This paper was presented at
Psychology: The Indian Contribution
National Conference on
Indian Psychology, Yoga and Consciousness
organised by the Indian Council of Philosophical Research
at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education
Pondicherry, India, 10-13 December 2004

(click to enlarge)

If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter:
A Vedantic exploration of mind as the object of the self

Mrinalini Rao¹

Abstract:

The world is increasingly being dominated by images created by the media that help to define the self. Self judgments based on the identification with body and mind (I am short, I am depressed) are all pervasive and result in maladaptive psychological patterns and behaviours. We attempt to resolve problems of the mind by taking the standpoint on the mind itself.

The term 'object' refers to anything anyone might be aware of or pay attention to. The term refers, then, not only to 'physical' objects, including whatever material processes, states, or conditions one might discriminate, but also to such 'mental' or immaterial entities or processes as pains, sensations, memories, images, dreams and daydreams, emotions, thoughts, plans, numbers, concepts, moods, desires and so on.

The term, 'subject' refers to I-who-am-aware. One is likely to know immediately, without having to stop and think it over, or having to collect any evidence, which is I and which is the object. Three guidelines could be (1) I, subject, can be aware of some object; (2) I can focus awareness in attention; and (3) I can distinguish myself from the object I attend to.

Anything one can objectify is the object and the one who objectifies is the subject. In an object, one does not have the I-notion. The subject and object are two distinctly different entities. The knower of anything is distinct from the thing he knows. In Sanskrit, we call the mind, antahkarana, karana being instrument. The mind is an instrument capable of giving knowledge, imagination, memories, emotions, problems. Being an instrument, it must necessarily be in the hands of someone different from it, like any other instrument, the telescope does not see through itself.

The real nature of the object and the real nature of the subject may be baffling mysteries to us, but these mysteries are no barrier whatever to knowing which is obviously which.

This paradigm shift of the mind as the seen and the self as the seer has significant implications for mind management. Contributions of Vedanta and Yoga have been highlighted by which one stops being victimised or avoids labeling of the self by the events of the mind. 

Key words: Mind, subject – object, Seer- seen, Witness  

The world is fascinating & beautiful - there is much to see and experience. If we look deeper, the creation is made up of different names and forms. People project on these names and forms, be it a person, a car, money, security etc, because they are perceived to provide happiness.

¹ Mrinalini Rao is a clinical psychologist and has been studying Vedanta with Swami Brahmavidananda Saraswati for about six years. She is currently involved with developmental work for street children in India.

And so the pursuit goes on… More desires and acquisitions follow and happiness or peace still proves to be elusive.

Self judgments continue to be formed based on the abilities, strengths and attitudes of the individual. To add to them, messages from the external environment, in the form of people, theories, media etc point to a perceived state of insufficiency and lack in the individual. Most people experience a sense of wanting, needing, grasping and clinging.The mind starts saying that something needs to happen or you need to become something before you can be free or fulfilled.

The notion that ‘I am the mind’ and its associated problems

In this information technology age, knowledge is at a premium and a greater emphasis is on occupations where the use of the mind is at its highest. People seek to define themselves by their thought processes – I am a complex person..I am sad when I think about my past…I am intelligent .. I have a poor memory…I am stupid and take time to understand things…I am so troubled my thoughts…wish they would stop…My mind is full of continuous chatter …  I am sad.. 

As long as I am my mind, I am those cravings, those needs, wants, attachments, aversions, and apart from them, there is no ‘I’ except as a mere possibility or an unfulfilled potential. Excessive identification with the mind causes thought to become compulsive. The incessant mental chatter prevents people from finding that realm of inner stillness that is inseparable from Being. It also creates a false mind-made self .

The philosopher Descartes believed that he had found the most fundamental truth when he made his famous statement, “ I think, therefore I am.” He had in fact given expression to the most basic error: to equate thinking with being and identity with thinking.

Most of us think compulsively and therefore live in a state of apparent separateness and fragmentation of the mind. Identification with the mind creates an opaque screen of concepts, labels, words, judgments, images and definition that blocks all true relationship. It comes between you and yourself, you and another person, between you and God. It is this screen of thought that creates the illusion of separateness, the illusion that there is you and a totally separate other. Because we are so unconsciously identified with it, we don’t even realise that the mind is using us and we are not using it. It ‘s almost as if you were possessed without knowing it and so you take the possessing entity to be yourself.

Many people seeking to know the self think that there is a great deal to be learnt about the working of the mind before they are anywhere near spiritual enlightenment. Studying  the mind ‘s complexities certainly helps in mind management but doing so won’t take you beyond the mind.

Some of the features of having or deriving a strong sense of self due to identification with the mind are as follows:

  • People feel very stressed and are so busy getting to the future that the present is a means to getting there.
  • The past takes up a great deal of attention – with frequent talks about it, positively or negatively in the form of talking about past achievements or failures, adventures, experiences or stories or terrible things done to the self or the terrible things done to others.
  • People are plagued with ‘what if’ thoughts that show the identification with the mind which projects itself into an imaginary future situation and creates fear.
  • Most times, the thought processes create guilt, pride, resentment, anger, regret or self-pity.
  • The mind says that you need time – to sort out, do, achieve, acquire, become or understand something because ‘you are not good enough’.
  • The manifestation of defining the self as the mind is a deep sense of finitude – every pursuit is an act of rebellion against the sense of limitation that the individual feels.  

According to Vedanta, self knowledge can be understood by an adhikari – a prepared student, one of his foremost qualities being viveka or the ability of discrimination. One of the things to be discriminated is what the self is and what the self is not.

Identification with the mind only strengthens a sense of self that is a substitute for your true self rooted in Being. The individual recognises that ‘I am not my hand, I am not my leg’. He says "my hands, my legs, my body, my brain." He also says "my intelligence." Though we also say "my mind,", we identify so much with the mind.  This is very significant.  Although it is your mind, it is one of the instruments within one of the parts of you. Just as the leg is a part of you, and the hand and the brain - similarly, the mind is a part of you just as the limbs are different, as your body is different from you. Between the "I" and the mind, there is so much attachment and mine-ness that anything happening to the mind is happening to us.  Even if we make this paradigm shift, of ‘I am not the mind only’, our functioning demands that we use the mind on an ongoing basis in the world. It is easier to discriminate between the body and the self as opposed to the self and the mind, the mind being more subtle from the body.    - 

The ego is always seeking for something to attach itself to in order to uphold and strengthen its illusory sense of self.  The notion of self or self-identity is the core around which the psychological patterns and the reality of the individual develop, and this notion becomes therefore the subject of change for the purpose of self-development and psychotherapeutic healing. The beginning of freedom is the realisation that you are not the possessing entity – the thinker. Knowing this enables you to observe the entity. The moment you start watching the thinker, you begin to realize that there is a vast realm of intelligence beyond thought, that thought is only a tiny aspect of that intelligence. You also realize that all the things that truly matter – beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace – arise from beyond the mind.      

Yoga psychology tells us that it is the mind which is excited, that it is the mind that is sorrowful. Indian philosophy believes - even Sage Patanjali says - that the soul does not have anything of the nature of pain, pleasure, loss, gain, success, failure, fortune, misfortune... All those polarities, those dualities are not for the Self, not for the Soul, they are all for the mind.

Subject and object relationship

Philosophy and metaphysics suggest that we are not the mind. The word ‘antahkarana’ or inner instrument is used to denote the mind and its aspects. Clearly, the mind is our instrument – to be used by a self other than the mind. 

Since correct knowledge of the Self is not a pre-requisite to know the world outside properly, we just ignore ourself. The ability to know an object does not presuppose the existence of the correct knowledge of ourselves.

The term 'object' refers to anything anyone might be aware of or pay attention to. The term refers, then, not only to 'physical' objects, including whatever material processes, states, or conditions one might discriminate, but also to such 'mental' or immaterial entities or processes as pains, sensations, memories, images, dreams and daydreams, emotions, thoughts, plans, numbers, concepts, moods, desires and so on.

The term, 'subject' refers to I-who-am-aware. One is likely to know immediately, without having to stop and think it over, or having to collect any evidence, which is I and which is the object. Three guidelines could be1) I, subject, can be aware of some object; (2) I can focus awareness in attention; and (3) I can distinguish myself from the object I attend to.

Anything one can objectify is the object and the one who objectifies is the subject. In an object, one does not have the I-notion. The subject and object are two distinctly different entities. The knower of anything is distinct from the thing he knows.

The distinction between subject and object, and our capacity to make that distinction, is prior to any particular opinion or theory about what either the subject or the object may be. You can distinguish yourself as subject from any object whatsoever ('physical' or 'mental') any time you direct your attention to that object and realize that it is you who are aware and who pay attention, not the object. The real nature of the object and the real nature of the subject may be baffling mysteries to us, but these mysteries are no barrier whatever to knowing which is obviously which. There is a greater entity which objectifies the events of the mind – emotions, thoughts, memories etc. Therefore, the problems of the mind cannot be solved on the level of the mind. The seer is different from the seen; the subject cannot be the object.

Principle and practice of Seer-Seen Discrimination

One of the main themes of the book Drg Drsya Viveka by Shankaracharya is the principle of discrimination of the seer and the seen. In this text, there is no mention of a particular teacher or God in the first verse unlike other scriptures; the invocation is done by remembrance of the Self as Witness.

Discrimination means separation. The purpose of practicing the seer – seen discrimination is to know the Self and get liberated from all bondage caused by the world of relativity. The perception of objects is not, by itself, a problem. The perception of the world as real and as different from the Self is the cause of all our problems. The first step in the practice of discrimination is shifting of our attention from the seen to the Seer.

The translation of the first verse of the text Drg Drshya Viveka (by Swami Tejomayananda) is given below.

"The eye is the seer and form (and color) the seen. That (eye) is the seen and mind is (its) seer. The Witness alone is the seer of thoughts in the mind and never the seen."

Here seer is the one who sees, knows or objectifies and seen is the object of perception either by sense organs or the mind. the term "mind" is understood to primarily be a flow of thoughts and that includes intellect, emotion, memory, and ego or I-thought (that is, "I think," "I decide," and "I remember").

The meaning of this profound verse can be summed up as follows:

With respect to the world of names and forms,

The sense organs are the seer,

With respect to the sense organs

The mind is the seer

With respect to the mind

I am always the seer ..

I am never the seen;

The witness is the ultimate Seer which sees without the help of any other entity. The Self alone is the Witness. The seer seen logic establishes an apparent difference between seer and seen. The seer is independent and unaffected by what is seen.  Although, we sometimes say that what we see affects the mind, in reality what we see does not as such affect the mind. The mind gets emotionally affected only due to past memory which might be stimulated by the act of seeing. The seen objects are not the direct cause of this subjective reaction of the mind. For instance a person can be aware of conditions of the eye, like blindness or impaired vision without the mind itself becoming impaired.

Projections of the mind due to superimposition

Just as while seeing a movie, we are all the time seeing the screen, even while seeing the world of objects, emotions, and thoughts, we are really seeing the Self. A person who is ignorant of the screen may consider the various images projected on it to be real and may become frightened on seeing a scene of fire. However, if our attention is on the screen, we will not be affected by any of the images seen on it as we know that they are not real. The purpose of practice of seer-seen discrimination is to shift our attention from the seen objects to the Seer, the Self. Since we do not know the nature of the self, we think that whatever we are intimately associated with is me. We can liken this to our dream state where we are able to make that distinction of seer – seen. We witness very vividly various images depicting our thoughts and emotions in various situations and the distinction is clear because it is another state – we remain unaffected.

Necessity of Seer-Seen Discrimination

When two entities are similar, discrimination becomes more difficult, for example, it is difficult to separate sago and white stones. Discrimination is also not possible when we do not know that there is a second entity. For example, if a person thinks that she or he is the distorted reflection in a mirror and suffers due to it, the only solution is proper discrimination between the actual person and the reflected image. Due to ignorance we think we are the body-mind and suffer. We are in fact the Seer of the body-mind, and the limitations of the body-mind cannot affect us if we properly discriminate between the Self, the Seer, and the body, the seen.

"Who Am I?"- Nature of the self

I, the Seer, cannot be the body or mind. The body is an object of the sense organs. Although, the thoughts are subtler than objects, they are seen (perceived) by me as my thoughts. Therefore, I cannot be the mind, which is made up of thoughts. Further, I exist in the state of deep sleep without mind (thoughts). Then, Who am I?

Sri Lakshmidhar Kavi in his short treatise of 28 sutras called Advaita Makaranda (the nectar of upanishad mantras) refers to the nature of the self in the 8 th and 9 th verse:

I am not the body, nor the sense organs, nor the pranas, nor the mind and nor the intellect, because these are all objects of the my-thought or of the ‘this thought’.

I am the witness, all pervading and dear, and not the ego (ahamkara) ever, which has the calamitous associations with modifications, limitations and afflictions.    

He further elaborates on the ahamkara and the self which is not within the scope of this article.

The scriptures declare that the Self is of the nature of existence-consciousness-bliss. Existence expresses as the thought "I am." Consciousness expresses as the thought "I know." Bliss (happiness) expresses as the thought "May I always be." The very fact that we want to live for ever shows that our nature is happiness and not sorrow.

As the Self, the Seer, is always distinct from the body and mind, which are seen, the idea "I am such and such a person" does not belong to the Self. Also, the body, mind, ego, etc., are inert and cannot say "I am such and such a person." The question arises, "Who is the embodied individual?" This empirical embodied individual is an illusion created by mutual superimposition of characteristics of the Self and ego (I-thought). (There is also mutual superimposition of characteristics of the ego and body, which makes us say, "I am the body.")

"Who Am I, The Individual?"

The scriptures state that in reality, I, the Self, am of the nature of absolute existence, consciousness, and bliss, the question remains, "Who am I if the embodied individual, who transacts with the world, does actions and enjoys the results of actions, is born and dies?" This empirical embodied individual is comprised of the many factors. Firstly, there is the Witness, the pure Consciousness-Existence, without which nothing can exist. However, the reflection of this Consciousness alone gives sentiency to the mind, and the mind can function only through a physical body.

Implications for mind management

Who I am, is beyond the mind:This is the way in which Patanjali introduces Yoga in the first four instructions of the Yoga Sutras. Paraphrasing, he says:

  1. Now, after all the preparation of life and practices, begins the study and practice of Yoga.
  2. Yoga is the nirrudah (mastery, control, regulation, transcendence, restraint) of the many levels of thought patterns in the field of mind.
  3. Then, with that achievement, one rests in the awareness of their true nature as Self or pure Consciousness.
  4. At other times, when not in this higher, truer state of awareness, one is falsely identified with those many levels of thought patterns contained in the mind field.

Being the witness/saksi : There is a single process that threads its way throughout the Yoga Sutras. That is to witness everything. Sakshi-bhava is the attitude of remaining as a witness or the ability to objectively look at the world, situations and problems. To witness everything involves systematically disentangling from the thought patterns, witnessing thoughts, cultivating remembrance or mindfulness, moving through the levels of awareness, and dealing with the gross, the subtle and the subtler.

Witnessing the thought process means to be able to observe the natural flow of the mind, while not being disturbed or distracted.

Witnessing thoughts does NOT mean a psychological suppression or repression of thoughts and emotions. This is a great quality by itself. Normally we are so conditioned with our likes & dislikes, that we either crave or are averse to situations. Mindfulness or cultivating a witnessing attitude is a universal human faculty that is recognised in all cultures of the world for its intrinsic and transformative qualities.

Buddha not only rediscovered Vipassana meditation, one of India ‘s most ancient meditative practices but also recommended that meditation must be an essential part of life as a continuous process. Vipassana which means ‘observing in a special way’ is also synonymous with being conscious or aware, observing and paying attention.

This brings a peaceful state of mind, which allows the deeper aspects of meditation and samadhi to unfold, revealing that which is beyond the mind.

Personal experience: At a personal level, it took a lot of unlearning to think of myself as not the mind because my profession and my identity came from the working of my mind primarily. The recognition that I am more than my body-mind-sense complex is liberating. I continue to be amused and blessed (contradictory as it is) at how the mind works and why should n’t it? It is the nature of the mind to think. The practice of sakshi bhava has brought a lot of equanimity in my life as one is able to view events of the mind and not get carried away which contributes to functioning more effectively. In my work with street children which is very intense, what has worked for me is knowing that:

However gratifying the work, it still is a role, Observing situations objectively and responding proactively to do the best in the given situation and gracious acceptance of the results.

At a deeper level, I am blessed with the scriptural teaching about satyam and mithya and that I am Consciousness awareness and continue to prepare the mind to absorb this.

In conclusion:

Excessive identification with the mind has caused us to confuse thinking with identity and hence being. The problems of the mind cannot be resolved from the standpoint of the mind. The ability of viveka or discrimination is required to establish the distinction between seer and seen/subject object – I am not the body-mind sense complex. The principle of seer seen discrimination with respect to the self and the mind is one of the key steps to understanding the true nature of the self. Yoga sutras mention the practice of witnessing to objectively look at the world and its situations which brings about peace and reveals what is beyond. 

Acknowledgement

My deepest gratitude to my guru, Swami Brahmavidananda Saraswati who stands in the entire lineage of spiritual teachers and disciples beginning from Lord Shiva and continuing through Adi Shankaracharya to him. Whatever I understand of the scriptures is due to his grace. The errors, if any in this article are solely mine. 

References:

Tolle, Eckhart – The Power of Now, Yogi Publications, Mumbai

Kavi, Sri Laksmidhara – Advaita Makaranda, (commentary by Swami Tejomayananda) Published in 2000, Central Chinmaya Mission trust, Mumbai

Shankaracharya, Adi – Drg Drsya Viveka, (commentary by Swami Tejomayananda), Published in 2000, Central Chinmaya Mission trust, Mumbai

Iyengar, BKS – Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Patanjala Yoga Pradipika, (1993), Harper Collins Publishers, India

S, Vikram – Seer seen discrimination (http://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/i_es/i_es_s_vikr_seer.htm)

Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati- Witnessing Your Thoughts (http://swamij.com/witnessing.htm)

The Mind should be Object (http://www.iyengar-yoga.com/articles/integratedscience/class1.html)