Here is how Jean Klein puts it:
“…it lies beyond duality and cannot be grasped by language. One can however, endeavor to describe it by saying that the realized man is one who has reached a pure and full consciousness of ‘I am’. For the ordinary man, such a consciousness is always confused because it is impure, that is to say, accompanied by qualifications. ‘I am this or that’, ‘I have to deal with this or that’. In reality this ‘I am’ is ever there, it can’t be otherwise. It accompanies each and every state. To return to the ‘I am’ in its complete purity, there is no other way than the total elimination of everything that accompanies it: objects, states. Then that consciousness which hitherto used to turn to the innumerable companions of the ‘I am’, sees them all to be lifeless, finds itself, and realizes its own everlasting splendor.”
[Be Who You Are, Jean Klein translated Mary Mann, Non-Duality Press, 2006, ISBN-10: 0955176255, ISBN-13: 978-0955176258]
Unfortunately, between hearing this and knowing it to be true, there seems to be a very large, if not insurmountable, gap. How do we bridge it? Here is what Dhanya says:
“Taking my existence/conscious self to be the body/mind is the most traumatic experience there is. There is nothing worse, and it is completely untrue.
“But if someone walks up to you and says those words, I'm not sure that they would help. You would have to feel the person knew what they were talking about, and that they were not crazy or deluded, and be open to hearing and wanting to know what they had to say.
“If all of the above criteria were met you might ask that person: ‘If you know that I am not the body/mind, and if you know that you are not the body/mind; if that is your direct experiential knowledge, is it possible that I can know the same thing? And, if so, how I can I know it? Can you actually prove to me and show me that what you are saying is true?’
“Although there is nothing you can do to become who you are (because you are already that), there is something you can do to know who you really are.
“Although you don't know it now, you can know it, because you are here to be known. The truth is here to be known. It is only a matter of having someone, whom you trust and who is skillful, logically point out to you certain incontrovertible facts about yourself and the nature of your experience, and then giving your mind time to assimilate those facts. Then you yourself will recognize the truth.
“The end of becoming is knowing that you never could, and never have, become anything in the first place other than what you already are. And what you already are has never been subject to becoming ever. “ (Read the complete article at http://advaita-academy.org/talks/The-End-of-Becoming.ashx.)
David Carse nicely expresses this paradox:
“There is a sense in which there is no ‘awakening’, no enlightenment, because there is no ‘one’ to awaken. Who would this be? Who is awakened?
“’Me’, david? Of course not: david is a dream character, an idea, a fiction; not the dreamer, and therefore obviously cannot awaken. There is no ‘david’ to do anything, including awaken.
“Or is it ‘Who I Really Am’ that has ‘awakened’; Presence, Awareness, All That Is?
“But of course Awareness has never been asleep, has no need to awaken to anything; Awareness is always already All There Is.
“Clearly then, there is no one to awaken. ‘Awakening’ is only an analogy, a concept, a pointer. The seeker community tends to take it literally, but like most analogies it only takes you so far.
“What has happened is more like this: in the dream, in the case of the dream character ‘david’, All That Is stops pretending that ‘It’ is asleep. What has always been awake lets the misunderstanding that there is someone to be asleep and someone to awaken, fall away.
“That is all. And the dream continues as before. The misunderstanding has fallen away but the misunderstanding was not real anyway, so what has happened? Nothing. The dream character ‘david’ now knows he is only a dream, not ‘real’; knows it is all a dream. But this dream character’s ‘knowing’ is part of the dream, part of the unfolding of the script of the dream for that dream character, and nothing has happened. The dream character goes on being the dream character.” [Perfect Brilliant Stillness, David Carse, Non-Duality Press, 2005. ISBN 0954779282.]
This is the neo-advaitin way of putting things, using familiar language and not requiring a lifetime’s study of obscure, sometimes seemingly religious texts. To someone who is familiar with the concepts of advaita, his way of putting things can certainly be appreciated. To someone who is not, it may leave many questions unanswered and lead to the belief that seeking of any sort is futile. ‘I’ the dream character cannot do anything and ‘I’ as Awareness need not do anything. (And how can a non-dual reality have ‘dreams’?)
Both neo-advaita and direct path advaita suffer from this problem, essentially trying to talk about the non-dual reality, when this is not possible. Traditional advaita utilizes two ‘levels’ of reality in explanation – paramArtha and vyavahAra. Neo-advaita tries to ‘explain’ everything purely from the pAramArthika standpoint. Direct path attempts to conflate the two.
Ultimately, traditional teaching, too, comes up against such paradoxes. Ramana Maharshi makes not dissimilar statements: “The ‘I’ casts off the illusion of ‘I’ and yet remains an ‘I’. Such is the paradox of Self-realization. The realized do not see any contradiction in it.” But, with a few thousand years of experience behind it, it has built up a totally logical framework for such ideas. Starting out from our everyday, dualistic experience, it takes us to total Self-knowledge, i.e. enlightenment.
Shankara says that, “though the Self is void of all modifications, it is imagined through nescience, in the form of non-discrimination from the modifications of mind, to be the perceiver of sounds and other objects brought before the mind. Similarly, the same Self, which is in reality beyond all changes of state, is called ‘enlightened’ on account of discriminative knowledge separating the Self from the non-self, even though such knowledge is only a modification of the mind and is illusory in character (and implies no real change of state).” [Bhagavad Gita bhAShya II.21, as translated and presented in Shankara on Enlightenment (A Shankara Source Book Volume 6), compiled and translated by A. J. Alston, Shanti Sadan, 2004. ISBN 0-85424-060-8. Purchase from Shanti Sadan - http://www.shanti-sadan.org/]
Simply wanting to become enlightened is of no use unless one understands that this means the acquisition of Self-knowledge. Swami Dayananda explains this:
“With so many concepts of mokSha available, a mere desire for mokSha is not good enough. It must be converted into jij~nAsA, a desire to know. This is very important. This conversion means recognizing the fact that mokSha is in the form of knowledge, which is to be gained here in this life. So mokSha is not later or elsewhere.
“Conversion of one’s desire for mokSha into jij~nAsA implies a certain cognitive change. To begin with, one has some idea about mokSha, which may not be more than a belief. When one thoroughly exposes oneself to the teaching, there is the possibility of discerning that the mokSha is in the form of knowledge alone and not in any other form.” [vivekachUDAmaNi – Talks on 108 Selected Verses, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Sri Gangadharesvar Trust, 1997. No ISBN. Purchase from http://books.arshavidya.org/]
As I have put it elsewhere:
“The Self is already ‘enlightened.’ There is nothing that can or need be done to alter this fact. The problem is simply the mind and, in its ignorance, the identification with something limited, be it mind, body, role or whatever. Accordingly, to remove that ignorance, knowledge is needed and this process is all at the level of mind in the phenomenal world. When sufficient knowledge has been acquired, the ignorance is dissolved and the mind realizes that already existent truth. But nothing has actually changed.
“Possibly a metaphor from the Zen tradition is as good as any, describing enlightenment as ‘the gateless gate.’ From the viewpoint of the seeker, there appears to be a gate through which one must pass in order to ‘become enlightened’ but, from the viewpoint of the ‘realized man’ looking back, there never was a gate. Enlightenment is gaining the knowledge that we are already free.
“Believing that we are not enlightened, we are necessarily imagining enlightenment to be a ‘state,’ something that will be achieved or gained at some future time (if we are good, practice meditation regularly etc. or if we meet the right guru who will somehow transmit the knowledge to us). But we have already seen that Advaita defines reality as that which is not bound by time. It must already be the case and therefore cannot be a state. If, during the process of seeking, we encounter novel states of heightened awareness, mental clarity and so on, these can have nothing to do with enlightenment.” [Back to the Truth, Dennis Waite, O Books, 2007, ISBN 1905047614.]
The pramANa, the source of this knowledge, is the scriptures – the Upanishads and the texts written by AchArya-s such as Shankara. And someone familiar with these texts (and ideally someone who is themselves enlightened) is needed to explain them and answer questions. Many modern teachers disparage the scriptures. How can reading these possibly be of any help when it comes to something like enlightenment?
Here is how Stig Lundgren justifies this:
Q: Reading a book about swimming cannot make you an expert swimmer. How, therefore, can reading the upaniShad-s make one enlightened?
A: This is not a valid analogy. It is true that you cannot learn swimming by just reading books on how to swim. This is because reading or hearing about swimming does not give you direct knowledge about swimming. But the upaniShad-s actually give direct knowledge on Atman, and this is clearly pointed out by Adi Shankara.
I guess you are familiar with the story about the Swami and his disciples crossing a river. When arriving on the other shore, the Swami counted his disciples and it turned out that only nine persons had successfully crossed the river! He counted all his disciples over and over again, concluding: "There is one missing. We are only nine people, and it should be ten!" Then a stranger walked by. He overheard the conversation, and said to the Swami: "But there are actually ten persons. You have forgot to count yourself. You are that tenth person!" From the uttering of these words, the Swami at once realized that he was the tenth person.
Well, the words of the stranger gave the Swami direct knowledge about himself as the tenth man. He didn’t have to put this knowledge into practice or anything. The very understanding came immediately by the words of the stranger. shravaNa gave him perfect knowledge, because he was the tenth man from the very beginning. He did not become the tenth man.
This is also the case regarding the knowledge of Atman. You are Atman, you are not becoming Atman. But due to avidyA you are wrongly identifying yourself with your body, your senses, your feelings, your thoughts etc. shruti gives you direct knowledge of Atman, because it enlightens you on what you actually are, not what you are about to become. Realizing your true nature (Atman/brahman) is not about creating anything. j~nAna is just dispelling your superimpositions and thereby your misconceptions.
You surely have to swim in order to learn swimming; you have to practice and not just read books on the subject. But this is because learning how to swim is about gaining something which was not there from the beginning. You have to get outside of yourself, so to speak, in order to learn how to swim. Swimming is not your true nature, and this is the reason why just reading books doesn’t work when learning how to swim. Books on swimming are not sufficient, because learning how to swim is not a matter of dispelling the ignorance of something which was there from the beginning.
Gaining knowledge about something is usually a matter of a subject (you) learning about something external (swimming, or the taste of sugar). But regarding knowledge of the absolute (Atman/brahman), the case is different: You are about to realize your true nature, and hence there is no such thing as subject and an external object. You are realizing yourself, you own true nature.
Perfect knowledge rises when avidyA is dispelled. It is not a matter of getting control over your thoughts, feelings etc. You can attain perfect control over your mind, but you will still be ignorant of your true self, Atman. Knowledge is not about getting perfect control of the mind. The mind is actually within the realm of avidyA, and accordingly brahmavidyA implies the dispelling of mind! Hence, the expression "the mind is under complete control" is valid only when you are still ignorant and within the realm of avidyA.
Adi Shankara says that samAdhi is subject to the same conditions as deep-sleep: You are ignorant before sleep/samAdhi and when you wake up (or come out of samAdhi) you will still be ignorant. SamAdhi does not dispel avidyA. In his adhyAsa bhAShya (preamble to brahmasUtra bhAShya), Shankara says that avidyA = adhyAsa = mithyA j~nAna (false conception or error). Hence, dispelling avidyA is the same as dispelling your superimpositions and wrong knowledge of the Self. According to Shankara, this is the purpose of the upaniShad-s. So, shruti is the pramANa - not samAdhi, thought control or the like.
[Read the complete discourse at http://advaita-academy.org/talks/The-Role-of-Scriptures-in-Enlightenment.ashx]
“Enlightenment is coming to the end of the search for enlightenment.” - Greg Goode
“The plainest and simplest way of putting it is this: ‘I had mistaken myself to be a thinker, doer, perceiver, and enjoyer. That misconception has disappeared.’” - Atmananda Krishna Menon