Neti-Neti is Not Enough

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Neti-neti is roughly defined as “not this, not this,” and appears first in an Upanishad. Shankara advocates it as a method of inquiry, and modern non-dual teachers recommend it as well. It means finding out what you are not: I am not this body, I am not these emotions, I am not this thought or experience, etc. And it is said that finding out what you are not leads to the knowledge of what you are.

And that’s true in one regard.
Atma – the Self – can be identified only by negation of the anatma – the not-Self. The Self has no qualities or attributes of its own by which it can be identified. The Self is not an object. So the theory has it that if you negate everything that is not-Self, you are left with only the Self.

Good in theory. But why can people practice
neti-neti for decades and still not know who they are? Why is the Self not revealed? It’s because we don’t have enough information about the trickery by which we make the mistake of taking objects to be ourselves.

We need more specifics about this trickery, in order to outsmart it. The more information you have about how you make the mistake of entwining yourself with objects (your body, your thoughts, your feelings, your experiences), the more easily you will be able to discern where
YOU are in all of this. We need to learn to discriminate in every moment between what is me and what is appearing in me. This is called viveka in Sanskrit, and it means discrimination. Or to be more specific, atma-anatma-viveka – discrimination between Self and not-Self.

In order to apply the kind of discrimination that ends the mistake once and for all, you need a clear picture of what the not-Self is. It’s partially useful to apply “that’s not me, that’s not me” to everything in a blanket way, but unless you have a good picture of what exactly you’re trying to negate, it will be like trying to repair a rotting wall without knowing the extent of the rot. You’ll be fixing as much damage as you can see, but you won’t even be
attempting to address the majority of the problem which is hidden from sight. Vedanta brings the whole problem to light, so that no rotten place goes unnoticed.

When I first started studying Vedanta, coming from a modern non-dual background which basically denies everything in the apparent reality, the detailed breakdown of the not-Self into things like three bodies, five sheaths, five elements, just struck me as pure bullshit. I knew for a fact that sheaths and subtle bodies were not real things, and I resented someone implying I had to learn a laundry list of unreal things in order to be liberated. And it seemed so outdated – breaking the world down into five elements did not jibe with current scientific thinking – not even close. I really fought the teaching at first, trying to translate what it was telling me into modern scientific terms, so that I could believe in it based on what I think I know about the world.

But I came to realize it doesn’t work that way. This detailed information in the teaching doesn’t have to be the only way to describe how the world is actually constructed, because it’s not really describing the world – it’s describing your mind. Humans do this dividing – it’s not divided up in reality. So a teaching is helpful in as much as it can accurately describe the mental map we superimpose on reality.

Since we all make different divisions and mistakes about the world, one mapping method is needed which understands the common and universal mistakes all humans make, no matter what the culture or era, and so it’s a good idea to use one that has been around for a long time and is proven effective. Otherwise, you might be learning a method that is too narrow to hit all the important points. Vedanta is a proven method, and is broad enough to be guaranteed to address your particular way of dividing reality into a world of objects. “Broad” is not really the word – “thorough” is what I’m trying to say. Vedanta thinks of everything.

A map – a method – is needed because of all the hiding places the not-Self can hang out. If you are unclear on the fact that a desire or a fear is not you, but is an object appearing in you, then you are not likely to negate it. You will be thinking of it as part of you, and legitimate for some reason. You will unknowingly cling to that. This is where a thorough map comes is – it reveals all the hiding places.

“Negate everything!” you might say. Well, I bet there is a lot of stuff flying under
that radar! You are carrying baggage with you as “yourself” that you don’t even know about. Do you think to negate the raging desire, the righteous anger, the brilliant cherished opinion? What about the niggling fear, the undercurrent of anxiety? Do you negate your sense perceptions? Probably not! What about your body, the pains and discomforts that arise in it? Do you see those as objects and negate them as “not me”? What about bliss? Uh-oh!

What does “negating” really mean, anyway? It’s a little misleading to use that word, because it sounds like we are being asked to go around ignoring things that we find to be “not-Self.” But it’s not a matter of ignoring what is not real – it’s more that each moment in which we identify something that is “not me,” the flip side of that is revealed. And the flip side is that I am totally untouchable and pure and always peaceful.

This truth is always present in the moment we identify something to be “not me,” and so there isn’t even any temptation to cling to that desire, follow that thought, whatever it may be. The Self is always shining here in this moment, and the unreal stuff which appears here is just fine. It can stay. It doesn’t have to be ignored. It’s not
YOU.

In my experience,
neti-neti was not enough. How long did I spend trying to convince myself that I am not this body, not this mind? I understood it intellectually, but that didn’t stop my confusion. How did I know I was still confused? Because I still took my thoughts and opinions to be valid and to require action, I still took my feelings to matter, and I still took ailments of the body to be mine.

It wasn’t until Vedanta gave me a detailed description of the not-Self that I was able to finish the job. Of course, that description is not “real.” But it does accurately describe the mental construct
jivas superimpose on reality, while they are under the spell of ignorance. Vedanta undoes the jiva, and in so doing, undoes itself. This is the genius of Vedanta – know the nature of the ignorance, and then be free of it and free of the means that revealed it. Only YOU remain – pure, unborn, free.