There have been many theories about the fundamental nature of the drive in the human mind. Sigmund Freud spoke of it as a fountain-head of energy, primarily sexual, although becoming recanalized in many other forms. Adler, another of the founders of modern psychology, spoke of it as an urge to power or significance. But the Yoga of Self-Knowledge agrees with the philosopher F H Bradley in regarding the fundamental drive in the human mind as a drive for self-realisation. This certainly applies to the practice of non-duality, for the non-dual teachings are concerned with self-realisation, but in a wider sense it applies also to all the drives which we exhibit in our empirical life.

The philosopher, Ernest Hocking, puts forward a related view when he says that the whole of human history is the story of man making different images of himself and then trying to realise these images in practice. First he conceives some notion of what he is, and then tries to embody it in his empirical life. For instance, Western European society at one time was a realisation of the concept of man conceived in the medieval world of Catholic thinking. The individual was seen as a soul with a divinely ordained role in the social hierarchy under God’s earthly representatives, and a member of the Universal Church. This picture of man created and formed the medieval world and permeated all the patterns of life in that world. Similarly, the utilitarian idea of the greatest good of the greatest number, introduced in England by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, helped to bring about the democratic reforms of society during the 19th century and created the Liberal idea of society, many features of which we are still enjoying. Yet there are still new pictures arising the whole time of what man is, and different people have different views. There is a Maoist view, a Marxist view and so on. There is a continual effort by man to realise one of these chosen pictures of himself in the form of the society he creates, and in this way the view is tested and its inadequacies become clear.

But apart from the broader canvas of history, the principle of self-realisation is at work in everyday life too for each one of us. ‘In our beginning is our end’, says T S Eliot, and we can learn a lot about ourselves by going back to our beginning.

If you watch a baby gradually awakening to self- consciousness you will notice that it develops a few simple feelings whose alternation dominates its life. The first of these feelings, which it very soon becomes familiar with, is the feeling of not getting its own way, the feeling of frustration or discomfort. This is one of the states of mind that the baby encounters very early on and will go on encountering in one form or another throughout life. Opposed to this is the feeling of getting its own way, of self-assertion achieved through struggle or effort, which is associated with the resolution of tension or desire. There is first a feeling that it wants something, a feeling of tension, of desire. In achieving the desire, it resolves the tension and has the feeling of self-assertion, of getting its own way. There follows a feeling of contentment or peace, of not having any sense of incompleteness, of not wanting anything, not desiring anything but just enjoying. This is seen very clearly when the baby is asleep but it is also a picture of the waking state too, for instance, after a good meal.

Now these three simple states, out of which the whole of sophisticated life subsequently develops, correspond to three different feelings about the relationship of the self with what is felt to be other than the self. The first feeling, the feeling of not getting its own way, is the feeling of the self being at the mercy of something outside—the not-self. It feels subjected to a force coming from outside itself and a victim or prisoner of that force. This is the first of the three states: the feeling of subjection. The second feeling, the feeling of getting its own way, is the feeling of dominating or winning over the restrictions imposed from outside and achieving mastery over them. The third feeling, the feeling of contentment or peace, as after a good meal, is the feeling of being at one with oneself, undisturbed by any alien or antipathetic element. These three feelings are fundamental in mental life and they correspond to the three ‘modes’ of nature which are described, for instance, in the Seventeenth Chapter of the Bhagavad Gita.

The first state, the feeling of not getting its own way, is the state associated with what is called ‘tamas’ or inertia. Under its influence man feels a victim of circumstances, at the mercy of the environment, and he simply tries to survive and resist impositions from outside through inertia. The second state is the state associated with desire and with what is called passion-struggle or ‘rajas’. Its aim is power, success and domination. Its feature is self-assertion through the overcoming of opposing forces. The third state, the state of contentment, is associated with the third of the modes of nature the mode of balance or harmony, ‘sattva’, whose fruit is peaceful accord. It is the ‘God’s-in-His-Heaven- all’s-well-with-the-world’ feeling that we all have at times.

What one can see in a baby is illustrative of something which permeates the whole of human life. The aim of the baby, and the aim of man in all his subsequent endeavours, is self-realisation. To survive, and, if possible, to dominate all opposing influences; to affirm himself by satisfying his desires, and to achieve peace and equanimity.

The non-dual classic, Panchadashi, puts the matter very simply: ‘The conclusion is that the Self is the object of dearest love; the objects which promote our amusement and enjoyment are objects of moderate love; and other objects are either disregarded or hated.’ (12:55) Objects are disregarded or hated if they are not thought of as favourable to the self. Objects which threaten the self are disliked: tigers, for instance, or enemies and critics! But neutral objects are a matter of indifference if they are not felt to be either favourable or unfavourable to the self.

Desire and its opposite, aversion, (that is to say, the desire for something not to be so) form the very basis out of which our whole mental life is constructed. We speak of pleasure-desire and often think of desires as intrinsically pleasurable, but, in fact, desires are compounded of both pleasure and pain. Desire arises in the mind as a feeling of discomfort, or want, or in-completeness, together with a movement towards relieving that discomfort. The pleasurable experience which we associate with desire comes only at the moment of the relief of that tension. ‘Pleasure’, says Bradley, ‘is the feeling of self-realisedness; it is affirmative self-feeling, or the feeling in the self of the harmony of the felt self and the non-self.’

In desire there is the urge to affirm oneself in achieving what is desired. As Bradley put it, ‘Desire is not the idea of a pleasure before the self; it is a felt tension in the self.’ We have a feeling of tension, together with the idea of something which will relieve the discomfort or want which the desire expresses. When we see a glass of water, what makes us want to drink it is not the sight of the glass of water, it is the uneasy or painful feeling of thirst. There is a sense of want in conflict with the feeling of self-assertion in the idea of drinking it. There is, says Bradley, a felt contradiction in the mind at the time of desire, between the painful or unpleasant uneasiness of thirst and the pleasurable feeling of self-assertion associated with the idea of drinking. This produces the effort to satisfy the desire.

Desire arises from a sense of conflict between a want or tension in the mind, and the idea of asserting oneself by achieving the object of desire. The want or tension is the not-getting- one’s-own-way, a feeling (however slight) of being victimized by circumstances. There is something lacking in oneself which the world is not supplying. This is the tamasic element in the desire. And the other idea in desire, with which this feeling is associated, is the idea of the assertion of the self through efforts to gratify the desire. This is the rajasic struggle to dominate and conquer the circumstances. When rajas has overcome tamas, then a phase of sattva results, bringing a feeling of being at peace: the world is well again, there is relief after tension and this sattvic phase, say the Yogis, is associated with a transient experience of happiness and peace.

This happiness does not come from the object; it comes from the mind. If it came from the object then the object would always be pleasurable, but it is not so. Unless there is a definite feeling of uneasiness, unless there is hunger or thirst, the sight of the object does not in itself lead to any desire.

Hunger and thirst, etc., are examples of what Bradley calls ‘appetite’—simple satisfaction of desire, very easily seen in the case of the baby and experienced also by each one of us throughout our daily life. But life becomes more complicated after that. In simple appetite the object remains something actually being perceived by the senses. But appetite tends to pass over into what Bradley calls ‘lust’. He uses the word in a very special sense of his own and in fact what he means is closely related to what the non-dual teachings call ‘moha’, for pleasurable attachment to objects. He says that the difference here from mere appetite is that the object becomes a permanent idea related to the self, and can come before the mind in the absence of any perception of it. The idea of the object is a thought independent of the sense-perception, and the feeling of self-affirmation in the possession of the object has now become part of the idea of the object. In other words we have a feeling that that object will be a way of getting our way. And so not only is the object thought of when absent, but it is thought of as what is wanted and what pleases when possessed.

So far in this discussion we have not considered whether the desire or the attachment to objects is right or wrong, wise or foolish, illusory or real. All we have been concerned with is what sort of thing desire or attachment to an object is. We have seen that the self tries to realise or affirm itself through the gratific-ation of desires and the enjoyment of objects. But there are, of course, many conflicting desires in the mind and, not only is the feeling of self-affirmation in the gratification of any one of them transient, but some desires are good and some bad, some helpful and some harmful. And so from the raw material of the desires in the mind ethical problems inevitably arise.

What is it then that makes desires good or bad? Are they good or bad in themselves or because of something else? Bradley holds that the raw material of the mind (the natural propensities, as he says) are neither good nor bad in themselves, because potentially they are capable of becoming either. He points out that there is no inborn propensity which may not be either moralized into good or turned into bad. What he calls the natural basis of every virtue might under certain conditions be developed into a vice, and the basis of every vice be turned into a virtue. ‘For vices and virtues have common roots.’ And he instances the inborn sexuality of man which can be the source of some of the worst egotistic vices that we have, and at the same time a source of some of the most altruistic virtues.

So far we have talked as if the self which was trying to realise itself through desire and the enjoyment of objects, was one and indivisible. But it is quite clear, says Bradley, that if you look into the contents of the mind you find two selves—a good one and a bad one. They correspond to what the Bhagavad Gita calls the higher self and the lower self, the divine and demoniac sides of human nature. Says Bradley:

The existence of two selves in a man, a better self which takes pleasure in the good, and a worse self which makes for the bad, is a fact which is too plain to be denied. I feel at times identified with the good as though all my self were in it; there are certain good habits and pursuits and companies which are natural to me and in which I feel at home. And then again there are certain bad habits and pursuits and companies in which perhaps I feel no less at home, in which also I feel myself to be myself; and I feel that, when I am good and when I am bad, I am not the same man but quite different, and the world to the one self seems quite another thing to what it does to the other. Nor is it only at different times that I feel so different, but also at one and the same time: I feel in myself impulses to do good in collision with impulses to bad, and I feel myself in each of them and which ever way I go, I satisfy myself and yet fail to do so. If I yield to the bad self, the good self is dissatisfied; and if I yield to the good self, the bad self is discontented; and I am driven to believe that two souls, two opposing principles, are at war in me, and make me at war with myself; each of which loves what the other hates, and hates what the other loves. In this strife I know that the good is the true self, it is certainly more myself than the other, and yet I cannot say that the other is not myself, and when I enter the lists against it, it is at my own breast that I lay my lance in rest.

Only a self-conscious, and a morally self-conscious being can know a division in himself of good and bad will. Bradley points out that what we experience as a double self, cannot be explained simply as being due to two opposed groups of habits in the mind, respectively egotistic or altruistic. They are each part of an active conscious centre of self-affirmation, or self-realisation, in the mental life. ‘The good will is the will to realise the ideal self, and the good self is the self whose end and pleasure is the realisation of the ideal self.’

If we ask, on the other hand, what the bad self is, we might be inclined at first to give the answer: ‘It is selfishness’, but this needs qualification. Selfishness is not a general name of the bad self, because not all sorts of wrongdoing are called selfish. For instance, weakly yielding to something is not, in that sense, selfish, nor is pride, nor revenge. It would be ridiculous, says Bradley, if we said of someone committing a murder: ‘How selfish!’ So it is clear that selfishness does not encompass the whole of the vicious side of human nature. The selfish man has objects of desire which are not subordinated to any principle higher than his private satisfaction, and he treats all objects as a means. But although the bad man is selfish, the essential character of the bad self, common to all its elements, is not selfishness, but the fact that it contradicts and opposes the good self.

There is a peculiar and significant feature of the moral conflict which points beyond itself to the existence of the religious consciousness.

On the one hand, we find ourselves evil; the evil is as much a fact as the good, and without our bad self we should hardly know ourselves. On the other hand, we refuse to accept the bad self as our reality; and the thought, the old thought, which in different forms is common alike to art, philosophy and religion, is here suggested once more, that all existence is not truth, that all facts are not in the same sense real, or that what is real to one mode or stage of consciousness is not therefore real for another and higher stage, still less for that which, present in all, is yet above all modes and stages.

Morality points beyond itself because it is a self- contradiction, a demand for that which cannot be. Neither in the world nor in ourselves is what ought to be, what empirically is. But we nevertheless reject evil as foreign to our real nature. Religion, when free of dogma and sectarianism, aims to realise the good self, not simply as a moral ideal, but as a reality existing beyond the realm of the finite world. For morality, the ideal self is what ought to be: for religion, it is what truly is, the completely real. ‘The religious consciousness implies that God and man are identical in a subject’, says Bradley. In wrongdoing, the soul feels itself as the unreal in contradiction with reality.

What Bradley is saying here is that the conflict between the good and the bad selves is an example of a much deeper contradiction which we all feel between the underlying aim and object of our inner desires and beliefs, and the facts of the empirical world and our physical and mental constitutions as we find them. There are many indications of this but I will mention only one or two which are pointed out by Swami Rama Tirtha.

Throughout life we manifest a practical refusal to accept the reality of our mortality. We know well that we must inevitably die, but we go on behaving as if we didn’t. There is nothing in either the body or the mind which could give us the idea of immortality, but there is something in each person which will never die, and it asserts itself so that we behave as if, when it comes to the point, we instinctively rejected the idea of our own end.

Similarly, we are all inevitably limited by the empirical circumstances, which consistently hinder us from getting our own way. But we feel that we have the right to be free. It is not something you have to teach people; they feel it innately and they won’t accept these limitations willingly. Swami Rama Tirtha says that it is because our real Self, our innermost being, is already free that it asserts its nature, and that the reason for the confusion is that we wrongly want to attribute this innate feeling of ours to the body and the mind to which they do not really apply, just as we wrongly want to attribute the feeling of immortality of the innermost Self to our empirical personality.

Thirdly, we are all empirically full of bad traits and imperfections. We are all selfish and sinful in the moral sense, but in practice we all believe ourselves in our innermost being, to be intrinsically good. We may regard others as sinners but we don’t really ever regard ourselves as beyond redemption. And one sign of this is how strongly we resent criticism. Again, says Swami Rama Tirtha, we attribute the taintless purity of the real Self to the empirical personality, to which this purity cannot apply. It is easy to see that all so-called sins have this same paradoxical character. Flattery, for instance, is universally welcome (provided it is well done!) because everyone wants to be highly thought of. Even a dog enjoys being patted! Yet there is not a single individual who really deserves such praise, and the vanity or pride which leads to the feeling of self-superiority is another example of the fact that we have this feeling inside us that we are the greatest. It is, says Swami Rama Tirtha, a confusion. We have the intrinsic sense of greatness in us and wrongly identify this feeling with the personality. We render unto Caesar what should be God’s. The greed and avarice which is never satisfied, and would still be unsatisfied if it owned the whole world, is another example of this misreading of our nature.

Non-duality says that every human being in their essential nature already is God, in the sense that Bradley says that God and man are one within man’s personality. There is a sense already in which we are the Ruler of the universe in our innermost being, but our empirical personality has no right to try and impersonate this higher Self. If it attempts to do so, it is an impostor. Three of the most common human failings: sloth, jealousy, and over-indulgence, arise directly out of the three aspects of the mental life with which we started out. The desire for rest, peace and actionlessness leads to sloth and inertia. The dislike of any rival leads to jealousy, and the urge to dominate and the search for beauty and happiness through sense enjoyment are, say the non-dualists, all a misreading of the desire for Self-realisation. We seek the peace, the sovereignty and the bliss of the highest Self, where it cannot be found, in the sense world, whereas it can only be achieved through full Self-realisation.


This article is from the Autumn 2023 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.