Arriving at Self-Knowledge – Meher Baba

When the time is ripe, the advancement of a person toward Self-knowledge comes about as naturally as the physical body of a child grows into full-fledged form. The growth of the physical body is worked out by the operation of natural laws, and the progress of the aspirant toward Self-knowledge is worked out by the operation of spiritual laws pertaining to the transformation and emancipation of consciousness. The physical body of a child grows very gradually and almost imperceptibly, and the same is true of the spiritual progress of a person once he has entered the path. The child does not know how its physical body grows; in the same way, the aspirant also is often oblivious of the law by which he makes headway toward the destination of his spiritual progress.

The aspirant is generally conscious of the manner in which he has been responding to the diverse situations in life but rarely conscious of the manner in which he makes progress toward Self-knowledge. Without consciously knowing it, the aspirant is gradually arriving at Self-knowledge by traversing the inner path-through his joys and sorrows, his happiness and  suffering, his successes and failures, his efforts and rest, and through his moments of clear perception and harmonized will as well as the moments of confusion and conflict. These are the manifestations of the diverse sanskaras that he has brought from the past; and the aspirant forges his way toward Self-knowledge through the tangles of these sanskaras like the traveler threading his way through a wild and thick forest.

Human consciousness might be compared to a flashlight that reveals the existence and the nature of things. The province illuminated by this flashlight is defined by the medium through which it works, just as a person confined to a boat can wander anywhere on the surface of the water but can have no access to remote places on land or in the air. The actual working of the flashlight of consciousness is determined by the accumulated sanskaras, just as the course of the rivulets flowing down a mountain is determined by the channels created by the natural contours of the mountain.

In the case of an average person, the sphere of life and the stage of action are restricted to the gross world because in him the flashlight of consciousness falls on the physical body and works through it. Being restricted to the medium of the gross body, he can be conscious of anything within the gross world but is unable to establish contact with subtle or mental realities. The gross sphere thus constitutes the arena of the average individual, and all his activities and thoughts have a tendency to be directed toward the gross objects that are accessible to him. During this time he remains unconscious of the subtle and the mental spheres of existence, since the flashlight of his consciousness cannot be focused through the medium of the subtle or the mental body.

At this stage the soul is conscious of the gross world but is completely ignorant of its own true nature. It identifies itself with the gross body on which the flashlight of consciousness falls, and this naturally becomes the base for all the activities within its range. The soul does not directly know itself through itself but by means of the physical body. And since all the knowledge it can gather through the physical body points to the physical body itself as the center of activities, it knows itself as being the physical body-which in fact is only its instrument. The soul therefore imagines itself to be man or woman, young or old, and takes upon itself the changes and limitations of the body.

After several rounds of lives in the setting given by the gross world, the impressions connected with the gross world become weak through the long duration of the experience of opposites, like great happiness and intense suffering. The weakening of the impressions is the beginning of spiritual awakening, which consists in the gradual withdrawal of the flashlight of consciousness from the allurements of the gross world. When this happens the gross impressions become subtle, facilitating and inducing the soul’s transference of the base of conscious functioning from the gross body to the subtle body.

Now the flashlight of consciousness falls on the subtle body and works through it as its medium, no longer working through the gross body. Therefore the whole gross world drops from the consciousness of the soul, and it becomes conscious only of the subtle world. The subtle sphere of existence now constitutes the context of its life; and the soul now considers itself to be the subtle body, which becomes and is seen to be the center of all its activities. Even when the soul has thus become subtle-conscious, it remains ignorant of its own true nature, since it cannot know itself directly through itself but only by means of the subtle body.

However, the change of the stage of action from the gross to the subtle sphere of existence is of considerable significance. In the subtle sphere the conventional standards of the gross world are replaced by new standards that are nearer the Truth, and a new mode of life is rendered possible by the dawning of new powers and a release of spiritual energy. Life in the subtle world is only a passing phase in the spiritual journey and is far from being the goal; but out of millions of gross-conscious souls, only a rare one is capable of becoming subtle-conscious.

Impressions connected with the subtle world get worn out in turn through, for instance, some forms of penance or yoga. This facilitates and brings about a further withdrawal of consciousness inwardly, whereby the flashlight of consciousness comes to be focused on the mental body and begins to function through it. The severance of conscious connection with the subtle and gross bodies means that the gross and subtle spheres of existence become completely excluded from the scope of consciousness. The soul is now conscious of the mental world, which affords deeper possibilities for spiritual understanding and a clearer perception of the ultimate Truth.

In this new setting of the mental sphere, the soul enjoys continuous inspiration, deep insight, and unfailing intuition; and it is in direct contact with spiritual Reality. Although it is in direct contact with God, the soul does not see itself as God, since it cannot know itself directly through itself but only through the medium of the individual mind. It knows itself by means of the individual mind and considers itself to be the individual mind, for it sees the individual mind as being the base and the center of all its activities.

Although the soul is now much closer to God than in the gross or subtle spheres, it is still enclosed in the world of shadow; and it continues to feel separate from God owing to the veil created by the impressions connected with the mental sphere. The flashlight of consciousness is functioning through the limitation of the individual mind and does not therefore yield the knowledge of the soul as it is, in itself. Though the soul has not yet realized itself as being God, its life in the mental sphere of existence constitutes a tremendous advance beyond the stage of the subtle sphere. Out of millions of subtle-conscious souls, only a rare one can establish conscious contact with the mental sphere of existence.

It is possible for an aspirant to rise to the mental sphere of existence through his own unaided efforts, but dropping the mental body amounts to the surrenderance of individual existence. This last and all-important step cannot be taken except through the help of a Perfect Master, who is himself God-realized. Out of millions of souls who are conscious of the mental sphere, only a rare one can withdraw the flashlight of consciousness from the individual mind. Such withdrawal implies the complete vanishing of the last traces of the impressions connected with the mental life of the soul. When the flashlight of consciousness is no longer centered upon any of the three bodies, it serves the purpose of reflecting the true nature of the soul.

The soul now has direct knowledge of itself without being dependent upon any medium, seeing itself not as some finite body but as infinite God and knowing itself to be the only Reality. In this major crisis in the life of the soul, there is a complete severance of connections with all three bodies. Since consciousness of the different spheres of existence is directly dependent upon the corresponding bodies, the soul is now entirely oblivious of the whole universe. The flashlight of consciousness is no longer focused upon anything foreign or external but is turned upon the soul itself. The soul is now truly Self-conscious and has arrived at Self-knowledge.

The process of arriving at Self-knowledge throughout the three spheres of existence is attended by the acquisition of false self-knowledge consisting in identification with the gross or the subtle or the mental body, according to the stage of the process. This is due to the initial purpose of creation, which is to make the soul Self-conscious. The soul cannot have true Self-knowledge except at the end of the spiritual journey, and all the intermediate forms of false self-knowledge are, as it were, temporary substitutes for true Self-knowledge. They are mistakes necessary in the attempt to arrive at true Self-knowledge.

Since the flashlight of consciousness is turned throughout the journey toward the objects of the environment and not upon the soul itself, the soul has a tendency to become so engrossed in these objects that it is almost completely oblivious of its own existence and nature. This danger of utter and unrelieved self-forgetfulness is counterbalanced by the self-affirmation of the soul by means of the three bodies, which happen to be used as the focal points of the flashlight of consciousness. Thus the soul knows itself as its own bodies and knows other souls as their bodies, thereby sustaining a world of duality where there is sex, competition, aggression, jealousy, mutual fear, and self-centered exclusive ambition. Hence self-knowledge of the soul by means of any external sign is a source of untold confusion, complication, and entanglement.

This form of ignorance may be illustrated by means of the famous pumpkin story referred to by the Persian poet Jami in one of his couplets. Once upon a time there was an absentminded man who had no equal in forgetting things, even his own identity. He had an intelligent and trusted friend who wanted to help him to remember himself. This friend attached a pumpkin to his neck and said, “Now listen, old man, one day you might completely lose yourself and not know who you are. Therefore, as a sign, I tie this pumpkin around your neck so that every morning when you wake up you will see the pumpkin and know it is you who are there.”

Every day the absentminded man saw the pumpkin upon waking in the morning and said to himself, “I am not lost!” After some time, when he had become used to self-identification through the pumpkin, the friend asked a stranger to remain with the absentminded man, take the pumpkin from his neck during his sleep, and tie it around his own neck. The stranger did this; and when the absentminded man woke up in the morning, he did not see the pumpkin around his neck. So he said to himself, “I am lost!” Then he saw the pumpkin on the other man’s neck and said to him, “You are me! But then who am I?”

This pumpkin story offers an analogy to the different forms of false self-knowledge growing from identification with one of the bodies. To know oneself as the body is like knowing oneself by means of the pumpkin. The disturbance caused by ceasing to identify with the gross, subtle, or mental body is comparable to the confusion of the absentminded man when he could no longer see the pumpkin around his own neck. The beginnings of a dissolution of the sense of duality are equivalent to the man’s identification of himself as the stranger who wore his pumpkin. Further, if the absentminded man in the story were to learn to know himself through himself independently of any external sign, his self-knowledge would be comparable to the true Self-knowledge of the soul-which, after ceasing to identify with the three bodies, knows itself to be none other than infinite God. Arriving at such Self-knowledge is the very goal of creation.

-Meher Baba

Taken from Discourses

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