We are too much identified with our thoughts, so the story goes. And even less subtle than our thoughts, we are too much identified with our bodies. Identified with our emotions. Identified with our circumstances, relationships, opportunities, pasts and futures. (Any identification with less than the Whole Shebang is a faulty identification, so the sages prompt us.) We are too much identified with life’s numberless limitations, we are told, and thus our sufferings continue, as we all have noticed, we all have confirmed, time and again.
And so of course all these tiny, faulty daily by day identifications come up in meditation. For example, sitting in meditation, I find I’m still a Bronco fan, a milk man and a crab-grass warrior, sweater wearer. Our teachers suggest that most of us are so deeply identified with the fragments of the material world that we no longer directly feel, glimpse, the true, absolute, eternal, infinitely tender nature that is here, prior to consciousness itself; the infinitely tender nature from which arises absolutely everything, from a single salt grain to the billions of galaxies. We’re too busy rehearsing what we’re going to say next time—or should have said last time—there in the grocery line, to notice the Wonder here Brilliantly Present.
To loose ourselves from these fragments, these false identifications, we have been guided, for many millennia now, to bring our attention again and again back to the Sanskrit words, Netti Netti— which means not this, not this. Nettit netti, taken from the Katha Upanishad, is a traditional mantra used in both Buddhist and Hindu meditation practices. The practice is simply to recognize that one’s true identity is not anything that can be thought or formed or spoken or envisioned, or seen or heard. Thus, for those in search of their deepest identity, the appropriate response to anything arising, interiorly or exteriorly, is the simple recognition that it is, “not this,” and then in the next instant, “not this, “ either. Or this. Or this. Netti, netti.
For those who have spent some time in meditation with netti netti it is generally recognized as a wonderfully powerful practice, a convenient mantra that quickly releases us from the limited identifications with the ten thousand things we tend to get caught with in our daily lives.Of course, by its own essence we ca not assume that this em>netti netti mantra is the final liberation meditation, but it’s a fun one, as anyone who has practiced it can attest, and will add a little ancient spice to the basic Buddhist practice of simply observing and letting go.
The basic practice is, when sitting in meditation, (or, for more advanced practitioners, when standing or walking or doing the dishes) to meet all the thoughts that that come up, be they profound or mundane, inside or out, with the single insight, “I am not this… not this.” I’m not a guy sitting in meditation. I’m not the sound of the garbage truck outside. I’m not the next door neighbors fighting again about the cost of chicken. Not this, not this, neti, neti.
I’ve been much influenced of late by teachers such as Douglas (Hon Having No Head) Harding, John (You Were Never Born) Wheeler, Sailor Bob (What’s Wrong With Right Now Unless You Think About It) Adamson, Ramana Maharshi, Papaji, Andrew Cohen, Guru Mayi, Gangaji, Nisgradata Maharaj, Tich Nhat Hahn, and, in his best moments, Yogi (“Its so crowded nobody goes there”) Berra, all of whom point to That Place that can’t be pointed to, that is everywhere and nowhere and words slide off it like …
“Netti, netti,” not this, not this, seems to work real nice to edge us up next to That Place. Often, when I’ve been using netti netti, and my little timer rings to signal that mediation time is over, I will push the button to immediately begin another session, it’s such a blissful state.
However, I’m a fairly mellow meditator, so when I’m in meditation and images or concepts come up involving my “temporary identities” involving, say, my wife, or daughter or grandchild or poker playing buddies, the netti, netti, not this not this insight, although true absolutely, seems a little harsh. I am relatively speaking, a poker playing grandpa with a lovely wife and crab grass in the lawn.
So, feeling free and easy in my meditative practice, I’ve also practiced using the mantra, “Not just this, not just that.” I’m not just a poker playing grandpa, I’m not just a guy sitting here in meditation, I’m not just this piece of consciousness in a vast swirling galaxy of consciousness. Somehow, with this meditation the limited that which was born and must therefore die, is not denied, but then again it is not a limitation. It might be, in its best moments, simply transcended. “I’m not just this garbage truck noise… not just the ticking of the clock.”
And then of course, the question arises, if I am not “just this,” or, more traditionally, if I am not this at all, what am I? That of course is Ramana Maharshi’s basic mantra, “What am I, Who am I? “
Being much influenced by Eastern ways (as one might intuit) I am nevertheless from the cowboy west, and so when a question is asked, we do, at some point, want an answer. Any answer, of course, if couched in words, is going to be a limited answer, not quite infinite, not quite eternal, not quite absolute. Any answer spoken, or even thought with words is not going to be, as the Taoists are fond of saying, That which can not be spoken.
Still, the cowboy in me wants to throw a lasso toward it, see what kind of a ride it gives. So if I had to give a word for That which is beyond words, for That which was here before the Big Bang bonged, and will be here after the whimper of form returns to its formlessness— if I had to give a word to it, I would call it—I do call it—simply happiness. Or Happiness, if you get my drift.
So, back to the neti neti meditation. I have found it useful, and appropriate, and at least somewhat traditional, to use the meditative mantra, “not just this happiness,” not just that happiness.” When I think of my poker playing buddies during meditation, I’ll respond, “I’m not just this happiness.” When I think of my boss, and the troubles at work, I’ll again think,” I’m not just that happiness.”
Using this new, somewhat naughty (because it’s so fun, and personal) rendition of the old formula, I find that whatever comes up in meditation, be it profound or mundane, is first recognized as part of the Eternal Flux that is Happiness itself, and simultaneously not a limitation or description or encapsulation of that Happiness.
So in the end, yes, I let go of form, of personal identity with limited images and thoughts and feelings and circumstances and relationships, but I let go with a blessing—not this —happiness—not this—happiness—not this—happiness.
And those things that do not appear to me as “happiness,” such as the war, the suffering, — this, too, is the dream, and by seeing that it, too, is happiness, and denying that this is the final happiness, the final circumstance, we move on—we let go, we are free, and yet, we also embrace that which is ours to embrace.
(Anything that comes up in meditation is obviously something that still needs to be loved, embraced.” I am not just this happiness—the happiness of working against war, the happiness of knowing that nobody is left out of God’s eye and that all people, be they on this side or that side of the veil, are here with Him, with This happiness that is beyond words, even the word happiness itself. Not this, not this.
And this essay?
I am not this happiness, either. Or, more precisely, I am not just this happiness.
Everything that has a name and/or has a form is Brahman.
The absolute is impersonal.
Given that it dwells in every part of life not an agent who creates or destroys; he does not do anything.
How can we describe Brahman?
Netti Netti – not this not this (Upanishads)
Brahman is without qualities, unbound, without action, eternal, immutable.
The supreme Self is beyond name and form,
Beyond the senses, inexhaustible,
Without beginning, without end,
Beyond time and space, and causality,
We are not this understanding. We are not that understanding. Netti netti.
And then we go to the grocery store and buy some sweet ripe strawberries!