Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Is there any such thing as ‘biological awareness’?

A friend recently wrote to me: ‘People seem to have a hard time grasping Bhagavan’s teachings. Would it not be easier just to tell them thoughts are an illusion, so pure biological awareness is the true self, especially because biologically changes will happen in the brain that will solidify this learner behavior over time, and once they reach this state, the ugly term of biological awareness will get burned along with the ego in the pyre?’ The following is adapted from the reply I wrote to this:

What do you mean by ‘biological awareness’? How can awareness be biological, and how can anything biological be awareness? Awareness (in the sense of what is aware) is what perceives all biological things, so they are things perceived and not the perceiver.

Neuroscientists and others may believe that what is aware is a biological organism (a body, or the brain inside a body), but such a belief is due to a failure to distinguish the perceiver from whatever is perceived. All phenomena, including the body and its brain, are objects of perception, so none of them can be the subject or perceiver. What is aware is the perceiver and not any objects of perception.

How can we be sure that anything we perceive exists independent of our perception of it? In dream, as in waking, we perceive many phenomena, including a body that we mistake to be ourself and a world that seems to be outside ourself, and so long as we are dreaming we assume that all those phenomena exist independent of our perception of them, but when we wake up we recognise that they were all only our own mental fabrication and therefore did not exist independent of our perception of them. Why then should we assume that what we perceive in waking is not likewise just a mental fabrication?

According to Bhagavan any state that we take to be waking is just a dream, so all that we perceive is just a mental fabrication. Though we believe that we are a physical body living in a physical world, all these physical phenomena are actually just mental phenomena (images in our mind created by ourself) like all the seemingly physical phenomena that we perceive in a dream.

You say that ‘thoughts are an illusion’, but what exactly do you mean by ‘thoughts’? In its broadest sense ‘thoughts’ mean mental phenomena of any kind whatsoever, and this is the sense in which Bhagavan uses this term. Therefore, if any state that we take to be waking is just a dream, any world we perceive is just a collection of mental phenomena, which is why he says in the fourth paragraph of Nāṉ Ār?, ‘நினைவுகளைத் தவிர்த்து ஜகமென்றோர் பொருள் அன்னியமா யில்லை’ (niṉaivugaḷai-t tavirttu jagam-eṉḏṟōr poruḷ aṉṉiyamāy illai), ‘Excluding thoughts [or ideas], there is not separately any such thing as world’, and in the fourteenth paragraph, ‘ஜக மென்பது நினைவே’ (jagam eṉbadu niṉaivē), ‘What is called the world is only thought’.

Therefore if all phenomena are just thoughts, and if all thoughts are an illusion, as you say, then all phenomena, including biological phenomena, are an illusion. If this is the case, how can awareness be biological? An illusion is a misperception, a perception of something as something other than what it actually is, so there cannot be any illusion without a perceiver, and there cannot be a perceiver without awareness, because to perceive is to be aware of whatever is perceived.

The perceiver is ourself as ego, and as ego we misperceive ourself, because we mistake ourself to be a body (or more precisely a person consisting of body, life, mind, intellect and will), so in this sense the perceiver is itself an illusion. However, in order to perceive or misperceive anything, whether ourself or anything else, we must be aware, so though ego as a whole is an illusion, its fundamental awareness cannot be an illusion, because without awareness there could be no perceiver and hence no illusion.

Therefore awareness is something much deeper and more fundamental than any phenomenon, including any biological phenomenon. Phenomena appear only in waking and dream, because they disappear entirely in sleep, and since they appear only in the view of ourself as ego, they appear and disappear along with ego, which is the perceiver of them. However, whether ego and phenomena appear, as in waking and dream, or disappear, as in sleep, we always exist and are always aware of our existence as ‘I am’, so we are the fundamental awareness in which both ego and phenomena appear and disappear.

This is what Bhagavan implies in verse 7 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu, in which what he refers to as the aṟivu or awareness that rises and subsides (or appears and disappears) is ourself as ego, and what he refers as ‘poruḷ’ (the substance or reality) is pure awareness, which is ourself as we actually are:
உலகறிவு மொன்றா யுதித்தொடுங்கு மேனு
முலகறிவு தன்னா லொளிரு — முலகறிவு
தோன்றிமறை தற்கிடனாய்த் தோன்றிமறை யாதொளிரும்
பூன்றமா மஃதே பொருள்.

ulahaṟivu moṉḏṟā yudittoḍuṅgu mēṉu
mulahaṟivu taṉṉā loḷiru — mulahaṟivu
tōṉḏṟimaṟai daṟkiḍaṉāyt tōṉḏṟimaṟai yādoḷirum
pūṉḏṟamā maḵdē poruḷ
.

பதச்சேதம்: உலகு அறிவும் ஒன்றாய் உதித்து ஒடுங்கும் ஏனும், உலகு அறிவு தன்னால் ஒளிரும். உலகு அறிவு தோன்றி மறைதற்கு இடன் ஆய் தோன்றி மறையாது ஒளிரும் பூன்றம் ஆம் அஃதே பொருள்.

Padacchēdam (word-separation): ulahu aṟivum oṉḏṟāy udittu oḍuṅgum ēṉum, ulahu aṟivu-taṉṉāl oḷirum. ulahu aṟivu tōṉḏṟi maṟaidaṟku iḍaṉ-āy tōṉḏṟi maṟaiyādu oḷirum pūṉḏṟam ām aḵdē poruḷ.

அன்வயம்: உலகு அறிவும் ஒன்றாய் உதித்து ஒடுங்கும் ஏனும், உலகு அறிவு தன்னால் ஒளிரும். உலகு அறிவு தோன்றி மறைதற்கு இடன் ஆய் தோன்றி மறையாது ஒளிரும் அஃதே பூன்றம் ஆம் பொருள்.

Anvayam (words rearranged in natural prose order): ulahu aṟivum oṉḏṟāy udittu oḍuṅgum ēṉum, ulahu aṟivu-taṉṉāl oḷirum. ulahu aṟivu tōṉḏṟi maṟaidaṟku iḍaṉ-āy tōṉḏṟi maṟaiyādu oḷirum aḵdē pūṉḏṟam ām poruḷ.

English translation: Though the world and awareness arise and subside simultaneously, the world shines by awareness. Only that which shines without appearing or disappearing as the place for the appearing and disappearing of the world and awareness is the substance, which is the whole.

Explanatory paraphrase: Though the world and awareness [the awareness that perceives the world, namely ego or mind] arise and subside simultaneously, the world shines by [that rising and subsiding] awareness [the mind]. Only that which shines without appearing or disappearing as the place [space, expanse, location, site or ground] for the appearing and disappearing of the world and [that] awareness is poruḷ [the real substance or vastu], which is pūṉḏṟam [the infinite whole or pūrṇa].
When he says in the main clause of the first sentence, ‘உலகு அறிவு தன்னால் ஒளிரும்’ (ulahu aṟivu-taṉṉāl oḷirum), ‘the world shines by awareness’, he means that the world (the totality of all phenomena or things perceived) seems to exist only because of the perceiver, namely ourself as ego, because it is only in the view of ourself as ego that it seems to exist. When we do not rise as ego, no phenomena appear, but as soon as we rise as ego, we project and perceive phenomena and mistake ourself to be a body, which is just one among the numerous phenomena that we perceive. Therefore the world depends for its seeming existence upon the seeming existence of ourself as ego, the false awareness ‘I am this body’.

However, whether we appear as ego or not, we are always aware of our own existence as ‘I am’, so we are the fundamental awareness that underlies the appearance and disappearance of ego and all the phenomena perceived by it, and as that fundamental awareness we shine eternally without ever appearing or disappearing. This is what Bhagavan implies in the second sentence of this verse: ‘உலகு அறிவு தோன்றி மறைதற்கு இடன் ஆய் தோன்றி மறையாது ஒளிரும் பூன்றம் ஆம் அஃதே பொருள்’ (ulahu aṟivu tōṉḏṟi maṟaidaṟku iḍaṉ-āy tōṉḏṟi maṟaiyādu oḷirum aḵdē pūṉḏṟam ām poruḷ), ‘Only that which shines without appearing or disappearing as the place [space, expanse, location, site or ground] for the appearing and disappearing of the world and [that] awareness is poruḷ [the real substance or vastu], which is pūṉḏṟam [the infinite whole or pūrṇa]’.

Therefore we are the fundamental awareness in which ego and all phenomena appear and disappear, so the whole aim of Bhagavan’s teachings is for us to distinguish ourself not only from even the subtlest objects of perception but also from the perceiver of them. However, in order to distinguish ourself thus, we first need to distinguish ourself as the perceiver from everything that we perceive, because so long as we perceive anything other than ourself, we misperceive ourself as one of those other things, namely a body. If we manage to isolate ourself from all other things, we will thereby cease to be aware of ourself as a body, and since we alone will remain there, we will be aware of ourself as we actually are. Thus by distinguishing and isolating ourself from all objects of perception, we thereby distinguish and isolate ourself from the perceiver of those objects.

In other words, as ego we mistake ourself to be a body, which is one among the many objects of our perception, and this false awareness ‘I am this body’ is the root of all our problems. If we investigate ourself keenly enough to see what we actually are, we will thereby cease mistaking ourself to be anything else, and thus this false awareness ‘I am this body’ will be eradicated forever. Since we perceive phenomena only in waking and dream, when we are aware of ourself as ‘I am this body’, in the absence of this false awareness we will not be aware of anything other than ourself, and hence all our problems will cease and we will remain alone as infinite (and hence eternal) peace and satisfaction.

22 comments:

Lewis Oakwood said...

Michael,

In some way, your article seems related to an incident from yesterday—

While watching one of the neighbours remove a section of their garden hedge and placing the pieces one on top of another I was thinking about the analogy of the screen and the movie appearing on it and about the rope being mistaken for a snake when suddenly the neighbour ignited the pile and the thought arose: look at the rising of those flames. But then there weren't any individual flames only the one fire.

Unknown said...

So amazing, Love this Michael. . . Dhamma Dasa

Jay Matthews said...

Michael, Thank you for your awesome post. I certainly agree with this perspective, but I wonder what is the best way to characterize the role and function of the brain.

For example, the function of the lungs is to inhale oxygen and remove carbon dioxide. The function of the heart is to move blood throughout the body. The function of the brain is to organize behavior, both within the organism (organizing "involuntary" behavior)and in relation to the external world (perception, reasoning, language ability).

Now, all of this happens within the context of Awareness. I would say, it's as if we are dreaming of persons whose bodies function in certain ways, and are moreover dreaming that we're peering through the eyes of one of these persons. When we investigate the human body, we will, of course, find beauty and complexity. The fact that the body is not the source of awareness doesn't mean it's stuffed with cotton!

Would you say this is the best explanation for the brain's complexity and evident ability to regulate many aspects of perception and behavior, i.e. in the research of the cognitive sciences? Or would you propose another explanation?

Michael James said...

Jay, what is the role and function of the brain in whatever body we mistake to be ourself in a dream? While we are dreaming the neuroscientists we meet there may tell us that our brain has a certain role and function, enabling us to process sensory input, respond appropriately, reason, remember and so on, but when we wake up we recognise that those neuroscientists, their theories, our body, our brain and its functions were all just a mental fabrication and did not exist independent of our perception of them.

Why should we believe that this body, brain and all the other phenomena that we perceive in our present state, and all the scientific theories about such things, are not likewise just a mental fabrication? Why should we believe that anything we perceive exists independent of our perception of it? Many of our scientific theories may seem to be very useful and significant so long as we assume that this world is not a mental fabrication and does exist independent of our perception of it, but if this state and any other state in which we perceive phenomena is just a dream, as Bhagavan says, the usefulness and significance of any scientific theories are just a part of this dream that we are currently projecting and perceiving.

You may be correct in saying that this body is not stuffed with cotton, but if it is just a mental fabrication, all the complexity and wonderful abilities it is stuffed with are likewise just a mental fabrication.

Therefore the crucial question we need to consider is whether this world is a dream or not. How can we resolve this question? Unless we know the truth about ourself, the perceiver, we cannot know the truth about anything that we perceive, so if we want to resolve the question of whether or not anything we perceive exists independent of our perception of it, we first need to investigate ourself keenly enough to know what we ourself actually are.

Michael James said...

In a recent comment on one of my videos, 2017-09-09 Ramana Maharshi Foundation UK: discussion with Michael James on unconditional surrender, a friend wrote: “Michael, at 1:48:30 you say that if somebody says that while meditating they can maintain a thought free state for 20 mins, it is not really a thought free state because there is an I there which experiences that state, therefore it is only a relative quiescence. After waking from deep sleep also we say that I was in a thought free state, and from what you have explained elsewhere I think that sleep is not relative quiescence but total though temporary quiescence. Why is the quiescence in the first case relative while in the case of deep sleep, not relative? Typing this I think I understand the difference. In the first case the I that experiences 20 mins of quiescence is the mind or ego, while the I that experiences the quiescence of deep sleep while asleep is not the mind. Also I cannot say how long the state of deep sleep lasted, whether it lasted for two minutes or 20, so even time didn't exist in deep sleep.”

In reply to this I wrote:

Yes, Saroj, your understanding (as expressed in your final two sentences) is correct. In sleep there is no ego, and hence there are no phenomena of any kind whatsoever, so what remains there is only pure awareness, which is our real nature (ātma-svarūpa) and what alone actually exists. In waking and dream, however, we have risen as ego, and consequently we are aware of phenomena, including time.

According to Bhagavan both ego and all phenomena are just thoughts, so as long as we are aware of phenomena of any kind whatsoever, we are aware of ourself as ego, the false awareness ‘I am this body’, and hence we are not in a truly thought-free state. During meditation our usual mental chatter may subside to a greater or letter extent, but other more subtle thoughts remain, including ego and time, so whatever quiescence we may experience is only relative, unless of course we subside in sleep or some other such state of manōlaya (temporary dissolution of mind).

Jay Matthews said...

Michael, Fantastic answer to my question re: the role and function of the brain, thanks so much!!!

Unknown said...

Hi Michael,

Could you clarify this confusion on deep sleep.

We understand that in deep sleep ego is subdued, given this is the case when we wake up, how the memory that I slept well and did not know anything is obtained. If only awareness and ignorance were present during deep-sleep who reports this experience of absence back to ego in the waking state. As awareness transcends time/space/causality how can we say "awareness" posses memory? Kindly clarify.

Thank you
Abhilash

Saxon said...

Hello Michael,

You sometimes talk about the lion in the elephants dream or say Bhagavan, his teaching and Arunachala are nothing but an outward projection of what we really are (pure awareness) directing our attention back onto our self and telling us to turn within.

You also often say that Bhagavan's love for us is boundless. I must admit it is very comforting to think that Bhagavan (what I really am) loves me and is trying to help me (ego) but how can that be true? If what I actually am is pure immutable, indivisible non dual self awareness that is never aware of anything other than itself there is no ego for it to save, help or destroy. So I must conclude that the manifestation of Bhagavan, his teaching and Arunachala are solely my own creation just like all other phenomena in my dream.

So there is nothing trying to help me but instead I have become tired at long last of duality and have created my own solution in the form of Bhagavan and his teaching to lead to my own self destruction.

Or is it more like how the plants grow as a side effect of being in the presence of the sun without the sun intending to help them, care about them or even being aware of them. Can the same be said about why Bhagavan, his teaching and Arunachala have manifested in my dream? Are they just a side effect, this is not as comforting I must confess.

Thank you very much for clarifying.

Michael James said...

Abhilash, the question you ask is one that I attempted to answer in one of my recent articles, In what sense and to what extent do we remember what we were aware of in sleep?, so I hope that clarifies the matter adequately for you.

You say ‘If only awareness and ignorance were present during deep-sleep’, but how could ignorance exist in the absence of ego? Ignorance can exist only for ego, and is the very nature of ego, so there is no ignorance other than ego, the false awareness ‘I am this body’. Therefore it is only from the perspective of ourself as ego in waking and dream that sleep seems to be a state of ignorance, but in fact it is not a state of ignorance but only one of pure awareness, as Bhagavan often used to point out. For example, in the first chapter of Maharshi’s Gospel (2002 edition, page 9) it is recorded that he said: ‘Sleep is not ignorance, it is one’s pure state; wakefulness is not knowledge, it is ignorance. There is full awareness in sleep and total ignorance in waking’.

Michael James said...

Saxon, using the honorific plural ‘அவர்’ (avar), ‘they’, to refer to the jñāni, in verse 31 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu Bhagavan says and asks rhetorically, ‘தன்னை அலாது அன்னியம் ஒன்றும் அறியார்; அவர் நிலைமை இன்னது என்று உன்னல் எவன்?’ (taṉṉai alādu aṉṉiyam oṉḏṟum aṟiyār; avar nilaimai iṉṉadu eṉḏṟu uṉṉal evaṉ?), ‘They do not know [or are not aware of] anything other than themself; [so] who can [or how to] conceive their state as ‘[it is] like this’?’, so as this finite ego we can never adequately comprehend his state. However, in order to answer the questions implied in your comment we can try to understand his state at least to a limited extent as follows:

He is our own real nature (ātma-svarūpa), which is pure awareness and what alone actually exists, so he is not anything other than ourself. However, whereas he is aware of us only as himself, which is what we actually are, we are aware of ourself as if we were a person, which is not what we actually are, so he loves us as himself and not merely as this person whom we seem to be. Therefore, we cannot adequately comprehend his infinite love for us until we are aware of ourself as we actually are.

His infinite love for us as we actually are is what is called ‘grace’, and it is what has manifested outwardly as his human form and his teachings in order to turn our attention back within to see what we actually are. That is, since he has infinite love for himself, he wants nothing other than to be as he always is, and this means that since he does not see us as anything other than himself, he wants us to be as we actually are.

However, in order to make us be as we actually are, he does not need to do anything other than to be as he actually is, because he is like the sun, by whose mere presence flowers blossom. By his merely being as he actually is, the flower of love to be as we actually are blossoms in our heart, and when this love blossoms fully it will devour us, and what will then remain is only infinite love, which is his true form and what we actually are.

(I will continue this reply in my next comment.)

Michael James said...

In continuation of my previous comment in reply to Saxon:

This state of being devoured by his infinite love is what he refers to in the final sentence of verse 21 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu, ‘ஊண் ஆதல் காண்’ (ūṇ ādal kāṇ), ‘Becoming food is seeing’ (where ‘seeing’ means seeing and thereby being what we actually are), in verse 27 of Śrī Aruṇācala Akṣaramaṇamālai, ‘சகலமும் விழுங்கும் கதிர் ஒளி இன மன சலசம் அலர்த்தியிடு அருணாசலா’ (sakalamum viṙuṅgum kadir oḷi iṉa, maṉa-jalajam alartti-y-iḍu aruṇācalā), ‘Arunachala, sun of bright light that swallows everything, make [my] mind-lotus blossom’, and in verse 1 of Śrī Aruṇācala Pañcaratnam, ‘அருள் நிறைவான அமுத கடலே, விரி கதிரால் யாவும் விழுங்கும் அருணகிரி பரமான்மாவே, கிளர் உள பூ நன்றாய் விரி பரிதி ஆக விளங்கு’ (aruḷ niṟaivu āṉa amuda-k-kaḍalē, viri kadirāl yāvum viṙuṅgum aruṇagiri paramāṉmāvē, kiḷar uḷa-p-pū naṉḏṟāy viri paridhi āha viḷaṅgu), ‘Ocean of amṛta [the ambrosia of immortality], which is the fullness of grace, paramātmā [my ultimate self], Arunagiri, who swallow everything by [your] spreading rays [of pure self-awareness], shine as the sun that makes [my] budding heart-lotus blossom fully’.

The appearance of Bhagavan (in human form) and his teachings in our life are a central part of this process of our being melted and swallowed by his love, which is most beautifully described by him in verse 101 of Śrī Aruṇācala Akṣaramaṇamālai: ‘அம்புவில் ஆலி போல் அன்பு உரு உனில் எனை அன்பு ஆ கரைத்து அருள் அருணாசலா’ (ambuvil āli pōl aṉbu-uru uṉil eṉai aṉbu ā karaittu aruḷ aruṇācalā), ‘Arunachala, be gracious, melting me as love in you, the form of love, like ice in water’.

Anonymous said...

This is my perception.

Plants and Sun are both the higher power. From ego’s perspective, we see Plant as separate entity and thinking that plant grows because of sun. But plant grows because of the sun’s power that exists within the plant. And plant is also the higher power itself.

In ulladu narpadhu, Bhagavan never talks about the world being dream. I never saw a word ‘kanavu’ in ulladu narpadhu. This is my understanding. When ego emerges, world appears. This world appears by the power of higher power and is also the higher power. The higher power enables everything and manifests as everything. So the thought that ego created/projected everything itself is very ‘egotistical’ . The body that we all possess functions because of higher power and is also the higher power. The only one error is ego thinking ‘I am the body’ . Everything else happens because of higher power and is higher power itself.

So there is no reason to get dejected thinking Bhagavan is ego’s creation. Ego is absolutely not worthy and capable of creating ‘Bhagavan’ .

Bhagavan is the created by Bhagavan and appeared in the world because he loves all of us as himself.

Any thought in the lines of ego did this and ego did that and ego projected/created something is only egotistical in nature and I only feel there is more arrogance with that line of thinking and is not going to help anyone.

Unknown said...

Michael, Thanks for the guidance. If deep sleep is a state of pure self awareness( which I can intellectually deduct based on the "memory" of my existence as "I am" in deep sleep, once I wake up) which is devoid of ego(ignorance) why we couldn't recognize our real nature while we are in deep sleep? Is it because the "I"(ego) which wants to realize its real nature is absent during deep sleep?

Lewis Oakwood said...


The thought/ego/I am this body seems to rise and fall.

'In order to trace our ego back to its source, therefore, all that we need do is to scrutinise it keenly and closely, because as soon as we begin to attend to it, it will begin to subside and sink back into the source from which it originated. Thus we can ‘go back the way we came’ only by being vigilantly self-attentive.' — http://happinessofbeing.blogspot.com/2009/07/tracing-ego-back-to-its-source.html

Pointing to— Does pure awareness/'I am' (ever) rise or fall!

Saxon said...

Hello Michael,
Thank you very much for your reply to my question, it was extremely well written, helpful, insightful and comforting to read. I found the beautiful verses you quoted helpful too, it was wonderful and much appreciated.

Lewis Oakwood said...

When we say surrender our burdens to Him/Bhagavan/God are we not implying that Him/Bhagavan/God is other than ourself.

In that context, could we not say: surrender to ourself or, trust ourself.

Lewis Oakwood said...

We as ego ask the question 'who am I?'

We trust Bhagavan will protect us and guide us along the path to self-discovery.

What if instead, we ask 'who is Bhagavan? Don't we claim already to know the answer!

Surely, 'who am I?' and 'who is Bhagavan?' are one and the same question and answer.

Lewis Oakwood said...


My previous comment was simply some thoughts that I find useful.

And, yes, I know, it is said that we shouldn't focus our attention on the words 'who am I' but instead to place our entire attention upon the awareness or experience 'I am'.

Lewis Oakwood said...

Hello Michael,

Help! 🙂

I have just finished reading your article— There is only one ‘I’, and investigation will reveal that it is not a finite ego but the infinite self.

As part of your reply (13 November 2014 at 10:01) to Amai Parai in the comment section you wrote—

'We (as our real self) always experience ourself as we really are, so we are never guilty of the ‘original sin’ of self-negligence (pramāda), which alone is the cause of the seeming rising of our ego, whereas we (as this ego) do not experience ourself as we really are, so we alone are guilty of this ‘original sin’.'

If self-negligence is the cause of the seeming rising of our ego then what is it that is being self-negligent in the first place, I mean, according to the statement the implication is self-negligence was there prior to the rising of ego.


Thank you.

Michael James said...

Abhilash, I have replied to your comment of 28 July 2019 at 12:54 in a separate article, Why does ego rise again from manōlaya and not from manōnāśa?

Michael James said...

Lewis, I have replied to your comment of 29 July 2019 at 11:52 in a separate article: Which comes first: ego or self-negligence (pramāda)?

Michael James said...

Anonymous, I have replied to your comment of 28 July 2019 at 11:41 in a separate article: The role of grace in all that ego creates