| In order that the mind should see light instead of darkness, so the entire soul must be turned away from this changing world, until its eye can learn to contemplate reality and that supreme splendor which we have called the good. Hence there may well be an art whose aim would be to effect this very thing.
In addition to our character, our personality, our habits, our beliefs, the mistakes we have made, the hopes we have, and all the other things that go towards our sense of being an individual self, there is a dimension to our identity that we cannot describe so easily.
We all know what it means to say “I” — we use the word the whole time. Or rather, we think we know what the word means. We can define many of the things we identify ourselves with, but the underlying Self that is doing the identifying is much harder to define.
Trying to describe the self is rather like setting out with a flashlight to search for the source of the flashlight’s light. All I would find as I shone the torch around would be the various objects that the beam fell upon. However hard I looked I would not locate the source of light. It is the same when I try to discover the nature of “I.” All that I am aware of are various aspects of my self that the light of consciousness happens to fall upon — my personality, character, memories, ambitions, habits, beliefs, feelings, intelligence, failings, and so on. Try as I may, I cannot find the source of that light. I cannot find the source of my own experience, the unchanging, permanent core of my being.
This does not mean that we, as conscious experiencing beings, do not exist. That much is undeniable. We may question the truth of what we think, and we may question the reality of what we experience through the senses. What we cannot question is the fact that we think and that we experience.
This is what Déscartes was saying in his famous phrase, “Cogito ergo sum” — “I think therefore I am.” It was not, as is often interpreted, that his thinking was the cause of his existence. On the contrary, it was a proof of his existence. Déscartes was searching for the absolute truth — for that which is beyond all doubt. He found that, although he could doubt the content of any thought that he might have, he could not doubt the fact that he thought. And thus he could not doubt his own existence.
However, because our familiarity with the world around us is considerably more developed than our familiarity with the realm of mind, we are only half-awake to our inner nature. We overlook our true essence. Instead we identify ourselves with our more tangible aspects — with our physical form, our personality, our profession, our position, our past, our potential, and so on.
Such attributes are conditioned by events and can change with time. They are not a single, permanent, unchanging, independent Self.
To realize the nature of the underlying Self has been an eternal quest of humanity. It was this call that was inscribed above the portals of the ancient Greek oracle at Delphi, Gnothi Seauton — “Know thyself.” And in one way or another it is the core of most of the major world religions.
A Still Mind
A common aim of many techniques of meditation is to bring mental activity to an end and so reach what Indian teachings describe as samadhi — a state of “still mind.”
A still mind is a mind that is free from fear, free from fantasies, free from ruminations over the past, free from concern about what may or may not be happening to it. It is mind no longer disturbed by the many thoughts that come from believing that fulfillment lies in what we have or what we do. For once the ego-mind has fallen silent.
Consciousness itself remains; you are still awake, you are still aware. You, the experiencer, still exist. For a while you are free from your hopes and fears, your social status, your character and personality, and all those other things that gave you a sense of personal identity. You are free to know the underlying Self.
Such knowing comes not as an idea or an understanding, for that would make the subject of experience an object of experience. Besides, the still mind is a mind that is not moved by ideas or understandings — at least, not as we normally think of them. This knowing comes from a direct acquaintance with the Self. I simply am. I am not any thing; there is no substance or form to my being. Yet its reality is absolutely clear — and undeniable.
It is this transcendence of the ego and remembering of one’s underlying nature that gives meditation its value. Here is the identity, peace and serenity that we have been searching for all along. Here is the fulfillment for which we have been yearning. Then, when we come out of meditation, we return to active life with a taste of this inner truth, and a little less attached to the things of the world.
No single moment of transcendence is likely to enlighten us forever. Our conditioning is so deep that it does not take long before we once again are caught up in our hopes, fears, worries and concerns, and once again start looking for external sources of fulfillment. But a little of the taste remains, and our attachment to the world may not be quite as strong as it was before. And perhaps after another taste, a little less strong still. This is why regular meditation practice is usually recommended — a daily dose of dehypnosis — a daily remembering of ourselves in our unconditioned state.
Different not Difficult
Meditation is often thought of as an activity of the mind, some form of mental “doing.” However, a mental activity does not easily lead to a state of stillness; and meditative practices which take this approach tend to be very difficult. True meditation is not difficult so much as different — completely different from the mental processes we are accustomed to.
Most techniques aimed at stilling the mind are exercises in attention rather than exercises in thinking. One does not quieten the mind by changing what one thinks, but by changing the direction and quality of one’s attention. In their own particular ways meditation techniques shift the attention away from the world of the senses — the world we one thought would bring us peace of mind — and turn the attention inwards towards our inner essence.
As the mind begins to settle down it discovers an inner calm and peace. The attention has found what it has been seeking along, and needs no coercion to continue in this direction. This is reflected in the following lines by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the teacher of Transcendental Meditation, taken from his book The Science of Being and Art of Living:
To go to a field of greater happiness is the natural tendency of the mind. Because in the practice of transcendental meditation the conscious mind is set on the way to experiencing bliss-consciousness, the mind finds the way increasingly attractive as it advances in the direction of bliss. It finds increasing charm at every step of its march. This practice is, therefore, not only simple but also automatic.
In this respect the art of meditation can be the essence of easiness. It is just letting go — allowing the mind to return to its natural state of its own accord.
Any difficulty that may be experienced usually comes from the difficulty involved in unhooking the mind from its conditioned thinking. So strong is our attachment to finding happiness through the world we experience — and this includes not just what we experience through our eyes, ears, and skin, but also the things we see, hear, and feel in our imagination — that the mind holds on hard to its cherished beliefs.
Even when we do let go and the mind begins to relax and settle down, it usually is not long before it is disturbed again as some unfulfilled desire starts once more to work out ways of finding future satisfaction. In this respect stilling the mind is not at all easy.
This is why specific techniques of meditation are of value — not as things to do, but as aids to release the mind from its deeply ingrained patterns. They are skills we can learn to disengage our egoic mode of thinking.
Another important consequence of allowing the mind to sink into the silence of pure consciousness, is that the qualities that usually distinguish one self from another are no longer there. All markers of individuality have gone. We become aware that we are the light of consciousness, and that this light is the same light that shines within all beings. We become one with all beings.
This is the divine union of which so many great saints and mystics have spoken. And, as they have repeatedly told us, it is only through a direct personal knowing of our deep inner unity with all beings that we will be saved.
This is our challenge. Can we wake up in time? Can we continue our evolutionary journey and grow from our current state of semi-wakefulness into the full realization of our true identity? This may sound a lofty goal, but it is, in fact, where each of our lives is taking us. It is just the state of full human maturity.