1.8 – Being bitten by the great black snake of egoism, you think, “I am the doer.” To be happy, drink the nectar of the conviction, “I am not the doer.”
Identifying yourself with the ego—the thought or concept of “I” in the mind—is like the bite of a poisonous snake. How so? Because it leads to the false conviction that you are the one that acts when the body and mind act and thinking this is ‘fatal’ to happiness. When you believe, “I am doing this” or “I am doing that” you falsely claim ownership of the results of what the body and mind do. That this is an impediment to happiness is obvious when the results of body-mind’s actions are unpleasant. What is not as evident is that this is also an obstacle to happiness when the results are pleasant, the reason being that achieving a desirable result does not lead to permanent happiness. Once the pleasurable effect wears off, you are inevitably left with a desire to do something else to try to regain happiness, thus creating an endless cycle of action and desire that never lead to the contentment you want. So Ashtavakra astutely points out that if you truly want to be happy, step out of cycle of doing and enjoying entirely through understanding. When you have been poisoned by the belief, “I am the doer” the antidote is the conviction, “I am not the doer.” If you are not the doer, the problem of action, desire and reaping the results of action—good or bad—does not belong to you.
1.9 – “I am the one, pure consciousness.” In the fire of this conviction, burn down the forest of ignorance and be happy.
Just as a forest is made up of countless trees, the forest of ignorance is composed of the innumerable ways you can mistake yourself to be the body-mind. You ‘burn’ this ignorance with the conviction that you are the consciousness that knows, and is therefore free of, the body-mind and all of its problems. Or alternately, ignorance is incinerated by the conviction that since you are one alone, you are not affected by the body-mind because it is only an appearance. This is stated in the next verse.
1.10 – Although you are consciousness, the highest bliss, you are imagined to be the world, just as a rope is imagined to be a snake. Know this and live happily.
When a rope is mistaken to be a snake, the snake is only an appearance. Despite the illusion, nothing but the rope ever exists. Similarly, when you, consciousness, are imagined to be the world (“world” here includes the body-mind), the world is merely an appearance while nothing but you ever exists. Believing that there is actually a world is ignorance, an error based on the misperception of reality. When this error is corrected, you can live happily, knowing that the world, just like an illusory snake, can cause you no harm.
In this verse Ashtavakra says that consciousness is the highest bliss. The word “bliss” can only be taken in the metaphorical sense because bliss is a feeling, a state of mind, and it has been clearly stated that consciousness is free of the mind. A synonym for bliss is satisfaction, so by calling consciousness the highest satisfaction it indicates that the only way to get real satisfaction—as opposed to temporary satisfaction gained from everyday pursuits—is to understand what your true nature is. When that happens you see that you lack nothing and have nothing to fear because there is only you and you are never touched by the appearance of the world.
1.11 – He who considers himself free is free indeed and one who considers himself bound remains bound. “As one thinks, so one becomes,” is a popular saying in this world, and it is quite true.
In a text brimming with excellent verses, this is by far the finest because in two short sentences Ashtavakra gives a disarmingly simple summary of the essence of the entire teaching: freedom, self-knowledge, enlightenment, moksha or whatever you choose to call it is only a matter of how you think about yourself. While it is easy to get distracted by Vedanta’s ornate symbolism, hyperbolic metaphors, theoretical propositions, dazzling intellectual gymnastics and multitude of spiritual practices, freedom is really that simple. If your idea of self is “I am ever-free consciousness” then you are free because that is actually the truth. But if your idea of self is “I am the body-mind” then you are bound because that is the also the truth (at least for you). “As one thinks, so one becomes.” Take the word “becomes” loosely because you cannot become what you already are i.e. consciousness. And as consciousness your nature is ever-free so you cannot become bound any more than fire can become cold or water can become dry. You can only ‘become’ free by understanding you have always been free and you can only ‘become’ bound by believing you are bound.
Since it is so crucial, at the risk of being redundant, I want to repeat myself: freedom is how you think about yourself. That means right now is the time to start taking the stance that you are free even if you don’t yet understand how that can be. Every time you catch yourself identifying with the body-mind and thinking a limiting thought about yourself, stop and apply an opposing thought, one that is harmony with who you really are. If you find yourself identifying with the body thinking thoughts such as, “I am tall, short, skinny, fat, male, female, black, white, pretty, ugly etc.” stop and think, “I am not the body.” If you identify with the mind with thoughts such as, “I am happy, sad, angry, peaceful, afraid, focused, distracted etc.” stop and think, “I am not the mind.” If you find yourself thinking, “I am doing this, I am doing that” stop and think, “I am not the doer.” Or in general if you find yourself thinking in any way, “I am bound, I need to get free” stop and think, “I am free.” Regardless of whether or not you see how these assertions can be true, they are nonetheless fact, and in time the supporting logic behind the statements you are making will become clear. When they do, you have already put in the hard work to change the habitual thinking patterns of the mind, getting them into alignment with your true nature. This is something you will inevitably have to do, either before or after enlightenment, assuming you are interested in mental peace. So you might as well do it now.
Contrary to the belief that enlightenment is a momentous realization that occurs at the end of an incredibly difficult spiritual journey spanning countless lifetimes, one that can only be achieved by an exceedingly rare and select few, if you can see that it’s possible to change the way you think about yourself, then enlightenment is available to you in this very lifetime. “As one thinks, so one becomes.”
1.12 – You are consciousness, the all-pervading, full, actionless, unattached, desireless and peaceful witness. You appear as the world or of the world through error.
This verse provides a timely opportunity to practice thinking differently about yourself. You can put it in first person, say it to yourself, and contemplate its implications. “I am consciousness, the all-pervading, full, actionless, desireless and peaceful witness.”
Of the words used to describe you in this verse, “full” and “peaceful” have not yet appeared in the text. “Full” means that as the non-dual reality, you are complete; there is nothing left out, nothing that can be added or taken away; you cannot be perfected because you are already perfect. “Peaceful” indicates that since you are ever-free witness of the conditions of the body-mind, you can never be disturbed.
Part 3 coming soon.
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