The Quest of the Real



Atma Vichar

Fundamentals of Yoga

The Yogic journey to Self-realization begins with seeing clearly the self, or the selves, that we are not. To see the false as the false

The seeker or the sadhaka (the Sanskrit word for the disciple of Yoga; literally, one who practices sadhana, spiritual discipline) must pass through several layers of not-self before s-he can begin to discern a real self behind it all. There are two words the Yogi often uses — Satyam and Mithya, two fundamental terms of Yogic knowledge. Satyam (from the root sat) means that which is true and abiding, that which does not continually change or cease to be; mithya is that which continually changes from one form to another, is impermanent, does not abide and does not possess an intrinsic reality. However, mithya seems to be real, it has an apparent reality, like a mirage in the desert, or like the horizon. When you look upon a mithya, you are convinced that it is there; but when you get closer to it, you see it is not, or it is something entirely other than what it appeared to be. Such is the nature of the self as we know it — it appears very real and stable, but when we look carefully and deeply at it, it begins to lose its stable shape and becomes increasingly amorphous, till it just disappears, often like the grin of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland.

As the Buddha often used to say, the self that one usually identifies with is just a bundle of habitual thoughts and tendencies that hang together creating an illusion of continuity and disintegrates upon analysis. When one looks deep into the nature of the self, one finds no real or stable self at all. Deep in the heart of the consciousness, there is no real self but void. And this indeed is the starting point in the Yoga: to look into the nature of the self, to carefully take apart, strand by strand, layer by layer, all that appears to be the self, the roots of our identity, and to peer into those inner depths to see what is and what is not. This very process is one of intense purification.

The sadhaka first discovers three distinct layers wrapped around his identity, almost like a cocoon: a very sticky layer of all that his mind has been conditioned to believe since childhood; a second somewhat less sticky layer of all that his mind has learnt and acquired through experiences and education; and a third layer of all that his mind has been persistently projecting to be real because of its deepest desires, fears and prejudices. And all these layers are intricately interwoven and must be separated. 

The Aim

The separating takes time for this is a process of de-conditioning and deconstruction that the sadhaka must pass through; the old edifice has to be torn down, the ground has to be cleared. Through focused and persistent contemplation and self-enquiry, all that is not true, not real, not abiding must be eliminated, till all that remains is the very faculty that is eliminating and cannot itself be eliminated. It is like having peeled off the layers of a fruit till the fruit is gone and only the peeler remains.

The sadhaka has then reached the bottom, the substratum of being. This substratum, known as adhara in Sanskrit, is what the Yoga considers to be the ground upon which all psychological identity rests, ground zero, if you will. In other words, the many selves that we grow up believing ourselves to be are multiple layers of conditioned and acquired beliefs built on ground zero, this adhara, that become, over time, hard crusts of identification enormously difficult to break out of, the almost unbreakable tethers of the ego. 

But the first aim of Yoga is to break free of these encrustations, these tethers out of ego, and realize oneself as essentially free of all selves, identities and identifications. This is the indispensable step towards the higher and the deeper realizations of the Yoga. For, finally, when freed of all the conditionings and the layers of ignorance and falsehood, the sadhaka will begin to realize himself as the true Self, the Purusha in the language of Yoga, behind all the false and apparent selves. The realization of oneself as Purusha is the beginning of the higher Yoga, the launching pad, as it were, into the blissful vastnesses of Consciousness, possessed of the Truth of being and things, master of all existence, Ishwara

This is the high and wondrously uplifting aim of Yoga, more enticing than all the treasures of earth and the promises of heavens; and to strive for this is the highest purpose and dharma of human existence.

The journey is long and arduous and needs enormous patience and fortitude. The sadhaka must be prepared in mind and heart for undertaking this journey of journeys, and must be willing to sacrifice all the lower strivings, pleasures and satisfactions of human life. The journey to the Real is spiritual and supramental, and way beyond the intellect and its mental knowledge; a higher faculty of knowledge or a deeper intuition is needed for this journey, and the sadhaka must discover and awaken these in the silent depths of his or her being. Even the mind’s so-called spiritual knowledge falls apart on this journey because all our knowledge is merely aerial mapping of unknown territory and the map, however brilliantly drawn, is not the territory. No matter how many have walked the paths of Yoga before us, and how many have come to the realization of Self, when we walk this path ourselves, we walk alone and we walk for the first time.

Non-knowing or the Beginner’s Mind

The quest for the Self then begins with the Self: What or who am I? This is atma-vichara, a methodical and sustained investigation into the nature of the Self, and this investigation is as exacting as any scientific one, except that it is directed inward, into one’s own consciousness. And as any intelligent scientific investigation, it is an open-ended attempt, without agenda or goal. The point is not to reach a conclusion. The quest for the Self is subtle and vast, and there can be no conclusions. The point is to arrive at understanding, wisdom, prajna. And understanding is a continuous process; the moment one believes that one has understood, the learning ceases, and whatever one has understood, or believes one has understood, becomes fossilized as knowledge. This is the reason that the masters of Vedanta would reject knowledge as useless and insist on anubhava, which can mean direct understanding as well as living experience. 

In Yoga, knowledge (especially of the spiritual kind) has only marginal utility, like a map indicating a certain terrain. The sadhaka must begin with a clear understanding of the difference between knowledge and anubhava: knowledge is all outside, made up of facts and figures, ideas and theories, but anubhava arises from within, and blossoms into prajna or spiritual wisdom. One cannot come to prajna without coming to oneself. The outer knowledge is all available in books, from teachings and teachers, but prajna flowers into being when one sinks deeper into oneself and begins to find those spaces of inner awareness where one is most completely and integrally oneself. 

The end of all knowing is knowing the Self: and this knowing of Self is the  paramarthika jnana or transcendental knowledge of the Yogi. It is this knowing that one must come to. Compared to this knowing, all outer knowledge is useless. All the knowledge in the universe will not bring the seeker an inch closer to the Self. When the seeker understands this simple truth, all her distractions fall from her, and she is freed of the constant need to seek truth outside of herself, in the world of people, things and experiences. 

To enter the spirit of Yoga, one must first turn inward, become introverts in the true sense of the word, cease to be seekers of the outside world, seekers of experiences, relationships, objects.

It is when one turns within that one realizes just how compelling the outside world is, for it is the outside world that shapes the inner and makes us what we are. Yet, when we close our eyes to sleep, drift into those inner spaces made of dreams and void, we lose all of the outside world, there is nothing anymore, no possessions, no relations, no things to occupy ourselves with. But few grasp the significance of this. Sleep is routine for most of us, we must sleep as we must eat. But for the Yogi, sleep is the precursor of dying. As one sleeps, so shall one die. If one carries nothing of the outside world into sleep, one will carry nothing of it into dying. This realization is often the beginning of a gradual detachment from the clamors of the external. 

Where does the world go in our sleep? Where do all the relationships go — where is the wife, husband, child or friend once we are asleep? Where is the sky or earth, where the objects of desire? The Yogis say that all these are mental constructs and when mind gets absorbed in deep sleep, all its activities and constructs dissolve into the void of sleep. In the state of deep sleep, which the Yogis know by direct experience, there is neither the self nor the world, neither time nor space, neither waking nor dreaming. When the sadhaka understands this clearly through his own experience, he is freed from the great spell of the outside world — he then sees the thousand and one things of the world outside as futile, like a child’s toys. What then is real? 

Do bear in mind, at this point, that an illusory outside world does not mean that everything is unreal, like a dream or a magician’s trick. It isn’t that at all. There is a reality of world and self, but veiled by multiple layers of distractions and non-realities, shadows and untruths, veil upon veil of mithya that must be patiently and painstakingly removed. This is the work, the labor, of finding oneself, finding the truth of being and the truth of things. Truth does not come easy, it cannot be found in books, sacred or otherwise; it cannot be found in words or teachings; for it is hidden in the core of being, a dimensionless point of infinite density, the very heart of creation, and it has to be dug up, pulled out into the light of consciousness. Then, and then alone, shall we know, and come to the understanding of Yoga. 

So this is the first lesson of Yoga —that no external knowledge or learning can yield truth; truth has to be recovered from one’s inmost depths of being. And often, what stands in the way of this recovery is knowledge itself. There is nothing more destructive to the spirit of enquiry than the thought or belief that one knows. To be open in non-knowing is to be in the spirit of self-enquiry. 

Therefore, Yoga insists on humility. Humility is acknowledgment of the fact that one knows nothing of true spiritual worth. Most of the mind’s knowledge is labeling and naming, merely describing in word and labels what we see from the outside. We look up into the night sky and say to ourselves that I know that is the sky, and the moon and stars; if we have more information, then we say that I know that the moon is a satellite of the earth, and that the earth is a planet, and that star up there is Sirius. But think of it, all this that I tell myself is a fiction. There is no Sirius up there; it’s just ‘star’. But there is no star up there either; it is a sphere of fiery incredibly hot gases, or at least that is what my sciences tell me; but what gases? Hydrogen, the mind quickly says, for one. But what is hydrogen? There is no such thing as hydrogen at all; there are just molecules and atoms to which a name is given for convenience; but wait a minute, there are no molecules or atoms either; there are only gravity fields, quantum states, probabilities; and these too we do not really know.  So where does it all end? 

When one is ready to renounce all mental knowledge and learning in a spirit of utter humility, one is deemed ready for Yoga. When one has come to the Unknowing, one has come to the threshold of the silence of Yoga, a silence that naturally arises when one has nothing to say anymore, for what can one say once one has seen through the play of names and labels? Having seen that all knowledge only describes the progressive stages of ignorance, the seeker is done with his romance with knowledge and is ready for real exploration, for self-enquiry. He starts then with a clean slate, what the Zen masters call the beginner’s mind.


Atma-vichara is not uncovering of knowledge but seeing through the veils of ignorance and apparent or false knowledge — the seeing of the false as false; it is the process of peeling away, one by one, the many layers of nomenclature and descriptions, mental constructs and approximations, conjectures, hearsay, beliefs and biases, conditionings and superstitions, unexamined ideas and conceptual projections, and so on, till the whole knowledge apparatus of the mind is stripped clean and laid bare. 

Atma, in Sanskrit, means self; vichara means enquiry through analytical thought and contemplation. So atma-vichara is the process of looking into one’s own psychological structure and trying to see what lies beneath — Who am I, or who do I believe myself to be? 

Is my identity real? Does it consist of my name and biography? Or my physical characteristics? Or my psychological habits? Or my behavior patterns? My character or personality? What is my real identity? Who is the “me” in the first place? 

Name is just a tag, a convenience. Being man or woman is just a description of form seen from the outside and means nothing from the inside. So is age. Would you see yourself as man or woman from inside yourself? Would you see yourself as thirty, fifty, or sixty years old from the inside? Do you ever see yourself as so many years old from the inside? In fact, have you ever seen age, or time, from the inside? Ask yourself these questions. They may not be easy to answer, but they will bring you to the heart of the matter. 

What does it mean to be Indian or American? Does India or America even exist outside of one’s mind? Beyond the label, does even earth exist? What is it that we really see? Do we see earth at all? Or do we see and experience all that is known to us as Cosmos? Just by calling a part of that cosmos earth, does it really signify anything? Call this portion ‘earth’ or that portion ‘sun’, it is still all cosmos. And ‘cosmos’ too is a word, a label, a description from the outside. What ‘cosmos’ is from the inside is something we do not know. Just as we do not know what a ‘star’ really is; just as I do not know what I really am once I start deconstructing myself in my own consciousness.  

From the inside of my own consciousness, I do not see or know myself at all the way I do when I am oriented outwardly: I am no longer a name or an identity, not even a form or a personality from the inside. All I am then is self-awareness: I am aware of being something or someone, but beyond that, nothing is definite. 

As I peer deeper inside my own head as it were, I see certain memories, remembered experiences, certain associations, patterns of thoughts, images and sounds floating in a stream of consciousness that I recognize as myself, a distinct personality. But is it really so? Is that who or what I am? As I focus even more carefully on this stream of consciousness that I identify as myself, with all its swirling and bubbling patterns of memories, thoughts, images and sounds, I find the whole swirling and bubbling stream just evaporating into an inner void, a silence. Then, for a while, there seems to be nothing, no one inside. 

To go on looking at this void becomes very difficult. The mind is always used to looking at objects—something or the other, but looking at nothing is a totally new experience, if one can still call it an experience. But if one manages to hold the attention in that inner void, that whole swirling and bubbling stream of consciousness falls silent, and one becomes aware of a perception that has no name or form; an intense inner perception that looks at nothing in particular but is aware, simply and totally aware. It is then that the realization dawns that this very perception, this awareness without name and form is what one really is. 

This is the threshold of self-awareness: atma-bodh in the language of Yoga. 

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