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Interviewed by Paula Marvelly at Advaita Academy

PM: I meet a lot of people who tell me about the truth, which is a very simple thing in itself and yet I hear endless interpretations about it from may different ‘camps’: Neo Advaita, Traditional Advaita, Direct Path, Neo Vedanta… How can that be? Are these all simply different flavours? Or what’s going on here? It leaves me feeling bewildered and confused.

Unmani: I can understand how it would be confusing. The nature of the mind is that it wants to come up with something fixed and arrive at a conclusion – 'this is what it’s all about, this is truth in this neat little box.' But obviously, it’s not like, because if it were that obvious to the mind, then actually, it would be boring and take all the mystery out of it; it would be a dead, flat concept, or a belief system that you could chuck out when you get bored.
What we are talking about isn’t actually truth, because it’s not a particular philosophy or something that is true. There’s not an opposite to ‘true’; there’s not ‘false’. All of these things are just expressions; they are not interpretations. The mind can’t interpret it; it tries but it can’t, so every word that comes out of anyone’s mouth, whether it’s yours, or any teacher’s, is just an expression of it. And still the mind tries to understand what it all means and where it’s coming from, but they are all just expressions and none of it means anything.

PM: In your Conscious.tv interview, you were talking about ‘Who am I?’ and you said, well, actually I don’t know. I found that revelatory: to have the courage to say, I don’t know. I felt great relief because usually, the answer to this question is ‘I am Consciousness’ or ‘I am the Self’ or – the real killer – ‘I am satchitananda’, with the implication I should be chilled and blissful and be in love with everybody.
I spend a lot of my time editing very profound material – essays on Hindu scripture, Sanskrit grammar, etc. So I was impressed by the fact that you have the courage to say that you don’t know.

Unmani: That’s all the mind can know; the mind can only ever know that I don’t know. It’s that simple.

PM: So why doesn’t it appear to be simple? Why am I here after twenty years of searching?

Unmani: Because somehow you have believed at some point that it is more complicated than it is. You’ve heard all these great people, who have had great experiences and written great books and taught great lessons, which have formed a certain opinion about what it all means; but all of this is not trusting that you already don’t know. No matter what anyone else says, you still don’t know.

PM: Well, I know that I don’t know. I knew that twenty years ago. But like a lot of people, for whatever reason, I embarked upon a path of trying to know, thinking that I should know, thinking that one day, I will know.

Unmani: Yes, that’s what I mean by not trusting the fact that you don’t know is just the way it is. That’s it. There’s this idea that you should know and that everyone else knows, and you couldn’t possibly know. But actually, the knowing of not knowing is exactly the same as it is for any great teacher.

PM: The thing is, to get to that point of not knowing, it sounds very simple, but it’s not just a huge shrug of my shoulders and saying I don’t know, like some sort of cop out.

Unmani: No, it’s not an attitude.

PM: It’s a very profound knowledge that one doesn’t know.

Unmani: But now we are starting to sound complicated again; saying it is a profound knowledge puts it on some pedestal, which makes it unreachable.

PM: But I am thinking about those Zen stories whereby it is not understood until it is understood – the gateless gate, for example – and that could take twenty, thirty years to be known. It seems by default there has to be an intensive effort until you are exhausted by it all, so that only then can there be a profound relaxation and the knowing that it is actually very simple.

Unmani: That is true in many cases but it is not true that it always has to be like that. I have met several people where it wasn’t.

PM: In your own case, you have said that you were inspired by the teachings of Osho, and had done many so-called spiritual things. I could say, wasn’t that all part of your own spiritual process?

Unmani: But as I have also said, before I did any of that, I always knew this. I have always known this; as a child I knew it but I believed a thought that said, there’s something wrong with me because I don’t know who I am and I should know. So I went searching to find out who I am, to find an identity because I didn’t find one here. I tried on lots of different identities including spiritual identities. Not knowing who I am was never interrupted, so when I came across Dolano, a female teacher in India, I realized that what she was pointing to was what I had actually always known, all the time; it had never changed. It was like, oh, ok, this searching for some identity is not actually necessary. All that effort and depression and suicidal tendencies were in a way, only a maturing in seeing. But I didn’t really need to do all of that at all; it’s just that I didn’t know what else to do.

PM: Presumably had you had someone to verify your experience as a child, there would have been no need for the spiritual search.

Unmani: Possibly.

PM: There’s a sort of double bind in life in that as a child growing up, all the psychologists tell us the ego must form and define itself, as a psychological necessity, in order to interact with other people and the world; however, the ego then becomes so entrenched that you can’t see beyond its function, it becomes who you think you are.

Unmani: Yes. It seems like that for some people; it becomes thicker in some cases than for others, but there’s no rhyme or reason to it. It just seems that some people seem to take it very seriously, and don’t necessarily have much inclination to see beyond it or to see who they really are; for others, there is a bug in them that won’t let them rest until they know who they are. They can see the falsity in all of this.

PM: Another aspect of this is the inertia I come up against with regard to living in the world. Maybe it is a form of depression. I feel I am at a tipping point, where the intellectual side of things is almost spent. I have heard people say that knowing who you are brings a celebratory feeling, a sense of relief; for myself, I sometimes feel consumed with an existential angst and a heavy pointlessness towards a lot of things. I know that the search is over but I don’t feel that the intellectual knowledge is integrated in any way. I don’t feel total relaxation.

Unmani: And you think you should?

PM: Well, this is interesting, isn’t it. Perhaps there’s not total acceptance of the way things are.

Unmani: So that’s why I am asking you. Do you think you should have total acceptance?

PM: I don’t know is my honest answer.

Unmani: Maybe the question could be slightly different. What do you want?

PM: That’s a very good question. I think I just want to feel comfortable with myself. I want to get up in the morning and feel completely at ease.

Unmani: And not feel depressed and that it’s all kind of pointless?

PM: Yes. The pointlessness of things is the key overriding experience. Let’s put the teaching aside for the moment and get to the heart of the matter, which is this feeling, which is ‘so what’ to pretty much everything. There’s a flatness, deadness almost. I wouldn’t say it’s suicidal, though a few years ago it was more so; but now, I’m not sure how to process it.

Unmani: You said that you felt that the search was definitely over but it doesn’t sound like it. It would be interesting to be honest about that because if you think this feeling of pointlessness is wrong, then you are still searching to fix it. There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s about being honest about what’s going on.

PM: Yes, that’s a good point. When I say the search is over, I mean reading about Advaita Vedanta, practising the teaching, the more nuts and bolts of the search. But more subtly, it feels like there is unfinished business.

Unmani: Yes, it does get subtler. You know there is nothing you can do, and nothing matters, and there’s no point, and there’s no one here – you know all of that. There’s no point to reading anything anymore, or practising anymore...

PM: Or even meeting anyone any more…

Unmani: Yes. There’s no point to it all. So now what? What do I do with this? There’s no solution to that thought.

PM: Well, apparently not. It’s been ticking away for some time.

Unmani: What seems to have happened is that thought has hijacked this whole thing and turned it into some kind of attitude – there’s no point in doing anything, and so on. That’s only an attitude. You may well have recognized that there is no point ultimately to anything but since then, thought has hijacked it and claimed it and turned it into a new belief system. It’s subtle like that. Because actually recognizing that there is no point is freedom. And it’s freedom to even be depressed or to be joyful and yet there’s no point in those either. So, what I would say is that in just being honest with what’s actually happening, that’s already loosening it, you know.

PM: It’s still wanting to give everything a meaning, isn’t it; even the meaninglessness still begs some sort of meaning to it.

Unmani: Yes, it’s true. Poor me, being a victim… It’s just exposing the story that loosens it. You know how I like to see this – it’s a never-ending losing and what I mean by that is whenever thought somehow hijacks something, or finds some landing place or comes up with some idea that it has arrived somewhere, ‘I’ve got it’ or even ‘I’ve lost it’, then it’s just about the seeing of that again and again and again, seeing that it is just a thought. And that losing each time can be painful, can be uncomfortable, embarrassing, humiliating, frightening, all of that. But that’s the cracking, the unraveling.

PM: All I know is that sometimes, there is real ease of living – complete relaxation, the mind is very calm, life is good. But there is always this self-referencing going on, like being in situations with people, the scenarios that come up, misunderstandings, all that stuff that triggers emotional responses and sabotaging thought. There is a profound self-consciousness all the time. I am sure a lot of this is very narcissistic, to be honest. If I had three kids and a husband, I could just get on with living a life. It seems to be that I am the star of this great show and it’s getting a bit boring with all the relentless self-monitoring. It is great that these teachings encourage self-awareness, but it can tend towards paranoia and voyeurism.

Unmani: Thought is constantly judging other thought, saying I don’t like that thought, I don’t like that experience – thought is constantly judging everything. So I find it interesting to look at the very nature of thought to really see what thought does, how it likes to judge and separate and classify. It’s not going to stop or be quiet or change; it’s doing what it’s doing. In seeing that, in the same way you see that water is wet, you don’t try and change water to be dry, which would be ridiculous. In the same way, just seeing how thought does it’s thing, finding a reference point, finding a conclusion, which it’s probably going to do forever – there’s no solution, you know. The way that all happens has nothing to do with who you really are. Who you are is noticing those thoughts. So thought can self-monitor away, but actually, it’s never self-monitoring because who in fact is it monitoring? An idea of who I think I am, but that again is just another thought.

PM: One can get that ‘filmic’ view of life, watching oneself acting in the world.

Unmani: Yes, and there are lots of ideas about how other people see me.

PM: Definitely, all the time, if one is honest.

Unmani: The thing is, you never know how someone else sees you.

PM: Fortunately not! And yet it is going on all the time.

And it’s natural because that’s what thought does and it will probably go on doing that forever. In a way, you could say that it does that to fill the gap; because you don’t know, thought is trying to know. And that’s the whole thing with the search as well. Because you don’t know who you are, thought is trying to know but the answer isn’t in trying to know.
Thought is always assuming there is a reference point, that there is someone who should be saying this or not saying that; but actually, if you check and look for that someone you would find there isn’t anyone here, there is only thought. And yet it keeps referring to someone, as if there is a self-conscious someone in there that should be doing things differently.

PM: But it is so automatic; self-referencing comes out of my mouth without me even realizing I am doing it.

Unmani: Exactly, but it is just the nature of thought. It has nothing to do with who you really are; it might do it forever, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t mean anything because it is not actually referring to a real person, who is self-conscious.

PM: I understand that a self-referencing point is a fiction but my experience is suggesting that I am a person; I feel self-conscious, I feel wounded if I am insulted, or not appreciated. I have all that paranoia that a normal person would have.

Unmani: So do you have an idea that your experience should be better?

PM: My sense is that it is not integrated somehow; or that if it were integrated, I wouldn’t need to come and ask you about it.

Unmani: The biggest confusion here is that it has anything to do with experience. Somehow there is an idea that your experience should show that it is integrated; your experience should show that you have got it now in some way.

PM: If I am honest, yes.

Unmani: It’s good to expose these thoughts, to see them actually as they are, even if it feels embarrassing to admit it.

PM: It feels like a lot of things – shameful, embarrassing, a bit pathetic, arrogant. There are a full range of emotions.

Unmani: So the bottom line is the hope that the experience will improve.

PM: Very much so. It has to be better than this, because this isn’t enough.

Unmani: Exactly. That’s what thought is saying; this isn’t enough, there’s something missing because if there weren’t anything missing, the experience would be much better, it would be great in some way. Perhaps that’s imagined in all kinds of ways dependent on what you have read or maybe experienced before.

PM: Also, people like yourself, you speak of your experience and I read up about your life and it sets up an idea that you have got something that I haven’t, or that you know a secret that I don’t; with no disrespect, by your being a teacher, it presents the fact that you understand something more profoundly than other people. So that only compounds my problem.

Unmani: Yes, I understand. Experience is the biggest misconception among every seeker; that it has something to do with an experience I am having or have had and that you need to have; that it’s all about my experience and your experience but it’s not about that at all. And that’s the annoying thing for people actually. It’s really annoying because if it were about experience then I could tell you, if you do this, this, and this, then your experience will improve; it will be in your control and you’ll be able to make it better. Even if you did have an amazing experience and grace did come and give it to you, eventually that experience would change to something else because that’s the nature of experience. Every experience passes.

PM: I understand what you are saying. But we are talking about the crème de la crème of experiences – a non-experience if you will.

Unmani: But this is where we get confused again. OK, yes it is a non-experience but it is still an experience that passes. The experience I had while I was with Dolano passed and it was fine that it passed. Other experiences have happened and passed since then too. Thought may have had some ideas about that afterwards – 'it’s gone now', 'how do I get it back?'. I also had similar thoughts like the ones you were mentioning earlier – how can I integrate it – and that went on for some time, believing that I needed to give it some kind of meaning. But actually, it’s got nothing to do with experience; that experience passed and it’s actually only about this experience, this ordinary experience, of sitting here talking with you. It’s got nothing to do with any one experience of being more special or more valuable than any other; even the experience of recognition.

PM: But that’s the experience that I want.

Unmani: But if you get it, that experience will also pass. So it’s not about the experience, it’s about what is recognized.

PM: And what is recognized? What do you recognize?

Unmani: That I don’t know anything, and that I have never known anything. And you already know that too.

PM: Yes, I do know that. And paradoxically, that is propelling me to search to know that I don’t know.

Unmani: Yes. See how ridiculous it is. Somehow you want validation.

PM: Yes, I want external confirmation.

Unmani: Yes. You want someone else to say, it’s ok, but actually you’ve got to stand on your own and know for yourself that the way it is is that you don’t know. The whole search is about putting other people up on a pedestal and saying they know and I don’t know. I did that for years. I wasn’t so much interested in various teachers but I always thought that other people were cleverer or knew more; they knew how to be a person better than I did. But actually, the fact that I don’t know is the way it is. And the way it is for me is just the way it is. No one else can tell me it should be any different. It is just the way it is.

[Interview conducted Spring 2011]

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