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Shiva linga

An unforgettable event

Fridays in my parents' household followed a pattern, as did most days. It was the day my mother returned early from work to do the family's washing.

Since it was early afternoon and she would be home in a couple of hours, I thought I would help her by pulling the twin tub out from its storage area and fix the rubber pipes in place, readying it for use. Having done so I began to feel a strong urge to lie down, which was baffling because I was in excellent health, not in the least tired, and had done nothing more strenuous that day than wheel that machine a few inches.

That irresistible urge caused me to lie down, fully clothed. No sooner had my head touched the pillow and my eyes closed than the dream of life vanished without trace and I was instantaneously and effortlessly fully awake in my real being.

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The dream of life vanished without trace.

I was home, not in my parents' flat, not in any geographical location at all, but in my true abundant self. I was home, in a home I fully and instantly recognised, and knew I had never left – and never could leave – and yet had somehow forgotten or overlooked.

It is impossible to convey what such phrases as 'true abundant self' and 'real being' and 'fully awake' really mean but I will try to give some sense of it. Because it happened some time ago I will use the past tense, but even that is misleading for it is undeniably present. What was present then is present now. The difference is that then I knew it directly and now, unfortunately, I no longer do. All that remains is a knowing that I am presently 'asleep' and, in a superficial but significant sense, not myself. The same is true of you too, but the difference perhaps is that I know it with absolute certainty. And my memory of what happened that day is undimmed by time.

When my head touched the pillow and I woke up, I was, as I said, at home. Home is infinite being, measureless joy, infinite knowledge. I don't mean very, very big, I mean infinite – literally. My true being is infinite, just as yours is, for we are not different. There is not a multiplicity of beings; there is only one being, clothed variously, appearing to be many.

This substantial limitless being has no spatial limit. Undifferentiated, I am simultaneously everywhere. There is no fraction of that infinite immensity that is not myself.

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It is perfect peace and ease, flawless and completely free from all discomfort and hankering.

This infinite being is not dark, it is bright – brighter, far brighter, than dozens of suns – and yet that very bright light is not in any way unpleasant or uncomfortable. On the contrary, it is perfect peace and ease, flawless and completely free from all discomfort and hankering. What it is to be free from desire! And from all burdens! How utterly simple and natural.

That bright light is so bright and so omnipresent that there is nothing in that infinity that is not lit equally and fully. What is known is known absolutely, with complete certainty. There are literally no shadows of doubt. Yet that knowing is an innocent knowing: it is not a knowing of objects, ideas or experiences because there is nothing but one's own limitless, changeless being to know. It is a knowing that is utterly simple and easy and immediate.

There is not the slightest trace of the world in it to know or experience. The world is totally absent, just as a distant night's dream is absent now. In fact, there is no world and there never has been. As with a dream, the waking world is only real while in it, and like the dream it is at best an inexplicable memory on waking up. It has no existence of its own.

Not only is that infinite being brighter than dozens of suns, perfectly at peace and is unimaginable happiness, wherever one looks one sees only oneself, and that self is adorable. What that being knows or is conscious of is unbounded self-delight. It knows itself to be love itself. Knowledge and love and beauty and being are one and not different. The love that is known there is perfect and all human love is a dim reflection of it.

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Knowledge and love and beauty and being are one.

Don't imagine that because it is changeless, this exquisite, endlessly happy being could ever become uninteresting. That is not possible. It is unlimited not only in extent but in capacity, and so is endlessly new and interesting while remaining ever the same.

As I have already said, there was an unmistakable recognition of having returned home and that therefore the world that had so completely disappeared was certainly not home. I had been merely a sojourner there and now I was perfectly at rest again in my true home. Wonderfully, there was not the slightest regret for the mistake of believing the world was my (or anyone else's) home, nor any regret for what had happened there, nor any sense of loss at losing those I had known. There can be no sense of loss for a world that does not and never did really exist!

Looking back from my present perspective it may seem surprising that I felt no regret or loss for having been so mistakenly embroiled in the world (a world of which this immensity is the only reality and substratum) and for losing those whom I cared about; but it really did not matter at all, just as what we experience while dreaming in bed at night is of no consequence when we wake up. After all, what I had woken up to was unsurpassable fulfilment in whose totality regret or a sense of loss is impossible.

However, that absence of regret implies memory of what had been, a memory of something no longer present. And something was being remembered...

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...shaped like a bell jar or Śivaliṅga.

Suddenly, over 'there' in that infinite consciousness was a transparent shape like a glass bell jar (or a hollow śivaliṅga). The walls of the ‘jar’ were indescribably thin – thinner than thought – and fully transparent, so that the light within was undimmed compared with the light without; and the richness of being, consciousness and love was similarly fully present, unchanged and unrestricted, both within and without the jar.

The jar-like shape was very beautiful because its substance was the same as that of the infinite consciousness in which it had appeared.

I felt no concern at the jar's presence, just interest, for it too was within that great vastness that was myself. Suddenly, though, my viewpoint, instead of being simultaneously everywhere in that infinity (including inside the jar) became confined to within the jar alone. I still saw that infinite being, knew it was my own being and was not in any way separate from it, but now saw it from just one vantage point instead of from all vantage points simultaneously. This was undeniably a limitation of view, but not of the joy or the love which were unaffected by this change.

This sense of limit seemed to be a harbinger of further change. Suddenly 'over there' was a small, insubstantial, wispy cloud that I knew was the world. I also knew that I, with this jar-like garb, was about to return to it.

Then small black 'disks' started to hurtle down onto the curved top of the jar. There seemed to be no more than seven or eight of them, but it was impossible to be sure of the number for consciousness was progressively dimmed by each as they fell on my 'head' (the dome-like top of the jar).

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As each descended it had a powerfully limiting effect.

As each descended it had a powerfully limiting, burdensome and painful effect. The weight of those disks was enormous and is a terrible burden to still now carry on my head. I was quickly being returned to that tiny, wretched creature I had been before all this began. Human life is a wretched state compared with what I had just known, and these disks were bringing back 'me', the rag bag of mental and emotional habits, conditioning and convictions that constitute a so-called person or individual.

It was agonising and miserable to experience all these restrictions descending and to be unable to do anything about being returned to the prison they hold me in. I was rapidly and unavoidably being returned to 'normal' and I hated it.

As the disks fell, consciousness rapidly diminished from that earlier purity and I entered an increasingly dark unknowing, descending through it like through cloud. Very, very quickly all my previous personality and character were refurnished exactly as before, along with a continuing awareness of that weight on my head.

I became aware again of the physical body and its senses, and with them the awareness that my eyes were closed, and this body to which I was now limited once more was lying on a familiar bed in a familiar room.

I was astonished by what I had just experienced, and also dismayed and bewildered by its contrast with what I now experienced. The old familiar surroundings were once again convincingly real. What I had just experienced was also undeniably far more real – it had not been a dream for I had definitely not been asleep, and had witnessed the details of the descent into normal consciousness. On the contrary, I knew I was now very much asleep again, even though in all everyday usage of the term, I was fully awake.

Being 'fully awake' again bears no comparison with that prior incomparably greater wakefulness. The difference is inexpressible.

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That true wakefulness seemed now tantalisingly out of reach.

That true wakefulness seemed now tantalisingly out of reach. However, one thing remained clear (and still does, years later) that that immensity is still there and that the wall separating 'me' from it remains thinner than thought and so should be easy or at least possible to cross, given the right means. It couldn't, in fact, be closer and yet somehow seems so difficult to touch.

I went for a walk, again and again checking my assessment of what had happened and questioning how the world could once more seem so utterly real. I was enormously grateful to have have seen what I had, but also shocked and dismayed to be no longer experiencing it – and horrified at the prospect of perhaps not being able to return there, for I could see no ready way of doing so

That inner divide, curiously, does not fully cut me off from my true nature. That infinite reality is still known to be present as the very core and substratum of this aggregate of memories and conditioning that I call 'me' or 'myself'. Being its innermost essence it supports and sustains it, giving it its apparent reality.

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...the identical and unchangeable core of everyone and everything.

It is also the identical and unchangeable core of everyone and everything else – it is certainly not my private property, nor is it in any way peculiar to me alone. Being equally and identically present as the innermost self, the only reality and substratum of all, it is most definitely universal. The entire universe and all its content springs from it, just as the magic trick springs from the magician or the ocean wave from water.

What effect has this event, this fruit of pūrva janma puṇya, had on my life since? It has confirmed beyond any possible doubt that Advaita Vedānta that I studied subsequently is true. Just as importantly it has given me the firm conviction that, as Śaṅkara said, "Brahman alone is real, the world is mithyā [dependently real, and so neither real nor unreal] and the individual and brahman are not different."

I am well aware that it is hard to accept that the world we see around us is no better than a shadow of reality, but it most definitely is so – it is exactly like the imagined snake in the rope or the dream in bed at night – convincing only while experiencing it and involved in it, and hence unreal and transient. Brahman, that infinite immensity, is, by contrast, reality itself. In that immensity there is no God, no world, no individual – only oneself.

That unforgettable day has been remembered often, not because I have wanted to recall it but simply because events remind me of it. Sometimes, being reminded is painful due to the profound sense of loss and the apparent enormity of the work still to be done; sometimes it has been a strength and support through difficulties; but, whatever it has been, it is impossible to forget.

For years I lived in a quandary: the world seemed undeniably real and yet what I had met that Friday showed that the world had no reality at all! Like a dream, it has at best a borrowed reality.

Had I fortuitously experienced the true self? No, consciousness is ever that which knows. It does not become 'the known'. Yet, being naturally self-evident, it is being intimately experienced or known all the time as one's own unchanging existence.

However, its nature may be known – just as one's own face, although never directly knowable, may be reflected in a mirror.

The universal mind is such a mirror. Within it, the nature of the self is known in all its glorious abundance. That reflection is nirvikalpa samādhi.

When the individual mind is inactive and the world is absent, when there is nothing to know, consciousness is aware of only its own self-evident presence. The joyous reflection of that limitless presence is nirvikalpa samādhi.

Nirvikalpa samādhi is not, as some imagine, a means of liberation, it is spontaneous self-delight.

The universal mind is able to fully reflect that delight, whereas the individual mind can, at best, do so only partially. Just as one wave only hints at the magnificence of the unbounded ocean, the natural limitations of the individual mind leave it unable to fully reflect the limitlessness and incomparable beauty of pure consciousness.

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Liberation can take place only in the waking state, not in samādhi.

Since the individual mind is inactive and unavailable in deep sleep and samādhi, and inoperable in dream, freeing its intellect from the errors arising from ignorance can be accomplished only in the waking state, for there alone free will exists. That freeing is only for the intellect, the seat of ignorance.

How is liberation gained? It is gained by carefully correcting, in the waking state, the error of mistaking oneself for what one is not.

That correction of the individual intellect's false notions about oneself, the world and God is possible only by the grace of the Vedānta śāstra, unfolded by a competent teacher. Such study is essential, but incompetent or unaided study of the śāstra only compounds error.

Years after that remarkable day there remains unshakeable certainty that Vedānta presents an accurate vision of how things are.

The contrast between the clouded individual mind and its clear universal counterpart is huge. There is work still to be done, a weight still to be shifted, but the direction is clear.

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