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 endless.

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 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 up.

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.

“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.

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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.