Sadhana means ‘practice’ in Sanskrit, the language of Hindu scriptures. ‘Sadhanas’ are exercises or techniques that can help people get enlightened.
I’ve named this sadhana ‘Number One’ because if you could write a syllabus for enlightenment — you can’t, of course, but if you could — this sadhana might be a prerequisite for the others.
Sadhana Number 1 is a method that helps you notice that you are usually unconscious. In order to notice this, you have to catch yourself at moments when you are conscious. Then you compare the two states.
When I say people are unconscious I mean it literally. It’s not a metaphor. Most people are almost always unconscious. They are lost in thoughts.
For me, the discovery that I was almost always unconscious was one of the most astonishing and important events in my life. Maybe it will be this way for you too.
When I wrote about this method nine years ago, I named the article “How to Stop Thoughts.” I chose that title to make the article turn up in search engines. But the article wasn’t really about stopping thoughts. It was about:
- noticing that most of the time you’re unconscious, and
- becoming familiar with what it feels like to be conscious.
Thoughts do tend to stop when you’re conscious, so the title wasn’t a lie. But stopping thoughts isn’t the main point. The main point is consciousness. Thoughts matter only because we get lost in them. It’s the lostness — the unconsciousness — that matters.
I think this lostness, this unconsciousness, is what most of the old books mean when they use the Sanskrit word pramada which is usually translated as ‘inadvertence’. Inadvertence sounds trivial, like you forgot to charge your cell phone. But what do the old books say about it? “Pramada is Death,” thunders the Adhyatma Upanishad. “There is no greater evil than pramada,” warns the Vivekachudamani. “You are in bondage by inadvertence. Attention liberates,” pronounces Nisargadatta. These are grave statements. Being lost in thought is serious stuff. It’s true that unconsciousness is death. It’s true that unconsciousness is bondage. It’s true that unconsciousness is… well, not evil exactly, but certainly harmful.
The Dhammapada, the canonical text of Theravada Buddhism, contains the same idea. It uses the Pali word pamada instead of the Sanskrit word pramada. In verse 21 it says:
Conscientiousness [non-pamada] is the state of deathlessness. Negligence [pamada] is the state of death.
The conscientious ones do not die. Those, who are negligent, are as if dead.
Edward Salim Michael expands on the idea that pramada is death in his book, The Law of Attention. He says it’s not just death but a horrible one: death by dismemberment:
It is vitally important to his spiritual quest to see clearly that hardly is this unusual wholeness of being there in its true condition than it is immediately mysteriously lost again, and he becomes once more dispersed and absent to himself. To comprehend this problem properly, without becoming impatient or irritated with oneself, is to begin truly to know one’s way.
It is most essential for the seeker to come to realize as soon as possible, from the fullness of himself, that, each time he experiences the loss of this out-of-the-ordinary awareness of himself, it is as if he were torn asunder into disconnected parts. He is, so to speak, dismembered internally, and, in a very singular manner that in the beginning he may not see or comprehend, he ceases to be! A certain kind of inner death takes place in his being at that moment, which it is not possible for him to recognize unless he has been in some specific way prepared to identify it.
Sadhu Om wrote:
We should not give even the least room in our heart to the demonic ghost of forgetfulness (pramada), which deludes the mind by diverting it from Self-attention. Instead, with unhesitating and irresistible courage, we should victoriously attain Self-knowledge. (A Light on the Teaching, 38.214.)
Like I said, I wrote the article nine years ago. I know more now than I did then, and I’ve frequently been tempted to rewrite it. But I’ve left it in its original form because a small number of people have told me the article helped them a lot. This includes a friend who is in a very conscious state now. So maybe the article is good enough the way it is. In fact, maybe I wrote it better nine years ago than I could now precisely because I knew less.
Without further ado, here’s the nine-year old article.
Painting: Shiva and Parvati Play Chaupar by Devidasa of Nurpur, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession number 57.185.2.
Nisargadatta quote from Chapter 63 of I Am That. Vivekachudamani quote from verse 322. Adhyatma Upanishad is so short you can find that quote yourself. 🙂