To say we’re unlimited by nature does not mean that if we knew who we were we could walk on water, fly like birds, or leap tall buildings in a single bound like Superman. Nor does it mean that we are omniscient, endowed with extraordinary psychic powers, capable of zipping around the cosmos in our spirit bodies. With rare exceptions, the body and mind are limited by Nature and behave in conformity with its laws. And one could hardly imagine a more limited phenomenon than a miracle.
A common example of limitlessness is the “peak” experience when the sense of limitation temporarily dissolves and the person feels completely happy, carefree, peaceful, loving, rich, and powerful. In deep sleep we experience limitless and bliss. Though seemingly a momentary feeling, limitlessness is the most fundamental fact of our existence, our own forgotten nature. That it’s our nature is indicated by the fact that whenever I feel this way I never try to rid myself of the experience, unlike limitation, which I always view as a serious disease.
Though it’s my nature I don’t see myself as limitless because I’m identified with my limited selves. Not to put too fine a point on it, when I negate and cease to identify with my relative selves, (which is the purpose of this Upanishad) my non-negatable limitless Self is (hopefully) realized by default. The rediscovery of oneself as a limitless awareful Being is known as liberation or enlightenment.
The trick lies in recognizing oneself as limitless awareness without turning oneself into an object. When we turn ourselves into objects we suffer. In a dream a man decided to try to find his waking self and looked high and low with no success. Dejected, he sat down under a tree when he heard a voice from the sky say, “Why don’t you wake up.” Surrendering his status as a dreamer and leaving the dream world, he discovered the waker by becoming the waker without turning himself into an object. In fact, the dreamer was the waker, temporarily identified with the conditions in the dream world. Similarly, from the point of view of the limitless I, all waking state entities are consciously or unconsciously searching the limitless I in a state that doesn’t contain it as an object . The only way we are going to discover what we’re searching is to awaken from this waking dream.
In the twilight a thirsty traveler approached a village well. Reaching down, she recoiled in fear when she saw a big snake coiled next to the bucket. Unable to move for fear of being bitten, she imagined terrible things, including her own death. At that time an old man coming to the well noticed her predicament.
“What’s the problem?” he asked kindly.
“Snake! Snake! Get a stick before it strikes!” she whispered frantically.
The old man burst out laughing. “Hey!” he said, “Take it easy. That’s no snake. It’s the well rope. It just looks like a snake in the darkness.” Though never in danger, the misapprehended rope produced intense fear. Our existential fears and desires come from mistaking the limitless I for the limited I. The fear of the snake arose simultaneously with the misapprehension of the rope and, significantly, vanished when the rope was correctly perceived.
In the Mandukya Upanishad, an English rendition of which is given below, the rope represents the limitless I and the snake the limited I broken into three sub-I’s: the waker, dreamer, and sleeper and their respective there is only a rope. This superimposition of our limited self or selves on our real or limitless I (which is going on all the time) is the cause of much suffering. The removal of this error is the purpose of the Upanishad.
This mistake, a symbol of normal perception, took place in twilight, which represents the waking entity’s partially-conscious state of mind. In broad daylight (full knowledge) or pitch darkness (total ignorance) no such error could have occurred. Because we’re so obsessed with the objects of perception and the limited I’s reactions to them, in normal perception we vaguely or incompletely see the limitless I even though it’s an intimate part of every transaction. And we are unaware that the snake needs the rope, borrows its reality from the rope. Meaning that my life exists because I exist, not the other way around. Even if we are superficially aware of our Consciousness we don’t understand that deep inquiry into it confers freedom and endless bliss. Our story has a happy ending because the snake disappears into the rope and the traveler’s suffering ceases. In reality, the disappearance of the snake, all our false conceptions and discriminations, except in exceptional cases, comes about after long and patient inner work. The aim of the Mandukya is to analyze the creation and arrive at truth, the limitless I.
But the analysis of the creation, as modern science will testify is daunting because every advance in knowledge opens up a new area of ignorance. So the Upanishad takes a shortcut. By equating the limitless I, Consciousness, with the world, as it does in the first mantra…“The whole cosmos is the word AUM ”…we come to understand the world by inquiring into the Self.
The world as we know it is not a strange Sanskrit term. Physically we see it as matter, the elements in various permutation combinations, and psychologically we understand it as subtle matter: thought, feeling, perception, knowledge, memory, dreams, fantasies, etc. In what sense is everything we experience the word AUM? Words are sound symbols. Of what is AUM the symbol? Modern science tells us that matter is just energy in a state of motion, vibration. The energy that becomes different types of matter by vibrating at different frequencies is symbolized in Vedic science as AUM because, it is said, this sound encompasses all the sounds the voice box is capable of creating. While the idea is logical, the fact that mind and matter are vibrating energy, not the symbol, concerns us here.
What is the nature of this energy? Just as matter is energy in a state of vibration, energy is Consciousness apparently vibrating. While energy is a moving form of Consciousness, Consciousness itself is energyless, allpervasive, and unmoving. So how does the unmoving Consciousness, AUM, become dualistic, capable of movement? The best explanation I’ve found is that from Consciousness’ point of view there is no dualistic, vibrating, energy-filled universe. But from the point of view of a mind, seen through a vibrating mind, the universe apparently dances. Nonetheless, because our bodies and minds are insentient matter, they can only be moved by something else. And that something else is Consciousness. The materialist view, which has arisen because the senses are taken as the sole means of knowledge, that mind evolved from matter is patently illogical since evolution implies a conscious agent. Though unmoving by nature, Consciousness is capable of inspiring movement in Its vehicles.
Are the vehicles different from Consciousness? Is the spider different from its web? Though apparently different from the spider, the web, being part and parcel of the spider, is non-separate from it. It is the spider minus the intelligence to create and manipulate its creation. Likewise the universe, AUM, though apparently a vast field of vibrating subtle and gross matter, is nothing but subtle and gross forms of Consciousness. How far, the sages say, is the wave from the ocean?
Seen through the filter of time the limitless I is said to be the cause of which the universe is an effect. Is the cause separate from its effect? The effect is the cause in a different form, just as a pot is not separate from the mud that sustains it. If we are little pots of consciousness how far can we be from the Consciousness that sustains us? How far can we be from then Consciousness that sustains all pots
In this sense, the whole universe is Consciousness, symbolized by the word “AUM.”
The Mandukya’s definition of AUM, the limitless I, is: “That which exists in all periods of time, past, present and future, before the past and after the future.” And we can add a secondary definition: That which exists in all states of consciousness and beyond is AUM. Anything not conforming to this definition isn’t real. Experienceable, yes, temporarily existent, but only seemingly real. Since all forms of Consciousness, mind and matter, don’t fit the definition, for the purpose of someone striving for Self knowledge they are not the limitless I. To discover myself as the limitless I, I have to see who I am minus the body and mind. When I’m one hundred percent convinced I’m the limitless I alone, I can take back the forms without suffering limitation.
Since only one I fits the definition and It is present and accounted for, its analysis is straightforward. If, for example, I wish to understand the nature of water I needn’t drink from every river, lake, and ocean in the world. I need only analyze one drop. If the creation is the limitless I, I need only inquire into myself to find out the nature of everything.