By Sean O’Donnell
“Love says ‘I am everything.’ Wisdom says ‘I am nothing.’ Between the two, my life flows.” –Nisargadatta Maharaj
Negative theology is a type of religious and philosophical practice with roots that can be traced through several prominent lineages―including Ancient Greece, early Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
This practice shows up in the Hindu tradition as a technique described in the Upanishads as neti neti—meaning “neither this nor that.” This approach is featured in Jnana Yoga―the yoga of direct knowledge―as a path to Self-realization. It is a way of using the mind to negate and disidentify with all names and forms in order to distinguish between the limited and relative world and the eternal, unchanging perfection that is the Absolute Reality. Ultimately, whatever can be conceived by the mind is not Brahman, and the practice of neti neti will eventually point to this.
How to Practice Neti Neti
The actual practice of neti neti is based on the quite broad premise of simply taking any thought or object that the mind can conceive and telling yourself neti neti―that that object is not the Supreme Reality. The object could be anything: a new car, your job title, or your cat. Another way to practice this approach is to think of statements like “I am my name,” “I am my body,” or “I am my personality,” and then disidentify from them, negating them with neti neti.
When I do this, I find that the mind eventually tires of putting on labels, and I start to slide into modes of seeking that originate from somewhere deeper.
When I first learned of this practice, it seemed quite esoteric. It surely resonates more with some people than others, but it can be useful for both beginners and advanced practitioners. As a beginner, I find it useful to contemplate how this concept of negation is paralleled in other, more superficial aspects of life. It is a natural way of seeking truth. You may have applied this method in an attempt to find romantic partnerships—going through the process of figuring out what doesn’t work for you in order to eventually arrive at what does facilitate your contentment. The same could be said if you are engaging in a conscious relationship with your food. Personally, I came to conscious eating at a time when my diet included an extremely broad spectrum of foods. As I started to consider my choices more thoughtfully, I slowly started eliminating specific items and, even, whole food categories. I continue to refine my ability to discern what works well for my body and what doesn’t.
Ultimately, these are very mundane comparisons to the process of trying to reveal your True Nature, but it helps me to see some parallels in how I’ve used similar processes for much more earthly endeavors.
Is Neti Neti a Bottomless Pit? Yes and No
There are times when I’ve practiced neti neti and felt like it was futile. It can feel that way, and it is, in fact, if you only approach the process with the mind. Going beyond this level is one of the goals of the technique.
Ultimately, neti neti can only get you so far, and can and should be complemented by other Jnana Yoga practices. The true sense of the Divine Reality is, in fact, ineffable. When trying to pin this down with the mind, it feels like a really difficult mystery that cannot be “solved.” But, by accessing deeper layers of the being, the difficult mystery becomes a beautiful mystery, and some sense of understanding can be gained.
To quote Adyashanti, “If this understanding is held only in your head, you can know it but you are not being it. The head is saying, ‘Oh, I know, I’m the mystery,’ and yet your body is acting like it didn’t get the message. It’s saying, ‘I’m still somebody, and I’ve got all these anxious thoughts and wants and desires.’ When we are being it knowingly, the whole being receives the message. And when the whole body receives the message, it’s like air going out of a balloon. When all the contradiction, turmoil, and searching for this and that deflates, there is the experience that the body is an extension of the mystery. Then the body can easily be moved by the mystery, by pure spirit.”
Sean is a Hridaya Yoga student and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of his blog posts here.