Interview with Prof. Stanley Sobottka: By Ivan Frimmel

This article consists of an e-mail interview with Prof. Stanley Sobottka, Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia, conducted by Ivan Frimmel. Prof. Sobottka created a web-course covering the relation between consciousness and quantum theory. In addition to these topics, his course covers issues in advaita, Western philosophy of mind, and the practice of nondual inquiry. The course is available at http://faculty.virginia.edu/consciousness/home.html.
–The Editors

Stanley: In answering your personal questions, Ivan, I must make it clear that I identify with Awareness much more than with the body-mind, so your questions and my answers apply mostly to the latter, not to me. That in a nutshell is also the answer to your question about how Advaita has influenced my life.

Ivan: Why did you in your reply depart from the original terminology in your paper, and used the word Awareness and not Consciousness when referring to your true identity?

Stanley: As given in the last paragraph of Chapter 1, I have used Consciousness as the basic principle, and Awareness as identified Consciousness, i.e., after the body-mind arises in Consciousness. This is identification at the first level as given in Section 11.2, not identification with the I-concept which is identification at the second level. Also, pure Awareness is equivalent to the Self as discussed in Section 9.2 (which I have recently updated substantially), and is our true nature. All this is not just mental gymnastics. You can see that you are pure Awareness by the use of inquiry as discussed in Section 22.2.

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Ivan: If we use the word Consciousness (or Noumenon) for our true, essential, impersonal identity, i.e. for the “state” of impersonal non-dual reality which is “beyond” the states of personal consciousness of being awake, dreaming and dreamless sleep, then is this non-dual, all-encompassing, impersonal Consciousness (permanently) aware per se (i.e. aware of being aware or conscious)?

Is Consciousness a Conscious Being, i.e. truly being “conscious”, i.e. in the sense we understand what “being conscious” mean? I personally don’t think so – surely Consciousness is not aware of itself in deep dreamless sleep, anaesthesia or death of an individual? Or is the awareness (that Consciousness is in) a different kind of awareness we know, i.e. a kind of awareness that appears to be a kind of unawareness from our “human” point of view?

Stanley: Good question! I have spent many hours with it myself. The best answer, as always, is to see for yourself. The way I have found most effective is through inquiry, again see Section 22.2. Once you see that you are pure Awareness, you also see that there can be no experience without an object of Awareness. Thus, in deep sleep, anaesthesia, or death there is no experience, but you–pure Awareness- -are always present because you are the unchanging background. Different teachers give different answers to this question. Ramesh usually evades it, or gives the standard answer that you must have been present during deep sleep because you know you are present when awake. I find this less than satisfactory because it is a logical conclusion rather than direct knowledge. Francis Lucille answers by saying there is a residual “perfume”–meaning an intuitive knowledge rather than a memory–remaining after deep sleep that tells you that you were present then.

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Ivan: I, myself, can only come up with these possible answers to the above question, but maybe I am missing some other alternatives:

  • only “enlightened Consciousness” can be “aware of itself” in a dreamless sleep of an individual (I mean: aware in a non-dual fashion, i.e. not as subject-object awareness); this would mean that non-dual Consciousness is or can be dualistic, i.e. in two states: enlightened and unenlightened;
  • “Consciousness,” the way you use the word in your paper, is not (and can never be) aware of itself, and is a kind of unawareness, unconsciousness, more akin to what I feel(s) and know(s) when I (is) am in deep dreamless sleep – a kind of total oblivion (oblivion from a human perspective);
    • if that is so, then how can this kind of total unawareness, total oblivion, be of any real help, use, significance or interest (to “me”), other than just as an interesting concept to ponder on?
    • it would amount to the same as simply saying that, at least as far as I am (or I is) concerned, in deep dreamless sleep and anaesthesia I am not aware, and in death I am (I is) not., and this could, in turn mean that
      1. when I am (or I is) gone (i.e. the perceiver, observer, subject.) gone, the World, Universe, Everything i(the perceived, observer, objects.) are all gone (solipsism); or:
      2. even when all sentient, aware beings are gone, the World, Universe. continues happily without us, doing its own thing. probably totally unaware / unconscious of what it is doing, unaware in the sense we understand the word awareness or consciousness. What do you say, Stanley? You can also refer me to a section in your paper that deals with this dilemma and answers these questions, if I missed seeing it or understanding it in your paper.

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Stanley: As I said above, the best answer is to “see” that you are pure Awareness and that this is unchanging.

Ivan: The main benefit (to “me”) of using the concept Consciousness (and the concepts of non-duality, nothingness, sunyata, no free-will, wu wei…), and the statement that Consciousness is all, seems to be, like the statement that God is omnipresent, in helping us to relax our individual mind and ego (the individual “me”) away from all effort, into egolessness, effortlessness, into a total surrender to what is, to Consciousness or God… So, ultimately, in Consciousness (egolessness) there is no benefit or advantage to “me” at all, only the disappearance of “me”… Then why should “I” ever bother to contribute anything whatsoever towards “my own” annihilation?

Stanley: Ivan has no choice, because Ivan doesn’t exist! See Section 22.1.

Ivan: Can such an “egoless” person (his/her body-mind) still continue living and functioning in the society, or will he/she become totally “useless” for living in this world, either too much resigned to fate or totally indifferent to life (and death)? Is there still life after “enlightenment” for a “self-less” or “ego-less” person with no “I” (and no individual free-will), and what kind of life would that be? Who or what would be “deciding” what such body-mind will still be “doing” here, after enlightenment? Hopefully not instincts, society, unconscious conditioning, or whim again…

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Stanley: If there is no ego there is no person. Everything happens spontaneously (causelessly). But this is so even with the illusion of an ego. There never has been a doer, thinker, or chooser. Again, the best proof is to see for yourself (Section 22.1).

Ivan: After having read many modern authors on Advaita, I suspect that Consciousness recently became a new, better-sounding and thus more fashionable synonym for what used to be called I, Self, Soul, Atman, Brahman, or even God… in other words: just a new name referring to my (deepest, essential) self; a new name that can make the same, old, unchanged self and ego feel very important and as if it really accomplished something very profound, whereas all that happened was re-naming it. Is this not what often happens under the label “enlightenment” nowadays, or is there really anything more to it, some truly profound transformation, a personal event in time and space, that the word “enlightenment” refers to, perhaps a dissolution of personality into (timeless) impersonality?

Stanley: Self and Atman refer to the Unmanifest, while Consciousness refers to both Unmanifest and manifest. Enlightenment is more than a concept. It is not a personal event because it is the disappearance of the person, like awakening after a dream. Sages say this is a non- event because it does not happen in time and space since they both disappear upon awakening. The sage knows that space-time is nothing but a concept that is part of the dream.

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Ivan: I find it a bit puzzling that Consciousness (at least the way Advaita, and you, use the term) is described on the one hand as non- dual and without any qualities or properties, and yet, on the other hand, referred to by some such dualistic terms (properties or qualities) as, for example: Impersonal, Bliss, Joy, Light, Life… (absolute).

But what I find even more puzzling is that for me, based on everything I read and heard about It (about Consciousness or Noumenon), if there is such a “thing” or “state” at all, if It is not just a concept that refers to nothing in particular, and if It can ever be referred to by any word at all, “It” could be probably more aptly described (understood) by such terms as (absolute) unconsciousness, nothingness, darkness, voidness, death… – and thus lead to the conclusion you also came to, namely that NOTHING IS. No wonder it has been accused of being nihilistic.

Is Advaita, even if it is true, a “prescription” for Bliss and Joy, or for Misery and Hopelessness in this life? But then, you will probably ask me: Who is there, in absolute non-duality, to be joyful or miserable?

Stanley: As I indicated in the previous message, don’t confuse Consciousness with noumenon. And don’t confuse any teaching, including my course, with Truth. No collection of words can answer your questions. The whole purpose in any teaching is to catalyse disidentification and help you to see that Consciousness is all there is. The statement, “Nothing exists,” helps to do that. Also, inquiry as described in Chapter 21 helps.

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Ivan: If the teaching of Advaita (non-duality – and thus no-free- individual-will) is true to reality as it is, and “I” accept it as such, such realization will take away from me the facility for and the comfort of praying to some kind of higher entity for help, guidance and healing in times of pain, illness, confusion and other distress – in fact all hope for any betterment – wouldn’t it? Nothing to comfort “me” anymore, nothing “I” can do to make anything better for myself or others, no more individually initiated progress… just relax into what is, no matter how painful, and “go with the flow”, in total acceptance? Surely, I cannot (dualistically) pray to Consciousness for help, if everything is (non-dual) Consciousness? Is that the way it is?

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