At some time or other in every person’s life the question of identity arises in some form or other. For most people, the answer seems pretty obvious: I am a unique human being, a man/woman, in this body, with these parents, these siblings, and these ideas. I am defined by my wealth, my social class, my education, my tastes, my network of contacts, my race. I am shaped by my biology, my physiology, my psychology. Anything beyond this is ‘philosophy’, and one thing I am not is a philosopher!
If, however, people knew the life-changing value in finding the true answer to the question, ‘Who am I?’ they might be prepared to dig a bit deeper for that truth. Vedānta gives us a very good reason to pursue the question. It says that because we do not know the truth of who we are, we take ourselves to be an amalgam of the body and mind (thus pretty much confirming the majority view). The inevitable consequence of identifying with something that is as changeable, limited and vulnerable as the body and mind, is that ‘I’ is also taken to be changeable, limited and vulnerable. And it consumes a whole life of sweat and slog in trying to build up adequate self-protection.
My vulnerability and effort has the additional effect of making me unhappy: I can never rest happily while I believe I am limited. It does not matter how much money or power I have, however many friends I have, or how widespread is my reputation, my sense of vulnerability will always leave me uneasy. I will never be totally at peace, because whilst total perfection is elusive I will always be looking over my shoulder, expecting something to go wrong. And chasing for things to make me happy also consumes an enormous amount of effort.
If we stop all this expenditure of effort for a moment and examine the balance sheet of our lives we will find that, despite all our striving, we still haven’t attained that deep contentment we seek in all places, at all times, with all people. Some situations still have the ability to ruffle our feathers. Vedānta tells us that this will be inevitable because we are trying to fix a problem without understanding that it can never be fixed because it is an imagined problem. An old ditty puts it well:
As I was coming down the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there.
I met that man again today,
I wish that man would go away.
We can never rid ourselves of the problems of smallness and inadequacy centred on ‘I’ because, as a result of our belief that ‘I’ is the body-mind amalgam, the problems only exist in our erroneous understanding. In brief, not knowing who I am in truth deprives me of a happy, peaceful life – I will live discontented and die unfulfilled. If, however, we accept the vision of Vedānta as a working hypothesis, we can start our journey of self-discovery by critically examining what we’ve unquestioningly (and erroneously) assumed ourselves to be.
To set a base line for our enquiry, we begin with the non-controversial observation that we are not anything we can perceive external to our body: that eliminates more than 99.999% of the universe. What, therefore, remains as the locus for ‘I’ is what is bound by my skin.
But when asked if we can observe the body as an object – just as we observed all those things external to the body – the answer needs to be, ‘Yes I can’. If ‘I’ am able objectify the body then ‘I’ cannot be the body because, as we’ve just established, I must be different from anything I can perceive as an object: nothing can observe itself. The eye, for example, that sees everything external to itself, can never see itself directly. Or the finger that can feel every external object cannot feel itself. ‘I’, therefore, cannot be the body because the perceiver is different from what it perceives and ‘I’ am the perceiver of the body.
I can hear, touch, see, taste and smell the body. Is ‘I’, therefore, the combination of sense powers: the hearer, the toucher, the seer, the taster, the smeller, all rolled into one? Is the feeling of ‘I’ another name for the sentient being? But here too we find there’s more to it than meets the eye.
The universe of perceptible objects can be reduced to five types only – the audible, the tactile, the visible, the sapid, the odorous – known through five sense powers: hearing, touch, sight, taste and smell. These sense powers are neutral: the hearing power, for example, merely perceives sound, and it’s the mind that adds labels such as ‘police siren’ or ‘friend’s voice’ or ‘too loud’ or ‘melodious’. (These labels are what produce reactions that fall into two categories, ‘like’ or ‘dislike’, which in turn produce attraction or aversion, which then determine how we are likely to react.) The mind adds names to all neutral sense perceptions. The feel of silk, the sight of a rainbow, the taste of honey, the smell of grass, are expressions in which the mind attaches the names ‘silk’, ‘rainbow’, ‘honey’ and ‘grass’ to the neutral sense perceptions of touch, sight, taste and smell.
Any number of names can be attached to any single sense. For example, now I smell grass, and now I smell coffee, now smoke, now incense. If the names ‘grass’, ‘coffee’, ‘smoke’, ‘incense’ were not added, would we be aware of the power of smelling? The names vary, but the sense power behind the names is one: the impression of variety comes from the names and adjectives alone. The external variety of objects is brought about solely as a result of words and meanings. Try to think of anything that has no word to describe it…
Because we can observe the sense powers in operation – I know I can hear, touch, see, etc – the ‘I’ must be distinct from the senses too. This ‘I’ that knows must be more fundamental than the senses because the senses are limited, each to only their own object, but this knowing ‘I’ knows them all. In the same way as we have seen sense objects varying but the underlying sense power being one, here we have sense powers being fivefold and their knower being one. A single observer knows that I hear, touch, see, taste and smell. So our next working hypothesis is that ‘I’ is the mind that knows, because there is only one me and a single mind is what’s behind five diverse sense powers.
Once more, however, if we apply the same test to the knower – i.e. asking if the thoughts are also objects of perception – we find that there is something that is observing the thinking process. I know I am sad, I know I was happy, I know I know English, I know I don’t know Sanskrit. What is this ‘I’ that remains the constant factor when the mental objects keep changing? This ‘I’ that ‘knows’ is amazing because, not only is it present when there’s awareness of the knowledge of what’s here now, but it is also present when there’s recollection of past knowledge, and it still present even when we have no knowledge! It’s one thing to know an object that exists and quite another to know the absence of the thing: it means that ‘I’, the knower, is not limited to mental objects…
We seem to be getting closer to the elusive, subtle ‘I’. So far we know it is not the physical body, it is not the sense powers, it is not the mind full of thoughts. And, seeing that mind is nothing but the flow of thought, then what can there be to observe it?
Anyone who has sat in meditation will be aware of the constant flow of mental traffic with barely a gap between thoughts. And even those meditators who manage to slow down the torrent will start becoming aware of subtler thoughts, one’s that say, for example, ‘this is peaceful’ or even, ‘Mmmmmm’ (the sigh of deep contentment). And those who are even more adept might get beyond even these subtle sounds and arrive at a point at which, momentarily, there is no perceptible thought, the state known as ‘savikalpa samādhi’. Even here, however, there still is an extremely subtle knower to observe the moment, there’s still a sense of ‘I’ the silent witness. For those who cannot yet arrive consistently at the state of savikalpa samādhi, here is quick way of getting a fleeting sense of what it’s like:
With body sitting upright, steady and comfortable,
with eyes shut,
with breathing even and calm…
observe the following mantra being silently repeated in your mind:
OM namaḥ Śivāya,
OM namaḥ Śivāya,
OM namaḥ Śivāya,
OM namaḥ Śivāya… (It means: OM. Salutations to Śiva, the universal bestower of auspiciousness).
Once the rhythm of repetition has been established, and is even and effortless, gently shift the attention from the words to the interval between each repetition. OM namaḥ Śivāya, (interval) OM namaḥ Śivāya, (interval) OM namaḥ Śivāya, (interval) OM namaḥ Śivāya, (interval)…
Each repetition of OM namaḥ Śivāya is a thought: where does it vanish to at the end of each phrase and, more importantly, from where does it emerge?
It is a well-known universal law that nothing can come from nothing – even dark matter is some thing – so, as this interval between repetitions seems to be the source of each fresh emergence, there cannot be nothing there (despite appearances). We have now reached the limit of our powers of observation and need to turn to Vedānta, the only scriptural teaching that throws the light of logical intelligence on these observations.
Vedānta teaches that every experience or every cognition or every perception has two components: consciousness and vṛtti. (The word vṛtti is translated as ‘thought’, but has a much richer meaning: ‘that by which the universe is perceived / by which it shines / by which it comes into being.’ The word vṛtti, thereby, comes to have the implied meaning of ‘thought’ because, without mental modifications in the form of words and their meanings, there is no way of indicating anything. Therefore, in order to retain the sense of richness behind it, the Sanskrit word vṛtti will be retained in this essay. With the completion of this brief diversion into terminology, we can continue from where we left off…)
Every experience or every cognition or every perception has two components: consciousness and vṛtti. In the absence of a vṛtti there can be no experience, but consciousness remains throughout all the comings and goings. Consciousness, however, is unmanifest in the absence of a manifesting medium, and vṛtti-s are the subtlest manifesting medium for consciousness. Vṛtti-s may come and go, one replaced by another in a flow that seems without break – like the sequence of changing frames of a movie film gives a sense of continuous action – but consciousness is never absent, remaining one and the same basis for the changing vṛtti-s, like the projector lamp without which the frames of the film will never become manifest. Pure consciousness is what’s present even when the vṛtti is absent.
This word ‘consciousness’ is the nearest English equivalent of the Vedānta term ‘cit’ or ‘caitanya’: without this given knowledge we could not have stumbled upon the understanding of consciousness as that from which all manifestations emerge and return. It’s likely that we would have concluded that the mantra OM namaḥ Śivāya emerges and resolves from nothing – after all Christianity says that the universe is created out of nothing, and Buddhism has the concept of ‘void’ as the ultimate truth. (Both these contentions deftly sidestep the inconvenient fact that something cannot come out of nothing!)
With all this in mind, if we resume the exercise of repeating the mantra OM namaḥ Śivāya, we become sensitised to the emergence and resolution of vṛtti-s, from and into consciousness, which seems to be all that’s left – not an external object, but as the basis of all experience, the very subject, the ‘I’.
OM namaḥ Śivāya (= consciousness and vṛtti), (interval = pure consciousness) OM namaḥ Śivāya (= consciousness and vṛtti), (interval = pure consciousness), OM namaḥ Śivāya (= consciousness and vṛtti), (interval = pure consciousness) … etc.
By employing the logical methodology of discriminating between the seer and the seen we have arrived at consciousness – beyond this we can observe nothing more. Having arrived at the understanding, ‘I am not the body, not the sense powers, not the thinking faculty, not even a combination of all of them’, we need to be certain of the robustness of our new working conclusion that the unchanging basis of the vṛtti-s, the thing called ‘pure consciousness’, is the ‘I’ we are searching for.
We need to understand the nature of this ‘consciousness’ and its relationship, if any, with ‘I’ – after all we started this enquiry with the question ‘Who am I?’ not ‘What is consciousness?’ If ‘I’ is the pure consciousness that remains in the absence of vṛtti-s, and without vṛtti-s no cognition is possible, then how can I ever know what I am? How do we go further with this enquiry?
Here, on the recommendation of Vedānta, we need to employ quite a different approach, which involves the analysis of our three modes of experience: waking, dream and deep sleep. And here too, logic can take us pretty much all the way.
To be continued… Part 2