5. Freedom From Unwanted Thoughts

Q: Robert, Ramana Maharshi said, “The degree of freedom from unwanted thoughts and the degree of concentration on a single thought are the measures to gauge spiritual progress.” Would you please comment?

A: Does “freedom from unwanted thoughts” mean that thoughts which are “unwanted” can be discarded? How? Where would you put them? Or does it mean that unwanted thoughts never arise in the first place? Or does it mean that one is not troubled by such thoughts if they do arise? These are three very different matters, in my view, and need to be sorted out.

And what is an “unwanted thought” anyway? How does such a thought differ from a wanted thought? Before I comment, please tell me what you imagine constitutes an “unwanted thought,” and say what “freedom from unwanted thoughts” means to you.

Q: I suppose unwanted thoughts are thoughts that distract you from making spiritual progress or that disturb the mind. I’m not sure exactly. And I assume that freedom means not having those thoughts. Ramana seems to be saying that one can learn to concentrate on a single thought so that other thoughts do not arise. So, would you please comment on that?

A: I slept a couple of nights once in a friend’s library that had a painting of Ramana Maharshi on the wall, but apart from the veneration he is accorded in certain circles, along with the little I have heard and read, I never knew much about him.

To put your question in fuller context for myself, I just went through a short biography and some quotes that included the one about which you are asking. It seems that he said a lot of things, not all of which agree with one another, but that’s just human. I see apparent contradictions in my replies to questions too. However, since I do not claim to be speaking absolute “Truth,” or even to have any truth about ultimate matters, perhaps my words deserve more leeway than those of a famous holy man.

Based on what I just perused, Ramana professed a rather straight ahead, party-line view of the universe. As I understand the story, he was inculcated with traditional Hindu beliefs as a child. Then, as a teenager, he lay down and fantasized being dead which resulted in a sudden awakening. Subsequently, he was recognized as a saint and sat in his ashram schmoozing with the folks who came to visit. He was reportedly both kind and generous— two lovely qualities, in my view— and also could focus clearly upon ordinary matters when necessary. All in all, it’s a wholesome story.

Now your quote shows Ramana preaching dogma straight out of Patanjali’s Yoga Aphorisms. That iconic system asserts that through yoga and concentration the mind can be made still, and once “quieted” through concentration, can move forward spiritually.

That’s not my way of life, and I would never recommend it to anyone if that is what you are asking. I don’t engage in practices of any kind beyond just relaxing and observing what can be observed without reference to premature cognitive commitments like the supposed “Truths” in Vedanta. I reject such second-hand “knowledge” entirely, and have no interest in so-called “spiritual progress” either.

In order to make clear what I mean by “premature cognitive commitments,” consider this example. If houseflies are put in a jar which is then covered by a glass plate, at first they will try to escape, striking themselves repeatedly against the glass in their efforts. Soon, however, they will cease trying. Then, if the glass is removed, the flies will remain imprisoned. They have prematurely accepted their captivity, and no longer even try to be free. We humans are not houseflies of course, but, in our own way, we may be subject to a similar phenomenon of self-entrapment, particularly if we are looking for “Truth,” and somehow unfortunately find it.

So my way of regarding these matters appears to differ from Ramana’s. That does not mean that his way of seeing is wrong and mine is right, nor does it mean that my way of seeing is wrong and his is right. Each of us human beings will see what we see as we see it, and no one can ever choose, I say, what to see or how. Those apparent “choices” come upon us like fate. If, for example, some idea “just makes sense,” to you, it does. If it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t. You cannot decide that some idea will seem sensible to you. It does or it doesn’t.

Ramana and I do not disagree entirely either. As I scanned through his quotations, I saw a couple that I might have uttered myself. For example: “Let come what comes, let go what goes. See what remains.” That’s pithy and close to the bone, in my view. I’ve expressed the same idea myself in almost the same words.

But even if that particular idea makes sense to me, do Ramana’s words afford me any “truth” about ultimate matters or any authoritative instruction about how I should understand this aliveness? Of course not. He was an authority on his aliveness, not mine.

Can Ramana tell me what spirituality is or isn’t, or define spiritual goals for me? Of course not. I’ve got to deal with what I’ve got to deal with. Plugging someone else’s Weltanschauung— someone else’s conception of the world and the place of humanity within it— into my situation can lead only to imitation and inauthenticity.

I don’t mean that Ramana was inauthentic— apparently he was a cool cat and a rather sweet one as well. He liked to hug nonhuman animals, always a good sign in my book. I am referring to the inauthenticity of imitators who adopt, and sometimes even preach, the guru’s world view instead of facing the uncertainty and loneliness involved in living by one’s own lights.

You asked for my comment. If you have the ears to hear it, the previous sentence says it all: forget what some “saint” says about life, and make your own way.

Vedanta makes some graceful logical arguments, and may be worth exploring. But fundamentally the Vedas are not about logic. The philosophical reasoning is used only to “prepare the mind” to receive the religious experience that occupies the center of Vedic culture— personal identification with the “Supreme Being”— an eternal, changeless self that, according to Vedic dogma, is the source of consciousness, and the “first-cause” of everything.

The notion of an eternal, changeless “Self” as an imagined goal to be attained through “realization” engages me not at all. I have no spiritual goals myself, and would not accept someone else’s if proffered on a silver platter with gold-plated guarantees. So, if Ramana and I could meet, I’m sure we’d get on fine personally, but most likely would not see eye to eye on the “eternal changeless” notion that defines “reality” in his world view but not in mine.

Whether there is or isn’t any “changeless Self,” I do not know and do not care. The freedom to be, right here and right now, requires no knowledge of a changeless Self, and is not enhanced in the least by conjecture on the subject— quite the reverse, in my view. Like other hypotheses for which there is no real evidence, and little hope of finding any, I lose interest quickly in that discussion, very much as if the conversation involved how many angels could stand on the point of a needle. The question simply does not capture my attention. Nevertheless, religious people of all stripes view that same issue as central to their lives, and often claim already to know “truth” about it. Different strokes for different folks, no?

I’m out to see what I see, not to confirm or “realize” what someone else saw. The fierce inevitability of seeing, in this moment, whatever one sees, like it or not, is what one “wakes up” to, I say.

Since you asked for my comment, I follow no path at all, and would not follow one if you told me it led directly to the Seventh Heaven. When the path peters out, and you find yourself alone and without assurances of anything, this aliveness, unmitigated, is apparent. Unless you find yourself alone like that, without taking refuge in second-hand notions, no matter what their source, you will never be free, but will remain always an adherent, forever a disciple or an epigone.

When I say “find yourself alone,” I do not mean alone socially. I mean alone in the comprehension that your indefinable presence in this mysterious stream of energy we call “life” brings your world into being— not the world, but your world. So, I am not disputing Ramana Maharshi’s point of view. He had his world and I have mine.

As for the quote, Ramana’s advice about making “spiritual progress” advocates taking control of, and thus hindering, the natural flow of thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Such advice— again, straight out of yoga dogma— is about disciplining the “mind,” about mastering it. That dogma advises judging pure from impure, and sticking only with the pure. It is about focusing the stream of consciousness and channeling it into one and only one quest: union with the supposed eternal, changeless Self.

That is not my way at all. Awake, I am co-existent with whatever thought, feeling, or perception happens to be front and center—“ pure” or not (and who is to judge?)— until it isn’t. Far from trying to control the stream of consciousness, for me it’s all about non-resistance to the motion of that stream, which is “myself.”

This has nothing to do with progress, but with the inevitability of continual self-expression through thought, word, and deed in each and every moment. It’s about the mercurial impermanence of aliveness, which is never still, never changeless.

To the extent that there even is a “myself” separate from thoughts, feelings, and perceptions (spoiler alert: I don’t see much of one), thoughts, feelings, and perceptions bounce around as they will, like a beach ball in a rapids, while “I,” being just another thought— albeit a repetitive, habitual one, a pet thought, so to speak— just bounce around with the rest. It’s all me. That’s what thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are: me. In my experience, there is no “self” apart from that. Others, I know, believe differently.

The “spiritual progress” you mentioned aims at a goal to be attained in the future through yoga, mental concentration, austerities, and philosophical inculcation. I aim at nothing. This is it— right here and right now. As I am not producing thoughts any more than I am beating my heart, I do not control them either. Thoughts arise and pass away spontaneously along with everything else. I would never try to concentrate. The very idea is absurd on the face of it: trying is the death of one-pointedness, not a way to achieve it. If one-pointedness is needed for a particular task, one-pointedness will be available organically without anyone needing to try to concentrate. Are you concentrating on reading, or are you just reading?

Even if I could, why would I ever want to concentrate on convincing myself of any religious proposition? In the system about which you are asking, various yogas are used to prepare oneself to understand “Truth.” By first stilling the mind and vanquishing the ordinary human needs for social contact and sexual expression, and then by following the line of logic laid out by Patanjali, one can attain union, it is claimed, with the “Absolute” or “Supreme Soul.”

Frankly, that is not my dish of tea. I find neither a need nor a reason to believe in a “Supreme Soul.” If you believe in such a thing, fine by me, but why?

Since you asked for my comment, I say look into your own mind and ask yourself why you believe that. When did that belief begin, what is your evidence for it, and how does that belief shape “myself”? If scripture and testimony are the evidence, just recall the millions who believe in Heaven with Jesus, or virgins in Paradise, on the same style of “evidence” offered by Vedanta— scripture and tradition plus personal testimony. The Christians, you know, are as certain of their “Truth” as the Vedantins are of theirs.

Ask yourself this as well: Suppose there is no “Supreme Soul” at all. Suppose, in other words, that the evolved brain— not some “higher power”— is the original source of consciousness, so that religions and their spiritual goals are, like the rest of human culture, a projection of desires, aversions, and basic animal drives. In that case, what would I require to be “liberated” or free in this very moment? This question goes right to the crux of the matter, it seems to me, for if there is no Supreme Soul (I am not saying there isn’t— I am saying I don’t know anything about that and you don’t either), postponing “liberation” until you complete the “path” to it, would mean denying yourself the only freedom that human beings really can enjoy— self-expression in this very moment.

That freedom, which is not theoretical but actual, requires no guru, no scripture, no authority, no gods— none of that— but only seeing that in each moment, “myself” is what it is, including thoughts, “unwanted” or not, and cannot be any different.

You cannot escape from this moment. Where would you go? You must live with whatever you see, feel, and think. The character and content of this instant of living is inevitable and unavoidable. Surely that is undeniable.

To see the inevitability of now requires neither belief nor effort, but only noticing by means of observation— not observation by a mind that had to be “quieted” or “purified” through special practices and austerities, but observation by the mind as it is in this moment, which is the only moment that ever exists.

To comprehend that this moment is the only moment that ever exists is the end of becoming, which is what I mean by “freedom.” I do not mean eternal happiness or endless bliss. I mean only the liberty to be what you are, feel what you feel, and think what you think right now, needing neither to resist that nor to improve upon it.

I don’t know what the self is or isn’t, and Ramana Maharshi is not going to clear that up for me. I know that in each conscious moment I seem to exist as an apparent center of awareness. Beyond that, it’s all conjecture.

No one, I say, chooses what to think or what to believe. As Heraclitus put it, “Character is destiny.” So, I am not choosing to find the notion of a supposedly conscious “supreme being” unworthy of embrace. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles. I see what I see. Being oneself is unavoidable. Equally, if you imagine that the personal testimony of Ramana Maharshi is relevant to how you should live, you never chose that posture either, and the questions that arise in concert with your messing around in that particular can of worms are not my questions, although you pose them to me, but yours.

In my world, thoughts have no staying power. A thought arises and passes away again naturally, just to be replaced by the next thought. A mind that has been trained to focus on one thought— to cling to it— while discarding all other thoughts is not, I say, intelligent or masterful, but dull. Seeing the transitory nature of all thoughts, a sharp mind has no fear of thoughts, regardless of what they are, from whence they came, or whether they are “unwanted” or not. Nor does a sharp mind need to hold onto thoughts as if they were sacred or irreplaceable.

A thought is here and then passes away. Everything passes away, whether you like it or not. That is what Heraclitus meant— that’s two quotes from the old boy today— when he famously remarked, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Vedanta denies impermanence by positing a Supreme Soul said to be eternal and changeless by definition. That is a religious conjecture, not “Truth.” In my world, everything is always changing, including myself— including, I mean, the only myself I ever know directly. I do not need to believe that everything is always changing, nor do I need an authority figure to convince me of it. I can observe that everything is always changing, including the point of view called “myself.”

In accordance with that observation, one can just be, and let the stream of consciousness flow where it will. That is what I mean by “awake.” Each moment of awareness is different from any other, a never-to-be-repeated mix of perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. I cling to none of it, including the idea of attaining something “better.” When clinging and striving come to a stop, freedom is apparent automatically. By freedom, I do not mean happiness or satisfaction. Those feelings, like all feelings, come and go like the wind in the trees. I mean the freedom fully to be. To be this aliveness, whatever it may be.

So, where Ramana Maharshi says, “Let thoughts change, but not you. Let go the changing thoughts and hold on to the unchanging self,” I would say, “Everything is always changing, including ‘myself.’ Let it all go. Hold onto nothing, and then see where you are.” I care nothing for promises of “eventual attainment.” But hey, if Ramana Maharshi, and the quest to “realize” the self and know “God” sounds good to you, there’s plenty meat on those bones to keep you chewing for a lifetime, or several lifetimes. In that regard I happen to be a vegetarian.