The Path to Freedom: Mastering the Art of Total Perception
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 9: The Meaning Behind Objects

To search for the Spirit is to seek a meaning or significance, rather than a substance or an object. This is a very subtle import for all spiritual seekers. We often make the mistake of thinking that when we ask for God, we are asking for a thing, a person, an object or a substance. While our notions of God and the Spirit have some significance in our search, they all fall short of the Real and the True, inasmuch as there is something deeper that we are really seeking than what comes to the surface of our mind.

To give a concrete example of what a meaning is, rather than a thing or a substance, when we ask for food, for all outward purposes it looks that we are in need of some substance. When I say I need some food, you may think that perhaps I need some wheat, rice, vegetables, butter, milk, etc. These are generally interpreted to be food. But there is something in this asking for food, a meaning or significance behind this asking, which does not become apparent to our mind.

Truly speaking, it is not these articles of diet that we are asking for. We are asking for a meaning that is hidden behind them. They are capable of conveying a significance in our personal life—here in this instance, our physical bodily life. If this group of articles is not to convey any significance to bodily existence, they will not be the things that we ask for.

Whenever we look at an object, we read meaning into it: it means something. This habit of reading meaning into it is so familiar that we cannot think in any other manner. We do not think first and then read meaning afterwards. Thinking and reading the meaning go together. Or, to put it in psychological terminology, understanding and feeling work simultaneously in our perception. When we think an object, we also feel something about it. In other words, it means the recognition of an object in terms of the significance it conveys to our lives.

It is this significance that misses our attention in our search for values in life. It is really a set of values that we want, and not objects or things. The meaning behind an article of diet is to appease hunger. That is what we need, not bags of rice. It so happens that when a certain quantity of rice comes in contact with our physical body, it is in a position to appease the state of biological reaction which we call hunger. Otherwise, it would be something else that we would ask for. So it is not any particular object that we seek; we seek only the value that is hidden in the object.

So is the case with money. It is not coins that we are in need of, but the capacity to provide us with purchasing power. The power of purchase is called money, not gold and silver or notes. That is the meaning behind cash value—and so on and so forth with every blessed thing in the world.

There is a significance in our asking for things, a significance and a meaning behind our relationship with things, a meaning behind the way in which we talk, the way in which we conduct ourselves in society, the way in which we think and feel and act. All these things have a hidden significance, a meaning; and it is this meaning which we are in search of. Unfortunately, we confuse this meaning with the outer form of objects, and it looks as if we are in search of objects rather than values. Not so. When we speak even in ordinary language we ask, “What is the spirit of the teaching?” We make a distinction between the letter and the law, for example. The words that I speak and the spirit in which I speak are different. So even in common parlance we use the term ‘spirit’ to signify a meaning rather than an outer form.

As is the case with ordinary life, so is the case with our cosmical relations. There is a Spirit behind our very existence as individuals. In the previous examples, the concrete substances such as articles of diet or currency notes have a significance behind them, which alone we are in need of, and not the things themselves. If the meaning is absent, we will not go for it. For example, if the present system of government changes, the system of currency will change, and our asking for money would be asking for something else afterwards. The meaning of the present currency has been lost, so we ask for something else with the same meaning.

In particular individual life there is a Spirit which we have lost in the midst of the clamouring particulars. Though we have heard this word ‘Spirit’ uttered many a time, we cannot help contemplating the Spirit as some object. We have to learn to think a little impersonally when we tread the spiritual path. We have been too much wedded to personalities, things and concrete substances, so we have been taught to think only in terms of these physical entities. We cannot think impersonally. It may be my person or somebody else’s person, but all our thoughts are personal. The impersonal is hidden behind all personal valuations of things, and it is the impersonal that we see even through persons.

The general is hidden in the particular. The impersonal is hidden in all the particulars. The implicit is present in all the individualities. There is a gradual rise in our aspirations from lower particulars to higher particulars and, for the time being, the higher particular acts as the general or the universal for the lower particular.

Therefore, in the search of the Spirit, we do not search for any existent object because the Spirit is not an object. To come to our examples again, the spirit of the law is not a thing that we can see with our eyes, yet we know what it means. The spirit is a very intangible significance which makes itself felt not to the senses but to something which seems to have a kinship in our own being. The Spirit of things cannot be seen though the senses. It is not appreciated even by the understanding, which always works in terms of the senses.

We have in our own individualities something which can be said to be the meaning of our own existence. What we call the ‘I’ is the meaning hidden in what we regard ourselves to be. The same analogy can be applied to our own personalities. The Spirit of my being is different from my bodily existence and the encasements of other bodies, other people, etc. So when I ask for the Spirit, what do I ask for?

“What is spirituality?” is the moot question. Spirituality is that condition of the consciousness where it asks for the Spirit of things rather than the forms or bodies of things. That is spirituality. We no longer interpret things in terms of objects and persons, and our evaluations of life no longer depend on persons and things. We learn to think in terms of the generals and the universals rather than the particulars and bodily existences. This would be spirituality, whatever be its degree of expression.

When we learn to be spiritual, we live more and more as generals rather than as particulars, which means that we begin to comprehend values in existences that we were not able to do earlier. In our present state of our bodily existence, our bodies are restricted to our own physical needs: my hunger, my thirst, my sleepiness, my difficulties, my problems, etc. These engage our attention so much that we cannot exceed the limits of our bodily needs. That is the lowest aspect of human life, where one’s thoughts and feelings get so restricted to the bodily encasement that there is no thought and feeling beyond that. But when one becomes capable of recognising the significance of the lives of other people in their Spirit rather than in their form, and at the same time learns to associate one’s personal values with the values which appear to be external at present, then one’s self becomes enlarged. What we call the Self is nothing but the Spirit behind ourselves, and behind all things.

When we talk of the Self, we are most likely to think of it as a kind of substance. Many a time philosophers have defined the soul as a substance, but it is not a substance in the sense of anything that we can understand. It is not a tangible object. It is super-sensible, as our scriptures are not tired of saying. Super-sensible is the meaning of our personality, the meaning of all creation. It is super-sensible, which means it cannot be seen. It cannot be touched by the hand, it cannot be smelt, it cannot be heard, it cannot be tasted, and we cannot have any kind of intelligible relation with it. Such is the Spirit of things.

Who is to understand the Spirit? What do we mean by spiritual aspiration? If the Spirit would mean the meaning of all life, and this meaning is so abstract to the senses that it cannot have any meaning to the senses, that meaning appears to be meaningless to the sensory operations. The Spirit of life is present in our own bodies. It is not far from us, and so it is possible for us to reach out to the Spirit of the cosmos—not through the senses and the intellect, but through something which we are.

That which we are is the eternal meaning hidden in us. It is not that temporary meaning that we seem to exhibit in our day-to-day life that we can call our own self. There are tentative local adjustments that we generally make, but these are not our real meaning. If we are divested of all physical and psychological associations, what remains? That would be our true meaning. If we have no body and no mind, what would be our condition? What would be the sort of relationships that we might establish with other existences? How can we exist without a body and a mind?

Every day we enter into a condition where we are not aware of either the body or the mind—such as in sleep, for example. In deep sleep we have no awareness of either the body or the mind, and yet we seem to exist as something we do not understand. What is that something? On a careful examination, that something into which we seem to enter in deep sleep appears to be more meaningful than our outward bodily relationships. That is why we run to our beds every night. Wwe would like to enter into this condition as many times as possible. Whom are we going to contact there? Why such a zest for entering into this condition?

People who have not been able to sleep properly will be able to know what such a condition is. There was a raja, a wealthy person, who had chronic insomnia. He announced, “I will give half of my kingdom to that person who would make me sleep at least one day.” Such was his craving for sleep, poor man! A state of sleep is not some silly occurrence of our daily life which we can brush aside as nothing. It is the most consequential of all occurrences in our life.

If, after waking from sleep, we have time enough to think for a few seconds about what our feelings are, what our situation is, we will realise that there was some experience which cannot be compared with the experiences of waking life—which seems more solid than the most solid of rocks, more pleasant than all the satisfactions of the world, and more necessary than the emperorship of the world. We may give up all other ambitions and cravings of life, but we cannot give up the longing for this one event. What is the meaning of sleep? What is the harm if we do not go to sleep? Nobody knows why we should sleep and why we feel so wretched if we cannot sleep.

No one can answer this question because it is so intimate to our person. We are pulled by force, as it were, into sleep—compelled to enter that state, because that state is more vital to what we really are, to our Spirit of being, than our outer associations. Again and again we are reminded of what we really are. It is a daily reminder that we are not prepared to heed. We get many kinds of reminders in life that there is something wrong with things, but we do not listen to them. We think that everything is all right.

We cannot know the ostensible problems that we have to face in this mysterious world, merely because we are not conscious of them. It is the pull of the Self, the pull of meaning, the pull of the Spirit that takes us into sleep, and because it is the Spirit of things that calls us, it is an irresistible call. It is not some object that is calling us. It is not some person that is sitting in our heart, calling us: “Come, come!” There is nobody to call us in person. The meaning of all things is lying there, hidden in our heart—the meaning not merely of our personal life, but the meaning of all people. It is my meaning, it is your meaning, it is everybody’s significance hidden in our heart.

It summons us. It is like the father trying to call the prodigal son. When we are not prepared to turn to it, it will be difficult to be conscious of the pull. Then the pull is automatic, and so much are we enamoured of the colours and sounds of the world that when we are pulled back to it we do not want to see it: “I do not want to see you. Why do you call me?” This closing our eyes to the Spirit of things is what we call sleep, and the opening our eyes while we are there is Self-realisation or God-realisation. If we go to sleep with open eyes we will see God; but we go there with closed eyes, so we see nothing. Yet, the presence of something there is felt.

So we are kept there as long as possible and released after being bathed in nectar, as it were, having drunk deep of some essence which we cannot forget; but we seem to be rising up from it only to be again distracted by the tinsels of things. We are taken to a royal palace, kept on the king’s sofa and served a royal dinner, but all while blindfolded. We do not know where we are, who is serving us, who is talking to us; nothing is known, and then we are again brought back to the jungles from where we were taken. That is life.

Every day we are taken to the mysterious palace of the Emperor of the Cosmos, blindfolded, and we are released in the wilderness of life when we wake up. So we know only the wilderness, and not the royal grandeur into which we were taken when we were fast asleep. It is this grandeur that is the significance of all life; that is what we call the Spirit of things.

You may be thinking that this so-called Spirit of things looks like an abstract meaning—not something substantial. It looks to be abstract—a psychological interpretation rather than a physical contact, due to our habit of coming in contact with objects beyond abstraction. Actually, the so-called concrete objects are an abstraction from it. When we contact the Spirit, we do not contact air or space or a non-existent something. The mind is unable to think it; that is why it reads an abstraction into it.

The existence of all things may be regarded as the Spirit of all things. Divest all things of their existence, and what do you see in them? When the mind tells you that the Spirit is only an abstraction and the objects are more concrete, try to tell it, “My dear friend, the Spirit is the existence of everything that you regard as concrete. Minus existences, what are these concrete substances?” Free all things from their existence; there is then only non-existence. They become non-existent. The concreteness vanishes. The so-called concreteness, tangibleness, hardness, substantialness, solidity, etc., is a way of sensation. It is the way in which the senses react to the Spirit. That is what we call tangibility.

There is no tangible object in this world. We are deluded. We are touching the Spirit even when we are touching solid objects like a table, but it looks that we are touching some other thing altogether. That so-called thing which attracts us and which makes us feel that we are contacting a tangible object is the Spirit itself. The substantiality and the solidity of the object are due to the mutual reaction of the Spirit within and the Spirit without, differentiated through space and time. The world is the drama played by space, time and causality. If these three things were not there, there would be no such thing as the world. There is no such thing as the world, objects, persons and things apart from the trick played by the union of space, time and causal relation.

It is not possible for a mind to understand how the world can be equated by these three, because we see again and again the solidity of things. Apart from space and time, we see solidity in objects, but the solidity is due to the Spirit behind things, and if it were not to be there, there would not be any solidity. This substantiality of the Spirit is more solid, if we could use such a language, than the most solid of all things.

The reason why this substance behind all substances, this meaning behind all meanings, appears as an object outside while it is really not, is because space, time and causal relations play havoc. Our mind is torn into two pieces, the seer and the seen. The seer is the Spirit, and the seen also is the Spirit. The Spirit sees itself in all perceptions, but it looks like a differentiated perception of an object on account of the intervention of space and time. Divest meaning of space-time, and we will see the reality of the cosmos.

The hardest thinker will recoil to think along these lines because the mind is not taught to think by freeing itself from the relations of space and time. Vedantins and philosophers have been telling us that God is, and the world is not. The world is nothing but God’s face. How could it be? It can be possible only if every existent object in front of us can enshrine the Spirit of God in them even now, in their sensory externality; and if God had not been so near to us and if God was not so real, it would not have been possible for us to think Him, ask for Him or even aspire for Him. It is the nearness of God to our own being that makes it impossible for us to rest, impossible for us to be in peace; and our asking for Him is resistless. If God were a distant object, we should have taken time to think of Him. We should have said, “Let us see tomorrow.” But it is such a pressing necessity that we cannot leave it until tomorrow. It is nearer to us than even our own throat, and so immediate that our concern with it comes first, and our concern with anything else is afterwards. But in this concern of ours with the Spirit of all things, we confuse it with objectivity, and we run after the objects rather than the Spirit behind them.

While our asking is genuine, our running after it is foolish. The intention is good but the activity is deluded. This is samsara, and the Spiritual seeker has to exert his viveka-shakti with a tremendous power of will to distinguish between the Spirit of life and the forms. The forms tempt us because we are wedded to a sensory way of thinking. Unfortunately, we are born into a world of sense, which knows only to look outward, and not inward. The senses cannot see their own cause; they can only look to what is external to them in space and time. When the mind subsides into its own bottom, ceases from running through space and time, and settles down like troubled waters that become calm, then the dirt that is part of its activity will also settle down and it will become capable of reflecting what is behind it.

It is as if we are so busy with seeing things that we do not know that we have eyes. Can anyone see his eyes and think that he has eyes? If we have got no eyes, how can we see? Unless we have some pain in the eyes, do we even imagine that we have a set of eyes? We are so busy seeing through the eyes that we have no time to think that we have eyes. We want to exploit them fully.

The same applies to God and the Spirit. It is through the Spirit that we are doing all that we are doing. It is through it that everything is seen and heard and done; therefore, it cannot be seen and heard. It is very difficult to give a comparison to what the Spirit is. The Spirit is behind us, but we cannot stop long enough to see it. So busy is the mind that we have no time to even think that the Spirit exists in this world.

So is it with God and the Spirit. Just as we cannot see our own back, we cannot see God’s existence. We know it is there, but we cannot see it because our eyes cannot look back. The eyes that are projected in one direction cannot look at that which is behind them. The Spirit, or God of the universe, is so near that to see it would not take a split second, but we have to open our eyes to it and not look beyond it or away from it. The eyes which see in one direction have to be taught not to see in any particular direction of space, but to see the cause that is behind them.

There is a light that passes through the eyes, and the eyes get so identified with the rays of light that they cannot know that it is behind them. Like the sunlight falling on a mirror may reflect the objects in front of it, the mind and the senses receive the light of the Self, the Spirit, and with the help of that light they behold the objects of the world—yet, they do not know that there is a light.

In broad daylight, any solid substance may be seen because of the light that is shed on it. We see the object there because of the light, and yet we cannot make a distinction between the object and the light. The light so shines upon the object and is identified with the object in such a way that we confuse the object and the light. We do not say that the light aspect of the object is different from the object.

So are our perceptions of things. The light of the Atman, the Spirit, is what acts upon the objects of the world and makes us feel their presence. The intelligibility of anything is due to the light of the Self that emanates through the mind and the senses, but we mix up that light with the objectivity. Just as we do not make a distinction between sunlight and the object upon which it shines, so also we do not make a distinction between the object of the world and the light due to which we are able to cognise it. To extract this light from objectivity, to differentiate the Spirit from the externality of perception would be to understand in terms of the Spirit, rather than in terms of the objects.

When we try to understand things in terms of the Spirit, we will realise that all things assume a uniform meaning, just as the sunlight is equal for all objects. The sunlight makes no distinction. Whether it is shining on a temple or a latrine, it makes no difference to the Sun. It will shine upon anything.

Likewise is the Spirit behind all things. The distinction that we make is due to the incapacity to distinguish between light and matter, light and shade. But when we start thinking in terms of this generality behind objects, we will realise that objects themselves assume a uniformity of structure and meaning, and our liking or not liking a particular thing or set of things gets diminished in intensity. We begin to enter into the Spirit of things. It is then that we begin to realise the meaning of objects and life as a whole, and in this life of the kinship of our own Spirit with the objects outside, we become enlarged in our consciousness.

When consciousness expands, the sense of freedom also gets expanded and simultaneously, our joy is enhanced. The wider is the ken of the activity of our Spirit, the deeper is the sense of freedom in our life, and the more intense is the joy that we experience. We know that our consciousness has expanded when we feel intense satisfaction and freedom within us. The only test of our true progress in spiritual life is freedom from the shackles of other objective existences and a joy that we feel in our heart when we are alone.

If your happiness is the most intense when you are absolutely alone in the solitude of your own room, that would perhaps indicate your inner growth and progress along the Spiritual path. But on the other hand, if your joy seems to enhance only by seeing people, if your joy expands the more you run about, the more you see things and the more you go about here and there, that will not indicate spiritual growth.

The more you are alone, the more you are near to your Spirit. This aloneness of your life is to promise you greater satisfaction than all your social contacts. That is the test of your spirituality because the Spirit is not capable of coming in contact with everything, and its joy cannot be enhanced by contacts; on the other hand, all contacts are a restriction of its expression.

Joys of the Spirit get diminished by sensory contacts; that is why we are unhappy in this world. We think that we are going to become more happy through contact of the senses; rather, we are going to become more wretched because we are restricting the expression of the Spirit by contact with things. It is universal, so why do we want to tie it down to particulars?

All our attempts at trying to come in contact with persons and things are the attempt at tying the Universal to the particular, which the Spirit would resent vehemently. All people in the world are unhappy because they would like to pull down the Universal Spirit into small objects of the world. Hence, the retreat into the Spirit is the withdrawal into the all-pervading Universal. The Spirit of life is the Universal present in all the objects of the world. This is what is called God. This is the supreme Absolute, the meaning behind things; and when we tread the path of the Spirit, we have to be cautious that we are not treading the path of the senses while, for all outward purposes, it may look that we are treading the path of the Spirit.

Public acclamation is not the test of our progress. The whole world may proclaim us as the saviour of mankind, but that would not be the test of our progress. People would have not understood us, and they may be engaged in such erroneous notions because we take this contact as a test of our progress.

Whether contacts are physical or psychic, all these contacts are to be avoided in the search for the Spirit. As a matter of fact, psychological contacts are more dangerous than physical contacts. It is the mind that works havoc. The mind thinking a sense object is more vicious than physical contacts of body with body. If the mind is not working, the physical contacts mean nothing.

All psychic contacts with objects should be withdrawn. In this withdrawal, in this true uparati of the senses and the mind, if we can feel a release of all tensions—if in going to the bottom of our own being in the solitude of our life we can feel a freedom and a happiness which the world knows not—then we are really treading a spiritual life. If nobody sees us and we are happy, that would be the test of spirituality. And if we feel like a fish out of water because nobody sees us, then that would be the contrary of it because the Spirit is alone. It wants nobody, and it wants nobody’s help in this world. It is so complete and full that we cannot add a cubit to its stature by multiplying all the existence of the world before it and giving to it the whole cosmos.

In arithmetic, for example, in the number 10 or 100, the number one is before the zeros. All those zeros mean nothing without that number one preceding them. So it is with the universe: The universe is a zero, and the number one is the Spirit. It may be one, but if the one is absent, there are only zeros; that would be this world without this Spirit. Adding the one would be the meaning that we assume in our life if we enter into the Spirit.

So let no spiritual seeker be despondent with the wrong notion that when he stands alone, befriending the Spirit, he is perhaps losing the joys of the world. Not so. The joys of the world are the joys of the Spirit, scattered in a distorted manner. A little of the honey of the Spirit is sprinkled over the objects of sense, and then it is that we are trying to lick the objects. Even the objects look tasty because of the Spirit. But for that, there would be nothing in the objects; they would be corpses.

So when you stand alone by the Spirit, you stand by the Absolute—That which is universally present in all things, That which is the meaning behind the very same objects after which you are running. You can imagine what God is, what the Spirit is and how reasonable it is that you should be happy when you are alone. This aloneness is not a physical aloneness, like in a jungle. This aloneness is the aloneness of your consciousness, where it stands unconnected with the objects. It can contemplate itself alone, independent of all things, and this would be true spiritual independence.