The End of Sorrow in the Blaze of the Ultimate: A Glimpse of the Midnight Sun
Written by: Krishna Kumar
Date: January 2021
There is a prevailing doctrine that matter, its movements and its modifications is all that exists, and that the fundamental human quest for meaning is futile because the consciousness which is the basis of all experience—this consciousness is an illusion not apart from matter. Such a doctrine states that insentience is the beginning and the end of the self. This doctrine, however, is not tenable.
Despite the fact that even if this materialism is propounded as the rational, impersonal truth that treats human affairs as something to be “dealt with”, ultimately as meaningless as an insentient star’s birth from a nebula and death as a supernova; even if this is true, human inquiry into the nature of experience shall continue because it is an innate tendency of the mind. This is important to mention because the “materialistic” doctrine that appears to deny any meaning to life was born out of the very same thirst for knowledge that leads others on the quest of self-inquiry. Those on the “quest” of self-inquiry question the very nature of thought, of all “-isms”, of ontology and epistemology, in order to come upon a truth that cannot be shaken. They are honest in their inquiry, because they are motivated by the unmasked pursuit of a solution to suffering. Their insight is that human desire and suffering is caused by the primal “sensation of incompleteness”—and instead of dismissing this sensation as “a phenomenon produced by matter”, they inquire into it. They are not “deluded” by the so-called illusion of being a “conscious entity” separate from matter, as a materialist might put it. No, those who inquire into the self, into experience, are bolder than is the materialistic pursuit of knowledge of the “universe”. Why? Because these inquirers are prepared—by the very nature of self-inquiry—to give up the quest if they do not find the ground of reality they seek.
For them, for those on the path of Advaita Vedanta, the definition of truth is “unchangeable, that which is not falsifiable, that which is the ground of all reality”. Not unfalsifiability as in “Santa Claus is unfalsifiable”, but unfalsifiability in the sense that consciousness cannot be falsified. They attempt to find this truth, to negate all that is not truth, and if there is no truth to be found, their capability of acceptance is par excellence. The existence of the scientist who does science, or the existence of the logician who is trying to prove via logic that consciousness is falsifiable—that logician or scientist is conscious, and only hence do they even exist to perform their logic. This unfalsifiability is what is talked about by those on self-inquiry, while by definition, the falsifiability that is embedded in the definition of scientific truth—by scientific “law”, so to speak, for all science must be testable and falsifiable—means that materialistic science is qualified only to deal with objects of experience, not the subject. Insofar, materialism is qualified, indeed useful as no one in the 21st Century can deny; however, if materialism claims that there is nothing called a “subject” (which we may, at this point, refer to as consciousness) apart from the “object” (matter and its modifications), then materialism is committing a category error. It also follows that materialism is not qualified to tackle the fundamental human problem of “incompleteness” or “desire”, or to tackle the human thirst for complete knowledge, though materialism did emerge from that thirst for knowledge.
Self-inquiry, or what I might call “the inward” science, which by definition is a path that a person—a self—takes to solve the problem of the incompleteness of their own self. The “outward” science—materialism and its manifestations—is in this respect, a misguided attempt by virtue of concerning itself, in principle, only with the object of experience (the universe). Since all “outward” science is done by humans who would be ever benefited if they were not hampered by the constant psychological nagging of a mind that has some part of itself perpetually occupied with its own incompleteness (of which pleasure-seeking, desires, etc. are manifestations), the “outward” scientists are recommended to consider taking up the “inward” science. The human mind itself does not change with technologically-bubbling eras (suffering has, if anything, magnified now) and the “inward” science that has been standing the test of millennia still stands the test of the world while boldly making the claim that it has the solution to all psychological suffering. “Outward” science on the other hand, because of its “outward focus”, can provide but material solutions to, if I may say, spiritual problems (we shall see why material, impermanent solutions are not what we must be resigned to in the face of the so-called uncaring universe).
The one question one must ask is: “Who am I?” What is truly the self? Then one must investigate until further investigation is not possible—until the answer is reached. Because if an answer cannot be reached, the self would be a void illusion, and then it would be asked “Illusion to whom?”. If such a voidness is inevitable, once again, the self-inquirer is prepared to accept it. All the self-inquirer does not do is presume an answer. Hence the path of the Advaita Vedanta we shall talk about now is as relevant, for the eradication of sorrow, to the modern world as it has been since the Hindu Vedas were written. Vedanta is the “inward” science, and promises an answer to all questions posed in this regard in much the same sense that a physics book in its answer-section would promise an answer to the problems posed in its question-section—i.e. not faith or religion per se. In the interest of solving human suffering, the “inward science”, when grasped, forms the best of foundations for then performing the “outward science”. One with Vedantic Self-Knowledge can follow scientific materialism and uncover physical workings of the universe to its fullest, without coming under the delusion that their own self is some kind of physical or nonphysical “entity”—said delusion being the sole cause of all sorrow.
One might still ask: What is this fundamental human problem that Vedanta claims to have the solution for? A brief examination of the question “What is the meaning of life?” reveals it. In the ever-changing universe, in the vastness of the universe and the presumed unknowability of the cause behind this reality, what meaning can be found? There cannot be meaning in the physical universe itself, bound by space and time (the unbroken flow of creation and death)—because if such meaning is completely within space and time, the meaning itself will be subjected to space and time, and such meaning thus is not a meaning, for it in itself would be void, subject to destruction, and shall not satisfy the human craving. This “meaning” can only be found in some “Ultimate” Reality. Something that transcends birth and death (space and time) but also pervades space and time. Why the necessity of being pervasive in space-time? Because the one—the human asking this—assumes oneself to be subject to space-time, so for that transcendent meaning to be useful to this person, it must be both “beyond” and “within”. Transcendent and immanent. Civilizations have explored this from time immemorial, and answers have been found. At the core, only one answer has been found, because an Ultimate Reality can only be one—or rather, cannot be two. The Ultimate Reality must be “non-dual or not two”. There are many—indeed infinite—paths to knowing this reality, if it indeed exists.
The “path” of Advaita Vedanta (“Advaita” is a composite of “Dvaita” meaning “duality” with the prefix “A” meaning “non”; so Advaita Vedanta means Non-Dual Vedanta) is one such classical system, the pinnacle of Ancient Indian philosophy. It is based on the teachings of the Upanishads, which are the “end portions” or the “highest teachings” of the Vedic scriptures that form the root of Hinduism and all Indian philosophy (including Buddhism, Jainism etc. which were evolved primarily against Upanishadic philosophies, hence were influenced by them). The Vedas contain two “portions” or kandas: the Karma Kanda that teaches rituals and what is called “conventional religion” based on faith, virtue, societal conduct and other imperatives; and the latter Jnana Kanda. Jnana means knowledge, so it is this part of the Vedas that contain the Upanishads. The Upanishads are called Vedanta (the Sanskrit word consists of Veda (meaning the Vedas) + anta (meaning the “end”), so Vedanta means end of the Vedas). The Vedanta is not an “ancient science”—the Upanishads are actually not concerned with any material investigations except to the extent it aids one to realize the truth, the ground of all material existence. It is “knowledge of the real self”. The self and reality, they say, is synonymous. Since reality always is—tautologically—real, the Vedanta functions to remove the ignorance that “veils” the reality, hence it is never obsolete. There are several “schools” of Vedanta, though they all point to the same “inexpressible truth”, our concern however is with Advaita (nondual) Vedanta.
The teaching of the Vedanta concerns all of experience, the nature of reality, but one primary term is “consciousness”, and in Vedanta, consciousness is not an ambiguous “hard problem”. As Swami Sarvapriyananda would put it, the definition of consciousness is: “that which is aware of objects”. Now this means whatever you are aware of is an object to you. Whatever thing you know is not, then, consciousness. Hence, consciousness cannot be known as an object, and consciousness is certainly not a “mysterious epiphenomenon” of a random lobe in a lump of gray matter. Also, this does away with the promissory materialism that states “life was a mystery once, but now we know life in all its detail, similarly we shall dissect the brain and know consciousness in detail one day”. This assertion is invalid, since life (or prana in Sanskrit) has always been treated as an object in Vedanta. In principle, all that biology has done is explain an objective (life) process in terms of simpler (basic) life processes that are still objective. Evolutionary science does not damage Vedanta in the slightest.
The subject cannot, in principle, be reduced to the “object”.
Next, what does Vedanta mean by “mind”? Mind is “thought”. “Thought” is experience (as when a person “sees an orange”, they are actually “seeing” their mind’s reconstruction of sensory signals in the form of an experience of an orange). Experience is defined as “consciousness plus object”. The material brain, in this paradigm, would be a “physical correlate” of the mental phenomena that is the mind. Vedanta, since it would prefer to teach based on the student’s raw experience rather than materialistic concepts (because materialistic concepts are also developed over time based on experienced phenomena and inferences based on those experiences), divides what in English we call “mind” into five parts.
Mind itself is called the antahkarana, or the “inner instrument”. Its parts are: manas (directly translated as mind, the fluctuations and movements of thought itself), buddhi (the intellect, the decision-making/understanding, or the free-will function of the mind; free-will is a functional illusion), chitta (memory), ahankara (the ego-sense). We see that the ego-sense is what the “self” we think ourselves to be is.
The Mandukya Upanishad (the shortest Upanishad and a central text in Advaita Vedanta) divides this “self-experience” (our experience) into three primary states of consciousness. First is the “waking state”, which is the state where the reader is reading this essay, when mind and senses are fully functional. Here, the universe is experienced as a hard plurality/duality of subjects and objects, and a person feels their body-mind complex is their self. (It is also to be noted that the “basis of our inquiry” is in the waking state; since we are in the waking state, the “functionality or nonfunctionality of senses etc.” is discussed according to the waking-state-paradigm—or the commonsensical way of looking at things. For instance, when I’m awake I’m experiencing a real world, when asleep I am dreaming an illusory world, etc.)
The “dream” state of consciousness is the second. Here, the dreamer (the dreaming mind) acting as a singular subject, “creates” an entire universe and experiences it. This universe, in the dream, feels as real as the waking state right now. The mind has created this universe; every object in the dream is a projection of the mind, there is no second thing (no real duality) apart from the mind, hence it is a “non-dual” experience. However, within the dream, there is a person that the dreamer imagines themselves to be. For example, a child living in Chicago might dream of being a man, and in the dream be experiencing (as a man) vast landscapes with greenery he imagines to be of Antarctica. In the dream, this (absurd according to the waking person) seems to be very real. In the dream, I might invent an entirely new science and study the nature of stars, and become a renowned dream-scientist who gives lectures to tens of thousands of dream-people, but when I wake up, I am neither a scientist nor were there any people apart from the “imagined I” in the dream.
This shows that the dream state’s duality is “inside of us”, where the mind has imagined a universe. Hence, the experience of time and space is not an independent objective reality, not apart from mind. Furthermore, since “actual” time and space are also concepts not independent of the experience of time and space, one may say that “time and space” are not separate from the mind.
A possible objection: The brain produces consciousness and the brain is an objective reality which falls asleep and basks in its own illusion, then shuts down and then boots back up into the waking universe. As such, the waking universe is the reality, because this is where the brain can know that it is actually a lump of gray matter which somehow dreams.
Response: One may believe so. However, these objections do not hold logical ground. One may say the “brain” is the producer of experience, and all science done about, on, and presumably “by” the brain. I will argue that these are all activities, inferences, thoughts in the waking state. The entire concept of the brain, and science, and the nature of logic itself is formulated in the waking state. One could well have dreamed the entire thing up. To illustrate this point, an example: An eight-handed rabbit that invents a spaceship in a dream where such a thing, according to that dream universe’s imagined laws, was possible, would sound perfectly reasonable to the dreamer until the transition “back” to the waking state and the subsequent dismissal, by the waking person, of the dream phenomena as “unreal”.
It does need to be pointed out that Vedanta is neither a solipsistic nor subjective idealist philosophy, and follows commonsensical principles insofar as it leads to the discovery of the Reality (the “R” is upper-case to emphasize that in Vedanta, the conclusion is that there is one reality) behind these phenomena.
Since the “sense of I”, the self, has identified itself to entirely different things in the waking and dreaming states, the self cannot be either one of them. The waker says “I am a boy”, the dreamer might say “I am a bearded old man.” The “I” is common, the entities the “I” refers to are not common. The “I” is a constant in all three states of consciousness—we have examined two states now, the third is the deep sleep state.
It is important to remember that the “states of consciousness” are means or pedagogies implied by Vedantic teachers; there are a myriad other ways of demonstrating the relative reality—or unreality—of the experienced world, though the current one is peculiar to the Mandukya Upanishad.
All states such as coma, anesthetic unawareness, swoon, mystical states, drugged states etc. can be said to fall “between” the waking and dreaming states; the Upanishad bases the inquiry on the most common experiences (and trances etc. are not common experience), but it does account for other states. “Waking” can also be treated as the “clear, active” state of mind/body while “dream” can be treated as “illusory” experiences—illusory in relation to the “waking” universe.
Now there is the third state, called the “deep sleep” state. “Deep sleep” is defined as a state in which the subject is aware of no experience. It can be compared to general anesthesia or swoon. The mind (the definition of what we call “mind” according to Vedanta, as stated earlier, must be considered) is “resolved” here. There is no space or time, no universe. The duality of subject and object vanishes into a “blankness”. Since there is no experience here, it is only when the mind “returns” in the waking state that it attempts to “put a label”, so to speak, on what “it” experienced in deep sleep. It finds nothing to attach a label to, because there was no object, and hence it calls it “nonexistence” or “blankness”. This is examined by Vedanta in thoroughness, for it is a gateway to the Reality, and Rupert Spira elucidates that examination wonderfully: “Thought [mind] first imagines deep sleep and, in order to conceive of it in its own language of apparent objectivity, it superimposes onto it the qualities of blankness and duration.”
There is no content of experience in deep sleep, because all content of experience comes through and in thought/mind alone; this mind was absent in deep sleep. It is not a regular “state” that lasts from some point in time to another point in time. Dreaming and waking are states “in time”, though of very different time-scales. In waking we have clocks, biological time, thought-time etc. (In several Vedantic pedagogies, time can be taken to mean the “duration between two consecutive thoughts or ‘cognition moments’ when the mind is functioning”). In dreams we imagine to have the same sense of time, or a very different sense of time, but both these states (waking, dreaming) start and end, so they have time.
In deep sleep, within deep sleep (again, you cannot conceive of deep sleep except as some blankness as an object), there is no start or end. When you enter a dream from waking there is a “flow” into dreaming, a sense of entry. When the dream ends (the Vedanta teachers are certainly not interested in what our dreams are like, whether we jumped cliffs or rolled on sand in dreams, but just in providing a conceptual basis for further inquiry), there would be an “end-time”. But in deep sleep—or in coma, let us say—you cannot “know” when it began. When deep sleep ends, you do not know “deep sleep is ending”, but you are all of a sudden in a dream or a waking state that “somehow began” abruptly. Some teachers go as far as to say a new world is created for you, historylessly, each moment with each thought, to accommodate the necessary reality for that thought. However, in the usual Vedantic approach, it is said the mind lies dormant in deep sleep.
Since the “I”-sense that returns after emerging into the waking state from the deep sleep state is constant, the “I”-sense is neither of the three states. The self is not bound to any of the states. We say, “I am awake, I dreamt, I was knocked out in deep sleep”. If the “I-sense” entirely was pointing to the body-mind complex, that experience of body-mind is completely different in the waking and dream states, and is completely resolved in the deep sleep state. The mind is nonexistent in deep sleep. It would follow that the “I-sense” that went to sleep and the “I-sense” that emerged from sleep would be two different “I-senses”. We do not experience it that way. Hence, the “I-sense” is constant. (Also, it follows that the “I-sense” only seems to disappear in deep sleep because, the mind being absent, the objects of experience are absent, and that consciousness does not manifest itself as “I am experiencing an object” unless there is an object to experience; hence, consciousness exists without an object in deep sleep state).
The materialist might object, saying that the body-mind (or the brain, which is the bodily hardware that seems to manifest the mind, acting as a “correlate” in some paradigms and a cause of the mind in others) is producing the “I-sense”, and that the experience of the “I-sense” is actually different in all three states, but that we are deluded into thinking that this “I-sense” is the same one. The objection states that because what we experienced as “commonality” in the three states was actually some obscure, basic sense of “being alive”, we are being deluded into thinking it is an “eternal” consciousness.
However, this objection does not hold ground either, for we simply ask: who is being “deluded into thinking” so? (We shall investigate this tenacious position later).
Then some still maintain that consciousness is not present in deep sleep. They say it is so, because, since deep sleep is not an experience, we do not have “proof” for an experiencer, and our conscious mind in the waking state infers and connects the waking “I-sense” to the deep sleep experience. The Advaita Vedanta asks: How do you infer? Inference occurs when you have witnessed two objects together at one time and established correlation or causation, so at a later time when you see one of those objects you can infer the presence of the other. An ancient example is: I see smoke on a hill. I infer there is fire. Why? Because I have seen fire producing smoke before, when I saw a burning pile of logs; fire causes smoke, so where there is smoke, there must be fire, though not necessarily vice versa; hence, smoke on a hill must mean fire causing it. You say deep sleep state existed without consciousness, and consciousness exists now in waking-state, so in waking-state I infer I must have had a deep sleep experience. However, for that to be an inference, we must ask: Have you experienced “consciousness” and “deep sleep” as separate objects, as smoke and fire are separate objects? That is logically impossible, for consciousness is “that which experiences objects”.
The Upanishad follows to make a resounding series of negations as to what the real Self is. Neither the waker, nor the dreamer, nor the deep sleeper, it says. Now, since all our experience is included by the three states of consciousness, this means the Self is not an experiencer. Is it an object? Is it a physical entity? The brain? Certainly not, the Upanishad says. Is it God? Is it “everything at once”? Not that either. It is the substratum of all, it is the Reality. Then can it be known by closing one’s eyes and wiggling one’s eyes until one gets a feeling of the “thing behind my eyes”, so to speak? No. It is not the “basic consciousness of the mind”. (This basic “empirical consciousness” or “knower of knowledge”, incidentally, is what neuroscience and other disciplines speak about when they say “consciousness”). However, this is not the Self.
This is the Mandukya Upanishad’s 7th mantra, one of the most profound pointers to the Self one can find in the literature of the world: “As not inwardly conscious [illusion/dream], not outwardly conscious [awake], or in-between states, as not filled with a knowing content [mass of undifferentiated knowingness/deep sleep], not conscious, not unconscious, unseen, that which cannot be pointed to, that which is ungraspable, bereft of quality, unthinkable, indeterminate, as the substance of the certitude of a unitive Self (the I-cognition), as the calmer of the unmanifested, tranquil, numinous, nondual; they think this is the fourth aspect. That the Self; that is to be recognized.”
This Self is beyond words—not a poetic sense but in a very precise sense, because words are meant to point to objects and the Self is not an object; it is the subject. In fact, only the Self is, there is no second, this is the nondual Reality. It is described as Existence-Knowledge-Infinity or Existence-Consciousness-Bliss (bliss means ananda in Sanskrit, which is derived from ananta, and ananta means infinite; so “bliss” does not mean the Self is a happy being, but that its infinite nature may be manifested in realized people as “completeness” and “happiness itself”). Hence, the best “thing” we have as a “pointer” toward it is the “background consciousness, the constant I-sense, that witnesses the three states”. This “I-sense” has been the same since birth, and shall be till death. When the I-sense ceases, only the Self remains. The Self is infinite. What is infinity? Infinity is that which is not bound by space, time, or object. The Self is not bound by space because it is not “at any particular place”. It is not located in your head, or at a holy place. It is the Reality in which all places, in which space appears, and is the nondual consciousness which experiences all places. Hence it is beyond space. Similarly, time appears in it, is experienced by it, and eternity “goes by in it” without a moment ever existing apart from the Self. Hence it is beyond time, not just “eternal” (which implies existing for infinitely long time, which is a concept merely).
“Limitation by object” means that a “thing” is only “that thing” and nothing else—for example, an apple is only an apple and is not a banana, and therefore is a distinct object. Once again, the Self is the experiencer of all objects and the ground of Reality of all objects, hence it is unbound by object. Therefore, the Self is infinite. If it is not evident, the person reading this essay right now is also the Self, the writer of this essay is also the Self, the words are also the Self. However, the Self is none of them, because they are objects and the Self is the subject.
The common objection that “if the Self is of the nature of consciousness, and the consciousness is nondual, the consciousness ‘in all people’ must be the same, so why don’t all people become telepaths etc.” is easily answered. “All people” are, first of all, objects, given that you are referring to the body/minds of those people. The Self is the subject. And that which knows thoughts, events, objects etc. is the mind. The “minds” of “all people” are different, and the person raising this objection is not a separate reality apart from the Reality. It is also a folly to think that the Self is some kind of “raw awareness” that is at the “back of my experience”, that the Self is the consciousness that “everyone has” (this means that trying to turn the eyes around and “look inside the heart” for some mysterious energy shall not reveal the Self though it might prepare the mind by being a good meditation exercise). No. Everyone does not have a Self. There is only the Self. The “various” minds and bodies appear in the Self, and alongside those minds and bodies the universe those minds and bodies are in appears. Self is, universe is not. It is not your Self, but you are the Self.
Before proceeding, we encounter and deal with a few objections that our object-oriented minds might raise. These objections are refuted using logic based purely on experiential and conceptual grounds, and neither is an exhaustive list nor is against any scientific endeavor, nor is for intellectual gymnastics—these common objections and responses are entirely to get greater clarity about the paradigm that Vedanta is taught in, as well as so some of the statements made later are clearer in precision.
Possible Objection: Why can’t matter be the only reality and you (consciousness) be the product of it?
Response: If matter is the only reality and you say matter is insentient, then you are insentient. You say “you are insentient.” That is an oxymoron. Now you ask what is sentience and insentience—what are you then? In that case you are asking me exactly what I am asking you, to investigate “Who am I?” If the brain produces consciousness, then consciousness is the “sentience of the brain”. Can you differentiate (show me separately) the consciousness that is aware of the brain, and the brain? It is impossible (referring to the nature of real difference defined in Vedanta, one needs to be able to experience/quantify two objects separately and independently for them to be substantially different). Hence, you can't prove any world’s substantial existence apart from consciousness.
Objection [O]: Wait a moment. You're saying there's no difference between consciousness and matter. One reality. When did I deny that? I said that consciousness is not apart from matter, so I also say there is only one reality. Matter is reality. Consciousness is not apart from matter.
Response [R]: You're not following your own logic. If you say one reality appears as consciousness and matter, then I don't contradict you. However, you're saying “matter” is the ultimate reality.
So what is this matter you speak of? When you normally say “matter”, you mean “insentient matter”. When you say “sentient matter”, what you really mean is that “insentient matter” is somehow appearing as sentience. That “somehow”, is termed the Hard Problem of Consciousness. You say matter is that which occupies space and has mass. You say matter is the only reality. Since sentience itself does not occupy space or have mass—the subject does not have mass, which is an object to the subject—you do not really mean anything by saying “sentient matter”. You say sentience does not exist, is an illusion, and insentient matter only exists. “Insentient” matter is what we call object. Anything that occupies space and has mass, then, is an object. We do not concern ourselves with objects, because objects are impermanent, in constant flux, have dependent existence, and cannot eradicate suffering. We are concerned with the subject. Hence, sentience itself is what Vedanta is concerned with—and since your definition of sentience is vague, I shall call it consciousness (that which is aware of objects). You say sentience does not exist. Your position, in that case, is untenable.
O: All that can be experienced and verified does have material existence—except massless light and others, of course, matter has mass and occupies space. The particular formulation of matter that is capable of producing consciousness does have mass—the human body has mass. However, that mass is provided by Higgs bosons, according to some. Atoms are composed of tiny sparks of energy. Energy, space and time—this is the actual reality we speak of. The “materialist” you talk about is a stick-figure, because matter indeed is composed out of “nothingness” and the materialist agrees ultimately on that point.
R: Energy, space and time are also insentient and apart from you the consciousness, are “they” not? (Also, the doctrine that everything has come out of nothing is called A-sat-karyavada in Sanskrit, the position of the Nyaya schools and in a sense the position of materialistic science. This position has been thoroughly refuted by the Sat-karyavada or the Samkhya school of Ancient India. Advaita Vedanta says that the Ultimate Reality is non-causal, is beyond cause and effect; hence Advaita refutes these schools using their own arguments against each other, and concludes that the Ultimate Reality only appears as the universe "via" Maya). Now, are you sentient?
O: I would appear to be. We do not know what sentience is.
R: Then you contradicted yourself. Furthermore, since “sentience” is “consciousness”, examine the statement “I do not know consciousness” to your own satisfaction. You are consciousness.
O: I'm actually insentient, then.
R: Once again, sentience does not exist if insentient energy, space and time is the only reality. In fact, I would ask you—as you investigate the nature of matter itself, deeper and deeper into the fundamental building blocks of the universe, as you call it, does it not seem that all has somehow come out of nothingness?
O: Sentience consists of energy, space and time, is an appearance of the “insentient” reality, as you would call it.
R: I repeat, consciousness is not a property of space, time or energy. These three appear to consciousness, have no existence apart from consciousness. If you really understand what you're yourself implying, you're just replacing the word "matter" for what we call Reality (or Brahman in Advaita Vedanta).
O: What am I implying? I say reality is reality. I say your consciousness is not the reality, but consciousness is an emergent property of some particular permutation of the reality. I call reality matter; all reality I see is matter.
R: You are now, once again, implying that consciousness is different from matter.
O: I am matter. You are matter—brain—that's produced consciousness deluding itself because it desperately wants to be immortal. The universe is experiencing itself.
R: One slight change to your last statement, and you’ll be on the right track. Consciousness is experiencing itself. There is nothing separate from the Reality, and Reality is consciousness. In any case, what is your energy, time and space then?
O: I don't know. We're investigating. Some day we will find out.
R: Are you different from matter?
O: No. Matter is reality.
R: Then you don't know yourself? Hence, my point is established: you must inquire into the nature of your Self.
O: I know I'm an emergent property of matter. I don't know “matter”. You claim fancies as reality.
R: We are not claiming anything. You are. If you're an "emergent property": Ultimate, nondual reality emerges into what? Is your matter-reality incomplete, that it needs to emerge into something else? Is consciousness a pimple of matter popping up on the back of the beast of matter somehow? You can't tell me what matter is. The solidity of matter is disappearing before your eyes. You firmly believe that insentient matter is somehow appearing as consciousness. You say Ultimate Reality is not consciousness, you say it is insentient matter. Then you remove “insentient” from that to account for consciousness, saying that consciousness is a flickering property of sorts. That is confusion. Either way, if you're matter, why not inquire into yourself? Who are you?
O: Well, let's say the Ultimate Reality is appearing as both consciousness and matter then.
R: You say some unknown “reality” is appearing as consciousness and matter. So one thing that is appearing as two different things. However, there is no real way to differentiate matter and sentience. I shall say, there is no way to differentiate non-consciousness from consciousness. The one “thing” that can be known, the only knowledge, is consciousness itself. Hence, consciousness, the Self, is the Reality.
Another possible objection: You say there is no evidence for the existence of a real past or a real future except as cognized in the everlasting “present”, and you say that the mind’s experience “creates” time. Hence, you cannot use the fact that the “same I-sense” of “yesterday’s (past) waking state” has returned today, or that according to your memory there was a “constant background awareness” through all states of consciousness—you cannot use these and other time-based assertions to prove your claim that a constant background consciousness exists.
Refutation to this objection: There is no evidence for the existence of a real past or a real future, correct. Neither is there any evidence for the existence of a real “present”, if you say “present” consists of the objects in the universe being experienced in the present. No. We say that there is evidence for nothing except consciousness, and there cannot be any. We say that the experienced reality is not constant. We say that the three states of consciousness are intermittent and dependent on time—they appear in time, not that time flows through them. These experiences, indeed all experiences, are impermanent and inconsistent with each other, waking and dreaming cancel each other’s objective reality. Consequently, experienced reality is relative. Hence, it is an appearance (for example, as a mirage is an appearance of sand and light etc.). Since we do not accept that appearance comes out of absolute nothing, that reality is not void, there is a ground Reality of which all objects of experience are appearances. When all objects are negated, the subject remains. The subject cannot, in principle, be negated. That ground Reality must be constant in all experience, and since the “I-sense” is the closest we can get to a constant, the “I-sense” is the best pointer.
Objection: The “I-sense” is the ego, which is a function of the mind. Is the ego the Reality?
Answer: Let us investigate. Besides, if you accept that objects appear in time, not that time flows through objects, if you accept that the “present” only exists, we ask: to whom does the present appear? Follow that line of reasoning and you shall end up at that very Self. And if you say that there is no empirical or “quantifiable” evidence for any reality except matter, we say of course there isn’t. Consciousness is that to which all evidence appears. Starting the investigation by taking the object as a reality will obviously lead to the assumption that object is the only reality. However, the deeper one investigates the nature of the object, it disappears before one’s eyes, until only the investigator remains. Consciousness is not a theoretical concept. The universe’s independent existence is a theoretical concept based on flimsy ground.
Vedanta defines “eternal, infinite and unfalsifiable” as Reality. All else (all objects) are false. Applying the Vedantic definition to the “person” whom the “I-sense” refers to, we see that the person is false. The person is the mind-body complex, and thus does not exist as an independent reality apart from the Self.
Now we take a deeper look at this “I-sense” (drawing from a lecture by Swami Sarvapriyananda). Referring back to the definition of “mind” in Vedanta: Mind is the “inner instrument”, the antahkarana. The antahkarana has four functions. Manas is the “oscillating, thinking” part, that which “reacts to objects and weighs alternatives”, so to speak. The chitta is memory, and buddhi is the determining faculty, the intellect. Our concern is with the ahamkara. The ahamkara is the ego, and this is the “I-sense”. If you look inside your mind now and look for the “cognition of I”, that is the ego. This cognition of I, the “I-sense”, is a function of the mind. This function serves to integrate all other functions of a mind. (It can also be said that the “I-sense” as an integrating function is not some independent entity that must be grasped or worked with etc., it is just how the mind appears; the “thinker” that is an entity that thought seems to collate around, like when you see a city’s skyline you can either look at one building at a time, or take in the whole thing and term it a “city”, so the “city” is the “integrating” of its components).
The “I-sense” appropriates to itself all other functions of the mind. When the eyes are viewing these words, the manas function and chitta function connect it to other thoughts and the intellect understands, then the “I-sense” steps in to say “I am reading”. The foot sends signals indicating its pain; the “I-sense” says “I am in pain, my foot is in pain”. The “I-sense” is not reading or hurting in itself. It serves to give unity to the human experience, to make one being out of the collection of trillions of cells and trillions of thoughts etc. that make up the person.
This “I-sense” is not you, not the Self. All of sorrow is caused when the unborn, undivided, infinite, unmoving and non-causal consciousness “apparently” identifies itself with this “I-sense”, and the “I-sense” in turn identifies itself with the various experiences of waking, dreaming and deep sleep, “forgetting” the truth. The consciousness has never become the waker or the dreamer. Neither shall the “I-sense” somehow “end”, nor shall you suddenly “become” pure consciousness when Self-knowledge comes; Vedanta says that you are pure consciousness and that the entire play of universe and experience-of-universe, of subject and object, is appearing within you—the universe never was, never is, and never will or can be, from the standpoint of the Reality that you are. When one realizes oneself as the consciousness, the Reality, in which the “I-sense bubbles up, does its work and disappears”, then sorrow ends. The Upanishad teaches to investigate the “I-sense” until you realize you are the witness of this ego. Also, when the Self is hence realized, and the “I-sense” sees that there is nothing apart from the Self, the “I-sense” stops identifying itself with the unreal experiences (the unreality will, with Self-Knowledge, be realized), and identifies itself with the one reality it sees—the Self. When one can say with full honesty that one is the Self, then sorrow ends, and then one is enlightened.
(This Self is the “witness”. But not the kind of witness meant when one does the Buddhistic practices of “being the witness of your thoughts” etc. The kind of “witness” you can feel you are—as when a trained meditator says, “I am witnessing my thoughts”—is not the Self. The Self is not an object. When the meditator says “I witness my thoughts”, they have cultivated a function of the mind that “tries to be a witness”, which is an exercise to calm thoughts and develop dispassion or for other ends. It is a good practice, but that is not the real witness. When the meditator focuses on reading, washing or other tasks, that kind of “witness-thought” disappears. But the Self remains. The consciousness remains.)
The Vedantic teaching can be put simply: Reality exists; only unreality can be apart from reality, hence Reality is nondual, and since anything experienced as apart from the infinite Reality is an appearance, the universe is an appearance in, of and by Reality; Reality is not apart from you, and since Reality is one, and your own Self is one, that Reality is you. Tat Tvam Asi. That thou art. Self-inquiry and consequent Self-Knowledge is the one method that leads you to this realization, because our experience consists of duality, illusion, appearance and suffering, which means that “we” are deluded. Who can have the “power” to “delude” Reality into thinking of itself as limited? Only Reality itself has that “power” (by virtue of its infinitude, all possibilities happen and do not happen, simultaneously; the Upanishads say “it moves without moving”). Logically, neither this “illusory” power or Maya, nor any “real universe” exists, and hence ignorance does not “really” exist at the level of this absolute Reality. Therefore, we are safe, and hence we need not suffer.
But since we do suffer, we must inquire into the Self. That alone is the way out of suffering—so say the teachers of Advaita Vedanta.