23. Choiceless Awareness

The following is a reply to a question from someone who has been following the teachings of Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta, both of whom advised concentration on the feeling “I am” as a means to obtain “realization.” My questioner said that some recent criticism by her present spiritual teacher of that form of practice had shaken her faith in the “I am” method, leaving her confused and upset. Here is what I told her:

In regards to ultimate questions such as yours about what “the self” is, beyond a certain point, advice from anyone—Nisargadatta, Ramana, or [her present teacher] is excess baggage at best, and possibly even an impediment to understanding. Words may serve for a time as a kind of signpost, but sooner or later one must forget those words and go it alone. That is why it is said that when you meet the Buddha in the road, you must kill him.

If you do not kill the Buddha, you will remain forever a disciple, limited by ideas you deem to be true without actually knowing if they are or not. It is the ground of your own being that is to be seen, not the ground of being of the Buddha or anyone else.

Second-hand, hearsay spirituality belongs to an illusionary “myself,” dreaming a dream of myself cleaned up, and transformed into an enlightened “myself.” It’s all fantasy—the same old fantasy of “I, me, mine.” Then you find a teacher who colludes with you in keeping that “self-realization” dream going.

The ground of your being is not what others say, no matter how good their words sound or how many people repeat them. That ground is right here, right now, not later after some attainment when you learn “how” to be enlightened. What you seek is what you already are. But you do not know what that is, and no one can explain it to you:

Emperor Wu: “So what is the highest meaning of the noble truths?” Bodhidharma: “There are no noble truths, there is only emptiness and there is nothing sacred.” Emperor Wu: “Then, who is standing before me?” Bodhidharma: “I don’t know.”

Nisargadatta and Ramana Maharshi were not gods, but ordinary human beings just like you and me. Nisargadatta liked sex and cigarettes, and died of throat cancer. We all die regardless of what we believe, “realize,” or think we know. For a time, words may encourage and inspire, but if you cling too long to a teaching, any teaching, it will blind you to your own life, your own being, your own truth.

If I point at the moon, my dog watches my finger and never even sees the moon. The dog regards me as the all-powerful, all-knowing, godlike leader ofher pack. In her eyes, whatever I do is perfect. Perhaps you feel that way about Nisargardatta or Ramana. If you do, it is time to kill them dead.

When I say “kill” them, I do not mean to disrespect their points of view. They had every right to their ideas, and you may continue to feel grateful for their influence in bringing you to this moment. But if you want freedom, as you say you do, that is found, I say, only beyond the limits of hand-me-down views about “reality.” To venture beyond the pale takes radical self-honesty. You’d be naked, uncertain, alone, and perhaps frightened. Only you can know if you really want freedom or not.

As long as one clings to anything—teachings, teachers, religions, practice— whatever—there will be no freedom. Freedom and non-clinging are the two sides of the same coin.

Now, suppose I offer you a glass of water and you take a sip. You do not have to ask yourself if the water is warm or cold. You just know. That “just knowing without trying” is what I call “choiceless awareness.”

It is called choiceless awareness because it needs no nurturing, no “mindfulness” or other practices, and no summoning up by so-called “will.” Awareness is here now regardless of effort or lack of effort. Awareness sees these words, and understands them choicelessly.

When a thought arises, that thought is known as an impression within or upon choiceless awareness. In the very same way, the “myself” that imagines itself the thinker of that thought is known as an impression upon choiceless awareness.

I must point out that my saying “an impression upon awareness,” is just a manner of speaking. I don’t mean to suggest that awareness and the impressions upon it are somehow different. They are not different, but two aspects of the same entirely mysterious aliveness.

The idea here is that the apparent content of a thought is “made” of awareness, and so is the feeling of being the thinker of that thought. It’s all awareness. Thoughts, the process of thinking, and “myself,” the thinker—comprise one choiceless, nameless flow.

This is not about “mindfulness.” This is not about a “you” separate from that of which you are told to be mindful. This is not about learning, becoming, or attaining anything. This is not about meditation. You do not have to try to be aware. Everything you see, feel, and think is awareness, and awareness is everything you see, think, and feel. This happening, this flow, this aliveness, this sense of being, cannot be created, controlled, or managed by anyone; no one stands apart or separate from it, even in the slightest degree.

If you notice this flow—this stream of consciousness—you soon become aware that the thoughts you call “my thoughts” are neither yours, nor chosen, but simply arise on their own. Whether you are sitting on a cushion “meditating,” or having an orgasm, thoughts and feelings continue bubbling up. This is a living process. You don’t own it. You don’t control it. Awareness is not yours to manage or manipulate. Awareness, this aliveness, simply is, simply exists.

The instruction to focus upon the feeling “I am,” is a pedagogical device aimed at being reminded that awareness—the feeling of being at all, I mean—exists prior to the usual fixation upon the story I tell myself about “my life.” OK. That little trick has brought you to this juncture, so the device has done its job. Now it is time to let that device go.

You may need a raft to cross a river, but when you arrive at the other shore, you put the raft down and walk forward without it. If you insist on carrying the burden of the raft with you, you cannot walk freely. Upon seeing that awareness is beyond control, ever-present, effortless, and free, you begin walking naturally without that “I am” raft.

Whatever arises within awareness will have its moment, and then pass away. There is no permanency in any of it. Even the story called “myself” is an ever-changing impression upon the awareness that is here now without anyone having to try to be aware.