The issue of who it is that ‘I am’ and what ‘I am’ is the fundamental mystical and or philosophical question.
The ancient teachers of Yoga have regarded the Human Being in different ways, which have been discussed in previous papers, which can be read on the web site www.seraph.ie
Each of these presents a way in to looking at the process of being human.
If I am very ill in an Intensive Care Unit the professionals meet the physical needs of my body, and I can be kept alive.
But what is it that is kept alive and what is it that leaves when I die?
While I am living in the physical body, its needs must be met – yet ‘I am’ more than that.
While I am living, my mind has its needs that must be met – yet ‘I am’ more than that.
Again, while I am living my vitality has needs that are met in many more subtle ways – yet ‘I am’ more than that.
And, as I am an intuitive and emotional being, with still more subtle needs – even so, ‘I am’ more than that.
What is it that ‘I am’?
What is beyond even all these necessities?
In his translation and commentary on Chapter One of the Tattvartha-sutra, Herman Kuhn demonstrates an elegant hierarchy of awarenss of what it is that ‘I am’. He lists Stages 1 – 14; some stages have several phases.
This teaching states that it can safely be considered most likely that we are, all of us that are interested in these types of subjects, at Stage One and blessed by moments of insight into Stage Four that tempt us to look more deeply into what we perceive as reality. Stage Four has three phases – it seems that most of those that do manage to progress to Phase Three get stuck there, never generating the energy to develop further though Stages Five to Fourteen.
What follows is a précis of the first four levels.
Every human being, indeed perhaps even every sentient being, is deeply caught up in all the senses, the thoughts, the instincts and the processes of survival. From the first breath to the last, there are actions and reactions as the nervous system receives, interprets and responds to stimuli. Over time, behaviour is learned, conditioning instilled and memories built up that inform future action and reactions. From the moment life begins we become so deeply controlled by our convictions and conditioning that we are fully absorbed by both the details of our life and in trying to keep its elements under control. To a greater or lesser extent there is a tendency to keep suffering at bay by dulling awareness – lest one admits to oneself the truth, that action is motivated by fear, thwarted by capricious fate and threaded through with dissatisfaction. Most of us would find that it is unbearable to concede that the Buddhists may have a point – that life is Suffering – much effort is put into hiding from the mental-emotional turmoil of Stage One. We draw on the past to project into the future so that we can control it and ‘be prepared’ – we find that the present moment eludes us.
For all sentient beings at whatever level their experience and expression takes them, this condition can last a lifetime, and usually does… unless there is ‘insight’ creating change.
Perhaps only humans have the capacity to achieve ‘insight’ whatever that may mean. Other sentient beings may have ‘insight’ but it is hard to be sure. Initially it is difficult even to be sure one has experienced ‘insight’ oneself, and very hard to compare the insight one person has with that of another (in English we do not have the depth of variety and quality of words to communicate – in Sanskrit we do, which is why Sanskrit words are introduced and used in these papers).
At such fleeting moments of ‘insight’ whatever it is that perceives, experiences ‘something’ beyond words, probably in that very active part of the mind that was a powerhouse of early learning during the first years of life, before we had the use of language. Because we have no references within language or conditioning for this, we dismiss it.
“Contrary to common belief most experiences of expansion of consciousness are hardly ever clear and vivid enough to make us recognise them the very moment they happen. Most insights into different (new) levels of consciousness are so brief that they appear like highly fleeting, almost unreal apparitions. Since we mostly cannot explain what we experienced, we usually store these events in the same place as all the other unresolved experiences that accompany our life and which we choose to ignore or forget as well.
“Hidden deep inside our memory we therefore carry a number of experiences we are barely aware of, but which nevertheless contain vital information how higher, more advanced states of existence feel like.”
These fleeting glimpses of ‘insight’ zip us from Stage 1 to Stage 4 but because we have no mechanism for sustaining ‘I am’ in that state of mind we slip back to Stage 3, which is an area of confusion in which we are reluctant to let go both our conditioning and our attachments to what we have known and with which we are familiar. Quickly the old habits take a grip and we slip back through Stage 2 onto the treadmill of desire, fear, grasping and aversion – what Yoga calls the Kleshas, afflictions or obstacles to growth. So, with fleeting almost imperceptible interruptions, life continues at Stage 1.
It seems that these transitions could occur quite frequently, in moments of quietness, but are rarely given as much attention as they deserve, until one makes a conscious decision that these fleeting impressions are important – that there is more to existence than meeting consumerist needs… then the process of spiritual evolution begins.
This is the life just described – of hypnotic addiction to dulling the senses both of pain and of pleasure, in which fleeting glimpses occur of more clarity but these are immediately overwhelmed by the humdrum.
The snatches of insight into ‘something’ that transcends consumerist life reveals the limitations of that life – we begin to explore the spiritual traditions that attract our attention – we are drawn into becoming more aware of the kleshas and our interaction with them.
The Kleshas can be defined as being: -
- Misunderstanding – avidya – ignorance and confusion as to who ‘I am’ “Socialisation and education reinforce his innate belief in a false self, and it is only when he becomes aware of the pervasive social and cultural mechanisms which create and sustain his erroneous self-image that he can begin to resist them and set out to discover his true identity, which is the Self purusha”
- Ego – asmita – ‘I-am-ness’ “We are all born in ignorance of our true nature and with the natural tendency of establishing our identity outside ourselves” e.g. I am Irish / a Yoga teacher / a white middle-aged woman
- Desire – raga – ‘I must have’ – attachment to pleasant experiences
- Aversion / hate – dvesa – ‘I detest’ – aversion to sorrowful experiences
- The will-to-live – abhinivesah – I fear “the basic drive for self preservation inherent in every living being, including the wise men” most actions stem from the fear of the consequences of not-doing the action
Gradually it becomes possible to separate out the strands of what is occurring.
As awareness develops it begins to become possible first to notice the interaction of attachments and aversions, belief and conditioning – and then to begin to catch the pattern ‘on the hop’ as they happen and cease to participate in the habitual spirals, slowly we gain the ability to ‘step out’ of the addictive behaviours before they occur.
This is not as easy as it seems however, the pain-dulling habits of Stage 1 are so delightfully numbing – it is so much easier to indulge – to let the ego fill the whole ‘screen’ of our experience – after all the ego deeply resents being curtailed. So much more comfortable to stay with the addiction to the belief that ‘I’ am not just a sensual animal but a human being with needs that have to be met – sleep, food, bladder-relief… no matter how fascinating the attractions are to seek ‘insight’ – the physical needs soon intrude… we are unable to endure the high altitudes of transcendental clarity – even the wise men are, after all, subject to the instincts of self preservation…
And so we still slip back from Stage 4 to Stage 1 – the clarity comes and goes for longer or shorter periods of time.
Slowly, slowly, gradually stability is established, one can abide in Stage Four without dropping back to One. The insights beckon us to become active towards further growth. The consumer needs fade and seem superficial. As our sensitivities heighten, awareness develops that intuitively guides ‘right action’ and ‘right thought’, increasingly we heed our intuition – the wise inner teacher or sat-guru.
Positive and negative emotions still arise but ‘I am’ as the ‘Seer’ – the detached observer has developed. The ‘Seer’ has compassion both for the situation that has entangled us and for the weaknesses of ego or Asmita that gets so pulled about by pain and pleasure.
“We now know without fail when we do something detrimental to our growth (and still keep on doing it). But we also recognise clearly the activities and attitudes that enhance our growth. The more we listen to this impartial part of us that became aware of itself on this level, and the more we dare to transform our insights into action, the faster the higher stages open up…. Yet this stable phase of stage four has a highly static character. We now can easily get trapped in a complacency that prevents our ascent to higher levels as intensely as the emotional cocoon that trapped us on stage one. We now know what feelings and activities we need to change, but decline to transfer this insight into action. Yet if we do not raise the additional energy required for further progress, our stay in the fourth stage will last eternally. This often manifests as the conviction that we are progressing well on our path to liberation, - as a smug, self-satisfied contentment with the stability with which we seem to grow, - as a tendency to observe rather than to actively shape our life, - as a preference for techniques or ritual and symbolic action instead of facing the challenges necessary for gaining real understanding… though we might well gain insights in this static phase, we basically are unwilling to raise the energy necessary for any breakthrough to higher stages.”
This is quoted at length because it is an opinion that seems to resonate as being intensely true to my own experience and what I observe in others.
I do recommend Herman Kuhn’s book as a useful read if this subject is of interest.
Again, another even longer quotation follows, because it is an opinion that has the feel of truth about it, but, being also a fellow-traveller between Stages One and Four, aspiring to remain for longer periods in Phase Two and hoping (let it be!) to reach Phase Three (without becoming complacently stuck there) I include a text taken from the teachings of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, a newsagent in Bombay who reached realisation through the intense earnestness that he seeks to inspire in others.
“Realisation is of the fact that you are not a person…. Freedom is from something. What are you to be free from? Obviously you must be free from the person you take yourself to be, for it is this idea you have of yourself that keeps you in bondage… Understand that it must go and wish it to go – it shall go if you are earnest about it. Somebody, anybody will tell you that you are pure consciousness, not a body-mind. Accept it as a possibility and investigate it earnestly. You may discover that you are not a person bound in space and time. Think of the difference it would make!
“Wet cloth looks, feels, and smells differently as long as it is wet. When it is dry it is again the normal cloth. Water has left it and who can make out that it was wet? Your real nature is not like what you appear to be. Give up the idea of being a person that is all. You do not need to become what you are anyhow….
“The door that locks you in is also the door that lets you out. The ‘I am’ is the door…
“Before you go further you must accept, at least as a working theory, that you are not what you appear to be… All that a Guru can tell you is: ’My dear Sir you are quite mistaken about yourself. You are not the person that you think yourself to be.’ Trust nobody, not even yourself. Search, find out, remove and reject every assumption till you reach the living waters and the rock of truth. Until you are free of the drug [the primordial drug of mistaken identity] all your religions and sciences, prayers and Yogas are of no use to you, for based on a mistake, they strengthen it. But if you stay with the idea that you are not the body, not the mind, not even their witness, but altogether beyond, your mind will grow in clarity, your desires – in purity, your actions – in charity and that inner distillation will take you to another world, a world of truth and fearless love. Resist your old habits of feeling and thinking; keep on telling yourself: ‘No, not so, it cannot be so; I am not like this, I do not need it, I do not want it’, and a day will surely come when the entire structure of error and despair will collapse and the ground will be free for a new life. After all you must remember that all your preoccupations with yourself are only during waking hours and partly in your dreams; in sleep all is put aside and forgotten…
“At present you are moved by the pleasure-pain principle which is the ego. You are going along with the ego; you are not even fighting it. You are not even aware of how totally swayed you are by personal considerations… The ego is like a crooked mirror it narrows down and distorts. It is the worst of all tyrants - it dominates you absolutely…
“Your mind is an instrument, after all, and you should know how to use it. As you are taught the uses of your body, so you should know how to use your mind… [to] gain freedom from desire and fear, which are entirely due to wrong uses of the mind…
“Keep the ‘I am’ in the focus of awareness, remember that you are, watch yourself ceaselessly and the unconscious will flow into the conscious without any special effort on your part… identity is not lost, only its limitations are lost. It is transfigured and becomes the real Self, the sat guru, the eternal friend and guide…
“When you happen to desire or fear, it is not the desire or fear that is wrong, but the person who desires and fears. There is no point in fighting desires and fears, which may be perfectly natural and justified; it is the person who is swayed by them that is the cause of mistakes past and future. This person should be carefully examined and its falseness seen; then the power over you will end. After all, it subsides each time you go to sleep… During the waking hours you are as if on a stage, playing a role, but what are you when the play is over? You are what you are; what you were before the play began, you remain when it is over. Look at yourself performing on the stage of life. The performance may be splendid or clumsy, but you are not in it, you merely watch it; with interest and sympathy of course, but keeping in mind all the time that you are only watching while the play – life – is going on…
“The sun of awareness must rise – all else will follow.”
The Key to the Centre of the Universe Herman Kuhn
ISBN 398062118 9
The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali Georg Feuerstein
ISBN 0 89281 262 1
I AM THAT Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
ISBN 0 89386 022 0
Advanced Energy Anatomy Dr. Caroline Myss
ISBN 1 56455 908
 KCU A photocopy of the 14 stages of development of what ‘I am’ are available at Seraph or can be posted out to anyone that is interested – better still buy his book!
 KCU p22
YSP p 62 Patanjali-Yoga-Sutras 2.3
 ibid 2.5 p. 63
 ibid 2.6 p.63
 ibid 2.9 p.65
 Addiction can be described as any person, thing, habit, place, action, substance etc. that is used to keep your world in place Myss Advanced Energy Anatomy Tape 5
 KCU p.152
 IAT p.441 A full photocopy of this exchange between a questioner and Maharaj is available from Seraph and can be posted out on request – the book is not easily available but we can point you in the right direction.
extracted from IAT p.441 - 448