True Devotion Is to Seek Our Real Nature
Conventionally, devotion is considered to be to God, who seems to be at an infinite distance from oneself. The author of the Vivekachudamani, Adi Shankara, suggests that of all the pathways that lead to liberation, devotion is the supreme practice. However, he qualifies that statement by saying that true devotion is seeking one’s real nature through the practice of self-enquiry.
In other words, these two paths – one that appeals to the mind and the other to the heart – which are traditionally considered to be different and almost opposite are, in fact, the same. Balyani expressed this truth when he said, ‘Whosoever knows their self, knows their Lord’.
Atma vichara, usually translated as ‘self-enquiry’, might be better translated as ‘self-abidance’. It is simply resting in and as being. So in what sense is this investigation into, and resting in, our true nature synonymous with the highest form of devotion to God? The name ‘I’ or ‘I am’ is the key.
‘I’ or ‘I am’ refers to that aspect of ourself that cannot be removed from us; to our essential, irreducible being before it is qualified by the content of experience. When human beings are divested of the temporary qualities they acquire from the content of experience, they shine as they essentially are – utterly intimate, but at the same time ever-present, unlimited, unqualified, immutable. God’s infinite being. As such, a human being is God’s infinite being clothed in human experience.
What Shankara refers to as ‘devotion’ or ‘seeking one’s real nature’ is this discrimination between what we essentially are – that to which we refer when we say ‘I’ or ‘I am’ – and all the qualities of experience that are temporarily added to us. ‘I am’ is, as such, the portal that leads from the content of experience to our essential being – God’s being. Therefore, ‘I am’ is the divine name. It is the ultimate prayer, the highest mantra, the essence of meditation. All that is necessary is to say the divine name ‘I am’ once and allow oneself to be drawn into its referent. Thus, true devotion to God is the returning to our naked being.
If the words ‘I am’ refer to our essential being, then the ego or separate self arises when our being is qualified or conditioned by experience, in which case the ‘I am’ becomes ‘I am this, or that’. Therefore, when we turn away from the content of experience, we surrender the separate self, which can only stand by identifying itself with that content.
As our being loses its limited qualities and stands revealed as infinite being, there is the felt recognition that our being is not only the essence of ourself but the being from which everyone and everything derives its apparently independent existence. Having initially turned away from the content of experience, we now turn back towards it and see everyone and everything as an appearance or manifestation of the same being that we are. In relation to people and animals, this recognition of our shared being is known as love; and in relation to objects and nature, it is known as beauty.
Here, the conflict between our inner and outer experience ceases. Whether our eyes are closed in meditation or prayer or we’re engaged in activities and relationships in the world, we see and feel our being – God’s being – everywhere and in everything.
Experience progressively loses its ability to veil our shared reality. What once appeared to us as a multiplicity and diversity of people, animals and things is now felt to shine in and as the same being. We feel and see God’s presence everywhere or, as the Sufis say, ‘Wherever we look, whatever we experience, that is the face of God’.