Friday 22 August 2014

The featurelessness of self-attentiveness

The friend who had asked the questions that I answered in What do we actually experience in sleep? wrote another email to me in which he asked whether timelessness is also one of the ‘features’ of our featureless experience in sleep, and which he concluded by asking: ‘Do you have a favorite practice that makes sense to share? (I’m still angling for a goodie ;-))’. The following is adapted from my reply to him:

Time and duration are features that we experience in waking and dream, but not in the featureless state of sleep. However, even to say that we experience time and duration in waking and dream requires some clarification: what we actually experience is change, both in our mind and in our body and the physical world around us, and this constant flow of change creates the illusion that we call ‘time’. Therefore since no change occurs in our experience during sleep, the illusion of time is absent there.

Since we do not experience any time in sleep, we do not think either ‘I was’ or ‘I will be’, but only experience ‘I am’ — our own being or existence in the ever-present present moment.

Regarding my favourite practice (and indeed my only practice), it is just self-investigation (ātma-vicāra). Though the practice of ātma-vicāra can be described simply as self-attentiveness — being attentively aware only of ‘I’, ourself — no words or ideas can adequately describe it or explain what it is. Words such as ‘being self-attentive’ are only pointers, because they can only indicate what we should try to do (or rather to be), but cannot adequately convey what the experience of being self-attentive actually is.

Therefore, more than just saying that my favourite practice is trying to be self-attentive, I cannot say anything about it. If I did try to say anything more than this, whatever I might say would fail to convey what I mean, because just as no words can describe or convey the experience of being ‘I’ — the first person or subject, the experiencer of whatever is experienced — so no words can describe or convey the experience that is indicated by the words ‘being self-attentive’ or ‘being aware only of I’.

If we try to describe, or even to conceive, what the actual experience of self-attentiveness is, by our very attempt to do so we will lose it, because we can know it only by experiencing it, and we can experience it only to the extent that thoughts are then absent from our experience. After experiencing an increased clarity of self-awareness, people sometimes try to describe it, but whatever they may describe is not what they actually experienced, because the words in which they describe it are produced by thoughts, and thoughts cannot capture the thought-free experience of clear self-awareness.

Any thought has features, and hence it can only represent or be about something that has features. No thought can adequately represent an experience that has no features, so the featureless experience of self-attentiveness or clear self-awareness is beyond the grasp of any thought (and hence beyond the descriptive power of any words). To the extent that we are experiencing any thought, we are not experiencing ourself as we really are, because what we really are is featureless and hence thought-free.

That is, as I explained in one of my earlier replies, what I essentially am is featureless, so ātma-vicāra is the practice of trying just to be in our natural state of featureless self-awareness, so the only ‘goodie’ I can offer you is to suggest that you investigate what ‘I’ actually is and thereby try just to be the pure featureless self-awareness that you really are. Now we experience ourself — our pure featureless self-awareness — mixed up with extraneous adjuncts such as this body and mind (each of which has multiple features), so to experience ourself as we really are we have to separate ourself from all such adjuncts, which we can do only by focusing our entire attention only on ‘I’.

Because he was asked to describe how as a sixteen-year-old schoolboy he had experienced true self-knowledge, Sri Ramana described how he reacted when he was overcome by a sudden and intense fear of death: turning his attention inwards to discover whether ‘I’ would die when the body dies. However, though he described in words how he thus investigated ‘I’, he emphasised that what he actually experienced could not be adequately described in words, because as soon as his attention turned towards ‘I’, all thoughts ceased and his mind was consumed entirely by absolute clarity of pure self-awareness.

Therefore he described his experience of self-investigation (ātma-vicāra) only to indicate to us that we can likewise experience true self-knowledge only by turning our attention away from all other things towards ‘I’ alone. That is, as he did, we should ignore our body as if it were a corpse (that is, we should be as unaware of it as we would be if death had separated us from it) and focus our entire attention on ‘I’ alone, thereby excluding everything else from our awareness. When we manage to do this successfully, we will experience ourself as we really are, and thus our mind or ego (our present adjunct-mixed self-awareness ‘I am this body’) will be destroyed forever, and hence we will never again mistake ourself to be anything other than what we actually are — namely pure self-awareness that, being entirely devoid of adjuncts, is featureless and hence infinite.


Anonymous said...

Blessed is the one who has achieved it during his lifetime.

Steve said...

Blessed are we also, who in this lifetime have been shown the one thing truly worth achieving - jnana, the direct means to achieve it, and the guidance to use that means correctly.

Ammaiyar said...

When I have correctly understood the practice of self-investigation(atma-vichara) then the statement: we have to separate ourself from all (such) adjuncts, which we can do only by focusing our entire attention only on ‚I‘ is made only to indicate to us that we should turn our attention away from all other things towards ‚I‘ alone.
Our linquistic usage of intransitive verbs in connection with reflexive and possesive pronouns reaches its limits.
How can I as the separating subject separate myself as the object separated from anything (here : all adjuncts ) ? In this case either the subject is ident with the object or the subject includes the object.The same applies to the saying:
His attention turned towards ‚I‘.

Michael James said...

Ammaiyar, I am not sure exactly what your question is, but you are correct in saying that language has its limits. Language has developed to express our experience of things other than ourself, and hence it cannot express our experience of ourself. However any language may develop, it can never be a medium through which our experience of ourself could be expressed.

Language can therefore only point us imperfectly in the direction that we should look in order to experience ourself as we really are, and even to do this it is a crude and clumsy instrument. Bhagavan has used language to indicate to us how we can experience what we really are, but in order to interpret and understand his words correctly we must be able to see what he is trying to indicate. Therefore the more we try to practise what he taught us, the closer we will come to understanding the meaning behind his words. This is why we often read words of his that we have read many times before and suddenly see fresh depths of meaning in them.

Ammaiyar said...

Thank you Michael for your reply.
I feel sorry for having expressed a rather unclear and confused question.
I think I only wanted to ask which power at all has ever turned our attention away from 'I' alone towards other things, so that we have now to focus our entire attention on 'I' alone, thereby excluding everything else from our awareness.
I do not remember the exact starting point of my question; perhaps I wanted to examine why we ever have mistaken ourself to be anything other than what we actually are.
As you say language cannot express our experience of ourself sufficiently clear.
So I hope not to get puzzled by the words with which Bhagavan tried to indicate to us how we can experience what we really are.