Saturday, August 26, 2023

Who Do Men Say I AM?

Sages far wiser than most of us have long concurred that “Who am I” is the most important question we can and should ask ourselves. In “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramhansa Yogananda, he quotes a great sage:

“Outward ritual cannot destroy ignorance, because they are not mutually contradictory,” wrote Shankara in his famous Century of Verses. “Realized knowledge alone destroys ignorance.…Knowledge cannot spring up by any other means than inquiry. ‘Who am I? How was this universe born? Who is its maker? What is its material cause?’ This is the kind of inquiry referred to.” The intellect has no answer for these questions; hence the rishis evolved yoga as the technique of spiritual inquiry.1

Thus, the inquiry—essential as it is said to be—cannot be fathomed by the intellect alone but by actual experience.

Also, in “Autobiography” in a footnote to Chapter 1, Yogananda recounts: 

The poet Tennyson has left us, in his Memoirs, an account of his repetitious device for passing beyond the conscious mind into superconsciousness: “A kind of waking trance — this for lack of a better word — I have frequently had, quite up from boyhood, when I have been all alone,” Tennyson wrote. “This has come upon me through repeating my own name to myself silently, till all at once, as it were out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being, and this not a confused state but the clearest, the surest of the surest, utterly beyond words — where death was an almost laughable impossibility — the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction, but the only true life.” He wrote further: “It is no nebulous ecstasy, but a state of transcendent wonder, associated with absolute clearness of mind.” 2 

Jesus Christ famously asked his disciples, “Who do men say I am?” This question and the disciple Peter’s response has gone down in history, however, controversially. Catholic theologians claim that Jesus’ response established for all time his “church” and its authority through the papacy. Protestants claim, by contrast, that Peter’s “confession” that Jesus is the Messiah is the “rock” upon which the church is built (rather than Peter and the succession of prelates that followed him). Either way, the question and the answer are fundamentally profound for all time: not just for identifying the divinity of Jesus Christ, but, by extension, the innate divinity of all souls and our potential for Self-realization. 

The “I” principle waxes and wanes throughout our day and our lives. An infant makes little distinction between himself and the mother (or anyone else for that matter). But it isn’t long before the infant learns that the mother is not the same as himself nor omnipresent. “Separation anxiety” soon sets in.

During childhood—if family security and love prevail—the child has only bouts of aggression, selfishness or personal anxiety but otherwise is connected to the family scene. At puberty, separation begins in earnest, expressing itself in rebelliousness and intense ego-awareness. 

In marriage we find a repeat of the pattern. The couple meets and experiences unity but in time the frequency of experiences of differences grows and in time harmony can only prevail if recognition of those differences is accepted.

In our unreflective persona, we are wholly identified with life around us including and especially life as we mentally imagine, desire or fear it. Most “things” around us are generally prosaic and taken for granted. It is primarily our thoughts and feelings about the world (things, people, our opinions) that constitute the cocoon of self that we live in, happily or otherwise. Upon reflection, however (and only a little would suffice), we can know that the objects in this cocoon are ephemeral and often changing. The question can become—at least for a few— “Who am I (really)?”

As the Adi Shankacharya suggests, only by interior inquiry can we experience the “I” in its immutable nature of Self. We may crave endless change, but we do so from an assumed center of changelessness: continuity of existence and self-awareness held in the hope and expectation of satisfaction.

When one begins in earnest to explore “Who am I” we confront the initial reality that I am separate from you. This is true whether in therapy or in meditation. In therapy the “you” are all others (your parents, your spouse, children, co-workers) while in meditation one could say the “you” is whatever is your goal: God, guru, peace, bliss, samadhi, moksha, etc.

In the outer world, we can never pass beyond separateness: we can only reconcile to it. In the inner world of the self, we strive to rise above conditional awareness and self-definitions to achieve union with consciousness alone, as consciousness (however defined, named or not named).

This union of self with Self is not easily achieved. In the teachings of yoga, this process usually takes many lifetimes of effort and requires the help of a Self-realized Self to guide us out of the labyrinth of the mind. The mind, indeed the brain, too, takes input from the senses and creates a world of its own: likes, dislikes, desires, fear, opinions, emotions, tendencies, attitudes, and inclinations. Dissolving the intermediary of the mind to have direct perception is one of the ways to describe enlightenment. It must be said, however, that in the world of the mind and intellect the ways of describing the ultimate state are innumerable given the very nature of the mind and intellect! Do you see the conundrum, then?

“It takes a thorn to remove a thorn.” Our mind’s tendency to extract, reconstruct and redefine experiences in its own terms is obviously a hindrance but it is also a tool. “Work with things (and people) as they are” is good, solid, practical advice for all of us. Saints, sages and yogis are obviously practical people.

Redirecting our thoughts and goals to higher, less self-involved purposes is the first step. Looking to people more highly evolved in this pursuit becomes part of this first step. Refining our self-definition towards that of enlightened persons is very helpful. Yogananda tells the story of a yogi-saint who one day while meditating upon his chosen deity suddenly merged with the object of devotion and proclaimed aloud “I’ve been showering the murti (idol-image) with flowers and now I see that I AM THAT and now shower those petals upon my head as well.” The experience of oneness is not easily won, however.

Better it is, Krishna advises in the Bhagavad Gita, to approach God in the I-Thou relationship rather than to only seek the Absolute. For as long as we are encased in a human body and suffer the indignities of requiring air, water, food, shelter and sunlight, best it is to seek God-enlightenment as separate from us (for the time being until released by grace).

It is probably not useful to dwell endlessly upon transcending I-Thou. Let oneness be the gift of the One. The One has become many and it is not wrong to say that, in essence, the One IS the many. Why quibble over the distinction as if One is better than the Other? As my teacher, Swami Kriyananda would put it, “God is as much with you RIGHT NOW as He will ever be.” And as Yogananda put it, to achieve “Self-realization” you need only “improve your knowing.”

In the Eight-Limbed path of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the final three stages of samyama reflect the steps to enlightenment as “I am experiencing peace,” to “Peace IS” to “I AM.”

Some practical applications of this process can include the experience of gazing out a window onto a landscape: all mental narrative vanishes, and no barrier of mind separates you from the experience. Gazing in this way is a kind of meditative exercise that can be deployed during the day. Taking breaks to observe the flow of your breath is another simple but effective exercise. More subtle but very powerful when well-developed is the focusing of attention in the forehead, especially at the point between the eyebrows from time to time during the day (and almost always during meditation itself). Lastly, lifting your gaze upward as if thinking about something but not actually thinking of anything is also very calming.

Practice listening intently to sounds or another person’s words. Don’t run a parallel narrative while listening but simply listen as if the sound wasn’t so much coming in through your ears as in through your heart (not physical heart but in the center line of your body near the physical heart).

For those whose energy is strongly outward and for whom (or at times when) these practices (above) are too contemplative, practice radiating heart energy outward into your space, environment, workplace, or neighborhood from wherever you are, including while moving through space in a car, plane, or train. You can “color” the radiation with peace or love or kindness if you feel to do so. No one can see nor need to know that you are silently blessing them.

Like the yogi’s response to the hot dog vendor’s question about which condiments to add, “Make me One with everything!” Finding that cosmic vendor will require practice, patience, and determination!

 Joy to you, 

Swami Hrimananda

Autobiography of a Yogi, Chapter 26: The Science of Kriya Yoga
2) Autobiography of a Yogi, Chapter 1: My Parents and Early Life, footnote 11