Logical enquiry into ‘Who I am’ (4/4)

who am I 4We started this enquiry into identity by employing a simple piece of logic: you cannot be what you observe. From this point of view, the things we normally take ourselves to be, starting with the body, were systematically discounted because they turn out to be objects of perception, as covered in the first three parts of this series. Despite this reasoning, the tendency to believe our identity with the amalgam of body, senses and mind tends to remains very powerful: we continue to believe that we are these individuals bound by skin, with an experiential history and an instinctive, habitual mindset through which ‘I’ filter the world.

Identity with the body is evidenced by the vast cosmetic surgery industry today. People feel better with fewer wrinkles, larger breasts, drug-induced libido, less fat, etc. That’s the extreme end, but coming closer to the average person, we think of ourselves as too tall, too short, too hot or cold. If the body is in pain, we say: I am in pain. We really do mean ‘I’ when we say: I am hot, cold, ugly, beautiful, too short, too fat, too old. By employing the incontrovertible logic of ‘I cannot be what I can observe’, it does not take long for us to realise that the body is an object of perception: ‘I’ can experience my body using my five senses. We then ask: Who is observing the body?

The senses of sight, touch, smell, etc are what we employ to not only know the world, but also to know the body. Is ‘I’ the seer, toucher, smeller, etc then? By applying the same logic, we find that the power of the senses too are objects of perception: I know I see, I know I feel, I know I hear, taste and smell. Who is perceiving the operation of the senses? The clue comes from the words ‘I know’. If the knower wasn’t there then the operation of the senses would be as good as non-existent. This is easily validated by the fact that, of the thousands of sights and sounds that are choicelessly being picked up by eyes and ears when we walk down the road, we can list only a few. If senses do not have the backing of mind, then the objects perceived by the senses are as good as non-existent.

So it seems that the mind is the ultimate ‘I’, until we observe that even thoughts are objects of perception. I know I am happy or sad or jealous or frightened. I know that I know English and I know I don’t know Swahili. Is the ultimate ‘I’ the knower of mind? Surely, one would think, there is nothing beyond the mind. It shows how identified we are with mind. If asked who knows the mind, one says ‘I’. How do you know? I just know. How do you know you know? There is no answer, except to simply repeat ‘I just now’.

‘I am’ or even simply ‘I’ seems to be where this enquiry ends. ‘I’, the ultimate witness, is not the mind, not the sense powers, not the body

Before taking the next step, it’s worth being aware of the consequences of believing that ‘I’ is the amalgam of body and mind: we become vulnerable and live lives driven by that vulnerability and the unhappiness that is its twin. We are insecure, we need to protect ourselves from things that the body and mind do not like, and so we surround ourselves with things that the body and mind do like. The neutral world, thereby, becomes polarized by us into two camps of appetites and aversions. These are totally subjective, because what is good for you might not be desirable for me and vice versa. So not only are we experiencing what is our own projected ‘reality’, but also the more vulnerable we feel, the greater the grip of appetites and aversions, and the greater the likelihood of chasing pleasures despite knowing they are not right or we avoid things that we should not be avoiding. Thus we too become split into a thinker (who knows what’s needed) and the doer (dragged by desires and aversions).

All our misery and unhealthy living inevitably follows from this split personality. Anyone who thinks even a little will know, therefore, the value of knowing who I truly am. Knowing that we are not the body-mind-sense complex is a powerful tool for loosening the grip of desires and aversions. When ‘I’ am angry, it is possible to step back and remember that the anger is being observed. The tool needs to be applied in the opposite situation too (something we rarely do): when I am happy or joyful or full of energy, I need to know that the pleased self is also an object of observation.

Powerful though it may be to know what ‘I’ am not, it is nevertheless more powerful to know what ‘I’ is: we need some positive indicators about the nature of this ‘I’. Our tool of enquiry that has brought us this far, ceases to be of value in delivering positive indicators. We pick up another tool of analysis, viz enquiry into of the three states of experience we are all familiar with: waking, dream and deep sleep.

The first step, through analysis of our experience when we are awake, shows that every external thing perceived is matched by an internal thought, vtti. For example, without the thought, ‘this is a ring’, the ring would be as good as non-existent. Similarly, we reasoned that without consciousness, the thought ‘this is a ring’ would not be known and, therefore, be as good as non-existent. The relation between consciousness and thought is not as the relationship between cup and saucer – two separate things – but as between ring and gold. There is only one reality, gold, and ring is the name of a particular form in which gold is manifest. There is only one consciousness and every thought perception is nothing but a form it takes. So the first thing we learn about consciousness is that it is the single and unchanging basis of countless diverse and changing thoughts.

Next we realise that the dream world is very similar to the waking world, with a dream universe and a dream ‘I’ that has dream experiences. And pervading this dream is the very same consciousness. The knower of dream and the knower of the waking world are one and the same consciousness. So now we know that this consciousness is not only single and unchanging but it is also continuous through the states of experience. This is further confirmed by analysis of the deep sleep state.

This latter analysis indicates that there’s an observer even when the sense of ‘I’ is not operating: the doer and enjoyer we normally call ‘I’ turns out to be just another thought, a vtti. When the ‘who’ is there even when the ‘I’ is not, then the question ‘who am I?’ starts to take on a whole new direction! Vedānta gives the ultimate knower the name ‘consciousness’: it is that because of which everything is known. Consciousness is the very existence of everything. Or to put it in Vedānta terms, cit is sat.

By examining our own lives we observe that sat-cit is not only the same day after day, but it is also the same month after month, year after year. The sense of existence of self, the knower of everything, never changes: we never suddenly doubt our existence or doubt that it is ‘I’ who experiences the world. This much we can observe. But then the Pañcadaśi text goes on to say that consciousness is unchanged age after age, aeon after aeon. These are massive time spans: an ‘aeon’, which is 2000 ‘ages’, lasts nearly 9 billion years! This assertion either requires a huge leap of faith or it needs to be supported by logic because it’s hard to believe that we continue to exist even one minute after death.

There are five factors used by Indian logicians to establish the validity of an inference:
> the place where we infer the thing in question to exist (paka);
> the thing that is to be established in that place (sādhyam);
> the evidence for inferring the existence of the thing in the place (hetu);
> the concomitance between the thing that’s inferred and the evidence for the inference (vyāpti);
> an illustration to validate one’s inference (dṛṣtānta).

For example, if you wish to validate the inference, “There is fire on the mountain”, from the evidence of billowing smoke, these are the five factors involved in your proof:

> The mountain is the location (paka);
> the fire is the thing to be established on the mountain (sādhyam);
> the presence of smoke is the evidence for inferring that there is fire on the mountain (hetu);
> the direct observation, ‘wherever there is fire there is smoke’ shows their concomitance (vyāpti);
> the example is fire and smoke seen together in the kitchen with a wood burning stove (dṛṣtānta).
Putting it all together: “As one can observe in the kitchen, wherever there is fire there is smoke, similarly, from the presence of smoke on the mountain, we infer that there is fire on the mountain.”

So now we apply this discipline in exploring the statement: “Consciousness exists before I was born.” If you ask anyone if they existed before they were born, the likely answer is either, ‘No, I did not exist’ or ‘I don’t know’. This is no different from our answer, ‘I knew nothing’ or ‘I can’t remember anything’ when asked what we knew during deep sleep. So if asked ‘How do you know you did not exist before birth?’ the average person’s answer might be, ‘My memories don’t go beyond my birth.’

Our analysis of deep sleep showed that the fact that we claimed, on waking, that we knew nothing of what went on when we were in deep sleep was evidence that there was an experience of ignorance when we were asleep. Similarly, being able to claim ‘I remember nothing before being born’ indicates that there was an experience of ignorance before birth. And, as we have observed at several points in this essay: an experience is composed of never-changing consciousness together with ever-changing vtti-s. Thus we infer the existence of consciousness before birth. And, regarding the corollary, reason shows that to be unborn is to be free from time limitation. Being free from time limitation means being free from endings too. Thus beginningless consciousness, the very essence of existence, is endless: in other words it is eternal, ‘age after age, aeon after aeon’.

This is how exploring the statement: “Consciousness exists before I was born” looks like using the logician’s framework:

> The state before embodiment is the location (paka);
> Consciousness is the thing to be established (sādhyam);
> The assertion “I did not exist before birth” is evidence for inferring consciousness was there (hetu);
> the observation: ‘wherever there is experience, there is a knower, and wherever there is a knower, there is consciousness’ shows concomitance of experience and consciousness (vyāpti);
> The example is the deep sleep experience ‘I knew nothing’ (dṛṣtānta).
Putting it all together: Just as the experience ‘I knew nothing’ in deep sleep was used to prove that consciousness continues despite the absence of ‘I’, so too the knowledge, ‘before birth I was not’, infers the existence of awareness (of absence of ‘I’) before birth.
And the corollary, “Consciousness exists without end”: Anything that is not born must be beyond time. So consciousness, being birthless, is eternally present.

Thus from scripture and also reason we conclude that sat-cit is of the nature of limitlessness, anantam! All that now remains is to secure the link between consciousness and myself.

Limitlessness is a synonym for pure happiness, because it is merely one’s belief in one’s limitation that causes insecurity and unhappiness. Thus pure limitless existence-consciousness is pure happiness. And the thing we love unconditionally is happiness: no one would say that they dislike being happy. One always loves the pleased self and dislikes the unpleased self. That’s why we want to be happy everywhere with everybody. Freedom from limit, pure happiness, is what we love the most. And what we love the most is ourselves because we resist our non-existence (death) more than anything else. This is how, having arrived at existence-consciousness being happiness, and recognising our unconditional love for happiness (which is equated to unconditional love for one’s self), we conclude that existence-consciousness-happiness is our true Self.

Pañcadaśi puts it like this: This pure consciousness is the true Self, absolute fullness, because it is the source of unconditional love. Self-love is seen in this way: “May I not have non-existence. Indeed, may my existence be forever.”

That love we experience for another thing is for one’s own sake, and thus not for the sake of the other: it is, therefore, the highest. As a consequence, Ātman enjoys the status of being the highest happiness, ānanda.

Everything that is loved is because it happens to be the source of my happiness. That still leaves me, (called Átman in Vedānta), and the whole universe, called Brahman.

Pañcadaśi takes us one critical step further: Using logic in this manner we arrive at sat-cit-ānanda Ātmā. Similarly, we arrive systematically at the Supreme Reality, satyam-jñānam-anantam Brahma. The identity of the two is taught in the Upanisads.

So, not only am I the Self that lends existence to the body-mind-sense complex, but I am also the Self of everything in the universe. I am all there is, nothing is wanting, nothing is threatening, nothing else exists as the source of happiness. I am that pure limited consciousness. Consciousness manifest is what’s we experience as Existence.

Here is the final answer to ‘Who am I?’: Consciousness, the only reality, is all there is, and the ‘I’, that’s experienced as an existing, sentient being, is merely the manifesting medium for pure consciousness.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3

5 thoughts on “Logical enquiry into ‘Who I am’ (4/4)

  1. Peter, Thanks for the Great series of essays. I’m trying to wrap my head around this, been at it for about a year, and it’s slowly coming. I have a question regarding your reasoning that consciousness exists before birth. The example of sleep, for me, works because with sleep “I” know prior to and after deep sleep. Consciousness skips during sleep, but I can’t say the same with birth. The logic just doesn’t work for me. I believe what you are saying is correct, consciousness precedes birth, but that is only based on faith. Any other examples which may help me see it logically?

    • Namaste Brian, I am happy that you have found the essays interesting, as it is always heartening to know that it’s possible to convey the vision of advaita simply, and yet without needing to dumb it down. So I hope the response below adequately answers your question (which Dennis has also done below with characteristic brevity).

      The point you raise is a fundamental issue that needs to be resolved by one in search of the True Self. And it’s also a difficult issue to get one’s head around because the argument is extremely subtle. It’s subtle because the advaita vision challenges what we take to be the unquestionable fact of what we are – namely, the mind-body-sense complex. This unquestioned ‘fact’ means that we believe that ‘I’ is located within the boundary of my skin and is present as a cognising entity. Advaita Vedānta on the other hand teaches that this ‘fact’ is erroneous, and that the ‘I’ we experience is merely the finest of thoughts (called ahaṅkāra), but the True Self is that consciousness by which the mind-body-sense complex is witnessed.

      The steps of the argument go like this:

      1. Every experience is made up of two components: never-changing consciousness and ever-changing thought, the manifesting medium for consciousness. The illumination of objects in a room is a common analogy to describe experience: without being illumined, the objects in a dark room are unseen and thus as good as non-existent. Illumination is the result of the combination of invisible electricity and its manifesting medium, the light bulb. There is no illumination without the bulb (there is no experience without a thought) and there is no illumination without electricity (there is no experience without consciousness). So just as experience of the existence of objects comes about through the combination of invisible electricity and visible bulb, so too our experience of the universe comes about through the combination of consciousness and thought (vṛtti).

      2. The subtlest thought is the ‘I’ thought: it can be considered to be the dead-end of mind. Without it, no other thought is registered because the experience of all thoughts takes the form ‘I think X’ or ‘I know Y’ or ‘I sense Z’. Thus, without the sense of ‘I’, we cannot experience any other thought. Without thought, there’s no experience of any thing. Just because no thought is experience, however, doesn’t mean that consciousness is not there: just because the bulb is not burning does not mean that there is no electricity in the wire. It simply means that the electricity is prevented from manifesting through the bulb by the off-switch.

      3. We can think of the ‘I’ thought to be the master switch. In the deep sleep state the switch is off (the ‘I’ thought is not an object of experience). That does not mean that there is no consciousness, nor does it mean that there are no thoughts. The deep sleep state is one in which the ever-present, never-changing consciousness lights up two unmanifest thoughts in particular: the thought of ignorance (ajñāna vṛtti) and the thought of bliss (ānanda vṛtti). The difference, however, is that these are not known at the time of deep sleep as ‘I know nothing’ or ‘I am happy’ for the simple reason that ‘I’ is not available: the ‘I’ switch is off.

      4. It has taken all this time to say what Dennis has said in his succinct response: “Consciousness doesn’t ‘skip’ during sleep; it is always present. (Necessarily so or it would not be real!) The reason you think that way is simply that, while you were in deep sleep, you were aware of nothing – and this seems, to your waking mind as though Consciousness was absent.”

      5. What is re-activated, as it were, on awakening is that the ‘I’ thought ‘switch’ has been turned on. So when asked what deep sleep was like, one says, ‘I knew nothing’. This is where mental subtlety is required… How do you know that nothing was known if there had not been an experience of no thought?

      6. In the same way as, during the waking state, one is aware of one’s ignorance – ‘Do you know Swahili?” “No I do not know.” “How can you say that?” “Because I know I do not know.”– so too there is awareness of the knowledge of the absence of all thoughts apart from the above-mentioned two (of ignorance and bliss, ajñāna and ānanda).

      7. Conclusion: Even in the absence of the sense of ‘I’, even in the absence of all thoughts of ‘this’ or ‘that’, consciousness is present, because without consciousness there can be no experience of ignorance. (Remember #1 above: experience = consciousness + thought).

      8. This now brings us to the next very subtle step… it concerns existence. In the statement, ‘The pot is’ the word ‘pot’ is the name of a particular form and function, and the word ‘is’ indicates existence. Existence is always experienced together with name and form (nāma-rūpa). ‘Pure existence’ therefore is arrived at when we remove name and form from our observation. See how impossible that is to even conceive? One might argue: ‘But I do know pure existence: I exist.’ Even here, however, existence is attached to the ‘I’ thought. Does that mean that pure existence can never be known?

      9. It can be known. How? As pure consciousness. The statement ‘The pot is’ cannot be made without consciousness of the existence of the pot. Therefore the statement, ‘The pot is’ = ‘Pot consciousness is’. Pure existence is available for awareness as pure consciousness. And pure consciousness is available, as we have seen above, only through self-enquiry. You cannot see pure consciousness by looking out. Consciousness is arrived at by analysing the deep sleep state. Pure existence is also not available by looking out: it too is available, in the form of consciousness, by looking in.

      10. By looking into the deep sleep state we saw that consciousness was present (despite the common belief that it was ‘skipped’). This is further validated by the fact that, as you observe, there was existence/consciousness before as well as after the deep sleep state, and so reason shows that there must be existence/consciousness in deep sleep too. We don’t die every night to be born again every morning!

      11. Extrapolating from this, the author of Pañcadaśi, would ask: ‘What was pre-birth like?’ ‘I don’t know,’ is the common answer. ‘Did you exist before this birth?’ he would ask. ‘I don’t know,’ would be the truthful answer. Thus, drawing on the conclusion reached after enquiry into the deep sleep state (i.e. that the absence of the ‘I’ thought does not mean the absence of consciousness), the author of Pañcadaśi states in verse 7: This self-shining consciousness is one and the same throughout the various months, years, yugas and kalpas that have come and gone: it does not rise or resolve.

      12. Science and logic can also be pressed into service to support this conclusion by asking: Is it possible for something to have nothing as its cause? Matter cannot be created nor destroyed. So, how can existence come out of non-existence? In the words of Kṛṣṇa is the Bhagavad Gītā, “The beginning and ends of things are unknown, we see only the intervening formations.”

      13. Consciousness alone is what’s ever-present. And that consciousness is what manifests as ‘I’ in human beings, and as existence in everything else. It is the only reality without which a separate experiencing ‘I’ cannot exist. “With what can you know That by which all this is known?” Ultimately, there is only consciousness: it is the only reality, everything else is ‘as though’ existent (as Dennis points out in his closing paragraph). Enlightenment, total freedom while living, is knowing this to be the fact of what is.

      So, Brian, I hope this puts the matter to rest for you. Om.

  2. Hi Brian, (and apologies to Peter for jumping in here but, having just approved the comment, I was obliged to read it!)

    Consciousness doesn’t ‘skip’ during sleep; it is always present. (Necessarily so or it would not be real!) The reason you think that way is simply that, while you were in deep sleep, you were aware of nothing – and this seems, to your waking mind as though Consciousness was absent.

    And the point about being ‘real’, i.e. existing always, throughout time and beyond time, means that it must also be present also during laya (death of the gross body).

    But I don’t want to pre-empt anything that Peter might say. Other than the thought that this argument is also similar to that used by Gaudapada to say that, since there appear to be objects in dream but they are not really there, therfore the objects which appear to be there during waking are not really there either.. I suspect you might want to take issue with this, also!

    Best wishes,

  3. Thank you both for your replies.
    It has clarified my original question. From 7:
    “without consciousness there can be no experience of ignorance.”
    This is exactly the point I needed to fill in the missing step in my understanding.

    However, another question has come up that leaves me confused. It seems that ignorance is used as a means to prove the presence of consciousness during sleep and pre-birth. During sleep the ‘I’ thought ‘switch’ is off and comes back on upon awakening(in the morning). In the case of pre-birth the ‘I’ thought ‘switch’ turns on for the first time, and the ignorance prior to birth is proof of an existing consciousness.
    But looking back at the time pre-birth I have ignorance of many things not just my present “I thought”. I have ignorance of being a condor, or a buffalo, or a tree. What am I missing? It seems my ignorance could be used to prove I was a bird prior to my birth as “Brian”
    I hope I’m not coming across as argumentative. I’m genuinely interested in understanding. Thank you again for your thoughtful responses.


  4. Dear Brian, it’s all a matter of timescale. Waking-dream-deep seep-dream-waking is a micro cycle. Birth-death-birth is the same cycle over a longer period. Similarly you have the same cycle over hundreds of thousands of years: yuga-pralaya-yuga. This is the cosmic cycle. In each case there is a resolution into ignorance (called āvidya at the individual level; called māyā at the cosmic level). Manifestation, resolution, manifestation, resolution is the cycle that repeats over and over endlessly. There is no creation, just the manifestation of that which was unmanifest. In the stillness of water lies unmanifest every wave, ripple, tsunami, surf. A wave is the stillness of water disturbed. Wave resolved is stillness. In all of this, water never undergoes change. Consciousness never undergoes change: māyā, the potential to manifest is what changes.
    And by way of a side-note, you are not likely to remember your previous birth as an animal because only the human subtle body is developed enough to manifest the ‘I’ thought. Only with ‘I’ comes choice, the potential of self-enquiry, complexes, etc. Any notion that an animal is suffering from an inadequacy complex is mere projection on our part. A cow does not wish to be surgically enhanced to feel more self worth. Think of the relation between subtle body and physical body as between a computer’s operating system and the hardware. Same hardware starts to gain greater functionality with each update of the operating system. The operating system in the body of a stone is pretty crude, that in plants is more sophisticated, in animals even more so. In a human being, the operating system has reached perfection.
    What’s the bottom line for the genuine seeker? He or she knows that no amount of fiddling around at the material or emotional or intellectual level will deliver mokṣa. It’s not going to come from understanding the laws of creation either. The moment, however, you understand the full meaning of a word such as ‘consciousness’ or ‘brahman’ or ‘ānanda’, you understand yourself. And then the searching stops, right here and now while living. No other way but understanding the full meaning of these words will do the trick. You only confront the full and true meaning of the word ‘lion’ when within striking distance from its powerful claws, warmed by its stagnant breath, horripilating, throat parched, heart thumping. That’s how we need to approach meaning. Happy journey. Om

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