Q: I have a couple of questions about ‘I Am That’.
As I understand it, this essentially says: Atman = brahman. So the ‘I’ is not the ahaMkAra ‘I’, rather the Atman ‘I’.
1. Did I get that right?
2. When one begins to reflect upon ‘I Am That’, is one expected to feel the I as the ahaMkAra I? And then move, gradually, towards realizing the I is in fact Atman?
3. The reason I ask (2) is because I have a great deal of difficulty ‘feeling’ my ahaMkAra I. It just doesn’t ‘compute’ with me. Does this brain/body sense things, have feelings, emotions, thoughts; am I aware of external and internal things? Yes! All the time. But are these sensations, feelings, thoughts, etc. = ahaMkAra ‘I-me’? No. They’re just… stuff that happens, electrochemical dances in a brain in a skull in a body that is identified as ‘Jack’ Is this a problem – that I can’t consciously/directly feel my ahaMkAra I? That when I look for it, I see mithyA, nothing of essential substance? Could my not being able to directly experience my ahaMkAra I be a stumbling block?
A: Perhaps the first thing to recognize is the paramArtha-vyavahAra distinction. Speaking from the pAramArthika ‘viewpoint’ there is only brahman, i.e. no ‘I’ or ‘That’. Everything within vyavahAra is mithyA.
So let’s now talk vyavahAra! When you say tat tvam asi, you are saying that you are Ishvara; ‘who you really are’ is not the body-mind but the all-knowing, all-powerful, limitless creator of the universe. The mind – antaHkaraNa – consists of manas, buddhi, chitta and ahaMkAra. So when it is said that you are not the mind, it is also implicit that you are not the ahaMkAra either.
When it is said that Atman is brahman, that of course is true. Everything is brahman – sarvaM khalvidam brahma. But what does it mean? A good metaphor is the wave-ocean-water one. The wave is name and form of water; the ocean is name and form of water. Both wave and ocean are mithyA; water is the only satyam. Wave is part of the ocean and cannot exist in isolation from it. Similarly, the jIva is the mithyA aspect of brahman from the vyaShTi or individual aspect; Ishvara is the mithyA aspect of brahman from the samaShTi or universal aspect. The reality of the jIva is Atman; the reality of Ishvara is brahman. And Atman is brahman.
If by ‘reflect upon’ ‘I am That’, you mean nididhyAsana, this entails that you already have no doubt about the truth of what I have said. You have already done the shravaNa of hearing all of this explained. And you have done the manana of asking ‘what the hell does it all mean?’ and having all your questions answered so that you have no further doubts. The nididhyAsana is then the reflection, re-reading, discussion and so on until the truth is firmly fixed in your mind.
None of this has anything to do with ‘feeling’ or ‘moving’ or indeed ‘doing’ anything. Trying to ‘feel’ the ahaMkAra shows that you have still not understood these things. The Atman does not do anything. The Atman does not do anything. (Repetition intentional!) ‘Doing’ relates to the mithyA aspects only. As the Gita puts it, “The one who is together, who knows the truth, thinks, ‘I do not do anything at all,’ even while seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, walking, sleeping, breathing, talking, releasing, grasping, opening and closing the eyes, (the person) knowing (full well that) the organs are engaged in their objects.” (V.8-9) It is all just movement of names and forms.
So, yes, you sum it up quite nicely when you say: “They’re just … stuff that happens, electrochemical dances in a brain in a skull in a body that is identified as Jack.” And, no, it is not a problem! Again, as you say, all that you see is mithyA. But the essential (ultimate) observer is not mithyA; it is Atman. Then you just have to sort out the business of witnessing and reflected consciousness (https://www.advaita-vision.org/chidabhasa/ and https://www.advaita-vision.org/continuing-reflections-on-reflections/ and discussion at https://www.advaita-vision.org/discussion-on-chidabhasa/).