Layers of Self

In order to fully understand ourselves, we need an understanding of the layers that comprise our existence. And true understanding comes not from theorizing or thinking, but from direct experiential inquiry.  Without this kind of inquiry we can have some ideas about who we are, but they will be based on flimsy assumptions and mental models, rather than a solid and tested foundation. Many have trod this path before us, and we can use their gleanings and discoveries as a basis, or even a kind of map to guide our own exploration, as long as we don’t confuse the map with the terrain and lose ourselves in the abstract. The Upanishads offer such a map, and the Taittiriya in particular paints a fascinating picture of the layers of self.

The Taiitiriya Upanishad describes the layers of our being as sheaths, each successive sheath contained within the others. It speaks of life as the inner being or soul of matter, mind as the soul of life, and wisdom (or gnosis) as the soul of mind. And the Upanishad also describes the most fundamental layer of manifestation, the soul of wisdom and therefor the soul of mind, life, and matter as well, as Ananda: bliss, comfort, delight.

So as we seek to understand ourselves, we can inquire into the nature and qualities of these layers, seeking direct, experiential understanding. The Upanishad gives us a clue in its articulation of the sheaths, and then we need to track down the prize through a deep, persistent inquiry. We can stand back from our habitual self-identification with mind, and stare into the frantic pulsing mental web, watching its workings and limitations, noting how it takes in sensory information, filters it through a sieve of past experience and rigid models, and feeds it to our faculty of discernment, which sorts and dissects and deduces. The mind is an incredible tool, allowing us to make sense of our environment, plan for the future, build beautiful and terrible devices for engaging with and controlling the world around us.  But remains only a tool, a faculty, a limiting power of division that be its very nature removes us from our environment and places us outside of it, alone encased within our skin. If we take the mind for who we are completely, then we commit ourselves to a cage with impenetrable bars.  But if we take it as a faculty, a layer of ourself, then we can benefit from its gifts but transcend them.

From our customary perch within the mind itself, we can look above and notice the downward pour of intuition that illuminates the mental cave with flashes, and then watch the mind grasp and grapple and reduce the flashes into a substance it can manipulate. Climbing up we can enter directly into a more expansive way of knowing, a wisdom that exceeds the mind’s escapades, vast and fluid, where a subjective knowing of the world around us becomes possible. What was ‘other’ becomes known as ‘self’, division becomes simply differentiation, our aloneness dissolves into an empathic experience of unity. Or we can peek up further still, squinting in the light of pure, unobstructed Delight of being. Being infused and inseparable with consciousness/force and joy – Satchitananda.

Or from our mental vantage we might look below to the surges of energy and emotion that rise into the mind’s scope of vision, fluid spiraling graspings and aching churnings of want. The steady, rhythmic pulse of vitality, life constantly wrenching itself free from the clutches of entropy, breathing and striving to expand against forces of contraction and death. Or we may look down again to the solid, rigid, clasp of matter. The sleeping Lord, forgetful of himself, inert and blind, but containing all layers of existence in his frozen breast.

For all is one. “The spirit who is here in a man and the Spirit that is there in the Sun, it is one Spirit and there is no other” (Taittiriya Upanishad). The weave that holds the stars in their places holds us too and breathes the wind into our lungs. The human experience of separation, abstraction and alienation that underlies our divided choices and broken strategies arises from a trick of perception. The trick is no cosmic error (the idea of the universe as a divine mistake or ignorant chaotic soup is a strange and recent human invention), but perhaps we have submitted ourselves to it in order to unravel it and, like a triumphant child who solves a complex riddle, claim our prize with delight, even as we delight in the challenge and pursuit. And as we struggle to pick the lock we can begin to widen our sense of self beyond appearances, testing the faculty of heart that connects us to everything in the universe, and everything outside it as well.

But beyond all this, beyond the fabric of the cosmos and the bliss that is its foundation, infusing and permeating all manifestation but not bound by its limitations, lies the Purushottama. Any words or concepts (beyond, above, below, etc) fall short, because the Divine Being contains All and is All and births All and becomes All. It’s easy to think (because thinking is what we always do) of the ultimate Divine as an ultimate nothing – beyond all and therefor empty, inert. The mind, continuing on its customary path of abstraction will always arrive at the ultimate abstraction. But the heart seeks connection and unity, and so it’s seeking will find an ultimate Whole, full, pulsing, a synthesis of all that is. These two aspects of the Divine, the personal and the impersonal, are both real and valid. And yet again, while the mind wants to close the case with an ultimate duality, our deeper wisdom know that the two are always contained by the One that exceeds them. And so there must be an Absolute of Absolutes, a Purushottama. The ultimate message of the Bhagavad Gita is that this Absolute of Absolutes, while permeating the entire cosmos and transcending it as well, is available to us as a personal guide and friend.

Krishna reveals to Arjuna “the most profound of secrets…the royal knowledge”. He says “I am the father and mother of this universe, and its grandfather too; I am its entire support. I am the sum of all knowledge…the goal of life, the Lord and support of all, the inner witness, the abode of all. I am the only refuge, the one true friend; I am the beginning, the staying, and the end of creation; I am the womb and the eternal seed.”

There are a million ways of rationalizing these words, burying them in qualifications. But direct inquiry does not seek to bind reality with artifice.  It seeks to penetrate to the heart of truth, armed only with a profound and sincere aspiration to know and experience. When we take our exploration of self beyond duality to the greatest mystery of all, seeking an experiential understanding of these words and the Being that speaks them, our self-inquiry is full and complete. And because this Being has a personality through which it relates to us, our seeking is always met, we are always helped and guided on our path of inquiry. Acknowledging and surrendering to this help increasingly joins and overtakes aspiration and effort as the journey’s primary vehicle. Surrender to any less comprehensive layer of being than the Absolute Purusha yokes us to a partial truth.

So let our seeking be deep and high and wide. Let us persevere and aspire without attachment to a specific idea other than that of total understanding that transcends limitation and division and embraces all. And then let us surrender all attachments and desires at the feet of the Divine, so She can teach us who we truly are.

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