Interestingly, the word 'dis-identification' exists neither in German nor in English. Even though it will not appear in the following text, I like to use it because dis-identification – the dissolution of one's identifications - is an indispensable key for the spiritual seeker.
First of all: What actually is identification? The literal translation makes clear that in identification the identity of one thing is equated with that of something else. Some examples:
If I meet in short succession one and then the other twin of an identical pair of twins thinking that I have meet the same person twice, then I have equated twin A with twin B, I have identified twin A with twin B.
If I am, supposed to spot my own dog among the photos of 25 dogs, by indicating one I have equated the identity of my dog with the dog on the photo, I have identified my dog.
If tears come to my eyes at the sight of a crying person, I equate his with mine, I identify mine, identifying with his.
If I believe that my company, my country, my race or my religion is the only true one, then I even equate my whole person with the respective company, country, race or religion; I identify with it.
How does all this relate to the search for truth?
The seeker of truth is in search of himself. Eastern mystics and sages, particularly all teaching based on Vedanta, point out to him that he is other than what he takes himself to be, i.e. that he is identified with something that he is not. As almost all people share this false identification, those who start questioning it are always few and far in between. The readers of these essays belong to these few.
A seeker who knows that what he looks for is not somewhere else in time and space but actually is his real self, such a seeker proceeds in such a way that he sorts out everything that he is not. Logically what is left at the end of this process can only be his true self, which was hidden under all his mistaken ideas - because his true self is there all along.
To be able to recognize his mistaken ideas for what they are, he must know by what they are characterized. Again we start with a negative definition: What is it that cannot be me? Again simple logic delivers the answer: Everything that is an object cannot be me because I am always the subject that perceives an object.
So the key is to distinguish between subject and object. What is "I" and what is "non-I"? Now, it is easy to find objects. I use my five senses and see, hear, feel, smell and taste a variety of objects. Consulting my mind, it reveals a whole lot of more objects to me: Thoughts, feelings, recollections, knowledge. I can perceive all this, so it cannot be "I". These are objects of my perception.
It is worthwhile to experiment a little with this: Am I my body? Am I my feelings? Am I my thoughts? Logically not, because all this I can perceive. However, this will hardly persuade anybody of the fact that he is neither body, nor feelings, nor thoughts.
Why not? Two answers:
1. If over millions of lifetimes one has equated oneself with body, thought and feelings, one will not be able to stop this just on account of a logical consideration. So we have arrived again at identification. Identification with that what we are not is extremely persistent – because it has been practiced and exercised since the beginning of time.
2. Those who merely stop at acknowledging what they are not end up in a sort of a desert, in a desolate emptiness. Why? Because in this way we define ourselves as a mere non-entity. However, something in us knows: man is not a non-entity. Even if he is neither body, nor mind, nor any other discernible thing, he still doubtlessly is there. Whatever he may be: he is. if we are not all this what we always thought - body, energy, feelings, thoughts etc. – we will still not be persuaded by our logical train of thought unless we come to understand in which manner we do exist.
With this we come to the next step in our process of understanding. Here we also see how important it is not to settle hastily for conclusions. Advaita Vedanta requires exactness. If I have clarity about something, but not complete clarity, then this is not good enough. If I understand something but in some situations the understanding is not at my disposal, then it is not final yet.
The next question in my process of understanding is: When indubitably I am, then what it is that I am? I have recognized that I cannot be my thoughts and feelings because I perceive them. First of all it is important to realize that there really is something that perceives them. Please check! Only then go on asking: What is that perceives them?
Could this not be one part of the mind perceiving another part of the same mind? We can decide this only if we know more about what we are searching for – the true self - and how it differs from the mind. To come to know more about it, we have to trust the statements of those who know the truth. This trust will enable us to use their statements as working hypothesis in order to get on with our reflections. Mind you, it is not a matter of believing but being able to lean upon what we have come to know from a trustworthy source until we can either verify or reject it on logical grounds.
Why must I adhere to the statements of those who know the truth? Easy – because they claim to know it, whereas I cannot claim it myself.
With brilliant clarity truth shines in the Upanishads, the channeled texts of the vedic seers. They get to the heart of the understanding of the non-duality of existence and for millennia have formed the basis of all other texts of advaita vedanta (which are countless). But there is no use to start studying them without teacher, knowledge of Sanskrit and guidance. Assuming, however, one has this guidance what does one find in such writings? For example we read that the true self is supposed to be unborn, without senses, without life energy (prana), without mind, without qualities, timeless (eternal), shapeless (limitless) and, hence, one without a second. - As I am in search of the subject, I can assume that the subject may somehow be related to this true self.
In order to find an answer to our question, I simplify the above statements: This self is neutral – without color, form, qualities, energy, opinions, attitudes, forever the same, non-dual.
As opposed to the self the mind is never completely neutral, it always takes up a position to the objects of its perception. Distinguishing it from the self we can now relatively easily determine whether what perceives is just the mind perceiving the mind.
Now at least we know if we are on the wrong track.
So if we discover that what perceives the mind does not take a position we know that it cannot be the mind. With this recognition we are again hot on the trail of the sought after subject (however, we cannot determine yet, whether what we have found is the self.)
In Vedanta this neutral subject is called the witness consciousness (sakshi).
Differentiation between the seer and the seen
The form is perceived and it is the eye, which is the perceiver.
The eye is perceived and it is the mind, which is the perceiver.
The mind in its different forms is perceived and the witness consciousness alone is that which perceives it.
But the witness consciousness is not perceived by anything.
Drig Drishya Viveka, verse 1
Witnessing or the witness consciousness, therefore, is the ultimate subject; even enquired into more closely it is not going to turn out to be an object, as do other seeming subjects do (body, mind etc.), which can be perceived. And whoever knows the witness consciousness, knows: it shows all signs of what according to the Upanishads makes out to be the true self.
But it cannot be the true self because it is still "operating" in duality: here witnessing (subject), there the witnessed (object). The true self, however, is advaita, non-dual.
Whoever has recognized himself as the witness consciousness that looks in an utterly neutral way at the world of constantly changing objects, his mind will identify less and less with that world of objects. Now, all identifications will gradually leave, until there is just one left: identification with the witness consciousness.
So the path to enlightenment has more stages than are conceived of by those who think that enlightenment can overcome indiscriminately by everyone at a moments notice.
The first stage on the spiritual path is the preparation of the seeker, which enables him to be receptive enough to the knowledge of truth in the first place. This stage is called karma yoga – it is still about implementing actions, for example meditation.
The second stage starts after the seeker is prepared and turns straight to the knowledge of the truth. He starts on the path of jnana yoga, the path of the knowledge. The seeker learns to distinguish more and more what he is and what he is not.
When the seeker on the path of knowledge starts to identify with the witness consciousness he enters into the third stage in which bit by bit all his usual identifications resolve.
The fourth stage begins when the identification with the witness consciousness has supplanted all other identifications. Now it is completely clear, how that is, what is my true nature. However, even being identified now with the "right thing", this last identification also needs to resolve - because as long as identification is there, the seeker still considers himself to be a separate I. Now he knows a hundred percent that he is neither body, nor energy, neither feelings, nor thoughts, neither intellect, nor higher insight, nor any kind of feelings of happiness, not even the beatific states which he might experience in the spiritual realm. He knows that he is none of these, but he does not know his true self as long as there is still an idea of a separate me– even if this I is the witness consciousness.
In all these stages the seeker needs help – best of all from a teacher who is ahead of his own level of knowledge because it is difficult to see through one's own identifications. And this is all it is about: to recognize all identifications for what they are. Any identification, seen through, dissolves just like a dream dissolves as soon as one enters into the waking state.
At the very end of the journey identification as such is unleashed and, with it, any idea of a separate me: The witness goes, what remains is pure consciousness.