Logical enquiry into ‘Who I am’ (3/4)

Who I am 3When we analysed the world of objects in the waking state we came to the understanding that our experience of the variety of objects is due to the variety of corresponding mental impressions (covered in Part 2 of this series). If there isn’t a mental impression ‘this is a pot’ then, despite fully-functioning senses, the pot will be as good as non-existent. The perception of ‘is-ness’ is the single, unchanging common thread in all our worldly experiences. This perception is given the name, ‘consciousness’.

When we analysed our dream state experience we realised that the same observation holds true for the dream universe as for the universe we encounter when awake. This experience gives an added dimension to our understanding of consciousness: not only is it the one, unchanging basis of the varied, changing objects (gross and subtle), but now we see that it is also continuous through the changing states of experience. The ‘I’ that is awake is the same ‘I’ that dreamt: ‘I am awake, I had a dream’.

Our experience of the deep sleep state, however, is fundamental different. Its main characteristic is that our sense of ‘I’ is dormant: the usual experiencer that we identify as ‘I’, does not function in dreamless sleep. Without an experiencer, the usual things we experience – material as well as mental – cannot be experienced. If aham (I) does not function, there is no reference point for experience, so idam (‘this/that’) is not available for experience. What does this imply for the deep sleep state?

The way we normally experience the world is as follows:
‘This is a pot.’
‘How do you know this is a pot?’
‘I can see it.’
‘Who can see it?’
‘I can. And not only can I see the pot, but also I can see the table, the house, the street, the tree, the sky, my hands and feet and torso. In fact I can see every opaque physical object, sometimes needing a microscope, sometimes a telescope.’
‘How can you be so sure of what you’re saying?’
‘It’s because I know I can see.’
‘What else do you know?’
‘I know I am getting annoyed with your questions.’
‘So you can also ‘see’ your emotions?’
‘Not with my eyes, of course, but I know that I am annoyed.’
‘Who knows?’
‘I do.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I just know I know!’
‘Who is this I that knows?’
‘Okay, that’s enough. Interview over. (Humph!) Who knows? What a question!’

Without the knower-experiencer, (the ‘I’ in all the above answers), the deep sleep state is a blank, like when we faint or have been anaesthetised. Or, as Shakespeare puts it: ‘…sleep, death’s counterfeit’. Of the components of an experience – consciousness and thoughts – the fundamental ‘I’ thought is absent, and without it the other thoughts are as good as non-existent. In deep sleep you don’t encounter a world: your presence (as a subject related to an object) is unmanifest.

What, nevertheless, makes the deep sleep state valuable to this enquiry is that there are two thoughts (apart from the continuation of the physiological functions to keep the body alive). In that sense it is different from death. The thoughts are of ignorance and bliss. Note, however, they are not in the form, ‘I know nothing’ and ‘I am happy’ because ‘I’ is not available in deep sleep. When the mind wakes up the ‘I’ starts functioning again because the ‘I’ is nothing but a certain kind of thought. This ‘I’ thought attaches to the memory of the deep sleep thoughts, and when asked what deep sleep is like, we describe the experience as, ‘I knew nothing’.

The author of Pañcadaśi unpacks this experience with characteristic succinctness: The experience of ignorance during the time of deep sleep becomes memory for one who has woken from sleep. Since memory is of an already-experienced object, it follows that ignorance (which is remembered on waking) was already experienced at the time of sleep.

The only conclusion from this is that the ‘I’ who I normally take to be the knower isn’t the ultimate knower: there is something that knows that is not associated with the usual set-up I take to be myself. And, what’s more, when speaking about this ultimate knower we still refer to it as ‘I’: ‘I knew nothing’.

This is a summary of the steps of our analysis so far:

1. External objects appear to be plural because our internal perceptions are plural: objective plurality is because of subjective plurality.

2. If they are not perceived, external objects are as good as non-existent: knowability determines perceptibility.

3. Vtti jñānam (perception / experience / cognition) has two aspects: pure consciousness and thoughts, vtti-s, the medium through which consciousness manifests. These vtti-s are also of two types: the names of physical and mental/emotional things, and the ‘I’ thought, without which we cannot know, ‘I experience’.

4. In the waking state we experience gross objects (i.e. the single consciousness together with the ‘I’ vtti and multiple gross object vtti-s), in the dream state we experience subtle objects (i.e. the single consciousness together with the ‘I’ vtti and multiple subtle object vtti-s), and in deep sleep we experience extremely subtle objects (i.e. the single consciousness together with ignorance and bliss vtti-s).

5. Objects and thoughts are numerous and diverse, they come and go but consciousness, arrived at through analysis of the three states of waking, dream and sleep, is one and the same, changeless.  

With the understanding that consciousness is the only unchanging reality, the status of knower ends. When light is together with objects it is given the status of illuminator. But once you cognitively separate light from objects its illuminator status ends: an ‘illuminator’ exists only from perspective of objects. Similarly the knower status exists only from the perspective of thoughts: if we cognitively remove consciousness from thoughts then the ‘knower’ status also resolves.

Anything other than consciousness – including the knower – is impermanent. ‘I’ is a vtti jñānam, ‘I am’ is a vtti jñānam. Even these vtti-s come and go, but consciousness, the meaning of ‘I’, is permanent. In this way we understand that the subject of experience, what we call ‘knower’, ‘I’, is pure consciousness, the single, unchanging, continuous basis of experience that functions even in the absence of the ‘I’ thought. Consciousness is thus not personal, it is distinct from the thing we normally take ourselves to be. The ultimate knower is consciousness, but consciousness is not the knower.

Why, then, do we continue to believe that the mind is the thing that knows? The analogy to illustrate how the inert material mind appears to be sentient and active is the cold, black, hard iron ball that is put in the fire for a length of time. After a while it takes on the fire’s qualities of redness, heat and power to burn. The blackness and coldness and inertness are replaced by redness and heat and power to burn. It borrows the qualities of fire. Heat is the intrinsic nature of fire and is the borrowed nature of the iron ball. Fire will never lose its heat, but in time the iron ball will. Like the iron ball, the body-mind-sense complex appears sentient and alive. Their truth is the single unchanging consciousness.

Yet, why do we believe ourselves to be limited and changeable? The analogy here is of a clear crystal placed near a red flower. Through refraction and reflection, the crystal takes on the appearance of redness. Though clear, it appears red. It never is red, it never changes it nature, but our experience is that it is red. Consciousness is pure knowledge itself and the mind just the inert manifesting medium. Memory, forgetfulness, awareness, lack of awareness are all objects of experience: I know I know, I know I don’t know, I know I remember, I know I’ve forgotten. The knower in all these statements is pure consciousness. The name ‘I’ is a superimposition upon it. It is the same consciousness that’s given the name ‘I’ in the dream and waking states. Like the crystal, consciousness is coloured by the limitations of the body-mind-sense complex due to their proximity.

Are there two things then: consciousness and body-mind-sense complex? No. Body-mind-senses are merely the names of forms through which consciousness is manifest. Take a gold ring as an example from the material world: is there distance between the gold and the ring? Are they two separate things? No, they cannot be separated, we cannot be shown a ring apart from gold. Are they the same thing, then? No: the ring is gold, but gold is not the ring: gold is absolutely real and the ring depends on the gold for its existence. Gold does not have to be in the form of a ring, but the gold ring cannot exist outside the material gold. It’s a similar story when we examine the subtle world: in the dream world, the people in the dream are nothing but your knowledge, the sun that lights them and the dream buildings and roads they inhabit, and the dream language they speak are nothing but your knowledge. There is nothing in the dream universe that is not your knowledge. There is no distance between knowledge and the dream things, just as there is no distance between the ring and the gold.

The author of Pañcadaśi puts it like this: That consciousness (obtaining in deep sleep) is different from the objects of experience in sleep, (i.e. ignorance and bliss), but is not different from waking consciousness, which is like the consciousness obtaining in dream. Thus, the one and the same consciousness is in all three states of experience, and is like that day after day.

Our understanding of consciousness is expanded by this observation. The same consciousness that we are aware of when we are awake is the consciousness obtaining in dream and deep sleep. Not only that, but it is the same consciousness today and yesterday and will be the same consciousness tomorrow. When the sleeper of the night wakes up the next morning, he is quite conscious that it was he that slept, that it was he that dreamt, and that it was he that was awake and experienced the previous day. This is the first step in establishing the eternality of the conscious self.

But to be eternal, this consciousness needs to be there before I was born and needs to be there after I am dead. Is there any way of logically showing this to be the case? Only logic together with scripture can get us the answer. How? We will see that in the concluding essay.

(To be continued). Part 1 Part 2

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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