Reading Nisargadatta

In the Introduction to my book Al-Kimia, on the relationships between Alchemy and Sufism, I noted when researching both topics how revelation is unique, personal, and in some ways circumstantial and yet transcendent as well. When dealing with al-Qu’ran, or an otherwise inscrutable alchemical text for example, one has to let go of discriminating between previous experiential knowledge and how reason determines a response to new stimuli. What is revealed may be what Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs called the Third Mind manifesting a break in space and time into another understanding or interpretation altogether. Call it what you will, intuition, whatever, there is a breakthrough into a new world that one cannot have expected to encounter under more conventional circumstances. As one mystic put it, regarding a sacred text, revelation alights on the heart fresh and anew at every reading.

For years I have been reading and re-reading all of the translated editions of recorded talks given by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj to the small handfuls of people visiting his tiny second floor flat in Bombay during the 1970’s and ‘80’s. For some inexplicable reason, I knew when I first came across a picture of Nisargadatta, his dark eyes blazing in an unflinching gaze, a deep connection between us existed. At that time, I was well acquainted with Advaita Vedanta, and the extraordinary teacher Ramana Maharshi, but there was an ease to Nisargadatta’s approach, a naturalness and down-to-earth-ness not found in the more lofty philosophical diatribes and rejoinders of the Maharshi. In fact, now I would advise anyone interested in Ramana Maharshi to first study Nisargadatta’s books. The variety of the transcripts of talks available is astounding. Comprised of reconstructed questions and answers, the majority are field recordings and notes taken by his students and translators (and by his own calculation, at least one fellow jnani, Maurice Frydman) Ramesh Balsekar, Jean Dunn, Robert Powell, Mark West and others. Now, it seems like every few years or so a new book-length transcript turns up in translation. For example, recently I Am Unborn: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj by Pradeep Apte & Vijayendra Deshpande has unexpectedly appeared, as well as,The Last Days of Nisargadatta Maharaj, by S.K. Mullarpattan, and Nothing is Everything by Mohan Gaitoride. Others are available in English but not easily accessible: I had to order my copy of Mark West’s excellent Gleanings From Nisargadatta Maharaj directly from Mark in Australia.

I am one of the lucky readers of these collections who feel as though the teacher is speaking in the here and now directly into my heart. Because of this, initially I thought that this would surely be the case with any reader regardless of any so-called “spiritual-preparation” or background in Advaita Vedanta and/or other contextual orientation. About two years into reading this material every day, a small group who had joined me studying with a Tibetan Buddhist teacher at the time (who had just left town) expressed interest in my sharing my own thoughts about Nisargadatta’s teaching. I offered to facilitate what came to be known as Not-A-Class—mainly because I am not a “teacher” and also because our much beloved Tibetan Buddhist teacher called our former get-togethers “Class.” Every week I would e-mail the other participants some of my thoughts or commentary and then we would meet on Wednesday evenings to discuss and relate them to Nisargadatta’s teachings. After a few years, it was no longer possible for everyone to meet weekly, but to this day we still communicate via e-mail. What follows are quotes culled from Nisargadatta’s books interspersed with some samples of my Not-A-Class thoughts and commentaries. I have also used one question from the Not-A-Class group followed by my response, to give the reader an idea of how that worked. Note that all of my writing here is based on Jack Kerouac’s (and Chogyam Trungpa’s) dictum “first thought, best thought.” Nothing has been edited for publication.

PREFACE, From David Godman’s website:

Nisargadatta Maharaj: The words will do their work wherever you hear or read them. You can come here and listen to them in person, or you can read them in a book. If the teacher is enlightened, there will be a power in them.

David: What about a hypothetical case of someone picking up I AM THAT in fifty years’ time, and in a country several thousand miles away. That person will never have a chance to see you. Will those words still have the power to transform and awaken?

Nisargadatta Maharaj: Time and space exist in your mind, not in the Self. There is no limit to the power of the Self. The power of the Self is always present, always working, always the same. What varies is the readiness and willingness of people to turn their attention to it. If someone picks up this book ten thousand miles away in a thousand years’ time, those words will do their work if the reader is in the right state to listen to and assimilate the words.

Two things Nisargadatta Maharaj imparted to me again today in re-reading entries in PRIOR TO CONSCIOUSNESS: one, that consciousness is directed outward, toward things perceived to be other than ourselves. This includes thoughts and all sense perceptions. We can safely say that all of what we see and think is “consciousness.” This is identical to the “I Am” as this understanding “I Am” is the first dawning of consciousness. Think back to your earliest memory as a child. The most distinct one I have is at approximately 18 months old fumbling with the big pale green plastic button on my mother’s green coat as she held me (there’s more but I won’t bore you). This moment when one becomes aware of oneself in the environment, as separate from it reflecting upon it, is the flash bulb flash of I Am consciousness. Since then, everything you think, see, and touch is part of that accumulation of I Am a part of everything. There is a big distinction between this and what it was like before when you simply were everything. The awareness that is was there before the consciousness arrived to pick and choose and separate. So when we turn inward rather than look and project outward, we may still see our thoughts talking to us telling us about consciousness, but if, even for a millisecond, this quiets down, you can glimpse that quiet unconditioned awareness that is ever-present. It just watches. In Sufism it is known as The Witness.

The second thing was how all the religions that humans have come up with worship the consciousness only, with the consciousness. The consciousness loves to be. This is its primary function. Above all, we love the fact that we are, ie; I love that I Am, etc. We worship that defining moment when consciousness arrives. It is a sweet memory among memories, our life is a string of them that becomes a story, our story. We own this consciousness, as Nisargadatta says, it is our only capital, the only thing of value we possess because it contains everything that we are within its limits. This notion I Am is the alpha and omega.

Underlying raw naked awareness and consciousness are intimately connected. Without the understanding of consciousness, the use of the tool that we now take for granted as being all that there is to who and what we are, one cannot get to the point of consciousness’ origin. The analogies explain it as the mother and child reunion, the place where the river meets the sea, and so on. Awareness is always present, otherwise consciousness would not be. When (limited) consciousness stops, underlying awareness remains.

“The Guru tells you ‘Get rid of concepts, just be yourself’. The seeker having understood what the Guru said, gets rid of the concepts, and now, as the first step, the seeker dwells in the state ‘I am’, just being. First of all there is the knowingness ‘I am’, without words, with that knowingness the world is. Now, when the seeker goes into meditation that knowingness goes into no-knowingness. This is the highest state in the hierarchy when the body aspect is there because this knowing and no-knowing are aspects of the body, and body means consciousness, and in the realm of consciousness, knowingness and no-knowingness exist. The Absolute transcends knowingness and no-knowingness. So, no-knowingness is the highest in the hierarchy of spirituality, and the destination is the transcendence of knowingness and no-knowingness.”
—Nisargadatta Maharaj

When we go to the movies, we expect to be entertained. We want the characters and situations in the story to somehow resemble or refer to our own experiences. Not that you are an action hero or a particularly tragic figure but that you are also a human being. But movies are just images on a blank screen, similar to the concepts projected through the idea that you are a human being living in a world. Most of the time we get caught up in the illusion of the projections. We don’t perceive the blank screen they appear on, and we are seldom, if ever, aware of the dark empty space backstage.

“That which you can explain is not you.
That which you cannot explain is you.”
—Nisargadatta Maharaj

As your understanding of I AM is refined, moving from I am so and so, I am a body, I am a mother, father, sister, brother, daughter, son, etc. To I am the dawn, I am the sky I am the world I perceive and none of it exists without what I am…you finally come down to that “what” or “who” I am question and what or who is this “I” you are asking about. Who is asking this? Then it becomes apparent that there is some aspect that witness’s or is behind the question itself: who or what is THAT?

Just seeing this much should convince you that there is more than body, personality, a finite story of a birth, life, and death. There is more, that is present, that is aware of all of the goings on of the I AM business, that is present but beyond, before, nowhere, here, without form or quality.

Nisargadatta said the truth is not suitable for young people, at that stage of life we need to be innocent and idealistic in order to get along in the world and not become passive and despondent knowing life is but a dream.

I think I always knew the truth even when very young, but played along because nobody else seemed to see through the BS—or—and this is very important—they didn’t want to.

This is probably why traditionally most people (usually men, abandoning their family) in India at our age drop out and go seeking a guru, trying at the end of their days to wake up.

Why do that? Because identifying with the body and personality IS the dream of life, thinking all the accumulated experiences are meaningful somehow. Making the transition easier for the ego? Letting go of loved ones at the end? This is what the ego thinks, and that is why they seek.

What really is going on is there is nothing to seek, nowhere to go, nothing to do, no transitions to be made or negotiated -no one there, never was. It was/is all a dream, an illusion.

Of course this seems sad to ego, that’s why while in the dream we can relate to a sad song, poem, etc. It affects us deeply and profoundly. It reminds us that we were never here in the first place, we just thought we were!

I can’t tell you “don’t be sad,”—if “you” believe in “sad” it will surely come and make you sad.

The joy is found in the freedom this knowledge has for us here and now (wherever THAT is! ha!)—we are not bound by any of the conventions people typically believe in, not even space/time. We are beyond all of that, we are HERE.


As long as I continue to be an individual “I” the dream will continue. I have truly believed, for at least a year or so, that my made up “I” story and body is not what I am, I don’t know that I can know what I am and am not that concerned about that. What concerns me is that I can’t seem to shake the feeling of the individual “I.” If everything in the mind is conceptual how can ‘I’ get to or be beyond that to really as Maharaj says to instantly apperceive this fact? How does the seeker realize once and for all that he is what he is seeking? Does it just happen when it happens? Is there really not an answer because the whole thing is an illusion? God I’m glad people don’t ask me questions like these! I realize Nisargadatta worked pretty hard for 3 years just pondering over and being the I AM, so maybe I just need to just carry on and live out some more karma and not concern myself with it, but I can’t help think that I am just missing something, or purposely confusing myself. I don’t really think that meditation or being aware of awareness is really much of anything except it does help quiet the mind. I’m just rambling now so I will stop.



You have awareness of what is going on through the mind, which also is aware of the concepts of who you are, the I. You can watch the thoughts, who or what is watching? You are right not to worry about that as another concept, for convenience, we can call it raw awareness unaware of itself. Undoubtedly it is there. So we know that there is this raw naked awareness that witnesses or watches the consciousness (the basic knowledge that you are, the I Am) without any judgment, any care at all about what happens within consciousness. Then there is basic consciousness (I Am), and the mind full of thoughts and concepts and ideas about everything. From there thoughts identify with the body, the world, and get caught up in Maya, the grand illusion that there is all this meaningful stuff going on everywhere in time and space. OK. So we can separate this all out, but really it is all of a piece. All of this is going on simultaneously. It’s like an onion, layers so close together they are virtually inseparable. Once you see all the layers at once, you instantly “apperceive” how interrelated they are. Maharaj operated in all layers at once. So, it is not about going beyond anything, or shaking off any feelings, but it is about seeing that you are what you’ve been seeking on all levels. Because all the levels are there whether you realize it or not. Once you do, you’re done.

Little by little you are shedding your concern over the concepts, and that is what seeking is: concern. When you don’t concern yourself about anything anymore, suddenly “you” aren’t involved, “you” disappear from the equation. Things just happen, and you just watch them happen. That is raw awareness. The rest is there, too, but you are unconcerned with it.

One thing I’ve recently realized is that alot of the time when I’ve talked to some people about the “I Am” I’d gone beyond it already and probably was talking from that place instead of trying to relate to someone understanding the “I Am” and stabilizing there. Nisargadatta says to do this because most people identify with their body, or consider themselves to be the body and this takes them out of the Totality by denying that the body is actually a minor part of the Whole. So by telling someone to meditate on the “I Am” he’s saying just recognize that you are conscious, that you are aware of being alive, and that without this realization, nothing else would be there. Instead of thinking “I am the body” think “I am the consciousness shared by everything all at once.” After awhile, the body seems like a stranger, like all other bodies, then it all comes back together when you go past the consciousness identification of “I Am” and realize that (what he calls) the Vital Breath is shared by everything, is everywhere, and that really, without air to breath, this basic fundamental understanding, not even consciousness (“I Am”) would be available. So you are steadily going back, back, through these basic concepts until they are understood and discarded and everything becomes One thing (Advaita), very transparent, simple, and full of light.

Nisargadatta Maharaj often said to simply stay with the (what he calls) the “vital breath” and it will teach you everything. In other words, turn off the radio of thoughts and just concentrate on the breath going in and out. That’s all. What is this miracle? It is unfathomable.

Why does this breath even happen? Take it back to your parents conceiving you, and their parents and back to when you can’t remember grandparents at all, to well, nothing. The “vital” breath is always available—don’t know why, it just is. Our bodies, however, come for awhile and go. Therefore this breath, this life force, is always and always is.

Coupled with consciousness, which also seems to be just There all the time, too, a sensory machine (or flesh plant?—N. calls it a “doll” made up of all the stuff the universe is made of, slowly evaporating until it disappears—again) like the body comes to the erroneous conclusion that I Am. That basic spark of false identity/personality gets it all wrong from there of course…

“Who Am I?” This is the quest or search to find out what first made you “you.” What was it that first defined you as a person? You didn’t know who you were when you were born, or for awhile after that, so this is a good place to start. Little by little the infant gains self-awareness through the parent’s own sense of their own identity. They call the child by the name they have chosen for it and convince them that they are the name. “John” did that. Way to go, “John.” Bad “John.” etc. The child looks in the mirror and the parent says “look, there “you” are! That’s me and that’s you.” The separation begins. Pretty soon, there is a world out there defined by what is not “you.” The question “Who Am I” leads consciousness back to its own beginning, before the labels. Back to the union of everything, when it was all just one big indefinable something you didn’t need to understand. But the only way to get there is by shedding all the baggage of a lifetime. Discarding all the definitions of “yourself” until you take the possessive out of it—whatever it is, it’s not “yours”- until you are left with an unadorned sense of “self” or simple being. This is the “I Am,” the indisputable fact of your own existence. As Nisargadatta says, it is really enough to just realize this much, because once you do, the rest takes care of itself.

“The jnani [realized one] may do whatever he likes. Outwardly it may appear that he has desires and is trying to fulfill them. But, ultimately, when he knows that he has no identity, he is the Absolute. Then, who is going to benefit from these desires, who is even concerned with them?”
—Nisargadatta Maharaj

Before, when I thought I was an artist, I created beautiful things. Now, I know that I am Not (a person, a label, an identity) and I have absolutely nothing to do with any “creation.” Excrement has the same value as any “work of art.” There are no colors, no black, white, or gray. My enjoyment, bliss, ecstasy, is beyond form, without sound. It has no defining characteristics.

“Once having understood that it is all Maya, one
becomes speechless.”
—Nisargadatta Maharaj

The goal is not just realizing “I Amness” to be the core and substance of the ordinary conscious state. Once that occurs, when everything is seen to be contained within consciousness, there is the firm understanding that there is something else there as well.

“If consciousness becomes steady, it is awareness.”
—Nisargadatta Maharaj

The basic awareness that provides the blank slate or canvas that consciousness paints ideas of a self and the world upon becomes apparent. This is not understood as something other than consciousness, or the awake state of being, but underlying it in a wordless, unknowable otherwise placeless place.

Hakuin said the difference between Buddhas and ordinary people is like the difference between water and ice. One is not possible without the other, and in essence they are exactly the same.

Glimpses caught in otherwise unaware-to-consciousness moments become more frequent, then more and more steady, until awareness prevails and consciousness is transformed.

Whatever you are, don’t give it any shape or design, that is all. If you are, everything else is.
—Nisargadatta Mahharaj

You know that reading this “I am” not here, not only am I absent physically, but whatever impetus or lack of same that impelled the fingers to move over the lettered keys of the keyboard is over with as if, indeed exactly as if, it was not written by anyone and never happened at all. There is no memory, right now, attached to this. And yet here is a document, something you are reading, appearing at this moment on the screen before your eyes. The words are entering your perception and understanding… But beyond, that, the relative personality that you think of as “John Eberly” is not present anywhere. This consciousness has dropped the mind consisting of the illusion of exclusive thoughts thought only by one person, as well as the body-identification of a particular person called “John Eberly.” In fact, through the work of consciousness circling back on itself like the image of a snake eating its tail, the facade of John Eberly is shattered forever, and all that is left are the splintered artifacts chronicling the movement of consciousness through time and space, appearing to manipulate the environment as the environment shapes and contours the physical form in whatever way it will. Gone are the thoughts of “doership” or thoughts that someone “created” or did anything at all in the name John Eberly. This consciousness is now identified with the Absolute, the gone-beyond, and as such is crystal-clear perception operating without thoughts of body or mind, no judgments or qualifications placed on anything or any situation, cause, effect, or result. It has no requirements as everything is just fine the way it is, however it shall be, let it be, that’s the way it is.

“During this limited span of life many have studied scriptures, performed austerities, and meditated. Whatever came out of that as thought has filled thousands of books. But once attention is fixed on the substratum of consciousness, there is nothing left…If you want this experience you must insist on your Self, your own Atma-prema [Self-love]. Don’t leave it for a moment. You insist. Do not pray to Gods or Goddesses, only see One. Keep on knowing that “I Am” and through that insistence you will know the state that you want to reach.”
—Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj SEEDS OF CONSCIOUSNESS pp68-70

There is a tendency when the ego is still present and strong to take these teachings on the I Am at face value and use them to reinforce the already overwhelming false sense of self. This in and of itself is fine and will eventually wind down. Why? Because once you see that all thought—your thought—has created a world for you alone, then you get awfully lonesome. You feel that other people’s misunderstanding of you is a problem they have to solve, and once they do, they will come over to your way of thinking. But this misunderstanding is also your problem because others will never see it your particular way. It is up to you to instead see it their way and have compassion for what you see of your own selfishness in them. As you do this, the sense of “you” as something separate from “others” begins to dissolve. This can be a long process, as “you” have spent your entire lifetime building up the knowledge that “you” are special and apart rather than “a part” of everyone/everything. The ego will resist the acknowledgement of similarities and, finally, commonalities that unite rather than divide.

The “state you want to reach” becomes utterly meaningless when “you” are not present to take credit or even strive for it. You are the “state” without knowing it in the sense of the knowledge that “you are” outside of it, witnessing it, etc. Once “attention is fixed on the substratum of consciousness, there is nothing left” of you at all. Identify with that which is the substratum of consciousness, which is always present but unknowable in the sense described above, which is ever-present and underlies and supports like the blank screen or page under all these typed words.

‘There is nobody else but me or my consciousness’—this
is Advaita Bhakti (non-dual devotion)—I Am: This is
the highest devotion—to vanish and be lost or
submerged in this vast unknown.
—Nisargadatta Maharaj

All material in this section copyright © John Eberly