Saturday, April 17, 2021


The Self and Enlightenment

Then father is no father, mother is no mother; worlds disappear, gods disappear, scriptures disappear; the thief is no more, the murderer is no more, castes are no more; no more is there monk or hermit.  The Self is then untouched either by good or by evil, and the sorrow of the heart are turned into joy.

 – Brihadaranyaka Upanishad[1]



hether or not the self exists in a state of enlightenment has been a classic controversy:  St. John, for example, says when you are suffused with the light of God, it’s like a pane of glass is illuminated by sun’s light, yet the pane does not lose its identity. Similarly, Ramanuja says that the state of release without the ‘I’ makes no sense, and any person who is taught that doctrine would turn and walk away.  Sankara and others, on the other hand, believe the sense of the ‘I’ is an illusion which has to be transcended in the state of enlightenment.  Only Brahman is real.

Whether the moments of such awareness are called enlightenment or not, it does not make much difference.  What makes a difference in day-to-day life is the relative (or total) freedom from the processes of the self one could live with.  And that to me is what matters, not whether this is called enlightenment or liberation or something else.

There are three possibilities open here: 1) I accept the inevitability of the self and the consequences thereof.  2) I find some way of ending, at least temporarily, the thought process. 3) By some miracle something happens, hits me like a ton of bricks, as UG would say, and I become totally free.  At the moment, I don’t see any other possibility than the second.

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Bondage and Freedom: True, in the practical world we can only live with such freedom as a matter of degree, for one has to live in this world in relationships, and survive.

All this may just be a far cry from the breakthrough such as what UG represents.  But thinking about UG and the differences is only bound to create further divisions, duality and internal conflict.  It doesn’t help.  One is where one is.  There is really no other state.  We work with what we have.

The alternatives are endless and lead into various blind alleys:  One can, for instance, say, how could you stop thinking about UG, judging him, or comparing yourself with him, ponder over the differences and strive to bridge the gap?  That track of thinking, unfortunately, will have to create further grief and turmoil in one’s life, for whatever that state UG might have been in is not something one can attain to by striving.  So, the wisest thing is to realize that and stay where we are.  Of course, the mind will keep making its mischief.  Let it.

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The question ‘Who am I?’ is inevitable as long as there is reflection or self-consciousness, in spite of the momentary respite when there is no thought, and hence no self-consciousness.  In a state of mere consciousness there is awareness, but you can’t say that there is self-awareness,[2] because you are not aware of yourself as anything; therefore, you are not aware of yourself. 

But that doesn’t seem quite right.  Can there not be just ‘me’, whether as body awareness or just awareness and still ask the question, who is this ‘me’?  But the question has to be asked in the form of a thought.  That shows that you are not any more in a state without thought.  The question does not, and cannot, exist in just the pure state of awareness.  In other words, whether or not there is the ‘I’ in that pure awareness is a meaningless question.  It doesn’t matter and it doesn’t make any difference.

How thought (or thoughts) puts together the ‘I’ is not an easy question to answer either.  It’s an imaginary center of gravity (as Daniel Dennett says) to which all the mental phenomena or classes of phenomena are drawn.  Mental faculties such as memory and imagination help the process, so that all our past experiences and knowledge are brought into service.  Of course, this answer really doesn’t satisfy my quest for myself, because it’s an objective answer.  Nothing will.  There simply ends the inquiry.

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The freedom from the self also means becoming free from the barriers and divisions between ourselves and others and the rest of the world.  In this process, we may find ourselves more open to others feelings, what they say and do, and also less likely to judge them.  Just for that reason alone, our knowledge of others and the world is bound to improve.  We also tend to feel for them more than we have ever done before.  As UG might say, “What happens there happens here.”  One might think that this is more like identification with the other person. 


[1] The Upanishads, Translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester, Mentor Book, 1948

[2] Actually, you can’t even say there is awareness without reflecting on the previous moment.

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