Logical enquiry into ‘Who I am’ (2/4)

who am I 2In the first part of this enquiry we saw how, by discriminating between the seer and what’s seen, we arrive at the understanding that ‘I’, the seer, am not the body, not the sense powers, not the thinking faculty, not even a combination of all of them. They are all objects of my perception and I am the perceiving subject. And I, the subject, cannot be what I can perceive as an object. In this logical way we arrived, step-by-step, at a final ‘knower’, which is given the name ‘pure consciousness’. This pure consciousness is what remains after thoughts, (which are the subtlest objects of perception), have been dismissed as the ultimate ‘I’. We know there’s something there but it is still a bit hazy. We now need to test the robustness of our new working conclusion that this ‘pure consciousness’ is the ‘I’ we are searching for and sharpen the understanding.

For this we need to understand the nature of consciousness and its relationship, if any, with ‘I’. A question might arise at this point: If ‘I’ is the pure consciousness that remains in the absence of vtti-s (thoughts), and no cognition is possible without vtti-s, then how can I ever know what I am? How do we go further with this enquiry if there are no thoughts?

On the recommendation of Vedānta, we will need to employ quite a different approach from the one we have used so far, namely the approach of discriminating seer from seen. The new methodology involves the analysis of our three modes of experience: waking, dream and deep sleep. Here too, logic can take us pretty much all the way.

Before starting, however, we need to be clear about why this analysis is necessary. Surely, one might say, it’s enough to know that one is not the amalgam of body, mind, senses, vital forces. Isn’t it enough to say that one is the witness of these and, thereby, be free from them? Isn’t ‘I’ that which remains when all thoughts have subsided, as stated in the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali?

The traditional teacher would answer: Yes all this is true. Pure consciousness is that which is distinct from the body-mind-sense complex: even the Upaniṣads tells us that its secret name is ‘neti neti’, ‘not this, not that’. True also, it is what remains when all thoughts subside. But knowing that it is, is not the same as knowing what it is. This knowing is akin to accepting as true the chemistry teacher’s assertion that water is H2O, without really understanding the nature of Hydrogen or Oxygen or the nature of their joining. Another example given to point out the limitation of this level of knowledge is from the text called Pañcadaśi. In it the author says that you might know that your child is singing in a choir, but from outside the room you will not be able to distinguish your child’s voice from the rest, despite knowing it is there. If we truly understood that there is no difference between consciousness and our own true self, then when we look out at the world, all we will see is our own Self, shining as every creature – ‘from Brahman down to a clump of earth’, as Śaṅkara often puts it in his commentaries,.

As long as this vision is not our reality, it indicates that there is more to understand about the nature of consciousness. This, however, does not diminish the achievements of those who have arrived at the understanding that ‘I’, the ultimate witness-consciousness, am different from the body-mind-sense complex. This knowledge might not prevent us from occasionally being knocked off balance by difficulties in life, but it could act as a rudder to steer us away from undue suffering that might arise from any hardship. When our understanding is complete, then nothing else remains to be done or known, then all searching stops, nothing external will be the source of happiness, we will be free: ‘I’ will be all there is.

When the true nature of a wave is known to be H2O, the wave does not have to change its form to be seen as water: it resolves into its truth as H2O. Similarly, once the truth of who I am is known in the mind, then mind itself resolves into the truth of itself which doesn’t mean the mind disappears. It just means that no longer will mind be mistaken for the ‘I’. In order to understand this subtlest reality one needs a very sharp and subtle mind. A sharp and subtle mind is one that isn’t a slave to appetites and aversions, is one that does not swing from elation to dejection in response to success or failure, is free from fear or agitation of any sort, is one that can stay focussed on one point for long periods of time. Developing such a mind takes work. You don’t achieve anything here by force or restraint, but one accomplishes the refinement of mind through love. How? By living a karma yoga lifestyle.

What this means its that, through love of truth, through devotion to discovering one’s own truth, one acts in a way that is conducive to truth. With this commitment to truth, (called mumukshutvam) one’s actions will naturally start to reflect universal values, they will be characterised by calmness, grace and discretion, we will not be affected by ups and downs that normally follow success and failure. It becomes clear that what happens is under law, and that the law of a thing is its truth. Truth is what is. What is, is nothing but the expression of law. Law is the Lord, called Īśvara in Vedānta. The powers of Īśvara are the portrayed as the deities that bestow wealth, health, wisdom, auspiciousness, freedom from obstacles, etc. All these can be released by love in the form of prayer and worship.

From love of truth we sing songs of praise to truth’s various powers. From love of truth we attain mastery over mind by holding truth in mind. We acknowledge our surrender to truth through the repetition of mantras like Om nama Śivāya. Love of truth is what helps us chip away at our false identity that arises from the belief that ‘I am doer and enjoyer’. The single rudder of love of truth becomes the way we steer through the choppy waters of life. The whole of life becomes integrated: not acting now, then praying, then desiring, now claiming, then regretting… Living this karma yoga lifestyle is how the mind is made subtle and refined.

Such a mind alone is capable of reaching the most subtle understanding, the understanding of who I am. The committed seeker is no longer content with broad-brush generalisations or sentimental releases. A prepared mind is one that is pure and steady and laser sharp. But there is no need to wait for perfection to begin enquiry. We can start now and keep on revisiting the same questions till clarity dawns: the half-truth of knowing what ‘I’ am not, is completed by knowing what I am.

With that we can return to our self-enquiry using the analysis of the three sates of experience: waking, dream and deep sleep. A subtle and refined unfolding of this approach is found in verses 3-10 of the very first chapter of Pañcadaśi.

It starts by analysing the waking state:

In the waking state there is a sense of a separate ‘I’; the mind is alert (mainly) and backing the senses; the sense powers are active and experiencing the world of sound, touch, colour, taste and smell; the powers of the organs of action are consciously activated by will (I decide to use my hands or use my feet or tongue, etc). There is an experience of ‘I’ and everything else being ‘not-I’. This is the most compelling ‘evidence’ that ‘I’ is located in the body. So let us start by examining the ‘not I’.

Step 1: We acknowledge that there cannot be any perception of an external object if there isn’t an internal mental experience. The thought ‘This is a pot’ is essential for the existence of the pot to be known. Without such a thought, the pot is as good as non-existent. So Step 1, is to observe that the plurality of external objects is because of the plurality of internal experiences.

Step 2: Analyse the nature of experience. Just as for the room to light up you need invisible electricity + a manifesting medium, the bulb, so too in order to have an experience you have invisible consciousness (caitanya) + he manifesting medium, perceptible thought (vtti). Thus, consciousness + chair-vtti = knowledge of the external chair. This applies to the experience of all sense objects: consciousness + form vtti = knowledge of form; consciousness + sound vtti = knowledge of sound, and similarly we have knowledge of touch, knowledge of taste, knowledge of smell. In all these variable perceptions, while the vtti-s change, there is one invariable consciousness.

Step 3: What else is unchanging in all these experiences? ‘I’, the experiencer.

We conclude, therefore, from analysing the waking state experience that, whilst objects of perception vary and are differentiated, consciousness is what is undivided and single. And we also note that ‘I’, the experiencer, share similar characteristics to this consciousness: I am single and undivided.

We next turn to the dream experience in which there is also a sense of ‘I’ and there are dream objects of perception and dream organs of perception and action. The dream objects are not elemental products as in the waking world, but are products of mental impressions (vāsana-s). The other main difference is that the dream universe is short-lived when compared to the waking universe – it lasts for just the duration of dream time and is not there during the next dream period. In dream, the objects of perception are impermanent and unstable. But throughout the dream experience too there is consciousness + vtti. This two-fold combination is the nature of experience, whether the experience is of material objects or subtle objects.

We now reach the understanding that consciousness is not only single and unchanging behind each and every different gross or subtle object, but also that the same consciousness is one and unchanging despite changing states of experience. The changing states of experience do not affect the ultimate experiencer who is also one and the same. Think of the words you might use when describing a past incident: “I was walking down a narrow street and…” Now compare that to your recollection of a dream: “I had a dream and in it I was walking down a narrow street and…” Note how the identification with the waker ‘I’, who had a dream, is no different from the dream ‘I’ who was walking down the narrow street: ‘I had a dream’ and ‘I was walking…’

Whilst there may be these similarities between waking and dream, deep sleep is different… What we learn from analysis of the deep sleep experience will profoundly shake our certainty about knowing and experiencing and identity. It makes us profoundly question what ‘I’ is and also what its link with consciousness is.

(…to be continued) Part 1

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About Peter

I am a student of traditional Vedanta, in London, an interest that started in 1970s. Current Influences: In 2007 I attended a talk by Swamini Atmaprakasananda on Ganapati Atharvashirsha – and knew I had found my teacher. I am current Secretary of Arsha Vidya Centre UK, an organisation established to make available in the UK the teaching of traditional advaita as unfolded by Swaminiji and her own teacher, the illustrious HH Swami Dayananda Saraswatiji, the most respected teacher of traditional advaita. www.arshavidya.org.uk