This feature is an extract from Realising the Truth at the Centre of Life by Berta Dandler, Warden of Shanti Sadan centre of non-duality.
by Berta Dandler
What is the life without limits? It is the realisation through our tranquil and harmonised mind that our true Self transcends all limitations. It is not affected by what happens to our body or by the influences that colour our mind as we respond to the various challenges that meet us in life. Body and mind do feel these limits, but the realisation of the infinitude of our true Self as ‘I am This’ cancels the sense of being identified with anything else.
This indestructible Self is already established as the core of our being. Yet we can only make this deeper Self-knowledge a matter of experience through cultivating such qualities as harmony, tranquillity, and a universal outlook that wants the best for all.
If this sounds a familiar story, it is! Because these or similar insights are found in all the wisdom traditions of the world. Any seeker who reflects with sufficient care on their own experience can learn to discern within themselves this eternal light of true wisdom.
At this point, we may raise an objection and say: ‘Surely such an awakened understanding in its completeness, if such a possibility exists, must be reserved for some afterlife, if we are worthy of it.’ The purpose of the non-dual teachings is to present the goal of Self-realisation as not only attainable in this life, but to point out that this eternal and infinite reality underlies our experience now and at all times. This truth is reflected in a verse from the Ashtavakra Gita:
“I am the boundless sea. Let the waves of the world rise and fall in it. I am neither increased nor diminished thereby.“
In order to approach this wisdom, we need to explore more deeply the source of our own consciousness and being, and this only becomes possible when our mind is established in tranquillity. If we are receptive to these ideas, and have a sense of their relevance to our deeper needs, life will open up new possibilities for us. We will be able to lift our sense of identity to this higher phase of our being, where peace and fulfilment reign supreme. We will find that eternal life, the life without limits, is the fully revealed nature of our own immediate consciousness.
To search outside for lasting peace and happiness is to be like one who daily struggles to earn a pittance, unaware of the hoard of gold buried in his own garden. Our need is to wake up to what is, and is closest to us. Any mental qualities we are encouraged to develop are to help us create psychological conditions in which the light of the Self can shine through unimpeded. Being without a limit and transcendent, our Self, which is identical with the light of our consciousness, is not bounded by our personal individuality. It is one without a second, the Self of all.
At this stage, we may be thinking: ‘This idealism is all well and good. But is it not contradicted by the concrete world and the limitations that we are all subject to?’
Let us be clear that the teachings harbour no illusions about the transiency and the vulnerability of our body and mind. They draw our attention to the ultimate ground of our inner life. It is true that our mind may at present be dominated by the endless stream of thoughts and feelings, which seem to have a life of their own. But this same mind can be gradually transformed into an abode of peace and wisdom, and established in a joy that springs from our own being, and is independent of circumstances. We all have the potentiality to effect this transformation, and this potentiality is ultimately based on the power of our true nature, the infinite.
Lasting happiness can be found; it is our birthright and higher destiny. We have to participate in the work of the world, and also to recognise that our main quest is to go beyond these limits and realise the waveless and unconditional bliss that is the very nature of the Self.
This eternal Self is called in the Upanishads ‘the life of life’ pranasya pranah. Our life is a gift and its origin is a mystery. Within the force that sustains our life in this world and runs through the whole of nature, is another principle which transcends the world. This is the ultimate power and presence which is higher than life, and it is one in all. In the words of a meditation text:
My Self is the Self of all.
Every living being is my own Self.
My love covers all.
There is a prime source of misunderstanding that hinders our realisation of this universality of our true being. All our life, we are encouraged to think of ourselves as separate individuals, so much so that we take this assumption for granted. As human beings, we need this sense of personal identity. We need to feel our continuity with all we have been and done, and learnt and are still learning: our memories and connections developed in the life we have lived so far. But if we feel our selfhood and our possibilities are restricted to this level alone, we are missing out on what is highest in us, overlooking the key to freedom in our own heart. Our individuality is not the endpoint, but a stage in our journey to completeness and fulfilment.
Besides, we know only too well how this individualised standpoint, unless tempered by wisdom, can easily become a narrow self-regard that manifests as pride, self-importance and exaggerated egoism. The non-dual teachings point out the great freedom of being able to transcend this narrow self-identification, to realise how limiting it is, and to forget it through contemplating our ultimate oneness with the universal Self.
We may say: ‘How does this meet our need to feel significant in this world, and account for our conviction that we are significant?’ The answer is that we are more significant than we realise, significant beyond measure! Our significance is infinite, because it is the significance of our true infinite Self. This is a significance we share with everyone.
Social life, with its regard for success and celebrity, seems to justify the enhancement of our egoism as an end in itself, and we are encouraged and motivated to take a self-regarding pride in our achievements. But the true art of life is to know how to distance ourselves from the mask of personality and commune with the infinitude within. One of the advantages of non-dual meditation is that it helps us to transcend the limited ego and realise the limitless nature of the true Self that underlies it. This true Self of all is tranquillity, purity, completeness, and it is one without a second.
Our aim is not to crush or fight any part of our nature. All our faculties are precious and have a higher purpose. Our self-training will reveal to us the wholeness of our being, so that our focus of attraction is drawn away from the small to the great.
There is a story about the Mughal emperor, Akbar. He had an advisor called Birbal, who is sometimes depicted as a wise fool, or court jester. One day Akbar drew a line on the wall, and asked if anyone could shorten the line without cutting or erasing it. All were silent. Then Birbal stepped forward and drew a longer line beside it, thus ‘shortening’ the first line without injuring it in any way. This is the way of wisdom: not to criticise us, but to arouse our longing for a greater good.
The longer line signifies the deeper selfhood, the selfhood that has no limits. It also illustrates the fact that our true Self is infinitely greater than the I-hood that is enmeshed in the world of personal achievements and inevitable disappointments.
The advice is to do what we have to do in the world, but without taking it as ultimate, or thinking that our happiness or significance depend on it. We are far greater than the role we are playing. In our true nature we cannot be limited to any category, either of age, gender, talent, creed or race. We are the all-embracing reality underlying all categories, in which they appear and pass. The familiar life with its limitations loses its attraction beside the vision of the life without limits.
When the mind is at peace, something higher than the mind comes to light within us. In its true nature this supreme principle is not finite at all. It is the limitlessness of pure consciousness, the life of life, the eternal life, and its presence and power make experience possible. Like the sky, it has no end or edge.
We may say: ‘How can we connect with this life without limits when our own life is steeped in limitations? Even our constant need to eat and drink keeps us earthbound and material.’ The answer is that the limitless light of consciousness is with us at all times and is ever reflected, as it were, in our mind here and now, just as the sky is reflected in a mirror. The reflection will become clear if the mirror is freed from rust, dust and blemishes that blur the image.
Like that mirror, our mind is a reflecting medium, and when it is uncluttered, serene and observant, signs of the presence of that eternal life, the life without limits, will be revealed within us. Then we will come to know that our whole life has its being in the sky of reality, which knows no limit or imperfection.
Even this union and interpenetration is not the final truth. The ultimate realisation is that our true Self is not other than the one reality. Nothing in the world of relativity ever limits the Absolute. The final truth, destined to be revealed in all of us, is: ‘I am That, the only substantial reality, one without a second.’
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Berta Dandler is the Warden of Shanti Sadan centre of non-duality. She was nominated by her predecessor in 2006 and continues to present the teachings in the tradition of Shri Shankara as applied to the present day. This is her fourth book on the philosophy of non-duality (Advaita Vedanta) and the way of Self-knowledge (Adhyatma Yoga).
Realising the Truth at the Centre of Life by Berta Dandler, published by Shanti Sadan, 212 pages.