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We know there is wind because of what it does, even though we can’t see.  It bends the boughs of trees and I feel its wisps upon my face.

Today on the trail the wind brought to mind something I read once by William James, the famous Harvard psychologist and philosopher.

He studied religious people’s experiences and gave a series of lectures about his observations at Edinburgh.  The lectures were published in a Modern Library Classic in 1902, which has been in print ever since, Varieties of Religious Experience.

James says he personally never had experiences similar to those that his subjects reported.  But he was quick to accept that they were reporting on real experiences and discussed the most common spiritual experiences among them.


My Take

I differ from James in that I have had a variety of these experiences and easily identify with them.

I’ve studied a great many books by those who’ve shared their experiences.  And while I identify with their experiences, I have difficulty with the explanations of what has been found.

The Katha Upanishad relates a tale that best comports with what I’ve found in meditation and my walks in the woods.

I’m going to quote from the Katha as translated from the Sanskrit by Shree Purohit Swami in his The Ten Principle Upanishads.  It’s a bit long, but worth reading the full length.  You have my permission to copy it.  And it is out of copyright by the Swami.  In fact, his book is now available free on the Internet.  Just Google it and you’ll find the whole text.

The Katha Upanishad is about a conversation between a young man, Nachiketas and Death, who is named Yama in Sanskrit.  Nachketas asks questions, Yama gives wise answers.  So here are the portions meaningful to me:


Katha Upanishad

Wajashrawas, wanting to go to heaven, gave away all his property.

He had a son by name Nachiketas, who though but a boy, thought to himself,

‘He has not earned much of heaven through this generosity.  His cows can neither eat, drink, calve nor give milk.’


He went to his father and said: ‘Father, have you given me to somebody?’

He repeated the question a second and a third time (after his father told him that no he hadn’t given him to anyone.)

At last his father, becoming impatient, said: ‘I give you to Death.’


Nachiketas thought: ‘Whether I die now or later

matters little. But I would like to know what happens if Death gets me now.’


Wajashrawas would have taken back his words but Nachiketas said: ‘Think of those who went before and those that will come after. Their word was their bond.’


Nachiketas went into the forest and sat in meditation within the house of Death.

Death said to Nachiketas: ‘A guest should be respected. You have lived three days in my house without eating and drinking. I bow to you! Take from me three wishs and I shall be the better for it.’


Nachiketas said: ‘I will take as my first wish that I may be reconciled to my father. That he may be happy. That he may keep no grudge against me but make me welcome.


‘Death said: ‘I shall so arrange things, that when your father gets you back he shall sleep well at night, his grudge forgotten and love you as before.’


Nachiketas said: ‘I ask that Fire be my second wish,’


Death told him,’Worship the triple Fire: knowledge, meditation, practice. The triple process: evidence, inference, experience. The triple duty: study, concentration, renunciation.

Understand that everything comes from Spirit, that Spirit alone is sought and found. Attain everlasting peace. Mount beyond birth and death.


‘When man understands himself, understands universal Self.. Then shall he, though still on earth, break the bonds of death, beyond sorrow, mount into heaven.


‘Nachiketas! Now choose again, choose the third wish.’


Nachiketas said: ‘Some say that when man dies he continues to exist, others that he does not. Explain, and that shall be my third wish.’


Death said: ‘This question has been discussed by the gods. It is deep and difficult. Choose another wish, Nachiketas! Do not be hard. Do not compel me to explain,’


Nachiketas said: ‘Death! you say that the gods have discussed it, that it is deep and difficult. What explanation can be as good as yours? What gift compares with that?’


Death said: ‘Take sons and grandsons, all long-lived, cattle and horses, elephants and gold, take a great kingdom. Anything but this.


‘Wealth, long life, Nachiketas! Empire. Anything whatever. Satisfy the heart’s desire.


‘Pleasures beyond human reach. Fine women with carriages, their musical instruments. Enjoy. But do not ask what lies beyond death.’


Nachiketas said: ‘These things pass. Keep it all for yourself. Wealth cannot satisfy a man. I will not change my wish. Say where man goes after death. This, which you have made so mysterious, is the only wish I will take.’

Death said: ‘The good is one, the pleasant another. Both command the soul. Who follows the good, attains sanctity. Who follows the pleasant, drops out of the race.


‘Beloved! Logic brings no man to the Self. Yet when a wise man shows Him, He is found. Your longing eyes are turned towards reality. Would that I had always such a pupil.


‘Nachiketas! The fulfilment of all desire, the conquest of the world, freedom from fear, unlimited pleasure, magical power, all were yours, but you renounced them all, brave and wise man.


‘The Self knows all, is not born, does not die, is not the effect of any cause, is eternal, self-existent, imperishable, ancient.


‘The Self is lesser than the least, greater than the greatest. He lives in all hearts. When senses are at rest, free from desire, man finds Him and mounts beyond sorrow.


‘Self rides in the chariot of the body, intellect the firm-footed charioteer, discursive mind the reins.

‘Senses are the horses, objects of desire the roads. When Self is joined to body, mind, sense, none but He enjoys.


‘When a man lacks steadiness, unable to control his mind, his senses are unmanageable horses.
‘But if he control his mind, a steady man, they are manageable horses.


‘The impure, self-willed, unsteady man misses the goal and is born again and again.


‘The self-controlled, steady, pure man goes to that goal from which he never returns.


‘He who calls intellect to manage the reins of his mind reaches the end of his journey, finds there all-pervading Spirit.


‘Above the senses are the objects of desire, above the objects of desire mind, above the mind intellect, above the intellect manifest nature.


‘Above manifest nature the unmanifest seed, above the unmanifest seed, God. God is the goal; beyond Him nothing.


‘God does not proclaim Himself, He is everybody’s secret, but the intellect of the sage has found Him .


‘The wise man would lose his speech in mind, mind in the intellect, intellect in nature, nature in God and so find peace.


‘Get up! Stir yourself! Learn wisdom at the Master’s feet. A hard path the sages say, the sharp edge of a razor.


‘He who knows the soundless, odourless, tasteless, intangible, formless, deathless, supernatural, undecaying, beginningless, endless, unchangeable Reality, springs out of the mouth of Death.


‘Those who hear and repeat correctly this ancient dialogue between Death and Nachiketas are approved by holy men.


Death said: ‘God made sense turn outward, man therefore looks outward, not into himself. Now and again a daring soul, desiring immortality, has looked back and found himself.


‘The ignorant man runs after pleasure, sinks into the entanglements of death; but the wise man, seeking the undying, does not run among things that die.


‘He through whom we see, taste, smell, feel, hear, enjoy, knows everything. He is that Self.


‘Knowing that the individual self, eater of the fruit of action, is the universal Self, maker of past and future, he knows he has nothing to fear.


‘That which is here, is hereafter; hereafter is here. He who thinks otherwise wanders from death to death.


‘Tell the mind that there is but One; he who divides the One, wanders from death to death.


‘When that Person in the heart, no bigger than a thumb, is known as maker of past and future, what more is there to fear? That is Self.


‘As rain upon a mountain ridge runs down the slope, the man that has seen the shapes of Self runs after them everywhere.


‘Who meditates on self-existent, pure intelligence, ruler of the body, the city of eleven gates, grieves no more, is free, forever free.


‘He is sun in the sky, fire upon the altar, guest in the house, air that runs everywhere, Lord of lords, living in reality. He abounds everywhere, is renewed in the sacrifice, born in water, springs out of the soil, breaks out of the mountain; power: reality.


‘When He, the bodiless, leaves the body, exhausts the body, what leaves? That is Self.


‘Man lives by more than breath. He lives by the help of another who makes it come and go.


‘Nachiketas! I will tell you the secret of undying Spirit and what happens after death.


‘Some enter the womb, waiting for a moving body, some pass into unmoving things: according to deed and knowledge.


‘Who is awake, who creates lovely dreams, when man is lost in sleep? That Person through whom all things live, beyond whom none can go; pure, powerful, immortal Spirit.


‘As fire, though one, takes the shape of whatsoever it consumes, so the Self, though one, animating all things, takes the shape of whatsoever it animates; yet stands outside.


‘As air, though one, takes the shape of whatsoever it enters, so the Self, though one, animating all things, takes the shape of whatsoever it animates; yet stands outside.


‘As the sun, the eye of the world, is not touched by the impurity it looks upon, so the Self, though one, animating all things, is not moved by human misery but stands outside.


‘He is One, Governor, Self of all, Creator of many out of one. He that dare discover Him within, rejoices; what other dare rejoice?


‘He is imperishable among things that perish. Life of all life, He, though one, satisfies every man’s desire. He that dare discover Him within, knows peace; what other dare know peace?’


Nachiketas asked: ‘Where shall I find that joy beyond all words? Does He reflect another’s light or shine of Himself?’


Death replied: ‘Neither sun, moon, stars, fire nor lightning lights Him. When He shines, everything begins to shine. Everything in the world reflects His light.’

‘Eternal creation is a tree, with roots above, branches on the ground; pure eternal Spirit, living in all things and beyond whom none can go; that is Self.


‘He who knows that the senses belong not to Spirit but to the elements, that they are born and die, grieves no more.


‘Mind is above sense, intellect above mind, nature above intellect, the unmanifest above nature.

‘Above the unmanifest is God, unconditioned, filling all things. He who finds Him enters immortal life, becomes free.


‘No eye can see Him, nor has He a face that can be seen, yet through meditation and through discipline He can be found in the heart. He that finds Him enters immortal life.


‘When mind and senses are at rest, when the discrimination of intellect is finished, man comes to his final condition.


‘He cannot be known through discourse, nor found by the mind or the eye. He that believes in His existence finds Him. How can a man who does not so believe find Him?


‘God, the inmost Self, no bigger than a thumb, lives in the heart. Man should strip him of the body, as the arrow-maker strips the reed, that he may know Him as perpetual and pure; what can He be but perpetual and pure?’


Then Nachiketas having learnt from Death this knowledge, learnt the method of meditation, rose above desire and death, found God: who does the like, finds Him.

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