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The Process of Perception
by Swami Krishnananda

Many a time we feel happy, and also unhappy, without knowing the reason behind it. An intelligent person should know the causes of these occurrences in one's person; only then, they will 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 feeling satisfied and jumping here and there in the 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 is called 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 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 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; but rarely do we question ourselves as to what we are seeing, and how we are seeing. Just because it is clear, as it were, that there is such a thing as seeing, it does not mean that everything about it is clear. “What do you mean by seeing?” is the primary question. 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 attractive, compelling us to see them, 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 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 to live.

A further question, away from this and arising from it, is, “What kind of life do you 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 is that which we are 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 or purposiveness? If there is a purpose in life, whatever be the nature of that life, it would imply that life, as it is now at present 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 in the world, in all 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 means adopted in various ways to guard oneself from the feeling of this finitude and insecurity in the world. Every kind of thing is an insecure something, as we can see with our eyes. We build a house and wish to live inside the house, and would not like to be outside it. The house also 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 and discovered or invented, contributing to a sense of greater and greater security.

But insecurity will persist with every protection the world can provide, because the sense of insecurity is not entirely due to 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 an inner 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.

One may have an army of requirements. They are of no utility, finally. We have the instance of the Pandava and Kaurava brothers. Duryodhana had the largest protective army, and the Pandavas also had something of that kind, but both parties were insecure because the multitude of possession is found finally to be an unreliable belonging. The emperor cannot fully trust even his own bodyguards. That is the greatness of an emperor.

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, attend their programs, and participate in them. They go 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.

Here 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. Taken to its depths, this fact of awareness of seeing being 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 located, 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 two things together, while they are really two different things. We cannot see and also be aware of seeing, unless we are both things at the same time. How is it possible for us 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 enough. One aspect is phenomenal because it is passing, 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 adult, 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 of some kind or the other. The noumenal side keeps us asking for more and more, and does not allow us 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 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, there is a threat discharged from within us, keeping us terribly upset and disturbed. This is the story of the famous German poet Goethe's work, Faustus. There was a doctor called Faustus, and he made an alliance with a peculiar genie called Mephistopheles. Dr. Faustus represents the noumenal side, and Mephistopheles, the phenomenal side.

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

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

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


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

“What is the price?”

“Give me what you are.”

“What is there in me?” Dr. Faustus 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. Faustus was nowhere. He was cast in all directions, like dynamite bursting in various places, and he was nowhere, because he sold himself to gain a wealth which was not himself. Or, in plain language, the self sold itself to the non-self. When this takes place, we break into pieces in one second.

As none of us seems to have sold ourselves 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 happy, really speaking. 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 we a wish that if it is possessed, it is good? An ardent wish that it is good 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 we wish that it would be good if we had it, we have already got it; and to the extent of the dimension of what we got, to that extent we have reduced ourselves in our personality. We have become puny individuals. We have become Dr. Faustus, and the world is Mephistopheles. Sometimes it is called the demon, or the Asura, always engaged in war with the Devas, or the genuine Pure Being which is permanent, to which I made a reference as awareness of perception, awareness of anything.

Now, going further, another question that is raised before us is: What connection have we 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 that 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 because the circumstances compel us to believe it, in a similar manner, the existence of the mind has to be accepted, apart from the awareness of all things.

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 some 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, or the psychological organ.

The mind is a mysterious element we call the psychological organ. In Sanskrit it is called antahkarana. Western psychologists analyse the components of the 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 unclear light, at twilight, dawn or dusk, we think something is there; this is indeterminate knowledge. After some time, when we go near that thing, and when there is adequate light to see it, we understand what it is: it is a human being; it is a pole on the road. Then, apart from this twofold activity of indeterminate thinking and determinate decision 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 became determinate knowledge, and then it was decided 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 the 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, as we may call it. So, from a twofold observation of things we have come now 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 in us. 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 certainly assert, “There is the wall.” So, the perception of a thing is a total inclusive operation, notwithstanding the fact that there seems 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 the 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 the three things at the same time. Such an element is immanent, as we say, because it is present in all the 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 we know ourselves. What do we know about ourselves? When so many complicated things are taking place within us, around us, above us, below us, and outside us, how do we suddenly say that we know ourselves? We are involved in a tremendous operation taking place everywhere, and our mere act of seeing is not a prerogative of our 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. Divinity there is, behind our performances. “There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we 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. It 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.