Saturday, 4 June 2016

The Secret Life of the Self

By Android Jones

This is the secret of spiritual life: to think that I am the Atman and not the body, and that the whole of this universe with all its relations, with all its good and all its evil, is but as a series of paintings - scenes on a canvas - of which I am the witness.
-Swami Vivekananda

We have seen in the previous article that the Self arises as a result of the process of Experiencing that is taking place in the Presence. Experiencing is just modulations of Presence, so the Self is nothing but one such modulation. In essence, Self is Presence, like everything else is…. although its much more pure form of Presence compared to other forms. One can say that it’s just one step away from the Presence.

Self can be experienced, just as anything else can be. The act of experiencing the Self is truly wonderful. It’s the knower knowing itself. A blissful feeling. Presence likes to do it. This experience is also called self-awareness or self-consciousness. Nowadays, it’s a fashion to call it simply as Consciousness. It literally means to know together. The problem with this word is that its being used as a noun, verb and adjective all in one! This causes confusion. As a noun, its same as the Self (the experiencer or the knower). As a verb it’s the act of experiencing (as in, to be conscious of a thing), and as an adjective, it’s a quality that something has. Its also called the Witness consciousness or simply, the witness.

The entire universe is truly the Self. There exists nothing at all other than the Self. The enlightened person sees everything in the world as his own Self, just as one views earthenware jars and pots as nothing but clay.
- Shankara

There are a lot more terms for the Self, like the atman, spirit or soul. But these are either very old or mean many things or are rarely used. Anyhow, I think they mean something similar. Being so old and belonging to mostly lost cultures, these words have lost their meaning or have become open to interpretation [1]. This is a risky situation because then you are on the mercy of an authority who claims to know their “true” meaning. As we have discussed before, it leads to creation of beliefs and is not very useful. Anyway, if you prefer any of these other words, then simply redefine the Self as that and proceed. A rose with any other name is still a rose.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is”, said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

- Lewis Caroll, Alice in Wonderland

Physicists like to call it the observer, or sometimes the conscious observer. Which usually means that there is an ultimate experiencer of an experiment, without whom there would be no experiment, and no result is obtained [2]. An unconscious observer may mean something like a computer or any other instrument that can record the data coming from the experimental setup. But it results in no conclusion, there is no information content in data recorded, and no knowledge can be gained by the computer itself. A conscious observer is needed. A conscious observer is the central theme of Quantum Mechanics, the most successful scientific model ever built! So never accuse a Scientist of being a pure materialist, most of the top row Scientists are not materialists. [3]

The mystic and the physicist arrive at the same conclusion; one starting from the inner realm, the other from the outer world. The harmony between their views confirms the ancient Indian wisdom that Brahman, the ultimate reality without, is identical to Atman, the reality within.
- Fritjof Capra, in The Tao of Physics : An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism (1975), Epilogue, p. 305.

Why is it there?

What’s it doing there? It’s a real puzzle for me. Some people say, you should not ask the “why” questions, things just are. It’s a puzzle because the Experiencing itself cannot magically produce the Self (or maybe I’m just assuming that). So the Self must be arising out of some strange property of the Presence.

I can only theorize about such a property. It seems that in the act of Experiencing, the Presence takes a point of view that is slightly shifted away from itself, so that it sees the Experiencing happening apart from itself. This creates a shadow of the Presence, seeing itself. A Self is born, experiencing the Experiencing. Once it sees itself as Experiencing, the Presence is pleased, and the Self dissolves back into it. It comes back on demand, whenever the Presence wants to have a taste of Experiencing. By becoming the Self, Presence becomes slightly less than a totality, slightly impure. It does not remain in that state for long, it wants to merge back.

If you think that it all sounds like a mystical mumbo-jumbo, then you are right. We are in a mystic land here, anything goes. So never worry about the mechanics of the Self. Its more useful to know what it is ….first hand. That’s another puzzle, why so few people know that there is something like this at the core of their being. They do not know their Self, or its nature. This is the ultimate ignorance, the original sin. This has been the claim of great masters that such ignorance is the root of all suffering. It is my experience (which may differ from yours), that merely knowing the Self may not result in a total dissolution of suffering overnight… magically. But knowing the secret of the Self is a must, a necessity, if you intend to progress on your path towards happiness. So, know thy Self.

Who am I?

If one has not asked this question even once in their entire life, he is in a deep, deep ignorance. Only a question can lead you towards knowledge. If you are on a path of knowledge, this is the question you should ask. This is the now famous method of Self-Enquiry [4]. One sits down and discards anything that he is not, and then whatever remains is the Self.

One starts with the physical objects, then body, then mental objects (thoughts, memories etc), finally having seen that all these are not Self, one knows what remains, their experiencer, as the Self. Its very important to actually see and understand that the objects/body/mind/names/professions etc etc are not the Self. A mere intellectual thought will not bring you to the Self. It may appear obvious that all these entities are not you, but that could be just your thought (which is not you). Once you reach the Self, its helpful to remain there, abide there. This will keep you from falling back into anything that is not Self. It turns out that this will happen very often, which is irritating, as it happens almost within seconds and without your control. As usual, there is no free lunch; it’s a matter of practice, a lot of practice.

I’ve found that a different formulation of self-enquiry works better [5], where you ask – "What am I?" or "Am I aware?", instead of who am I. Because the word “who” is going to trick you into believing that you are looking for a person. You are not a person. Even better formulation is – “What is perceiving this?”, where “this” is anything that is currently an object of perception. This shifts the attention from the observed to the observer. Shifting the attention from object to the subject is the trick.

Self is seen as that which is beholding the object. The object can be anything, doesn’t matter, even an imagination or a Mantra will work. So the Self, or the consciousness is the one that is perceiving the current content of the experience [6]. In doing so, it is also perceiving itself doing so. Who knows the Self? Obviously, the Self knows itself. There are no two Selves, with one seeing the other, there are no two you, so you can’t see a thing called a Self, it sees itself.

For those, who have no inkling of this strange creature, the Self, it will take some effort, some guidance, skilful means, a teacher, and a lot of time. Some people reach there instantly, surely they are talented. Some people can stay there for long hours, surely they are rare. There are many-many methods and traditions for achieving this goal, as you must be aware. Take your pick, and for some it takes decades before they get a hang of it.

Who are others?

If I’m the Self, and if everything is just my experience, as seen by the Self, then who are these other people who claim to have their own Selves? What a strange question…

In my (very unstable and faint) experience, I see them as me, in the same way as I see all the characters that appear in my dream as me, after I wake up. Others do not have their own separate “Selves”. They do have their separate personalities (which is a big problem, if you ask me :D). It appears that the Presence does not trust in having just one experiment, which is me, as my personality, it likes to take many forms. It is the same Presence that experiences multiple forms and it’s the same Self. If you are experiencing a Self right now, it’s the same one that I’m experiencing. Its rather confusing and must be explained via some metaphors.

For example, a screen experiences many characters, actors and scenes on itself. The screen becomes these entities, there are no entities separate from screen. An actor projected on the screen, cannot see the screen and believes he is separate from the others that appear on the same screen. From the point of view of the screen, there is no separation, it is the screen that is appearing as many to itself (or to the one watching the screen, the Self). [7]

Another example. Others are like hand puppets you make out of a bed sheet by poking your hands from different places under the sheet. These puppets talk to each other, fight with each other and are great fun to play with, these are nothing but the same sheet, operated by a single puppeteer. They look different from outside, but are one if seen from inside the sheet. Its amusing to see little babies watch this and believe that they are "alive" and acting on their own will. An ignorant person is like a baby who thinks others are different, he takes them seriously. So am I saying, don’t take other seriously? No, behave with them as you behave with yourself. What else can you do when you see others as you….[8]

By Eduardo Rodriguez Calzado


The Self lives a secret life. It is not very obvious. Once it is brought into light, our job is done, right? No, once you see it, you will be most probably underwhelmed. You may say, is this it? Are you kidding me? I knew this all along. Of course, I’m the Self, I’m conscious of everything and of myself. It should not take 20 years of sitting in a cave to know this….That’s what you may say. For many, it’s a great reveal, it makes a difference of day and night. Such people are overwhelmed, and think they have now “become” something they were not before, something great. Anyhow, most fall back to their ordinary lives after some time, back to ignorance. Nothing changes, except they feel they know something more than others do.

The fact is, one cannot “become” a Self, one already is. One can become Self-realized, which may mean - the one who knows the Self and abides in it (experiences himself as the Self). Its not one of your possessions or achievements. You don’t “get” Self-realization, you only get rid of ignorance.
Probably it is euphoric for some, but usually it doesn’t last. It’s a matter of practice to remain as Self and not to fall back into ignorance. For some it comes naturally, but most of us sweat it out. We need to Cultivate ourselves. It’s a continuous process, often lifelong, to abide as the Self and let our knowing, thoughts, actions and behaviour happen naturally as a result. Cultivation changes one’s whole life, his ways, lifestyle, relations, jobs, thinking, talking, doing and everything. For some it changes their taste of fashion and they want to wear strange clothes and Malas for some reason. It is debatable whether this is really necessary ;-) [9]

"There's a difference between knowing the path... and walking the path."
- Morpheus, The Matrix

Cultivation is a two way process. The abiding in Self naturally changes the outwards qualities and character. Changing the lifestyle or behaviour in certain ways often helps in abiding in the Self. For example, as a result of knowing the Self, one realizes that the body is an important but a tiny aspect of the Self and he naturally begins to spend less time consumed in bodily pleasures, spends less money on bodily greeds and obsessions, tries to remain healthy and fit, while doing minimum he can for it. The body becomes a temple for the Self, instead of a trash bin for substances and foods. The body is nothing but a very useful tool for self transformation.

If someone leads a very busy life, working like a donkey to fill his boss’s bank account, or is obsessed with people, who consume his whole day, he benefits a lot by giving up such lifestyle, living in a simple and relaxed way that leaves a lot of time for introspection and to practice abiding as Self. So it works both ways. Some people take it to the extreme and either totally discard their jobs, families and ignore their bodies or desperately try to arrange their outer situations so that they are "perfect" for their practice. It usually backfires. Remember, that its an internal work, and no amount of external manipulation will do it for you. One can only arrange stuff if it becomes too cumbersome or a major hindrance. There is no hurry to reach there because you are already there.

This is the whole point of spiritual practices or Sadhana. One cannot become Self-realized simply by practicing a ritual or doing something in a certain manner or by wearing fancy clothes and beards. Most of the work happens within, silently, while the outer circumstances help in that work (well, if they are not hindering). The fruits of sadhana appear automatically as the person changes and transforms from within. It is possible to refine the sadhana and to even accelerate your progress. It is a fine art and there are many good masters who teach their own recipes. Take your pick, but a master can only show you the path, you have to walk on it. Whatever may be the way, the tell-tale sign that you are progressing is - ever increasing happiness and peace, which is not momentary, but stable under all situations.



[1] I’m very grateful to the ancient masters for their teachings, without them we wouldn’t be even discussing all this. The problem is, these words have become heavily laden with all kinds of beliefs, and if I want to use these as they are, I may need to write a big fat book just to explain what I’m not talking about. Still people are going to quote it all out of context to make it mean whatever they want them to mean.

[2] See, for example, the famous Double Slit experiment, or the even stranger - Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser experiment. Such experiments demonstrate the non-existence of matter. But we will see later, that it can be just a word game, (when/how does something really exist?), there is matter, but its not just matter.

[3] I’m distinguishing a Scientist (with capital S) from science-workers. The latter are simply trained in a specific field of science and are doing a job of scientist to earn a living. A Scientist is a sage who pushes the whole humanity a few notches up by his work. These are rare.

[4] Due to the great master Raman Maharishi. I’m very grateful for his direct teachings on this subject.

[5] I’m grateful to Rupert Spira for teaching this formulation of self-enquiry.

[6] I’m grateful to Francis Lucille for this clear definition of consciousness.

[7] I’m grateful to Rupert Spira for sharing this metaphor.

[8] More about the others and questions like - if I am you then why don’t I know your thoughts? … coming soon. Meanwhile see, a truly universal rule.

[9] I do understand that such exterior decorations are sometimes done just out of respect for the tradition, which is commendable. However, this opens up an opportunity for fake teachers trying to take advantage of gullible students, who, upon seeing the external appearance, take such a teacher for a wise man.

No comments:

Post a Comment