Staying Afloat


Thoughts On The Self And Samsara




Narayana Moorty


[Article to be published soon in the Souvenir of the Telugu Association of the Greater Boston Area.  Included here with the permission of the editor.]



1) I am thinking of the Sanskrit proverb “Yad bhavam tad bhavati,” which means “You are what you believe,” or “You become what you believe.”  If, for instance, you believe you are inferior, then you tend to be or become inferior. 


2) The idea of this article is not so much that we become what we believe as that we are those beliefs and thoughts, and yet we can also step out of them, at least for the time being, by being aware of them.  Of course, when we are aware of thoughts, we are some other thought in turn, although it is perhaps possible to step out of the realm of thought entirely at least momentarily.


3) Beliefs, like all other mental states, are themselves comprised of thoughts.  Mental states in general, as, for example, hopes, emotions like fear, and the enjoyment of beauty, invariably involve thoughts and are sustained by them. 


4) When I think about myself, I seem to be nothing but a series of thoughts, states of mind, and images, which constantly run through my mind.   We tend to think we are something like a person who thinks those thoughts or has those states of mind.  But whenever we try to come face to face with ourselves, we end up only having other thoughts; we never come upon the thinker as such. 


5) In trying to be aware of ourselves, at that moment, we are ourselves another thought or point of view, which we can in turn be aware of in another moment of self-consciousing.  The recognition of what we are aware of from a certain point of view gives it not only a continuity and permanence as a state of mind; but we also attribute that state to ourselves, more often than not as a state that defines our identity.  This repeated self-consiousing confirms us in that state of mind; particularly in negative emotional states, we tend to dig ourselves deeper and deeper into those states.  It may seem to us that while we are in those states, the states are an essential part of our being, and there will never be an end to them.  We can’t see ourselves out of them.  (We, of course, also reinforce our positive states through recognition and approval of them.)


5.1) Take grief or depression, for example.  Grief or depression, or any other emotion, always involves thought.  (If it doesn’t, then it is pure diffuse energy, and we wouldn’t know if we are in that state of emotion or another, or are just plain excited.)   When we are aware of our emotional state and recognize it as grief, we give it a continuity and permanence and confirm ourselves in our grief, as though we cannot be without it.  It is this repeated recognition of grief that gives it continuity and renewal.  Otherwise, grief will die out in a short time, unless some memory relating to it intrudes into our consciousness and revives the grief.


5.1.1) When my father died, my grandmother was in great grief.  Nothing would stop her from crying and banging her head against the wall, except a call from the washerman who came to collect the dirty clothes.  Then suddenly her grief stopped, she conducted the business as was needed, and then resumed her wailing.  We tend to think that she was the grief at the moment.  But her awareness of the need to attend to business on hand distracted her from her grief, at least momentarily.  And it’s only her memory of her son’s death and the related memory of her recent grieving that resurrects the grief.  What happened to her grief during the washerman’s visit, if it was so essential to her?


5.2) Or, take the fear of death, or fear of illness.  These fears are also renewed through our thinking, again and again, of the past situations that caused them. Thus we give our fears continuity and permanence. You would think you could only sink deeper into the fear, because each time we are aware of our fear, we are aware of it as something painful and unwanted, and therefore, we resist it.  And each time we resist, the fear becomes bigger and more complex, till it completely overwhelms and paralyzes us.  We are unable to let go of it for it seems as if we will lose our very existence, if we do let go of it.  Letting go of our fear seems like letting go of ourselves. 


5.3) It’s the same with our anger.  Notice how we work ourselves up into a state of fury by reviewing the situation that caused it, thus justifying our anger, and confirming ourselves in it.  But suppose, on the other hand, we are forced, by our awareness, say, of our boss being present, not to express our anger at this person.  Instead, we suddenly become quiet around this person and obsequious to our boss.  What happened to the anger, then?  Did it go into hiding?  Where?  Of course, it is possible that when the anger is not resolved, it might express itself in a modified form or on another object, but that may be because the underlying physical causes (e.g., the flow of adrenalin) have not yet been resolved.


5.4) You might say that pain is something that happens to us. However, even physical pain, in our awareness of it, is quickly turned into a mental state of pain and we cannot just think ourselves out of it, even if the fear of physical pain stops.  The “negative” states of depression, jealousy, anger, etc. are indeed states of pain; at least we read them as painful in our attempts to escape them.  And physical pain, when we are aware of it, we transform into dread, self-pity or depression, which we consider as psychologically painful states.  Furthermore, the physical pain itself is exaggerated and given continuity to through these states.  This cycle of recognition, judging and exaggeration in psychological states gets repeated over and over again through the repeated awareness of pain or depression.


5.5) If you think that I am only talking of negative examples, that’s not necessarily so.  When we are aware of having a good time, we do tend to pat ourselves on our backs, and confirm our states of enjoyment and thus give them continuity.  And these states, too, can just as easily be interrupted as the negative states.  For instance, when I am deeply involved in enjoying a movie, then suddenly I remember that I ought to be preparing for a school test the next day. Then the enjoyment suddenly evaporates.  We often have to tell ourselves to listen to the music and enjoy it, and the more we tell ourselves, the less we can actually listen or enjoy.  The mere consciousness of our enjoyment, particularly when we are obsessed by a call of duty to be elsewhere or do something else, pulls us out of the enjoyment!


6) Although we tend to confirm ourselves in our mental states through self-consciousness, recognition, and judgments, we can also step out of them completely.  For example, in our perpetual state of fear, one of those moments we just get tired of the fear and decide not to resist, fight, or flee from it.  You say to yourself, “What the heck, if I die or if I get cancer, so be it; I may be in perpetual pain or I might die.”  You yield to it, surrender to it, as it were. Here, instead of confirming ourselves in our fear we transcend it, at least for the time being.  Similarly, when we are angry, suppose we forgive the other person, and let go of our attempts to justify ourselves feeling righteous or change the other person’s behavior, see what happens to the anger.


Suppose we apply this discussion to all our states of mind.


7) So far as I know, there is not a single state of mind or emotion that we cannot step out of.  We just have to be aware of it in its entire structure (I mean the underlying motives and assumptions, and the underlying attachments and resistances) and make a conscious decision not to be in it, catching ourselves every time we fall into that state of mind.  A necessary condition for this is that we are able to let go, accept, renounce or be detached from the object of our emotion, whatever is appropriate in the particular instance, to disentangle ourselves from the object of our emotion. (Remember, the traditional definition of attachment is saying to yourself, “I cannot do without this.”)


8) If you can transcend a state of mind by a thought or state of mind, and if a state of mind itself is nothing but a continuing series of thoughts, and if we are nothing but that state of mind, what can get us out of a state of mind, except another state or thought?  It’s as if some other thought just moves in and takes hold of us like an organism.  We become that thought, or that state, for the moment, and get out of the other state.


9) If, on the other hand, we are any thought or state of mind only for a moment, and can step out of it by an act of self-consciousness, what indeed is our true self? If I have to use another thought to transcend a thought or state of mind, then am I not also that thought or state of mind for the moment? 


10) Maybe so.  But it seems that I could not only step out of thoughts or states of mind from time to time, but at some moments choose to transcend (lift myself above) all troubled (or calm) waters, and be without any thought--a “two-dimensional state,” as it were--where there is no feeling of separation between me and the world.  This requires that one is free from all concern for oneself, including concern for living and dying.  If the detachment is complete, then, perhaps, there is no need to transcend any thought or state of mind (because you are detached from it!).  Everything can be just what it is for that moment, and you don’t need to change anything! And you are not judging the state as good or bad, desirable or undesirable, pleasurable or painful.  You are just not involved.  You are sometimes your thoughts; at other times, you are nothing. 


11) There is, however, a problem here.  Even in that state (of transcending) I have an awareness of what’s going on; so it seems that there must be some mental activity (or thought) present.  If there is no thought at all, then, I wouldn’t know such a state existed (for knowledge can only exist as a thought).  Then, as far as I am concerned, I wouldn’t even exist, as when I am deeply asleep. 


12) Shamkara, the great Vedanta philosopher, thought that the fact that you could remember that you were in deep sleep was proof enough that there was awareness present in the deep sleep.  I disagree.  The fact of my remembering that I was in deep sleep only shows that I was aware of a numb state after I woke up, or of myself just falling asleep, but of nothing in between, i.e., nothing about the state of mind during the sleep.  I just put together the state before and the state after my deep sleep, give them continuity, and then interpolate my deep sleep in between them.


13) If I don’t think, if I am not aware, then I don’t exist?!  Either the two-dimensional state I mentioned above is my true self (shall we call this a state of pure awareness without an object?), or the something that exists when I don’t even know that I exist is my true self.  Shall we call this the Atman or the Self or the unity of Being, which we are when we pull ourselves out of and rise above the world of thought (our samsara!) and stay afloat?