After the sat, cit and ananda aspects have been examined, the next
prakriya investigates the changeless background of all change and
As the world appears, to anyone, it is shown in seeming pictures --
physical, sensual and mental. These are pictures that have been created
by changing acts of perception and conception, through our bodies and
our minds. As our minds and bodies differ, so too their acts of
picturing get to be different as well. The differences produce a great
variety of pictures -- at different times and places, and in different
cultures and personalities.
But in the end, each picture must arise from the same complete reality
of physical and mental world - which includes all times and places,
together with all cultures and all personalities. Whatever picture may
appear - of anything or to anyone - that complete reality is always
implied, in the background of the picturing.
Each apparent picture is portrayed at the foreground of experience, by
some act of picturing. This very act must express the reality from
which it has arisen. That expressed reality is quietly implied. It
stands utterly unpictured in the background, while changing pictures
are portrayed on the seeming surface of the mind's attention.
Accordingly, reality can be approached as a background screen, on which
all pictures of the world are drawn. The screen is in itself
unpictured -- remaining everywhere the same, never varying at all. In
this sense, of standing changeless underneath, that background is
called 'sat' or 'existence'.
But that background is no object in the world. Each object is a
pictured element, appearing on the background screen. And each such
element is lit by consciousness. The knowing light of consciousness is
present through all pieces of the picturing. Throughout all varied
pieces of the pictured show, that light stays present with the screen.
The pictured pieces change and vary; but their background and their
knowing light stay present always, throughout all the changes and the
differences. There is no way of distinguishing between that background
reality and the knowing light of consciousness. The two cannot be told
apart. They are in fact identical. The background screen is light
itself, illuminating all its pictures from behind.
The pictures are all made of light. As they show, they shine by that
light, which illuminates itself. In this sense, as self-illuminating
light, the reality is called 'cit' or 'consciousness'.
As the pictures come and go, they all arise expressing consciousness,
from which they come. That expression is their life, which animates
their changing movement. From it comes all their sense of purpose and
meaning and value.
In the end, all pictured acts are done for the sake of consciousness,
which they express. As it knows itself, in identity, it shines
non-dually -- identical with the reality of each picture that it
lights. By that non-dual shining, all actions in our pictures are
inspired to take place, spontaneously and naturally, of their own
For that non-dual shining is the happiness that is uncovered when
desire is fulfilled. The wanting mind is dual, feeling need for
something else. When what's wanted is obtained, the self that knows is
felt to be at one with what has come about. The wanting mind's duality
has there been brought to rest, dissolved into a non-duality that is
its real motivation. In this sense, as that which is ultimately valued,
the reality is called 'ananda' or 'happiness'.
The background is thus 'sat-cit-ananda'. As 'sat', it is the background of all objects
and objective acts. As 'cit', it is the background of all thoughts and ideas. As 'ananda',
it is the background of all feelings and all values. But then, how can it be investigated,
beneath the pictures that appear to cover it?
As Shri Atmananda explained, it can be found by looking carefully at the gaps in
our picturing of the apparent world. There, in the gaps, when they are properly examined,
the background may be found uncovered, shining by itself.
In deep sleep, the gap is obvious, because it corresponds to a gap in
physical time, seen from the waking state. But there is also a less
obvious gap -- which need not take any physical time, and which usually
passes quite unnoticed. This is the gap that keeps taking place in the
mind, whenever a perception, thought or feeling comes to end.
At this point of time -- just after each mentation disappears and just
before the next appears -- there is a timeless gap, in which the mind
has returned to dissolution in its shining background. In that gap, as
in deep sleep, the ego is dissolved and the real self is found 'shining
in its own glory'.
Taking note of that gap shows the background positively, as that true
and positive reality of each object and each action that appears. What
makes this prakriya so positive is that the gap can be seen to keep
occurring all the time. It occurs before and after every moment -- as
each present moment rises from the dissolution of what went before, and
as this moment in its turn dissolves into a timeless shining out of
which the next succeeding moment is then born.
Whatever may appear is thus shown to rise immediately from the shining background,
which provides both knowing light and continuing support. And with the
same immediacy, what rises into show is then returned to that same background,
which stays present quite unchanged.
Through this reflection back, all perceptions, thoughts and feelings keep on pointing
to a positive reality, which underlies their fitful appearances in changing mind.
They point back by their natural and spontaneous returning to dissolve in that reality - where they keep expiring, at every moment that we know.
How and where is this prakriya described in traditional and ancient
texts? I must confess to not having much of an answer. I can only give a few preliminary indications, which are appended below, as a postscript.
The concept of the 'background' in traditional advaita
-- some preliminary indications
First, when speaking of the 'background' in his native Malayalam, Shri
Atmananda used the word 'porul' (with a retroflex 'l' -- the word comes
from Tamil). My dictionaries translate the word as 'meaning, truth,
wealth, essence, sum-and-substance'.
Second, Ramana Maharshi often speaks of the background as a screen. For
example, in 'Forty Verses on Reality', he says (in stanza 1, translated
from his Malayalam version 'Sad-darshanam'):
Names and forms are pictures.
The one who sees, the light
and the screen: all these
are one reality, and that alone.
Similarly, at an earlier time, Shri Jnyaneshwar says in 'Cangadeva
Pasashti', 13 (composed in old Marathi prakrit):
A non-existent picture shows,
but what exists is only wall.
So too, what shines is consciousness,
here in the form of changing world.
Third, going back to ancient times, the concept of 'AkAsha' is often
used to indicate or to imply a continuing or changeless background. In
particular, as the fifth element, AkAsha is the background continuity
pervading all of space and time. And this word 'AkAsha' has also a
deeper meaning, shown by its derivation. It comes from the root 'kash',
which means to 'shine'. To this root, the prefix 'a-' is added,
indicating 'nearness' or 'immediacy'. So, more deeply seen, the word
'AkAsha' indicates an immediate shining, found in the background of our
In that deeper meaning, the element 'AkAsha' shows a changeless reality
that is identical with knowing self. That meaning is brought out in the
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, chapter 3, through a persistent questioning
of Yajnyavalkya by Gargi.
Initially, she goes through the five elements, asking what each one is
made of. When she gets to ask about AkAsha, he answers cosmologically,
through various mythical and religious conceptions that lead up to the
limitless expanse of 'brahman'. And he refuses to answer beyond that --
telling Gargi that her head will fall off, if she asks too many
But, some time later on, she comes back with a more intelligent way of
asking about the underlying nature of AkAsha. She asks a leading
question that brings out the pervading continuity of AkAsha, throughout
all space and time. And then she goes on to ask what it is that
supports the continuity.
Only then does Yajnyavalkya give a full and direct answer, telling her
that AkAsha shows an unchanging reality (akShara) which is directly
found as knowing self. As he puts it (in 3.8.11):
This, Gargi, is that same changeless principle
... which is not known, but is the knower.
... Other than this, there is no knower.
Gargi, it is in this very changeless principle
that AkAsha is woven, warp and woof.