Also see: Recommended Reading: Books for Enlightenment, Liberation and Self-Realisation
Question: Hi Tom, it is often said that the Self is the Witness, meaning that which sees or perceives all objects. In other places it is said the Self is everything. I’m not sure what to make of this. Can you give me some clarity please?
Tom: Hi, yes, this can cause lots of confusion for many. Even many Vedanta teachers do not really understand this point. As ever, Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi points us to the true vedanta, the truly liberating way, in his teachings.
In truth the Self is not a witness at all, but as long as we think we are a body-mind entity, and as long as we see a world outside of or apart from ourself, the Self is indicated or pointed out as being the Subject or the Witness.
When in Self-Enquiry (the path of Knowledge) we turn our attention away from the objects, which means the various gross and suble phenomena that are perceived, and towards the Subject or Self (‘Witness’), eventually the ego-mind which takes itself to be a body-mind entity dissolves or dies and all that is left is the Subject-Witness-Self. This Self can no longer truly be said to be either a Subject (for there are no objects present), nor can it be said to be a Witness, as there is nothing to witness. It is All, it is the Sole Reality, ‘One without a second’, as it is often described as being in the Upanishads.
This teaching is explained in detail in The Path of Sri Ramana and Sadhanai Saram (the essence of spiritual practice)
Q. Why then is the Self said to be a witness at all?
Tom: it is only to point out where to direct your attention towards. That apparent Subject, the I AM is what we truly are and all there truly is. All else is illusion, maya. The problem is that we think that we are the body-mind, which is actually a part of maya. Only through Self-Knowledge can we realise what we truly are, and to that end the Self is pointed out as being a Witness or being the Subject. Why? So we can turn towards it and thereby realise our/the Self.
Q. Why then is the Self said to be everything?
Tom: When we are under the spell of illusion, meaning when we take ourself to be a body-mind entity living in an apparently external world, we can say that everything is the Self, that all comes from the Self, and the Self pervades all. What can be apart from the Self? Nothing! However, at this point, we are still under the spell of illusion or maya or ignorance (all are synonyms). When, through self-enquiry, we discover the Reality, our Self, as it truly is, there is no Maya/ignorance/illusion at all and we realise there never was ever any illusion/ignorance at any point in time ever (actually we also realise there was never any time either, which is simply a part of the illusion). This is the Self. This is self-realisation.
There is actually no realisation of anything in self-realisation, for realisation implies a mind that realises something, and neither the ‘mind’ nor ‘something’ are in the self, both being aspects of Maya (illusion). There is only the Self.
Q. So does the Self pervade everything, all objects?
Tom: Why worry about objects, maya? The ego-mind is always concerned about maya. Discover the Self and find out! You will no longer be interested in maya (ie. there is/will be no maya in realisation). To discover the self, consider all objects to be maya and turn your attention lovingly towards the Subject, the I AM, what you actually are
Renouncing this phenomenal world
Which seems to, but does not, exist
We gain (the great ones say) the Self,
The Awareness shining all unseen.
Sri Ramana Maharshi, Guru Vachaka Kovai, Verse 835
Q. Why in some places does it say objects are not-Self and in other places it says objects are Self?
Tom: Contrary to what many think it is the lower teachings that say all is Self, to convince the seeker that there is only the Self. The higher teachings say that objects are not-Self, ie. maya or illusion, thus encouraging the sincere seeker to turn away from objects towards the Subject, whose true nature is Eternal Love and Bliss. The Eternal and Blissful nature of the Self is seemingly lost due to pre-occupation with the dream-like maya. Therefore the only way out is to attend to the Eternal and discover what you truly are!
Note that in both cases, whether you consider objects to be the Self or non-Self, that is a conceptual position for the mind. And liberation has nothing to do with the mind, the mind itself being ignorance.
Q. Don’t the scriptures state that the mind leads the way to liberation? Isn’t the way to liberation through knowledge, as isn’t knowledge to do with the mind?
Tom: It is true that some scriptures say that through the mind we can reach liberation. That means that it is the mind that hears the teachings (sravana), reflects upon them (manana), and then this naturally leads to meditation upon the Self (Self Enquiry or Nididhyasana) which in turn leads to manonasa (destruction of mind, or destruction of ignorance) which is the same as liberation (Mukti or Moksha), which is also the same as Jnana (knowledge) or Atma Jnana (Self-knowledge).
In Self knowledge, there is only the Self. There is no mental knowledge in Jnana at all, Jnana or Knolwedge just being another name for the Self. See here for more on this:
What exactly is Jnana (knowledge) according to Shankara and Gaudapada and the scriptures? | Advaita Vedanta | Mandukya Upanishad and Karika
What is true Wisdom? What is Jnana? Sri Ramana Maharshi (Upadesa Saram)
Q. So in that case does that mean that all we have to do for realisation is to remain as the witness, watching phenomena as they come and go?
Tom: No, that is not correct at all. Whilst remaining as the witness is a lovely teaching in many ways that can be a wonderful practice for some people at some points on their journey, merely remaining a witness is (1) not liberating and (2) is also not possible for most, as the mind keeps on getting drawn back into thoughts of body, mind or world. Merely remaining as the witness to objective phenomena as they come and go is merely attending to maya, as all objective phenomena are maya, and so the ego-illusion and suffering continue. For realisation, we must attend to the Subject-Self, the I Am, until the ego-mind (which is duality) is no more, ie. until self-realisation, ie. until be discover what we truly are.
For more see here: In Brief: how to attain Liberation and HOW TO END EGO-SUFFERING (and why other spiritual paths tend not to ultimately work
If you refrain from looking at this
Or that or any other object
Then by that overpowering look
Into absolute Being you become
Yourself the boundless space of pure
Awareness which alone is Real Being.
Sri Ramana Maharshi, Guru Vachaka Kovai, Verse 647
Question: What is it that discovers the Self?
Tom: There is no entity that discovers the Self. It is only the Self that ‘discovers’ the Self. It is the total absolute removal or total absense of ignorance. It is merely the Self being the Self, One without and second (maya), no more, no less.