Chapter 13. Some useful metaphors

In discussing the metaphysics of the manifestation, it is very helpful to our understanding to use analogies taken from every day life. This is because the Source of the manifestation cannot be described in conceptual terms. It can only be pointed to, and analogies are useful pointers.

13.1 The dream

In the meditation for July 28 of A Net of Jewels (1996), Ramesh says,

"In comparison with the inconceivable Infinity that we actually are, what we think we are is a mere hallucination, an illusory and insubstantial shadow."

In the meditation for August 19, he says,

"You dream that you are awake, you dream that you are asleep - and you do not realize you are dreaming because you are still in the dream! Indeed, when you do realize that this is all a dream, you will have already awakened."

In the meditation for November 17, he says,

"You might see the whole universe as a dream, but so long as there is still a you (a separate entity) seeing this dream, you will continue to remain confused."

 On p. 484 of I Am That (1984), Nisargadatta Maharaj says:

"The world is but the surface of the mind, and the mind is infinite. What we call thoughts are just ripples in the mind.  When the mind is quiet, it reflects reality.  When it is motionless through and through, it dissolves and only reality remains.  This reality is so concrete, so actual, so much more tangible than mind and matter, that compared to it even a diamond is soft like butter.  This overwhelming actuality makes the world dream-like, misty, irrelevant."

We are all familiar with the basic characteristics of our sleeping dreams. Prior to the beginning of the dream, there is deep sleep with its absence of consciousness. The dream then bursts forth in full flower, with people, landscapes, buildings, airplanes; an entire world is created in an instant. During the course of the dream, which may last only a few seconds or minutes, people may appear and vanish or die, buildings may arise and crumble or burn, and oceans may form and reform or disappear. Dramas of every imaginable type may play out, including those with beauty, love, murder, hatred, terror, and lust. However, every dream invariably has one principal figure, that of some representation of the "I". The form of this representation may be different in every respect from the waking "I", but, on awakening, it is immediately clear which figure represented the "I" and which ones did not.

The manifestation, or waking dream, is similar in many respects to the sleeping dream. Since objectivity cannot exist without Subjectivity, the universe cannot exist without sentience to observe it, just as the sleeping dream cannot appear without containing within it an observer to observe it. When the universe appears, it appears in its present entirety, without the need for eons of evolution prior to the arising of sentience. Indeed, it cannot even appear without the sentient objects that are part of it. It is illusory in the sense that awakening (enlightenment) shows that it is not real, but is merely a reflection or shadow of the only Reality, which is Awareness. It is an epiphenomenon of Awareness, is totally dependent on it, and has no separate existence.

The sage views the world as a lucid dreamer views his or her dream. Both see that the dream is not real. However, the sage witnesses from pure impersonal Awareness while the lucid dreamer still thinks of him/her self as the dreamer. Also, the sage does not attempt to control the world but the lucid dreamer usually is quite interested in controlling the dream.

Questions: When you are dreaming, does it seem more or less real than when you are awake?
Have you ever had lucid dreams? Did you try to control them?

In the waking dream as in the sleeping dream, all apparently separate individuals are merely dream figures, without any volition or free will of their own. A dream figure simply is being dreamed, and lacks entirely any independent reality. We usually think of ourselves as being the dreamer of the sleeping dream, but that is incorrect. There is no dreamer of either the sleeping dream or the waking dream. Both the waking dream and the sleeping dream are mere arisings in Awareness. Because of this, it is misleading to think of Awareness as the dreamer since Awareness is not an entity or object. When the individual regards him/her self to be real, it is a case of mistaken identity. Our true identity is Awareness. This becomes apparent upon investigating the dream (see Chapter 23). During this investigation, it becomes obvious that the dream was never real, the only reality having been only Awareness.  

13.2 The movie

On p. 234 of I Am That (1984), Nisargadatta Maharaj says,

"In reality nothing happens. Onto the screen of the mind destiny forever projects its pictures, memories of former projections and thus illusion constantly renews itself. The pictures come and go -- light intercepted by ignorance. See the light and disregard the picture."

In some ways, the movie metaphor strikes more deeply at the illusoriness of the manifestation, and therefore may be better than the dream metaphor at producing the shock necessary to induce awakening.

We as individuals are nothing but the figures on a movie screen. We have no more reality, independence, or volition than the images projected onto the screen. Everything we seemingly think, feel, or do is actually recorded on the film through which the Light of Awareness shines and projects the images onto the screen of Awareness. The absurdity of our situation is made clear at the thought that a mere image on a screen can strive for success, yearn for fulfillment, or seek for its source! Yet, all this seems to happen, not because the images are doing it, but because it is all recorded on the film! The film is the analog of Plato’s or Goswami’s transcendental realm (Section 7.1), (both of which are unverifiable concepts), and the light and the screen are the analog of our true nature, which is pure Awareness. The light and the screen are completely unaffected by the film and the images. The images appear from nowhere, do their dance, and disappear back into nowhere, leaving no trace. (The viewer is analogous to the individual mind.)

13.3. The puppet and the robot

This metaphor is similar to that of the movie. The body-mind organism is nothing but a puppet which moves according to the way its strings are pulled (e.g., by thoughts and impulses that appear from nowhere) and according to its mechanical construction (its conditioning). A more contemporary version would be the robot that performs a task according to instructions that are fed to it and according to its programming. Neither the puppet nor the robot can initiate any thoughts or actions of its own. There is no need to be depressed by this because we are not the body-mind organism; we are the Awareness of the body-mind organism.

13.4.  The shadow

In the meditation for August 4 of A Net of Jewels (1996), Ramesh says, 

"The phenomenal world is like a shadow which cannot exist without an object to cast it. It is dependent on something else for its existence. In this sense the phenomenal world is unreal, as it is a reflection of the noumenon."

When an object casts a shadow, the shadow is nothing but a poor facsimile of the object. It can be nothing else. As individuals, we are like shadows of Awareness, which is our true nature.  

13.5. The ocean

An extremely useful metaphor to help us picture the relationship between phenomena (arisings in Awareness) and Noumenon (Awareness) is that of the waves on the surface of the ocean. Waves (phenomena) cannot exist without the ocean (Noumenon). The ocean in its depths is quiet, peaceful and undisturbed. Waves, storms, and foaming surf arise on the surface without disturbing the depths. Likewise, Noumenon is totally undisturbed by the frenzied and meaningless activity of phenomena. Each wave consists of a crest and a trough. One cannot appear without the other, just as all of the inseparable opposites of phenomena must appear together. When the ocean (Noumenon) identifies with a wave and the wave thinks of itself as being separate from the other waves and from the ocean itself, the illusory individual appears. This is spiritual ignorance. When identification ends and awakening occurs, it is clear that there is only the ocean (Noumenon), there has always been only the ocean, and we are the ocean.

Exercise: Whenever you are suffering, become the ocean instead of the wave. What is your experience now?

13.6. The thorns

If a thorn enters the foot (identification with the sense of personal doership occurs), another thorn (concept) can be used to remove it. The thorn must be pointed and sharp and it must be deftly used in order to be effective. A dull thorn aimed at the wrong spot will only mutilate the foot. A thorn that has been softened so that it will not hurt will be ineffective. A collection of a large number of thorns will only confuse and distract, especially if the attention is on collecting thorns rather than using the best one to remove the one imbedded in the foot. The thorns themselves are not Reality, so after the first thorn is removed, both thorns are thrown away. We cannot describe Reality by using concepts, but we can use concepts to remove false concepts and to point to Reality. When Reality is revealed, all pointers to Reality become irrelevant, and can be thrown away.

13.7. Electricity and the appliance

An electrical appliance (a human body) is an inert object that comes to "life" when electricity (Awareness) identifies with it and Presence becomes present. In the absence of the electricity, the appliance is "dead".

A variant of this metaphor is that a fan continues to turn for a time even after the electricity has been turned off, meaning that fear/desire and their derivatives may continue for a time after awakening but they cause no suffering because there is no identification with them (“There is a difference between Awakening and Deliverance: The former is sudden, thereafter deliverance is gradual”---Wei Wu Wei in “Posthumous Pieces”, Chapter 40).

13.8. The gold object

The gold in a bracelet is the same as the gold in a ring. Only the form is different. If the bracelet and ring are melted down, the forms change, but we still have the gold, which is unchanged. The gold is the analog of pure Awareness, while the forms of the bracelet and ring are the analog of arisings in Awareness.

13.9. Dust in a light beam

A light beam is invisible unless it strikes something that reflects it. Awareness (the light beam) perceives Itself by reflecting from the manifestation (the dust), which is also Itself. Without the manifestation (us), Awareness would not know itself. Awareness sees its own light reflected from Itself and is thereby aware of Itself.

13.10. The mirror

An ideal mirror (pure Awareness) is invisible and reflects images (the manifestation) without distortion and without being affected by them. Thus, it reflects Reality truly. A distorted mirror (the mind) reflects distorted images. Thus, it reflects Reality as if It were distorted by separation. Without a mirror there are no images, and without images, the presence of the mirror is less apparent.

13.11. The snake and the rope

In dim light (ignorance), a rope (the manifestation) can be mistakenly perceived as a snake (the world of separation), and fear can result. When a bright light (Awareness) is turned on, the rope will be seen for what it is (nothing but Awareness itself). This metaphor can also be used to refer to the ego (as the snake), which is seen to be nothing but Awareness (the rope) after awakening.

A variant of this metaphor is to see the ego as the rope itself (no snake). During the steps to awakening, the rope is burned in the fire of Awareness. After awakening, only the burned rope remains. The ego-thought still arises but has no power to bind anyone, or to tie anybody up. The powerless ego-thought is used by Awareness for communication with other organisms. When the sage says "I", he/she is referring to this thought.

13.12. The mirage

In the meditation for April 9 of A Net of Jewels (1996), Ramesh says,

"We speak of diversity in the manifest world as of water in a mirage. Time, space and duality itself are all notions or concepts--mere thoughts. All is nothing but Consciousness appearing as mind, whether mountains, oceans, rivers, animals or human beings."

A desert mirage (the manifestation) as seen from a distance (from ignorance) appears to be water, but up close (after awakening), is seen to be a reflection of the sunlight (Awareness).

13.13. The pot and the space in which it exists

The space (Awareness) in which a pot (the world) exists is unaffected by the pot. The same space exists outside, inside, and within (is immanent in) the walls of the pot. When the pot is broken (when awakening occurs), the space inside and within is seen to be the same as the space outside.  A slight variation of this metaphor makes the inner space the mind, the outer space Awareness, with the mind merging with Awareness at awakening.

13.14. Sunlight and the dew drop

Sunlight (pure Awareness) is reflected in a dew drop (the human being) as pure Presence. By concentrating on the feeling of pure Presence, we are led to our true nature as pure Awareness.

This page last updated November 16, 2009.
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