When Worlds Collide: A Dialogue between Sigmund Freud and Nisargadatta Maharaj
It was the spring of 1935 and an elderly Sigmund Freud was finding himself in somewhat of an existential crisis. Years ago, Freud had been diagnosed with cancer and sensing that his time would soon come to an end, Freud spent much time in introspection. Despite decades of developing theories and attempting to understand human nature, Freud still felt a void which he could not explain. During this time Freud started to loosen his ridged grip on his theories and started to open up to new ideas. One of Freud’s students, Fritz, was very fond of an Indian Sage by the name of Nisargadatta. Freud’s student had been exchanging correspondence with the young sage for many years now and had often mentioned him in their dialogue. While Freud was generally ambivalent in regards to the teachings of this man, his curiosity grew, and eventually he announced he would travel to Bombay, India to meet with the sage.
Nisargadatta was known in India as a Jnani, one who has attainted enlightenment through the means of knowledge. Traditionally there are two main means of enlightenment. One is through the path of devotion, or Bhakti, and the other, the path of knowledge, or Jnana. Nisargadatta was a simple man who had a family and ran a small stand in the streets of Bombay selling hand-rolled cigarettes known as bidis.
Freud and Fritz arrived in India later that month. The experience for Freud was almost overwhelming as he walked through the busy streets of Bombay. The two walked in awe of the destitute conditions which were littered with nomadic holy men and vagrants. Sounds of chanting from nearby temples fused with the sounds of automobile horns reminded these two that they were a long way from home. Fritz checked the directions he had received and realized that they were standing in front of Nisargadatta’s simple home. As they approached, a tense Fritz reached out with his shaky hand to press the buzzer to Nisargadatta’s home. The door unlocked and both men made their way to Nisargadatta’s second story abode.
As they entered, they were engulfed by incense and cigarette smoke. Freud began feeling light-headed as the air was thick and the energy in the room was intense. Disciples sat on the rugs on the floor in a room covered with pictures of holy men. An attendant motioned for the two men to come up to the front and sit in the chairs adjacent to Nisargadatta.
Nisargadatta stared at the two men as they sat. There was a fire in his eyes that burned intensely and a smile that almost seemed unworldly. This moment, which perhaps was only a few seconds, felt like an eternity. Dialogue ensued.
NM: You’ve arrived.
SF: Yes, thank you for allowing us into your home.
Fritz: It’s very nice to finally meet you.
NM: It’s my pleasure.
Nisargadatta continued to stare, as both men became almost mesmerized by his glance.
SF: Well, I’ve heard a bit about you from my student here, Fritz. He tells me that you have realized the meaning of life and the true nature of man. I have come to the conclusion that man is merely an organism that is subject to primal drives which are repressed by social structures. Such is man’s plight, just a victim to his desires that results in unavoidable conflict.
NM: These are wonderfully and well thought out concepts, but nonetheless still in the realm of concepts. All thoughts, beliefs, ideas are dependent on an “I” that doesn’t have any inherent existence. This “I” is purely a conceptual “I” which only exists in your imagination and in the imaginations of others. You reinforce this false sense of “I” and others reinforce it through their interactions with you.
SF: This is nonsense. I’m right here. What do you mean I don’t exist!
NM: We use this word “I” so liberally but we never bother to investigate what “I” is. You say “I” how do you define “I”?
SF: That seems like a silly question. Well, I’m Sigmund Freud, born in 1856 in Vienna, Father of psychoanalysis. Surely you have heard of me?
NM: You find it so easy to define yourself. For me, it is impossible. Anything that you can perceive cannot be you. The fundamental problem isn’t the questions, it’s the questioner. We assume the questioner to be real, solid, and tangible. But the reality is that the questioner has no inherent existence outside of your imagination. Don’t take my word for this, but examine for yourself. Who are you?
SF: You’re asking me?
SF: I’m Sigmund Freud.
NM: So you are just a name, a symbolic sound that comes out of your mouth?
SF: Umm, no…
NM: So you are simply the collection of your entire past commingled into this personality?
SF: Yes. Just a man who is compelled to act on the drives of the ID and is forced to repress these drives. Man is nothing more than an animal who acts on drives and deals with conflicts that arise from repressing these drives.
NM: You don’t know who you are. Investigate who you are. You believe that you are the sum total of all your past experiences all commingled and creating this personality, Sigmund. The truth is that “Sigmund” is an impostor. Do you understand?
SF: I have no idea what you’re talking about.
NM: Let me ask you a question. Who would you be if I were to erase your entire memory?
SF: I’d be nothing. There would be nothing.
NM: So when you were born, were you or were you not? You had no concepts, no beliefs. A self-concept as a separate individual didn’t even exist, but yet you were, right?
SF: I suppose so…
NM: You see then beyond the conceptual self there is a “Self”. So then who would you be if I were to erase your entire past in this very moment?
SF: (silence) I don’t know.
NM: This “I don’t know” is who you are. You are that! You have through conditioning, social structures, so on and so forth superimposed this individual Sigmund Freud over your true identity.
SF: But I am here, talking to you!
NM: Perhaps it would be better if you replace the word “I” for “it”. So let’s rephrase that statement. “It” is here, talking to “it”.
SF: These are all just semantics.
NM: They most certainly aren’t. If you can observe your thoughts, your personality, your body how can you be the object of observation? You are the subject of observation, that one that observes, you cannot be that which you observe. It’s not possible! How many of you are there? You are the perceiver, not the perceived!
SF: So then what is this perceiver?
NM: You may assign it any concept you want, it doesn’t matter. Some call it consciousness, some call it awareness. Here in India we call it “Self”, Atman or God. This perceiver has no qualities. For the sake of our conversation here when we talk about our true identity, the subject of perception, the perceiver, I will refer to it as the “Self”. So are you with me? There is the “Self” which is your true identity. And then there is Sigmund, which is a conceptual identity which exists solely in your imagination and the imagination of others.
NM: The character Sigmund, seem tense. Would you like a cigarette?
SF: No thank you. I gave it up years ago. Developed cancer as a result.
Fritz: I’ll have one please.
SF: By the way, what is a holy man like you doing smoking anyway!
NM: My body kept a few habits which may as well continue till it dies. There is no harm in them. How long one lives doesn’t matter. Death happens to the body, not to the real you. Only that which is an illusion dies, the real does not die. The real you is timeless and beyond birth and death.
SF: I’m a very old man and do not have much time left. Are you implying that I will not die?
NM: Sigmund Freud will most certainly die. But who you are in truth, will not. Remember you are not this personality you wear called Sigmund; you are that which is prior to the façade you wear. Sigmund has been superimposed over your true identity.
SF: You say all these words, but they are just words. Do you really believe what you say?
NM: It is not a matter of belief but of experience. This IS the experience that is taking place. I have totally and completely embodied the “Self”. My sense of identity has totally shifted into “that” birthless/deathless essence. It’s not that I’m in connection with it, I am it! You focus all your attention on your personality and the matters of this world. Turn your attention inwards towards that consciousness as often as possible and slowly your identity will shift back into that. With constant and conscious determination, you will realize experientially not intellectually that what I speak of is truth.
SF: Errr… So if you’re saying nothing is real and I’m not real how did ‘this’ all start?
NM: When you were born, you had no identity. I believe even scholars in your field recognize this. They say that a child doesn’t have a sense of individual identity until about 2 or 3 years of age. You could be in a room with a child of this age and ask them how many people are in the room and they will tell you one. Soon after, the belief “I am separate” is accepted by the child. The child then starts developing what you psychologists call schemas, likes, dislikes, preferences, and beliefs. This child then gets lost in this conceptual personality and lives life as a ‘sleepwalker’, believing itself to be real and making up all sorts of fantastic dramas along the way. A famous Indian sage, Ramana Maharshi used to say, “go back the way you came in.” In the same way you created this entire pseudo-reality, you uncreate it. Enlightement, truth, self-realization is not about learning anything new, but rather unlearning everything you’ve learned. Surrendering to the mystery. Realizing that the issue isn’t answering questions but realizing the truth about the one that asks the questions and demands answers. The entire human drama is nothing more than a colossal case of mistaken identity!
SF: This is all so confusing. What about the innate drives that drive the organism?
NM: What about them? They might act up or not. It doesn’t matter. Where is the issue of these innate drives if one’s sense of identity is rooted in the “Self” and sees the personality to be illusory?
SF: But there is still conflict. These drives still arise and socializing structures create conflict.
NM: Create conflict to whom? There is no one to create conflict with. A thought might surface regarding potential conflict but one’s identity is so firmly rooted in the “Self” it is seen as just passing scenery. Whether it’s a thought or a singing bird outside, it’s still the object of perception having nothing to do with who I AM.
SF: On second thought, I’d like a cigarette.
Fritz: Might I have another?
SF: I’ve come here for answers and I feel more confused than ever.
NM: That is because you identify with a “you” that demands answers. The paradox is that the very one that is seeking truth is that one that is getting in the way of truth! Quit looking for answers. Your insistence on answers is what has created all of your problems. Search instead in your own experience of who you are prior to thought. There is a part of you that does not fluctuate. Find that and stay with that.
SF: Remind me again what do you mean of when you say truth?
NM: Truth is reality of who you are, the “Self”.
SF: I’m still really confused and to be quite honest I’m getting frustrated with you. You’re just talking in circles.
NM: Who is getting frustrated?
SF: I AM!
NM: Who are you?
SF: Sigmund Freud!
NM: Sigmund Freud is that mask you wear. It is your conceptual identity. You are the underlying consciousness, the “Self”! You have forgotten who you are! This is a silly as someone wearing a costume believing they are the character they have dressed up as.
SF: I need to sit with this for a while.
NM: As long as you’d like.
Fritz: Can I use the bathroom?
NM: Gupta, please show this gentleman where the washroom is.
SF: Let me start asking you questions now.
NM: Certainly, anything you’d like.
SF: I have developed many theories and an entire new field of science has been created as a result of this work. What is your belief about my theories? About psychology?
NM: These methods and techniques that you have developed might work for particular individuals, but you have not gotten to the root of the problem.
SF: The root of the problem is the unconscious drives!
NM: The root of the problem is that each individual takes their conceptual selves to be their real “Self”. Where is the issue of psychological illness when there is no identification with the one to whom which the illness is taking place? Appearances in my mind are viewed just objectively as I view an automobile passing down the street, just scenery having nothing to do with who I AM.
Fritz: What did I miss?
SF: Nothing much. Your friend just told me that everything I’ve done is a waste of time.
NM: There is no such thing as a waste of time. There is no such thing as right or wrong. These are all just concepts in the mind. Right and wrong exist solely in the individual and collective imagination and nowhere else.
SF: But you’re telling me I’m wrong.
NM: No! I’m telling you that “you” don’t exist. Your ideas are just ideas as my ideas are just ideas. What form the ideas take doesn’t matter. Drop all concepts, drop even what I tell you, drop it all and then and only then will you realize the supreme state of the “Self.”
SF: You are confusing me more and more.
NM: That is because you are continuing to try to understand within concepts and within the realm of thought. Instead of searching for answers, search instead for the one that has the questions. See the reality in him, see that he has no inherent existence. To expound and propagate concepts is simple, you have been doing that your entire life. To drop all concepts is difficult and rare.
SF: Then why do you talk so much?
NM: I talk because westerners demand concepts, demand ideas, demand answers. Our scientific and conceptual minds have imprisoned us. Our desire to label, manipulate, conceptualize, understand has created a conceptual prison and has solidified the “false I”. The creation of a question creates the problem. It is true that the real teaching is in silence. Many sages in this country never talk or give discourses but rather just sit in silence.
SF: Not a fan of silence. It makes me uncomfortable.
Nisargadatta then stood up from his seat and started pacing back and forth flailing his arms. His voice started getting loud and serious.
NM: Who is uncomfortable?! Who is not a fan of silence?! Answer these questions. Show me this mind that is uncomfortable! Do you not see that anything you can perceive is not you? You can only know what you are not; you can’t know who you are in truth. Who you are in truth is beyond mind. You are a sleepwalker who has created his own prison with your concepts. You are like a beggar who is sitting on a treasure chest. Mind is the obstacle that keeps you from truth. Show me this conceptual self that is uncomfortable! Show me who you are! And until you do, I do not want you back in my house. Get out now!
Silence engulfed the room. Freud and Fritz just sat there flabbergasted; either man could not talk even if they had tried. Nisargadatta just stared down at them. A smile beamed from ear to ear, radiating love, totally incongruent with the explosion they had just witnessed.
The two men quietly got up from their seats and exited the room. They were in a daze over what had just happened as they walked back to their hotel. During the 15-minute walk back not a single man uttered a word. As they strolled in silence they realized that whatever had happened in that room would change them forever.
“All that a guru can tell you is: ‘My dear Sir, you are quite mistaken about yourself. You are not the person you take yourself to be.'”
“To expound and propagate concepts is simple, to drop all concepts is difficult and rare”
“There is nothing to practise. To know yourself, be yourself. To be yourself, stop imagining yourself to be this or that. Just be. Let
your true nature emerge. Don’t disturb your mind with seeking”
My thanks to John Komperda.