The true nature of the Self is a matter by no means easy to compass. We have all probably at some time or other attempted to fathom the deeps of personality, and been baffled. Some people say they can quite distinctly remember a moment in early childhood, about the age of three (though the exact period is of course only approximate) when self-consciousness--the awareness of being a little separate Self--first dawned in the mind. It was generally at some moment of childish tension--alone perhaps in a garden, or lost from the mother's protecting hand--that this happened; and it was the beginning of a whole range of new experience. Before some such period there is in childhood strictly speaking no distinct self-consciousness. As Tennyson says (In Memoriam xliv):
The baby new to earth and sky,
What time his tender palm is prest
Against the circle of the breast,
Hath never thought that "This is I."
[paragraph continues] It has consciousness truly, but no distinctive self-consciousness. It is this absence or deficiency which explains many things which at first sight seem obscure in the psychology of children and of animals. The baby (it has often been noticed) experiences little or no sense of fear. It does not know enough to be afraid; it has never formed any image of itself, as of a thing which might be injured. It may shrink from actual pain or discomfort, but it does not look forward--which is of the essence of fear--to pain in the future. Fear and self-consciousness are closely interlinked. Similarly with animals, we often wonder how a horse or a cow can endure to stand out in a field all night,
exposed to cold and rain, in the lethargic patient way that they exhibit. It is not that they do not feel the discomfort, but it is that they do not envisage themselves as enduring this pain and suffering for all those coming hours; and as we know with ourselves that nine-tenths of our miseries really consist in looking forward to future miseries, so we understand that the absence or at any rate slight prevalence of self-consciousness in animals enables them to endure forms of distress which would drive us mad.
In time then the babe arrives at self-consciousness; and, as one might expect, the growing boy or girl often becomes intensely aware of Self. His or her self-consciousness is crude, no doubt, but it has very little misgiving. If the question of the nature of the Self is propounded to the boy as a problem he has no difficulty in solving it. He says "I know well enough who I am: I am the boy with red hair what gave Jimmy Brown such a jolly good licking last Monday week." He knows well enough--or thinks he knows--who he is. And at a later age, though his definition may change and he may describe himself chiefly as a good cricketer or successful in certain examinations, his method is practically the same. He fixes his mind on a certain bundle of qualities and capacities which he is supposed to possess, and calls that bundle Himself. And in a more elaborate way we most of us, I imagine, do the same.
Presently, however, with more careful thought, we begin to see difficulties in this view. I see that directly I think of myself as a certain bundle of qualities--and for that matter it is of no account whether the qualities are good or bad, or in what sort of charming confusion they are mixed--I see at once that I am merely looking at a bundle of qualities: and that the real "I," the Self, is not that bundle, but is the being inspecting the same--something beyond and behind, as it were. So I now concentrate my thoughts upon that inner Something, in order to find out what it really is. I imagine perhaps an inner being, of 'astral' or ethereal nature, and possessing a new range of much finer and more subtle qualities than the body--a being inhabiting the body and perceiving through its senses, but quite capable of surviving the tenement in which it dwells and I think of that as the Self. But no sooner have I taken this step than I perceive that I am committing the same mistake as before. I am only contemplating a new image or picture, and "I" still remain beyond and behind that which I contemplate. No sooner do I turn my attention on the subjective
being than it becomes objective, and the real subject retires into the background. And so on indefinitely. I am baffled; and unable to say positively what the Self is.
Meanwhile there are people who look upon the foregoing speculations about an interior Self as merely unpractical. Being perhaps of a more materialistic type of mind they fix their attention on the body. Frankly they try to define the Self by the body and all that is connected therewith--that is by the mental as well as corporeal qualities which exhibit themselves in that connection; and they say, "At any rate the Self--whatever it may be--is in some way limited by the body; each person studies the interest of his body and of the feelings, emotions and mentality directly associated with it, and you cannot get beyond that; it isn't in human nature to do so. The Self is limited by this corporeal phenomenon and doubtless it perishes when the body perishes." But here again the conclusion, though specious at first, soon appears to be quite inadequate. For though it is possibly true that a man, if left alone in a Robinson Crusoe life on a desert island, might ultimately subside into a mere gratification of his corporeal needs and of those mental needs which were directly concerned with the body, yet we know that such a case would by no means be representative. On the contrary we know that vast numbers of people spend their lives in considering other people, and often so far as to sacrifice their own bodily and mental comfort and well-being. The mother spends her life thinking almost day and night about her babe and the other children--spending all her thoughts and efforts on them. You may call her selfish if you will, but her selfishness clearly extends beyond her personal body and mind, and extends to the personalities of her children around her; her "body"--if you insist on your definition--must be held to include the bodies of all her children. And again, the husband who is toiling for the support of the family, he is thinking and working and toiling and suffering for a 'self' which includes his wife and children. Do you mean that the whole family is his "body"? Or a man belongs to some society, to a church or to a social league of some kind, and his activities are largely ruled by the interests of this larger group. Or he sacrifices his life--as many have been doing of late--with extraordinary bravery and heroism for the sake of the nation to which he belongs. Must we say then that the whole nation is really a part of the man's body? Or again, he gives his life and goes to the stake for his religion. Whether
his religion is right or wrong does not matter, the point is that there is that in him which can carry him far beyond his local self and the ordinary instincts of his physical organism, to dedicate his life and powers to a something of far wider circumference and scope.
Thus in the first of these two examples of a search for the nature of the Self we are led inwards from point to point, into interior and ever subtler regions of our being, and still in the end are baffled; while in the second we are carried outwards into an ever wider and wider circumference in our quest of the Ego, and still feel that we have failed to reach its ultimate nature. We are driven in fact by these two arguments to the conclusion that that which we are seeking is indeed something very vast--something far extending around, yet also buried deep in the hidden recesses of our minds. How far, how deep, we do not know. We can only say that as far as the indications point the true self is profounder and more far-reaching than anything we have yet fathomed.
In the ordinary commonplace life we shrink to ordinary commonplace selves, but it is one of the blessings of great experiences, even though they are tragic or painful, that they throw us out into that enormously greater self to which we belong. Sometimes, in moments of inspiration, of intense enthusiasm, of revelation, such as a man feels in the midst of a battle, in moments of love and dedication to another person, and in moments of religious ecstasy, an immense world is opened up to the astonished gaze of the inner man, who sees disclosed a self stretched far beyond anything he had ever imagined. We have all had experiences more or less of that kind. I have known quite a few people, and most of you have known some, who at some time, even if only once in their lives, have experienced such an extraordinary lifting of the veil, an opening out of the back of their minds as it were, and have had such a vision of the world, that they have never afterwards forgotten it. They have seen into the heart of creation, and have perceived their union with the rest of mankind. They have had glimpses of a strange immortality belonging to them, a glimpse of their belonging to a far greater being than they have ever imagined. Just once--and a man has never forgotten it, and even if it has not recurred it has colored all the rest of his life.
Now, this subject has been thought about--since the beginning of the world, I was going to say--but it has been thought
about since the beginnings of history. Some three thousand years ago certain groups of--I hardly like to call them philosophers --but, let us say, people who were meditating and thinking upon these problems, were in the habit of locating themselves in the forests of Northern India; and schools arose there. In the case of each school some teacher went into the woods and collected groups of disciples around him, who lived there in his company and listened to his words. Such schools were formed in very considerable numbers, and the doctrines of these teachers were gathered together, generally by their disciples, in notes, which notes were brought together into little pamphlets or tracts, forming the books which are called the 'Upanishads' of the Indian sages. They contain some extraordinary words of wisdom, some of which I want to bring before you. The conclusions arrived at were not so much hat we should call philosophy in the modern sense. They were not so much the result of the analysis of the mind and the following out of concatenations of strict argument; but they were flashes of intuition and experience, and all through the 'Upanishads' you find these extraordinary flashes embedded in the midst of a great deal of what we should call a rather rubbishy kind of argument, and a good deal of merely conventional Brahmanical talk of those days. But the people who wrote and spoke thus had an intuition into the heart of things which I make bold to say very few people in modern life have. These 'Upanishads,' however various their subject, practically agree on one point--in the definition of the "self." They agree in saying: that the self of each man is continuous with and in a sense identical with the Self of the universe. Now that seems an extraordinary conclusion, and one which almost staggers the modern mind to conceive of. But that is the conclusion, that is the thread which runs all through the 'Upanishads'--the identity of the self of each individual with the self of every other individual throughout mankind, and even with the selves of the animals and other creatures.
Those who have read the Khandogya Upanishad remember how in that treatise the father instructs his son Svetaketu on this very subject--pointing him out in succession the objects of Nature and on each occasion exhorting him to realize his identity with the very essence of the object--"Tat twam asi, that thou art." He calls Svetaketu's attention to a tree. What is the essence of the tree? When they have rejected the external characteristics--the leaves, the branches, etc.--and agreed
that the sap is the essence, then the father says, "tat twam asi--that thou art." He gives his son a crystal of salt, and asks him what is the essence of that. The son is puzzled. Clearly neither the form nor the transparent quality are essential. The father says, "Put the crystal in water." Then when it is melted he says, "Where is the crystal?" The son replies, "I do not know." "Dip your finger in the bowl," says the father, "and taste." Then Svetaketu dips here and there, and everywhere there is a salt flavor. They agree that that is the essence of salt; and the father says again, "Tat twam asi." I am of course neither defending nor criticizing the scientific attitude here adopted. I am only pointing out that this psychological identification of the observer with the object observed runs through the Upanishads, and is I think worthy of the deepest consideration.
In the 'Bhágavat Gita,' which is a later book, the author speaks of "him whose soul is purified, whose self is the Self of all creatures." A phrase like that challenges opposition. It is so bold, so sweeping, and so immense, that we hesitate to give our adhesion to what it implies. But what does it mean--"whose soul is purified"? I believe that it means this, that with most of us our souls are anything but clean or purified, they are by no means transparent, so that all the time we are continually deceiving ourselves and making clouds between us and others. We are all the time grasping things from other people, and, if not in words, are mentally boasting ourselves against others, trying to think of our own superiority to the rest of the people around us. Sometimes we try to run our neighbors down a little, just to show that they are not quite equal to our level. We try to snatch from others some things which belong to them, or take credit to ourselves for things to which we are not fairly entitled. But all he time we are acting so it is perfectly obvious that we are weaving veils between ourselves and others. You cannot have dealings with another person in a purely truthful way, and be continually trying to cheat that person out of money, or out of his good name and reputation. If you are doing that, however much in the background you may be doing it, you are not looking the person fairly in the face--there is a cloud between you all the time. So long as your soul is not purified from all these really absurd and ridiculous little desires and superiorities and self-satisfactions, which make up so much of our lives, just so long as that happens you do not and you cannot see the
truth. But when it happens to a person, as it does happen in times of great and deep and bitter experience; when it happens that all these trumpery little objects of life are swept away; then occasionally, with astonishment, the soul sees that. It is also the soul of the others around. Even if it does not become aware of an absolute identity, it perceives that there is a deep relationship and communion between itself and others, and it comes to understand how it may really be true that to him whose soul is purified the self is literally the Self of all creatures.
Ordinary men and those who go on more intellectual and less intuitional lines will say that these ideas are really contrary to human nature and to nature generally. Yet I think that those people who say this in the name of Science are extremely unscientific, because a very superficial glance at nature reveals that the very same thing is taking place throughout nature. Consider the madrepores, corallines, or sponges. You find, for instance, that constantly the little self of the coralline or sponge is functioning at the end of a stem and casting forth its tentacles into the water to gain food and to breathe the air out of the water. That little animalcule there, which is living in that way, imagines no doubt that it is working all for itself, and yet it is united down the stem at whose extremity it stands, with the life of the whole madrepore or sponge to which it belongs. There is the common life of the whole and the individual life of each, and while the little creature at the end of the stem is thinking (if it is conscious at all) that its whole energies are absorbed in its own maintenance, it really is feeding the common life through the stem to which it belongs, and in its turn it is being fed by that common life.
You have only to look at an ordinary tree to see the same thing going on. Each little leaf on a tree may very naturally have sufficient consciousness to believe that it is an entirely separate being maintaining itself in the sunlight and the air, withering away and dying when the winter comes on--and there is an end of it. It probably does not realize that all the time it is being supported by the sap which flows from the trunk of the tree, and that in its turn it is feeding the tree, too--that its self is the self of the whole tree. If the leaf could really understand itself, it would see that its self was deeply, intimately connected, practically one with the life of the whole tree. Therefore, I say that this Indian view is not unscientific. On the contrary, I am sure that it is thoroughly scientific.
Let us take another passage, out of the 'Svetasvatara Upanishad,' which, speaking of the self says: "He is the one God, hidden in all creatures, all pervading, the self within all, watching over all works, shadowing all creatures, the witness, the perceiver, the only one free from qualities."
And now we can return to the point where we left the argument at the beginning of this discourse. We said, you remember, that the Self is certainly no mere bundle of qualities--that the very nature of the mind forbids us thinking that. For however fine and subtle any quality or group of qualities may be, we are irresistibly compelled by the nature of the mind itself to look for the Self, not in any quality or qualities, but in the being that perceives those qualities. The passage I have just quoted says that being is "The one God, hidden in all creatures, all pervading, the self within all . . . the witness, the perceiver, the only one free from qualities." And the more you think about it the clearer I think you will see that this passage is correct--that there can be only one witness, one perceiver, and that is the one God hidden in all creatures, "Sarva Sakshi," the Universal Witness.
Have you ever had that curious feeling, not uncommon, especially in moments of vivid experience and emotion, that there was at the back of your mind a witness, watching everything that was going on, yet too deep for your ordinary thought to grasp? Has it not occurred to you--in a moment say of great danger when the mind was agitated to the last degree by fears and anxieties--suddenly to become perfectly calm and collected, to realize that nothing can harm you, that you are identified with some great and universal being lifted far over this mortal world and unaffected by its storms? Is it not obvious that the real Self must be something of this nature, a being perceiving all, but itself remaining unperceived? For indeed if it were perceived it would fall under the head of some definable quality, and so becoming the object of thought would cease to be the subject, would cease to be the Self.
The witness is and must be "free from qualities." For since it is capable of perceiving all qualities it must obviously not be itself imprisoned or tied in any quality--it must either be entirely without quality, or if it have the potentiality of quality in it, it must have the potentiality of every quality; but in either case it cannot be in bondage to any quality, and in either case it would appear that there can be only one such ultimate Witness in the universe. For if
there were two or more such Witnesses, then we should be compelled to suppose them distinguished from one another by something, and that something could only be a difference of qualities, which would be contrary to our conclusion that such a Witness cannot be in bondage to any quality.
There is then I take it--as the text in question says--only one Witness, one Self, throughout the universe. It is hidden in all living things, men and animals and plants; it pervades all creation. In every thing that has consciousness it is the Self; it watches over all operations, it overshadows all creatures, it moves in the depths of our hearts, the perceiver, the only being that is cognizant of all and yet free from all.
Once you really appropriate this truth, and assimilate it in the depths of your mind, a vast change (you can easily imagine) will take place within you. The whole world will be transformed, and every thought and act of which you are capable will take on a different color and complexion. Indeed the revolution will be so vast that it would be quite impossible for me within the limits of this discourse to describe it. I will, however, occupy the rest of my time in dealing with some points and conclusions, and some mental changes which will flow perfectly naturally from this axiomatic change taking place at the very root of life.
"Free from qualities." We generally pride ourselves a little on our qualities. Some of us think a great deal of our good qualities, and some of us are rather ashamed of our bad ones! I would say: "Do not trouble very much about all that. What good qualities you have--well you may be quite sure they do not really amount to much; and what bad qualities, you may be sure they are not very important! Do not make too much fuss about either. Do you see? The thing is that you, you yourself, are not any of your qualities--you are the being that perceives them. The thing to see to is that they should not confuse you, bamboozle you, and hide you from the knowledge of yourself--that they should not be erected into a screen, to hide you from others, or the others from you. If you cease from running after qualities, then after a little time your soul will become purified, and you will know that your self is the Self of all creatures; and when you can feel that you will know that the other things do not much matter.
Sometimes people are so awfully good that their very goodness
hides them from other people. They really cannot be on a level with others, and they feel that the others are far below them. Consequently their 'selves' are blinded or hidden by their 'goodness.' It is a sad end to come to! And sometimes it happens that very 'bad' people--just because they are so bad--do not erect any screens or veils between themselves and others. Indeed they are only too glad if others will recognize them, or if they may be allowed to recognize others. And so, after all, they come nearer the truth than the very good people.
"The Self is free from qualities." That thing which is so deep, which belongs to all, it either--as I have already said--has all qualities, or it has none. You, to whom I am speaking now, your qualities, good and bad, are all mine. I am perfectly willing to accept them. They are all right enough and in place--if one can only find the places for them. But I know that in most cases they have got so confused and mixed up that they cause great conflict and pain in the souls that harbor them. If you attain to knowing yourself to be other than and separate from the qualities, then you will pass below and beyond them all. You will be able to accept all your qualities and harmonize them, and your soul will be at peace. You will be free from the domination of qualities then because you will know that among all the multitudes of them there are none of any importance!
If you should happen some day to reach that state of mind in connection with which this revelation comes, then you will find the experience a most extraordinary one. You will become conscious that there is no barrier in your path; that the way is open in all directions; that all men and women belong to you, are part of you. You will feel that there is a great open immense world around, which you had never suspected before, which belongs to you, and the riches of which are all yours, waiting for you. It may, of course, take centuries and thousands of years to realize this thoroughly, but there it is. You are just at the threshold, peeping in at the door. What did Shakespeare say? "To thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou can'st not then be false to any man." What a profound bit of philosophy in three lines! I doubt if anywhere the basis of all human life has been expressed more perfectly and tersely.
One of the Upanishads (the Maitráyana-Brahmana) says: "The happiness belonging to a mind, which through deep
inwardness 1 (or understanding) has been washed clean and has entered into the Self, is a thing beyond the power of words to describe: it can only be perceived by an inner faculty." Observe the conviction, the intensity with which this joy, this happiness is described, which comes to those whose minds have been washed clean (from all the silly trumpery sediment of self-thought) and have become transparent, so that the great universal Being residing there in the depths can be perceived. What sorrow indeed, what, grief, can come to such an one who has seen this vision? It is truly a thing beyond the power of words to describe: it can only be perceived--and that by an inner faculty. The external apparatus of thought is of no use. Argument is of no use. But experience and direct perception are possible; and probably all the experiences of life and of mankind through the ages are gradually deepening our powers of perception to that point where the vision will at last rise upon the inward eye.
Another text, from the Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad (which I have already quoted in the paper on "Rest"), says: "If a man worship the Self only as his true state, his work cannot fail, for whatever he desires, that he obtains from the Self." Is that not magnificent? If you truly realize your identity and union with the great Self who inspires and informs the world, then obviously whatever you desire the great Self win desire, and the whole world will conspire to bring it to you. "He maketh the winds his angels, and the flaming fires his ministers." [I need not say that I am not asking you to try and identify yourself with the great Self universal in order to get riches, "opulence," and other things of that kind which you desire; because in that quest you will probably not succeed. The Great Self is not such a fool as to be taken in in that way. It may be true--and it is true--that if ye seek first the Kingdom of Heaven all these things shall be added unto you; but you must seek it first, not second.]
Here is a passage from Towards Democracy: "As space spreads everywhere, and all things move and change within it, but it moves not nor changes,
"So I am the space within the soul, of which the space without is but the similitude and mental image;
"Comest thou to inhabit me, thou hast the entrance to all life--death shall no longer divide thee from whom thou lovest.
"I am the Sun that shines upon all creatures from within--gazest thou upon me, thou shalt be filled with joy eternal."
Yes, this great sun is there, always shining, but most of the time it is hidden from us by the clouds of which I have spoken, and we fail to see it. We complain of being out in the cold; and in the cold, for the time being, no doubt we are; but our return to the warmth and the light has now become possible.
Thus at last the Ego, the mortal immortal self--disclosed at first in darkness and fear and ignorance in the growing babe--finds its true identity. For a long period it is baffled in trying to understand what it is. It goes through a vast experience. It is tormented by the sense of separation and alienation--alienation from other people, and persecution by all the great powers and forces of the universe; and it is pursued by a sense of its own doom. Its doom truly is irrevocable. The hour of fulfilment approaches, the veil lifts, and the soul beholds at last its own true being.
We are accustomed to think of the external world around us as a nasty tiresome old thing of which all we can say for certain is that it works by a "law of cussedness"--so that, whichever way we want to go, that way seems always barred, and we only bump against blind walls without making any progress. But that uncomfortable state of affairs arises from ourselves. Once we have passed a certain barrier, which at present looks so frowning and impossible, but which fades into nothing immediately we have passed it--once we have found the open secret of identity--then the way is indeed open in every direction.
The world in which we live--the world into which we are tumbled as children at the first onset of self-consciousness--denies this great fact of unity. It is a world in which the principle of separation rules. Instead of a common life and union with each other, the contrary principle (especially in the
later civilizations) has been the one recognized--and to such an extent that always there prevails the obsession of separation, and the conviction that each person is an isolated unit. The whole of our modern society has been founded on this delusive idea, which is false. You go into the markets, and every man's hand is against the others--that is the ruling principle. You go into the Law Courts where justice is, or should be, administered, and you find that the principle which denies unity is the one that prevails. The criminal (whose actions have really been determined by the society around him) is cast out, disacknowledged, and condemned to further isolation in a prison cell. 'Property' again is the principle which rules and determines our modern civilization--namely that which is proper to, or can be appropriated by, each person, as against the others. In the moral world the doom of separation comes to us in the shape of the sense of sin. For sin is separation. Sin is actually (and that is its only real meaning) the separation from others, and the non-acknowledgment of unity. And so it has come about that during all this civilization-period the sense of sin has ruled and ranged to such an extraordinary degree. Society has been built on a false base, not true to fact or life--and has had a dim uneasy consciousness of its falseness. Meanwhile at the heart of it all--and within all the frantic external strife and warfare--there is all the time this real great life brooding. The kingdom of Heaven, as we said before, is still within.
The word Democracy indicates something of the kind--the rule of the Demos, that is of the common life. The coming of that will transform, not only our Markets and our Law Courts and our sense of Property, and other institutions, into something really great and glorious instead of the dismal masses of rubbish which they at present are; but it will transform our sense of Morality.
Our Morality at present consists in the idea of self-goodness--one of the most pernicious and disgusting ideas which has ever infested the human brain. If any one should follow and assimilate what I have just said about the true nature of the Self he will realize that it will never again be possible for him to congratulate himself on his own goodness or morality or superiority; for the moment he does so he will separate himself from the universal life, and proclaim the sin of his own separation. I agree that this conclusion is for some people a most sad and disheartening one--but it cannot be helped! A man may truly be 'good' and 'moral' in some real sense;
but only on the condition that he is not aware of it. He can only be good when not thinking about the matter; to be conscious of one's own goodness is already to have fallen!
We began by thinking of the self as just a little local self; then we extended it to the family, the cause, the nation--ever to a larger and vaster being. At last there comes a time when we recognize--or see that we shall have to recognize--an inner Equality between ourselves and all others; not of course an external equality--for that would be absurd and impossible--but an inner and profound and universal Equality. And so we come again to the mystic root-conception of Democracy.
And now it will be said: "But after all this talk you have not defined the Self, or given us any intellectual outline of what you mean by the word." No--and I do not intend to. If I could, by any sort of copybook definition, describe and show the boundaries of myself, I should obviously lose all interest in the subject. Nothing more dull could be imagined. I may be able to define and describe fairly exhaustively this inkpot on the table; but for you or for me to give the limits and boundaries of ourselves is, I am glad to say, impossible. That does not, however, mean that we cannot feel and be conscious of ourselves, and of our relations to other selves, and to the great Whole. On the contrary I think it is clear that the more vividly we feel our organic unity with the whole, the less shall we be able to separate off the local self and enclose it within any definition. I take it that we can and do become ever more vividly conscious of our true Self, but that the mental statement of it always does and probably always will lie beyond us. All life and all our action and experience consist in the gradual manifestation of that which is within us--of our inner being. In that sense--and reading its handwriting on the outer world--we come to know the soul's true nature more and more intimately; we enter into the mind of that great artist who beholds himself in his own creation.
305:1 The word in the Max Müller translation is "meditation." But that is, think, a somewhat misleading word. It suggests to most people the inward turning of the thinking facility to grope and delve in the interior of the mind. This is what should not be done. Meditation in the proper sense should mean the inward deepening of feeling and consciousness till the region of the universal is reached; but thought should not interfere there. That should be turned on outward things to mould them into expression of the inner consciousness.