Self-Realization Is Simply a Shift in Identity

Dear Ted,

I’m currently reading James’ book and reading both his and your website material. I have an intellectual interest in Advaita Vedanta, with a view to finding some level of contentment with life. I know you’ll say only self realisation will provide complete freedom, but perhaps you’ll agree that even an intellectual understanding still provides some measure of contentment, simply due to having a satisfactory explanation of reality. At this stage, however, I’m still looking into this tradition alongside other traditions, especially Kashmir Shaivism. I suppose I’m looking for the system which seems to resonate with me the most, and see where it may lead me.

What I’m definitely NOT interested in is the current wave of ‘neo-advaita’ which I’ve found to be half-baked, contradictory and confusing, the only benefit of it being that it highlights how important it is to find an established tradition and stick to it. the neo-advaita movement seems to mix together terminology from all eastern (and sometimes western) traditions resulting in a recipe for confusion.

Can I just say, reading James’s material, and yours, has been a pleasure. It’s very clear, concise and to the point, with a clear terminology and all the nonsense removed.

With that said, I would just like to query something James said in his essay on the Enlightened Person, where he talks about the subtle shift of identity away from the apparent person to Awareness.

He said that after the subtle shift of identity away from the apparent person to Awareness, ‘the mind/body mechanisms continue to function as they did before the shift, only now you are no longer identified as them, they seem to belong to someone else. It is like watching yourself in a dream’.

It’s the phrase ‘they seem to belong to someone else’ that I’m looking for clarification on. Obviously, from Awareness’s point of view (not that Awareness technically has a point of view), the mind/body can’t actually ‘belong to somebody else’, as I am all there is. What I think he’s saying is that the ‘somebody else’ is the apparent identity/person I previously identified as, and after the shift there is the firm understanding that while the apparent identity is me, I am not it.

i.e. the correct formulation being conveyed is that the apparent person is me, but I am not the apparent person.

I know that this understanding can be difficult to describe which is why James is using analogies here. Obviously, the mind/body doesn’t really belong to someone else, and the experience is not really the same as watching myself in a dream, but there are all good analogies for conveying the sense that although the apparent person I appear to be is, and will always continue to be an expression of me, I as Awareness am not the apparent expression.

One related pitfall I think I’ve managed to avoid from reading your material Ted, is the fallacy of ‘getting behind yourself’, an erroneous idea that many people on this path come to hold, where they imagine themselves as some ghostly presence ‘behind’ all experience, somehow separate from it and watching, but not being affected by it, with the idea of a cinema projector often being imagined as analogy of this. I can see how this idea may arise, particularly if the teachings about the relationship between Awareness and apparent identity are not properly understood. I think it’s more accurate to say that I am the screen, out of which the images are made.

Thank you for any comments/clarifications you may wish to make concerning the above.





Hi, Ethan.

It is a pleasure to make your cyber acquaintance.

Your understanding is correct. Though other sentences in your email suggest that you already know this, the only clarification I offer is that “I as awareness am not the apparent person” means that while the apparent person is essentially nothing other than awareness—for, from the apparent perspective, limitless conscious existence is the ultimate cosmic trinity: 1) the “field” in which all objects appear, 2) the material out of which all objects are made, and 3) the ”pool of pure potentiality” that contains all the knowledge for the design of the manifestation as well as the physical, psychological, and ethical laws that govern its operation—awareness cannot be comprehensively defined as any particular object or even the entire host of all objects (i.e., the entire manifestation in both its subtle and gross aspects).

Provided you understand that, your intellectual knowledge is complete. Now the only task is to ruminate over this understanding until such time as you are as convinced that your true identity is limitless conscious existence as it once was that you are the body-mind-sense complex (i.e., the apparent individual person) with which you are associated. Once your identification with the body-mind-sense complex is broken, the association with it will continue and the mind and body with continue to experience all the pleasures and pains that are the province of bodies and minds, but the mind will know that the person of whom it is a part is not the fundamental reality—that is, by virtue of the mechanism of the mind, the experience of understanding that your true identity is limitless conscious existence is had. This experience of understanding your true identity is not the same as the fundamental reality “itself”, which is the reason why we say that the self is not an object, but this understanding, which occurs in the mind, does constitute self-knowledge.

And what is the virtue of this knowledge? The alleviation of suffering. Vedanta defines suffering as the deep-rooted existential angst that accompanies ignorance of one’s true nature. Though we may experience pain and pleasure, we only suffer as a result when we believe that the pain or the lack of pleasure is actually affecting us. For instance, if we think that we will be damned to eternal Hell when we die, or that when we die our existence will cease entirely, we experience a level of fear that can have various deleterious effects on our experience of life. Once we know that no matter what happens to the person or even the manifestation in general has no ultimate impact on limitless conscious existence, then even though pain and pleasure persist, suffering ceases.

Mind you, this understanding is not a ticket to apathy or unethical behavior. The manifestation holds many wonders to behold and opportunities for expression and experience. Life should be savored. Also, the manifestation is governed by the law of cause and effect, which is essentially due to the fact that given the non-dual nature of reality whatever you do you are doing to yourself, and thus the apparent person will inevitably (though it may take lifetimes) experience the results of its actions. Basically, when you know who you are, you will “play by the rules”, so to speak, for two reasons: 1) you want to contribute to the smooth functioning of the apparent reality appearing within you, and 2) you know your sense of wellbeing is not dependent on objects, so there is no reason to “break the rules” to get something that you don’t need.

When you have fully assimilated the knowledge that your true identity is limitless conscious existence, you get to play the role of the apparent person to the hilt, yet know that you remain totally okay no matter what happens.

All the best,