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Esteemed Reader: March 2012 

More radiant than the sun,

Purer than the snow,

Subtler than the ether,

Is the Self,

The spirit within my heart.

That Self am I.

—Chāndogya Upaniṣad

Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:

click to enlarge white_lotus-01.jpg

The most frequently referenced image in the Indian spiritual tradition of Vedanta is a pure, white, lotus flower growing up out of a muddy swamp. It is a beautiful image, and points to the possibility of what we might call a miracle—when something fine and sublime seems to spontaneously arise from the mundane.

The lotus in the mud is an image that surprises. We don't expect something flawless to be rooted in muck. This metaphor for our inner lives surprises because our minds are filled to brimming with pictures of what has been, leaving no room for revolutionary possible futures. Always unconsciously meditating on the past, we enforce its repetition.

Vedanta does not claim, like our Western positivist view, that order arises from disorder via a series of fortunate accidents and adaptations. Rather, it assumes that absolute perfection is the basis for everything. But then Vedanta, like all esoteric traditions, is a psycho-cosmology that places every human being and her possible evolution—not randomly disparate atoms—at the center of the world.

The Upanishads, comparable in importance for the Hindu tradition to the Old and New Testaments, or the Koran, begins with a simple statement:

That is perfect. This is perfect. Perfect comes from perfect. Take perfect from perfect, the remainder is perfect.

That refers to "Brahman," the Cosmic Self, or God. This is "Atman," the Personal Self, a spark of divinity residing at the heart of every being. The Cosmic Self and the Personal Self are identical. In this conception, the possibility of a human life is to realize that perfect Self.

The essence of the Self is perfection, though it is not the opposite of the imperfect. It is entire and whole. In the Self is no element of dissatisfaction or regret. It just is, and very happily so. In the Self is a state of happiness so total it is called bliss.

From the standpoint of our ordinary consciousness this high state sounds inaccessible—but it is closer than it seems. The Koran says, and it is speaking of the same thing, the Self is "closer to you than your own jugular vein."

The first Upanishad continues:

The Self is everywhere, without a body, without a shape, whole, pure, wise, all knowing, far shining, self-depending, all transcending; in the eternal procession assigning to every period its proper duty.

But where is this "Self", so close, and yet so elusive? In Vedanta we are told a thread emits from the Self into our ordinary consciousness. It is constantly present— omnipresent, though it becomes obscured—a twine that is knotted and dirtied, a fiber dragged through dirt. That filament, extending from the source of consciousness, is awareness.

Awareness is always already pure, however attached it seems to be to the objects it illuminates. It is always separate from what it sees, though the experiencer may not even know that separation.

In a dream I am chased by a lion. Waking up I am relieved it was only a dream. But who was observing all of this?

There is in us, an agent of awareness that is always awake, always present. That agent—an Observer—is constantly and impartially tracking the contents of our experience. It does not judge or filter; it does not reject some experiences and embrace others. It simply tracks and registers every iota of impressions, thoughts, emotions, sensations—all our joy and suffering; all our doing and not-doing.

Awareness beaming from the Self is like sunlight—invisible but full of power, known only by that which it illuminates. Like the sun it shines unconditionally on all, reveals all.

But how easily we mistake the objects of the Self's illumination for our selves! We are duped into believing that our identity is somehow connected to what we think, do, suffer, say. We mistake the pleasures and pains of our body for existence; thoughts and impressions for consciousness; stunted emotions for bliss.

Like crazed prisoners in a dungeon we believe we are kings, mistaking rats for subjects, old bones for treasure, moldy bread for fine cuisine.

The Observer as an agent of the Self is a rope thrown from above; a line by which we might pull our consciousness from the muddy pit of misplaced attachment.

Remembering, I am not what I am looking at, I begin to climb the rope. If I can see a thing—either inwardly or outwardly—I know it is not me and I move closer to my true identity. Remembering I am the one who is seeing. I am the Observer. I am my Self. I am free.

Speaking of...

  • Jason Stern reflects on lotus flowers and miracles.

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