Shri Atmananda instructed his disciples through a number of different ‘prakriyas’ or
‘methods’ for approaching truth. And, from time to time, he would explain some basic
prakriyas in a series of ‘regular talks’, which served as a systematic introduction
to his teachings. In 1958, my sister and I attended such a series of talks, at Shri Atmananda’s
home in Trivandrum.
We were still children at the time, just before our teens, growing up as westernized
Indians in post-colonial Mumbai (then called ‘Bombay’). To us, Shri Atmananda was
not westernized but very Indian, quite unlike our westernized school and our avantgarde
intellectual parents. And yet, it was our school-teachers and our parents who
struck us as old-fashioned and authoritarian. That wasn’t how we thought of Shri Atmananda.
We did not have to take what he said on authority, for he came across in a
perfectly modern way – as speaking on a level with us, about our everyday experience.
In this everyday experience, he showed a meaning that was simple and straightforward,
in contrast to all the complicated stuff that was being loaded onto us by our
parents and our school. When we once complained of this load, he very gently made
it plain that the load was better taken on than evaded, and that his teaching should not
be misused for the purpose of evasion.
Such a straightforward attitude is characteristic of his teaching. Thinking back over
Shri Atmananda’s regular talks, that straightforwardness was evident from the first
prakriya explained. This is the prakriya that examines waking, dream and sleep – as
three states which we commonly experience. These states are here examined naturally
and simply, as everyday experiences that show a self from which they are known.
• In the waking state, the self is identified with a body in an outside world, where the
body’s senses are assumed to know outside objects.
• But in the dream state, all bodies and all objects seen are imagined in the mind.
Dreamt objects are experienced by a dream self – which is not an outside body, but
has been imagined in the mind. This shows that the self which knows experience
cannot be an outside body, as it is assumed to be in the waking world.
Considering the dream state more carefully, it too depends upon assumed belief.
In the experience of a dream, self is identified with a conceiving mind, where
thoughts and feelings are assumed to know the dreamt-up things that they conceive.
• Finally, in the state of deep sleep, we have an experience where no thoughts and
feelings are conceived and nothing that’s perceived appears. In the experience of
deep sleep, there is no name or quality or form – neither conceived by mind, nor
perceived by any sense.
At first, from this lack of appearances, it seems that deep sleep is a state of
blank emptiness, where there is nothing to know anything. No mind or body there
appears; and yet it is a state that we somehow enter and experience every day,
when waking body falls asleep and dreaming mind has come to rest.
If our experience of deep sleep is thus taken seriously, it raises a profound question.
How is deep sleep experienced, when all activities of body and of mind have disappeared?
What self could know our experience there, in the complete absence of any
perceiving body and any thinking or feeling mind?
The question points to a self which experiences deep sleep, a self that somehow goes on knowing when all changing actions of perception, thought and feeling have disappeared. That self is utterly distinct from mind and body, for it stays knowing when they disappear. Its knowing is no changing act of either mind or body; for it remains when all changing acts have come to rest, in an experience where they are utterly dissolved. So it is changeless in itself -- found shining by itself, in depth of sleep.
Since change and time do not apply to it, that self is a changeless and a timeless principle of all experience. In the waking state, it illuminates perceptions and interpretations of an outside world. In dreams, it illuminates the inwardly conceived imaginations of a dreaming mind. In deep sleep, it shines alone, quite unconfused with body or with mind. In all these states, it remains the same. It is always utterly unchanged in its own existence, which illuminates itself.
Through this prakriya, Shri Atmananda initiated an enquiry from everyday experience that is commonly accessible to everyone. Accordingly, he treated everyday deep sleep as a 'key to the ultimate'. He said that if a sadhaka is ready to consider deep sleep seriously, then this alone is enough, without the need for a yogic cultivation of nirvikalpa samadhi.
How far does Shri Atmananda's position here accord with the traditional advaita scriptures? This depends on which scriptures are taken up and how they are interpreted. Two scriptures that I've studied here are the story of Indra and Virocana in the Chandogya Upanishad (8.7-12) and the analysis of 'Om' in the Mandukya Upanishad. I personally do not find it difficult to interpret these two scriptures in a way that accords fully with Shri Atmananda. But there are of course other interpretations which place emphasis upon nirvikalpa samadhi, as a fourth state considered in addition to waking, dream and sleep.
I would say that for the purposes of different kinds of sadhana, it is quite legitimate to interpret the scriptures in such ways that may seem contradictory. The contradictions are only seeming, in the realm of dvaita where our sadhanas take place. Advaita is the goal to which the sadhanas aspire. It's there that all contradictions are dissolved.
"Consciousness never parts with you in any of the three states. In deep sleep you are conscious of deep rest or peace.Inference is possible only of those things which have not been experienced. The fact that you had a deep sleep or profound rest is your direct experience and you only remember it when you come to the waking state. It can never be an inference. Experience alone can be remembered. The fact that you were present throughout the deep sleep can also never be denied. The only three factors thus found present in deep sleep are Consciousness, peace and yourself. All these are objectless and can never be objectified.In other words, they are all subjective.But there can only be one subject and that is the 'I- Principle'. So none of these three can be the result of inference since they are all experience itself." [From Nitya Tripta, Notes on Spiritual Discourses of Shri Atmananda , 20th January 1951, note number 27.]
A common sense analysis is that deep sleep is a blank in the memory record, between falling asleep and waking up. But such a blank does not provide conclusive evidence of any positive experience by an unchanging self. Sleep can only have a duration in physical time, as indicated for example by the change in a clock or in sunlight.
The memory record is not a physical tape; it is merely a sequence of passed moments. In that remembered sequence, there is a moment of falling asleep and (if the sleep was dreamless) the very next moment is waking up. As described from the physical world, there may be a duration of some hours between falling asleep and waking. When this physical description is added onto the memory record, then it may seem that there were some hours between the two moments of falling asleep and waking up. But if the memory record is considered in its own terms, it says something quite different. It says that these two moments were right next to each other, with no time in between them at all.
So where do we go from this contradiction, between the physical view that time has passed in deep sleep and the mental view that no time has passed at all? We can go two ways.
On the one hand, we can think that yes, there was a period of time which memory has failed to report. But this raises further questions. Can the failure be redressed? Even if we do not remember any physical or mental appearances in that period, was there some experience there that we can understand more deeply? Beneath such appearances, do we have any further experience that is revealed to us, by the sense of refreshing rest and peace and happiness which we seek in deep sleep and which sometimes comes across to us from there?
On the other hand, we can take it that no time at all has passed between adjacent moments, as one has been succeeded by the next. Again this raises questions, even more profound. If there's no time between adjacent moments, what makes them different? How on earth can we distinguish them? Must there not be a timeless gap between them, after one has passed and before the other has appeared? And if this is so between the moment of falling fast asleep and the next moment of waking up, must it not be so between any two adjacent moments?
So doesn't every moment rise from a timeless gap whose experience is the same as deep sleep? And doesn't every moment instantly dissolve back there again? So isn't every moment in immediate contact with a timeless depth of sleep that no moment ever leaves?
That timeless depth is thus present to us all, immediately, throughout all time.
Each of us stands in it always, not seeing anything, nor hearing anything, nor thinking
anything – just as we recognize ourselves to be in the state of deep sleep, in which
there truly is no ignorance. (This is how I would interpret Atma Nirvriti, chapter 17.)
Such a position is achieved through a special kind of logic, which Shri Atmananda called 'higher reason' or 'vidya-vritti'. That is not the outward reasoning of mind, which builds upon assumptions, thus proceeding from one statement to another. Instead, it is an inward reasoning that asks its way down beneath assumptions, thus going on from each question to deeper questions.
That inward logic finds its goal when all assumptions are dissolved and thus no further questions can arise. Advaita cannot be established by the 'lower' logic, the outward reasoning of mind. But of the higher logic or the higher reason, Shri Atmananda said exactly the opposite. He said that it alone is sufficient to realize the truth and to establish advaita. And he insisted that a sadhaka must hold on to it relentlessly, not letting go until it dissolves itself in complete establishment. For it is the true logic. It is the truth itself, appearing in the form of logic to take a sadhaka back into it, when love for truth gets to be genuine.
This is a delicate issue, quite paradoxical to outward intellect. And it is depends essentially on the relationship between teacher and disciple. The following is from Nitya Tripta's book ('Notes on Spiritual Discourses of Shri Atmananda', 8th March 1958, note 29):
" Is 'vicara' thinking about the Truth? No. It is entirely different. 'Vicara' is a relentless enquiry into the truth of the Self and the world, utilizing only higher reason and right discrimination. It is not thinking at all. You come to 'know' the meaning and the goal of vicara only on listening to the words of the Guru. But subsequently, you take to that very same knowing, over and over again. That is no thinking at all. This additional effort is necessary in order to destroy samskaras. When the possessive identification with samskaras no longer occurs, you may be said to have transcended them. You cannot think about anything you do not know. Therefore thinking about the Truth is not possible till you visualize it for the first time. Then you understand that Truth can never be made the object of thought, since it is in a different plane. Thus thinking about the Truth is never possible. The expression only means knowing, over and over again, the Truth already known."
There is knowing in deep sleep, but it is not a knowing of any object that is separate from self. The experience of deep sleep is pure knowing or pure light, unmixed with any object. The objects that appeared in waking and in dreams are thus absorbed by deep sleep into pure light, utterly unmixed with any darkness or obscurity. It's only in the waking and dream states that darkness or obscurity gets mixed up with light, through the seeming presence of objects.
When seen correctly, deep sleep is identical with nirvikalpa samadhi. It is a state of absorption in pure light. This is not of course to deny that the yogic cultivation of samadhi has its benefits, in training concentration, in purifying character and in forcefully turning attention to a state of objectless experience. But, since deep sleep is so commonplace and so easily entered, most people are not interested to consider it seriously.
The only state in which we can conduct any analysis at all is the waking state. The whole aim of this [three-state] prakriya is to find that 'independent standpoint'. Of course the enquiry starts off conducted from the waking state, just as one looks at someone else from one's partial personality. But if the enquiry is genuine, why shouldn't it find a deeper, more impartial ground that is shared with other states? Is it so different from finding common ground with other people, when one is genuinely interested in their points of view?
To find such common and impartial ground, one has to stand back from superficial partialities, thus going down beneath their limiting assumptions. That is what's meant to be achieved, by turning waking mind towards an enquiry of dream and sleep experience. In turning its attention to consider dreams and sleep, the waking mind is turned back down, into its own depth from where it has arisen.
When it considers dreams, it is still mind -- which thinks and feels through memory and inference, both of them unreliable. But when the mind goes further down to try considering deep sleep, the only way it can succeed is to get utterly dissolved in consciousness itself, where knowing is identity. There nothing is remembered or inferred; for knowing is entirely direct, as a complete identity of that which knows with what is known.
So, on the one hand, it is right to admit that one can't see in advance how the analysis or the enquiry is going to succeed. That is quite beyond the superficial waking mind where the enquiry starts off. And, if analysis means "the objective and rational pursuit of the mind-intellect", then this can't be adequate. But, on the other hand, when Shri Atmananda spoke of 'enquiry' or 'reason' or 'logic' or 'analysis', he did not restrict these terms to the mind-intellect. In particular, he said that genuine enquiry must necessarily transcend the mind, through 'higher reason' or 'higher logic' or 'higher analysis'. That higher reason is a questioning discernment which becomes so keen and genuine that the truth itself arises in response to it and takes the sadhaka back in, beyond all mind and partiality.
In advaita, all ideas and arguments are useful only to that end. As they proceed, they sharpen reason and discernment, to a point where all causality and all distinctions get dissolved. As reason reaches there, its results can't be foreseen or described, but only pointed to. That's why deep sleep is so significant. It points to dissolution in an utterly impartial and thus independent stand, where no confused distinctions can remain.
According to advaita, a true advaitin doesn't merely remember something from deep sleep, but actually stands in just that experience which is the essence of deep sleep. The advaitin doesn't merely remember that experience but knows it in identity, as utterly at one with it. And this knowing in identity is most definitely fully present in the waking and all states, whatever may or may not appear.
Hence, the Gita says (2.69, in a free translation):
One whose balance is complete stands wide awake in what is dark unconscious night, for any being seen created in the world. Created beings are awake to what sage sees as a night where true awareness is submerged in dreams of blind obscurity.
In a way, the only way to non-dual truth is by learning from a living someone who directly knows deep sleep, while speaking in the waking state. That learning cannot be achieved by reading books or by any amount of discussion with people like yours truly. From such reading and discussion, a sadhaka can only hear of ideas and arguments that living teachers use to take disciples to the truth. To be convinced of the truth to which such arguments are meant to lead, the sadhaka must be guided by a living teacher who stands established in that truth.
Regarding the 'experience' of deep sleep,the following note by Nitya Tripta may be helpful:
How do you think about or remember a past enjoyment? ('Notes on Spiritual Discourses of Shri Atmananda', 26th March 1951, note 68)
"You can only try to recapitulate, beginning with the time and place, the details of the setting and other attendant circumstances or things, including your own personality there. Thinking over them or perceiving them in the subtle, following the sequence of the incident, you come to the very climax, to the point where you had the previous experience of happiness. At that point your body becomes relaxed, mind refuses to function, you forget the long cherished object you had just acquired, and you forget even yourself. Here you are again thrown into that state of happiness you enjoyed before. Thus, in remembering a past enjoyment, you are actually enjoying it afresh, once again. But some people stop short at the point where the body begins to relax, and they miss the enjoyment proper.
" Similarly, when you begin to think about your experience of happiness in deep sleep, you begin with your bedroom, bed, cushions ... and pressing on to the very end you come to the Peace you enjoyed there. You enjoy the peace of deep sleep; that is to say you find that the peace of deep sleep is the background of the variety in wakefulness, and that it is your real nature."
The enquiry starts with the mind and its confused assumptions. But what it does is to question the assumptions, in an attempt to clarify their confusions. In effect, as the enquiry proceeds, the mind keeps digging up its seeming ground, from under its own feet. It keeps undermining its previous positions, in search of clarity. Its questions are turned back upon the very assumptions that have given rise to them. As assumptions are unearthed, examined and their falsities removed, the enquiry falls back on deeper, more directly rooted foundations, from where further questions rise and turn back down to investigate and clarify what's underneath.
So long as this reflecting-down enquiry keeps finding that its stand is a construction from diversity, made up from buried elements that have to be examined further, the enquiry is still in mind and cannot reach a final end. For then one's stand is still built up on different and alien things that are not fully and directly known, and this inevitably brings in ignorance, confusion and uncertainty. To reach a final end, the mind must find a way to go directly and completely down beneath all mental constructs, to where the mind and its journey down are utterly dissolved and no diversity remains.
How is that possible? Well, in a sense, that happens every night, when we fall into deep sleep. The mind relaxes then -- withdrawing back from waking world, through dreams, into a depth of sleep where no diversity appears. The higher reason or vicara does this in the waking state, by a questioning discernment that progressively refines itself of all ingrained confusions, until it penetrates entirely beneath diversity, where it dissolves spontaneously in what it has been seeking.
In short, though the enquiry starts out in mind, it is not targeted at any object that the mind conceives. It's target is pure subject -- the inmost ground from which conception rises and where conceptions all return to get dissolved, as they are taken in. By targeting that ground, the enquiry must point beyond its conceptions, to where they get utterly dissolved.
So, from the mind where it starts out, the enquiry and its results must seem quite paradoxical. The paradoxes come from mind that is dissatisfied with its own conceptions. So it looks for a way beyond them, though at the same time it expects to conceive what will be found beyond. In fact, the only way to find out is to go there. It cannot be conceived in advance.
To navigate along the way, language can be very useful, if it is used to point beyond its symbols and descriptions. It's function is to sacrifice itself, to burn up so completely that not a trace of smoke or ash remains, to interfere with what its meaning shows. It is the 'higher reason' that uses language in this way. The function of the higher reason is precisely to burn up all obscuring residues that language leaves behind.
So, where you ask if the higher reason is a function of a 'higher mind', the answer is most definitely not. Shri Atmananda was quite explicit about this. In Malayalam (or Sanskrit) the higher reason is 'vidya vritti', which means the 'functioning of knowledge'. The higher reason is just that which dissolves the mind in knowledge. It is the functioning of knowledge, expressed in a questioning discernment that takes mind back to knowledge where all thinking is dissolved. There is no 'higher mind'. The only way that mind can get 'higher' is to get utterly dissolved in knowledge.
Let me try to put it more simply. Knowledge is the subject of which both higher reason and mind are instruments. The higher reason functions, through discerning enquiry, to dissolve the mind in pure knowledge, where mind properly belongs. And as the higher reason functions, it makes use of mind reflectively, in order to bring mind back to knowledge. There is no question of the higher reason being an instrument of any mind. It is always the other way about.
I would add that the process of 'higher reason' is one hundred percent empirical. Each question is tried out to see what result it leads to. And then, further questions rise empirically. They rise from actual experience of the result, not just from imagining or theorizing in advance what it might be. Thus, the process must go on relentlessly, until the actual experience of a truth where questions do not further rise -- where all possibility of questioning is utterly dissolved. All this requires that each questioning attack is turned back upon one's own mistakes of assumption and belief. Otherwise, the reasoning is merely theoretical.
"Reasoning and truth: When an enquiry begins to ask for plain, impartial truth, the asking is at first from mind.
But, for such asking to succeed, the mind that asks must question what it thinks it knows -- discerning truth from falsity in its assumed beliefs.
In search of truth, the asking must keep opening what is believed to unrelenting scrutiny,
until the living truth itself -- the very knowledge that is sought -- takes charge of the enquiry.
That taking charge by living truth, of asking mind, is spoken of as 'vidya vritti' or, in other words, as 'higher reasoning'.
Then, in that higher reasoning, the knowledge sought becomes expressed in living arguments and questioning towards a truth beyond the mind --
a truth which makes no compromise between mind's thoughts that make-believe and what knowing truly finds."