Who am I? Who becomes enlightened?
Justus Kramer Schipper
For the analysts among us Justus Kramer Schipper dives into unraveling the invented I.
The original question can be found in 'Finger-pointings', the compact rendering of the teachings of Nisargadatta Maharaj by Ramesh S. Balsekar. It says: 'Who are you then?' Nisargadatta answers that you are now what you also were before your body came to life with consciousness, what you were one hundred years ago and what you will still be one hundred years from now. The statement seems to contain an inner contradiction; after all, how can you be there before or after you were there? Of course this is not what Nisargadatta had in mind when the question was raised. In fact, the question is an invitation to go in search of who or what you are in reality, and not to begin with the idea that an answer is possible without any further ado. Just to make that clear from the very beginning; this question can not be answered and that is also not the intention. Here also, the trip is more important than the goal.
It gives me pleasure to invite you to carry out just such a journey of discovery. Lets begin with what is closest to us: our body. Are we our bodies? Certainly not. All the cells of our bodies are replaced with great regularity, and today's body is certainly not yesterday's or the day before yesterday's body, or tomorrow's or the day after tomorrow's. If we choose to think that we are our body, then my question would be; but which body then? If I were yesterday's body that would mean that I could not exist today. But, that conflicts with my experience. Yesterday I knew that I existed and today I still exist. Whatever gives me the conviction that I exist is present without any change and is certainly not my body.
What am I then? My mind maybe? Let's for convenience say that my mind consists of my capacity to think, my experiences, memory, convictions, preferences. Let us call the collection of all that the ego. It is not so important if this is scientifically accurate if only the reader can in any case form of a picture of what I mean by this description. Thus, are we our ego? Suppose that I ask you to describe who you were when you were seven years old. You would then describe a child with certain characteristics, a certain knowledge, and a number of convictions that in many ways would appear to be a rough reflection of his parent's convictions. What description would apply if the same question were asked about when you were seventeen years old? The convictions would probably have made a hundred and eighty degree turn (if you were as difficult a teenager as the writer was). And if I ask the same question but now to be answered out of your present phase of life? A totally different person would come into being out of that description.
Then, my next question is? Who are you? Are you the child, the contrary teenager, or the mature person? Everything that we have described up to this point are changeable things. I can not be child, teenager and adult at the same time. So, according to me I am none of the three. Indeed, as long as I live. I have a sort of unchanging and constant I-consciousness. But, what is that? It is timeless. It has been there as long as I have been alive and will continue to be there as long as my body lives. There is no difference there between yesterday, today and tomorrow. That unchanging presence is what Nisargadatta calls the 'I am'. It is the 'being', coupled with a knowing that you exist. It is 'conscious' being. It is the point from which the world is witnessed from the moment that you awake. It is also the witnessing that also witnesses thoughts without being involved in them. That is sensory awareness, perceiving without a perceiver, without an 'I', just as when totally listening to music; there is also no 'I'. That apparent 'I' only appears when one later thinks about the experience. For example, 'I think this is beautiful music.' But, at that moment the music is not being listened to. It is one or the other, either listening without an I, or the other, the apparent I thinking about the music. Therefore, perceiving is a sensory process without an I, thinking about perceptions with the memory creates an apparent I. But, that apparent I is subject to changes; experiences and convictions change, memory is selective and either distorts information or forgets it completely. That pseudo I is therefore not constant in contrast to the 'I Am', and thus we cannot be that apparent 'I' even though it may seem to be so sometimes.
If we now investigate what that 'I Am' is, we will come to the conclusion that it is the impersonal conscious possibility of perceiving. This I Am perceives objects and is conscious of that. The effortless consciousness is the 'I', and what it does is the 'Am'. This effortless perceiving of objects is a quality present in every person. We share that capacity with each other. It is useful to know in this connection that your body and your ego (the total of your thoughts, memories, expectations, convictions, etc.) are objects because they are perceived. From this it also follows that we cannot possibly be our bodies or egos because it is impossible that what perceives is the perceived. The subject cannot also be the object. Therefore, we are the conscious perceiving and not the perceived. We cannot possibly perceive what that perceiving is, how it arises and functions. Indeed that would be like trying to see your own eyes without using a mirror. Thus, we are the perceiving, or rather what arises effortlessly and makes the perceiving possible, but it is not possible for us to know what that is. Essentially you can only express what it is not, which explains why Advaita uses so many negative terms (not this, not that, neither not-this, neither not-that). We are not anything that can be perceived. Thus, we cannot be conscious of what we actually are.
Perceiving objects and being conscious of doing that is less stable than it appears to be at first. This experience also disappears in deep sleep, in coma, before our birth and after our death. That establishes that there is a duality depending on each other; being conscious or not of witnessing. There are many names given to these two poles. To begin with the 'not conscious', is also referred to as the noumenon, the unmanifested, potential energy, the absolute, subjectivity, consciousness in a state of rest. It is also a state of peace where nothing is desired, as we all know when we have slept deeply. Therefore it is not something, but neither is it nothing, because we have 'knowledge' of this state of peace, rest and happiness, it must be perceptible no matter how subtly. This leads us to one of the many paradoxes in Advaita; we cannot know what we are, because the subject can contemplate the object, but not the other way around. We are the subject and thus can know everything except ourselves the subject, but nevertheless we know the state of absolute rest and peace. All thinking stops at this point, and beyond there lies truth, for which there are no words.
The perceived is also called; the world of appearances, the phenomenal, the manifest, the relative, the world of objects, consciousness in movement, everything that can be perceived by the subject; objects. Therefore, thoughts, ideas and feelings are also objects. Opposites can never exist independently, are always mutually dependent and are connected to each other by a substratum in which they are both absorbed and become neutral. This can be compared to a battery with its two poles, both of which are bathed in the battery fluid, and as a result the separate parts taken together can be called a battery. Being 'conscious' of perceiving, and 'not being conscious' of perceiving are both found in 'something' that contains and rises above both of them. That 'something' we will now indicate with the term Consciousness and includes everything of which we are aware or unaware and which is necessary for both poles to exist. That Consciousness contains everything and projects in itself both the pole and its opposite, which are made of nothing but Consciousness. Consciousness is everything that exists, outside of that there is nothing, and in reality we are also that consciousness that we can not know.
We have now made the trip from the personal, relative and manifested, in the direction of the absolute and impersonal. The trip can also be made in the reverse direction, beginning with Consciousness that consists of two poles; the absolute pole (unconscious, unmanifest, impersonal, potential energy) and the relative pole (I am experience, sensory perception, world of objects, manifested energy). There is a movement in Consciousness (we can only guess at its origin), by means of which potential energy manifests itself as the I-Am experience and with it the world of objects appears. In this world we identify with our body and ego that we call ours.
Coming back to the question, 'who am I'?, we have to conclude that we inasmuch as perception is dependent on and initiated by consciousness are in fact Consciousness. To repeat: that Consciousness can never be known. This makes it also clear why there is no description possible of what we are nor any answer to the original question. And, where we introduced separations for purpose of analysis; personal/impersonal, conscious/unconscious, object/perceiver of object, we have to remember that these separations are imaginary. All together it is an indivisible whole. And that is what (and thus not who) we finally are; an impersonal process that within and by means of Consciousness is made visible in the here and now. That Consciousness is time-and-space-less, will never die, was never born and cannot be known. The closest description is peace and a state of desirelesness. But be careful, as soon as there is a description it is made into an object, and that is just what it isn't. Nothing exists outside of that consciousness. All there is is Consciousness, which is nothing but still is, within which everything appears and disappears. That is the supreme neutrality, because within it all opposites are reconciled and every force makes its neutralizing force appear.
Most of the time when we talk about enlightenment we mean that an I goes searching for its true nature, and finally arrives at the conclusion that the apparent I does not actually exist. Something that does not exist cannot become enlightened. When the search is initiated one comes to the conclusion that what one seeks (our true nature) was never not there. In a certain sense then we could say that everyone is already enlightened, even though through the appearance of an imaginary I and our identification with it we have forgotten what our true nature is; Consciousness, outside of which nothing exist.
Justus Kramer Schippers
June 2001, Costa Rica