A few days ago I quoted this statement by Annamalai Swami:
You stumble around in the darkness of your mind, not knowing that you have a torch in your hand. That light is the light of the Self. Switch it on and leave it on and you will never stumble again. (From Annamalai Swami: Final Talks.)
Is turning the lights on the same as recognizing “existence” or recognizing “I exist”?
It depends on how you interpret the words “recognize existence” or “recognize I exist.” Most people who read those words will take them to mean a mental activity. They will try to “recognize” with their minds. This is not what Annamalai Swami means or what I mean.
This is an example of a big problem in spiritual teaching. Many written and spoken instructions mean one thing to the teacher and a completely different thing to the student. “Recognize that you exist” is that kind of instruction.
To a competent teacher it means, “Abide in a certain kind of state.” In that state, yes, the lights are on.
But the student hasn’t yet discovered that state so he or she thinks the words mean something entirely different. The student can’t avoid doing this. It’s not a weakness or fault in the student. It’s inevitable. The student interprets the words to mean the kind of recognition that he or she is already familiar with, the kind of recognition that happens when we look around with our attention to notice some particular thing.
For example, somebody asks, “Is the room too cold?” and we use our attention to focus on the temperature and we notice whether we feel too hot or too cold. When beginners hear “recognize that you exist,” they perform that same kind of mental act except they try to focus on existence instead of temperature. It’s natural and inevitable that they do this. But this is not what “recognize that you exist” means when a competent teacher says it. I say “competent” teacher because many teachers don’t know what the words really mean, but let’s leave that aside for now.
This is why I rarely use phrases like “I am” or “I exist” when I try to explain these things. The person to whom I say them is almost guaranteed to misinterpret them. The words aren’t wrong, but you can only understand their correct meaning after you no longer need them. Therefore they mislead people, especially beginners.
When I say “beginner” I mean somebody who hasn’t yet taken the first step of becoming familiar with something beyond the mind. When you take that first step, you see what “turn the lights on” means. You could be a seeker for many years and in that sense, still be a beginner. There are many long-time seekers who haven’t yet taken that first step. There are probably many people who make their livings as spiritual teachers who haven’t taken that first step.
The last paragraph may sound discouraging. Don’t be discouraged! You can take the first step in the first five minutes after you get interested in enlightenment.
I always have beginners in mind when I write these articles because most people are beginners, and because the first step, the one that must always be taken by a beginner, is the one that’s hardest to take without advice from somebody who has already taken it.
If “recognize that you exist” is a bad way to explain the meaning of “turn the lights on,” what’s a good way?
The best way I know is to notice that you are not conscious when you are lost in thought. The only way you can notice that you are not conscious when you are lost in thought is by momentarily becoming more conscious. When you momentarily become more conscious, the lights are momentarily on. At various places on this website, I’ve written about two different techniques for noticing this phenomenon of becoming more conscious (which we’re calling “turning the lights on”). One technique is described in the article “How to stop thoughts.” The other technique is Susan Blackmore’s method of asking, am I conscious now?