Athma Bodha (Knowledge of The Self) – Part 1. Who am I?

Adi Sankara Cover

  1. Who am I?

There are two aspects to “Who am I?” or the “Knowledge of the Self”. One is the cognitive aspect which we can relate to readily. The other is the in-cognitive forces of nature (Brahman) the enabler or substratum of everything cognitive.

I am the Cognitive person:   Each of us can identify ourselves by our name, appearance, age, family, connections, education, job, accomplishments, etc. In this knowledge of the self, our life in general is a “Product of our experiences”.  These experiences are the outcome of connectors (Guna) (i.e.) our Knowledge, Bias and Ignorance through which we are connected to the experience. These connectors depending on their proportion create a sense of duality such as like/dislike, love / hate, etc. The goal in life – for inner peace and harmony within – is to maintain a balance between these connectors (Sagunathvam) which leads to objectivity  through which the dualities are held in check and gradually vanish. We are equally at ease irrespective of situation or circumstances we are in or the people around us.

Our thoughts are the seeds for all our experiences. By reducing the number of thoughts we are left with less number of experiences to manage as described above. “I think, therefore I am” states the French Philosopher René Descartes. It is our mind and its thoughts that lead to our emotions and hence our feelings and actions. “Control the mind, you are in control of yourself” is the guiding principle for life by Lord Buddha. The role of thought and its impact on our actions and the way we live in the Cognitive world is illustrated below.

Kn of Self Subjective Vs. Objective

Each thought can be directed into a circle focused on “I” and “mine” as shown in the figure above. Alternatively the thoughts can be directed external to “We” and “ours”. Each excursion through the cycle is an experience. Many cycles of life and death can be metaphoric to multitude of cycles corresponding to the many experiences. More still the mind, fewer our thoughts and less is the number of cycles experienced and we live in a state of calm tranquility. In other words minimize the journey through the two set of circles shown above, closer you are to liberation from the tumultuous nature of life and its journey.

These two circles in the figure above are also analogous to the wheels of a bicycle. For the bicycle to move forward smoothly we need two actions happening simultaneously: (a) Apply the effort through the pedal to the rear wheel invisible to us (i.e.) focus the effort for the success of others through non-attachment ; such effort also ends up useful in the progress of oneself analogous to the bicycle movement and the journey. (b) with a longer term goal and vision; focus farther away from the handle bar and the front wheel to which we are closely attached, like “me” and mine”. It is obvious to anyone that more we are fixated on the handlebar and the front wheel in every moment, greater the risk of loosing balance and the bicycle tipping over! For the journey of life to continue with inner peace and harmony – there has to be a balance (objectivity) and not sway to one extreme or other (through duality of like/hate due to subjectivity governed by opinions, bias and judgments). In bicycling we maintain the balance with progress in the journey as the goal. In real life the goal is also to progress with a balanced frame of mind (seek objectivity) as best as one can in whatever we do.

While the above might appear too analytical and conceptual it is really not the case. Everyone bicycles with ease and comfort after a short period of learning. There are few who can never bicycle well consumed by their fear and apprehension. Also, if there is no need to use the bicycle there is less motivation to learn and overcome the challenges and fear. Indeed the same might be true in life. If you think about it, non-attachment, reducing the number of thoughts, steering them through our efforts focused on others – rather than “me” and “mine” – and focus on larger common good (looking further ahead instead of fixated on handle bar and front wheel) are parts of our routine life. But when we don’t seek them out and use them deliberately we go through the pangs of life or the result of dualities such as happiness/sorrow, love/hate, anger, jealousy, vanity, etc.

I am the In- Cognitive or subtle person: On sustained reflection we also come to realize that anything cognitive and all the connectors are enabled by laws of nature. I exist enabled by and as evidence of the nature and the laws that enable the nature. This enabler is called Brahman. IT is devoid of anything tangible, cognitive or connective (Nirgunathvam). This comprehension leads us to also acknowledge the transient nature (like reflections in a mirror) of the Cognitive aspects and the connectors (Guna) that we call as life . For more details:

Thus the Cognitive (Gunathvam) and In-cognitive or subtle (Nirgunathvam) are the two inseparable aspects of anyone or anything. This is the answer to “Who am I?” or Knowledge of the Self.

Below are two additional illustrations to capture the essence of the Knowledge of the Self:


Kn of Self example 1

Imagine anyone or a group of people on the boat. Think of the boat itself. All that is the Cognitive aspect of the “Self”. People on the boat cannot sway or lean excessively to one side of the boat or the other. Otherwise the boat will capsize and everyone will fall into the water. Anyone who is aggressive and wants his/her own way and hence leans beyond limit to either side will also tumble into the water. These are examples of subjective nature, yielding to personal bias or selfish motivated choices. In order to float well and remain steady everyone and the entire group in the boat has to maintain a balance between the two sides. This is analogous to maintaining the balance between the duality such as like/dislike, happiness/sorrow, etc. Striking this balance is objectivity (Sagunathvam).

The connectors and their judicious balance (Sagunathvam) are all part of the mind and its function. Attempts are being made to explain the inner working of the mind through neural science. But what is this “science”? All forms of science are our attempts to observe and explain the subtle and in-cognitive laws or forces of nature defined as “Brahman”. To make this clear let us return to the boat and the people – all cognitive that are floating on water.

While maintaining the balance people in the boat also need to be mindful that the boat and everyone and everything on it are all afloat thanks to the body of water in which everything is floating! This ability for anything to float is enabled by buoyancy, which is in cognitive. The invisible buoyancy is necessary for everything cognitive (all that is floating) to exist that way! This is Brahman (that which enables the fire to burn, wind to blow, water to wet, objects to float in the water, etc.) the sum total of all laws of nature that enable who we are, what we do. Brahman includes the nature (forces that enable the planet and the universe to exist). Brahman represents the Universe and all that enable the universe to exist.

In the above illustration we recognized two co-existing states: the cognitive state (everything including the water) and the in-cognitive or subtle buoyancy and its role (the enabling force that makes all that is cognitive to float and enable the water its ability to sustain the floating). A true knowledge of the self comprises of both these co-existing states.

Illustration 2:

Kn of Self example 2

In many respects the answer to “Who am I?” or the knowledge of the self is also analogous to two sides of a coin. On one side of the coin is the cognitive – our identification as individuals with our name, personal details, preferences, like/dislike, etc. This is the world of opinions and judgement – subjectivity. Through analytical reasoning we strive to be objective, with a balanced frame of mind. The other side of the coin is the forces of nature (Brahman) that enable everything – all aspects of our being.

There is no such thing as one sided coin. Unaware of this we tend to remain focused on one side of the coin – the cognitive side – as if it is the whole coin. This is our illusion or Maya. Being aware that there are two sides – the cognitive and the in-cognitive – and they are eternal and inseparable is the true knowledge and the wisdom. Being tied to one side of the coin most of the time we identify ourselves as individuals. When our perspective shifts to the other side of the coin we see ourselves as limitless, as an integral part of the universe at large (Thath Thwam Asi; Aham Brahmasmi)

Summary: The floating boat cannot exist without a body of water supporting it through buoyancy. A coin cannot exist without two sides. We as individuals or anything we can relate to have a cognitive state and an in-cognitive or subtle body of laws of nature (Brahman) which enables the cognitive to exist.

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