The Ascent of the Spirit
by Swami Krishnananda

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Chapter 19: The Search for the Spirit

To search for the Spirit is to seek a meaning rather than a substance or an object. This is the subtle import of all spiritual seeking. We often make the mistake of thinking that, when we ask for God, we are asking for a thing, a person, an object or a substance. While our notions of God or the Spirit have some significance in our search for it, all these notions fall short of the real and the true, inasmuch as there is something deeper that we are really seeking that what comes to the surface of our minds. To give certain concrete examples of what ‘meaning’ is, rather than a thing or a substance: When we ask for food, for all outward purposes it looks that we are in need of some substance. When we say, ‘I need some food’, we may think that perhaps we need some wheat, rice, vegetables, butter, milk, etc. These are generally interpreted to be food. But there is something in this asking for food, a meaning behind this asking, which does not always become apparent to our minds. Truly speaking, it is not these articles of diet that we are asking for. We are asking for a meaning that is hidden behind these articles. They are capable of conveying a significance in our personal life, here, in this instance, our physical bodily life. If this group of articles is not to convey any significance to bodily existence, they will not be the things that we require.

Whenever we look at an object, we read a meaning into it. It means something. Now, this habit of reading a meaning is so familiar that we cannot think in any other manner. We do not think first and then read the meaning afterwards. The thinking and the reading of the meaning go together: Or, to put it in a slightly psychological terminology, the understanding and the feeling work simultaneously in our perception. When we think of an object, we also feel something about it; in other words, it means the recognition of an object in terms of the significance it conveys to our lives. This signification it is that escapes our attention in our search for values in life, while it is really a set of values that we want and not objects or things.

The meaning behind the articles of diet is to appease hunger. That is what we need, and not bags of rice;this is not what we want. It so happens that a grain called rice, in a certain quantity, when it comes in contact with our physical body in a particular manner, is in a position to appease a state of biological reaction which we call hunger. It so happens that this particular thing can act in this particular manner; otherwise it would be something else that we would need.

So, it is not any particular object that we seek. We seek only the value that is hidden in the object. So is the case with money. It is not the material stuff that we are in need of, but its capacity to provide us with purchasing power; that is called money. It is not gold and silver or notes. That is the meaning behind cash value; and so on, and so forth, with every blessed thing in the world. There is a significance hidden behind our asking for things, a meaning behind our relationship with things, behind the way in which we talk, the way in which we conduct ourselves in society, the way in which we think and feel and act. All these things have a hidden significance, a meaning; and it is this meaning which we are really in search of. Unfortunately, we confuse this meaning with the outer form of an object. And it looks as if we are in search of objects rather than values. Not so. When we speak even in ordinary language: “What is the spirit of the teaching?”—we make a distinction between the letter and the spirit. There is a letter of the law and the spirit of the law, for example. The words that I speak and the spirit in which I speak are different. So, even in common parlance, we use the term ‘spirit’ to signify a meaning rather than an outer form that a particular conduct puts on.

As is the case with ordinary life, so in the case of our cosmical relations, there is a Spirit behind our very existence as individuals, even as, in the example cited, the concrete substances like articles of diet or currency notes have a significance behind, which alone we are in need of and not the things themselves. If the meaning is absent, we will not go for it.

There is a spirit which we have lost in the midst of the clamouring particulars. And we have heard this word ‘spirit’ many a time uttered. Still we cannot help contemplating the ‘spirit’ as if it is some object. We have to learn to think a little bit impersonally when we tread the spiritual path. We have been too much wedded to personalities, things and concrete substances. So we have been taught to think only in terms of these physical entities, as it were. We cannot think impersonally. It is very difficult. It may be my person or somebody else’s person; all our thoughts are personal. The impersonal is hidden behind all personal evaluations of things. And it is the impersonal that we seek, even through persons. The ‘general’ is hidden in the ‘particular’: the impersonal is behind in all the forms. The Implicit is present in all the individualities. There is a gradual rise in our aspiration from lower particulars to higher particulars, the higher particular for the time being acting as the general and the universal for the lower particular.

Now, in the search for the Spirit of life, we do not search for any existent object. The Spirit is not an object. To come to our examples again, the spirit of law is not a thing that you can see with your eyes. Yet you know what it means. The spirit has an intangible significance which makes itself felt not to the senses, but to something which seems to have a kinship with our own being. The spirit of things cannot be seen through the senses. It is not appreciated even by the understanding, which always works in terms of the senses. We have in our own individualities something which can be said to be the meaning of our own existence. What you call as the ‘you’ or ‘yourself’ or the ‘I’ is the meaning hidden in what you regard yourself to be or what I regard myself to be. The same analogy can be applied to our personalities. The spirit of my being is different from my bodily existence.

When I ask for the spirit, what do I ask? ‘What is spirituality?’ is the moot question. Spirituality is that condition of consciousness where it asks for the spirit of things rather than the forms or bodies of things. You do not interpret things in terms of objects and persons any more. Your evaluations of life do not then depend on persons and things. You learn to think in terms of the generals and the universals rather than the particulars and bodily existences. This would be spirituality, whatever be the degree of its expression, even the lowest.

When we learn to be spiritual, we live more and more as generals rather than as particulars, which means that we begin to comprehend other values in our own existences that we were unable to do earlier. In our present state of bodily existence our bodies are restricted to our own physical needs. My hunger, my thirst, my sleepiness, my difficulties, my problems, etc.—these engage my attention so much that I cannot exceed the limits of my bodily needs. That is the lowest aspect of human life where one’s thoughts and feelings get so restricted to the bodily encasement that there is no thought and feeling beyond that. But when one becomes capable of recognising the significance of the lives of other people, in their spirit rather than the form, and learns at the same time to associate one’s personal values with the values which appear to be external at present, then the self of oneself becomes enlarged. What we call the self is nothing but the Spirit behind ourselves and behind all things. When we talk of the Self, or think of the Self, we are likely to think of it as a kind of substance. Philosophers have defined the soul as a substance many a time. But it is not a substance; it is not a substance in the sense of anything that we can understand. It is not a tangible object. It is supersensible, as our scriptures are not tired of saying. Supersensible is the meaning of our personality; the meaning of all creation. That it is supersensible means that it cannot be seen. It cannot be touched by the hand, it cannot be smelt, it cannot be heard of, it cannot be tasted, one cannot have any kind of intelligible relation with it. Such is the Spirit of things.

Now, who is to understand the Spirit? What do you mean by the spiritual aspiration at all? If Spirit would mean the meaning of life, and this meaning is so abstract, then it cannot have any value to the senses, that meaning would appear to be meaningless to the sensory operations. The Spirit of life is present in our own bodies. It is not far from us and so it is possible for us here to reach out to the Spirit of the cosmos as a whole; not through the senses and the intellect, but through something which we are. That which we are is the meaning that is in us. We convey an eternal meaning. That eternal meaning which is hidden in us is what we are. It is not the temporary meaning which we seem to exhibit in our day-to-day life that we can call our own self. These are tentative, local adjustments that we generally make, but these are not our real meaning.

If we are divested of all associations, physical and psychological, what do we remain as? That would be our true meaning. If we have no body, if we have no mind to think, what would be our condition? What would be the sort of relationship that we might establish with other existences? We may not be in a position to contemplate such a possibility. How can I exist without a body, a mind? How can it be?

This mystery is the significance of life. This is what we call the Spirit of things. One may wonder that on a careful thought bestowed on this Spirit of things, it looks like an abstract concept, not anything substantial. It appears to be a psychological interpretation rather than a physical contact, due to our habit of coming in contact with objects, beyond whose existence we have not learnt to see. But the Spirit is not abstraction; on the other hand the so-called concrete objects are an abstraction from it. When you contact the Spirit, you do not contact an air or an empty space or a non-existent something. The mind is unable to think IT; that is why the mind reads an abstraction into it. The ‘existence’ of all things may be regarded as the Spirit of all things. Divest all things of their existence, and what do you see in them? When the mind tells you that Spirit is only an abstraction and the objects are more concrete, try to tell it: “My dear friend, my mind, the Spirit is the ‘existence’ of everything that you regard as concrete.”

Minus existence, what are these concrete substances? Free all things from their existence; there is, then, only non-existence. Their concreteness vanishes. The so-called concreteness, tangibleness, hardness, substantialness, solidity, etc., is a way of sensation. It is the way in which the senses react to the Spirit. That is what you call tangibility. There is no tangible object in this world. We are deluded. We are touching the Spirit even when we are touching solid objects like a table. But it looks that we are touching some other thing altogether. That so-called thing which attracts you, and which makes you feel that you are contacting a tangible object, is the Spirit itself. And the substantiality and the solidity of the object is due to the mutual reaction of the Spirit within and the Spirit without, falsely differentiated by space and time.

The world is the drama played by space, time and causality. If these three things are not to be there, there would be no such thing as the world. There is no such thing as the world, objects, persons and things, apart from the trick played by the union of space, time and causal relation. It is not possible for the mind to understand how the world can be equated to these three; because we see again and again the solidity of things. Apart from space and time we see solidity in objects, but the solidity is due to the Spirit masquerading in space and time. And if it were not to be there, there would not be any solidity. This substantiality of the Spirit is more solid (if you could use such a term) than the most solid things. And the reason why this substance behind all substances, the meaning behind all meanings, appears as an object outside, while it is really not, is because here space, time and causal relation play havoc.

The mind is torn into two pieces—the seer and the seen. The seer is the Spirit, and the seen also is the Spirit. The Spirit sees itself in all perceptions. But it looks like the differentiated perception of an object on account of the intervention of space and time. Divest meaning of space-time value, and you will behold the Reality of the cosmos. The hardest thinker will recoil on thinking along these lines, because the mind is not taught to think by freeing itself from the relations of space and time. Vedantins and philosophers have been telling us that God alone is. The world is not! The world is nothing but God’s Face. How could it be? It can only be possible if the very objects in front of us can enshrine the Spirit of God in them, even now in their sensory externality; and if God had not been so near to us, and was not so real, it would not have been possible for us to think of Him, ask for Him or aspire for Him.

It is the nearness of God to our own being that makes it impossible for us to rest and be in peace. And our asking for Him is resistless. If God has been a distant object, we would have taken time to think of Him. We would have told: ‘let us see tomorrow.’ But it is such a pressing necessity that we cannot leave it until tomorrow! It is nearer to you than your own throat, and you cannot say ‘tomorrow’ to it: It is so immediate, an urgent concern of life that your concern with it is first and your concern with anything else is afterwards.

But in this concern of ours with the Spirit of all things, we confuse it with objectivity, and we run after the objects rather than the Spirit behind it. While our asking is genuine, our running after things is foolish. The intention is good, but the activity is deluded. This is samsara, and the spiritual seeker has to exert his viveka-sakti, with a tremendous power of will to distinguish between the Spirit and the forms of life. The forms tempt us because we are wedded to a sensory way of thinking. Unfortunately, we are born into a world of sense, which knows only how to look outward and not inward. The senses cannot see their own cause, they can only see what is external to them, in space and in time.

When the mind subsides into its own bottom, and ceases from this running through space and time, and settles down to itself, like troubled water that is allowed to settle down, then the dirt that is part of its activity will also settle down and it will become capable of reflecting what is behind it. It is as if we are so busy with things that we do not know that we have eyes. We are so engaged with seeing things that we do not know that we have eyes! What is this seeing that you are engaged in? If you have no eyes, how can you see? But can any, one see his eyes and think that he has eyes? Unless, perhaps, you have some pain in the eyes, do you ever imagine that you have a set of eyes? You are so busy with seeing through the eyes that you get no time to think that you have the eyes. You want to exploit them fully. So is God, so is Spirit! It is through the Spirit that you do all that you are doing; it is through It that everything is seen and heard and done and, therefore, it cannot be seen and heard.

It is difficult to give a comparison of what Spirit is. Just as, without eyes, we do not see, and yet in the act of seeing we do not stop to think that we have eyes, without the Spirit behind, we cannot see anything, or even exist at all. Just as we cannot see our own back, we cannot see God’s existence. There are no eyes which can look at the back. The eyes that are projected in one direction only cannot look at that which is behind them. The Spirit or the God of the Universe is so near that to see It would not take the split of a second. But you have to open your eyes to It and not look beyond It or away from It. The eyes which see in one direction have to be taught not to see in any particular direction of space but to see what is behind them, the cause that is transcendent to them. There is a light that passes through the eyes, and the eyes get so identified with the rays of light that they cannot know that it is behind them, as it happens when sunlight falls on a mirror, which reflects the objects in front of it. The mind and the senses receive the light of the Self, the Spirit, and with the help of that light they behold the objects of the world. Yet, they do not know that there is this light. When you look at an object in daylight, you know that the object is different from the light. You see the object because of the light that is shed on the object. You see the object there because of the light, and yet you cannot make a distinction between the object and the light. The light so shines upon the object, is identified with the object in such a way, that you confuse between the object and the light and no one ever says that the light-aspect is different from the object.

So are our perceptions of things. The light of the Atman, the Spirit, is what acts upon the objects of the world and makes us feel their presence. The intelligibility of anything is due to the light of the Self that emanates through the mind and the senses. But we mix up that light with the objectivity of what we see; and just as we do not make a distinction between sunlight and the object upon which it shines, so also we do not make a distinction between the world and the light due to which we are able to cognise it. To extract this light from objectivity, to differentiate the Spirit from the letter or the externality of perception, would be to understand the essence behind the chaff.

When you try to understand things in terms of the Spirit, you will realise that all things assume a uniform meaning, even as the sunlight is equal to all objects. The sunlight makes no distinction—‘I am shining on a temple,’ or ‘I am shining on a latrine.’ The sun will shine upon anything. Likewise is the Spirit behind things. The distinction that we make is due to an incapacity to distinguish between light and shade. But when we start thinking in terms of this generality behind objects, we will realise that objects themselves assume a uniformity of structure and meaning, and our liking or not liking a particular thing or a set of things gets diminished in intensity; we begin to enter into the Spirit of things. It is then that we realise the meaning of objects and life as a whole. And in this realisation of the kinship of our own Spirit with the objects outside, we become so enlarged in our consciousness that the only test for this enlargement is our experience of an intense satisfaction within us.

How do you know that your consciousness has expanded? When consciousness expands, the sense of freedom also gets expanded, and simultaneously your joy is enhanced. The wider is the ken of the activity of Spirit, the deeper is the sense of freedom in your life, and the more intense is the joy that you experience. How do you know that you are growing in spirituality? The test is only in terms of the freedom that you feel within, freedom from the shackles of other objective existences and a lone joy that you feel in your heart. That can only be the test of your progress in your spiritual life. When you are absolutely alone, when there are no things to contact you, no persons to see you, when you are in the solitude of your own room, if your happiness is the most intense, that would perhaps indicate your progress along the spiritual path, your inner growth. But on the other hand, if your joy seems to enhance only by contacts, by seeing people and persons, if your joy expands the more you run about, the more you see things, the more you go about here and there, that will not be the indication of your growth in the spiritual field.

The more you are alone, the more are you near to your Spirit. This loneness of your life promises you greater satisfaction than all the contacts that you can make in your social life. The Spirit does not come in contact with anything, and its joy cannot be enhanced by contacts; on the other hand, all contacts are a restriction on its expression. Joys of the Spirit get diminished by sensory contacts; that is why we are unhappy in this world. We think that we are: going to become more happy through contact by the senses; no; we are going to become more wretched, because we are restricting the expression of the Spirit by contact with things. The Spirit is universal; do you want to tie it down to particulars? But all our attempt to come in contact with persons and things is the attempt at tying the Universal to the particular, which the Spirit would resent vehemently.

So, all people in the world are unhappy for obvious reasons. The reason is that they would like to bottle the Universal Spirit in the small objects of the world. The retreat into the Spirit is the withdrawal into the All-pervading Universal. The Spirit of life is the Universal present in all the objects of the world. This is what they call God. This is the Supreme Absolute behind things; and when we tread the path of the Spirit, therefore, we have to be cautious in seeing that we are not treading the path of the senses, while for all outward purposes it may look that we are moving towards the Spirit. Public acclamation is not the test of progress. The whole world may proclaim you as the saviour of mankind—that would not be the test of your progress. People would not have understood you and they might be holding erroneous notions. There again is a contact that you take as a test of your achievements.

Contacts may be physical or psychic. All these are to be avoided in the search for the Spirit. As a matter of fact, psychological contacts are more dangerous than physical contacts. The mind it is that works havoc. The mind thinking a sense-object is more vicious than a physical contact of body with body. If the mind is not working, the physical contact means nothing. So, all psychic contacts with objects should be withdrawn, and in this withdrawal of the senses and the mind, if you can feel a release of all your tensions, if, in going to the bottom of your own being in the solitude of your life, you can feel a freedom and a happiness which the world knows not, then you are really living a spiritual life. If nobody sees you, and you are happy, then that would be the test of your spirituality. And if you feel like fish out of water, because nobody sees you, then that would be the contrary of it.

Because the Spirit is alone, it wants nobody, and it wants nobody’s help in this world. It is so complete and full that you cannot add a cubit to its stature by multiplying the existence of the objects before it. The whole universe, before it, is zero. As, in arithmetic, you have a figure before a series of zeros, all zeros mean nothing without the figure preceding them, the figure here is the Spirit. It may be One, but if this figure One is absent, there are only zeros!

That would be this world without the Spirit. And that would also be the meaning that you assume in your life if you enter into the Spirit. So, let no spiritual seeker be despondent in his moods by the wrong notion that when he stands alone befriending the Spirit, he is perhaps losing the joys of the world. Not so. The joys of the world are again the joys of the Spirit scattered in a distorted manner. A little of the honey of the Spirit is sprinkled over the objects of sense, and then it is that we are trying to lick the objects. Even the objects look tasty because of the Spirit sprinkled there; but for that there would be nothing worthwhile in the objects—they would be corpses. When you stand alone by the Spirit, you stand by the Absolute, That which is universally present in all things, That which is the meaning behind the very objects after which you are running. You can imagine what God is, what Spirit is, and how reasonable it is that you should be happy when you are alone! This aloneness is not a physical aloneness, like one’s being in a jungle. It is the loneness of consciousness, where it can contemplate itself alone, independent of all things; and this would be true spiritual independence. It is towards this end that the seeker tends his mind and bends his efforts in yoga.