Knowing God is the purpose of life. Benjamin Harris has written a penetrating essay on the via negativa, or way of “neti neti” (not this, not that), the approach to knowing God that calls on us to negate all that is “not” God or of God.
I am thrilled to have Benjamin’s contributions on these subjects.
There and Back Again: Reflections on “Neti, Neti”
by Benjamin Harris
Seen from one perspective of the spiritual journey, there are two approaches that serve us in the effort to know God: a “negative” approach and a “positive” one.
The negative approach is summarized in the Sanskrit phrase, “Neti, neti,” which is to say, “Not this, not that.” (1) What does this mean?
It means that as we search for God, anywhere the search takes us, we are guided by the intuition that God is transcendent to all phenomenal existence and so, as we examine this and that – or the “ten thousand things,” to use a traditional Chinese expression which signifies essentially everything that exists in Creation – we discard one thing after another as not being God.
It’s a process of elimination, a hunting for the proverbial needle in a haystack. “Is this God? No, not this.” “Is that God? No, not that.” We keep sifting through the potentially infinite laundry list of things that God is not, haunted by a sense that we will not find God within phenomena, within the shifting sands – so many grains! – of manifested creations.
Searching for God by a process of elimination can be exhausting! What a blessing that exhaustion is, for it can bring us to the brink of a discovery of extreme value. When after long searching, we finally despair of finding God, we are then capable, by frustration and exhaustion, of letting go of any expectation of finding God lurking within the manifest Creation.
When we do finally let go of that, an opening can occur through which Godhead shines forth brilliantly, as if to celebrate the end of an arduous journey and a rebirth at journey’s end.
In coming to this point of revelation, the Grace of God is essential, but that isn’t saying a great deal, in a sense, because the Grace of God is always available and always offered. It is we who fail to see the offer and to open our hearts to receive the gift, until one day we develop the “eyes to see” and stop resisting the gift.
A valid and effective spiritual technology is very helpful, and perhaps essential, for the majority of us. This usually means meditation, and that can be learned in a variety of forms, from the contemplative prayer of Christianity (2) to the dancing of Sufi devotees to the stillness of mindfulness or the inward-focused contemplation of the question, “Who am I?”
There are many meditative methods and disciplines available. It is only necessary to find one that suits our individual need and temperament.
The assistance of an enlightened teacher is also helpful, if that teacher is genuine. Care must be exercised in choosing to accept another individual’s guidance and support. There are many “enlightened egos” in the world posing as spiritual teachers. The greatest lesson one can learn from them is the desirability of looking elsewhere for guidance.
But a true teacher – one who is further along in the journey and who is willing to help the rest of us “catch up” – is a blessing.
So, having eliminated all of Creation as being “not God,” what do we do then? Do we bask in the Light of the revealed vision of the Divine, as if enjoying an eternal day at the beach? What further purpose can we have in continuing to live as a sentient being within Creation?
The experience of the Divine has a tendency to incline a person to at least two undertakings: one is to find a way to serve others, and the other is to find joy in every aspect of life.
The experience of the Divine is incredibly effective in burning away useless qualities like judgment, fear, low self-esteem, and the whole litany of limitations that we have often allowed to dominate our lives. This blessing shows us a more effective and joyful way to live.
It is as if we are living the tenth image in the series known as the “ox-herding” pictures (3), which have been traced to a Ch’an [precursor to Zen] master in the Sung dynasty of China (1126-1279 AD).
In the tenth image, the ox-herder, having experienced a journey of transformation resulting from his initial effort to tame and control his ox (symbolizing his animal instincts, his ego, his unenlightened nature in general), experiences illumination. He then returns to the world as a simple, surrendered, and peaceful man of wisdom who is then, by virtue of these qualities, capable of doing some good in the world. Service to humanity is a natural choice for such a person.
So, after “neti, neti,” one returns from that journey and begins to embrace the world, to embrace life in a new way. Now, wherever one goes, one sees God in everything, for indeed God is imminent in all the ten thousand things, and everything that exists is seen as an extension of the Divine.
The relevant Sanskrit phrase now becomes “iti, iti,” which is to say, loosely translated, “All this, all this,” for having seen the face of the Divine in its transcendent aspect, one is now able to see the Divine shining forth from all things.
It’s as if all things are masks that God wears, perhaps for entertainment (like us, God loves a good story!) or as a device to explore the infinite potentials of consciousness-made-manifest. It’s as if we’re privileged to attend a cosmic masked ball, more grand than anything envisioned by the aristocracy of 18th century Europe.
We begin to see that “Yes, God is this,” and “Yes, God is that.” We begin to embrace all life, and all life forms, as sacred. We see, for example, that to claim that one place or another is more sacred than some other place is really rather silly, for all places, indeed all that exists, the entire universe, is sacred. All that exists IS the Infinite One. (4)
The debate among theologians concerning whether God is “transcendent” (outside the Creation) or “imminent” (within the Creation) has stumbled on for centuries. It is those who’ve met God in the deepest chambers of their own heart who know that the question is academic, for God is both.
At the same time, God is neither. This is the Great Mystery, for who in any manifest form can fully know God? For the purposes of our present experience as sentient beings, it is enough to have an experience – a revelation, an illumination – of the Absolute. This will reveal to us, experientially, that the Presence of God is always with us and that we are inseparable from that Divine Essence.
When a mystic says, “I am God,” he or she is not claiming to be the totality of God; that would be nothing more than an extreme megalomania, a delusion. But every conscious being can say the same words and be quite sane – indeed, more sane than they have ever been before their revelation – resting in the understanding, based in personal experience, that each of us is an aspect of God, a child of God, a spark of the Divine Light.
It is immensely comforting (Divine Spirit has been called “Comforter,” after all) to know, at long last, who we really are. This is the basis for true enjoyment of life: to know that we are infinite, eternal beings, children of the One Absolute, which has extended Itself from Itself in order to become Who We Are, as participants in All That Is, and that love, compassion, and joy are the natural expressions of our True Nature.
(1) “This state of complete experience of the Absolute is beyond all attributes. The best description for it is found in the Upanishads, the ancient texts about Unified Consciousness, with the descriptive phrase, Neti, neti—‘not this, not this.’ The fullest experience of the Absolute is beyond all thought, all boundaries, all limits of space and time.” P. 200, Enlightenment: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, A New Translation and Commentary. © 1995, 1996 by MSI.
There are numerous treatments of the yoga sutras of Patanjali; the one quoted here is a personal favorite. No judgment or comparison among texts is intended; a student of the sutras should seek out the translation that best suits him or her. Some students read several versions in order to extract the greatest possible meaning.
(2) Thomas Keating is a contemporary exponent of what he calls “centering prayer” which is in the tradition of Christian contemplative practice. Books such as “Open Mind, Open Heart” (1986) which has become a classic on this subject and “The Heart of the World: An Introduction to Contemplative Christianity” (2008) make worthwhile reading. See these links:
Amazon’s Thomas Keating page is here:
Brother Lawrence (18th century) left a small body of letters which are usually collected under the title “Practicing the Presence of God.” Many editions can be found. A recent one (2012) is this presentation, at the top of a search at Amazon:
A search on “Quietism” might also be of interest. Wikipedia discusses it here:
The Roman Church has censured this philosophy. It does appear to make the error of trying to impose divine peace from the outside rather than seeking to bring it forth from within. Nonetheless, it can be a thought-provoking subject, if one feels drawn to it.
(3) Wikipedia offers a brief but useful introduction:
A search on Google will yield many pages on the ten ox-herding pictures and various renditions of the artwork, such as this presentation of The Manual of Zen Buddhism, by D. T. Suzuki, with artwork by Shubun (15th century). In this version, the final image is simply a circle, signifying unified consciousness, thus going beyond simple re-entry into society by suggesting the transcendence by the individual of personality, ego, and relative identity.
(4) This is the fundamental insight of Advaita Vedanta as elucidated by Shankara (7th-8th century AD or 5th century BC, depending on which authority you accept). An Internet search will yield numerous references, for Shankara’s exposition and refinement of Vedic philosophy is considered fundamental to the creation of the dominant form of Hinduism known today. His Crest-Jewel of Discrimination presents the Advaita philosophy very clearly:
“Our perception of the universe is a continuous perception of Brahman, though the ignorant man is not aware of this. Indeed, this universe is nothing but Brahman. See Brahman everywhere, under all circumstances, with the eye of the spirit and a tranquil heart. How can the physical eyes see anything but physical objects? How can the mind of the enlightened man think of anything other than the Reality?” Cf., p. 119 in the translation by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood: