Self-Investigation – Questioning the Separate Self
This is an invitation to reflect on the reality of one’s self identity. This is not about unhooking the identity from feelings, thoughts or situations, which are different for each of us. Rather it is about the basic identification with what we call ‘I’ or ‘self’ – an identification that is the same for almost everyone. Most people say "I" and mean a mixture of body and mind.
Because most people identify with their body-mind system and because, according to Advaita, they are something other than this, a process is needed to invalidate the misunderstanding. So first of all the nature of this body-mind system is precisely defined. Advaita Vedanta distinguishes three bodies, the gross, the subtle and the causal. Building on this analysis, identification is questioned systematically and dissolved layer by layer.
This essay questions the idea of individuality, which means the idea of an ‘I” that is separate from all else – questioning it at the gross, the subtle and at the causal level. All those who already suspect that they are more than individual beings, separate from others, will be especially supported by this contemplation in gaining a deeper understanding. One can make the contemplation the basis of a meditation, but its true effect unfolds when it accompanies one in different life situations and, in the end, weaves through one’s whole life.
Simply distinguishing between the gross (i.e. physical), and subtle bodies gives us a different perspective on our identification with the gross body. Since without the subtle body – i.e. without sensory perception, power of action, physiological functions and mind (without thinking/feeling, intellect, memory and the I-thought) – obviously nothing is left besides inert matter. The idea that we are the physical body is substantially easier to let go off once it is deprived of the liveliness that only the subtle body lends it.
Without subtle body the physical body is pure matter – a sophisticated structure of flesh, fat, bones, liquids etc. in a bag of skin with adjuncts made of callous matter like hair, teeth or nails We can see this body in the context of the material universe consisting of other physical bodies composed in similar ways. Mammals’ bodies consist of similar components, other animals’ bodies consist of less similar, but not altogether different, components. Plants, stones, metals, man-made things and physical phenomena like clouds, volcanoes, deserts or cyclones, again consist of different, but also not altogether different, components. Sometimes one or two of them seem to be missing, like water in a grain of sand, crystalline material in a jelly fish, or fire in ice. Yet, even if the specific compositions may vary, you come across the same components again and again.
So, even though your physical body is a specific composition, different from other compositions in the physical universe, it consists of very similar fundamental components. If the inert physical body could talk it might state: I am part of the physical universe, but put together differently from other parts of the same universe.
Defining the physical universe as the totality of physical components, we can say that all individual physical phenomena are encompassed by totality. This means that from the perspective of the physical universe, a physical body would be nothing but physical components. There would be no essential difference between an individual physical body and the total physical universe: from the perspective of the physical universe it would be considered non-different. The physical universe would look at the individual body as no different, namely as itself.
The subtle body is about functions – sensing, acting, generating energy, thinking/feeling. We can see it in the context of the subtle universe consisting of the totality of all such functions in living beings. There are rudimentary subtle body functions in inanimate phenomena too, often difficult to detect.
Your subtle body seems to be much less defined than the physical body, there seem to be so many different aspects to it and, as it is not visible, it is not always clear whether one aspect belongs to one’s own subtle body or rather to another one. Imagine yourself playing football all by yourself and compare that to when you play as part of a team. Is not the energetic level automatically higher because you are surrounded by team players? Is it your subtle body that you experience or have you plugged into the subtle body of the group (which already is the subtle universe)?
Or remember meditating alone in your room. Do you not experience that ‘your’ meditation went so much deeper when meditating with a group of meditators? Is it your subtle body that you experience or have you plugged into the subtle body of the group?
Yet you consider yourself as an individual mixture of functions, different from all other mixtures on this planet. Fair enough, but again this is only the perspective of this particular phenomenon in regard to other particular phenomena. And if your subtle body could make a statement it would say: I am part of the subtle universe but I am different from other subtle bodies of the subtle universe.
Yet, from the perspective of the totality of subtle components, one particular subtle body would be considered as subsumed in the totality of subtle phenomena. The subtle universe would call it "me". One’s own world of thought, for example, that seems so very significant and individual would be undistinguishable from the universal world of thought.
The universe would consider particular planets or living beings or stars as itself, wouldn’t it? A body would consider the trunk or a limb as itself. A house would consider the entrance door, the walls or particular rooms as itself.
Accordingly we can look at ourselves either from the individual perspective or from the perspective of the larger universe and from that perspective realize that we are not as separate as we are used to think. To go beyond the individual, the physical and the subtle level require a change of perspective. The following causal level does not require this change of perspective, it transcends the individual immediately.
As much as we have a gross physical universe and a subtle universe, we also have a causal universe, consisting of causal matter. As the term suggests, causal matter is the cause. For what? For the other two universes. What is causal matter supposed to be? We do not have a third form of matter here but simply the unmanifest version of any kind of matter. According to Vedanta (and science, and logic) nothing can just suddenly appear out of nowhere. Everything is either manifest or unmanifest but it definitely IS. And what exactly is this unmanifest ‘stuff’? Basically it is the law and order that makes it possible for a universe to manifest.
The causal is universal per se. Regarding the subtle body we have already seen that one cannot always determine where it ends and where the collective subtle body (the subtle universe) begins. With regard to the causal body this demarcation is not only difficult, it is impossible. Nevertheless, there is a term that refers to the individual causal. Therefore, in Advaita Vedanta you’ll sometimes talk of the causal body although an individual causal body actually does not exist.
Looking from the causal perspective at your individual reality it is obvious that there cannot be an individual causal reality. Why not? Universal law and order is in and through everything just as space is. Nothing can be excluded from it and everything is subject to universal law and order in the exact same way. It is not that there is a different law of gravity for you or for a cannonball or for a feather, it is the very same law having different results.
But not only is everything subject to natural law and order, it virtually consists of natural law and order. Just examine your body-mind-system: would anything of what you call yourself be there without the universal law and order? Would there be anything left of you without biological, chemical, physiological, physical, psychological, sociological, cultural, etc. law and order?
If one thinks the whole thig through: where, actually, is the individual? Does something like this actually exist? And if there is no individual what does that mean in regard to the universal? After all, without this natural order there would be no manifest universe either.
The causal is the unmanifest cause of anything: without cause no effect. So in the end of this analysis anything perceived can be reduced to just this: cause, i.e. natural law and order.
In Advaita Vedanta there is another term for this universal law and order, it is called Ishvara or Saguna Brahman. Ishvara has been discussed in the essay of August, 2012, but what is Saguna Brahman supposed to be?
Brahman is beyond matter, the one and only principle, which is the causeless cause interweaving all and everything. Brahman is not a God, but is reality itself. Brahman is advaita (non-dual), because there is no second principle besides Brahman. Brahman is existence-consciousness-limitlessness.
If one refers to Brahman including its inherent potential to manifest, one says Saguna Brahman or Ishvara. Otherwise Brahman is called Nirguna Brahman.
Enlightenment means knowing that I am Brahman, non-dual, existence-consciousness-limitlessness. How do I attain this knowledge? First of all by seeing through all ideas about what I am supposed to be, recognizing them as misapprehensions and leaving them behind. However, this by itself is not enough, it would be a purely negative approach and end with emptiness. However, Vedanta assures us that at the end there is fullness. This means that along with the process of negation it is always about recognising that which cannot be negated and which at the end reveals itself to the seeker in abundant fullness.
Nirguna Brahman can be recognised as Self, but the seeker needs help from outside because the mind cannot infer it logically. But Saguna Brahman can be infered logically, as I have done above. To understand in this manner that I am Ishvara/Saguna Brahman, is possible.
The Beginning of the End of the Search
So, why not simply start and see yourself that way instead of constantly confining yourself to some fake place within the universal law and order? It simply is not true: there cannot be such a place. And it makes your life so hard to continuously try and maintain this wrong notion. Not to talk about the implications of it, for example having to defend your fake place against all the other imagined fake places or entertaining the notion that anything has to be different from what it is (and you having to make sure that it becomes different). This last notion can dissolve in the knowledge that absolutely everything is within the order.
Only because all others and you yourself in the past have entertained certain suppositions, they are not necessarily true. If you can follow the logic of the considerations in this essay, do not reject them as "just intellectual". Take them seriously, they are true. Analyse your thinking habits, question your feeling habits.
Thus you can, bit by bit, let go of the identification with the body/mind-I and recognize yourself as the bigger principle – first at the physical, then at the subtle and then at the causal level. This knowledge is not yet the end of the spiritual search, but if you reject the knowledge, it cannot become the beginning of its end. If, however, you take your understanding seriously, although you will still have to deepen it, you will do this in a lot more efficient manner and it will be substantially easier for you.
To be present in and as all that is seen is to participate in life not as a fragment amongst other fragments but as love, intimately one with all seeming things.