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What Is the Supreme Self?
Edward: Dear Ram, thanks for your “timely” email. I have come to realize (and trust) that life brings things along at the appropriate time. I have just been pondering this very topic of “the fire of the yearning for the Truth” not being intense enough in myself as well. In fact I was thinking of the very same quote from Ramana – that one’s desire for moksa needs to be as intense and desperate as a drowning man gasping for air. Maybe this is a common issue for sadahks who have been on the “path” for some time.
I recently met a baba along the banks of the Ganga who talked to me about this. Of course, as is the way with awakened sages, he brought the subject up before I could even formulate a thought about it. He says that viveka and vairagya are the two wings that carry one inward to the truth and intensify the flame of desire for moksa. Viveka, as you well know, is discrimination. He explains vairagya as “divine discontent.” This I like very much, and it jibes with what you said in the satsang with Shankar. One needs to be completely fed up with this world and its fleeting pleasures (and concomitant sorrow).
And to complete the synchronistic miracle, I just wrote a poem about this very subject a couple of weeks ago!
When I turn the attention inwardly to the “I am” – the palpable, nameless, universal sense of existence – a peaceful “nothingness” is noticed. This has been my sadhana for some time now, simply sitting in this spaceless space. Recently, however, the question, “Who or what is noticing this I am?,” naturally arises. Now this feels like a natural occurrence, but when it first happened, it felt like I was being tapped on the shoulder by God!!
Ram: I’m with you so far. It all makes sense up to this point. The purpose of meditation is to “make contact” with the spaceless space. Would it be correct to say that it was as if the something was conscious? It sounds like it was insofar as you used the word “God” to describe it. I’ll provisionally assume that this spaceless space is the self. There isn’t much else it could be and this kind of experience is a common occurrence for spiritual types with reasonably sattvic minds. The arising of the question “Who or what is noticing this I am?” is natural too.
Since questions don’t ask themselves, let’s assume that you, Edward, asked the question. Or if you are not comfortable owning the question – the way you stated it as an “arising” suggests that it more or less came out of the blue and you are not interested in taking responsibility for it. If that is the way it is then let’s say that God or the self caused that question to arise since this is the only other option. If this is true, why would God ask a question to which It already knew the answer if it wasn’t for the benefit of Edward? Now let’s see how Edward reacts to this question.
Edward: Of course there is no answer to this question nor is there a feeling that one is needed.
Ram: Here we enter sticky territory. It doesn’t make sense that spontaneous inquiry happens for no reason, particularly since this is a conscious, purposeful universe. The purpose of inquiry is to get some kind of knowledge – in this case self-knowledge, since you are in the spiritual world, associating with mahatmas, doing sadhana for a long time and by your own admission above you have some degree of mumukshutva, desire for liberation. And as Ramana and Shankara, the Upanishads and any mahatma worth his salt says, “By knowledge alone is the self to be realized.” So here we have you asking a question (or the self presenting a question to you) and you not only say that no answer is needed you say it doesn’t “feel” that an answer is needed. May I respectfully ask why? It’s probably related to you comment above about your lack of burning desire. If your desire was burning you wouldn’t be able to stop until you knew the answer. But wait a minute, maybe you are sending this letter to learn the answer, so perhaps your desire is hotter than you think. Or you’re getting some help from God who is going to turn out to be you. Anyhow, let’s continue with your statement:
“…moreover, it has the sense of being rather a confirmation of pure Existence/Awareness Itself that is prior to even the formless ‘I am.’”
This is true. The “I am” is a thought in awareness. It is the first thought, what is called in Sanskrit the jivatman. It is the first differentiation in the creation. The “I am” thought is an object and you, the self, are the seer, the knower of the thought. But there is a third factor here and that is the person, Edward, who is writing to me asking for my view concerning his inner experience. If we look at it from Edward’s point of view, the way the question is formulated suggests that he needs confirmation of a subtle spiritual doubt: Are there two selves? And the answer, according to Vedanta, is yes and no.
The answer is “no” because this is a non-dual reality which means there is only one self. But when we take maya into account – the world of experience – the answer is a provisional “yes.” Why a “yes”? Because in duality the one self appears to be two at this level of the creation. Obviously, the operative word is “appears.” This is why I used the word “provisional.” It means that if you investigate this “I am” you will find that it is not different from “pure Existence-Awareness itself,” as you call it.
Edward: If focusing on “I am” is a stepping back from “I am this or that,” the identification with this pure Existence/Awareness Itself is a further “stepping back” from the “I am” – this sense of a regressive “stepping back” is just a metaphor that works for me.
Ram: This is correct. There is plenty of scriptural support for your view. In the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter XV, three selves are established. First there is the kshara brahman. This means maya and the changing apparent reality, and corresponds to the “I am this and that” state of consciousness. It is a state of ignorance in which the subject identifies with the objects. Because of the identification it is called bondage. It is a state of suffering – in the sense of experiencing. The second “self” is called akshara brahman. This is the “I am.” Notice that both selves are called brahman. Brahman means “limitless.” That is, they are both fundamentally the same, both are pure awareness. The akshara brahman identifies with itself and not with maya. This is called liberation. It is a sense of complete independence from all objects. It is so subtle that nothing in maya can get into it to pollute it. So it does not suffer. It is what human beings call enlightenment. As far as the human realm is concerned, this is the end of it.
But if you read that chapter – it is called “Purushottma Yoga, the Yoga of the Supreme Person” – you will have to wait until the seventeenth verse to find out that that is not the end of it. In that verse it says, “In addition to these two selves, there is another self. It is the ‘uttama purusha.’” Uttama means “supreme.” Supreme means there is nothing beyond it. This is where the spiritual buck stops. And purusha means “person.” But it doesn’t mean that this is a person as we think of a person. “Person” is a word that carries the sense of awareness, or consciousness. It is a common symbol of the self, which is chaitanyam, or awareness.
This all seems rather daunting from a spiritual point of view. “You mean I have to work my way out of maya to discover that I’m the free ‘I am’ and then I have to get out of the ‘I am’ and become the ‘supreme person’? Sweet Jesus! When does it end? How do I know there isn’t another even bigger person sitting somewhere? How does God fit into this whole picture?” Etc.
Edward: Does any of this make sense, Ram, or do you think I am way off track here – or even worse, just blowing hot air out my bottom?!? I am truly interested in your insights on this. Thanks again for your email. I found it helpful and timely.
Ram: As you can see, it makes perfect sense. However, there is something else that we need to know about this situation. Let’s look at it from the perspective of awareness. We have two very subtle objects, the changing self and the unchanging self. Now let’s ask how these selves are known. If we had only read it in scripture it would certainly seem like a lot of spiritual hot air. But we know of these selves because you have observed them. Well, you observed one, the “I am,” and you inferred the existence of the other. And you will be happy to know that inference is a valid means of knowledge. So we have established their existence. And since your experience corresponds with scripture we can accept it.
Now, the only question left is how these selves are known. What is our means of knowledge? It can only be awareness because the intellect is out of the picture. It can know the “this and that” world, the world of maya up to a point, although it cannot know it completely, because it is a part of it. So awareness knows this. If this is true, then you must be awareness because you know it.
What you need to know about awareness is that it is just simple awareness. The awareness that knows these very subtle ideas is the same awareness that knows the color of a sunset or the touch of a woman. It is not some “supreme” or exalted awareness, far beyond the grasp of the mind, etc. (The word “supreme” is used to indicate that there is nothing beyond simple awareness, although before the verse uses the word “supreme” it uses the word “anya,” which means “other than,” which is good except that it suggests that maybe all these selves are different, which they aren’t. The non-dual self is only presented that way to help remove doubts that arrive from experiential situations like yours.) Anyway, there is no reason to believe that you can’t finish your search because you haven’t “become” it or “merged into” the “I am” and then further merged into Absolute Existence “beyond” even that.
Awareness is existence. It is what is. Is there any doubt that you exist, that you are? There is not. The fact that you exist and that you are aware should be enough. If it isn’t then you have to keep on trying to get what you already have by doing some doings. And as we know, the only way you can get what you already have is to understand what it is and that you have it. This is why Ramana and the sages say that knowledge alone is liberation. So I say call off the search and accept the fact that you are awareness and awareness alone and live from that understanding.
~ Your own self, Ram