Progress in Self-Knowledge
Know thyself! In the first part of this article, the meaning of self-knowledge was looked at from a psychological point of view, with examples from literature, both comic and tragic. We also examined the idea, elucidated by the psychologist, Alfred Adler, that human beings have a fundamental need for significance and to overcome restrictions. This urge can lead to selfishness, or it can be transmuted into ‘social feeling’—in which case ‘man would develop in a direction that furthered universal welfare’ (Adler). This promise of expansion was also made by Shri Dada of Aligarh when he told his disciples: ‘My children, every human being has fellow-feeling and, if he exercises this virtue selflessly every day, it will create the flame of love in his heart.’
At this stage, we need to ask an important question. If fellow-feeling and social interest are golden keys to an inner development, why do we hear so little about this development in daily life? There are millions of people who are helpful and supportive. There are innumerable organisations specialising in altruistic social work, and the workers, by definition, are set on the wider welfare of the community. Yet though many people may speak of job fulfilment, this seems to be rather different from any kind of expansion of consciousness. So, is there really a direct connection between fellow-feeling and the awakening of the inner flame of Love spoken of by Shri Dada?
The answer is that there can indeed be a direct connection if we approach our work and our dealings with other human beings in a certain way. This way gives priority to creating harmony and goodwill within our own being first, and this will automatically be expressed outwardly. As the saying goes, a pot drips what is in it, and if the contents of our own heart are good, then what is released outwardly will also be good.
This inner approach is recommended in one of oldest Yoga classics, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Patanjali teaches that qualities like goodwill and compassion are tendencies that we cannot just adopt as a matter of show. He recommends that we meditate on these great qualities, to plant the thought of universal compassion deep in our being. These feelings he calls Bhavanas, here used as a technical term meaning something like ‘rooted conviction’ or ‘master sentiment’, suggesting that all our inner force is put into the practice. Such meditations are considered a potent way to overcome any ill-will that may be lurking in our heart, and will help us to bring our mental life into harmony with our ultimate nature. Many years ago, this journal published an affirmation formulated by Hari Prasad Shastri which merges the master sentiment of desire for universal well-being with that of the quest for enlightenment:
OM. I WILL KNOW GOD, WHATEVER BETIDE, IN ORDER TO BRING RELIEF TO SUFFERING HUMANITY. I WILL ATTAIN NIRVANA, YES I WILL! OM
Though the affirmation is not made from the highest non-dual standpoint, it represents a valid and creative bhavana, to aid our inner development.
The teaching is that at the heart of our being, there already is goodwill and compassion, fellow-feeling and consideration—because at this level of our being, we are one with all. There is an underlying unity. But this deeper unity needs to find its way into our conscious mind, and one of the ways is to perform these meditations or bhavanas.
Therefore, fellow-feeling, in Yoga, is something that we release from the depths of our being—and it will influence our daily life, whatever type of work we may be engaged in. The traditional teaching is that if we perform our actions as offering to the divine power, an inner clearing and relief will inevitably follow, and we will be in a position to recognize how we can make progress on the great path of life.
Another question may also arise at this stage. It was said that Yoga agrees that the primary urge in the human heart is to rise superior to all restrictions. It was also recognized that this urge could be a menace to society, and could lead to self-delusion, if not properly understood and guided. If this urge to transcend limitations is present in the human heart, can it ever be fulfilled, or is it just a kind of delusion, a dream?
No one would deny that human beings can have aspirations which appear to transcend what is possible for human nature as we know it. There are some lines from the Elizabethan poet, Marlowe’s, play about the conqueror Tamberlaine:
(Nature) Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds:
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world,
And measure every wandering planet’s course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Will us to wear ourselves and never rest,
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.
Although the last line throws us back on shaky ground (Shakespeare wrote: Uneasy is the head that bears a crown), the sentiment expressed in these lines is not foreign to any of us. The desire for glory strikes an echo of agreement in the heart of any child who has learned about kings and queens, champions and heroes. Every sports enthusiast knows about the glory of winning, and every pop fan partakes of the exaltation induced by the gestures and sounds made by their idol. No doubt the same kind of attraction has its subtler counterparts in more reflective minds. This innate urge to identify ourselves with the great and glorious (as we imagine it) cannot be explained away as just a delusive impulse: there must be some deeper reality behind it.
It was said before (in part 1) that the yogic view is that the universe is the manifestation of a divine power that supports and sustains whatever appears to exist and whatever we appear to be. It was also said that when we are released from self-centredness, and feel community and sympathy for other human beings, a lightening of our inner atmosphere takes place, and this may show itself in a sense of inner spaciousness and promise. At this stage, we may give a serious hearing to the spiritual teachings. The purpose of these teachings is to throw light on the deeper realities of life, and to introduce us to what may be entirely new ideas about our deepest nature. The ideas start by being new, but on reflection, our response grows into one of recognition. Somehow, they seem to confirm what we already know, but may not wholly understand.
Fundamental to these teachings, and that which gives them practical value and power, is the proposition that this divine power is also the inner ruler of the kingdom of our mind. Its presence illumines mental and emotional activity from the inside, and enables it to happen.
Because this divine power rules and penetrates the whole, it is also present in the human mind, which is a tiny fragment of the whole. In view of this higher principle underlying our mind, it is no surprise that we feel ourselves to be uniquely significant. To speak fancifully, it is as if our higher nature is transmitting messages to us, whispering: ‘You are great. There is glory and greatness within you. Why have you lost touch with it?’ This sense of the presence of something great but unrealized, can stir within us at any time, because this divine power runs through each and every human heart equally. Therefore, each of us can lay claim to a fundamental significance and value, by virtue of the divine Lord seated in our heart—to use a mystical metaphor.
On the other hand, none of us can claim any individual superiority based on this metaphysical fact about our higher nature. The superiority, the significance, the glory, if it is to be realized at all, has to be realized as a shared glory—a glorious truth not just about our own nature, but about all human nature. Indeed this innermost glory goes even beyond that. The poet Nazir alerts us:
Do not see Him only in your narrow heart.
See Him in every garden, desert and stone.
Know Him, the colourless, to be colourful and playful.
See Him in the journey, in the way and in the goal. And in another short verse by the Urdu mystic, Zauq, we are reminded:
In this world of form, O Zauq, there are a million appearances.
All are the creations of the Supreme Artist, and none is mediocre.
Earlier (in part 1) we quoted a verse from the Vedanta classics that spoke of the divine power in the third person as ‘That from which the universe came forth, in which it abides, into which it will finally be dissolved.’ There are many teachings that speak to us more intimately, and directly address the matter of self-knowledge. And this theme for enquiry is linked with our thirst for final security and unchallenged fulfilment: our desire to reach life’s goal.
These teachings speak of the divine power in a way which is direct. They use the word Self, supreme Self. At first it may seem that the scriptures cannot mean what they are saying: that the innermost Self of man is divine. They must surely be pointing to some other divine principle, perhaps called the Self in order to comfort us, or reassure us of some sort of nearness. But surely this divine principle cannot really be our self. That is too much to believe.
But this philosophy taught by the yogis, based on their own enlightened experience, is profound and subtle. It challenges us to discover this universal divine principle in ourselves, and not to confuse it with anything limited or finite. Such confusion can easily set in because of our strong sense of individuality and separateness. So we are warned that although our individuality is the starting point of the quest, and that we have first to seek in our own being for the deeper reality, our individuality is not the end-point. It is like a signpost that points to something beyond itself, just as an inland signpost may point us in the direction of the sea, but is itself not the sea.
Within and behind this limited individuality, which we may call the ego-self, there is the true Self that is not restricted to an individual body and mind. Unlike the body and mind, that Self does not weaken and die. It remains ever new, ever illumined, boundless, and this Self is common to us all. Although unseen, it is the cohesive force behind all empirical experience. We find a similar point made in the Bhagavad Gita, where the Lord Krishna, speaking of the highest reality, declares:
There is nothing that is higher than Me. In Me all this is woven, as clusters of gems on a string.
A necklace of gems may be crafted so that we see nothing of the string that holds it together, but it would be folly to deny the presence of the string. No string, no necklace.
This true Self, conceived as the ego-transcending innermost essence and support, is the source of all quality and significance. The egos are many, like the waves on the sea. But the sea is one, and so is the Self. This is the infinitely significant consciousness behind our individuality, and its presence, when unrecognized, is the source of our restlessness, and also of our intimations of glory, which we wrongly transfer to the individual ego. Hari Prasad Shastri once said: ‘Seek significance—but let that significance be infinite, and one that recognizes the infinite significance at the heart of each and every phenomenon in the universe.’
A final key question remains. It seems that our very thinking mechanism is ego bound, because we cannot help thinking with reference to an individual centre of consciousness. I think, I feel, I want, I like, I don’t like, I did it, I should have done it. Our mental life is dominated by such terms of reference, by such thinking in the first person. How can we penetrate beneath this level of finite selfhood, into the pure infinite Self that is free from these limitations? How can we go beyond our own individuality and be sure it is worthwhile to do so?
Yoga has a simple, though inspired, approach to this problem. This is based on the fact of experience that the ego, or sense of individuality, as we sense it internally, is never found alone. It is never found naked— it is always dressed in some kind of quality or association. Examples of qualities are: I am embarrassed, I am happy, I am disappointed, I am running short of funds, I am busy. The ego is always mindful of its links with other things and other people, either as colleagues, supporters, rivals, or simply means to help it get what it wants. In other words, the ego needs these qualities and connections to have any meaning at all. And this linking of the ego sense with qualities and associations forms the material of thoughts and feelings. Strip the ego of these links, and it is like a decimal point without any numbers alongside it: completely meaningless, or like a full stop without a sentence.
This limited I-sense has apparent strength and relevance only in partnership with other ingredients of our inner world. It cannot stand alone. It is only valid when there are thoughts that say a little more than ‘I’. ‘I’ has to be extended to such sentiments as ‘I want’, ‘I like’, ‘I ought’. These in turn have to be expanded into: ‘I like this, I fear that’. In this way, our mental activity seems to become centred on an enduring individuality. But all the time, as Shri Shankara says, the ego remains just a notion, a part of a thought or a sentence, a mere link in the chain of experience, that cannot stand in isolation.
According to Yoga, the way to transcend the ego, and withdraw our identity back into the deeper infinite Self, is not to meet the ego head-on as an enemy. This idea of battling with the ego gives the ego far more reality and prestige than it deserves. Ego, when it appears, is to be witnessed, not punished, and witnessed calmly, as if we are noting a commonplace component of a transient show, and not anything special.
The practice of the higher Yoga is a continuous endeavour to influence and transform the whole range of thoughts and feelings, on which all ego reference depends. The entire thinking process is quietened and brought under self-management through the various practices of Yoga. When this is achieved, the sense of limited individuality automatically weakens. In the quiet mind, the ego has no thought to link with, and its authority as a key element in experience is undermined. This principle is signified in a prayer composed by Hari Prasad Shastri:
I hush into serenity my desires
I suppress my thoughts
These are the waves on the sea of my consciousness
That hide the Truth.
But this is just one side of the spiritual practice of Yoga designed to awaken us to our true nature as the infinite Self, the perfect inner unity behind all appearances. The complementary method is to make use of this word ‘I’ to transcend itself. To do this, we join the word ‘I’ to ideas that point to its fully revealed nature purged of all ignorance and confusion, such as:
I AM ONE WITH THE INFINITE POWER OF LOVE.
I AM PEACE. I AM LIGHT
There are no limited ego-associations in this thought, which is universal in its implications. This is the truth about our innermost being, in so far as it can be indicated in words. It is inner quietude that facilitates the transfer of our sense of ‘I’, our sense of identity, back to the Self-ground; thus we realize the wholeness of our true nature.
Our progress to self-knowledge has led us through some interesting landscapes or atmospheres. We saw that a little self-knowledge in daily life, conveyed through instruction, humour or grim experience, was necessary in order for us to discover and put an end to our self-deceptions. We found that a crucial key to sanity and to our further development and progress was the cultivation of fellow-feeling or social interest. This tendency, fused with a spiritual purpose, brought about new openings in our understanding. At this stage on our advance we began to find the teachings about our divine Self especially meaningful. Then again, although our own personal significance seemed to lose out through our increase of fellow-feeling, this significance was restored to us in an infinitely enriched and transfigured form, when we realized that our true Self is divine and transcendent, and one with the true Self of each and everybody. This innate realization that ‘My Self is the Self of all’, brought us the highest fulfilment, and enabled us to reach the sublime goal—a goal that some great thinkers, not privileged by a living contact with a true spiritual tradition, thought was unreachable. Such is an indication of the progress in Self-knowledge made available to us by the enlightened sages.
The method for self-awakening is briefly denoted in these sentences from Dr Shastri’s commentary on verse 127 of the Crest-Jewel of Wisdom (Viveka Chudamani). They are worthy of deep reflection.
I SAY , ‘MY BODY, MY MIND, MY LIFE, MY INTELLECT’.
WHEN I SUBTRACT THESE WHAT REMAINS IS ‘I’
AND THAT ‘I’ IS GOD.