What is Neti Neti?

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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

Divine-neti-netiThe 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

neti-neti-surrenderThere 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.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Lyell

    Thank You. Very insightful. I also learned a new word, “ineffable”. And a new term, “neti neti”.

  2. Thirunavukkarasu Sivasubramaniam

    Neti is the combination of two sanskrit words “Na” and “Iti”. “N” is negation. “Iti” indicates “like this” or simply “this”. Hence Neti Neti means “Not this, Not this”. The answers that normally got for the question “Who am I” are negated one by one as not this and not this. The seeker reject the body as I am not body. Likewise I am not mind. I am not intellect and like. Finally arrives “I am the pure consciousness”.

  3. Nicki Peet

    I have been studying and practicing Buddhism in a Sanga me and my friends founded 4-5 years ago. Now I find myself really drawn to Rupert Spira and the Direct Path. I have started practicing Neti Neti. I’ve had several traumatic experiences in the past month. I find myself in what feels like the descriptions of The Dark Night of the Soul- I don’t have any security anymore. Feel like everything I put my hopes in was not true. So a lot of ruminating and dissociation. I’m seeing a therapist. However, I have been studying religion, trying to find connections and so since I was about 20, am now 73. So feel like on my better days that this is the gateway to further realization even though it feels very barren and difficult. Any ideas?

    1. Ivett Giron

      Nicki I do appreciate that you share your experience with us, in gratitude to you. I don’t know what you have been throught lately but I can feel your honesty and your recognition of your situation. I just can say try also to enjoy the little things in life, it is great that we try to be align with our highest or True Self but sometimes we forgot that we are also in this “reality” or dimension to experience life in its fulness. So be gentle with yourself, compassionate and allow yourself to enjoy little things in your daily life. To put a bit of sweetness in your daily experience. Hari Om

  4. krishna Heda

    Neti Neti means becoming and growing again. Once we acheive a goal, we move to another bigger goal.Once we have realised something – we look for some more unknown aspects – Neti Neti means continue evolution and growth.
    This also signifies that two small words can be understood in different ways – than the potential to know is how much – it can be infinite.

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