Q.344 – Death of the small I

Q: While I’m drawn to the apparent peace that sages such as Ramana Maharshi seemed to enjoy, I feel I’m failing to grasp something.

 Advaita seems, sometimes, to be totally nihilistic and bleak (although I accept that this would not constitute an argument against its veracity).

It’s all very well to say that the ‘self’ can’t die but this seems (from my perhaps benighted viewpoint) to be playing with semantics.

 If, with ‘my’ death, comes only oblivion such as in deepest sleep /anaesthesia, where is the comfort or meaning in this knowledge? The end of my small ‘I’ would seem to be, in effect, the end of everything since, without my consciousness to perceive it, how can anything be said to exist?

 Does one take comfort from the fact that other apparent ‘I’s continue to experience within the one reality? It may be that my existence is only apparent and that, whether it is followed by oblivion is irrelevant – but it doesn’t feel like that from where I’m sitting!

A (Ramesam):  What you have posed is very much an existential question that crosses the mind of every new initiate into Advaita impatient to reach the end point.

Honestly speaking, it is not possible to articulate clearly and convincingly what Advaita is and how an Advaitic understanding will lead one to eternal happiness in a few paragraphs. It is far easier to say what it cannot and will not be able to do for a “you” as long as a conviction that “I am a separate individual and I have to act” lasts in you. So let us upfront tell you what it would not do:

It cannot fix your broken bones or mend your failed relationships. It does not make you a mathematical genius or change your bank account from red to black. In fact it does not change anything in the world.  All such issues need to be tackled at their own level.  Advaita is also not about improving your ‘self’ and making you into a better “person” with a promise of a new hunky-dory life. 

Is Advaita nihilistic then?  Absolutely not.  But Advaita certainly negates all your belief systems and conceptual frame works which are unquestioningly taken for granted by you in who you think you are. Advaita shows to you that there is no separate “person” or a ‘self’ within you  and it is One Universal Consciousness that shines in you  and everyone else giving the “sentience” which you are claiming as “my consciousness”  in perceiving the world and interacting with it. Thus Advaita changes the very reference frame of your operations.

Advaita teaches that the belief that “I am a separate self” is the root cause of all our suffering and unhappiness. The moment the sense of “separatness” ends, what remains is the True You, the very epitome of Happiness. Advaita points out that that Happiness is the real you and that your identification with an individual body is a mistake. The mistake happens because you ignored (by forgetfulness or whatever reason) to be your True Self.

Advaita equips you with necessary tools to remedy this ignoring or ‘ignorance.’  It is up to you to deftly use these tools and overcome your misidentification. Just as every hungry man has to eat his food or a sick man has to take his medicine, only you have to work to undo your ignorance. It cannot be bequeathed.

What would happen once the correct understanding of Advaitic message is ingested?

You will know that instead of a “me” struggling to chart a course of living a happy life with this body-mind, it is “Life” itself that is living through this body-mind.  Happiness will then be seen to be just another name for the Life. Happiness will not be any more a goal to be chased; you yourself will be Happiness embodied.

Your mistaken thinking that you are a limited entity confined to a particular body-mind will give way to the realization that the entire world is your body. You will not see a world out there apart from you. In other words, the entire world will be you and you will be the world. So the world and all actions within it continue to proceed as they are – but they happen effortlessly and to nobody. In short, it is a total “egoless” functioning.  With the ‘ego’ having dissolved, the ‘sufferer’ in you ends. With the ‘sufferer’ (and enjoyer) ending, there is no ‘one’ who is affected by whatever  that goes on, no ‘ego’ to classify or judge things as good, bad, indifferent, desirable, undesirable etc.

How does one begin this shift from a sense of separate self to the Universal Self?  Here is a practical tip Sage Vasishta gives:

“Liberation comes easily for one whose feelings of ‘me and mine’ are calmed down because of an understanding of Self-Knowledge.  When Pure Consciousness becomes object oriented, the first thing that is generated is I-consciousness (ego).  Along with I-consciousness germinates the feeling of ‘mine.’  These two form the root for the world.  Hence one has to eliminate the feelings of ‘me and mine’ to begin with.  It requires constant practice of egolessness.  Egolessness is the opposite of I-consciousness.” 

So you take the first step of practicing ‘dispassion and detachment’ and let Consciousness do the rest.

A (Peter): The issue that we all need to face is: what is life for us now? If you are happy with your present life, then fine. But if you want to understand if your sense of helplessness is avoidable, if you could be happier and more peaceful, if your suspicion is true that there’s more to yourself than you tap into, then Vedānta offers the answers.

The Abrahamic religions tell you that the pay-off comes after you’re dead. Buddhism tells you that you can be peaceful in this life, but it all dissolves into the void on death. Vedānta teaches what you need to know to end sorrow here and now, while living.

Vedānta teaches that you can be free from the turbulence of stress, anxiety, anger, jealousy, insecurity, unhappiness in all places, with all people, at all times. How? By knowing that you are the very consciousness, without which nothing exists. And when you know your truth to be consciousness, then you realise that there is nothing that is not pervaded by you. Limitlessness is happiness. All this can be known here, while living.

What’s even better is that you don’t need to be a recluse to know who you are. Krishna was a ruler and so was King Janaka. A modern day traditional teacher like Swami Dayananda, for example, sponsors an annual prize for performing artists, is active in the support of Hindu dharma, has founded a national charity that takes children out of poverty and educates them, attends weddings, speaks around the world and still finds time for teaching and counselling, etc, etc, etc – not exactly cave dwelling, and yet he is in no doubt about what is the truth.

Waves have no reality independent of water, yet you don’t have to flatten the ocean to know the truth of every wave to be water. We can still swim, surf, splash, play in the sea without losing the knowledge that all we are frolicking in is water. Vedānta tells us that, similarly, we don’t have to flatten the world, nor flatten our own personalities, to know the truth of ourselves to be existence-consciousness. Nothing outside can give us happiness. We are limitless happiness itself: not after death, not tomorrow, but now. And always.

Either you think there is something in this view or you don’t. If you do, why waste your time wondering what it will be like after you are dead? Or what Ramana experienced or enjoyed? Get on with living now. If you trust that the world is as described by Vedānta teachers, then find a good guide and get on with undoing the layers of self-delusion ‘one thin layer of vagueness at a time’ (as my teacher says). That’s all you can do. No one will be able to satisfactorily answer all the questions you ask above with any degree of certainty.

If, however, you feel that you need some sort of proof that you are of the nature of happiness itself before you embark on the journey of self-enquiry then, by default, you have accepted the truth of the world: this is all there is, you are vulnerable and only you can protect yourself and your family, you are ultimately alone, life’s a struggle and then you die, and that’s the end of the matter; so stick it out: you don’t have too long anyway. If you find that view more convincing as a truth, if you are still in the grip of desire-driven pleasures, then there’s little that Vedanta offers that will be of any value.

I trust this is not the case.

A (Sitara): Let’s start from where you are sitting. You experience that you are alive but unfortunately not as much in peace as you imagine Ramana Maharshi has been. Who is that ‘you’ that you experience? It obviously is your self and you know that this self is going to die which may add to your lack of peace.

 Then you hear that Vedanta speaks of a Self that is not going to die and moreover is defined as being limitlessness, consciousness and existence itself. Of course you wonder where this other Self could be hidden. Why? Because you rather like to be that other Self then the mortal, peaceless self that you call the small “I”.

 So Vedanta’s message is not a nihilistic and bleak one at all. In fact it is very compelling. And the really good news is that Vedanta can help you to discover that Self. You do not have to produce it because you are it already.

 Your mistake is that you equate ‘mind’ with ‘consciousness’. Consciousness is what you ARE. It is the ultimate subject. EVERYTHING else is object that can be perceived by witnessing consciousness. The mind is object too. It is not who you are. So the mind cannot ever perceive consciousness, the mind cannot ever perceive who you are – neither in life, nor in enlightenment nor in death.

In deep sleep, in anaesthesia, in death the mind stops operating. Consciousness is still there, the big “You”, the Self is still there. Waking up in the morning or from anaesthesia or in a reincarnation the mind starts operating again. Consciousness is there, the big You, the Self is there. That’s why the Self is said to be deathless. It remains there always.

 Realizing that you are this Self means that you know who you have been all along, even when body/mind was asleep or in anaesthesia or dead. You cannot really call this a nihilistic or bleak viewpoint, can you?

 Now you may argue that realizing the Self must mean that something realizes it and this something must be the mind. True, the understanding of who you are does happen in the mind, the mind is the gift we have been given in order to realize our true nature.

 The mind that thinks that it belongs to a separate individual is able to come to the understanding that it does not. With this understanding the separate individual, which had been just a thought, an imagination, dissolves. So the very moment the understanding happens something extraordinary happens: The small “I” that has this understanding dissolves. It has to, because the small “I” is nothing but the idea of a limited and mortal body-mind-“I”. Realizing that the real “I”, the Self, is not limited, not mortal and neither mind nor body puts an end to the wrong identity for good.

 A (Dennis): Whilst you remain Self-ignorant, you will continue on the ‘wheel’ of saMsAra, with the consequent ups and downs determined by the fruit of past actions. This is the ‘bleak’ picture for those who do not make the effort to pursue enlightenment. Death is then a long ‘sleep’ until rebirth in a new body, which will not necessarily be one that you would choose!

 But your question seems to be implying that you think that the death of a j~nAnI would be no different; that striving to become enlightened is a worthless pursuit because you only end up dying anyway. You are correct in identifying all the ‘small Is’ as ‘apparent’ but wrong in denigrating the real Self.

 The reality is that there is only Consciousness, always. All of the rest is simply name and form – mithyA. Nothing can die because nothing was ever born from the perspective of absolute reality.

 From the perspective of this empirical world (which has the status of a dream, looked at from the point of view of absolute reality), of course you seem to exist. But this ‘small I’ is simply a reflection of Consciousness in the mind associated with ‘your’ body. This body-mind and its experiences are not ultimately real.

 In chapter I.12 – 15 of the kArikA-s, Gaudapada compares the states of consciousness with our true status – turIya. He explains that the waking and dream states are conditioned by both ignorance and error – we are unaware of our real nature and we mistakenly think that we are separate body-minds living in an alien world of separate objects. In the deep-sleep state, we do not make this mistake because the mind is inactive – all is resolved into its unmanifest, causal state. But there is also total ignorance – the ‘cause’ is still there, waiting to give rise to the ‘effect’ of misapprehension as soon as we move back into waking or dream. turIya, however, has neither cause nor effect, neither ignorance nor error. turIya is the ‘I am’, bereft of attribution (because all attributes are erroneous). Death of the ‘small I’, as you put it, occurs in both deep-sleep and death, but is only temporary for the aj~nAnI. With the death of the j~nAnI, it is permanent.