An Interview with Robert Powell
Robert Powell is a well-known writer and editor of books on the teachings of Advaita, or non-duality. This interview was recorded in the summer of 1993 at Robert Powell’s home. Rick Moore and Cortland Harris talked with Robert, on behalf of The Claremont Forum, located in Claremont, California.
The Claremont Forum: Did you ever meet Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj?
Robert Powell: I never met the man. I had planned to visit him the very year he passed away, but for personal reasons was not able to do so. Maharaj succumbed to throat cancer from which he had been suffering for some years. He was a member of a succession of spiritual teachers, the Navanath Sampradaya, all of whom were householders.
Although it would no doubt have been beneficial to have seen him, I was not destined to do so, and in a way I am not too distressed about it. You see, my approach is probably somewhat different from that of the average devotee. My main interest has always been the philosophy of Advaita, of which Maharaj is one of several exponents and to which there are various, non-exclusive approaches. Here the word “philosophy” does not really convey what I mean, for Advaita is more a way of liberation, an utterly fresh way of living. Do you know the etymology of this term Advaita? It literally means “not two” or “non-duality.” What it connotes is that our usual vision of ourselves and the way we live in society is completely mistaken. The way we function at the moment is as separate entities, each of us being an island unto ourselves. All the other members of society are separate and in many ways competing with us; this is one of the main reasons why there is strife and sorrow in the world. There is nothing that unites us except concepts, which are theoretical and have no actual reality.
Now in Advaita you come to a vision of yourself and the world in which there is Oneness; each of us is the Totality in which there is no scope for separate entities or “individualities.” The only way to arrive at such an insight is to turn inward and find out who you really are—not what you have imbibed from your parents, educators, the world at large and your heritage. For all that is merely conceptual, based entirely on hearsay that one has absorbed without questioning. Therefore, what is needed is a revolution in one’s outlook, which in turn may lead to a corresponding revolution in one’s functioning.
In India the guru-disciple relationship is an empirical system, which has been developed to facilitate this end and which was found to have certain results. Ideally, the relationship may lead to a transfer of understanding and Grace from the teacher to the student. And Grace is always necessary to convert the newly acquired understanding of the student into actual transformation of his self. However, a warning should be issued here. For, in extreme cases where the student is blindly attached to the guru, this can actually act as a hindrance in bringing about the required revolution in consciousness. One can see this happening quite a lot, especially with Westerners who don’t quite understand the mechanism of the guru-disciple relationship. For example, when the disciple develops a strong personal attachment to the guru, it may inhibit him in coming to that inward turning.
TCF: The energy is all focused outwardly?
RP: The relationship then is all a form of adulation. Being miserable with himself, the disciple clings to something that he feels is greater and nobler—and that is the guru. But often the guru does not measure up to the student’s ideal. Thus, we have all these scandals today with unscrupulous gurus, especially those who have come to the West recently. Not all, but certain gurus have formed exploitative relationships with their students, and these can be very dangerous.
But otherwise, the disciple can have a healthy relationship with the guru, if he has a genuine interest to discover himself; then the guru can serve as a catalyst in the process of self-discovery.
TCF: I see a real pervasiveness in the relationships with those teachers who have come to the West in which the student doesn’t have the necessary self-confidence to trust his own perceptions to follow the method you speak of.
RP: It requires confidence and earnestness, and also persistence. You may have confidence in the beginning, and you are all fascinated by the process, but it takes a lot more than that because there are so many distractions, competing interests, so many temptations. The world is full of diversions for the spiritual aspirant, so it is very difficult to stay the course. One can, for instance, be overwhelmed by political and financial events or by personal relationships, family affairs. All this is very easy to happen because there is a tremendous fascination or magnetism in these outward relationships. To turn inward, in the face of all this, and to say that all that is secondary because what I am is something much more basic than all that goes on in the world—the fight for power, money, and the competitiveness it breeds—takes a lot of energy and sticking to the quest. Yet once one has gone a little distance along this path, one begins to realize it is the only sane way to live. It is either that or you succumb to all the pressures of the world and are crushed by them unless you are extremely lucky and have some apparent security, perhaps because you are financially well-off or are part of an influential group of people. But even in that case, when it comes to ultimate values, you still have to face death, the question of coming to an end. And we all know that many ambitious people who have succeeded in the world have not been able to face that. Because it means the ultimate destruction of all they have amassed and worked for so assiduously.
So it comes back to values. Do we live by the values of society or do we live by the values of what is . . .of Reality? Reality has its own set of values, but you have to discover first what they are. For that, you have to understand what makes you tick, the nature of that so-called “individuality” or ego. Anything else is useless and irrelevant. And that was the great thing about Nisargadatta; he always came straight to the point: “Find out what you are, who you are. Then, after that, we will talk.”
TCF: In this looking within, how do you see the role of say a bhakta, who is on the devotional path?
RP: There is the devotional path (bhakti) and that of jnana. The latter term means “knowledge,” but it isn’t knowledge as an accumulation of facts and relationships, like in science. It is a special kind of knowledge which goes beyond all conventional knowledge and is not based on memory. It comes only through self-knowing.
In bhakti, which is devotional in the sense that you discard all self-concern and self-importance, you absorb whatever you can from the guru to the extent of regarding him as all-knowing, a Godhead as it were. This is all right if the teacher has integrity, since in such relationship there is the beginning of a giving up of oneself, the ego, and even more of a giving up on oneself. If one has that relationships of veneration and absorption from the teacher, then one’s own self becomes much less important, and one is open to something from beyond oneself. That in essence is the bhakti approach.
Jnana has a little more content in its approach, requiring a great deal of insight, to start with. However, the interesting thing is that at some point the bhakti and jnana paths merge and become one and the same. To understand how this can be, bhakti is surrender, total and unconditional, and jnana is giving up one’s knowledge, the entire analytical process. But on the ultimate level, the ego is exactly that sum-total of all that one clings to and is identified with as knowledge and experience. So both approaches amount to the same thing in the end: a total letting go of the past, of all content of consciousness. There is no more separation between the paths and one can no longer call it bhakti or jnana, or whatever; there is something that is unmentionable. You cannot classify it any longer.
TCF: Can you speak a little bit about vulnerability and where that comes in?
RP: You have to be absolutely vulnerable, totally open to receive the intimations from your Source. If you isolate yourself through building various defenses, you miss. You cannot cut yourself off from the Real, and the Real can be painful. It must be painful because it stands in direct opposition to all one’s little vested interests, all the things that we cherish because society tells us they are important and desirable. And if you believe those things and you cling to them, then you become hardened and create a shell around yourself, composed of those values that you try to defend. But that is just where the problem lies in the first place. Because really there is no difference between society and yourself. Our ignorance about ourselves is reflected in the consciousness, the very structure of society. We constantly project our ignorance of ourselves onto society and vice-versa. So society is all the time reinforcing our ignorance, which is a really tragic situation and something that is not easy to escape from; it’s like a vicious circle.
TCF: So Advaita would be something like a sword cutting directly at the root of the problem?
RP: You must cut at the root. You have to come to that point, and the sooner the better. Ignorance starts with the basic misconception of humanity that each of us is “somebody,” who is born and will die. One sees the body and identifies with it. That is where the basic mistake comes in—our original sin as it were, the identification with a physical form.
TCF: Is it not the body that ultimately becomes vulnerable and sensitive to the intimation of the Self?
RP: No, not the body, ever. What is the body? It would not be, not manifest itself but for the grace of Consciousness, and without sentience the body is only an inert lump of matter. We are always making an artificial separation between the body and the mind and the Consciousness, but they are all interrelated: all is in Consciousness.
TCF: What does compassion mean to you?
RP: True compassion is through non-duality, when you are the other. There is no division between the other and yourself; then compassion is not a mere intellectual thing. But society has so much cultivated that division. In fact, society would not exist in its present form without it. Do you see the joke? The whole social structure would collapse. It is man’s vested interest. Talk to the man in the street and you will see how he has been indoctrinated by that philosophy.
TCF: Individually, educationally sometimes, when I hear you speak, I could see how people could take your words and use it to do nothing.
RP: To do nothing is very difficult, you know. I am not preaching Quietism, but my conviction is that no conditioned action can ever bring about real change. Only action springing from love and full understanding can do so.
TCF: Are you referring to the idea of effortless effort?
RP: Yes. The mind won’t allow you to do nothing. Even if you do nothing body-wise, your mind is still furiously involved. So that is not possible, to do nothing.
TCF: Would you comment on how you came to be drawn to Advaita?
RP: Oh, I can’t really explain. It just happened. I don’t think one seeks it out; it seeks one out, rather. You stumble upon it and recognize the truth that has always been with you. Certain hints you get; it could be through reading, through talking to people. It might also be none of the above; it could simply be a spontaneous re-cognition of what you are and have always known on some level of your being. As a child, you have known it and you then functioned in a non-dual way; but when you grew older you were fooled by societal pressures and the truth got drowned out. You were intimidated and lost something precious. So it is not so much a matter of how you come to it, how you have searched it out, because it was always there, deep within you. But it has been suppressed or was overwhelmed by personal and societal pressures, which basically come to the same thing, and you get lost. Then there are perhaps moments of deep conflict or crisis you experience; you go to the root causes of the conflict and in doing so recognize the original purity you had as a child. And then you throw away the whole superstructure which you had imbibed from the world around you, and you become your true self once again. You recognize yourself in the act and you hold on to that. It is not a matter of creating something new; it is a re-cognition, and a re-centering. And then it is a natural thing; after all, even the term “non-duality” or Advaita can easily become a concept on its own, when in fact, it is meant to be the end of all concepts. But unless it has actually taken hold of you, it becomes a dry intellectual thing and then it is a concept.
TCF: One last question about bhajans setting a mood, as being almost a soil for transformation, as you put it.
RP: Yes, there must be a quiet mind first. If you are talking to me in an effort to teach me something, and I am all the time thinking of something else that I have to do the next moment, I can’t pay attention to you. So if I am restless or nervous about something, I can’t give proper attention. I must give total attention, in these matters in particular. You can’t deal with this with only a part of your mind. Nowadays, we do so many things—we eat and watch television and try to carry on a conversation—all at the same time.
But with this thing, you can’t do that. First of all, you have to be very quiet within yourself so that you are open. If you are busy in your mind or even if you hold something back, you are not all there to be part of this interchange. The interchange between a teacher and a disciple is a unique process. It is almost a blending of two individuals—that process of finding out what is the basis of all our thought, all our emotion. You have to be totally open, otherwise you cannot discover this. So it is important to be in that absolutely receptive mood, and that receptivity can only come when there is a deep silence. And the bhajans create, or help create, that state of seriousness and dedication to the Ultimate. Then reality can be imparted.
If you can be truly silent here and now, then you may not need the bhajans. In that case, you don’t need anything, you are just silence itself. But most people who are beginning to discover this thing have no silence within. The interior silence may come at the end of the process, as it were; they can’t begin with it, when they need it most. Therefore, anything that creates a restful, peaceful atmosphere will be a help.