33. The Feeling Of I-ness

Q: If everything I think I am is dying every moment, what am I really? Nisargadatta says to aim at seeing that, “I am that which is never born and never dies.” He called that, “the substrate of what exists.” Would you please comment?

Q2: I was wondering what you thought of the notion that you are not the body or the mind or the thoughts, and furthermore you were never born and will never die. I don’t see how from an honest standpoint one can suggest that this particular expression of energy or whatever it might be will never die. Some seem to find comfort in the idea that energy is eternal, but how does that pertain to this particular expression of energy that will ultimately “die,” and then begin a long transformation into who knows what?

A: In trying to define “myself,” one suffers a complete and total lack of perspective—an absence, I mean, of any non-self vantage from which to regard the matter. Shakespeare, speaking as Brutus, points to this when Brutus says to Cassius, “The eye sees not itself, but by reflection in some other things.” Everyone has the feeling of “myself,” but the fact of I-ness remains ever mysterious and inexplicable.

Nisargadatta was raised in a tradition reliant upon fixed, axiomatic definitions of self from the Vedas—the early writings of Hinduism. That tradition revolves around an assumed unitary “cosmic source” called Brahman, described as “the highest reality.” That conceptual structure also posits an individual self called atman.

At this point, the Vedic traditions divide. Some forms of Hinduism regard Brahman as being different from and superior to atman. In those versions, which are frankly dualistic, Brahman is the “highest reality,” and atman a more provisional, limited, or only apparent “reality.” In that version of the story, atman pertains to Brahman in a manner somewhat similar to the relationship between the individual soul in Western religions and the Godhead.

In the non-dual Hindu traditions such as Advaita Vedanta, on the other hand, atman is seen as identical to Brahman; they are one and the same. Nisargadatta followed and taught this latter, non-dual concept of atman, or “self.” In that view, since Brahman — like the God of Western religions–was never born and never dies, atman also was never born and never dies. Nisargadatta claimed that as atman—as an individual self — he had “realized” his identity with Brahman, and so had attained the birthless, deathless state. This is akin to Jesus saying, “I and the Father are one.”

Personally, I have very little interest in that formulation. I have addressed these matters at length over the years, and cannot repeat all of that here, but one basic flaw in this story jumps out at me. That flaw is the dogmatic belief that a human being, Nisargadatta or anyone else, can ever know what “myself” is or isn’t.

I have said that the feeling of I-ness that calls itself “I” never is just what it thinks it is, and never knows just what it thinks it knows. So from my perspective, there is a psychological uncertainty implicit in any thought whatever about the “self” that I do not see acknowledged in Hinduism—including the words of Nisargadatta—which seems quite absolutist, and unreasonably certain of its philosophical/religious conceptions.

This is not to say that Nisargadatta and others like him had nothing worthwhile to communicate. The entire topic called “Who am I?” can be provocative, and perhaps useful in opening minds. But Vedanta notwithstanding, who or what “I” am is not a settled question with a true answer. It is an open question, and one, I say, that must remain open.

I don't want to get too far into the weeds here, but Nisargadatta's idea about a “conscious substrate of what exists” is a religious belief — an image not just of an infinite universe, but of an intentional and conscious universe. That idea may have given Nisargadatta a kind of comfort, and certainly he attracted students eager to find that same kind of comfort for themselves. We all like to be comfortable, of course, but at what cost?

Perhaps some supreme “Self” really does exist as the sentient fundament of all and everything. We may believe that, but do we know that? How? What if what exists is simply what exists, without any substrate at all, conscious or not?

What if “conscious substrate” is like “God” which may or may not exist, and certainly cannot be proven to exist? What if what I really am is a living brain and nervous system with no connection at all to anything “birthlesss” or “deathless,” except in spiritual fantasies that end when the brain dies?

It is important, I say, to take no person’s words as final answers to questions like these because all of us human beings are limited in what we can know, as opposed to what we believe. There is a vast gulf between belief and knowledge. Vast. Although both may be expressed in words, they are of very different character, belonging actually to two different worlds. And even knowledge has its limitations: we human beings never are just what we think we are, and never know just what we think we know.

Whenever any sort of information presents itself—perceptions, feelings, emotions, memories, concepts—that information is recognized choicelessly, effortlessly, and instantly by “myself.” If I give you some water to drink, you don’t have to ask yourself if the water is warm or cold. You just know. That is how I regard the “self” — a knowing without trying to know or even needing to try. Is that knowing without trying birthless and deathless? If you say yes, and without reference to traditions, scriptures, and the like, but on your own steam entirely, how do you know that?

There is the story of a powerful emperor who keeps hearing rumors about a Zen master who resides a great distance from the capital city, just at the farthest edge of the realm. According to rumor, this old man is a person of great dignity, revered widely for the depth of his wisdom and the breadth of his understanding. In fact, he is said to be the wisest man in the entire kingdom.

Now the emperor has everything a man could desire, but happiness eludes him because he worries constantly about what will happen when he dies. The priests of his court tell him that he will go directly to one of the Buddhist paradises, or perhaps to K’un-lun Mountain, the dwelling place of the Taoist immortals, or, at worst, depending on the measure of his virtue, to the tenth court of hell for a period of chastening after which he will drink the elixir of oblivion and be reincarnated. But the emperor is not convinced. Although he wants desperately to believe in life after death, even if that might require spending a bit of time in hell, he is terribly fearful that none of those things promised by the priests will happen when he dies, but instead he will simply stop being at all.

Finally, the emperor decides to have the wise old man summoned to court, which proves to be a matter of many anxious months. First his emissaries have to travel to the far reaches of the realm to search for the Zen master, and then, having found him at last, must make the long return trip home, during which the master says nothing—not one word—simply nodding his thanks when given food or tea.

Finally, the caravan arrives back at the palace, and the master is brought before the emperor.

After greeting the old man, the emperor says, “They tell us that you are a great teacher, a Zen master.”

The old man just bows.

“They say that you are the wisest man in the realm,” continues the emperor.

Again, only a silent bow.

“Well, if you are such a great Zen master, tell me this,” commands the Emperor. “What happens when you die?”

“I am sorry, sire,” replies the old man, “I cannot say what happens when you die.”

At this the emperor, never a patient man, loses his temper entirely. He glares down from his throne at the old man, and demands angrily, “If you are such a great Zen master, why can you not tell me what happens when you die?”

“I am sorry, sire,” says the old man. “I may be a Zen master, but I am not a dead Zen master.”