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Suggestions for Reading Nisargadatta Maharaj's I Am That

"What I believe sets Maharaj apart from other teachers of the highest attainment is his life experience prior to his enlightenment."

by Ken Russell

I know of no other book that has the potency of I Am That for a person seeking spiritual transformation. Many other books explain spiritual matters far better and more understandably, but no book compares to I Am That as a catalyst for spiritual growth. This is not because its author, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, is more advanced than some other teachers, such as the Buddha, Sri Ramana Maharshi, Meister Eckhart, or Rumi. They are all pretty much equivalent in their spiritual evolvement. What I believe sets Maharaj apart from other teachers of the highest attainment is his life experience prior to his enlightenment.

Buddha was a prince. Ramana was enlightened at age sixteen with little life experience, Meister Eckhart was a priest, and Rumi was the son of a Sufi sage and raised to be his successor. Maharaj, on the other hand, was a small businessman in Bombay, India, making bidis (hand-rolled Indian cigarettes) for a number of small stores that he owned. He had little education and, for most of his life, not much interest in spiritual matters. He was married and raised a number of children. In other words, he was involved in what Zorba described as "the whole catastrophe," the ordinary life of an ordinary person. This familiarity with ordinary life allowed him to give his teachings a pungency that others with sheltered or restricted lifestyles could not attain.

Another significant factor in fostering the power of I Am That is the quality brought to it by the translator, Maurice Frydman. Maharaj spoke in Marathi, an Indian dialect, so the many books of his dialogues now available have all been translated into English and edited. But I Am That is distinguished because of the quality of Frydman's connection and rapport with Maharaj. Indeed, Maharaj considered Frydman to be a jnani, someone who has realized the Self. Because of this remarkable attunement, Frydman was eminently qualified to capture the full power and scope of Maharaj's utterances.

When reading I Am That, it is helpful to keep in mind that Maharaj is addressing a wide variety of people on the entire spectrum of spiritual paths and that these people are on all levels, from those not even spiritually inclined to those a hair's breadth from awakening. Hence, some of the material will not be relevant to you at all; it may even be off-putting. For instance, the devotional path generally does not work for westerners, and when he talks about that you may actually react negatively to what he says. On the other hand, when he is talking to someone on a path suitable for you, he may be talking on too elementary a level or he may be talking at a level beyond where you are. You may find it helpful to just open the book randomly and read only what appeals to you. If you open to a section that doesn't appeal to you or that you do not understand, simply close the book and open to another selection. If that appeals to you, read it; if not, close and open the book again.

Occasionally, people find a section that they don't fully understand but that appeals to them nonetheless. It's fine if that happens to you; it means that what you are reading is resonating with something deep within you. This can serve to evoke positive changes from within, where the true teacher lies. Predictably, as my students work on themselves, they invariably understand more of what Maharaj is saying. He is not speaking to the intellect. To understand him requires that you have an experience or an intuition of what he is referring to. I know that when I first started reading I Am That in 1976 in India, I did not understand much of it. But there was something so compelling about his words that I would borrow the book whenever I could.

Maharaj's words touch people in different ways. For example, his words may engage the intellect. This is the least useful way because the intellect or mind is the seat of our problems. It may appear that you understand what he is saying, but this can be deceptive. We may think we understand words or concepts of which we have no experience. Or, perhaps, we interpret the words according to some personal understanding rather than grasping what Maharaj is pointing to. This is always the danger in working with a book rather than a teacher; your mind is free to interpret readings in a way that is comfortable and unthreatening. Yet, this way of reading can be useful. It can open the mind to possibilities, especially the possibility that the mind itself is very limited.

But the best way to read Maharaj is to allow him to touch your depths. Though we believe ourselves to be the body-mind, we are actually something far vaster, a something that words cannot convey, though such terms as Buddha-nature, Christ-consciousness, the Self, and the soul, have attempted to point to this vastness. We all have a deep knowing, however buried that might be. We all have an inner guru waiting to help and guide us. Maharaj's words have the ability to touch us at that level, beyond the normal functioning of our mind. His words have a way of slipping through the mind's defenses to stimulate and evoke something from deep within. Repeated readings will sensitize you to a potential you may not have previously recognized.

To allow the words to touch you at the deepest level, it is best to read I Am That in a meditative state. All this means is being as quiet as possible when reading it and being quiet for a while after you finish the selection. So, take a few moments before reading your selection, and settle into yourself. This can be as easy as taking three to five breaths and being fully attentive to the breathing. If you are familiar with tuning in, that is an excellent preface to reading Maharaj. Some people find chanting helpful. Others find the relaxed space after exercising to be helpful. Once you have quieted down, simply read the selection a few times without attempting to understand it mentally. Then close your eyes and sit quietly for a while. You may remember the words in your mind, but try not to engage with them intellectually. And don't expect any particular experience. Nothing has to happen in your conscious awareness for his words to work on you. If you do this consistently, you will begin to notice changes in your life.

An excellent time to read Maharaj is right before you drift off to sleep. It is helpful to take some time to let the mind drop whatever it is occupied with—what could have been, what should have been, what to do tomorrow—and just spend a few minutes with I Am That. When you are sleeping, the conscious mind is mostly in abeyance and deeper levels are operating. It is like dropping seeds into fertilized ground. They will sprout over time and bring an increasing clarity to your life, and you will find yourself more inclined to be at peace. It may appear to be magic, but the words of an enlightened master have enormous power. You just have to create the receptivity.

Maharaj's words are rich and potent, and they are best savored in small sections. You don't need to plow through an entire dialogue, much of which is of little interest, merely to appease your mind. Just simply read what appeals to you. Sometimes one sentence is rich enough to stop and spend time with. Some people find it helpful to mark favorite selections so they can return to them easily. Removable flags, available in office supply stores, work great for this.

Another way to make yourself available to Maharaj's transmission—for indeed, we are not looking for more knowledge but for a sympathetic resonance with his state of being—is to apply whatever you do understand of his teachings to your life. This will result in rapid growth if done consistently with sincerity. You can do this by following one of the many hints he gives throughout the book. For instance, on page 382 he says, "Look at consciousness as something that happens to you and not in you, as something external, alien, superimposed." If you play and experiment with this, the effect will be very powerful. He goes on to say, "If you learn to look at your consciousness as a sort of fever, personal and private, in which you are enclosed like a chick in its shell, out of this very attitude will come the crisis which will break the shell." Try experimenting with this; try applying this understanding to your life. You will not be disappointed if you put in the effort. As Maharaj repeats many times, it is your earnestness, your sincerity that is important.

Another way is to just take any quote that appeals to you and try to apply it to your life. Use it as a focal point to question your life. Or perhaps as a fulcrum to leverage you out of your conditionings. For instance, on page 206, Maharaj says, "Self-limitation is the very essence of personality." That is succinct and profound; but what does it mean to your life? How do you limit yourself? What are your beliefs, and do they in fact limit you? How can limitations be the essence of your personality when you have done so much? Continued probing and questioning, punctuated by periods of quiet, will yield much.

On the same page, he says, "Don't try to understand! Enough if you do not misunderstand. Don't rely on your mind for liberation. It is the mind that brought you into bondage. Go beyond it altogether." This could prompt you to begin an examination of your life for what you misunderstand. I guarantee you will have an ample supply of misunderstandings. And then, how do you go beyond the mind? You might start by noting that you are aware of your mind, so there must be something beyond the mind that is aware of the mind's activities, something that is not the mind. That is what Maharaj is pointing to.

However you approach I Am That, if you do it with sincerity, seeking the truth, you will most certainly benefit. There is no particular way; it is highly personal. Each person finds her or his own way of opening to the power of I Am That. On page 114, Maharaj says, "The seed of spiritual life grows in silence and in darkness until its appointed hour." Water and fertilize that seed with I Am That.

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