Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The Teaching of Sri Atmananda Krishna Menon
Prakriya 4 - Witness of Thoughts

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Note that the following commentary is provided by Ananda Wood, a disciple of the sage Atmananda Krishna Menon (1883 - 1959). The material is not copyrighted and may be freely used by any true seeker. It is extracted from a discussion, led by Ananda, on the Advaitin Egroup during Nov - Dec 2003 and the text for the complete discussion may be downloaded by members.

In the statement 'I am consciousness', there are two parts. As anyone experiences the world, these two parts get differently expressed. The 'I' gets expressed as a changing personality. And 'consciousness' becomes expressed in changing perceptions of many different objects. This results in two further prakriyas. One prakriya examines personal perceptions, reflecting back into their changeless witness. The other prakriya examines objects, reducing them to consciousness.

The witness prakriya starts out with a negative. A person's body, senses and mind are not always present with the self. The outwardly waking body and its senses are not present in the dreams that mind imagines inwardly. And neither outwardly perceiving body nor inwardly conceiving mind is present in deep sleep. So, no one's self can truly be a body, nor any senses, nor a conceiving mind. Accordingly, a process of elimination is begun, to distinguish what exactly is true self. One's own true identity is that from which one can never be apart, which can never move away. Anything that can be distanced must be eliminated from consideration as the truth of one's own self.

The elimination is progressive. It starts with one's physical identity, as a body in an outside world. But that outside body disappears from experience, in dreams and deep sleep. Even in the waking state, the body disappears when attention turns to other objects or to thoughts and feelings in the mind.

In fact, the body that perceives a world is present only fitfully, in actual experience. Most of the time, it's gone away. On some occasions when it appears, it is identified as self -- thereby claiming that it continues present all along, even when attention turns elsewhere. But this claim of bodily identity is clearly false, in actual experience. When the mistake is realized, the body is eliminated from one's sense of self.

As bodily identity proves false, the sense of self falls back into the mind. Then self appears identified as that which thinks a stream of thought experiences, as they succeed each other in the course of time.

At any moment in the stream, only a single thought appears. For in that moment, there's no time to think two thoughts or more. Nor is there time to think of different things, in that single moment. To think of more than just one thing, there must be more thoughts than one, taking place at different times.

So when the mind thinks of itself, it's there alone, thought momentarily, in a passing moment. Most of the time attention turns to other things, and then the mind has gone away. In its own stream of thought, mind only shows up now and then -- as a passing thought of ego, where the mind conceives itself. On the occasions when this fitful ego-thought appears, mind identifies it as a self that knows experience. This passing ego-thought thus claims that it somehow carries on, even when it gets replaced by many other thoughts which keep succeeding it in time.

This thought of ego is self-contradictory, confused and absurdly inflated in its claims. Most people realize there's something wrong with ego, in the way that it centres what they see and feel and think upon their partial bodies and their shifting minds. But then, what exactly is the problem? And how might it be corrected?

The problem is that when mind thinks, it does not really know. The thoughts of mind are only changing acts, each of which distracts attention from the others. Each drowns out the others with its noisy clamouring. As these thoughts replace each other, knowing is what carries on. It is a silent witnessing that is completely detached and impartial, not at all involved with any changing action.

The self that knows is thus a silent witness to all thoughts which come and go. As mind and body do their acts, the witness only witnesses. Its witnessing is not a changing act. In its pure and quiet knowing, it does not do anything. It just stays the same, utterly unchanged and unaffected, completely free and independent of what is witnessed.

By the mere presence of that silent witness, what appears gets illuminated and recorded. On that witness, everyone depends, for all memory and communication. To remember or communicate, there has to be a standing back into its quiet knowing presence, which is shared in common by all changing times and different personalities. From there, all things are known, impartially and truly.

Thus, to correct the partialities and the confusions of ego, all that's needed is a change of perspective, achieved by realizing that all knowing stands in the silent witness. That is the only true perspective -- standing as the silent knower, quite detached from thinking mind, perceiving senses, doing body, happy or unhappy personality.

In the end the detachment does not come from any physical or mental change, nor from any forced renunciation. It comes just by taking note of where in fact one stands, as that which witnesses all happenings that appear. That witness is by nature unattached: quite unchanged and unaffected by the changing doings of body, sense and mind, in personality and world.

This is clearly a position that is endorsed by traditional advaita scriptures. In many places, they do so with a different emphasis, upon a cosmic witness of the world. But they also allow for the individual approach -- which first reduces world to a succession of thoughts in the sadhaka's mind, and then goes on to ask what witnesses those thoughts. In the end, the witness is of course the same, whether cosmic in the world or individual in the microcosmic personality.

Like other prakriyas, the 'witness' approach gives rise to confusions that need to be clarified. A note (by Nitya Tripta) on one main confusion is appended as a postscript.


How confusion arises with regard to the witness

('Notes on Spiritual Discourses of Shri Atmananda', 4th September 1952, note 217)

Suppose you are the witness to a particular thought. A little later, you remember that thought and you say you had that thought some time ago -- assuming thereby that you were the thinker when the first thought occurred, though you were then really the witness of that thought.

This unwarranted change in your relationship with a particular thought -- from when the thought occurs to when you remember it -- is alone responsible for the whole confusion with regard to the witness.

When you seem to remember a past thought, it is really a fresh thought by itself and it has no direct relationship with the old one. Even when you are remembering, you are the witness to that thought of remembrance. So you never change the role of your witnesshood, however much your activities may change.

prakriyA-s in this Section:
Atmananda Krishna Menon home page.
1.  Universal and Individual - the 'cosmological' and 'direct' paths.
2.  The three states - enquiry from everyday experience.
3.  'I am consciousness' ('Prajnyanam asmi') - reflection back into the 'I'.
4.  Witness of thoughts - change and the changeless.
     -- Consciousness and Enlightenment
     -- Memory
     -- Higher and Lower Reason
     -- Knowing
     -- Further Comments on Deep Sleep
5.  All objects point to consciousness - 'Existence has the chair.'
6.  Happiness - not in objects or the mind, but coming from the real 'I'.
     -- Love and Devotion
7.  The background - where all experiences arise, abide and subside.
8.  Merging back - 'Sleep in consciousness.'
     -- Some Questions
Ananda has provided an updated version of these essays May 2007 and this may be downloaded as a PDF file (251k); it has a linked Table of Contents and a glossary (unlinked).
"Notes on Spiritual Discourses of Shri Atmananda" now available for download - see 'modern books'.
Selected discourses from Shri Atmananda
Page last updated: 07-Jul-2012