A question of liberation
King Janak asks Sage Ashtavaakr these questions: What is knowledge, what is liberation and how are they attained? What is bondage, what is ignorance and how are they to be removed? What is renunciation and what is its relevance in the context of liberation and bondage, knowledge and ignorance?
In this writing, I would like to address the question of liberation, knowledge and freedom.
As a child, and even more so a young adult, the concept of liberation and freedom struck a deep core within me. I did not necessarily comprehend what meaning to give this idea, but the very word freedom conjured up a release from any worldly conﬁnes I attributed to my life. A release from what I perceived as the smallness of a predicable existence.
I spent my teens, and onwards, repudiating much of what the world presented me. Let me be clear: I was brought up in an environment of extraordinary warmth, support, love and remarkable intellectual, emotional and physical freedom. The world in all its glory was open to me, but all I could see were endless redundant corridors that culminated in a life unfulﬁlled.
I see happiness coming to me bearing sorrow.1
I knew for certain that any joy or happiness I experienced had the seed of inevitable change—of death. I confess that I longed to believe in the happily-ever-after of any story, any aspiration. However, I was denied this kind of faith.
I am not unaware that this kind of disillusionment befalls many young people, especially those of us who never have had to worry about fundamental freedoms and basic survival. I was utterly and ultimately convinced that no situation, be it emotional or professional, would satisfy me. I perceived an ingrained ﬁnite element in all I could perceive or even imagine. This, of course, did not prevent me from traveling many paths, with great enthusiasm, I might add. I had a covert hope, a yearning that maybe one of those situations, one of those loves, one of those creative outlets would be the key to unlock and fulﬁll a longing for inner peace, freedom and inﬁnite satisfaction. Of course, I could not describe, even to myself, what this yearning entailed, however the tenor of profound bewilderment ran thru all I tasted of life.
One day, while visiting a friend, I came across this quote on the back cover of a book:
Freedom is your own true nature. You must get it.2
The moment I read these words a thrilling hum echoed in response with an immediate sense of recognition and aﬃrmation. Please indulge me as I brieﬂy describe Plato’s theory of recollection and what I believe is relevant to my inner journey.
Plato’s theory states that knowledge and learning are an act of recollection, a recollection of what we knew before birth. Socrates argues that true knowledge is of the eternal, unchanging forms that are the inherent discernible reality. This theory suggests that the soul exists prior to birth and is not subject to the material existence of the body.
I think many of us have experienced moments in our lives that strike this chord of awareness, of profound recognition. Moments after I recalled this memory of freedom, I knew intrinsically that I would pursue this vision with an inspired determination. The unveiling, nurturing and vivifying of this perception would be a unifying melodic thread pulsating throughout my life.
Some desire unity, Others desire duality.
Neither attains the essence, the one Reality,
Free from unity, Free from duality.3
This inspired pursuit led me to the teachings of a great master, Swami Shyam, who, with knowledge, love and grace, gave me the tools to attend, experience and explore the essential nature of this freedom—to discover an inherent state of liberation.
I embarked on this path with a strong and unerring conviction, a knowingness, that this pursuit was my raison d’être. To say that it has been without jagged edges, pitfalls, challenges and moments of profound doubt would be misleading. There have been times, countless times when I have asked myself: "Why can I not be like others and live as others live?” The answering refrain has always been the same, an inner voice that can never be ignored or shunned: "Freedom is my own true nature. I must get it.”
This inner dialogue, with its many facets and deepening nuances of reﬂection, has been an integral and even cherished aspect of my path.
Within this journey of discovery I have come to know that I am not only this changing body, I am not only this changing mind, personality intellect and emotion, Rather, there is a state of being that is the underlying source of these diverse modiﬁcations. I require a word to describe this indescribable state of consciousness; I will call this experience “Self.”
By attending this underlying source, beyond any diversity of experience, a freedom, a release and recognition of freedom, begins to reverberate in our being. This is the path and life of liberation. This is the actualization of the awakening.
By means of attending a thought, reﬂecting on an emotion or a situation, we have introduced the element of observation. While we observe an emotion, however intense and passionate, we are not quite subject to the vicissitudes that are inherent in it. That is how we come to experience a state that is beyond, free from the demands of what we are observing. I can describe this state as one of dispassion and watchfulness. Whatever name we choose to give it, what is relevant is the profound eﬀect this watchfulness can have.
You are not earth, water, ﬁre, air, not even space.
Rather, understand that you are the Witness Self,
whose nature is Consciousness.
This will make you liberated.4
Here, Sage Ashtaavakr draws our attention to the cultivation of the Witness state. The functioning of the Witness, or the Watcher, allows us to understand by discerning a subject-object relationship. I believe that this potent tool of observation has released me and immersed me in the very recognition and memory of freedom—freedom as my true nature.
In an earlier paragraph, I describe a process in which we come to be aware that our changing nature originates from an indestructible reality which is its very source. By disengaging from the impermanent through conscious, concentrated absorption in the state that transcends the changing nature of birth and death, liberation is exquisitely unveiled, as discernment of truth is grasped.
To imply that these revelations are in any way prosaic or that this journey of self-discovery is one undertaken lightly would be misleading.
I have been a mediator for thirty-ﬁve years, and every morning I wake up, and within moments, whether with joy or pain, with delight or some manner of aversion, my “I” personality, in all its dubious glory, comes rushing to to the forefront of my consciousness. A gripping tentacle, a vine of imaginary thought. To truly go beyond the conﬁnes of an impermanent reality one needs to meditate—to allow the world of the senses, mind and intellect to subside, and to watch the emergence of an unchanging reality. This watchfulness prompts an understanding that this unchanging reality is no “other.” Instead, the watcher, unfolds an awareness that the watcher, or seer, and that which is being seen, and the very watchfulness is one at the source; and that is unchanging, that is liberation.
However—and this is vital—through determined, loving practice, the thread of awareness, the revelation of freedom is an unbroken wisp of a reminder: Free am I, Free am I.
Free from illusion, free from reality,
Free from activity am I.
Eternal diﬀerence, eternal sameness-
Not I, not I!
My true nature is liberation.
Free from imaginary thought am I.
Neither body have I not bodiless am I,
No mind, intellect not senses,
Attachment nor detachment have I.
How shall I describe my true nature, liberation?
Free from imaginary thought am I.5
What does it mean to be free from imaginary thought? I submit that all thinking is mythical. I admit this is a challenging concept, even to one who has engaged in meditation and introspection for many years. If we can agree that thought is impermanent and changing, then it follows that any ideas with their cumulative inﬂuence and conclusions will also be changing and, therefore, deceptive and misleading.
I want to return to and enhance a concept I mentioned previously: the Witness Self. Let us assume that if we observe our thought, then the vehicle that is seeing, the subject if you will, is not the thought, the object. The observer, watcher or what is often referred to as the Witness Self is an unchanging phenomenon. The views change while the “I” remains the watcher. By deepening this awareness, the experience and our conviction allow us to be free from the changeable eﬀects of reﬂection. This awareness leads us to an inspired understanding, the unfoldment of which leads to emancipation.
I suggest that knowledge and liberation are undoubtedly intertwined. Without the knowledge of a permanent reality, a truth that is not subject to birth and death, we cannot experience freedom. Freedom is the liberation from the natural and implacable faith in the phenomena of birth and death. Freedom is the renunciation of duality.
Now the question needs to be addressed. How do we attain this freedom? How do we initiate a journey of self-discovery that allows us the possibility to unfold the understanding first of what duality is, and ultimately how to renounce this duality, by which I mean transcend it, evolve beyond the conﬁnes of the changeable reality of birth and death?
Meditation is the answer that remains a continuous source of inspiration and revelatory awareness. The state of reﬂection and absorption that evolves in meditation gives us a constant and consistent reminder of what is permanent reality and joy, and what is impermanent and fallible. Meditation allows one a continual revisiting of that unique, transcendent experience, a path of self-recollection of who we are: free.
All conviction of our corporal existence, or lack thereof, any attributes of mind and body—we are not that. I say we are not that because as they are ephemeral, they must, of necessity all culminate in a profound sense of loss and disbelief.
We remember our true nature as liberated, not bound by the conﬁnes of birth and death, joy and pain. However, as we have forgotten, it is incumbent upon us to embark on what I perceive to be a joyful path of self-recollection.
Undoubtedly, words used to describe the indescribable can be at most evocative: “While knowing he does not know, while seeing he does not see, while speaking he does not speak. Who can this be, other than the one who is free from duality.”6
- Vashishstha Yoga, Swami Venkatesanada
- The story of King Janak, Swami Shyam
- The Avadhoot Gita of Dattatraya: Song of the Unborn, Seegla Brecher. Chapter 1, verse 36
- Ashtavaakr Gita, Swami Shyam. Chapter 1, verse 3
- The Avadhoot Gita of Dattatraya: Song of the Unborn. Chapter 4, verses 4 and 12
- Ashtavakar Gita, Swami Shyam. Chapter 18, verse 90