Most of us believe that we are a ‘person’ with a unique body and mind. Possibly there is a ‘soul’ that survives death in some way. We think that there are other individuals and separate objects out there, alien and potentially threatening. We are constantly searching for happiness but, all too often, finding only misery.
But is any of this really true? The notion of a ‘person’ stems from the Latin persona, referring to the mask worn by actors in the ancient Greek theatre. It is used now in psychology when talking about the artificial facade that we display to others and behind which the ‘real’ I hides. And we do recognise the sense of an unchanging ‘I’, the same now as it was when we first acknowledged it. Our bodies are older and larger, our thoughts and beliefs more mature but most of us feel that I have a body and mind, not that I am a body or mind.
The body is nothing but the food that we eat, cleverly rearranged into more complex proteins, serving specific functions, by the mechanical instructions of the DNA, itself nothing more than processed food. Our opinions and thoughts are an inevitable product of our upbringing. Parents, peers, teachers and books conspire unwittingly (or not) to ‘educate’ us into our outlook on life and our aspirations. We need to look behind this facade.
The process by which we ‘attach’ our true Self to a mistaken idea of what we are is called in Sanskrit ahamkara. This literally means ‘the making (kara) of the utterance ‘I’ (aham)’. It is often equated to the Western concept of ‘ego’ and it must be controlled by the intellect if we are to make any ‘progress’ on a spiritual ‘path’.
Similarly, the ‘states of consciousness’ with which we are familiar are illusory. Only when our minds are completely still or ‘in the interval between thoughts’ if you like, are we truly ourselves. This ‘background’ state is called turiya and underlies all of our experience.
To the vast majority of people in the world, the topic of happiness is both mystifying and complex. Philosophers in the west have thought about it for the past two and a half thousand years; psychologists and sociologists have experimented and conducted polls on it for the past hundred. Still there is little consensus and, if anything, there appears to be less happiness in the world today than ever.
To the Advaitin, on the other hand, the subject is ever so simple. There is only the Self and, accepting that we can never speak of this objectively, by definition, we can say that the Self IS happiness. And that is really all there is to it.
Likewise with the question of ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ in our lives. In the world in general, there are likely to be almost as many ideas and answers to these as there are people. As far as the Advaitin is concerned, of course, there are no people so perhaps this does not count for very much! Furthermore, we know that concepts of meaning and purpose are simply that – ideas in mind. As such, their value is, at most, in their utility as tools to take the mind to the brink of understanding. Once there, all ideas must be surrendered so that the final leap can be made, extinguishing forever all identification with ego and mind.