Playing with non-dualism.
This story is one of a number to challenge assumptions about ourselves and reality. Each is inspired by a real-world scientific or spiritual genius (Einstein, LaoTzu, Ramana Maharshi…), and is presented as a visit to a game world in which that thinker’s message is re-imagined in unconventional form.
Welcome to Raman4’s World, where we discover who we are. Our investigation first identifies what we are not. We notice a hypnotic array of perceptions, thoughts, and feelings, but these mental objects — on their own or together — are not us. We are what experiences them, that which knows them. As these objects change, instant-to-instant, what remains the same? That is what we are!
This world is inspired by Ramana Maharshi, a great Indian sage of the early twentieth century. His guru was a mountain — Arunachala. He lived on it for over fifty years, attracting seekers from around the globe, all eager for his teachings on self-inquiry. Ramana entreated his followers to pursue the question: “Who am I?”
You jump in and find yourself in a fruit orchard, wearing… well, not much. In this heat and humidity, no one does. The person sitting before you smiles and offers gentle guidance:
Are you comfortable? Take three slow, relaxed breaths.
Now, can you pay attention to What Is Happening? To What Is Happening right now?
Do you notice the sound of my voice? Its pitch? Its volume? What other sounds are you aware of, now — between the words or beside them?
Do you sense the pressure of your bottom on the cushion? Your legs on the floor? The clothes against your skin? The air on your face? What other touch are you aware of?
Do you observe any tastes? Does the breath moving through your mouth have a taste?
Are you experiencing any smells? From the surrounding trees? From your bath or your meal? What other smells are you aware of?
Now open your eyes. Experience the surrounding light. The array of colors. The shadows. Do you notice images of people? Images of other objects? Which images are clear, and which blurred? Do the images change, move? What other sights are you aware of?
Eyes closed again, notice the position of your arms, neck, and head. Which muscles are taut, and which relaxed? Do you feel warm or cool? Hungry?
Is there any sense of fear, comfort, impatience, or peace? Feelings of love or anger?
Do you notice thoughts? In succession, each arising and dissolving as the next replaces it. Memories. Anticipations. Questions. Decisions. Are you aware of a sense of will?
All these components of experience — these phenomena — in ever-changing, varied combinations, make up What Is Happening in every second of life. On reflection, do you notice anything outside this moment’s experience?
Do you recognize yourself as that which notices all phenomena? Do you realize it is you that knows all experience?
Second by second, the details of What Is Happening are in flux. The elements, the details before you, change all the time. Is anything unchanging, common to every moment?
You have, in this meditation, access to all — the cocktail of sensory stimuli, each thought, memory, feeling, emotion. On inspection, you realize that — although you compartmentalize these components based on “where” they sit or which sense organ they reach you through — they are not components (separable pieces) at all, but aspects of a unitary, unbroken awareness. Each instant is an undivided field of experience, and one gives way to the next with no break or boundary between them.
Your guide’s final question occupies you for a great while, for no unchanging elements at first appear to exist. Images, sounds, and feelings all arise and fade in constant flux. Nothing resists change. In fact, where is your “I” at all? Your tour through the inventory of phenomena shows that you are no one of these — no thought, perception, or sensation. You experience these, know them; you are not them. Nor are you their “sum” at any specific moment, for each moment passes immediately to another.
In time, you recognize, hiding in plain sight, two elements that never change. They are the background against which any change stands out, the arena in which the experiential flux takes place. These, you have always taken for granted because, in their ever-presence, they have evaded attention, faded into the background. You wonder, “Do fish notice water?”
No matter the detail of experience in each moment, two aspects remain unchanged — the existence or being of What Is Happening and your knowing or awareness of its happening. If a stable you exists, then it must reside in or be those two aspects — being and awareness.
With contemplation over a greater period, you find no “I” separate from the phenomenal flow. Being and awareness are not separate from What Is Happening, but instead, permeate it, each moment. Being and awareness compose every fleeting aspect of experience.
On further investigation, you can find no boundary, no separation between being on the one hand and awareness on the other. Both are always present. So, you conclude, like Ramana and all Advaitins (non-dualists), that being and awareness are not two. The existence of experience and your awareness of it are one and the same. They are two names for the same non-thing! Call it what you will: Awareness, Consciousness, God, Knowing, Experiencing…You!
Your guide reappears. “Language makes it difficult to discuss this because our exploration uses the word ‘you’ in two ways. Let’s try to untangle them. In its first use, the word means a specific person, a body-mind, which is an inert fragment of What Is Happening, a fragment of being. Let’s call this simply ‘you.’
In its second use, it means the consciousness or awareness that experiences all being, including all persons. We’ll call this ‘You.’” When your guide speaks this word, their voice deepens and reverberates, as if they were ten times your size.
The guide continues, “Another way to say that being and awareness are not two is that the known (of which you, the person/body-mind, are a fragment)…” [An arrow in your visual field points at a tree, as you hear a “ping” sound. A thought arises: Yes, this thought, too. Your left hand begins to itch.]
“…and the knower…” [You see an image of yourself in a mirror, with a Big Voice thought cloud, No, this is not the knower, the knower is ‘no thing,’ not an object of experience.] “…are not two.”
This is a lot to take in, so you check your understanding. “Or expressed in terms of experience: the things that are experienced are not separate from the experiencer?”
“Correct! Having already recognized You…” [The special, Big Voice.]
“…are the experiencer rather than any thing…” [Your image in the mirror, with a thought cloud saying, Yes, ‘things’ include you, the person/body-mind.]
“…that is experienced, you…” [cue your mirror image, again]
“…now see through the final barrier that has seemed to separate You…” [Big voice]
“…as experiencer from that…” [cue tree, ping, thought, itch, and mirror image]
“which You…” [Big voice]
You interrupt again, “Okay, I get it. ‘You’ always gets the big voice, while ‘you’ gets the mirror image of my face. Big Voice is the experiencer, and the mirror image is part of the experience.”
“That’s right! Thanks,” says your guide, who continues, “You are not only the experiencer, and the ever-changing, unitary field is not only the experienced. The field, which You are, is experiencing itself. Reality is the experiencing of itself, and You are that reality.”
You attempt a summary, “So, I [Big voice] am the experiencer of my [mirror image] life, and my [mirror image] life is a fragment of what I [Big voice] am. I [Big voice] experience every life, and each life is a fragment of what I [Big voice] am.” And you wonder, “Hey, how did I do the big voice thing?”
You step out onto the lookout platform of Raman4’s World, looking at your own. What you are experiencing (What Is Happening), influenced by your introduction to Raman4’s World, is different than your experience before the visit. The most significant aspect of that difference is your new view of the mind, body, and external world, as well as your new sense of who you are.
In your logbook, you note:
How odd. “My” mind and body do not, in this moment, include the thought or feeling that I am the mind or body. My sense of self, at least momentarily, is absent, or perhaps implicitly bound with the pure experiencing of the mind, body, and all else. It is, I must say, a blissful state.
Will this continue? Who knows? Who cares? Whether it continues or not is an aspect of What Is Happening. I experience it, whatever it is. Its change doesn’t happen to me but in me. It is now so clear and obvious. I realize it has always been so, even when What Is Happening included ignorance of its truth.
You breathe one more time and say, “Let’s play.”
See The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi for Advaita Vedanta, especially jnana self-inquiry.