The Way to the Self

By Jan M. Kozlovsky
It is not "the fear of God" which is "the beginning of Wisdom," but the knowledge of SELF which is WISDOM ITSELF. -- H. P. Blavatsky, Studies in Occultism, p. 9

According the wise the world over, the aim of human life is the realization of the fundamental identity of the human soul or atman with the divine essence (Brahman), and of the consequent kinship between man and the rest of creation. At the heart of all religions, Eastern and Western, lies the eternal truth that our innermost essence is united with the Absolute, and that only our ignorance or partial knowledge makes us unable to see this truth. Generally we think of ourselves as the compound of a material body and immaterial mind. We usually consider as external all that is outside our body and very often feel that the outside world is dangerous and hostile. For a person with this view, life must be a continual struggle against alien forces, because to preserve his illusory identity or ego he is using up energy which could otherwise serve the cosmic purpose of liberation. Such a person is usually convinced of the superiority of his worldview; yet sure of the reality of his ego, body, and the external world, he is lost in illusion and heading for total disillusionment.

Such is the situation of one who, conscious of his lower self only, is ignorant of the higher essence which is immortal, omniscient, and all bliss. The knowledge of the higher self which forms the inner core of every religion was called by the ancients theosophia, gnosis, or brahmavidya. The knowledge of the self is wisdom, as H. P. Blavatsky says: to know the self means to reach the eternal truth which destroys ignorance and bestows liberation.

That the same truth prevails both East and West can be seen in such writings as the Enneads of Plotinus (3rd century Alexandria) and the Upanishads, described as the flower of Indian mysticism. Plotinus describes his own experience:

Now often I am roused from the body to my true Self and behold a marvelous beauty, and I am persuaded at the time that I belong to a better sphere and live a supremely good life and become identical with the Absolute. -- iv. 8. I
He who has beheld this beloved knows the truth of what I say, how the soul then received a new life when she has gone towards It and participated in It so that in her new condition she knows that the giver of true life is with her and she needs nothing else. -- vi. 9. 9
It is a bold thing to say, but in such a vision a man does not see, or if he sees he does not distinguish what he sees from himself, nor fancy that there are two, the seer and the seen. . . .
And having surrendered himself to It he becomes one with It, as the centres of two circles might coincide. -- vi. 9. 10

These passages give an admirable description of a mystical experience in which the lower self is abandoned on the ascending journey towards the Absolute. The Upanishads express the same idea this way:

When a man knows Brahman (the Absolute), he is free: his sorrows have an end, and birth and death are no more.
Know that Brahman is forever in thee, and nothing higher is there to be known. -- Svetasvatara Upanishad, i.11, 12
There is a bridge between time and eternity, and this bridge is Atman, the Self of man.
There is a Self which is pure and which is beyond old age and death; and beyond hunger and thirst and sorrow. . . This is atman, the Self of man. The desires of this atman are Truth. It is this Self that we must find and know: man must find his own Self. He who has found and knows the Self has achieved all his desires, he has found the Absolute (Brahman). -- Chandogya Upanishad, viii.4.1; 7.I

The Upanishads discuss the effects that realization of the self can have on a mystic, most importantly the achievement of the state when the knower, the known, and the act of knowledge are one without distinction.

Another idea common to mystical traditions is the essential unity of all life, from the Absolute to gods, men, and the least creature. "All this is nothing but Brahman," say the Upanishads about the world. But to achieve self-realization, one must first realize the illusory nature of the lower self. The urgency to transcend one's lower self is universal. A Czech traveler, theosophist, and mystic, A. Meibohm writes:

There are a number of ways to reach the truth and there are different methods to attain the same goal, but all adepts of the mystic way are in agreement as to the necessity of abandoning the lower self in order to reach the higher sphere. Islamic Sufis, Jewish Kabbalists, Christian mystics, and Eastern yogis use different methods to reach the condition where the mind is freed of all thoughts and is in direct contact with the higher Self.

Here arises a very important question: "What has all this to do with the reality in which we live our lives?" For an unreflective person living by his senses alone, the lower self/ego -- the social, or existential self -- seems quite real. His knowledge of externals is as immediate as if the senses were windows onto the world around him. But it is not really so, for the function of our senses and nervous system is to act as a filter eliminating superfluous information. According to French philosopher Henri Bergson:

. . . the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive. Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful. -- Dr. C. D. Broad, cited by Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception, pp. 22-3.

What we generally take for "hard reality," then, is actually a personal construction of an individual consciousness, which is the opinion of those who have pondered on the macrocosmic and microcosmic structure of the universe. In the words of S. Radhakrishnan, student of Eastern and Western thought: "The objective world exists. It is not a total illusion. It is real not in being ultimate, but in being a form, an expression of the ultimate. To regard the world as ultimately real is a delusion."

The problem of reality is solved once and for all for a person who has reached self-realization: he who enters into the self is changed by this experience to such a degree that he is able to see the world differently. He knows that the Absolute (Brahman, Tao, God) is ultimately real, all the rest being only its mayavi (illusory) play. The experience of reality is so immediate that in the presence of this immediacy all thoughts and ideas are satisfied and the difference between oneself and the rest of creation is abolished. English mystical writer Edward Carpenter has said:

Of all the hard facts of Science . . . I know of none more solid and fundamental than the fact that if you inhibit thought (and persevere) you come at length to a region of consciousness below and behind thought, and different from ordinary thought in its nature and character -- a consciousness of quasi-universal quality, and a realization of an altogether vaster self than that to which we are accustomed....
So great, so splendid is this experience, that it may be said that all minor questions and doubts fall away in face of it; . . . The Drama of Love and Death: A Study of Human Evolution and Transfiguration, pp. 79-80

But the way from ego to the cosmic or absolute self is a long journey winding upwards along the Tree of Life, where each and every trial is of great importance as it is a door to a higher sphere of consciousness. Every new sphere of consciousness is associated with a different degree of reality. At the bottom of the cosmic ladder are those which we know from our everyday life: material, astral, and energetic (pranic, vital). Then follow desire (kama), and higher still is the mind (manas) and the realm of ideas. Next come those which are known in full only to the initiates -- spiritual consciousness (buddhi) -- and at the top of the ladder shines the pure atman or real self.

Czech theosopher and mystic Jaroslav Koci writes: "From the point of view of the Self there is no matter nor spirit but an eternal sea of pure CONSCIOUSNESS." To reach this pure consciousness of the Absolute, one must pass many a dangerous turn where proverbial dragons await him whose foot strays from the "razor-edged" path. If his will is strong, his heart pure, and his mind unshaken he may pass all dangers and continue the great journey right to the top of the cosmic ladder, the absolute Self. A self-realized person has reached the truth and has become free -- a mahatma.

(From Sunrise magazine, December 1991/January 1992. Copyright ©1992 by Theosophical University Press)

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