Q: Many Vedanta teachers, nonduality, and especially Direct Path teachers answer the question “Who am I?” with these kinds of constructs:
‘I am that which is aware of objects. I am the awareness of objects. I am awareness.‘
I understand the intention of this way of formulating things; it moves the seeker away from the notion that s/he is this or that object (body, mind, etc.). But my problem with the formulation is that it seems to be presented as satyam, but it is in fact mithyam. (When taught properly it’s a good adhyAropa apavAda device, but many of the nonduality teachers I’ve read teach it as an ultimate truth, the foundation of their teachings.
The true (satyam) answer to “Who am I?” is “I am Atman/brahman.” And this is NOT synonymous with saying “I am awareness (or anything else that can be conceived, envisioned, described)” because Atman/brahman is beyond all attributes. So, if one were to avoid using the Sanskrit terms, my answer to “Who am I?” is something like:
‘I am the mystery.‘
My question for you as a traditional Advaita teacher is: What is the validity/usefulness of the “I am … ” constructs I listed at the beginning of this email?
A: As you know, I have said that any teaching is ok as long as it ends up at the truth of non-duality. To be able to comment upon a specific teaching, you have to be aware of its starting and end points, the means that it employs to get you from the start to the end, and the language that it uses. For example, there is no problem with Nisargadatta’s using ‘awareness’ instead’ of ‘Consciousness’ as long as those using his teaching have the correct understanding of what is meant. (Although why he couldn’t use ‘Consciousness’, I’ll never know…)
Basically, I don’t like the phrases that you refer to. The first is pretty obvious but the second and third are increasingly liable to confuse or turn off. Traditional does not really take this sort of approach. Compare for example the five sheath ‘model’ in the taittirIya upaniShad. But saying that, if you can perceive it, you cannot be it takes you in a similar direction. ‘I am the mystery’ does not do it for me. Sounds like a new-age cop-out. You ARE That, so although you may not be able to describe it, it is not unknown to you.
Q: Let’s see if I can zoom in on what it is that disturbs me … : Many ‘nondual’ teachers (even Advaita teachers) use consciousness to point to Atman/brahman. ‘Who-I-really-am is Consciousness. Consciousness is that in which all experience appears. Consciousness is that with which all experience is known. Consciousness is that out of which all experience is made. Brahman is <pure> Consciousness.‘ And so on.
What about consciousness makes it inherently useful as a pointer to Atman/brahman? I don’t see the fundamental connection between the two! It seems arbitrary. Why not, instead, say: Love is brahman. Or inner stillness is brahman. Or brahman is the totality. Or even better, use existence as a pointer to brahman instead of consciousness. It has the advantage of being even more fundamental than consciousness *and* has no objects. I guess traditional Advaita does pretty much exacly this with: Tat tvam asi. Yes? So why all the talk about consciousness?
A: Isn’t consciousness our most fundamental ‘attribute’? Surely Consciousness is more fundamental than existence? A stone exists but it doesn’t reflect Consciousness – it isn’t ‘conscious’. Everything ‘reduces’ to Consciousness. praj~nAnaM brahma is one of the four mahAvAkya-s – Consciousness is Brahman. Read all about it in the Aitareya Upanishad! ‘Love’ and ‘stillness’ are very much in the vyAvahArika realm (and depend upon Consciousness).
Q: I think we’re running into the classic confusion of levels! Can we agree that:
Consciousness = satyam, brahman, no subject/object;
consciousness = mithyam, ‘consciousness of,’ subject/object
I’ve been talking about consciousness not Consciousness … consciousness is what all these teachers seem to be pointing to when they say “I am that which is conscious of I.” The construct ‘conscious of’ doesn’t make any sense when applied to Consciousness.
So my question, hopefully framed more clearly this time, is: Why is consciousness (lowercase) used so often as a pointer to brahman? Consciousness and consciousness are categorically different, and for me the pointing makes things unclearer intuitively, not clearer.
In terms of Consciousness being more fundamental than existence, yes of course it’s true: brahman trumps everything, even existence. But consciousness doesn’t, and that’s what I’ve been talking about. “I am” trumps “I am conscious of.” It’s built right into the sentence!
My main question for you is: Why is consciousness (lowercase) used so often as a pointer to brahman?
A: I didn’t think there was any confusion of levels. It is understandable that consciousness is highly regarded since, without it, there is no experience of any kind. If we don’t have it at all, we are (as good as) dead. When we are dead, we are still Consciousness but no longer have consciousness. Lower case consciousness is reflected Consciousness. I don’t know that I am aware of any true teachers who knowingly use consciousness to point to who I am in reality. If they do, either they really mean Consciousness or they don’t know what they are talking about.
The statement “I am that which is conscious of I” is not a very precise one, is it. Without careful definition, it is meaningless. Unfortunately, many modern (neo) teachers do not define their terms before use!
So I guess my answer to your question would have to be that there are lots of ‘teachers’ out there who do not deserve that appellation.
Q: Perhaps the confusion of levels was just on my end, not yours.
That consciousness (lowercase) is highly regarded makes sense. But that it is used as a pointer to Consciousness/brahman … doesn’t.
Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Rupert Spira, a Direct Path teacher I really like (and you too, I think). Would you agree that he is using consciousness (being aware of) to point to Consciousness:
Rupert: Are you aware?
Rupert: What happened between the question … between the thought ‘Are you aware,’ and the thought ‘Yes?’
Seeker: Some billions of neurons fired and interpreted the words …
Rupert: No, no. What happened in your experience: we hear the question “Am I aware,” pause. You didn’t pause long, it’s true, but you are seasoned at this, you don’t need to pause long. We hear the question “Am I aware,” pause.
Seeker: There’s a moment of reflection perhaps.
Rupert: Pause, answer “Yes.” The question “Am I aware” is a thought, the answer “Yes” is a thought. What takes place in-between those two thoughts? You become aware that you are aware.
Seeker: Yeah, there’s a moment of self-reflection, of introspection.
Rupert: I become aware that I am aware; it’s a long hand version of the statement in the Old Testament: “I Am that I Am.” I am that which is aware that I am. The ‘I’ that is aware knows that it is aware. That experience of being aware of being aware, took place in-between these two thoughts.
A: Yes, I agree he is doing that. Presumably you have read my review of his first book? I like Rupert (having met him a couple of times) but that does not mean I like the way he teaches Advaita. I think I am actually a bit anti ‘Direct Path’ these days. It is obviously a much more serious and organized teaching than neo but it is still trying to get the seeker directly to realize the nature of Self and reality through experience.
I am currently writing what will be a fairly long analysis of knowledge versus experience. This was initially to answer Venkat’s questions in the blog. Then I decided it would form a new chapter in a rewrite of ‘Back to the Truth’. But now it has developed in a new book of its own (‘For the Confused Seeker’). And I am seeing the necessity of understanding very clearly that enlightenment is a knowledge thing. I think perhaps the Direct Path exercises can bring one to think about this sort of thing more clearly but I also worry that maybe it can take one down a cul-de-sac. (I’m thinking aloud here and haven’t actually followed-up that idea.)
That which ‘sees’ things (in an objective sense) has to be consciousness, not Consciousness (which does not ‘do’ anything). If you rewrite “I become aware that I am aware” as “I realize that the one that is referred to as ‘I’ is really reflected Consciousness and that the ‘real I’ is that original Consciousness”, then I would say that is ok.