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Vedanta 101 in a Nutshell by Derek Cruikshank
Who are you?
That seems like a pretty simple and straightforward question. Give it some thought. Perhaps you said, “I am this human being with a body and mind named Joe,” or perhaps you said, “I am Joe the farmer, husband, brother, boss, all-around nice guy.” But are you really those things?
Perhaps instead of looking at who you are, let’s first look at who you are not. Are you your body? Well, the body is only made up of the inert elements and will break down and become worm feed one day (yet you can’t deny that something is aware of a body). Are you your mind? This would mean that you would know what all your future thoughts would be if the mind was in control (which you don’t). And while it is possible to see a brain, can you show me something called a mind/ego/thought? Nope, so you are not your mind. Are you your subconscious, or conditioning? You can’t be or it wouldn’t be called subconscious! You have no idea when something is coming up from your subconscious and you have no idea what it will be (yet something is aware of a mind and thoughts). Hmm, let’s look at your roles and titles: is something such as a husband or father or boss a tangible “thing” that you can show someone? Nope, they are just words/labels describing something or someone. So I can say, “I am not my body, mind/ego, subconscious or the roles that describe me, but yet I can’t deny that I exist.” So what or who am I?
Let’s look at the basics. Everything you can see or not see or experience is made up of the elements (this has been scientifically proven). All these elements can be broken down further and further until you reach a microscopic unit of energy, and then further into empty space. But space also needed to originate from somewhere. So let’s assume there is a starting point and “base” to all things (I don’t want to give this a religious or scientific label, so call this base what you will). This would mean that “everything” originated from this something I’ve called the base, so we could firmly then say that everything must be non-dual in nature because it originates from one source (meaning “one without a second,” as everything is it). I hope you are still with me! So this something somehow evolves into space and then stuff happens and two parts of space collide (or are formed) and air comes to be. More collisions, and then we have fire and then water and then finally, earth (the five elements). Earth then continues to grow and, voila, little creatures start growing and then eventually we evolve until we finally get to “us.” So “us” started from and remains “everything,” since everything is non-dual. Now, while I may say that I am not my body-mind being and not the role people have assigned to me, I still cannot deny that I exist and that I am aware that I exist.
So now we ask, who’s aware? Is Joe aware? Let’s check. When Joe is awake, he is apparently aware of life happening (through his senses and mind interpreting it). And we could even say Joe is aware when he is dreaming, except this time Joe’s senses are turned inwards into his dream (and by the way, can Joe really control what he dreams of?). But where is Joe when he is in deep sleep (meaning no dreams)? Joe can’t be found, yet when Joe gets awakened from his deep sleep, he is upset because there is awareness that he was awakened from a peaceful deep sleep. So it is clear that Joe is not who he thinks he is (a separate human being called Joe) or he would be present in all states and controlling them.
Who Joe truly is, is the witness of Joe. When Joe is awake or dreaming or sleeping, there is an awareness that is always watching and aware of Joe’s thoughts, memories, goals, interactions with the world, etc. Who you are is the ever present awareness/witness and you are much like a movie screen. Joe’s life plays out on you, and you as the movie screen get to watch and enjoy the show in 3D, but you are never actually the reality of the movie.
There is nothing special about knowing your true nature. There is no special ceremony or experience that will make you understand. It is just purely the knowledge and acceptance of the above as fact that is required.
So why is there this big play called life? No one truly knows. But what happens is we somehow become ignorant of who we always were (everything) by thinking we are separate individuals called, for example, Joe. Then we begin a life of seeking to find our true selves as “everything” once again. Chasing pleasure and desires in life is akin to seeking, because what we are truly seeking is happiness and peace. But the reality is that even after you attain that pleasure/desire and experience happiness, that happiness can never last forever because it is just a passing experience and what we are truly seeking, our everything, has not yet been “achieved,” so you move onto the next object of your desire. You will finally get to the point where you realize that chasing objects is a zero-sum game and will never provide you with the everlasting happiness you seek. With this realization (that the joy is not in the object) there is almost a giving up or surrendering to life or God (or what/whomever) and a sense comes over you that perhaps what I am seeking is not an object out there but is something inside, much, much closer. So one might head down a religious or spiritual path, which is good. It is an important step because it typically encourages you to take time to self-inquire and to begin to accept that there may be more to life than what you see “out there.” People find great peace in these self-inquiry practices, but the peace is intermittent at best. Interestingly enough, although they may begin to feel more peaceful and happy, there is still a feeling that there is something missing and there is still more to know/find. This is where self-inquiry of the above knowledge I have shared will begin to guide you to the knowledge of your true being. Once you realize your true nature as the ever-present and peaceful “everything/awareness” and your knowledge is firm in the fact that you can never be touched by the movie, there is absolutely no way you can ever suffer again and all seeking stops.
Here’s the cool thing: even after one realizes their true nature/self as everything, absolutely nothing changes in your day-to-day life. You still go to work and exercise and have thoughts and plan and pay bills and have fun and have appropriate emotions and make apparent choices and play your roles. What changes, based on this knowledge that you are in fact “everything,” is now knowing that your true nature is not that of a separate body-mind/doer named Joe. This knowledge alone removes any ignorance you may have of who you think you are and with that comes great perspective, peace and freedom.