to be valid and to require action, I still took my feelings to matter, and I still took ailments of the body to be mine.

It wasn’t until Vedanta gave me a detailed description of the not-Self that I was able to finish the job. Of course, that description is not “real.” But it does accurately describe the mental construct
jivas superimpose on reality, while they are under the spell of ignorance. Vedanta undoes the jiva, and in so doing, undoes itself. This is the genius of Vedanta – know the nature of the ignorance, and then be free of it and free of the means that revealed it. Only YOU remain – pure, unborn, free.

You are Totally Free of Objects

The bottom line of non-duality is pretty simple: You are non-dual, ordinary, actionless awareness. If you are the least bit interested in this website or in Vedanta, you probably already have a pretty good handle on this, or at least enough of a handle to know that this is what we’re talking about.

We don’t even really need much of a teaching to cover this part. That’s all neo-Advaita ever talks about,
ad nauseam, but James covers it in about thirty minutes. There’s not much to say about it. You are that. Tat tvam asi.

But there’s more, and it’s this “more” which is the truly liberating part. We have to find out what our relationship is to objects. I can easily say, “I am the Self, I am this ordinary, ever-present awareness,” but what about this body that pops up in front of me, with all its desires, fears, and hunger for experience? What is my relationship to it, and what is its relationship to me?

Here is what makes Vedanta different from neo-Advaita. Vedanta explains how awareness is related to the objects appearing in it, one of those objects being the person you think you are. There is only awareness, and apparent objects. That’s all there is. So when I can tease myself (awareness, the subject) apart from the objects appearing in me (which include the person I think I am, and all the thoughts and feelings), the only real thing that remains is the Self.

In Vedanta this “teasing apart” is called discrimination. You and the objects are very intertwined, and the distinctions are subtle, but you use your discrimination to tell the difference. This allows you to see yourself, as the Self, totally free of objects. The neo-Advaitan denial of the existence of a person, while useful as preparation, doesn’t finish the job. In my experience, the Self was not revealed as myself until I acknowledged the person as an object appearing in me, and teased the object apart from what it appears in.

Another way to refer to awareness is as the “subject.” Awareness is the subject, and everything else is an object, appearing in awareness. It’s very cut-and-dried. No grey area. That’s it: one unchanging subject (you), and an infinite number of ever-changing objects. (Remember that the body/mind itself is an object, appearing in you!) Now, we need to ask what the relationship is between the parts* – between subject and object. The answer is wonderful:
the subject is totally free of the objects!

YOU are totally free of everything appearing in you, including the apparent personal body, with all of its fears and desires, its birth and death; and you are also totally free of all the other bodies, objects, indeed the entire world. YOU are free of all of it. It all goes on, apparently existing, but you do not depend on it for your happiness, or for anything at all. YOU are not modified by things that appear in you.

I only gave you half the equation, that the subject is totally free of the objects. What about the other way, object to subject? What is the relationship of the objects to awareness, you, the subject?

The objects are dependent upon the subject in order to be. The objects (including the body/mind) do not enjoy an independent existence. This is best illustrated with “the clay and the pot” metaphor, which is commonly used. The clay is awareness, the subject, and the pots are all the objects:

There are endless numbers of pots that are all made of clay. Clay is the substrate of all the pots. But the clay is free of the pots, isn’t it? Clay doesn’t need pots. Clay doesn’t need to appear in any form, in order to be clay. But the pots are totally dependent on the clay for their existence. Take away the clay, and you have no pots. This is the same relationship you, awareness, have to the objects appearing in you. You are clay, and everything appearing to you is a pot. The entire universe is dependent upon you, awareness, to have any kind of existence at all, but you don’t need any forms to appear, in order to be you.

This knowledge sets you free. The Self needs no objects to be happy. The Self is self-happy. So do you see the importance of knowing what is the Self and what is not the Self? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Your little intellect just goes out there and co-opts the experience and tries in vain to eke some happiness out of it. But when you are firm in the knowledge of what is Self and what is not-Self, you won’t need anything in the world for your happiness, ever. You will recognize your already-existent self-happiness.

But don’t count on vague or self-contradictory teachings to sort this out for you. And don’t count on your own intelligence and cleverness, either. Ignorance is built into the body/mind/ego, and at some point your self-inquiry will hit that wall. It’s inevitable, and you’ll know it when it happens. When it does, you’re ready for Vedanta.

*Of course we know that reality is non-dual, and awareness has no parts. The “objects” are only apparent, and do not actually become anything separate from awareness. So while the appearance of objects creates the illusion of duality, and it sounds like we are describing a dualistic reality, it is only apparently dual.