What it is: “I Am That” is a collection of transcripted talks of the teachings of an Indian spiritual teacher who went by the name Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. As Amazon.com says, “‘I Am That’ preserves Maharaj’s dialogues with the followers who came from around the world seeking his guidance in destroying false identities. The sage’s sole concern was with human suffering and the ending of suffering. It was his mission to guide the individual to an understanding of his true nature and the timelessness of being. He taught that mind must recognize and penetrate its own state of being, ‘being this or that, here or that, then or now,’ but just timeless being.”
Nisargadatta Maharaj was born in 1897 with the name Maruti Shivrampant Kambli, and lived a simple uneducated life, as a husband and shopkeeper in the slums of Bombay, until he died in 1981. He is considered by some however to have attained the supreme state of “moksha” (Sanskrit for “enlightenment” or “liberation”), and to be one of the deepest modern masters of the Hindu school of Advaita Vedanta (emphasizing direct nondualistic realization of truth).
In the words of Advaita scholar Dr. Robert Powell, “Like the Zen masters of old, Nisargadatta’s style is abrupt, provocative, and immensely profound — cutting to the core and wasting little effort on inessentials. His terse but potent sayings are known for their ability to trigger shifts in consciousness, just by hearing, or even reading them.”
Description: If you want to understand “enlightenment” not just as a concept, but actually learn how it feels to disidentify with yourself as a finite human being, and to instead experience yourself as an expressive action of the entire universe, then this may be the perfect book for you. Nisargadatta’s teachings are relentlessly confrontational and cosmically mind-blowing. If you are ready for them, the words in this book can take every belief (and perceptual) system that you have, and blow them out of the water, stretching you wider than you could have conceived possible. Some times in reading it, I have felt that this book is IT, the end point of the whole journey.
Anecdote: The philosopher Ken Wilber points out that many of the modern enlightened masters may have been spiritually liberated but were not fully integrated, i.e. were unhealthy in certain areas of their life besides spirituality. He explains that just as it wouldn’t be that surprising if an Olympic athlete couldn’t fix your computer or know his or her way around the streets of a city without a map, so we shouldn’t necessarily expect fully liberated beings to give us good advice about life and love, or be perfectly emotionally and mentally healthy beings outside of their liberation. Nisargadatta is an example of this – from his state of enlightenment and his role as part-time role as a guru to many, he also ran a store that mostly sold leaf-rolled cigarettes, chain smoked, and died of throat cancer.
Potential Turn-Offs: If you are new to spiritual practice, I think that this is probably not the book for you – I recommend building up to it with some other books, teachers, and experiences first. First off, a lot of what Nisargadatta teaches in the book is difficult to conceptually comprehend – it’s anything but common sense. Also, I’ve heard it said that the reason why we aren’t all directly in touch with the deep enlightened spiritual truth of life here and now is that it is so terrifyingly raw. Reading this book may leave you a believer of that theory.
What You Got Out Of It: Reading “I Am That” had me finally understand the mystical experience, not as a concept, but, from the inside, what it actually feels like. Nisargasdatta dispenses with pleasantries and gets right directly to the heart of the matter. This book is one that takes time to read and absorb; I can only handle the intensity of the book in three to fifteen page doses. After such a reading, however, I feel immense, clear, transcendent, and unstainable. I am not aware of a book that gets any realer.
See that you are not what you appear to be. Fight with all of your strength against the idea that you are nameable and describable. You are not. Refuse to think of yourself in terms of this or that. When you do not think yourself to be this or that, all conflict ceases. Any other attempt to do something about your problems is bound to fail, for what is caused by illusion can be undone only in freedom from illusion. You cannot be rid of problems without abandoning illusions. There is no other way out of misery, which you have created for yourself through blind acceptance without investigation. Suffering is a call for inquiry, all pain needs investigation.
Do not be too lazy to think. When you do, you will see that, fundamentally, all happens in mind only. In reality, nothing is lacking and nothing is needed, all motion is on the surface only. In the depths, there is only perfect peace, you have never moved away from perfection. Hence, all idea of self-improvement is conventional and verbal.
All your problems arise because you have defined and therefore limited yourself. There is no such thing as a person, there are only restrictions and limitations. The sum total of these defines the “person”. You think you know yourself when you know what you are. But you never know who you are. The person merely appears to be, like the space within an empty flower pot appears to have the shape and volume and smell of the pot. You have enclosed yourself in time and space, squeezed yourself into the span of a lifetime and the volume of a body and thus created the innumerable conflicts of life and death, pleasure and plain, hope and fear. Your feeling yourself to be a separate person is due to the illusion of space and time; you imagine yourself to be at a certain point occupying a certain volume; your personality is due to your self-identification with this body and mind in time and space. In reality, time and space exist in you, you do not exist in them. They are modes of perception. Time and space are like words written on paper; the paper is real, the words merely a convention of mind. The mind creates time and space and takes its own creations for reality. All is here and now, but we usually don’t see it. Truly, all that has ever existed anywhere is in me and by me. There is nothing else. The very idea of “else” is a calamity.
— Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj