3.1 The Self – A Primer

This sub-module is based on a video by Vishnudeva Sanders and a book written by Dr. Carol Whitfield.
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While reading this course you will encounter the word “Self” frequently. The Self is also known by other names such as Awareness, Brahman, Consciousness etc.

Those who have been in the spiritual world for some time may be familiar with this term. But even then it is important to make clear what the term “Self” means according to Vedanta so as to avoid any confusion.

We have put the main sub-module on Self later in the course because other topics need to be covered first. But because we cannot avoid referring to the Self in the meanwhile, this short sub-module will give you a general explanation of the term.

Your True Nature

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In this sub-module we’re going to explain that your true nature is the Self. Even though it might not make sense at the moment, it’s okay because the course is going to help you figure out why that’s true.

If we tell you that you are eternal and unchanging that might not seem like the case because your experience may tell you that you are not eternal and unchanging. So that is why we need the complete teaching to understand this fact.

Even in the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is standing in the battlefield with his teacher Krishna, trying to figure out the meaning of his life. What he really is. And Krishna goes ahead and tell him right away what his true nature is.

So Krishna gives Arjuna the big picture upfront, but Arjuna doesn’t really get it. If Arjuna had understood it right away, then there would have been no need for the remaining chapters of the Bhagavad Gita.

So in keeping with the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna gives the big picture to Arjuna, and tells Arjuna that he is the Self and what the Self is. And then afterwards Krishna gives Arjuna the tools to understand the implications of what that means, when Arjuna doesn’t get it. And that is what we’re going to do in this course.

So even if you don’t really understand what the Self is or how your real nature can be the Self, it’s okay because from the next sub-module onwards we’re going to explain the teaching step by step to help remove your doubts about the Self.

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Problems with the English Word “Self”

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“Self” is a direct English translation of a Sanskrit term “Atma”. Now do you have to memorize the Sanskrit term? No, because we have a good English translation, but it is nice to be familiar with it because if you happen to listen to any other teacher, or read any other kind of spiritual literature, you may come across this term.

So you know that the word “Self” and the word “Atma” can be used interchangeably. The word “Self” has some slightly problematic implications in English because a lot of the time “Self” can be confused with English phrases such as “know thyself”. It has the connotation that the Self is the body or the mind.

Like, if you want to know yourself, you have to know your personality. Even in modern psychology the term “Self” can mean the “Self” as explained by Carl Jung.

Self does not mean any of those things. Not the body, not the mind, not a part, property or product of the body and mind.

And in the case of psychology, the Self refers to the unconscious mind where your mental conditioning that produces your mental thoughts, your behavioural patterns, reside. And we are not talking about that either.

So whenever we use the word “Self” with a capital S, we mean the “Self” as explained by Vedanta.

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What is the Self?

So the Self or Atma is not something apart from you. These are words that refer to what you really are. Now we want to give a definition of the Self, and explain some part of it in this sub-module.

This definition is adapted from the teaching of Swami Paramarthananda. So whenever we use the word “Self” or “Atma”, this is what it means:

Atma or the Self is non-dual consciousness, the unchanging, independently existing, eternal, indivisible, infinite, imperceptible essence of everything, ever free of all action and experience.

Reality is Non-Dual

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We’ll start with “The Self is non-dual.” It is important to discuss non-duality before we get more into the course.

The whole teaching methodology of Vedanta is based on the fact of non-duality. In fact, as we discussed in one of the previous sub-modules, Vedanta is sometimes qualified with the adjective “Advaita” which means “not two”.

The word “Dvaita” means “two”. And when you prefix the word with “A”, it becomes the negative i.e. “not two”, non-dual, not more than one.

And what Vedanta is saying here is that despite any appearances to the contrary, no matter what your experience might be telling you, reality is not separate from you.

Vedanta says that there are two categories in existence – the object and the subject. And Vedanta also says there is no actual distinction between the subject and the object. Now this may seem contradictory.

Now the reason Vedanta says that is because there is a confusion about who you are. You are confusing yourself with an appearance, with something that you actually are not.

So even though reality isn’t two things, we have to conditionally talk about it as being two things to remove the confusion about what you really are.

I see this world and I experience this world, and I confuse myself to be a part of it. I confuse myself to be limited by it.

So for that reason we have to talk about the categories, that we have to conditionally, temporarily, divide reality into two parts or categories in order to enable us to investigate it. In order to help us sort out the confusion of who we are.

But, in truth, reality is non-dual. Even though it looks otherwise, all that it is at anytime is just the Self.

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The Location of Experience

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Further along in the definition it says “The Self is non-dual consciousness.” Let’s do an analysis here. James Swartz uses this analysis effectively to explain the non-dual nature of reality.

So, you ask yourself where am I experiencing the objects. So take the computer which you are looking at right now, or your phone, or any other object. Where do I experience this computer?

Now taking things at face value, it seems like you are here, and the computer is over there, right? But can you find the computer apart from your thought of it?

Are you experiencing the computer or are you experiencing your thought of the computer. Contemplate on this idea. And when you do, you will realize, that you are experiencing a thought of the computer.

Now, where does this thought exist? Now, let’s backup for a minute. You can say, wait, there is an objective computer out there that’s separate from my thought of it.

But the burden of proof is on you because you have to demonstrate an object apart from the thought of it. But that is not possible.

Anytime you point to something and say there is this, that is there, there is nothing there apart from your thought of it. So they are one and the same.

Now how do you know the thought? Well, the thought appears in your mind. Is there any division between your thought and the mind? No, there isn’t.

Can you separate the two? Is there a space or a gap? Can you peel them apart from each other.

I have the thought of the computer right now, and now I am going to peel my mind away from it. And then there will be this thought and there will be this mind. No, that’s not possible.

There is no space, there is actually no difference, they are non-different. They are one. The mind and the thought are one. The mind takes the shape of the thought, the thought is made out of the mind. They are one thing.

So that leaves only one other question. And that is, if the object and the thought are one thing, and the thought and the mind are one thing. If we have collapsed all of those together, we can see than they are one thing.

How do I know this one thing?

How can I say that my mind is even there? Because I know it. I know my mind. In other words, I am conscious of the mind or I am the consciousness that knows the mind.

Now, is there a gap or space between your mind and the consciousness that knows it. Can you separate the two? Can you possibly experience your mind at any time without consciousness? No.

To have an experience of the mind, consciousness has to be present. And if you investigate your experience, can you separate the two? You can’t. The mind is made out of the consciousness. They are non-separate.

The way that your mind and perception models or moulds your experience, because of the way that it presents it to you, it does seem like there is something separate. But when you investigate it, when you see that all you are experiencing at any time is consciousness.

The object and the thought are one. The thought and the mind when you investigate them are one. And then when you ask how you know the mind? You say, because of consciousness. And when you investigate that, you can see that the mind and the consciousness have no separation.

But what appears to be your self experiencing various objects, a fundamental duality between you and what you experience. The fact of the matter is that it is a non-duality because all that there is, is you, is conciousness at any time.

There is no experience apart from consciousness at all and you cannot separate the two, so that is the meaning of non-dual.

What Vedanta is saying is that no matter what, at anytime, everything is the Self. Notice, we didn’t say that the Self is everything and that is a complicated point which will be explained later in the course.

What we are saying is that everything is the Self. At anytime, all that there is, is ever the Self.

And one of the aspects of the nature of the Self is consciousness. The Self is non-dual conciousness. So all that there is, is the Self, and the nature of that Self is consciousness.

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In Vedanta, the Self is also sometimes defined as Sat-Chit-Ananda or Existence-Consciousness-Limitlessness. Such words are elusive because they are not labelling an objectifiable reality.

For example, the word “tree” evokes an image of a tree in the mind. The word is associated with an image that can be described because the tree is an object of perception. The word “consciousness,” on the other hand, does not invoke an image in the mind because consciousness is not an object of perception, but rather is the subject, the essential nature of the perceiver of the perception.

Words are normally used to define objects in the world or in the mind that are available for sensory perception or other means of knowledge, such as inference and presumption, both of which are dependent upon sense perception.

Such objects can be identified by their qualities, activities, relationships, species etc. For example, the object, tree, can be defined by its appearance, utility, species, and so on.

Consciousness, on the other, is not an object in the world and so cannot be defined by words meant to differentiate one object from another. Existence (Sat) and limitlessness (Ananda), the two other words used to define the Self, also suffer from the same problem.

They do not denote objects in the world or in the mind that can be differentiated from other objects. We cannot say: “Look at the existence” in the same way we can say “Look at the tree.”

The Vedantic definition of the Self as Sat-Chit-Ananda does not shed any light on the nature of the Self if these defining words themselves are in need of definition.

Vedanta as a teaching methodology and as a means of knowing the nature of the Self must be able to unite the defining words of the Self with their meaningful content, so that for instance, the word “consciousness” invokes experientially in the mind the actual nature of the Self as consciousness. Otherwise, the Vedantic Self will only be a theoretically useful construct of something whose essence remains unknown.

The purpose of this course would be to use traditional methods of instruction to fill the defining words with real and immediate content. The hope is that through this course, the reader will be able to experientially differentiate the Self that the Vedantic teachings aspire to reveal.

Without a means of knowledge such as Vedanta, the Self remains undifferentiated from our experience because none of our means of knowledge, all of which are based on sense perception, can be employed to “see” the “seer,” the Self who is witness to the experience.

The Vedantic teaching methodology reveals the Self as the subject component of our experience. This being the case, the Self is not outside the mind’s purview, and can be directly known through a means of knowledge that differentiates it from the images of the mind with which it has been misidentified.

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The Self is not easy to be known but when the student is prepared and the teaching is taught by a competent teacher then ignorance can be removed and the student’s real nature will be revealed to him or her. The following modules of this course will try to lead the reader to this understanding.