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The material, the thought, and the thinker are one || Delhi University (2022)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
15 min
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Questioner (Q): I am troubled by nihilistic thoughts. I feel that nothing in this world has any real existence or importance. Sometimes when I study, I start questioning its importance and start thinking that I should abandon the studies. I sometimes think about abandoning the material world altogether, but I am very nihilistic towards the teachings of the saints also, although they have denounced materialism. People say we have to be successful and I question that as well.

This nihilism towards everything has brought me to an existential crisis. What is the point in doing anything? Should we just abandon everything? If not, how can I be free of these nihilistic thoughts?

Acharya Prashant (AP): You said you think of or feel like abandoning all that is material. In this context you named the saints as well. Now, the thing is, not only is the visible world material, even the thoughts in one’s head are all material. It is just that the world we experience outside of our body is easy to be experienced and certified as material: you can touch it, look at it, experiment easily with it, and rate it as material. But even your thoughts are all material. Even the thinker is material.

So, if you have to abandon the material world—and you are having thoughts of abandoning the material world—then you are having very material thoughts about abandoning the material. Now, that doesn’t sound very harmonious, or does it?

Q: What do you mean when you say that thoughts are material?

AP: Firstly, what you call as thought, can it have any existence without the material thing called the brain? What you call as thought, can it have any existence without having any material object to relate itself to, to think of?

Q: No.

AP: Have you ever thought of anything that is not material?

Q: No.

AP: Right. So, thought arises from material and sustains on the material. Without the material, there can be no thought. So, is it an exaggeration to say that thought itself is material?

Q: No, it is true.

AP: Not only that, your thought waves can be printed on a piece of paper like seismic waves, like any other waves that you find in material nature—gravitational waves, atomic waves, sound waves, light waves. We know these waves to be material, right?

Q: Yes.

AP: Similarly, even your brain waves, the stuff that is happening in your mind, can very well be printed on a piece of paper using modern technology.

So, even thought is material. In some sense, even as you are thinking, your thoughts can be, to an extent, captured real time by a machine on paper. So, even thought is material. Having understood that, we come to the next thing.

I am asking, does it make much sense to use material thought to denounce material world? Even in that moment when you are saying, “Oh, the world doesn’t make any sense, it is just material, and all the saints have decried materialism”—even in that very moment you are being material by patronizing thought. Who is a materialist? The one who has to do too much with material; the one who identifies too much with material; the one who lives and dies for material.

Now, if you are a perpetual thinker, are you not a materialist? Because the thought itself is material. So, the material might indeed be something to be shunned, but if material is to be shunned, why begin with the material outside of yourself? Why not begin with the material right inside your head? The material inside your head is called thought. Begin by liberating yourself from the material inside your head.

I repeat, it is easier to talk of liberation from all the things that appear outside of you. The clothes, the food, the equipment, the furniture, the money, the jewellery, the house, the property—you call these as material outside of your body. I am asking, what about the material inside of your body? And it is quite clear that the material inside of your body called as thought or feeling is militating against the material outside of your body. Not only is it decrying the material outside of the body, it is also pretending to be non-material. It is saying, “Oh, all the things outside the body are just things, and I am holier than a thing: I am pious, immaterial, heavenly.” This is tyranny of thought. This is thought deceiving the thinker.

So, those who know fully well about how ephemeral thought is know very well that, in this respect, thought is so similar to the ever-changing world. Why have the saints advised that the material world is not to be relied upon? Because it cannot be trusted. It changes every moment; it is not what you think it to be. You depend on it, and you are deceived. That is the reason why all the knowers and all the seers have said, “Well, do not tie yourself too intimately with the world, otherwise you will suffer”: because, first of all, the world is not what you take it to be, and secondly, it doesn’t remain what it appears as right now.

The very same thing is applicable to the material within—thought. First of all, we don’t know thought. Just as we don’t know the furniture outside of us, just as we don’t know the things that lie scattered outside of us in this wide universe, similarly we don’t know the universe within, we don’t know the material lying within. In fact, in some sense, we know the material that is outside of us better due to progress in science. But the material inside of us remains as unknown to us as ever.

So, first of all, it is unknown to us and it changes. Have you not watched thought change whimsically? In fact, the laptop in front of you might have certain stability and continuity in time, but the thought inside of you is so capricious, so fleeting, so much of a flux that it doesn’t remain stable even for a second. The table or the laptop in front of you does appear to have at least some stability in time. Thought has almost zero stability, right?

Further, the world outside of you is amenable to your control, at least to some extent, no? Don’t you exercise control over the materials that are there in your room? Don’t you exercise control over your clothes, over your books, over all the stuff that you have in your life? But how much control do you exercise over your thoughts and your feelings? Next to zero.

So, thought is very, very unreliable, and all the problems that exist with material outside of the body exist multiplied a hundred times with respect to the material inside the body. Whatsoever is dangerous about this material world is, I said, a hundred times more dangerous about this internal world.

So, if you want to shun materialism, then, first of all, learn to shun yourself, because you are the thinker, and you are the most material entity of all. The proof is: only the material is attracted to the material, and only the material is repulsed by the material. Irrespective of whether the world outside attracts you or repels you, you remain material if you are so concerned with the material.

Who are you? The thinker, the generator of the thought. Learn to be casual about her. If you cannot disown her, at least take her casually. She is a totally material being. We all are, right from head to toe, completely material. No thought, no feeling is to be accorded any special respect. All this is within the game of Prakriti , the material universe. Prakriti exists outside of you and it exists inside of you. There is no reason to differentiate between the Prakriti outside and the Prakriti inside; they are one and the same. In fact, the Prakriti inside is what, in a sense, projects the Prakriti outside. That is what Vedanta tells us.

And the Prakriti inside is more intimate to you and, therefore, more difficult to be detached from than the Prakriti outside. I can pick this up (picks up a glass of water) and very easily keep it down. But having picked myself up in the moment of my birth, it is very difficult for me to keep myself down. Whereas, factually, objectively, there is really no difference between this tumbler (points at the glass) and this tumbler (points at his body) ; they both are just containers. And mind you, both the containers are containing just the material. The body doesn’t contain the consciousness; consciousness exists and, on identification with the body, gets corrupted. That corruption is human suffering.

If you don’t want to suffer, stop taking the world personally and stop taking yourself personally. The person that you take yourself to be is not to be taken personally. No event that happens with you in your life is to be taken personally. All this is an impersonal, ancient game. Your mistake is to think that all this is happening with you in particular. No, the game is on; you are a fiction. The game will remain on even when you are not. And by that I don’t mean your physical death.

So, take your attention off things—the universe, objects, and stuff—and bring it sharply back to yourself. This thing (pointing to himself) that you call as yourself, ask yourself, “To what extent am I free of material influences? It arises from my body, which is very much material, and it is influenced by the world, which is, again, very much material. Why do I allow myself to be carried away by all this? The body rises in waves, the world attacks and influences me in waves—must I allow these waves to take me away? Or can I just be a watcher?”

Q: If everything, even thought, is material, why should we even shun materialism in the first place?

AP: If you are alright with how things stand for you, there is no need to do anything special. Wisdom or spirituality begin when there is an acknowledgement of suffering. If you are alright with the world as it is and yourself as you are, you don’t need to do anything; you just proceed with your life the way it is running.

But if you feel that you are often deceived, that you raise hopes that are belied, that you think of things and they don’t turn out the way you thought of them, that you are unable to live up to your resolutions, that you don’t find enough strength and are often frightened—if you experience all these things, then there is some need for a change, right? And remember that change begins with yourself. Yes, shunning or renunciation is a wonderful thing, but thinking of renouncing the world while keeping yourself intact is just fanciful. It doesn’t work that way.

Begin with disowning yourself. All this that you call as yourself, try to distance yourself a little from it, step by step. Practice. See if it is necessary to follow your instincts, your impulses, your thoughts, your feelings; see whether you can observe them a bit objectively, just as one observes natural phenomena in science. When you go to a laboratory, don’t you observe things happening and take notes and readings? That is what you do in a laboratory, right? Can you observe yourself in the same way without associating yourself with internal events?

When you go to your chemistry lab and you, let’s say, have ammonia and hydrochloric acid reacting, do you get identified with either of them or the product? Similarly, can you observe yourself objectively? Not that you are disinterested in yourself; you are just disidentified. You don’t want to turn away from yourself; you just want to know yourself. Just as you want to know things around you, similarly you want to know things within you. Things within you are available to be known just as materials outside of you are all available to be known.

Q: While the table or the laptop in front of us has at least a warranty of one or two years, thought might change within a day. That is the fickleness of thought. But still, we base our decisions on those thoughts every day. So, now the question is, are wise thoughts or good thoughts also the same? And if so, then wisdom is also a material, right? So, how can we know which thoughts are good and which thoughts are bad?

AP: Wisdom is not really another thought. There is a realization that doesn’t involve a conclusion. Conclusion always wants to put an end to exploration; conclusion always wants to say, “This is how things are.” This kind of conclusion is what thought is always aiming at.

Now, this aim itself is fallacious because things never come to a standstill, things are always in a flux. But thought wants to say, “This is how things are. I have concluded, I have put a full stop, I have taken a snapshot, and I am saying this is how things are.” Whereas, the reality is that things will not concur to a snapshot; the next moment they change. This is the usual kind of thought, and you very well said that it is unreliable.

Wisdom is not about coming to a conclusion in the usual way of thought. Wisdom is about becoming open sans thought. Realization is not some kind of a full stop; understanding is not an end or a conclusion. You just become available to knowing. Good thought is that which removes the barriers against knowing. Bad thought is that which itself becomes a barrier against knowing. How will something become a barrier against knowing? When it says, “Oh, I know.” When it says “I know” then there is no need to know any further because now you already know. That is bad thought.

So, bad thought depends heavily on memory; it draws from memory and it feeds into memory. Such a thing is now known—deal, done and dusted, matter closed. This is the way of bad thought. Good thought works against itself. Good thought is very keen to know the thinker, know the thinker and expose the thinker. Good thought has no stability of its own. It is just like a cleansing agent: it comes to remove, to dissolve, to scrub away the filth in the mind. What is the filth? Bad thought. It comes to remove the filth in the mind, and having removed the filth it doesn’t stay a moment longer. It is like a cleansing agent, it is a detergent.

So, what you usually call as good thought is just thought that gives you a pleasant experience. What you usually call as suvicāra (good thought) is just sukhad vicāra (pleasant thought), thought that gives you a happy, sensory feeling: “Make me feel good.”

Good thought is that which leads you into silence. The chatterbox within was made to eat humble pie; the arrogant thinker within was made to kneel down. This is good thought. Good thought will not give you anything extra to hold in your hands. That is what bad thoughts give you—more confidence, more conclusions, and more knowledgeability. Good thought just lives you open, dissolved, and available to know.

Q: So, it is not about coming to a conclusion or a final answer, but about questioning constantly to purify the self?

AP: Yes. Keep on questioning. But you know, sometimes even questions become a barrier because questions operate within a limited context. Sometimes even questions start narrowing the scope of the answer. For example, it will be difficult for me to answer way beyond the scope that your question allows me to.

So, a point comes when even investigation or introspection or inquiry is not really needed; what is needed is a silent awareness. Silently, I am just present, open, and available to know. And the more silent I am, the more keen, the more clear and pure is the process of realization.

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