Living a Spiritual Life
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 1: The Process of Perception

This is an ashram where satsangas are held, and certain provisions are made for people to come and derive a special kind of benefit whereby they can recharge themselves, or rather charge themselves freshly, with a power and satisfaction which is not easily available in the workaday world. This search for what is not common in the normal life of people is also something which requires to be properly understood and appreciated.

Many a time we feel happy or unhappy, without knowing the reason behind it. An intelligent person should know the causes of these occurrences in oneself; only then will they be really beneficial and lasting. An unconsciously performed virtue cannot be regarded as a real virtue. It becomes meaningful only when it is consciously done. Just as an unconscious error cannot be regarded as a deliberate commission, so also an unconscious virtue is no virtue. In the same way, a happiness whose nature and cause is not known will be of no avail finally. It will be like children jumping here and there in a state of some kind of satisfaction, of which they have no knowledge at all.

That is to say, knowledge is essential. There is nothing in the world equal to, or superior to, knowledge. It is actually the purpose of what we call education – the acquisition of more and more information and insight into everything that constitutes life. An ignorant man cannot be regarded as a happy man. An ignorant wealthy person cannot enjoy his wealth. Knowledge is primary.

It is necessary that we should also have a knowledge of our own existence. Unconsciously existing, like a stone, is not actually a way of living. Existence is one thing, and living is a little different. When we speak of this intriguing phenomenon called living or life, we are face to face with a widespread area of investigation, into which we may have to enter as if in a laboratory. In one way, we may say, this world is a laboratory where we enter into an activity of a search for newer and newer meaning. We have some meaning, but that may not be a complete meaning. The significance that we read in the phenomena of life varies from time to time, from age to age, and from condition to condition. That is what is known as apara vidya, or lower knowledge.

We do not want a passing kind of knowledge. It should be with us forever. That which will leave us one day, and has come to us only due to certain prevailing conditions, is not worth the while. We cannot live in this world without knowing where we are living; otherwise, it would be a kind of inert existence, which is totally different from enlightened living.

When we open our eyes, we see something. It is clear, as it were, that there is such a thing as seeing, but rarely do we question as to what we are seeing, and how we are seeing it. “What do we mean by seeing?” is the primary question, and the second question is, “Who is seeing?” The third question is, “What is it that is seen?” The fourth question is, “What is the relationship between the one that sees and the thing that is seen?” Further questions are, “Why is it necessary to see anything? What is the obligation behind this perpetual activity of seeing things day in and day out? Who is compelling us to see anything at all?”

Things appear to be attracting us – compelling us to see them, to look at them, and do something with them. Another question is, “Why do things look attractive; why do certain things appear beautiful and others repulsive?” Is there some explanation for this phenomenon?

We want to live. “Why do we want to live?” is also an important question that we must put to our own selves. Who is telling us that we should live? Does a book say that, or has some teacher has told that we must live? We do not require to be told by anyone that we should live. We seem to be quite certain that it is necessary.

A further question, away from this and arising from it, is, “What kind of life do we wish to live?” We have a vague notion of the type of life that we would like to live. It is vague indeed, because a complete knowledge of what it is about will not be easily available.

Then, what are we finally aiming at with all this inquisitive and investigative knowledge? Is there a purpose in things, or is life purposeless, just existing without any meaning? If there is a purpose in life, whatever be the nature of that life, it would imply that life, as it is now confronting us, is a process rather than a culmination. Life seems to be advancing in some direction of progress, people generally say – culturally, economically, socially, politically, educationally, in every way – but advancing in what direction, and towards what end?

There are others who speak of what is known as evolution. There is the natural activity seen everywhere, by which old things are cast off and new things are created. The new thing that is created is again cast off after some time, and another, newer thing is created. This seems to be a process going on everywhere throughout Nature. Why should it happen?

With all this series of questions, there is also, side by side, a sense of unknown finitude and insecurity in the mind of every person. There are various means adopted to guard oneself from the feeling of this finitude and insecurity in the world. We build a house and wish to live inside it. The house gives some sort of security, clothing gives security, the food that we eat is a security, and there are other appurtenances that we have manufactured, discovered or invented, contributing to a sense of greater and greater security.

But insecurity will persist with every protection the world can provide us because our insecurity is not entirely due to the absence of external appurtenances. Even a king is insecure, with everything he can have to guard himself from the sense of finitude and insecurity. A king has a large empire; he has an infinite existence, as it were, in society. But he is a poor individual with the gnawing sorrow of an unknown type of insecurity. If an emperor is not secure, who else can be secure in this world? The reason is that security, or freedom from this agonising sense of finitude, can be achieved by some other means than acquiring the material goods and comforts of the world and having many things with us.

We may have an army of requirements, as in the instance of the Pandava and Kaurava brothers but they are of no utility, finally. Duryodhana had the largest protective army, and the Pandavas had something similar, but both parties were insecure because the multitude of possession will be found finally to be unreliable. The emperor cannot fully trust even his own bodyguards.

So, where is security, without which life has no sense? To exist continuously with a feeling of sorrow that something is dead wrong, and at sixes and sevens, would not be meaningful living. Therefore, to search for this mysterious element in life which is lacking in public performances outside in the world, people come to institutions of this kind to attend and participate in their activities, and they leave with a sense of relief.

What is it that gives relief? I began by saying that the first phenomenon that faces us is the fact of seeing something. Unless we know what ‘seeing’ actually means – the procedure that is there as an undercurrent behind this activity – it will be like a helpless person being driven in some direction by a force other than oneself. We have to know, and also know that we know; we have to see, and also be aware that we see. Seeing is not a blank look; it is not just opening the eyes and allowing light to fall on the retina. It is also clubbed with an awareness that seeing is taking place.

There is something very interesting which we generally miss in our observations, and it is this: Seeing is an activity, a process of becoming. Awareness of this fact cannot be identical with the activity of seeing, because awareness cannot be regarded as an activity. Knowledge is not work. It is another element altogether.

The fact that awareness of the act of seeing seems to be different from the act of seeing makes us go further into this phenomenon of a mysterious something before us. Who is seeing? “I am seeing.” This is a glib statement of an untutored mind. “I am coming,” “I am seeing you,” and so on – these statements have no real profound meaning. As this fact of awareness of seeing is not the same as the act of seeing – because awareness is not an activity – what is the relationship between seeing as such, and the awareness of the fact of seeing? Where is this awareness sitting, which makes us feel that we are seeing?

Commonly, an immediate answer to this query would be, “The awareness is me. I am aware that I am seeing.” When we say, “I am aware that I am seeing,” we are mixing together two things which are really different. You cannot be seeing and also be aware of seeing, unless you are both things at the same time. How is it possible for you to be acting, and also be a judge behind the process of acting, as an element of awareness? This means to say that a dual realm of being is operating in us.

Philosophers say the phenomenal and the noumenal elements are involved in every human being. The phenomenality is symbolised here in this instance by an activity called ‘perception of things’. The noumenal aspect in us is symbolised in our being aware that there is such a thing called ‘seeing’. The words used are significant. One aspect is phenomenal because it is passing, and it is moving, and it is not stable. All such things are called phenomenal. There is another thing which is not unstable. It is perpetually there, and it cannot leave us at any time – namely, awareness of our being, and awareness of anything that we do.

We belong to two worlds at the same time, we may say: the mortal and the immortal. The mortal side is the physical side of things, the processional character of Nature, and the activity of people. The immortal side is an irrefutable affirmation taking place in us every moment of time that we are perfectly stable, and we are not changing. Even though we grow from childhood to adulthood, we have not changed; we are the same person. Anything may change, but the continuity of the awareness of this change is a permanent background of it.

Because of the fact that we seem to belong to two realms of being, we are unhappy and happy at the same time. The phenomenal side keeps us perpetually engaged in some labour or work. The noumenal side keeps us asking for more and more, and allows us not to be satisfied with anything. The world says in its phenomenality, “I have everything for you.” But the noumenal side says, “I cannot be satisfied with anything that the world can give. I seem to be something like a large sea into which anything from the world can be thrown and it can be swallowed, but it cannot satisfy the engulfing character of this vast sea.”

The whole world of wealth and so-called security is not adequate to the noumenal demand. When the noumenal is ignored and we engage ourselves excessively in the phenomenal side of things, a threat is discharged from within us, keeping us terribly upset and disturbed. This is the story of the famous German poet’s work, von Goethe’s Faustus. There was a doctor called Faust, and he made an alliance with a peculiar genie called Mephistopheles. Dr. Faust represents the noumenal side, and Mephistopheles, the phenomenal side.

“I will give you everything,” said the genie.

“Please give,” said Dr. Faust. “How much will you give?”

“I can give you everything, more than you expect from me,” said the genie.

“Give,” said Faust.

“Very good. I am immensely happy. But,” said Mephistopheles, “There is one condition. You have to pay a price for it.”

“What is the price?” asked Faust.

“Give me what you are,” said the genie.

“What is there in me?” Dr. Faust thought. “I can give myself, provided you give me the whole world because, after all, I am a little puny nothing, an individual like anyone else, but the whole world of glory is going to be given to me. Take me, and give everything that you have.”

Mephistopheles laughed a cruel laughter, and there was a thunderbolt breaking down existence itself. Everything was sundered into pieces, and Dr. Faust was nowhere. He was cast in all directions, like dynamite bursting, and he was nowhere because he sold himself to gain a wealth which was not himself. Or, in a plain language, the self sold itself to the non-self. When this takes place, we break into pieces in one second.

As no one seems to have sold oneself entirely to the world, this thunderbolt has not been discharged upon us yet. But to some extent, we seem to be participating in the activity of a possible transferring of ourselves into the world for the comforts it can give us; to that extent, we are very disturbed inside, and we cannot be really happy. The more we possess the things of the world, the less we are in ourselves. The larger the world is to us, the smaller we are before it, but as we have not become too small – to the point of extinction, as it were – we are still comfortably existing under the impression that things are very well.

But it is not enough if we merely do not possess the world because of the physical impossibility of it. Have you a wish to possess it? An ardent wish to possess the world is equal to the possession of the world, psychologically. All our existence is psychological, and not so much physical. To commit an evil act in the mind is equal to committing it really, physically, also. Reward is only given to the intention in the mind, and not to the physical performance of it; so is punishment. So, if you wish to have it, you have already got it; and to the extent of the dimension of what you got, to that extent of dimension you have reduced yourself in your personality. You have become a puny individual.

You have become Dr. Faust, and the world is the Mephistopheles. Sometimes they call it a demon, an Asura, always engaged in war with the Devas, or the genuine Pure Being which is permanently there, to which I made a reference as the awareness of perception, awareness of anything.

Now, going further, another question that is raised before us is, “What connection have we got with anything? How is awareness related to the act of seeing, perceiving – in short, in what way are we related to the world? Is the activity of perception wholly outside the awareness of it?” If that is the case, there would be no connecting link between the awareness and the activity. What is the connection?

That which is permanent cannot be connected to anything by something which is impermanent. An impermanent element cannot connect the permanent with anything. There cannot be any kind of relationship between the permanent and the impermanent. If the act of seeing and perceiving the world is an impermanent phenomenon, how would we explain the relation that seems to be there between the awareness of the world of perception, and the world as it is? Many an explanation has been offered in schools of thought and philosophies, and by psychologists of various types.

The usual answer to this query is that pure awareness does not get related to anything. There is something in us which is different from pure awareness and the phenomenon of seeing, perceiving, and doing, etc. That intermediary element is what we call ‘mind’, which is to be distinguished from pure awareness of the phenomenon of the perception of the world.

This is not a final answer, but no other answer is possible – just as we say, “God created the world,” and it is absolutely essential for us to accept that God has created the world, whether He has really created it or not; the circumstances compel us to believe it. In a similar manner, the existence of the mind apart from the awareness of all things has to be accepted.

How do we know that there is a thing called ‘mind’? We have varieties of avenues of knowledge, perception, which we call the sense organs – seeing, hearing, and the like. We have five senses of perception, cognition. Each one performs an independent function, without any connection with the other. The eyes cannot hear, the ears cannot see, and so on. But, there is a synthesising element in us which totally becomes conscious of seeing, hearing, tasting, etc., at one stroke. If this synthesising element were not there, the sensory activities of a discrete nature could not be combined into a total awareness. Such an element has to be accepted.

Now, it was said that Pure Being, which is awareness, cannot be related to any activity; and sensory perception being an activity, it was clear that awareness cannot relate itself to these activities. So, something has to be accepted as being there, which imbibes the character of two elements in itself – the awareness side, and the activity side. This is called the mind.

The mind is a mysterious element we call the psychological organ; in Sanskrit we call it antahkarana. Western psychologists analyse the components of this internal organ into understanding, feeling, and willing; but Indian psychologists go a little further and have classified the internal organ into four functional activities: understanding, thinking, feeling, and willing.

There is something called bare indeterminate thinking, other than understanding. When we see something in dim light, at twilight, at dawn or dusk, we think something is there; this is indeterminate knowledge. After some time, when we go near that thing and have adequate light to see it, we understand what it is: It is not a human being standing there, it is a pole on the road. Then, apart from this twofold activity of indeterminate thinking and determinate decision on the part of oneself in regard to that object, there is affirmation of the fact: I have concluded that this is such and such a thing. Ahamkara is the word used in Sanskrit for this sense of affirmation.

We have to affirm that it is so. We cannot just move about without having any permanent, stable knowledge of it. Indeterminate knowledge becomes determinate knowledge, and then we decide that it is such by the affirmative principle, and we remember this fact afterwards. Buddhi understands, chitta remembers and feels, ahamkara asserts, and will decides.

What is the kind of decision? After having gained this knowledge through this awareness of something being there, we decide something, either this way or that way: I have to do something with it, or I have nothing to do with it. This is how the will acts.

With all these operations taking place in the mind, we conclude that there is a thing called mind, generally speaking, which is an omnibus name that we give to the internal organ, so called – the psychological organ, the psyche, we may call it. So, from a twofold observation of things, we have now come to a threefold observation – namely, from the distinction we drew between awareness and activity of seeing, we now distinguish between three elements: awareness of being, perception through the senses, and mentation, which unifies the activities of the senses.

Yet, we cannot say that they are three different activities. We do not feel that three things are happening within ourselves. If I see a wall in front of me, I do not feel that three things are acting in me to know that there is a wall. I quickly assert, “There is the wall.” So, the perception of a thing is a total inclusive operation, notwithstanding the fact that there seem to be three elements in the process of perception.

How could this total conclusiveness be arrived at if three things are actually operating in us? We have to accept that there is a fourth thing which unifies all three factors. The fourth thing is operating in every one of these three elements and even between these elements, and perhaps stands above them totally in order that it may be aware of all three things at the same time. Such an element is immanent, as we say, because it is present in all three elements, even in the relationship between them, and yet transcends them and is above them – because unless it is so, it cannot know that they are there at all.

So, we human beings are not just simple nobodies. We have a great treasure inside us, which has to be dug out and brought to the surface of clear daylight. This is Self-knowledge, as we may say, in some respect. It is no good saying, “I know myself.”What do you know about yourself? When so many complicated things are taking place within you, around you, above you, below you, and outside you, how do you say that you know yourself? You are involved in a tremendous operation taking place everywhere, and your mere act of seeing is not a prerogative of your individuality. It is a contribution made by various elements pervading everywhere.

Theologically, religiously, it is said that gods are operating through the sense organs; they are called the adhidaiva, the unifying principles above us. There is a divinity behind our performances. “There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how you will,” is well said by a poet.

So we are not just ourselves. We seem to be something more than ourselves. This element of our being something more than ourselves is what connects us with the world, though it apparently stands outside us – connects us with our relations, connects us with people in the world, connects us even with the sun, moon, and stars. Such a principle of a highly dignified nature is ruling us, reigning as a king inside us and above us. After having gained a modicum of insight into this mystery in us, we should go further as to how we can handle this situation for our true benefit in this world. We shall continue this subject later on.