Being True to One’s Higher Self
Never was there a time when the Self (Atman) did not exist, nor will it ever cease to exist in the future. The Self pervades all and is indestructible. It is above birth and death. It does not come into being. It is unborn, changeless, all-pervading, ever-fixed, eternal is the Self. Bhagavad Gita
The saying ‘To thine own self be true’ has many levels of meaning. It can, for example, refer to our sincerity or earnestness when we express ourselves. Instead of resorting to pretence or hypocrisy, ‘to be true to our self’ suggests that if we are not happy about something, we should say so, and not give the impression that we think all is well.
And yet, such a course is not always as easy as it might look, nor is it necessarily desirable in all circumstances. Our passing feelings are not always reliable and wise, and some feelings, like greed or anger, if expressed, usually lead to further problems.
Another dimension of the saying: ‘To thine own self be true’, relates to the view that human nature is fundamentally good—and if we remain inwardly sensitive to what might be called ‘our good side’, then we cannot fail to say and do the right thing. This idea is reflected in the teaching of the Chinese sage, Confucius. He was asked what makes a person superior. He replied: ‘Being without anxiety or fear.’ He added: ‘When we examine our inner state, and find nothing wrong, what is there to be anxious about, what is there to fear?’
Such teachings refer to our personality, but they do not necessarily provide hope or comfort. For it is probable that few of us can look into our own mind and find nothing wrong. Even if we do believe that we are morally sound, and insist on our honesty or humility, can we really be sure that we are not deceiving ourselves?
If we consult the non-dual teachings, we find that the whole question of Self-knowledge is approached from another stand-point. This is because a radically different idea of Self is brought to our attention. This is reflected in the opening quotations from the Bhagavad Gita. Here we encounter a deeper view of Self which really does point to a realm beyond suffering, limitation and fear.
Our body and mind belong to the world of time, but the ultimate principle of life and consciousness within us transcends time and change. It is eternal and untouched by limitations. To be true to our self is to realise our essential immortality and completeness.
Then how can we transcend this sense of being enclosed in our human limitations, and live in perfect inner freedom and fulfilment?
Our mind holds the key to this mystery. The mind is the field in which we bring to light this illumined understanding. The greatest blessing is to be told: ‘Your reality is the eternal’, because it is something we can build on through the way we think and feel, and bring it to life in our own consciousness.
To be told of the immortality of the true Self strikes an echo of recognition within us. No one can really imagine their own non-existence. The complete extinction of our being is unthinkable and goes against our deepest intuition. The question is: ‘What, exactly, is the eternal in us?’
Obviously, the eternal is not our body. Nor is it our character, which undergoes many changes throughout our life, nor our learning, which can be forgotten. The eternal is not our appearance, which alters every day, nor is it our mind, which is never still and whose states and moods come and go like clouds on a windy day.
We may ask: ‘Is there anything in human nature which is durable and reliable?’ If we want something deeper than the outer experiences, something durable, ever-fulfilling, ever-delightful, then how are we to proceed in the midst of this all-encompassing transiency?
There is a way, and it is to uncover the ultimate principle of life and consciousness at the core of our being. All delights have their root in the eternal beauty of our higher nature. When our mind is serene and still, and in a kind of happy self-forgetfulness, this inner source of joy will become apparent to us. Our reality is higher, closer and dearer than anything the world can provide. It is the eternal bliss of the Self. So the advice is: ‘Do not depend on what is passing. Seek to discover the Eternal in yourself.’
The way to our illumination is through the mind. All inspired teachings that aim at our true welfare should help us to under-stand the inner world of our mind. We need to know the range of our mind, its limitations, its higher potentialities, and above all, how to transcend the mind.
The chief means to do this can be simply expressed, although its achievement requires the careful attention we apply to cultivate an art or pursue a science. The method turns on our capacity to make our mind peaceful. In peace our mind is receptive to the higher knowledge that has its source in our own true Self.
In the pursuit of the higher peace, any tendency to harm others will drop away, because we are in the process of gaining a deeper understanding of the unity of all. We will know that to harm another is ultimately to harm oneself. An ancient text shows us the universality of this outlook:
One who sees all beings within the Self, and the Self in all beings, does not despise any creature.
When we realise consciously that all beings are our own Self, there is no further grief and delusion, because we are established in that higher knowledge of the unity of the individual and the universal Self. (Isha Upanishad, 6 and 7)
What matters is not what we have done in life, meritorious or otherwise, but what we are reaching out for here and now—our aspiration to self-transcendence.
A Taoist story tells of a man who was a long-serving disciple of a teacher, and who, due to punishment for some crime, had one foot. Many years later he was asked about the teacher. He said: ‘He accepted me and taught me as I am. Never once in nineteen years did he make me aware of this physical deficiency or ask about it.’
What counts is not our past, but our vital and deep interest in the teachings, and our willingness to learn, to transform our mind and expand into self-realisation.
Let us ask: ‘Where is the eternal in us?’ It is the ever conscious, unchanging background of our mental life, the constant inner light that illumines our mental activities, and through them, everything else.
In a living being, the mind and the body change, but the underlying basis of consciousness and being, identified in the non-dual teachings as our real Self, is ever the same, the support of all changes, but never touched by them. This Self in us is eternal. It neither comes nor goes, and is the abode of peace and bliss. This is what the Zen masters mean when they say: ‘Show me your original face, the face you had before your parents conceived you.’ There is a hymn which has the words:
Change and decay in all around I see,
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
But right now our true being is that changeless principle. It is not only undecaying, but is peace, bliss and light. The recognition is: ‘I ever was. I ever shall be. I am bliss absolute. I am I.’
We count our life in years from our physical birth. But our life really starts when we awaken to this higher dimension and long to realise it. In his old age, the Sufi sage Bayazid was asked: ‘How old are you?’ His reply was ‘Four.’ ‘But how can that be? You are a grown and aged man.’ ‘No’, said Bayazid, ‘I only began to live when I awakened to the true meaning of these higher teachings. Prior to that awakening, my understanding was under a veil.’
Why should our true life begin with our awakening to the higher self-knowledge? Surely, our life starts with our birth as a baby, and then we watch, with wonder, the wonderful unfoldment of potentialities, and we may feel: ‘The whole world is open to this child.’
But there is also a higher development open to us, which goes far deeper than book-learning and information-gathering. This is the uncovering of that changeless transcendent principle in our own being, that comes to light within us in the stillness of our mind. It has been said:
You seek your bliss in movement, noise and thrill—
But the true end is gained when you learn to sit still.
When the mind is quiet, when the emotions are calm, when the thoughts are few and far between, what remains as the underlying continuity of experience, is the Self, the eternal, the inner light of pure consciousness. Our higher nature is revealed and shines forth when our thoughts have been stilled.
Understandably, most of us find this stilling of the mind a hard thing to do. This is because it seems that the nature of the mind is to be in constant motion, like the sea. This is certainly the case when our mind is driven by strong passions, when it is bent on personal gain and self-glory. For such a mind, there is always something to do, some business to be forced through, and so the thought waves become even more strong and turbulent. Such a mind cannot be brought to quiescence.
The most effective way of managing our exuberance of mental energy is to foster an interest in higher values. Once we learn how to place our mind under our own benevolent care, we will find that the quality of our inner life will improve, and that we have an unrivalled means to counter care and free ourselves from all narrowness. Our progress to the higher freedom begins when we re-position ourselves as regards the mind, and resolve to get the best out of it, as its master and guide.
This way is characteristic of the Adhyatma Yoga, the Yoga of Self-knowledge—which is the practical application of the non-dual philosophy. Here we learn that the knowledge of the nature of Self is uncovered in a mind which has been pacified, harmonised and enlightened.
A pacified mind is not one where there is stoppage of thoughts, but where the thoughts that arise are of a peaceful nature. Such thoughts are the fruits of our meditation and reflection, not ruled by likes and dislikes—a mind that can turn easily and happily to inward contemplation. If we make a point of reading writings that spring from men and women of peace and universal benevolence, our mind will become receptive to their purifying influence, and this will help us to recover and deepen our inner peace.
A harmonised mind means the resolution of inner conflicts, so that our emotions are not at war with our higher aspirations. An enlightened mind, in this context, means a mind that is lit and uplifted by the insights it has gained from the teachings on Self- Knowledge. It knows, indirectly, that the Self is light, peace and bliss, self-evident and ever-achieved. What is necessary is to convert this indirect knowledge, or intellectual understanding, into direct experience of reality. This is the ultimate purpose of our self-enquiry.
The Kena Upanishad calls our true Self, our innermost consciousness and being, ‘the mind of the mind, the life of life.’ Unlike our biological life, this higher, transcendental life is never brought to an end. It is universal and eternal. The Upanishads also refer to ‘the death of death’. As water puts out fire, so the higher knowledge dispels all delusion, and confers the realisation of conscious immortality—not of body and mind, but of our divine centre.
Two of life’s greatest gifts are time and attention. Both can be wasted, or they can become aids to realisation. In Shakespeare’s play, Richard the Second, there is the line: ‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.’ The fact is that during our day, for most people, there are countless minutes that are given to daydreams and speculation. These are mental activities that have no purpose, no investment-value, no goal. Yet at any given moment, we can bring to mind some great idea relating to our higher Self and potentialities. These thoughts appeal directly to our deeper nature. What matters is now, and the time and attention we still have available to us as a precious resource. It is now, and from now onwards, that our mind can be converted into a palace of light, through higher thought and practice.
We need to be alert if we want to use our time in the best way. In one tradition, we hear of a tailor who told such entertaining stories to his customers that they would become delirious with laughter. When their alertness was immobilised in this way, he would snip away great lengths of the precious satin or silk that they had brought to him.
The length of cloth stands for our life, and the tailor stands for the distractions that steal away our time and stamina. But we can learn to be masters of our life, and fill our moments with the highest quality, so that they add to our inner wealth.
An example of the influence of consciously chosen thoughts on our daily life comes in the poems of a Japanese craftsman named Saichi, who constantly repeated the mantram ‘namu amida butsu’, meaning ‘Salutations to the buddha of infinite light.’ He writes:
How grateful I feel.
Everything I do in this world,
My daily work for livelihood,
This is all transferred into building up the Pure Land.
The treasure grows all the more as it is used.
It is the most wondrous treasure,
And I am the recipient of the good thing.
How happy I am with the favour! Namu amida butsu.
Saichi uses the gift of every spare moment to pacify, harmonise and enlighten his mind—time and attention well spent!
Every age has its powerful distractions—things which win our attention, awaken our unfulfilled desires, and then hold us captive. Nowadays we see the mesmerising power of the moving image on our screens. Notice how a television in a room automatically gains your attention with its moving images, even if you have just popped into the room. Our eyes are drawn to the screen, regardless of what’s showing. In a similar way, our mental life is a series of moving images, feelings, memories and wishes, that capture our attention so powerfully that we actually feel: I am this mind. We become spellbound by the life of the mind, and come to believe that this transient stream of appearances is our Reality.
The non-dual teachings come as a counter-charm. They awaken us from the hypnotic influence of the mind and the emotions—that magnifies the passing experiences and hides the reality.
Let us appeal to our own real being, behind the veil of thoughts. Let us remind ourselves: ‘I am not the mind. I have got myself falsely identified with it, and this wrong identification has become a habit. In reality, I am the pure changeless consciousness that knows the thoughts from the inside—I am the knower of the mind. I transcend thought and all other limitations. I am infinite and immortal.’
To be true to our Self, to realise that our reality is the eternal, we have to be willing to make ongoing experiments in the stilling of our mind and in colonising our mind—so to say—with thoughts based on the highest and most peace-giving values: values such as truth, beauty, bliss, unity, harmlessness, and the aspiration for the freedom of self-realisation. Such thoughts themselves are conducive to our serenity.
What is the source of joy? The root of joy is not in our linkage with outer things. Joy has its source in the depth of our own being; it is identical with that consciousness and life principle that is our foundation.
The story is told of a village chief who complained that he could not hear his son’s voice in the chorus of boys singing out their lesson in the local school. The teacher insisted that the boy was indeed singing, and proved it by silencing the other boys one by one until only the song of the chief’s son became fully audible.
In a similar way, the desires in the mind and the mental activity they generate, create a kind of inner noise that hides the true nature of our higher Self. But when this din is reduced, and eventually silenced, the joy and peace at the root of the mind will make itself felt.
The path to self-realisation involves learning to calm the inner world of the mind, so that in tranquillity, we discern the truth about our higher Self. Through this means, we open ourselves to the recognition that our true I is the power that makes thought possible, yet remains absolute, untaintable, transcendent—the ultimate light which lies behind the thoughts, and which reveals them. This is our eternal reality, and always has been.
Therefore, the message of the non-dual teaching is that our life will truly prove worthwhile if we do not place our dependence on what is passing, and seek to uncover the treasure that is our own true Self. Being our own true Self it is ever present, closer than breathing or thought, and once uncovered, will never leave us.