Step by Step
How on earth does man actually come to ask himself the question „Who I am?“ Is it not obvious who one is? After all, I have my own name, a date of birth, an address, an individual body, an individual kind of thinking, an individual psychological structure, individual likes and dislikes etc. There is no other person with exactly this combination of factors that define me - neither in the past nor in the present nor in the future. Surely my uniqueness is the answer! So, what exactly are people asking for, if they ask „Who am I?“
Many are’nt really sure, they just feel that the above indicators cannot be all there is to them. This notion is confirmed by the statements in the scriptural writings of the Himalayan religions ; they describe the true Self as something completely different from that which distinguishes itself through individual characteristics. Rather they speak of a Self which is one without second (and not many individuals), eternal (and not time bound), absolute (and not relative), and which pervades the many, the time bound, the relative.
But whoever wants to acknowledge the truth of this statement and set aside his definition of himself as a limited individual, is faced with an almost insoluble task. Even if he devotes himself daily thoroughly and assiduously to the question ‚Who am I?’, he will have great difficulty in answering it conclusively. The ignorance about his true nature is much too overpowering. Everyone comes into the world with this ignorance and most will leave it still ignorant. Where oh where does one find the key to free oneself from this basic ignorance?!
About this Advaita Vedanta has two things to say:
1. After having taken note of what scriptural texts define as the true Self, the first task is to weigh this against what I usually take myself to be. It is a matter of systematically questioning my ideas and leaving all wrong definitions conclusively behind me.
2. To do this, I need somebody who has successfully gone through this process of inquiry - a teacher who has recognised who he really is, and who is able to help me to recognise who I am.
Though I may find the essential information about what the Self truly is written down in scriptures, I still need support to turn this second hand knowledge into first hand knowledge. The ignorance about who we are in truth is basic. In the course of life the ignorance crystallizes more and more, because our mind increasingly identifies with what we are not. While seeking, the likelihood of getting caught in our deeply well-worn identifications is extremely high – especially when we undertake the search on our own. Therefore, the seeker on the path of knowledge needs a teacher.
But how does one find a teacher? Vedanta says whoever is really ready for a teacher will find one. And how do I recognise how ready I am? The question „Who am I?“ must be important: indeed, the desire to recognise who I truly am must burn in me; it must mean more to me than most other things in my life or even more than everything else. If this is the case, I will take the right steps to find a teacher.
What, however, if I am not there yet? Even then I can do something, because if I am not there yet, I obviously need more preparation. In fact, particularly in the West, there are quite a number of seekers who are not prepared enough. Some of them even already know who they really are, but their knowledge is unstable because they lack a solid foundation. So to build this foundation is always worthwhile. Even though this work, too, is more effective if accompanied by a teacher, if one has none, one must make a start on one’s own. How does this work look?
Advaita Vedanta distinguishes two effective lifestyles: of action (karma yoga) and of knowledge (jnana yoga). Only knowledge leads to enlightenment, while action prepares the ground for knowledge. Karma yoga prepares for jnana yoga (jnana can be pronounced like the Spanish mañana, without -ma). For jnana yoga one necessarily needs a teacher, karma yoga one has to practise on one’s own.
In the essay of July, 2011 I have commenced to write about karma yoga. Now I will explain in more detail what Vedanta, actually means by karma yoga.
Karma is a Sanskrit term meaning action. Karma yoga means acting with a certain attitude. This too I have pointed to before, yet never explicitly. 
To be able to be called karma yoga, actions must meet the following three requirements:
1. The ultimate goal of everything one does is moksha and not security or well being (see essay 4/2012).
2. No matter what action is performed, the karma yogi takes the following decisive stance: I do what I can do and know that the result of my action does not lie in my hands (see last essay). This means that although I stand behind my actions I am not identified with them.
For this Vedanta inevitably includes ‚the divine’. The divine is nothing but the totality of all natural law and order and their seamless interlocking. It is called Ishvara. Karma yoga means: I act in the best of my knowledge and leave the result to Ishvara.
3. Ethical action - ethics following a relatively simple basic pattern: I act decisive as I would like to be treated and I do not act in a way as I myself would not like to be treated. This basic pattern is called dharma and dharma is considered to be universal. As nobody likes to be hurt one should, for example, take care not to hurt anybody. As nobody likes to be cheated, one should not cheat anyone etc. Of course in particular cases one must consider the cultural, social and individual context, but with this rule of thumb one can go quite far.
Whoever starts to cultivate a karma yoga life style his mind clears, he develops self-control and trust – characteristics that one needs to walk the path of knowledge.
Even though karma yoga refers to all activities, nevertheless, there are some actions that particularly support the karma yogi to develop an inner set up that will help him with jnana yoga. Here is a small choice:
Different forms of meditation help in various ways. As it is about the preparation of the seeker, this refers exclusively to the meditation with an object, see (essay 6/2011) with the subject Meditation.
Some meditation forms quieten the Mind – a necessary prerequisite for the knowledge work. Hand in hand with relaxation goes a feeling of expansion, which is valuable because it unhooks the identification with our own small egocentric world. Other meditation forms help to focus the mind, for example concentration on breathing or on a Mantra, recitations or performing rituals. The mind, as the main instrument for the knowledge work, in this manner is disciplined and made resilient against distractions. Meditation can also adopt the form of a contemplation about a certain subject, a value or the like.
What else helps to prepare for knowledge?
The so-called five sacrifices – this sounds more dramatic than it is. In fact it is about, day by day opening up in devotion to something bigger:
- to the divine
- to the sages
- to the forefathers
- to human beings
- to other living beings and the environment.
What can I devote to the divine, Ishvara, the totality of all effective natural laws and orders? Actually nothing except gratitude. Every day taking some time for this gratitude, belongs to a karma yoga life style.
What can I devote to the sages? I cherish the sages reading their scriptures and reflecting on them.
What can I devote to the forefathers? Care, if they are still alive and also gratitude because without them I would not be here. Even those who have difficult relations with parents and grand parents, do at least owe their lives to them. Everyone can decide himself how he/she would like to lend expression to this gratitude.
What can I devote to human beings? What can I devote to other living beings and the environment? The access to these two points will be easy for western readers. Any form of social engagement, animal protection, nature conservation, environment protection – all this belongs to a karma yoga life style. I can give time, friendliness, my abilities or money. Also neighbourly help, the plantation of my balcony, feeding the birds in winter or garbage separation belong to this category.
Whoever inspects his life closely will realize that he already performs many of these ‘sacrifices’ – and if not, will find it relatively easy to incorporate them into his life.
Otherwise no limits are set to one’s own creativity, because, as mentioned, it mostly is the attitude with which one does something and less the activities themselves. The more my action meets the requirements of the above three criteria, the more my life is characterized by karma yoga; the more karma yoga characterizes my life, the more basis I have for jnana yoga and the more probable it is that I find a suitable teacher to support my knowledge work.