Do I Need to Shed Ignorance?

If I am the Self, do I need to shed ignorance?

I came across a definition of the “direct path” in a popular book. It says, “In [the direct path], your nature as nondual awareness is emphasized at the very start. There is no ignorance to shed…” This is a common claim of non-dual teachings, about there being no ignorance to shed. And from the standpoint of the Self, it’s true that there is no ignorance to shed.

But Vedanta assumes that you are not usually “standing” as the Self, and that’s why you are looking into a teaching in the first place. As with the direct path, Vedanta also emphasizes your nature as non-dual awareness from the very start, but Vedanta also assumes that if you are seeking liberation, you are standing mostly as the separate entity you imagine yourself to be. And from the stance of that separate entity, there
is ignorance to be shed. That is where the ignorance lives – in the “stance” of the imagined separate self.

What’s missing in the direct path, direct pointing, and other non-dual teachings is a discussion of the structure of this imagined separate self, and the ignorance that accompanies him wherever he goes. This discussion, missing in other teachings, is the heart of Vedanta, and is the means to liberation.

In Vedanta, it is established pretty quickly that you are the Self. It doesn’t take much doing to show you that in a convincing way. This is pretty much where most non-dual teachings stop. And so what you are getting in most teachings are the same pearls of wisdom, over and over: You are the Self, pure awareness; stand as that, rest as that; you are that which is being pointed to; the person is not real, your suffering is not real, the world is not real; if you take those things to be real, reclaim your stand as pure awareness. And then you might also get long flowery descriptions of what it is like to be firm in the knowledge of the Self.

I feel like I’m wasting space with this list, because you are probably sickeningly familiar with it already. I just want to reiterate that this is what the non-dual teachings consist of, and I can put it in one paragraph. If it hasn’t freed you by now, it probably needs some elaborating on. That’s where Vedanta comes in.

Where other teachings give you “Nothing is,” Vedanta gives you “While nothing is appearing as something,
this is what it is.” Much more helpful, don’t you think? How can you possibly be free, if you are not knowledgeable about the appearance? In order to be free of the appearance, you have to know every trick it uses to perpetuate itself. If you don’t, you will be constantly taking the unreal to be real, and the unreal will keep sneaking up from behind and giving you a rude surprise.

We know there is the Self, which is real; and we know there is the appearance of “everything else,” which is only apparently real, and nonetheless causes all of our problems. In truth there is only the Self, which allows some teachings to disavow the whole “everything else” business. We know there is no “everything else” in reality; this is a non-dual reality and so these other “things” cannot be. And yet, here they are, causing me problems!*

Should I ignore the “everything else” that appears, and just take my stand as awareness again? Or should I ask, intelligently, “What is this everything else? What is it made of? How does it arise? How does it seem to have power over me? How can it be unreal and still make me suffer? How can I free myself from belief in it?”

The critics of a complete teaching that addresses all these questions say that this appeals to the intellect and so perpetuates the belief in the separate person. Is this a valid criticism? It’s correct that we don’t want to perpetuate the belief in a separate person. But you are unconsciously doing that all the time. Unless you give it voice, give the imaginary separate person some power, a methodology, and some tools to crush the conditioning, the conditioning will continue.

The Self doesn’t do this; the person does. The Self is already free and unconditioned, and has no ignorance. But the person is not free, and the person is the one who needs the tools. So yes, the person is perpetuated. It has to be, for as long as it takes to gain the knowledge capable of bringing about its own collapse.

And does it – will it – bring about its own collapse? Or is it too egotistical to ever do that? The person wants desperately to maintain its own existence, no question about it. In fact, that’s really
all the ego/person wants to do, is continue existing. So how does that work? How does the ego finally let go?

Just the same way everything else gets let go. It resolves into you – awareness, the Self. It arises in you, and it resolves in you, and it never enjoyed an independent existence of its own. The ego/person, through the “magic” of Vedanta, is seen as just another object appearing in me, awareness. It is harmless when seen this way, and has no power. And just like everything else in the appearance, the seeming reality of it just weakens and fades away, in the awesome light of the Self. It’s not a big deal.

But this is why it is important to acquire a set of tools to employ over and over again, whenever anything unreal threatens to disturb the peace of the Self, to determine what is real and what is not. The ignorance cannot survive this kind of scrutiny.

The Self is free already, and that is already your experience. Your experience is that of pure awareness 24/7.** But your beliefs, your ignorance, tell you otherwise. The reality is you, pure awareness, with apparent objects (a body, a mind, sensory events, thoughts about the events, memories, etc.) arising in you, but not affecting you. The experience is really of pure you, pure Self. You are already living the enlightened life! But your beliefs tell you otherwise. Your beliefs tell you that the experience is of a separate person in a world of objects. So your beliefs are the problem, and this is what ignorance is.

So let’s go back to the beginning, when I asked, “Do I need to shed ignorance?”

The Self does not need to shed ignorance. And I’m not faulting the author of the book for stating the obvious. The problem with this kind of statement from highly-regarded non-dual teachers is that it discourages you from seeking access to tools that will help you, that will give you the means to come to the realization yourself that you are totally free and unbound, and that this is actually already your experience.

This is where the tools of Vedanta come in handy. Vedanta has more than a dozen tools which teach you how to discriminate the Self from the “not-self” – yourself as awareness from the apparently real. Until you can tell the two apart, you will be forever taking the “not-self” to be the Self. (“Not-self” is in quotes because it is not really “not the Self.” It is Self, appearing as “not-self.”)

Chapter 12 of
James Swartz’s book How to Attain Enlightenment gives you a really brief rundown of some of these tools I’m talking about. In the complete sets of audio and video talks available on James’ website, these tools are much more fully developed. I talk about a couple of the tools here and here.

Unlike popular non-dual teachings, these tools take a lot more than a paragraph to lay out. But once you know what they are, you keep them in your toolbox, and every time ignorance rears its head, you have something to clobber it with. Once the ignorance is gone, the tools and the toolbox can be discarded, and you live free of everything appearing. Try it! What have you got to lose?

* By way of explanation of how these “things” can be but not really be, Ramana says: “The Vedantins do not say the world is unreal. …[They say] the world is unreal as world, but is real as Self.”

** Greg Goode’s wonderful book
The Direct Path comprises forty experiments to perform which will prove to you that you are already experiencing only pure awareness. Highly recommended.