How to use the word “I” in Vedanta

L: What is the correct way to speak using the word “I” with all of the knowledge of vedanta?

V:  To use the word “I” the way any other person does, while knowing that it refers to your true nature instead of the body/mind.  That’s all.  Saying the word “I” or referring to yourself as “I” is only a problem if you think “I” means the body/mind.    

L: It seems like the word itself has problems.  It is a habit to use “I” to refer to the thoughts, feelings, and memories that consciousness is illuminating.  But this is not the most real essence of what I truly am.    

V:  True, but it’s impossible to communicate without using words that refer to concepts.  So it’s okay to use “I” as long as you know what “I” really means.  If you identify yourself with the thoughts, feelings and memories that “I” refers to, then it’s a problem.  If not, then it’s not.   

L:  On the other hand, it seems very difficult to use the word “I” to refer strictly to atma, because to my way of thinking, pure atma alone doesn’t think, feel, or remember, except as a differentiated illusion. 

V:  Like I said previously, it’s like the water / wave metaphor.  If the illusion of the wave says, “I am water” then it’s a true statement.  Likewise, if the illusion of Lee says, “I am atma” it’s a true statement. 

If there is any thinking, feeling or remembering going on, even if it’s illusory, that thinking etc. is none other than atma.

One of the key features of Vedanta is switching back and forth between different viewpoints or ‘levels’ of truth in order to make sense of reality.  Let’s call the real truth the absolute viewpoint and the relative truth the empirical viewpoint.  From the absolute viewpoint, there is no actual Lee, no thinking etc.  This is not a viewpoint you ever experience directly but simply understand to be true.  On the other hand you have the empirical viewpoint where you undeniable experience Lee and his thinking etc.  To ignore one of these viewpoints is to not view reality as a whole, and doing so can make your life very difficult.  Strictly taking the empirical viewpoint is obviously problematic because Lee has a whole host of problems, most notably sadness, sickness and death. 

But simply taking the absolute viewpoint (even though it is true) is not helpful either as I think you’re starting to notice.  The reason is that even if Lee is an illusion he is undeniably there, along with the world he inhabits.  When you understand that Lee isn’t real and that you are actually atma, the world is still there, just the same as before.  This means you have to interact with it like you always have.  You can’t simply sit in one place not speaking, thinking, eating or breathing.  The world demands that you act.  To acknowledge the world and act accordingly is allowing for the empirical viewpoint, the relative truth.  You simply do it knowing the absolute truth and you can switch back to that viewpoint in your mind any time you need to. 

But you don’t need to look at things from that viewpoint all the time (you can’t even if you want to because it isn’t helpful).  For instance, if I know my name I don’t have to remind myself of it constantly, lest I somehow forget it.  It’s there in the back of my mind all the time.  When someone asks me what it is, I simply recall it.  This means that if you are sitting there eating a sandwich you don’t have to do it thinking, “I am not really eating this sandwich.  Lee is not real nor is this sandwich.  I am the real, action-less atma.”  You just eat the sandwich.  If for some reason you need that knowledge (namely, if you find yourself mentally suffering) simply recall it.  Otherwise, live your life.       

L: Perhaps it is best to say “I have this thought,” or feeling, or memory? 

V:  Initially, yes.  This is a required practice in order to break our normal identification with the mind.  Usually, “I have a thought” equates with the belief “I am the thinker.”  So at first we need to objectify our thoughts to see them as the ‘separate’ objects that they are.  This is the artificial duality we spoke about previously.  When the practice of objectifying our thoughts bears fruit, namely the fruit of the knowledge “I am atma,” then the practice is no longer necessary. 

L:  But the concept of a separate “I” is essentially an illusion.  To some extent, is it necessary to participate in the illusory drama, to play the role of the “I”?

V:  Yes.  The only way not to participate in the illusion is to die.  And even though you are the immortal atma, I don’t recommend that 🙂 Besides, the illusory drama can be a very interesting and enjoyable thing, especially when you know that you are free of it.  You simply ‘participate’ knowing that you are not really participating.  

L:  It would sound odd to say “The illusory Lee-creature is wondering what book to read next” but this seems like the most truly accurate way to speak. 

V:  It would be the most accurate way to speak but as you’ve pointed out, it would in fact be odd.  And it would also be a bit contrived and pretentious.  Luckily, as I’ve said, it’s not necessary.  Once you’ve gotten it absolutely crystal clear that you atma instead of Lee, you simply say “I’m wondering what book to read next” with the full understanding that none of that is actually true.  You are like an actor in a movie, knowing who you really are (without any conscious effort) while playing a role.  As long as you’re not a method actor, losing yourself in the character, you’ll be just fine.     

L:  I’m getting the feeling that truly arriving at the deepest level of understanding of this knowledge of non-duality must require the “I-ness” to stand down, to figuratively self-immolate. 

V:  Yes, it is figurative because the “I-ness” doesn’t stand down in any literal fashion.  It stands down only through knowledge.  You make it stand down by recognizing it for what it is:  an illusion.   

L:  I have an inclination to undertake a process of detaching from the habits that feed the “I-ness” for a few weeks, long enough to break the habit.  But this does not seem to be a practice in traditional vedanta.

V:  I’m not sure what the details are of this process you’re thinking about so I’m not sure if it aligns with traditional Vedanta or not.  But if you think it will help, give it a try.  There is no rule that you have to conform to traditional Vedanta.  Besides, a cursory investigation of the history of Vedanta will show you that there’s not even a consensus about what traditional Vedanta actually is.  

L:  I had the thought to develop a set of sequential affirmations or thoughts to step through each day.  Is there already a standard sequence of realization statements in vedanta?  Things along these lines:

– This body and mind are temporary and limited illusions within infinite consciousness. –– My true nature is infinite and eternal conscious awareness.                                                    – This entire universe is an illusion created within one single consciousness.                        – I am the infinite and eternal consciousness that underlies this universe.

V:  Yes, that pretty much sums it up Lee.  But at the end I would add:

-I am not the universe but the universe is none other than me.

This means the appearance of the universe is you but does not affect your true nature in any way.  And this heals the artificial duality between atma and anatma (not-self).       

L:  Most of the questions that arise in my mind are resolved by coming back to one of these statements.  My thought was to repeat them and dwell on them every day.

V:  Yes!  In Vedanta this is called manana (reflecting on what you’ve learned until you understand it clearly) and nididhyasana (fully assimilating the implications of what you know to be true).  These are some of the fundamental practices of Vedanta.    

All my best – Vishnudeva