Letter # 14 - Learning to See

I wrote earlier about the crucial fact that once we step onto the spiritual path,

there is no going back. There may be temporary lulls in progress as the demands

of everyday life consume one’s energy. There may be shocks that take years to

absorb before one’s equanimity is sufficient to begin the search again. We all

respond to different rhythms. No one is the same. We may see others who are

years ahead of us in wisdom and knowledge. We envy those whose easy

abilities are beyond our own. We consider our deficiencies and wonder how can

we mend them.

If that is so, and we know it, then we are lucky. Why? Because we have

the golden opportunity to work on ourselves. It means that we are awake and

are prepared at least to some extent to face our demons. We all, to some degree,

are aware of our shortcomings but few are willing to deliberately take it upon

themselves to do something about it. Most try to forget by popping a pill,

overeating, fighting, drinking, or diving into depression. The possibilities are


When I first came to the ashram, I did not know the full extent of my

weaknesses. It was only with time and the application of discipline that I began

to see beyond the limited scope of my intellectual pretensions. In short, I

thought I knew a lot. The humbling experience of realising that I was parochial

and dim in some ways was hard to accept and took years of painfully

dismantling my affectations before clarity arose. I still am limited and

shortsighted but at least I know many of the parameters.

There was a senior disciple of Sri Ramana who spent his last years in the

ashram. He was SS Cohen. For some reason, we never got along. He was quite

sharp and had the Jewish propensity to argue a point. I had never learned or

knew how to argue using the tools of rationality and the ability to strike a

dominant position. Whatever it may be, I watched his slow mental

disintegration as age and an austere life took its toll. One day I was walking past

him as he sat in a chair facing Arunachala, he turned and our eyes met. He saw

my anger at his failure to give me due regard and I saw that he was all there,

unflinching. His eyes were sharp even though his mental capacities were on the

wane. Our mental abilities are another function of being human, and like our

physical bodies, they will decline with time but this makes no difference to our

sense of being. I wondered what it was in him that remained the same despite

the obvious external deterioration. The question remained with me for years and

was like a zen koan that surfaced on and off to remind me of my fallibilities and

the inevitability of age.

If I am not my mental processes and if my awareness is not dependent on

physical factors then who am I? We may lose the ability to express ourselves

and we may face the bafflement of others whom we can see are thinking that we

have lost the plot because we cannot respond in kind, but that does not mean we

are unaware. It is a type of second childhood and no one calls a baby foolish

because the concept has not occurred to the baby yet. They are demonstrating

true seeing but without real awareness.

We see too with the accumulation of education, family genes, culture, and

experiences. All this clothing impedes our direct vision. We see life through

coloured glasses.

“For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.

But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part

shall be done away.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I

thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

For now, we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face:

now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” 1

Taking into account the poetic and archaic language of the St

James Bible from the 16th Century, we see the same conundrum beset

others in history.

How do we see clearly and truly? How despite our limitations do

we see? Do we need an instrument to see? Or is seeing a natural and

inextricable part of our being?

As a student, I once entered a large public library in a major city

and roamed the shelves looking at titles and authors and an intense

craving arose in me to read all the books. I wanted to devour them all.

Almost as soon as this thought manifested the consequent thought was

one of hopelessness. It was impossible. Even given a lifetime I could

never pursue and absorb all that knowledge.

But that is what we are doing with our life. We want to engage with

so much experience and acquire it, say it is ours or that we have done it.

We want to accumulate everything we covet and our desires are

seemingly endless as no sooner one is satisfied than another one pops


Knowledge is like food. It is subtle but nonetheless, it is food,

which nourishes our brain. We cannot live without knowledge. Some of it

is stale and some fresh. We are constantly on the lookout to augment

our stock of information. And if we cannot then we rehash old

knowledge. Some people are obsessed with reading and if they cannot

find a book or magazine to read, they would be quite prepared to read a

telephone directory. Or the back of a packet of cereal. Anything to

quench the impulse. It is just the same with us all, we are constantly

augmenting our insatiable desire for stimulation in whatever form that

resonates with us

Consider applying the same analogy about knowledge to eating.

Imagine walking into a food ‘library’ where there are on display an

immense number of dishes that you could eat. Would you want to

consume all of them and for what purpose? If you did then the physical

body would become obscenely obese and would not just severely

restrict any movements but ruin one’s health.

Knowledge is similar. We need knowledge and yes, without it we

would be a zombie. But there is a difference between a wise person and,

to employ an extreme example, a pedant stuffed with facts with no

apparent purpose.

To further extend the analogy, we consume subtle food called

knowledge to help us see, just as we eat gross food to maintain our

physical body’s health. A sufficient intake every day keeps us going.

Too much knowledge would cause indigestion of the spirit which would

confuse us, just as by overeating the physical body would suffer from

bloating. Knowledge is not an end in itself; it is a means to understand.

We need knowledge to know the truth. But what kind of

knowledge? Crudely speaking there are two ways to acquire knowledge.

One is a rational, step-by-step process of acquisition of facts through

observation and comparison. It is a slow, methodical process. There is

another way by intuitive leaps. We just ‘know’ but cannot explain how.

On the spiritual path, it is a combination of both which gives us the

prerequisite maturity for any major spiritual experience that ultimately

shatters our ignorant sense of who we think we are.

With Sri Ramana Maharshi we have an astounding example of one

young seemingly callow youth who with one leap transcended the

limitations of his humanity.

“Sri Bhagavan was not a philosopher and there was absolutely no

development in his teaching. His earliest expositions, Self-Enquiry and

Who Am I?, are no different in doctrinal theory from those he gave

verbally in his last years. When, as a lad of sixteen, he realized his

identity with the Absolute, with That which is Pure Being underlying all

that is, it was formless, intuitive knowledge of which the doctrinal

implications were recognised only later. “I did not yet know that there

was an Essence or Impersonal Real underlying everything and that God

and I were both identical with it.

Later, at Tiruvannamalai, as I listened to the Ribhu Gita and other

sacred books, I learnt all this and found that they were analysing and

naming what I had felt intuitively without analysis or name.”

It was not a question of opinion but of Truth recognised; that is to

say that he was not convinced by what he read but simply recognised its

conformity with what he already intuitively knew.” 2

At a certain point in our development, we need to set aside our

acquired knowledge and learn to see. Sri Ramana has shown us how to

do this by the simple but consequential asking who am I? By returning to

the source of our thoughts, we learn to see without the impediment of

thoughts that cloud our perception. And once we learn to see why would

we revert to the intermediaries of tired thoughts? With each fresh

moment, we learn see what is essential.


1. St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians.

2. Arthur Osborne, Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-knowledge, Chapter 9.