In this episode, Alan and Sashank talk about the nature of awareness using inspirations from both Eastern and Western philosophy.
A necessary disclaimer is that this episode is by no means meant to be an exhaustive treatment of the topics covered here. Other than the path of Inquiry, some pointers that are relevant to this episode are:
1. Schopenhauer’s “The World as Will and Representations” volume 1 and volume 2
2. Bernardo Kastrup’s “Decoding Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics”
3. Thomas Byrom’s “The Heart of Awareness: A Translation of the Ashtavakra Gita”
4. Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil”
5. Ramana Maharshi’s “Who Am I”
6. Alan Watt’s “This Is It”
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My own splendor
With the pincers of truth I have plucked,
From the dark corners of my heart,
The thorn of many judgments.
I sit in my own splendor.
Wealth or pleasure,
Duty or discrimination,
Duality or non-duality,
What are they to me?
What is yesterday,
Tomorrow, Or today?
What is space, Or eternity?
I sit in my own radiance.
What is the Self, Or the not-Self?
What is thinking, Or not thinking?
What is good or evil?
I sit in my own splendor.
I sit in my own radiance.
And I have no fear.
Waking, Dreaming, Sleeping,
What are they to me?
Or even ecstasy?
What is far or near,
Outside or inside,
Gross or subtle?
I sit in my own splendor.
Dissolving the mind,
Or the highest meditation,
The world and all its works,
Life or death,
What are they to me?
I sit in my own radiance.
Why talk of wisdom,
The three ends of life, Or oneness?
Why talk of these!
Now I live in my heart.
So this is a poem from Ashtavakra Gita, it’s an ancient poetic scripture in the philosophy of non-dualism, borne from the Indian subcontinent. So Sashank and I used to go the gym together, and still sometimes do, and it’s usually a place often perceived as a place bubbling with vanity & self-consciousness. We would keep a copy of Ashtavakra Gita in his car, and Ashtavakra’s incisive words remind us of the unreality of self-conscious concerns, of the underlying unity of all things, peaking us into the mystery of awareness itself.
And this mystery of awareness is that which encompasses everything in our lives. The fact of the existence of awareness asks, “what is the nature of the looking?” This encompasses important philosophical questions like the question of identity, the dissociation/separation/estrangement that we feel as separate selves from our conscious experience.
Hello, this is Sashank, and I’m Alan, and you’re listening to the Open Secret Podcast, brought to you by Psyche Labs Studios.
Thanks for the beautiful rendition of that verse from Astavakra Geeta, Alan. It’s definitely one of my favorite books of all time. So I think the question of awareness is the most important question that one can ask, and there’s a sense in which the study or contemplation of awareness is the most primitive science — I’d say even more so than physics and mathematics.
And I think ultimately the question of awareness plays in the space of metaphysics.
Yeah but before we go on, even though I’m sure most of our listeners will have heard that term before, metaphysics, do you want to briefly define it?
Yeah definitely. So I think a working definition for metaphysics is “that which is the ground for the empirical” — and “empirical” here means that which is based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic.
So yeah — metaphysics is distinct from questions of knowledge, also known as epistemology. The questions of science deal in the space of epistemology which means one cannot employ the scientific method to arrive at metaphysical truths.
Quite so, Alan. I’m so glad you brought it up. I think it is worth marking the boundaries of science, since it’s an enterprise much revered today, in our generation at least, and we seem to have forgotten that there are boundaries at all. So the scientific method, I think, has two aims: 1) it explains our observations using theories, and 2) it predicts the future using models. But what underlies the world of observations, or shall I say measurables – things that can be measured – is just simply out of the bounds of science. So while a lot of people are either not interested or agnostic to what lies beyond these bounds, it has not stopped philosophers and mystics and seekers from all walks of life from attempting to go there, and in a sense that’s what we’re trying to do in this episode.
Yep, exactly. So what are some typical “metaphysical” questions?
There are many. Some of the questions that most of us are familiar with are: What is God? What is God’s nature or attributes? What’s the difference between mind and matter? Was the universe created or has it always been? Is time an artifact of human mind? So a lot of us arrive at these questions through different avenues; it could be myths, could be philosophy or religion, or simply our inner drive to explore the relationship between our self and the world.
So yeah, there are different schools of metaphysics, and I’m sure most of us have heard the names before, like physicalism, monism, mind-matter dualism, idealism, you know all these isms, but the thing that intrigues us the most is the mystery of awareness itself, as you said beautifully in the intro poem, and we’ll probably assign some -ism to it so that we can talk about it, but…
A: Yeah, so the key question of our podcast today is what is the nature or ontology of our awareness? We think that in addressing this question, which is arguably the most important question, we will have a comprehensive theory of everything. Or at least what’s fundamental.
Yeah, or the lack thereof. Hahaha, but anyway, that’s quite a bold endeavor.
So how do we even get started on such an endeavor?
Yeah, I wonder. So much like the intro poem in Ashtavakra Gita, the most resonant stance, and I think I speak for both of us, is that of idealistic monism, right, which is a metaphysics which regards awareness as the only ontological primitive, and everything else arises from or is within this primitive. Now there have been many renditions of this metaphysics since time immemorial, both in the East and the West, and we’ll try to cover some of it in today’s episode.
Yeah. And to be clear about the jargonish diction here, our stance is “idealistic” because the seemingly external physical world only gains ground in the form of representations in the awareness of an observing individual subject, and the latter term “monism”, it’s “monistic” because there is only one fundamental category or ontological primitive, as opposed to — say, two — in the case of mind-matter dualism.
Yup. There are many shades of idealistic monism, right? We see this in Zen, in Taoism, in Advaita Vedanta. This metaphysics I would say is not as popular in the West, but you can find Zen scholars like Alan Watts or Terrence Grey and Advaitans like Rupert Spira talking about it in many different ways. But other than that, the mainstream thinkers in the modern Western philosophical canon do not seem to take idealistic monism as seriously, but we know of at least one dude, one bro, who is a key figure in Western philosophy, and his name is Arthur Schopenhauer. He was mostly known for his pessimistic outlook and his ethics but I think his metaphysics was largely misunderstood and ignored, but in this episode we want to delve into his metaphysics and just give it another new spin to perhaps see how it’s actually quite profound.
Yeah before we go into Schopenhauer’s metaphysics though, I’ll just give a brief bio since was a quite interesting character. He was born in the late 1700s. He was notably unsuccessful with his romantic pursuits, nor very physically attractive, and had a lot of quarrels with his contemporaries. In fact there is a very famous story that he often scheduled lectures at the same time as another monistic philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel because he thought Hegel had quite buffoonish ideas, but unfortunately nobody really showed up to his lectures. Also, Nietzche was a disciple early on since Schopenhauer’s philosophy was sort of a nice contrast to the dominant Christian philosophy of the time, but sort of turned on him later.
And he was best known for his work “The World as Will and Representation”, which is a massive book he wrote in 1818 and then expanded into a second volume in 1844. And in that work, he expounds his metaphysics, quite deeply.
Yeah, so let’s go into his metaphysics. Schopenhauer divides the world into what he calls Will (with a capital “W”) and Representations. This is just a conceptual breakdown into two categories; but fundamentally for Schopenhauer, everything is intrinsically just will, again capital W and representations are just outward appearances, manifestations of the Will. I think it is important to stress that this Schopenhauerian Will is not similar to our individual will, or free will, it’s much more encompassing and grand that that; in fact I even like to analogize it to Advaita Vedanta’s Brahman or Aatman, Spinoza’s immanent God, Immanuel Kant’s transcendent noumenon, or Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Being-in-itself”.
Interesting. So this Will with a capital W, or Brahman, or Spinoza’s God, or Kant’s noumenon, or Sartre’s “being-in-itself”, they are all themselves groundless, right? Of course the epistemology of this ontology is something I’m very curious about, like how do we really know that that isn’t some sort of fabricated fairy-tale. But before we even go there, how do you think, Sashank, Schopenhauer would describe the essential nature of this grand Will?
Ahh that’s a tough question, Alan. I would like to invoke the Retort of Ineffability here, haha. But seriously, this Will is something that Schopenhauer would say cannot truly be represented in knowledge. It is beyond all, although we must have some coarse representations of it in our knowledge since we can point to it and talk about it. The Will is something that is the most accessible to us, that’s what Schopenhauer would say, in the form of our endogenous feelings, like what it’s like to be angry, happy, jealous, hungry, but at the same time, it cannot be fully explicated or represented in language or knowledge. What it’s like to be jealous for example is never the same as the idea of jealousy if that makes sense.
Hmm, yeah. Schopenhauer says you cannot represent the Will fully in knowledge, but he claims that the Will’s nature is one of volition and a sort of wild irrationality.
Yeah, the Will is amoral and unprincipled, it doesn’t conform to our notions of how things ought to be, and it’s funny that I’m talking about the Will using the ‘it’ pronoun when it’s all encompassing, but anyway, …, we see this both in nature and within our own minds, right? For example, we observe people romanticize nature all the time, when in fact nature is unrelenting and just very brutal and raw. We see it within ourselves as well, some sort of dissonance between our capacity to reason and our passions. We desire and shun things that our reason would not necessarily endorse. Eroticism for example is one such thing. And I think Schopenhauer would say that our passions are the narrow door into knowing the Will.
Yeah, this dissonance really reveals itself similarly in the fact that we as humans seek meaning out of or sense in a world which is not really cosmically preordained with any. Existence is sort of absurd in broadest sense. And in a way, this is at the heart of existential philosophy.
But I digress. So Sashank, does the Will have any motivation? If it’s all just one ontological primitive, what explains the multiplicity that we observe around us?
Yeah, that’s a million dollar question. I really like how the Hindus talk about this. If…the question is, if everything is Atman, or Brahman, what accounts for the multiplicity, like you asked. And I think the Hindus would say it’s a cosmic dance, “Lila” that’s what they call it. And if I can personify God, if I can personify the Brahman, and use the “I” pronoun here for a moment, haha, I’m playing hide-and-seek with myself, not because I want to be entertained, but because it’s my nature to do so. And in moments of “enlightenment”, I become intimate with my true nature, but then I forget again and I’m just manifest again as 10,000 categories. I hope we get into it a little more later in the episode. But anyway, Schopenhauer also gives a similar description, for him, the Will is always striving for meta-consciousness., once again not because the Will wants it for some ulterior motive, but because it’s the nature of the Will to do so. The will wants to be represented. And in this striving for meta-consciousness, in this game of hide-and-seek, multiplicity is born from one.
So that all makes sense, but how do we know that this is true? It seems like a big claim, and you talk about a sort of intimacy with the Will or Atman, but how does one get in that state, if you will?
Yes, I want to first mention a Zen koan that points to how difficult it is to talk about “It”, the “It” being the Schopenhauerian Will. So…naturally understanding of the koan yields a state of intimacy with the Will or Atman. This koan is from Katsuki Sekida’s “Two Zen Classics Mumonkan & Hekiganroku”. A monk asks the master, “What is it when no thought is stirring and nothing presents itself?”, and the master answers “No preaching on oneness.”
So koans are a little difficult to understand at their face value, but let me go into it a little bit. When the monk talks about “It”, It is a metaphor for, I think, all forms of representations, so anything that you can have in your knowledge, the intellect, the mind, form, emptiness, relative, absolute, what have you. So what is left when all representations are stripped away? All opposites, all concepts, all reflections are gone. Therein is the abyss-like paradox, the reversal of the koan, displacing us via its own negation of itself as a teaching element.
Yeah, I like the move you are making to invoke Zen here to deal with the epistemology of the ontology of the grand Will. There’s often this taken-for-granted distinction in Indian Buddhist thought and Advaita Vedanta that sets up a polarity between enlightenment and delusion. And this “path”/difference between enlightenment and delusion, would be bridged by some proper epistemology — through some knowing of the ontology’s reality, if you will.
I like how the Zen tradition seems kind of suspicious of this kind of ontological polarity. In Zen, quote-unquote “enlightenment” or awakening is a capacity open to us in each moment. But rather than understanding it as an ontological claim, the Zen tradition looks at it ethically more, in my opinion… it matters more how I respond to the given situation I find myself at any moment. That’s sort of how I cash out the ontology in a sense.
As far as the ontology itself, I’d like to stress on the concept in zen, where something known as Zen questioning, where the most important thing is for the question to remain alive. Or, as you said earlier Sashank, the abyss-like paradoxical state that’s left after a koan is doing being said. Here’s another Zen saying that I like that exemplifies that state, it goes:
“Great questioning, great awakening;
little questioning, little awakening;
no questioning, no awakening.”
So after hearing this, we’re left in a sort of wordless, unsaid, questioning state at the end.
But sorry for the tangent here to ethics, but I do think that ethics and what we were concerned with — which is namely, ontology and epistemology — they’re sort of irrevocably intertwined. Like no matter what, I’m helplessly responding to the ontology I find succulent, in perception and action.
Yeah yeah, I fully agree man — embracing any form of ontology does place you in some moral context, right? Helplessly so.
Alright, so let’s circle back to Schopenhauer, that was a long tangent, and dive a little deeper into Schopenhauer’s distinction between the Will and Representation. Let’s discuss the mechanism of how you go from the one “Will” to the many of “Representation.” We’ve kind of talked about it poetically, so maybe there’s more to it, right? So this is the question every monistic system must answer, right? How do you go from one to many?
So, Schopenhauer agreed with Kant about the additional layer between the world-in-itself and our mental representations. This layer is what Kant called “synthetic a-priori truths”, and it consists of space, time, and causality. I like the analogy of a prism here. If the world-in-itself, or the Will or the Atman, is a white light, our mind diffracts the white light into many colors of representation. However, we often fool ourselves by mistaking the many colors of representation for the ontological basis of the world-in-itself.
Yeah, I like that metaphor, the prism. Also, here’s a very relevant quote from the second part of Schopenhauer’s “The World as Will and Representation”. It’s on knowing the world-in-itself or Will:
“It is free from all multiplicity, although its manifestations in time and space are innumerable. It is itself one, though not in the sense in which an object is one, for the unity of an object can only be known in opposition to a possible multiplicity; nor yet in the sense in which a concept is one, for the unity of a concept originates only in abstraction from a multiplicity; but it is one as that which lies outside time and space, the Principium Individuationis, i.e., the possibility of multiplicity. Only when all this has become quite clear to us through the subsequent examination of the phenomena and different manifestations of the will, shall we fully understand the meaning of the Kantian doctrine that time, space and causality do not belong to the thing-in-itself, but are only forms of knowing.”
So this is a bit convoluted, but basically, the individuation of, what Schopenhauer is trying to say here, the individuation of inanimate objects through things like space, time, and causality is epistemic, so it’s not ontic: it’s out of convenience that we individuate parts of, say for instance a mug, into its handle and its container portion. The same holds true for the Niagara Falls, this basketball and these headphones I’m speaking through right now and even your bed sheets.
Yeah, and if we grant the validity of individuality on ontic level, we run into some well-known problems in philosophy such as the problem of identity. And my favorite example of this problem is the one from ancient Greece: it’s called the Ship of Theseus. Our idea of identity, it’s a little flawed, right? We just categorize things almost in an ad-hoc basis, out of pure convenience.
So question, is an awareness of our mind’s filtering layer, is that sufficient for a realization of the Will?
How does one realize the Will? It’s not something that you can read in a book, or have an exhaustive understanding of. You have to be intimate with it (as we said before with the Hindu and the Zen examples), and you do that by really paying attention to your perception. Our tendency is to immediately conceptualize: we look at a bird, and we say it’s just a bird and then we shift our attention away. We lie to ourselves, unwittingly, that because we know the bird as a concept, we know the bird, but really it’s much deeper than that. This deepness, again, can only be felt, you can never really arrive at it, but you can be intimate with it.
Yeah, well said, Alan. And you know Schopenhauer even said something about it, and I quote “for most ordinary people, the abstract concept of the thing is sufficient… the ordinary man does not linger long over the mere perception, does not fix his eye on an object for long, but, in everything that presents itself to him, quickly looks merely for the concepts under which it is to be brought. The world is so rich in content that not even the profoundest investigation of which the human mind is capable could exhaust it.”
Lovely. So what are the implications of having realized the nature of the Will, and how do we identify those people around us?
Yeah, let me invoke my prism metaphor one more time. If the white light symbolizes the Will, the Atman, the Brahman, the World-in-itself, and the prism symbolizes the mind. So the nature of the prism is to diffract the white light into many colors, right? Now if I could allow myself some vanity and imagine a ladder of metaphysically realized people, I can see there being three rungs, crudely speaking. Jnanis, mystics, who are directly connected to the source, who are not estranged from the source of experience, the white light from the prism metaphor, those people, they rejoice in the heart of emptiness, they rejoice in the absurd, in the eternal Now. It’s always Now for them.
The middle rung of the ladder is where we find philosophers and poets who are aware of the nature of differentiation, and they make commentaries on the relation between different colors that come out of the prism. And once again, the prism is a metaphor for the mind.
And the lowest rung of the ladder Alan, I think it consists of people who are zealously and prejudiciously attached to one color or a set of colors. They work to purify and intensify the color, and they’re mistrustful of those who defend different colors. They condemn those who do not pick colors. And they make it their life-mission to convert the whole world into their color. And I call those people color evangelists.
I like that a lot. I think that’s a great place to leave it. See you at the top of the ladder. /s
Haha, yup. I’m already there. /s
Haha, alright until next time!