The Vastness of Consciousness — Vedantic Teachings for Liberation: Moksha

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Long ago, the ancient rishis
explored the mysteries of creation – birth and death, heaven and earth,
suffering and liberation. They sought not only spiritual wisdom;
they sought knowledge of the cosmos as well. They strived to understand how the world works
long before the dawn of modern scientific methods. Instead of science,
they used the power of their own minds. Imagine when the rishis gazed upwards at night and saw stars tracing huge arcs across the sky, what did they think? When they saw the sun’s daily journey
and the monthly phases of moon, what did they think? The explanations they proposed were utterly different
from the theories of Western philosophers at that time. In ancient Greece, philosophers thought
the Earth was enclosed by a giant celestial sphere. All the stars are attached to that sphere arranged
in the familiar patterns we know as constellations. As the sphere rotates,
from our earthly perspective, we see stars on the sphere moving
across the night sky from east to west. But how did the ancient Greeks explain
the motion of the sun, moon, and planets? According to a philosopher
named Ptolemy, the sun, moon and planets
are each attached to their own spheres located between the Earth
and the sphere of the stars. Each sphere rotates independently,
according to the celestial body attached to it. Of course, Ptolemy got it wrong when he put
the Earth at the center of the cosmos. Also, he couldn’t explain
what lies beyond the outermost sphere. An artist depicted this in a wonderful etching of someone piercing the sphere’s edge to peer
into the mysterious realms lying beyond. The sages of ancient India, on the other hand,
envisioned the heavens very differently than their Western counterparts. The rishis considered the sun, moon, stars and planets
to be intelligent beings or deities they called devatas. The rishis said, each of these celestial deities
is ordained to follow a particular path through the sky, the path ordained by Ishvara,
the God of the cosmos. The Taittiriya Upanishad says,
bhishodeti suryah, the sun rises due to obedience. Ishvara rules the heavens and earth
by establishing the laws of nature which determine how the sun, moon,
stars and planets travel through space. But then, how did the rishis understand
the nature of space itself? They called space akasha and they considered it one of the five basic elements
along with air, fire, water, and earth. But they observed that akasha has a unique,
distinguishing feature – it is formless. Unlike the other elements,
akasha has no shape, no form, no dimensions. And since akasha is dimensionless,
it is boundaryless, limitless, and therefore all-pervasive. So, when the rishis looked up
into the night sky, they never thought that the moon and stars
were attached to giant spheres but rather that the moon and stars
traveled through infinite space, boundaryless, limitless, vast. When the rishis and the ancient Greeks
looked up into the night sky, they saw the same sun and moon,
the same stars and planets. Their experiences were identical,
but they came to utterly different conclusions about what they experienced. Why? Because they interpreted
their experiences differently. We all know how experience
can mislead us. We’ve all been fooled
by optical illusions, like seeing this bent spoon
or seeing a boat seem to float in the air when it’s actually floating
on crystal clear water. A favorite example of mine
is watching a beautiful sunset. As the sun slowly dips
below the horizon, it’s easy to forget that
the sun doesn’t really travel through the sky. The sun remains stationary. It’s the Earth that moves. As the earth rotates,
the sun seems to set. The sun doesn’t go down,
it’s the horizon that moves up. Yet, we still say that the sun goes down, just as the ancient Greeks said that the moon and stars
are attached to giant spheres. Both of these conclusions are wrong. And both are due
to the incorrect interpretation of experience. The rishis examined their experience very carefully,
leading to great insights, both worldly and spiritual. Sometimes they contemplated
the world around them and the heavens above, but at other times,
they closed their eyes and directed their attention within
to seek spiritual knowledge, knowledge of reality, the reality because of which
the sun, moon and stars exist, the reality because of which you and I exist, the reality because of which
experience itself exists. And to understand the nature
of experience itself, the rishis had to inquire deeply
into the nature of the mind, because all experience
takes place in our minds. That inquiry is recorded
in the Kena Upanishad where the rishi asks, keneshitam patati preshitam manah, what is it that makes the mind think? How do our minds and senses work?” All experience takes place in our minds. For example, when you see a tree,
the lenses of your eyes focus an image of the tree
onto the back of each eye. There, the retina transforms
a tiny upside-down image of the tree into signals which travel
along the optic nerve to your brain. Your brain’s powerful network of neurons responds
by producing an image of the tree in your mind. You see the tree only when its image
appears in your mind. In a similar way, signals from nerves inside your ears
causes sounds to arise in your mind. And signals from your nose, tongue, and skin
cause other sensations to arise in your mind. You know whatever happens in your mind. Every mental event is observed by you,
witnessed by you. A mental event is called vritti in Sanskrit. Each vritti is like a ripple in a pond. Depending on what’s thrown into a pond,
ripples are formed – small ripples for small objects,
large ripples for large objects. In the same way,
depending on what you experience, vrittis are formed in your mind
corresponding to those experiences. There are three types of vrittis:
perceptions, thoughts, and emotions. Perceptions are vrittis produced by your senses
when you see, hear, taste, smell, or touch something. And as these vrittis arise in your mind,
they are observed by you. Thoughts are vrittis produced
by your mind itself. When you think about problems at work
or what to buy from the store, your mind creates vrittis
corresponding to these thoughts. And as these vrittis arise in your mind,
they are observed by you. Your emotions are another kind of vritti
produced by your mind. When you feel happy,
sad, or frustrated, your mind produces vrittis
corresponding to your emotions. And as these vrittis arise in your mind,
they too become known to you. Who is the witness of your vrittis? Who is it that knows your perceptions,
thoughts, and emotions? The simple answer
is that You are the knower. You are the conscious observer
of these vrittis. You are the awareful witness. As the Kena Upanishad says,
shrotrasya shrotram, you are the ear of the ear,
the one by whom all perceptions are known. And manaso manah,
you are the mind of the mind, the one by whom your thoughts
and emotions are known. Here, the word You
doesn’t refer to your body or personality, it refers to your fundamental nature
as a conscious, awareful being. You, as pure consciousness,
are the knower of your vrittis. In this image,
the blue water represents your consciousness, and the ripples represent your vrittis. Your mind is like a pool of consciousness. Just as ripples arise in water,
so too, vrittis arise in your consciousness. And when vrittis arise, they become known to you,
known as your perceptions, thoughts, and emotions. As all these vrittis arise and fade away,
their activity is observed or witnessed. Witnessed by whom?,
we can ask. One of the rishis’ most profound inquiries
was to answer the question, “what is the true nature of consciousness?” The rishis discovered that consciousness
has something in common with space. Both consciousness and space are formless. Both are dimensionless. Neither has a boundary or limit. Therefore, consciousness,
like space, must be limitless. According to the rishis, the consciousness
by which our vrittis are known is all-pervasive. That means, your consciousness is all-pervasive. But there’s huge
problem here. We don’t experience consciousness
as being all-pervasive. We only seem to experience consciousness
inside our bodies and minds. Consciousness seems to have an edge,
a boundary, right at the surface of our skin. Consciousness seems
to be stuck inside. Our sense of touch reveals the presence
of consciousness from head to toe, but not beyond. So how can we reconcile
our limited experience with the rishis’ discovery that consciousness
is boundaryless and all-pervasive like space? To answer this question,
we have to return to our earlier discussion about how experience
can be misinterpreted. Is it possible that the experience
of our own bodies somehow misleads us into thinking that consciousness
is stuck inside? In fact, that is exactly what happens. The skin that covers your body
is full of nerves by which you feel sensations like cold
and heat, texture, pressure and so on. If those nerves failed to work properly,
your entire body would be numb. Did you ever sleep on your arm
and wake up with it completely numb? When a part of your body is numb,
it feels like a foreign object, a thing. Numbness makes it seem
like consciousness is absent, but you don’t actually feel
the absence of consciousness; you feel the absence of sensation. Let me say that again; you don’t feel the absence of consciousness,
you feel the absence of sensation. The presence or absence of sensations
only tells you about your nerves; it doesn’t really tell you anything
about consciousness. Here, the blue background represents the limitless
consciousness that pervades your body like it pervades everything else in the universe,
including the chair. Consciousness is equally present
in your body and the chair, but because your nerves are confined to your skin,
it seems like consciousness is only in your body. If your nerves somehow expanded
into the fabric of the chair, what would that be like? Well, if someone sat in the chair,
you’d feel like they’re sitting on you! You feel sensations wherever your nerves are active,
therefore, sensations only tell you about your nerves, not about consciousness. Even though consciousness is boundaryless
and all-pervasive, your nerves can’t verify this. The all-pervasive nature of consciousness
is a reality that must be understood with your mind, not perceived by your senses. You can’t perceive consciousness
with your senses, but you can certainly understand
the nature of consciousness. The consciousness we’re talking about
is your consciousness, the consciousness by which your perceptions,
thoughts and emotions are known. But how can your consciousness
be in the chair? How can your consciousness
be all-pervasive? To explore this further,
let’s try a mental experiment. Imagine that you’re sitting here
in our lecture hall, and somehow your senses of sight,
hearing and touch gradually stop working. Eventually, you are left completely blind,
deaf, and numb from head to toe. Now, even though you’re blind, deaf,
and numb, you’d still be fully conscious. You’d find yourself cut off from the outside world
and wonder, “What happened? Where am I?” Without sight or hearing, you wouldn’t feel
like you’re sitting in this hall surrounded by people. You’d feel no sense of location,
no sense of being inside or outside, no sense of being here or there. And being numb,
unable to feel your body, you wouldn’t feel like consciousness
is stuck inside your body. You wouldn’t experience any edge
or boundary to your consciousness. And in the absence of any edge or boundary,
you’d experience yourself as being vast, boundaryless, limitless. This mental experiment shows
how the true nature of your consciousness can be recognized only if you’re not misled
by your senses. Ok. Being blind, deaf, and numb,
you’d still be conscious. What would you be conscious of? Well, you’d still be aware
of your thoughts and emotions. You’d be aware of your vrittis. In fact, it’s these vrittis that make your consciousness
unique and individual. These vrittis differentiate your consciousness
from allpervasive consciousness. In this image, your consciousness
is shown as the water, and all-pervasive consciousness
as the blue background. So, what would happen
to the uniqueness of your consciousness if vrittis stopped arising in your mind? What would happen
if your mind became totally quiet? In meditation, the rishis observed
that as vrittis ebb away, the distinction between your consciousness
and all-pervasive consciousness gradually fades. And in the complete absence of vrittis,
there’s no way to distinguish your consciousness from all-pervasive consciousness. This state is called samadhi. In samadhi, your consciousness
loses its individuality and becomes one with the boundaryless,
allpervasive consciousness. In samadhi, you no longer experience yourself
as a finite, individual person; you experience vastness. And then later,
when the vrittis come back, your experience of being
an individual person returns. This leads to our last topic – about the relationship between your consciousness
and all-pervasive consciousness. In a pond,
each ripple is made of water and that water is the same
whether it’s in a big ripple, a small one, or in the depths of the pond
where there are no ripples. Likewise, each of your vrittis
is made of the same consciousness, the same boundaryless, limitless consciousness
that pervades the universe. In reality, there’s no difference
between the consciousness in your vrittis and the consciousness that pervades all. There is only one consciousness. Consciousness is limitless;
it’s not confined by your body and mind. Right now, you don’t experience being limitless,
because your mind is full of vrittis. But if those vrittis were absent, you would immediately experience the vastness
which is the true nature of consciousness. Whether you experience it or not,
your consciousness remains limitless. Experience alone can’t establish what’s true,
because experience has to be correctly interpreted. And that’s why we turn
to the teachings of Vedanta. We need the wisdom of the rishis to discern
the true nature of consciousness. When you look up into the night sky,
you’ll never think the stars are attached to a sphere. You won’t misinterpret this experience, because
you possess the knowledge that space is limitless. And you know that space remains limitless
even in the presence of clouds. In the same way, you can know
that your consciousness remains limitless even in the presence of vrittis. Clouds seem to constrain the vastness of space,
but space is utterly unaffected by clouds. In the same way, vrittis seem to constrain
the vastness of consciousness, but your consciousness remains vast
even in the presence of vrittis. To fully appreciate the vastness of space
requires knowledge of the heavens. To fully appreciate the vastness of consciousness
requires knowledge of your true self, atma. If you clearly recognize
the true nature of atma, you’ll never think consciousness
is stuck inside your body. When you discover what the rishis discovered,
when you gain true insight with help of their teachings, you’ll be blessed with the undeniable realization
that your consciousness is as vast as space itself.

 

35 Responses

  1. Jessi Ferguson

    April 11, 2016 8:27 am

    I'm so glad I found your YouTube channel! I've been taking your Gita classes online and think you are absolutely wonderful! Listening to you is both peaceful and uplifting. Thank you for teaching. Please post more videos on YouTube if you are able!

    Reply
  2. Davinder K. Anand

    July 15, 2017 3:51 pm

    I have always found discussions on Consciousness difficult to understand. In this presentation Swamiji teaches us about the subject at a level that is very understandable.

    Reply
  3. Triss Velvel

    March 20, 2019 9:47 am

    I've experienced all of this using entheogens, so I believe this to be true. Thank you for putting this in such an accessible form.
    Peace!

    Reply
  4. Juan Sagan

    April 22, 2019 3:55 pm

    Such a simple and clear explanation its wonderful! Thank you very very very much. I will keep on learning from you Swami.

    Reply
  5. gireesh neroth

    April 29, 2019 1:09 pm

    Can a bubble know the vastness of the ocean as long as it is just a bubble?
    Become one with the ocean and you won't have to discuss the vastness of your own true Self. Because you are it. Just it .
    Nothing else. So break free from the guise and be your true Self.

    Reply
  6. Jaffer Ali

    April 30, 2019 4:24 pm

    Love you sir, you have very successfully and very simply elucidated vastness of consciousness. Such lofty spiritual discourse can come only from elevated souls. Regards.

    Reply
  7. Lodrö Pharchin Siering

    May 19, 2019 3:13 am

    You know long before the Greeks understood the cosmos as a series of concentric spheres they also use to believe that the celestial objects were gods. If you really want to find the difference between "East" and "West" you have to look elsewhere–in fact, the difference is probably best understood as a burgeoning scientific awareness in both instances that was extroverted in Greco-Mesopotamian culture while it was Introverted in Sino-India.

    Reply
  8. Nanda Gopal

    May 22, 2019 12:12 pm

    Swami Ji, my Sastang pranaam to you. Your discussion on consciousness is a revelation to me! You explained the most complex topic with simple graphics and made me to realise the true vastness of our consciousness. This explanation is fantastic. Just following your talk closely made me to experience bit of that vastness !! Thank you Swami Ji immensely.
    Do you travel ? Any plans to visit Australia? How to find out?

    Reply
  9. Sun Fellow

    June 5, 2019 2:24 am

    Swamiji, lately I've been meditating on Surya Dev, for over year now. When I recite mantras to Surya, these are still vrittis, correct? After all, I perceive them with my senses and I feel the emotion of love. Sometimes I just sit silent and repeat some mantras or phrases along with solar visualizations for upliftment. But I wonder how these practices relate to the state of mind that you describe that leads to experience of unlimited consciousness. In other words, i wonder how all our experiences as humans can lead us to experience unlimited consciousness, because in many ways this the way we perceive our existence. If it's all an obstacle (illusion) and we have to reject life as it is, this doesn't leave much room for hope for spiritual advancement.

    Reply
  10. Marta Soltys

    July 1, 2019 1:00 am

    You are so peaceful. I love the humbleness. I feel it's really lacking in today's world; maybe it's always been like this. Blessings!

    Reply
  11. Tim Descher

    July 24, 2019 12:01 pm

    The earth is stationary, the sun and stars revolve. Show evidence of earth spinning at 1,000 mph . It's not happening. Or going around sun at 66,600 mph . Or our so called galaxy moving at over 9,000,000 mph shooting through space . Or the stupid THEORY of the universe expanding at over 900,000,000 mph . This is the ignorance that is taught non provable, just theory… What are you teaching is it your knowledge or something that you bought into . Some of your info is of value though

    Reply
  12. Laurence Bowman

    July 25, 2019 12:39 am

    That is the absolute best way I have ever heard to explain consciousness and samadhi!…in a simple and clear way. You have enlightened me immensely, thanks a million!

    Reply

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