Neti Neti (Not This)

We all seek a happy life, contented and peaceful. Despite our best efforts, life is often far from peaceful. There’s only one conclusion – whatever I was looking for, well, it’s not this.

This applies on lots of levels. Any sense of dissatisfaction or lack of fulfillment is an example of body systems alerting us to some perceived shortcoming, some way in which we’ve missed the goals we set. Sometimes the problem is the way we look at the things we have, sometimes there’s actually something missing. Either way, there’s a call to action of some kind because there’s a difference between desire and outcome.

Teacher trainees on finishing their course

Yoga practitioners took this thinking much further. Every solid object, and even every thought, are all describable: we can measure the objects, we can say the thoughts out loud. Those who through practice had come to a full realisation of the endless and eternal had no words for it. It’s indescribable, undefinable. So, anything that can be spoken of, or used, or thought of, couldn’t possibly be that endless and eternal totality.

“Neti, neti” means “not this, not this”. The practitioner reminds himself or herself constantly that everything they come into contact with and every experience they have is not the endless and eternal Absolute. Eventually everything has been negated, and all that’s left in their perception is their experience of totality.

All that's left after we're gone

I feel this is a much more rounded approach. Neti, neti lifts us out of the trivialities of likes and dislikes and recognises that – whether we are happy or not – there’s a much greater truth that we could pursue. In fact, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad talks of two forms of Brahman, material and immaterial, the solid and the fluid, the Sat “being” and tya, “that” of Satya – which means true, and denies the existence of everything other than the totality (Brahman). This is a wonderful way to consider all things as one really, because if everything is Brahman then there isn’t a separate entity possessing its own life force. Shankara (an 8th century Indian philosopher) said that any notion of “me” as something separate from the totality is just a reflection of Brahman in ignorance (avidya).

Yogafurie recently held a very successful retreat. I’ve been to the venue several times personally – it’s in beautiful grounds, by a brook. As I sat looking out of my window at the brook, I saw the bushes and trees and thought, “Nothing’s changed here at all”. Of course, it had all changed. The leaves I saw were from this year, not the ones I saw before. The plants and animals will have grown, and some will have died. The appearance of sameness in peaceful natural scenes is not the truth of the situation. The endless birth and rebirth there by the brook is also not the truth – everything living there will experience much else in between their birth and death. In a very real way, everything really is not the final and last word at all. Any description – any snapshot at all, be it a single thought or a lifetime of memories – is incomplete. Whatever it turns out to be, it’s not this.

woman witha sign

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