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Prerequisite Reading

Preparatory Study


"Holding the mind firmly, know your Higher Self face to face, affirm, 'This am I.'"

Shankara, The Crest Jewel of Wisdom


      In the dawn of time before recorded history, Perennialist 1 sages discovered that the human essence is oneness with the Divine within us--the Higher Self. Thus, the purpose of human life is to realize--become aware and make real--our identity with our Higher Self, the manifestation of the Unitary Quintessence. The Perennialist savants were aware that humans almost automatically succumb to cultural conditioning, developing a false sense of self through the delusion that arises when the mind identifies itself with the physical body.

      Though to sustain ourselves we must act in the physical dimension, these seers ascertained that humans do not need to identify with the physical body, but can see it as a tool which the Higher Self utilizes to teach individuals through their response to terrestrial and transcendent experiences. They taught humans how to perceive and understand the various levels of being.


The Levels of Being
 Unitary Being: the Realm of Forms and Higher Being

Accessed through dialectical interchange, dialectical theurgy, and dialectical meditation

At the highest level is the Unitary Quintessence, manifesting through all levels of being. The Unitary Quintessence connects directly to the Higher Self.
Spiritual Being: the Realm of the Higher Self Higher Self or Soul manifests through mind and body
Terrestrial Being: mental and physical phenomena Supersensible mind and physical body

      Perennialist transformational material issues from the personal experience of Perennialist teachers. It refers to specific procedures which the teacher uses in her own transformational and instructional work. As such, the material contains its own experiential verification. If Perennialist material is read in a desultory manner, it can appear to be nothing but scholastic theorizing. When read with genuine discernment, the writings, images, stories, exercises, and evocations are seen to be based on knowledge gained from personal experience.

     
"A net of words is a great forest where the fancy wanders; therefore the reality of the Self is to be strenuously learned from the knower of that reality."

Shankara, The Crest Jews of Wisdom
        One of the surest means of distinguishing genuine from spurious teachings about spiritual subjects is to determine if the material provides specific, discernible procedures 2   for replicating the experiences referred to. Counterfeit "spiritual" teachers merely talk about ideas and practices which it's clear they never personally experienced and therefore could not possibly assist a serious reader to master.

      In this essay, we'll examine selected current scientific research which bears on Perennialist teachings concerning personal identification with one's Higher Self. We'll explore current findings and parallel Perennialist teachings that touch on the phenomenon of locating the focus of one's consciousness in "areas" outside the physical body.

      Many persons in the contemporary world are consciously or unconsciously indoctrinated in the view that only "objective" science--as they describe it--can provide genuine proof for ideas and theories. So only when a new scientific experiment seems to "prove" claims made by Perennialist teachings are they willing to give them consideration. Our exploration of specific scientific experimental findings is not for the purpose of propping up Perennialist teachings. As we've seen, the actual experience of Perennialist teachers on which that material is based provide the soundest verification possible.


Scientific Experiments Concerning the Subjective Sense of Consciousness

      In a recent study by Professor Olaf Blanke and his colleagues from the Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience at EPFL in Switzerland, perturbation of nerve firing in brain areas near where the temporal and parietal lobes meet appeared to cause a variety of distortions of subjective sense of our body in space. Most commonly this was felt as an "out of body experience" where the subjects were looking at themselves from some external perspective or experiencing a "shadow" version of themselves.

      Blanke and his colleagues have been doing research on the neural-correlates of out-of-body-experiences (OOBE) since at least 2002. OOBEs are most common in people who practice meditation, experience sleep paralysis, or sustain certain types of head injuries. Research such as this strives to discover exactly how the brain creates the out-of-body sensation.

     In an early experiment called the "rubber hand illusion," subjects were seated with their right arm resting on a small table. A standing screen was positioned beside the arm to hide it from the subject's view and a life-sized rubber model of a right hand and arm was placed on the table directly in front of the subject. The subject sat with eyes fixed on the artificial hand while researchers used two small paintbrushes to stroke the rubber hand and the subject's hidden hand, synchronizing the timing of the brushing as closely as possible. As a researcher stroked the real hand and the rubber hand simultaneously with a stick, subjects had the vivid sense that the rubber hand was their own. When the rubber hand was whacked with a hammer, they winced and sometimes cried out.

      The illusion shows that a person can locate his focus of consciousness in a non-body element by manipulating a mismatch between touch and vision. When a person's mind sees the fake hand being stroked and feels the same sensation, the sense of being touched is misattributed to the fake.

      Two new experiments in "out of body" sensations have been recently carried out. In England, Dr. H. Henrik Ehrsson of University College London, asked 12 volunteers to wear virtual-reality goggles while they sat in an empty room. A camera behind each participant projected an image of their backs. Thus, the participants viewed their own backs from the perspective of someone sitting behind them.

      Ehrsson stroked each participant's chest with a stick, carefully keeping his arm and the stick out of the camera's view. At the same time, he moved his other arm in front of the camera then dropped it down as if moving to rub the subject's virtual chest. The subjects could see nothing happening to the images of themselves projected in the goggles. Yet, they could feel the stick on their own bodies.

      The result was a disorienting mismatch between the subject's tactile and visual senses. When touched, participants reported they had the experience of drifting outside their own bodies toward the direction of the camera and viewing themselves from behind. To test the illusion further, Ehrsson wielded a hammer, swinging it in front of the camera. Even though the participants felt nothing, they flinched and registered fear through sensors attached to their skin.

      In the Swiss experiment, Dr. Olaf Blanke of Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne asked seven subjects to wear virtual-reality goggles while standing in an empty room. A camera behind each person projected three-dimensional images in front of them. Thus, participants felt as if they were standing behind themselves. When their backs were stroked in sync with the virtual image, participants reported feeling that their consciousness had been transported to the virtual body in front of them. The experiment was repeated with a virtual image of a human dummy and a large rectangular object. Participants' sense of self floated into the dummy, but not into the object.



Locating Our Consciousness


      The "scientific" experiments described indicate that one's locus of consciousness can move outside the body under certain circumstances. Though ordinary culture programs us into the belief that our consciousness is located exclusively in the physical body, it's possible to experience consciousness separate from the body.

      Learning to locate consciousness outside the body may seem to us like an interesting but inessential caprice. Perennialist writings, on the contrary, indicate that learning to locate our consciousness outside the body in the Higher Self is absolutely essential, because allowing ourselves to become fixed in the belief that we are our bodies--locating consciousness in the physical--is a deranged, delusory state.

"If you don't recognize that we're living in the time of a transcendent, spiritual struggle of Truth against devastation and falsehood, you're simply not awake enough to have much hope for survival. At this point in human history, we either overcome our deadly delusions and work to attain the spiritual power of discernment, or the human race will descend into increasing barbarism and ultimate extinction."

Otalp Setarcos, The Divulgence


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         Since in our essence we are the eternal Higher Self or Soul, to allow ourselves to be deluded into believing that our basic nature consists of the physical body or any other non-eternal element is not merely an unfortunately incorrect belief but a suicidal delusion.

      We become so fixated on physical bodily sensations that we forget how to locate our consciousness anywhere else. This fatal self-deception is called possession 3  by sensual self-indulgence.
(Note the difference in sensory feeling when viewing the two images.)


      The Perennial Tradition does not teach that sensual pleasures are intrinsically evil, but that obsession with bodily gratification leads to an incomplete and stunted existence. Life involves physical pleasures--and pains--but its essence is far beyond the merely terrestrial; it is oneness with the Unitary Quintessence through identification with the Higher Self.


The Consequences of Self-Delusion

      Possession by the delusion that we are our bodies leads to a plethora of ruinous concepts and practices:

  1. We lose any sense of ourselves as eternal beings, believing that there is nothing after death

  2. We concentrate on the present moment, each day for itself and the devil take tomorrow, believing that human existence is all there is to personal reality

  3. We believe that we can do whatever we choose, without any consequences, assuming that one is not accountable for his actions

  4. We do away with dimensions and elements of Reality that appear to us to be phantasies, creating a barren, joyless "veil of tears"

      Most persons' possession by the delusion that they are nothing more than their physical bodies has lead, in part, to the annihilative world situation today.

"It is ignorance that causes us to identify ourselves with the body, the ego, the senses, or anything that is not the Higher Self. He is a wise man who overcomes this ignorance by devotion to the Unitary Reality."

Shankara, The Crest Jewel of Wisdom


The Crest Jewel of Wisdom

      Perennialist writings such as Shankara's Crest Jewel of Wisdom provide us with the means of avoiding and overcoming our possession by the delusion that we are nothing more than our physical body. As we've seen from the scientific experiments referenced above, it's possible to locate our center of awareness outside the physical body. Perennialist savants demonstrate--through their lives and teachings--that a few people can, in early life, avoid the cultural delusion of "being the body," and everyone who strives earnestly can overcome the conditioning into the belief that we are nothing more than our physical body.

      A few Perennialist teachers, notably Jesus and Shankara, may have been able to grow up in a manner to avoid complete possession by the delusion that a person is his body. Shankara, probably born about the year 686 CE, in a small village in southern India, is said by the age of ten to have not only read and memorized all the Hindu scriptures but to have written commentaries on many of them, holding discussions with famous scholars who came to him from every part of the country.

Jesus as a young man speaking with the Elders in the Jerusalem Temple       The story is told of Jesus at about age twelve discussing spiritual teachings with the elders in the Jerusalem Temple. In the case of both Shankara and Jesus, we must consider such stories with some skepticism, since the most outlandish miraculous actions are attributed to them in their youth and throughout their lives by devoted biographers.

      Nonetheless, it appears possible for a young person, raised in the correct spiritual and philosophical atmosphere, to avoid possession by the idea that we are our body--the cultural delusion that most of us succumb to in growing up. Most adults must work diligently to overcome the almost fixed belief that we are our bodies. Fortunately, Perennialist writings provide us with experiential concepts and exercises by which to overthrow this delusion.

      The belief that one is the body becomes not merely a habitual conviction, but a psychological delusion. Persons in this condition deliberately embrace ignorance. Ignorance is not merely the lack of knowledge, but self-destructive turning away from truth in all areas of life. Persons develop a taste for ignorance, the predisposition to embrace erroneous beliefs based on presumption or mere authority. The ignorant person believes he knows what he actually doesn't know; he becomes delusional and deranged.

      Ignorance of the true value of things and people leads us to deal only with our illusions of these elements, not what they really are. We chase false values, wasting our lives, experiencing misfortunes brought on by incorrect thinking and behavior. Plato distinguished clearly between "simple ignorance," the mere lack of information, and "double ignorance," the absence of knowledge coupled with the delusion of having genuine knowledge.

      Ignorance leads to death; the ignorant become like dead persons. This is no mere metaphor, as you discover by carefully observing persons who have committed themselves to ignorance and falsehood. They stumble through their phantom lives, their speech and behavior are incoherent and emotionally flattened. Embracing ignorance kills that element in humans which enables them to turn to the truth and take pleasure in knowledge and learning.

      The wise teacher is able to bring the ignorant back from the dead by showing them their fatal maladies which led them to embrace falsehood and deliberately turn away from truth. The teacher encourages persons overcome by ignorance to begin to investigate their fatal disorders and overcome them.

      The very act of acknowledging their ignorance is the beginning of the recovery of a true life, recognizing that ignorance is a form of death. The teacher shows them how exciting and rewarding the discovery of truth can be and how enabling knowledge is. Only when these persons begin to recover, are they able to appreciate how ill they were.

      It is only if we understand ignorance in this light that we can feel its deadly force. Ignorance is not some harmless lack of the opportunity to gain information. It is, as Plato says, a fundamental corruption in which "all evils are rooted." In today's world, as has happened throughout humankind's past, we have the misfortune to see our world being steadily corrupted and destroyed by persons who are not only ignorant but whose ignorance has steadily corrupted them to the point of evil.

      Shankara shows us that our false identification with the physical body is created by mental programming--both social and personal. Recognition of this factor provides us with a means of escape from ignorance as to what we are. "Mind," he says, "is the cause of man's bondage, and in turn of his liberation." Discernment between the Higher Self and the not-self is wisdom. We attain wisdom through willingness to give up all obsession with sensual self-indulgence. 4 

      We gain identification with the Higher Self by understanding what its effects and powers are. The Higher Self is the capability of being able to stand outside self-consciousness to become the Witness of all our experiences. The Higher Self is with us from the beginning of our life, observing all changes of form--from infancy to old age--and encouraging our spiritual development.

      Locating our consciousness in the Higher Self involves the awareness that identification with the physical body arises through the delusion of the understanding, the comprehension that this delusion of being the body is not real and that when the delusion passes the identification exists no longer, having no substantial reality.

"Identification with the body is brought into being through false perception, because of delusion, and lasts only so long as the error lasts; as the serpent in the rope endures only as long as the delusion; when the delusion ceases, there is no serpent."

      Locating our center of consciousness in the Higher Self enables us to understand that our delusion of being the body is precisely like the visual illusion of thinking that a rope is a serpent. When we overcome the delusion, created by our culture and our own wrong thinking, we're able to locate our consciousness in the Higher Self. Thus the Higher Self becomes our teacher, as Shankara indicates:

"Let him who possesses moral virtue and who would learn the reality of the Self, approach the wise Teacher--the Higher Self--from whom comes the loosing of fetters; who is full of knowledge and perfect; who is not beaten by desire, who really knows the Eternal; who has found rest in the Eternal, at peace like a fuelless fire; who is full of selfless kindness, the friend of all that lives. Serving the Teacher with devotion and aspiration for the Eternal, and finding harmony with him, seek the essential knowledge of the Self."

      Through continual dedication to locating our consciousness in the Higher Self, we can attain what Shankara calls "secondless bliss."


"All the strife of our upward endeavour and seeking finds its culmination and ceases in a satisfied fulfillment when we can rend the veil and get behind our apparent self to this real Self, can realize our whole being in this true Lord of our being, can give up our personality to and into this one real Person, merge our ever-dispersed and ever-converging mental activities into His plenary light, offer up our errant and struggling will and energies into His vast, luminous and undivided Will, at once renounce and satisfy all our dissipated outward-moving desires and emotions in the plenitude of His self-existent Bliss. This is the world-Teacher of whose eternal knowledge all other highest teaching is but the various reflection and partial word, this the Voice to which the hearing of our soul has to awaken"

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita





Notes

1 See the author's book: The Perennial Tradition

2 Merely curious or desultory readers of spiritual material expect to be given an A-B-C kind of easy technique which they can carry out without any prior preparation or thought. Some of the procedures provided by Perennialist teachings require prior development and an ability to comprehend new and unfamiliar processes.

3 Possession refers to:

  • Domination by something: as a negative spirit, a passion, an obsession, an addiction,
    or a fixed idea
  • A psychological state in which an individual's normal personality is replaced
    by another personality or state

    4 Note that willingness to give up all obsession with sensual self-indulgence does not equate with the practice of prudery or dogmatic asceticism. The baleful effect of obsession with bodily gratification is that we become so fixated on physical bodily sensations that we forget how to locate our consciousness anywhere else or find satisfaction and pleasure in spiritual experiences.