Meeting Nisargadatta

by Peter Madill

I first came upon the teachings of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj when I was a student in the Ashram of Da Free John. I was working as a medical practitioner in Lake County in Northern California, and Free John had an Ashram and a bookstore with an extraordinary collection of spiritual literature gathered from around the world. There was one copy (then a two-volume work) of Sri Nisargadatta’s I Am That. I picked this book up and began to peruse it.

I was briefly acquainted with a couple of his answers to questions and they set my heart on fire; I felt I was reading the teachings of a realized being. I remember there were two main points being made in I Am That, which really struck me. The first was in relationship to the flow of attention or to the flow of consciousness. A seemingly very simple comment that Nisargadatta made was that our attention is always spontaneously and naturally flowing into the world, and that the fundamental essence of spirituality is to reverse that flow of attention. Instantly, this answered all of the dilemmas and questions I had about the many obtuse points that another teacher had been trying to make, and it again reaffirmed the fundamental usefulness and validity of self-inquiry as taught by Ramana Maharshi. I began to realize that Nisargadatta, although he claimed the essence of his practice in slightly different terms, was basically enjoining the very same practice. To me, it was just extraordinary that Maharaj had evolved this depth of insight and practicality in very much the same way as Sri Ramana Maharshi did. The other point in I Am That which really struck me was the one Nisargadatta made about the role of the guru and his relationship to the disciple.

In late June or early July of 1980, I found myself with the opportunity to visit Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj—it was shortly before he died in September of 1981. I wanted to meet someone who embodied the wisdom that I knew was alive in Sri Ramana Maharshi. Since Maharshi had died when I was only three years old, I felt this was an opportunity that I should not waste. Although I was busy as a medical practitioner, and my wife was very cautious concerning my relationship to anybody who professed to have anything to do with spirituality, she was only too happy for me to make this journey. So, in the middle of 1980 I flew to Bombay to meet Maharaj.

From the moment I arrived outside of the tenement building in which Sri Nisargadatta had an apartment, I was on the edge of my seat. There was an incredible sense of excitement and expectation despite the humility of the location and the cacophony of sounds and noise surrounding it. Even before I set eyes upon him I already was beginning to feel that there was an oasis of peace, calm, and radiance in the middle of all this hustle, bustle, and pollution. Upon entering this tenement building Maharaj’s apartment was the first flat on the ground floor. It was incredibly small by American standards and immediately, as one came in the front door, there was a hanging stairway that came down from the roof. Nisargadatta had built the loft when he was embracing his own spiritual practice, in order to retire and be by himself. I climbed up the stairway and the very first person I saw was Maharaj, who was seated just to the right of the stairway. I immediately felt the penetration of his gaze. I noticed that he was a very slight man and very old in appearance-his body was frail, and he had but one tooth left. The overwhelming impression was the animation of this man. Here he was at age 83—and I soon learned that he had cancer—and yet he was vibrantly alive. His body just pulsated with energy and presence, and the earliest impression I remember of him was his passion:  the undiluted uncompromised passion that he had for teaching whoever happened to be with him at the time. From the moment you arrived you were directed to a seat of his choosing in the room. It was hilarious to watch how he was always moving people around. Some he would send to the back, others he would move to the front. He would generally seat women on one side and men on the other, making a gender distinction. At other times, he broke with Indian tradition and sat men next to women.

Prior to traveling to Bombay, I met with a couple of people who had visited with Maharaj, and they sternly warned me that this was no soft-spoken guru I was going to see, and that he was referred to as “The battle-ax of Bombay.” He was known to be curt, abrupt, moody, and dismissive of people he felt were merely window-shopping or were there just to debate him on some spiritual point. However, from the moment I arrived I felt very warmly welcomed-quite the opposite of the warning I received. I felt that he took me under his wing, making sure that I was comfortable, and spending any amount of time it took to answer the questions I had.

On several occasions during the course of my visit with Maharaj, he insisted that I ask the same question that I had asked just ten minutes earlier so he could try and answer that question from a different angle. He wanted to be very sure that I was not going to leave his presence without any of my questions unanswered or with any persisting “dilemmas” as he put it. This was yet another sign of the integrity of his purpose and the sincerity of his desire to serve those who truly went to him seeking spiritual enlightenment.

As I asked Maharaj the various questions that I had, I realized that every question had already been answered by the commentary in I Am That. There was really nothing new that I learned in my conversations with him. This is not to say, of course, that nothing happened while I was in his presence. That was a totally different order of events. What really happened to me was an incredible acceleration in the intensity of my spiritual practice. It was as if the whole purpose of my being there, regardless of the considerable conversations with him, was an intensification of my inner life.

The fundamental question that I brought with me was one regarding Maharaj’s view regarding the core of spiritual practice. I felt that it was very important to me to engage him in conversation about the teachings presented in I Am That. I had understood the sense of “I am” to be the fundamental sense of oneself, and also that it served as a key that can lead us to the heart of our Being, which is beyond any conceptualization. Maharaj confirmed in many ways that this indeed is the essence of spiritual practice, and that it was more than just believing yourself to be the “I am,” but required understanding of what lies prior to “I am” or beyond “I am.”

Some of my most treasured memories of Nisargadatta was seeing him sitting with his granddaughter, helping her with her homework, and watching him really enjoy a cup of tea. I also noticed the posture that he expressed with people who came to him for his teaching: He always sat on the same level that they did, which was generally on the floor. There was no high and mighty guru-posturing going on. It was just Nisargadatta, nakedly opening his being to you, and pounding you over and over again.

I am sure that the diagnosis of terminal metastatic cancer meant nothing to Maharaj because he had already gone through the process of his death as a part of spiritual realization. This is the realization that one is not an individual entity confined by a mortal frame, and this is the viewpoint from which he lived. As a result, the loss of that frame was no big deal to him. He knew that his body’s death was fast approaching, and he looked upon it as one would a joke—it was simply a case of casting off “this vehicle of suffering,” as he sometimes said. For me, this was just another shining pointer of the profundity of his realization.

Jean Dunn [the compiler of a number of books of Nisargadatta’s teachings] was the only person that knew of my relationship to Maharaj as one of his physicians. I feel that the relationship as patient/physician was far more of a teaching than any other service I was able to render him. When I arrived in India his body was frail and it was apparent that there was muscle loss. Nevertheless, he was un-believably animated, vibrantly alive, fully present, and capable of doing everything that he undertook. I had some wonderful discussions with him about the source of illness, which is a question that has been a central focus in my own medical career.

One of his statements that always stays with me is that any spiritual practice we undertake as an apparent individual only helps us to stay ready, willing, and able to not be distracted in focusing our energy and attention at the very core of our being. This approach enfolds us in an inner revolution, which is like a one hundred eighty degree turnabout-a turnabout that we really have nothing to do with.

Adapted from the full interview with Peter V. Madill, M.D. in Awaken to the Eternal: Nisargadatta Maharaj, A Journey of Self-Discovery. Copyright © 1997 by Inner Directions. All rights reserved. An Inner Directions DVD.

 Pay Attention to the Source
All actions happen through concepts and are managed by them.
You take for granted that you are created.
This is based upon someone else’s concept,
which determines your happiness or unhappiness,
and your ideas about birth and death.
All this is the sport of concepts in action,
while you believe yourself to be the doer.

 The mind is simply the collection of impressions that have been recorded since birth.
It is occupied by thoughts, which are based upon its predominant concept.

Catch hold of the knower of the mind. If you believe your thoughts, you will be disappointed.
You have put the noose of the mind around your neck.
Do not become entangled in the vacillations of your mind.

When you become stabilized in your Self, the continuous commentary of the mind will stop.
Your true state is ever-existent.
The experience of time disappears along with the world, just like the ending of a dream.

One who witnesses the dissolution of the universe is certainly prior to it.
Time dissolves into you and not you into time.

The ultimate religion is Self-realization—it is an unbroken and fearless state of being.
This means to live with the conviction that we are pure Consciousness.

The dealings of an entire lifetime are based upon the concept “I am.”
When you try to be one with Consciousness, the mind stands in the way.
Keep trying. Pay attention to the source from which the “I amness” has appeared.

From The Wisdom Teachings of Nisargadatta Maharaj: A Visual Journey. Copyright © 2002 by Inner Directions. All rights reserved. An Inner Directions book.