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Discovering the Universal in the Particular
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken on June 9, 1973)

We have studied that meditation is the activity of the total personality. This is a very important factor to remember. It is not our psychological organ that performs this sacred function, but rather ourselves as a totality, a complete unity or indivisibility. This important factor will also explain the extent to which we will progress or not progress in the practice of meditation.

The understanding of the proper relation between ourselves and the object of our meditation is the touchstone of all progress on this path. Generally, novitiates, the common minds, conceive of the object of spiritual contemplation as they think of a cow, for example, grazing in a field. No such thing is this object. It is not like cattle that we see outside, but something vitally threaded with the fibre of our own personality; therefore, it is difficult to make out what it actually is.

That which is woven into our very skin is indeed difficult of understanding. Such a stuff, such a substance and such a reality is the object that we are seeking through the practice of meditation. The adjustment of consciousness in meditation, therefore, is supernormal—supernormal in the sense that it exceeds the natural and usual ways of the activity of consciousness in relation to objects outside. There is a difference between the relation of consciousness with the object of meditation and the relation of consciousness with the sensory object. If this distinction is not known, we will not be able to concentrate the mind. In sensory perception, in ordinary vision of physical objects, there is an artificial contact of consciousness, and a natural unity or attunement does not take place. There is an artificial made-up situation in every form of sense perception on account of desires of the mind working within. A desire is a psychological condition by which our personality gets involved in a very strange manner with objects outside. This involvement is what is called samsara, or earthly bondage.

The desire of the mind for a sense object is really the expression of an undercurrent of longing to become united with the object, but this unity cannot be achieved in the world of space and time, merely because of the existence of space and time. The senses do not come in contact with the sense objects in such a way as to really possess or enjoy the objects as they would appear to do. The unity does not take place, just as we do not really physically touch an object which is placed behind a pane of glass, for instance. If the object is touching the glass from the other side, and our finger is touching the glass from this side, it will appear as if we are touching the object, but we are not really touching it on account of the presence of something in between.

Here, in the cosmical scheme of things, the screen between consciousness and its object is the spatio-temporal setup. This is a very subtle system of operation which eludes the grasp of human understanding because of the fact that the understanding itself is involved in this scheme. The spatio-temporal scheme is a universal operation of certain conditions which determine even the activity of our individualised consciousness. We are not as wholly independent as we appear to be. We have an element of freedom within us, but that freedom is conditioned.

Sometimes we are given the analogy of a cow being allowed to graze in a wide field while tethered by a long rope to a peg. The cow has the freedom to graze anywhere it likes because of the length of the rope, but it cannot go beyond the length of the rope. This radius of operation is determined by the length of the rope with which it is tethered to the peg.

This analogy is symbolic of the nature of the conditioning of our consciousness. We are free in one sense but are bound in another sense. Because we are essentially free, we are asking for freedom. If we were really bound essentially and fundamentally, then there would be no asking for freedom. We cry for liberation of every kind in every level of our life. We want freedom in the family, in the community and in society; we want political freedom, and we want spiritual salvation. All this is an implication that we are perhaps essentially, basically free, and not bound, because we cannot seek what we essentially are not. This is a very important truth. What we do not deserve, we cannot desire. If we do not deserve the state of immortality, we cannot desire it or long for it or work for it. Unless we are qualified to attain the immortal, we cannot have the liberty to ask for it. We cannot even apply for it because we do not have the qualification. But the fact that we are insistently pressed onwards from within towards a type of freedom which is illimitable in its extent is proof enough that there is a basic freedom in our character and our nature.

But we are bound by another factor, and that is what I referred to as the spatio-temporal scheme of things. Space and time are not two substances. It is a single system of action, a single process of conditioning, which is sometimes called space-time for want of a better term. We cannot actually explain as to what we mean by space-time—what is space and what is time—in spite of the fact that we have been given umpteen definitions of these terms.

Actually speaking, when we go deep into the matter, the conditioning factor, which is usually called the space-time screen, is involved in our consciousness. It is not outside. Sometimes it appears as if it is an object which the consciousness cognises in a certain way, but it is woven into the structure of consciousness in a peculiar manner, due to which our consciousness cannot easily get freed from it.

What is actually the definition of space-time? For all practical purposes, at least for the practice of meditation with which we are concerned at present, we may say space-time is a term used for what we call externality in perception. The externality involved in the perceptional process of consciousness is what we call space-time, and it is this that has spoiled our whole career in this world. The objects outside are not really externally located entities. This we know very well. But this scheme of space-time locates these objects, as it were, in isolated centres of the cosmos, and summons the individualised consciousness towards them so that there is a false notion engendered in the personal consciousness in respect of the objects, the notion being that the objects are externally located in different centres of the world so that there is a necessity for developing an externalised relation with the society of things.

This is precisely the situation of the world. We feel an urge to externally relate ourselves to things. That is what is called desire. Kamana, vasana, and raga are terms that we use for this peculiar disease, as it were, that has cropped up in our consciousness—a disease to establish externalised contact with objects merely because of the notion in the consciousness that objects are externally placed, which they are not. They are made to appear in this way on account of the operation of this conditioning factor called space-time, which we have to cut through in meditation.

There was a great thinker called Immanuel Kant. He was of the opinion that truth cannot be realised, that there is no such thing as a metaphysics of reality. That which is of the thing in itself cannot be seen as long as consciousness is conditioned by the factors of what he called the fourfold operation, namely, quantity, quality, relation and modality. I am not going to explain these terms, as we are not concerned with them here. However, this is the usual feeling of every normal human being involved in the conditioning factor because one does not know how to get out of it. It is only the system of yoga that has gone beyond this defeatist attitude of the agnostic that reality cannot be known. It is yoga that tells us that reality can be known in spite of consciousness being conditioned in this manner. Kant and his followers could not know how this conditioning could be cut through or pierced through. We fully agree with him that there are conditions of this kind. There is the causal network heavily operating upon us; there is space and time, and as long as these operate externally, we are done for. We can do nothing in this world independently, but that is not the whole truth. This is only to state a partial aspect of the true nature of things.

The process of meditation is an answer to this great query of how we can pierce through phenomena. The despair of the agnostic philosopher is that the whole universe is phenomena. We cannot go beyond it; we are in it, we are caught within it, we are involved in it, and we seem to be it, but this is not the last word in philosophical analysis. Though we are in phenomena, there is an element present in us which transcends phenomena. How do you know that you are in phenomena? Who told you this? One who is wholly involved in phenomena cannot know that he or she is involved in phenomena. This is the secret. The very fact that you know that everything is phenomenal is proof enough that you have already transcended it in your consciousness by a peculiar reach of it, which you may not be able to explain.

Why do you ask for the Absolute? Who told you that it exists? You have not seen it. Nobody has seen it perhaps, and yet people talk of it, cry for it, weep for it. Mystics are ecstatic over it. All this is a subtle and secret pointer to the existence of something that is beyond and beneath the phenomenal process of things. The whole world is process: transience, vicissitude, coming and going, birth and death, as the Buddha told us, for example. Perfectly true. But how do you know that it is all transience and process? Who told you this? Process itself cannot know process because process is a transitional movement which has to be cognised by a principle which is itself not involved in this process. That principle is the quest of yoga. This substance, this reality behind all cognised factors in the phenomenal world, is the object of our meditation.

To come to the point, we are conditioned, no doubt, in various ways in the very principle or element of our consciousness. We entirely are, through and through, steeped in the phenomenal process, but we can take the aid of that which tells us we are involved in such a way. You have already been awakened by a peculiar faculty, known as viveka shakti, which is the reason why you have come to this ashram, why you go to Gurus, why you study the Bhagavadgita and transcendental philosophical texts. If everything is at sixes and sevens, everything is pell-mell and confusion, everything is conditioned, then it is not worth doing anything in this world. But no one is satisfied with these conditions. We cannot be in the jail always. We want to get free from it. This search for freedom, the quest for liberation, is the activity of the deepest in us. It is not any faculty in us that is asking for the final salvation or liberation. It is not our psychological organs, not the pranas, not the senses, not any aspect of our personality, but the total personality that seeks to be liberated.

What do we mean by liberation? What is salvation? What type of freedom are we asking for? Freedom, liberation and salvation are almost synonymous terms which imply an existence which is unconditioned in every manner. We are asking for a type of living or existence which is not restricted by any factors external to it, not even space and time, not even the logical limitations of the intellect, not even mathematical conditioning. All these are limitations of some kind or the other. Mathematics and logic, causality, space and time limit us in many ways, but we do not like these limitations. We resent every kind of limitation. We want to be free to think and act in whatever way we wish.

This freedom which we are asking for, this freedom which is unconditioned in every manner, is the liberation of the soul. What would happen to the liberated soul if we become unconditioned? What does it mean to be unconditioned? At least, at a minimum, it is to be unconditioned by space and time. For this, I must explain what it is to be conditioned by space and time. Spatial conditioning means limitation of our existence to a particular locality. If we are in Rishikesh, we cannot be in Badrinath at the same time. That is spatial limitation. We can be only in one place at a time, not in all places. Our fixity in a particular locality or a point of space, and the incapacity on our part to exceed the limitations of this location, is spatial conditioning. We overcome it if we become unconditioned in space.

Now, what does it mean to be unconditioned in space? It is not to be merely in one part of space, which implies being everywhere in space. Omnipresence is the word for it. When spatial fixity is overcome, when we are not anymore conditioned by space, consciousness assumes its pristine originality of non-spatial existence. Non-spatial existence means universal existence and, simultaneously, there is going beyond the limitation of the time factor. We cannot be in the past, present and future at the same moment of time. If we are in the present, we cannot place ourselves in the past and future also. But to be in a position to overcome the limitation of time would be to find oneself in all the processes of time—in the past, present and future—which is omniscience. When we overcome the limitation of time, we become omniscient. When we overcome the limitation of space, we become omnipresent, which automatically involves omnipotence also. This is the threefold characteristic that we generally attribute to the Creator, or God Himself.

Well, what will happen to consciousness when we attain liberation if liberation means to exist unconditioned in every manner? “Is this achievement possible?” is the question which unfortunately, to the woe of man, arises in his mind, helpless as he is, caught up as he is in a network of many miseries in this world on account of thousands of types of involvement. We ask, “Can I achieve this ideal of being non-spatial and non-temporal? Can I break the chain of causality?” Very fearful is the question, but very sustained, cogent and sober is the answer: We can. Philosophical analysis cannot take us beyond what the intellect can point to. It is the yogi, and not the mere academician, that breaks through the chain of samsara because logical understanding has its own limitations, and while the logical intellect is helpful up to a certain stage of investigation, it fails beyond that stage. It can go thus far and no further.

Then it is that we have to take the aid of a new faculty altogether which is implanted in us. The soul in us—not the mind, not the intellect, not any other psychological faculty—works in the process of meditation. It is the soul that operates in meditation—consciousness in its deepest recesses. When it rises, it shakes up the entire personality. When we wake up from sleep, it is not a part of our body that wakes up. It is not only the mind, the intellect, the memory or the ego that wakes up. Our ears or eyes alone do not wake up. Everything wakes up the moment we wake up from sleep. Likewise, the soul rises into action. Very rarely does this happen, but when it does, it shakes up the entire personality and places before our vision a new vista of things. There we are no longer afraid of space and time. We can see through space and time, and not see merely space and time as we do just now. The thing in itself, which I referred to, which some people think is incapable of access, can be seen through the screen of space and time. And, unfortunately, we will be surprised that we are the thing in itself. There is nothing to be worried about. We ourselves have lost ourselves. It is self-losing that has actually happened. It is an error of consciousness that has actually taken place. We may call it an error of perception, an error of cognition, an error of awareness, an error of circumstance or situation, but it is inextricably connected with what we essentially are so that in meditation we tackle our own selves, rather than tackle objects which are apparently situated outside us.

There is no object in meditation; it is a subject, actually. That subject assumes the form of the object when the spatial and temporal factors introduce themselves in the activity of consciousness. Even when we meditate on the highest principle possible, the principles or elements of space and time will intervene and we will find an externality projected into our consciousness, as it happens when we see ourselves in a mirror. When we see ourselves in a mirror, we see an object no doubt, but it is not an object. It is the subject projected as an object on account of the refraction that has taken place through the plane of the mirror.

So also, the objects that we see in the world are a kind of consciousness refraction, as it were, which has taken place on account of the intervention of space and time, of which we have absolutely no knowledge in our present state of ignorance. The multitudes of things and the faces that we see in the world are refractions, conditionings, divisions in that which is essentially divisionless.

Thus, the task that is before us in meditation is an arduous one, no doubt. It is not to everyone that this ability is given. But once we make this determination, we will be given this power. We have only to begin, and we will receive the energy necessary once we start the process. It is like the educational process wherein we grow gradually from stage to stage. But we have to take the first step, at least, and then the next step is taken automatically by the process itself, like the current of a river that carries us by the very force of its flow. The first step—namely, how to choose the nature of the first function itself in the path of the spirit—is the most difficult step.

The first thing we are called upon to do is to restrain the powers of the senses so that we may be able to contact reality, and not contact only phenomena. We cannot contact reality as long as the senses are operating because reality is identical with universality, but the senses are bent upon insisting that everything is external. They are opposed to reality. Why are they opposed? Because the senses always tell us that everything is externalised. Anything that we can think of in our mind is externally placed in space and time.

But reality is universal, and to contact reality, therefore, the senses are of no use to us. The moment we use the senses to unite with reality, they will be repelled. We will be thrown back by a kick, and we will not be able to have contact with truth. The art of meditation is the art of union with the universal, which is the real, and this art is quite different from the mechanism of sensory perception.

Thus, it is essential that all sincere seekers of spiritual liberation or freedom, honest practitioners of meditation, should try to restrain their senses so that consciousness does not get diverted along the channels of objects. Now our attention is upon objects on account of a flow of consciousness through the channel of objects of sense. The consciousness gets cast in the mould of sensory activity, and on account of this process we have been excluded from contact with the universal.

The universal and the particular are not two different things. The very term ‘universal' should mean inclusiveness of all things. Everything that is, and everything that can be, is included and must be included in the universal gamut of existence, so even that which we call the external is a part of the universal. There cannot be something outside the universal. If there is something external to it, then it ceases to be universal. It becomes an individual.

Hence, when we abstract our consciousness—when we do pratyahara, as it is usually called—from the perception of objects, we are not actually weaning ourselves from facts or truths. Immature thinkers on the path of yoga sometimes imagine that turning to God is cutting oneself off from the world, under the false impression that the world is outside the universal. It is not. We do not isolate ourselves from one reality in order to come in contact with another reality. There is no such thing as that, because reality is one—ekam sat. So what is it that we are trying to withdraw ourselves from in sensory abstraction if all the particulars are also part of the universal? If there is no such thing as the world itself apart from the existence of the universal, what do we mean by ‘abstraction'? What is pratyahara? What is self-restraint?

Well, the restraint of sensory activity does not mean withdrawal from reality. It is an impossibility. We are not trying to cut ourselves off from objects of the world, but we are trying to free ourselves from the false notion that there is what is called objectness in the object. There is a difference between object and objectness. The external object is quite all right; there is no quarrel with it, but it is the externality of the object that is our objection. That is an infection that has crept into the so-called object, which has an element of reality in it, of course, as part of the universal.

We are also a part of the universal. The meditator himself is within the universal, so what is he trying to practise? What is he trying to withdraw himself from? What is he trying to contact? This is a mystery of consciousness activity. Actually, ultimately, it is a drama of consciousness. It is working within its own self. It is withdrawing itself from itself in order to come in contact with itself. Wonderful is this play, and so difficult to understand. There is nothing but consciousness, ultimately. Therefore, even abstraction is abstraction from consciousness only, but what type of consciousness? The abstraction is, therefore, not a withdrawal of consciousness from the reality of an object. This excludes all false notions of vairagya, or renunciation, in the minds of people.

If we leave Rameshwaram and go to Badrinath, it does not mean that we have contacted reality or freed ourselves from the clutches of samsara. Samsara is not in Rameshwaram or Benares or America, or anywhere. Samsara is not in any place. Samsara is a state of mind. It is an involvement. Samsara is a state of thinking, a way of perception, a conditioning from which we want to free ourselves.

Something like the awakening of consciousness from dream takes place when meditative activity snaps the thread of bondage. When we wake up from the condition of dream into the waking world, we do not move to another place. We do not walk from one place to another place. There is no physical or geographical movement at all involved in such an awakening. It is a reshuffling of consciousness that actually takes place. There is a readjustment of the aspects of consciousness within itself which we call awakening. What it actually is cannot be known without entering into it; however, in some aspects at least, we can compare it to this experience of awakening from dream in the sense that the space and time of dream do not in any way affect the awakening of consciousness into a higher state of itself. The space and time of dream do not anymore exist, but they did exist while the dream continued. Consciousness was involved in the dream world. It was conditioned, but when we woke up, the conditioning vanished. Now we are conditioned to the physical world of perception, the awakening from which is what is sought through spiritual meditation.

The externality of the object, as I mentioned, to come back to the point, is what our consciousness is abstracted from. The object is placed in its universal aspect. Every object has a universal aspect in it. We are objects because we are in some place, in time, and are externalised, but we are also in the universal, which we cannot deny. We are in the very substantiality and basic being of the universal, so what has happened to us? The consciousness of universality has been replaced by the consciousness of particularity.

The object is not really an object because it is internally connected through a subtle relationship with the other objects, and this subtle relationship is invisible to the physical eyes because our personality has many layers. At the deepest level we are the universal itself. That is why we are able to plunge into the universal in meditation. As we rise gradually to the surface, we become more and more concretised, externalised, objectified, and appear to become physical until we reach this present state of ours, namely, utter externality, physicality and materiality. We are in a material world.

What is a material world? There is no such thing as matter, ultimately. That is also a process of conditioning. What we call matter or physical substance is a stage, a condition in which consciousness is involved in its perception, and when it gets universalised gradually, more and more, matter itself will be converted into spirit. This has to be gradually worked out by a very methodical process.

The placement of the universal in the particular is the practice of meditation, to put it in one sentence. The discovery of the universal in the particular is the art of meditation. We do not glibly look at things as an ordinary man on the street does; we implant the universal in the particular, even if it is an externalised object which we have taken for the time being as our target or our Ishta-devata, just as we see a meaning or significance in a piece of art and do not look at merely the physical constitution of the background of that art. For example, when we look at a beautiful painting, we do not look at the canvas. We do not think of the cloth upon which the painting has been created. We are intent upon the significance that is conveyed by the painting. What is a painting, after all? It is nothing but ink spread on a piece of cloth. But when we say it is a piece of art, we do not say it is only a cloth with ink spread on it. There is a significance that is conveyed by the method of the arrangement of the ink on the canvas. That significance is called art.

Likewise, there is a significance in the objects of the world, which we generally miss in our ordinary perceptions. We are not able to look upon the world as a piece of art, though it is. We look upon it as a mechanistic system of objects which are artificially brought together in a state of colocation. The universe has a significance. That significance is the universal present in the particular. Just as the beauty seen in a painting is hidden beneath the ink and the cloth which is the background of the art, the universal in its magnificence, in its grandeur, in its absoluteness, in its completeness, is present in every bit of individualised object in the world.

Just as behind the beauty of the art there is ink and cloth which is the prosaic aspect which has made the background of the manifestation of the art, behind this prosaic manifestation of the mechanised system of things which we call the world there is a hidden significance, which is the presence of the universal. The whole world is filled with God, as the scriptures say. God fills the whole world in the same sense as beauty fills the painted picture. We cannot say where the beauty has come from. We cannot touch it with our hand. Anywhere we touch the painting, we touch only ink, but beauty is there. Beauty is not physically tangible, but it is a connotation, a hidden meaning, a value, a significance. Such is God. We cannot touch Him with our fingers, as we cannot touch beauty. When we touch a painted picture, we do not touch beauty. We touch only cloth and ink, but yet we can feel the beauty within it.

Likewise, we are trying to feel the magnificence and grandeur of the presence of the universal in the particular when we draw ourselves into a process of meditation. There is nothing wrong with the world. Everything is all right. The wrong is only with the way of thinking and seeing. The universe is beauty. It is perfection. There is nothing ugly about it. Nothing is wrong anywhere; everything is perfectly well arranged. Yāthātathyato'rthān vyadadhāc chāśvatībhyas samābhyaḥ (Isa 8). In the Isavasya Upanishad we are told that everything has been arranged in perfect order. The Creator of things is not a fool. Everything has been done as it ought to be, but this cannot be seen with our distorted vision. Our vision is the problem, and not the thing as such.

Therefore, the process of meditation is not an attempt at changing things, but an attempt at changing our attitude to things. We need not change the world, but we have to change our attitude towards the world. Then the world will become us. It will come into our pocket. When we begin to discover the universal in the particular, we cease to be a particular. We become a representative of God in this world. We become a Mahapurusha, a Purushottama, a Siddha. These are the terms used to signify the mastermind which has been able to plumb the depths of the universal in itself and then cast the magic of this vision upon the external objects also. When we recognise the universal within us, we will also see it outside us.

Perfection is not merely a within, it is also a without. When perfection takes place, it takes place everywhere. It does not take place only in a part of the world. When we are healed of sickness, it is not only a part of the body that is healed; we are entirely healed. Similarly, when we are healed of our consciousness involvement, we awaken into a new vision of things. It is as if a blind man has been given eyes. It is a complete change of perception. New truths are contacted, and we enter a state of wonder. In this recognition of the universal in the particular, distance vanishes. Nothing is far away from us. Everything is near us. Everything is identical with us, as it were. Siddhis are mentioned in the Yoga Sutra—anima, mahima, etc., which are a natural corollary, as it were, that follows from the recognition of the universal. We need not think of these anima, mahima, etc.; they will come to us automatically. They have to come because they are necessary aspects of the discovery of the universal in the world.

Thus it is that in all our daily activities we have to conduct ourselves in such a way that our functions are in conformity with the object that we are seeking in the world. What is the ultimate object of our quest? It is the universal, and nothing short of it—the immortal, the ultimate freedom. This is quite clear. It is well said, but what is the relevance of our daily activity to this quest? If there is no such relevance, we will be miserable in spite of all our learning, in spite of all our metaphysical, philosophical and academical understanding. We will be the same old people without any difference in our personality if there is no vital connection of our daily conduct and activity with the universal.

So the life spiritual is a difficult one. It is a tremendous dedication and a terrible training. Though we are usually aspirants after God-realisation, we are quite different in our daily activities. That spoils all our aspirations. An hour of meditation can be undone by twenty-three hours of contrary activity. Now, as we know very well, there is nothing wrong with action or activity, nothing wrong with anything, but the wrong is only with the attitude. The functions, the business, the activity, the duties that we perform in our various placements in society are perfectly all right, as far as they go. There is nothing wrong with being a sweeper or a professor or a doctor or a driver, but what is our attitude? What is our state of mind? What is the condition of our consciousness when we are at it? That will tell us whether or not our duties, our functions, our professions, have a relation to our ideal or our goal.

Karma yoga, the term that we often find in the Bhagavadgita and such other scriptures, denotes this mysterious alchemy of consciousness that we can bring about within ourselves, by which activity becomes meditation, because what is activity? It is ultimately a process of consciousness. Just as all objects are parts of the universal, all activities are parts of consciousness, so that if we are cautious enough, we can convert our activities into meditation. Even sweeping the ground is a meditation because it is a part of the consciousness process.

What is necessary is caution and attention. We cannot miss the point in our daily duties. What is duty? It is that function that we are called upon to perform, by which our soul evolves to perfection, by which we accelerate the process of the evolution of consciousness until it reaches the Absolute.

In one sense at least, I must say, there is nothing unspiritual in the world. Everything is spiritual. Everyone is a seeker of ultimate Truth. There is no denier of God. There is no unspiritual person. There is nothing like anti-divine elements in the world. They are all divine forces working by procession and retrogression, marching onward and backward for different purposes in the scheme of things in the cosmos. And when we have this vision before us, we are lifted up into an empyrean of satisfaction. We feel very happy. We are in heaven, as it were. We are in heaven just now, at this very moment, but the gates have been closed before us on account of an error in the placement of our consciousness.

The quintessence of all this is that meditation is the discovery of the universal in the particular by freeing the object from the objectness that infects it on account of the operation of the space-time element, which we have to transcend.