Contemplation of the Self

Another form of contemplation, in great favor in the school of Shri Shankaracharya, is the contemplation of one’s own true nature. Look at the body and consider its various parts. Gaze at the hand; look at it intently as mere dissociated form, until you realize that “such a queer thing cannot be I”.

Apply the same thought to any part of the body. Look in a mirror at your own eyes and realize that they, also, cannot be yourself. Subject and object can never be the same, and I am the subject, the perceiver, not the form, the perceived. What then are you? The invisible mind which uses this aggregate, called the body? Inspect the mind as you have examined the body. You have discovered that you are not fingers and thumbs and eyes. Are you anger, fear, trust, doubt, kindness, reverence, pride, or any other of the various modes of action of the mind?” Are you to be found in its modes of receiving knowledge? Are you reason, or perception, or the faculty of discrimination? Surely not.

These are the elements which aggregate to compose the mind, and thus this mind cannot be myself. The mind is only an aggregate, a collection of objective things, an external thing, and not myself. I look down upon it and know that it is not myself. When I walk across the room I can ask myself the question: “Am I walking?” and answer, “No, I am not walking; I am watching the body walk”. Similarly, I am watching the mind think.

Whence, then, does the conception of individuality arise? Am I this personality, this John Smith or Lord Whiptop? Certainly not; this is a mere collection of associations which I am temporarily using, having gathered them round myself and shut myself in with them by a long series of imperfect imaginings. No other person can speak of me, can praise or blame me; they know only this outer thing. If I in the past have fallen in love with this body and mind, become infatuated with it, as Narcissus with his reflection in the pool, still there is no need that I should continue the error. What then is the I, when you have thus struck away these temporary external coverings? That question can be answered only by each one for himself when he realizes his own inner nature, having cast away layer after layer of the outer crust, having broken away the shell to find the kernel within. Then arises the question, “Is that an endless series?” The answer is, “No; for series is a mental conception. You must not try to carry your series-conception into the beyond of the mind. It is more like the chicken in the egg-shell. One peck more — that last peck! — and the chick goes through into its beyond.

It would be a mistake to suppose that, as that process of inner search for yourself goes on, your own nature is discovered to be more indefinite. Such an idea arises from the erroneous supposition that only the outer body is warm and full of the wine of life, while the inner is chill and empty. Some philosophers have ventured to say that they cannot detect themselves apart from some bodily feeling, but that is only another way of saying that one cannot remain awake in the body without some sensibility of the body, that one cannot think of the body without feeling it in some way, which is no doubt true. But it is possible to lose sight for a time of the existence of the body and find oneself something beyond it.

What are the results of denying, in this contemplation, our identity with the outer bodies and the mind? What is the effect of this realization that the mind with all its contents is a thing that we use, not that we are? Does it mean that the inner man is left more and more attribute-less — changeless, powerless, loveless, ignorant? It does not. In the process you are not divesting yourself of attributes but of limitations. The mind is swifter and freer than the body, and beyond the mind is the spirit, which is freer and swifter still, love is more possible in the quietude of the heart than in any outer expression but in the spirit beyond the mind it is divinely certain. Reason and judgment ever correct the halting evidence of the senses, and the vision of the spirit will discern the truth without organs and without mind.