The purpose of transcendental meditation is to familiarise with pure consciousness, or the Supreme Reality. It begins with a growing awareness of awareness, behind phenomena, such as thought, feeling and sensation. Once this relationship develops, the journey of exploring the infinite nature of consciousness begins.
Most people, when starting meditation, are caught in the standard mental model of fusing closely with phenomena. There is no distance between thoughts, feelings, sensations, and awareness. As a result, all phenomena are mistaken for reality, for truth.
The earliest victory with a meditation practice is a fleeting glimpse at the spaces between phenomena. Even if this lasts for less than a second, it opens a door. Once this door is ajar, curiosity prises it open.
What is this space? What are its qualities? What is its relationship to mind, body, spirit? What does it teach about who you are, about what true identity?
The Unlimited Space of Awareness
These points of enquiry lead deeper and deeper into the space. The repeated practice of leaning into this space, and feeling its infinite potential, expands awareness. Another way of describing expanded awareness is reaching higher levels of consciousness, or ascension. But they all point to the same practice.
Spaciousness is pure awareness. It’s consciousness in its pristine state, undistorted by narratives, perspectives, judgements, or interpretations of the mind. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, pure consciousness or high awareness is prajña, the true essence of who you are. It resides firmly beyond language, and in its nature is ineffable.
That makes describing it almost futile. In my experience, describing such experiences is a double-edged sword. Humans are creatures of comparison, and it’s incredibly easy to digest someone else’s description, and gravitate towards that as a concept, rather than direct experience. However, a refined map of the territory can help you familiarise yourself with the transcendent.
The Netti Netti Technique
“Love says ‘I am everything.’ Wisdom says ‘I am nothing.’ Between the two, my life flows.”Nisargadatta Maharaj
In the Upanishads, netti netti is sanskrit for not this, not that. This is an instruction for self-enquiry. Self-realisation of your true nature is understood by discerning everything you are not. For example, I am not this body, I am not this thought, I am not this name, etc.
Returning to the default state, most people, when a thought arises, instinctively think I am that. You feel anxiety, and believe I am anxiety. On a macro level, you might feel you are your personality, or your occupation, or your net worth. These are all the ways the ego forms its identity, from repeated “I am” associations.
When you ask yourself “who am I” these associations typically arise. I am this, I am that. But the truth revealed through the netti netti technique is that you are not this, you are not that. Each time acting as a reminder that your truest form is the Supreme Reality, or pure consciousness.
As a meditation, try this by observing the mind, and each time a thought arises, gently repeat netti, netti, netti. The first is a reminder you are not the thought. The second is a reminder you’re not the thinker thinking the thought, the third is simply: I am not thought.
I find the first step the easiest. I can detach from a single thought, aware it is transitory, floating through mind. The second point highlights a very subtle association with the source of thought. Identifying an association with the phantom thinker of thought, the “I” — is tricky, but transformative when experienced. The third step is a reminder your true essence is beyond all thought.
Pure consciousness reveals itself as these self-associations dissolve. When not identifying with phenomenon, the canvas onto which all phenomena is projected becomes clear — as does the source of projection! But what is this experience like? How do you know you’re moving in that direction?
As I mentioned earlier, the crucial caveat is remembering pure consciousness is the remaining substance of netti netti — it’s beyond language, and the moment you attempt to describe it, you’ve already moved away from it, it’s already losing authenticity.
But for the purpose of familiarising, conscious labelling of certain states is useful. Common labels include stillness, wholeness, presence, joy, bliss, expansion, absorption, oneness, connection, pure awareness. Appreciate these labels for what they are: not fixed entities, but descriptors.
Zen koans use spiritual paradoxes to point to truth. In a similar way, certain phrases point towards states of pure consciousness. A few days ago, during a meditation where my mind was incredibly still, I heard a phrase: pure consciousness is hollow without a perimeter. At that moment, this phrase felt apt, and in my own language, helped explain the experience.
It’s paradoxical to the understanding of hollow. The nature of hollowness is subjective, it’s dependent on the perimeter. The hollowness itself is the absence of substance, but that absence of substance has to have a perimeter to make it hollow. Otherwise, it’s just… nothing. But what happens when hollowness is experienced without the context of a perimeter? This is one way I’d attempt to describe awareness.
This might or might not resonate with you. But give it a try. Next time you’re in meditation, once you’re settled, drop that sentence into mind — pure consciousness is hollow without a perimeter — let go, and see what happens.
Awareness Beyond Bodily Boundaries
My version of netti netti is a backward attempt at noticing everything I am not through the senses. I’ll use sensory perception to provide contrast to pure awareness. For example, in becoming aware of the boundaries of my body, I become aware of what is beyond those boundaries.
The deeper my meditation becomes, the more I feel the hollowness of pure consciousness. It’s the space behind it all, including all senses. I pay particular attention to the feeling of contact on my skin. We’re heavily conditioned to equate the feeling of touch and the physical boundaries of the body as the absolute boundary of individual consciousness.
But true essence isn’t confined to the body. In noticing the illusory boundary provided by the sense of touch, I become increasingly aware of the infinite expanse of pure consciousness. Hence, there is no perimeter, no point in which this is contained. It’s hollow, but no perimeters to contextualise this hollowness can be found.
A word of caution to conclude: be wary of the mind’s tendency to unconsciously label awareness. In any given moment, if you begin to sample pure consciousness, a feeling of excitement or attainment can spark an inner-commentary. “Wow, this is pure awareness! I must now be fully enlightened!”
Keep in mind this conscious act of describing experiences has one purpose — to help you understand and familiarise with that space, so you can move deeper into it. It’s not an evaluation or a judgement or ammunition for the ego to explain all the ways in which it is highly spiritually evolved.
Netti netti. Whenever thoughts enter the mind about the state of consciousness you’re in, you’re moving away from whatever state sparked that narrative. Breathe, remind yourself, not this, not that, and return to the space beyond language, beyond commentary, beyond thought.
What labels or descriptions have you used to describe states of pure consciousness?