"I Am That": A Secret Teaching Comes Home for All of Us

"I Am That": A Secret Teaching Comes Home for All of Us
I remember being shocked and intrigued by a statement made once by a famous spiritual teacher in India, Nisargadatta Maharaj. We never met, and Maharaj was not a prominent public guru. In fact, he lived above his small shop in Bombay without great fanfare. What he said was this: "You need to realize that the entire Universe has conspired to bring about this present moment." What shocked me is that Indian spirituality is often seen in terms of humble service and devotion. Maharaj was putting the present moment—and the person experiencing it—at the center of cosmic life.

Tat Tvam Asi

The cosmic dimension of everyday life is the most thrilling discovery on the spiritual path. The teaching is summarized in a simple Sanskrit phrase: Tat Tvam Asi, "I Am That." Yet nothing is more mysterious, because when you wait to hear what "That" means, there is no rational answer. Many answers have been attempted: "That" is unbounded Being or the One (Brahman) or the higher self. The reason that none of these definitions is helpful is that words cannot express the experience of "That" when it dawns. Many teachers espoused a belief that only complete awakening allows for "That" to be experienced, and the chance of ordinary people in the real world achieving complete awakening was slim.

For me, the spiritual revolution that has occurred—and continues to unfold—in our time has revealed exactly the opposite. "I Am That" isn't the end of a spiritual journey that requires a lifetime of seeking. Stripped of all expectations, "That" is the steady state of awareness that doesn't change even as thoughts and feelings come and go. At the movies, we focus on the flickering images that tell a story, but without a screen to project them on to, there can be no story. In the same way, without the steady state of awareness, our life stories cannot unfold.

It may seem that I've reduced an ancient spiritual mystery to something commonplace. We've all had quiet moments of calm when the mind rests into itself. In meditation, we've deepened this experience, and over time it becomes natural to identify with the background of silence rather than the foreground of activity. This is the experience of being centered. But the very fact that we've all felt centered seems to remove the halo around "I Am That." In what way is being centered the clue to a deep mystery?

To get at the answer, there's another ancient teaching related to "I Am That," which declares, "This isn't knowledge you learn, it is knowledge you become." In other words, "That" transforms the person having the experience. Being centered is an everyday experience accessible to anyone. The trick is to let the value of the experience sink in deeply, and then a shift begins. You start shedding the burden of effort and struggle. You begin to see that at its source, silent awareness contains infinite resourcefulness, intelligence, creativity, and love.

In fact, everything we value in our lives must have a source, which is "That." Can you trust "That" to heal your wounds, provide unconditional love, solve deep-seated problems, and make the best choices in difficult situations? A great teacher like Maharaj can tell you to trust, but in the end only experience is valid, and you cannot have the experience without a measure of trust. This seems like a Catch-22: Only after you trust do you find out how correct it is to trust. If you don't trust, on the other hand, "That" will keep its distance.

What gets us out of the Catch-22 is evolution, our own inner growth. By allowing "That" to come to your aid in small ways—such as giving someone the benefit of the doubt, extending kindness to a person who might respond negatively, or letting a problem solve itself without your intervention—you allow "That" to overcome its shyness. This is the real meaning of "Knock on the door, and it shall be open to you." "That" is actually your true self. Therefore, you cannot relate to it like an outside force. There is no alternative but to accept and encourage the process of inner transformation because there is no one to relate to except yourself.

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