Neti neti, or the freedom of being nothing


‘Many do enter upon the great inner journey. But what happens when fear comes? Will you be impressed and will fear define and dominate your decisions? Are you willing to feel everything? Is freedom what you want, more than anything? Do you allow love everywhere and to permeate you totally? Are you prepared to be nobody?’Prajnaparamita

One thing that often amazes and amuses me on the spiritual path is how we seem to have turned everything on its head in the modern world. Spiritual truths tend to inform us that how we believe things to be is exactly the opposite from how they really are. For example, take the spiritual aphorism which suggests that you have to die to yourself to become who you truly are. Dying to yourself? Wow. I never understood this fully until I was in India last winter and looked back over the last few years. I noticed that gradually, many things in my life – things I had previously enjoyed and deemed important – had fallen away like overripe fruit, together with ideas, belief systems and the conviction that I knew something. This pruning was coupled with a growing desire to spend as much time as possible in silence and stillness, away from any external stimulation, and an internal subtle happiness that came from being in that state.

Something seems to happen with sustained spiritual practice that melts away our old personality and identification with who we believe we are. It’s like going through an invisible purification process which takes everything that no longer serves our growth away and replaces it with something far more sublime. It can be almost scary because I’m recognizing always more clearly that who I thought I was isn’t who I am at all – and in fact, being ‘me’ is always becoming less important.

Listening to satsangs of spiritual masters has confirmed that I am not going mad and that what I am experiencing is actually quite normal. Being nobody, indeed, being nothing seems to be a prerequisite for progress on the spiritual path. If we’re not empty, empty of our conditionings, cravings and aversions, then there’s no room for the Divine to enter. ‘To live authentically’, the philosopher Heidegger wrote, ‘is to live in the full awareness of the nothingness of one’s self.’

When you think about it, this is exactly the opposite of how we live in modern society. We grow up wanting to be someone, and have professional, financial and personal success. Indeed, this is what everyone expects from us, and we don’t seem to have much of a choice in the matter until we, insha’Allah, wake up. We want to be admired, special, clever, amazing and thus prove to ourselves (and really, if we’re honest, to our parents) that we are worth something. Surprisingly, even in spiritual circles, this is the case. Spirituality has become a multi-million business, full of workshops, magazines and books on how to be happy, successful, wealthy and healthy, in short, on how to fulfil all of our material desires. And there is nothing wrong with being happy, successful, wealthy and healthy – if we can see it for what it is and don’t get identified with it. But the truth is, most of the time, all this is really distracting us from who we truly are: something we have yet to discover.

There is an incredible freedom in letting go of all that. What can look like a failure in the eyes of modern society is often quite closely related to being a huge success in spiritual terms. If a spiritual Master like Sri Ramakrishna had lived in the West, going into ecstatic trances all the time, he would have been locked up and drugged in a psychiatric institution. So would a great number of spiritual aspirants like the Aghora or Naga Babas, who perform corpse sadhanas on cremation grounds and roam around the forests naked, smeared with ashes. Thankfully India has always recognized and supported these spiritual Beings from whose wisdom we now benefit.

The question is: what does success mean to us? Is it what society deems to be successful, or is it something far more humble and modest? Is it what we, deep down, believe is expected of us, or is it what our soul is really calling for? Only introspection and intuition can give us the answer to that. In any case, there’s a price to pay for everything. If freedom and Self-realization are what we want, then we have to learn to surrender and be prepared to die to who we think we are. This may involve letting go of all of our material goals, desires and even talents to be in service of something greater – for when we are empty, we are not self-directed anymore. We become Self-directed, and personal ambition has no place in such a life any longer.

This, to me, is what freedom really is. If material desires still dominate, then we can enjoy wealth, success and all the joys that this brings – but quite often the price is our precious time that we need to give up to pay for a mortgage and to fund our lifestyles. And in the middle path, the path that many of us tread, where karmas still have to play themselves out, we can do what needs to be done, but keep our minds and hearts fixed on the Divine, knowing that we are neither the body nor the karmas.

Ultimately, it seems that realization of the Self is very similar to the experience of death. I recently read a description of a spiritual experience Swami Vivekananda had in the presence of his master, Sri Ramakrishna: ‘My eyes were wide open, and I saw that everything in the room, including the walls themselves, was whirling rapidly around and receding, and at the same time, it seemed to me that my consciousness of self, together with the entire universe, was about to vanish into a vast, all-devouring void. This destruction of my consciousness of self seemed to me to be the same thing as death. I felt that death was right before me, very close.’

We often say that freedom is what we want, more than anything else. But when it’s there, right in front of us, and we fear losing our individuality, things can look very different. I had an experience like this during a ten-day Vipassana course several years ago – I felt my entire physical structure dissolve into particles and there was no separation anymore between me and anything/anyone else – and became so scared that I brought myself back. Later I realized that my ego was afraid of losing itself, of losing the ‘I’, the perceived separation, because I didn’t understand what was happening to me. Vivekananda experienced similar fears, and begged Ramakrishna to stop because his parents were waiting for him!

Yet, we have to be prepared to die to all that is familiar to us if we want to be free. In the words of Meister Eckhart, ‘we have to become pure till you neither are nor have this or that; then you are omnipresent and, being neither this nor that, are all things.’


If you enjoy my writing, my book ’Meeting Shiva – Falling and Rising in Love in the Indian Himalayas’ was just published by Changemakers Books.


6 thoughts on “Neti neti, or the freedom of being nothing

  1. How do I order the Book Meeting Shiva In India. Please help


    Arvind Namdeo
    SECTOR 23
    NOIDA 201301

  2. Insightful as always Tiziana. Living a different life than what society has dictated requires conscious thoughts and an awakening. We have to fight against all the conditioning we have grown up with – every single day we are molded into something we are not so we can fit in. the spiritual path requires letting go of everything we know as a member of our community and our society and simply being. Being without titles and identity is difficult but we can at least start the journey or be more conscious of our lives and lifestyles.

    Is success simply living our essence?

    • I think that when we realize who we truly are and live in complete congruence with that and with what we came here to do/be, then we are successful. And that may sometimes look completely different than our egos would like! 🙂

  3. Pingback: If I Become More Spiritual Will I Lose Ambition? |

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