There are differing views as to what constitutes Self-realization, largely dependent upon assumptions about the constitution of human nature. From the theosophical point of view, which in this case seems to follow Hindu thought, the self (Atman) is the ultimate source of consciousness which utilizes several vehicles by means of which it functions in a seven-fold universe. When associated with BUDDHI, the composite is termed the monad (even though it is, in reality, two-fold). These are, further, associated with the higher aspect of mind (manas or vijñana in Sk.) and form together a triple spiritual nature. That functions in what is often termed the lower quaternary: lower mind, emotions, vital energy, and physical body. So, Self-realization, from this point of view, would involve a direct awareness in the physical brain of the ultimate source of consciousness, i.e., atman. To accomplish such awareness, different regimens are prescribed, often identified as different systems of yoga (Raja, Karma, Bhakti, Jñana, etc.). The classical Hindu source for yoga is Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras, but such works as the Bhagavad-Gita and Advaita Vedanta, and philosophic writings like Sankaracarya’s Atmabodha also contain recommendations for attaining Self-realization.
Analytic systems of Hindu philosophy, such as Nyaya, recommend mental analysis, rather decried by other systems as self-stultifying, since one is trying to transcend the mind, not focus oneself in it. The theistic systems of Vedanta, such as Dvaita and Visistadvaita, recommend a devotional approach, in effect urging the devotee to so focus one’s attention on the Divine as to lose one’s normal separative consciousness.
BUDDHISM, which denies the existence of a permanent (i.e., unchanging) reality termed atman, recommends a variety of different regimens, depending on the form of Buddhism involved. Southern or THERAVADA BUDDHISM, for instance, generally utilizes a meditative discipline termed vipassana in which one simply watches the chattering of the mind without attempting forcibly to stop it. Doing this eventually causes the mind to cease its chattering. It also uses a form of walking meditation in which one attempts quietly and slowly to become aware of every movement of the muscles and limbs of one’s body. In effect, that also focuses the mind. Some forms of Northern Buddhism utilize a meditative system akin to Patañjali’s. One branch of Ch’an (or Zen) Buddhism utilizes a practice termed k’ung-an (Jap. koan) which attempts to bypass the normal functioning of the rational mind in a variety of ways (e.g., by using non-rational puzzles), as well as utilizing quiet meditation, often centering on awareness of one’s breathing. TIBETAN BUDDHISM utilizes a variety of techniques, some similar to those found in other systems, as well as group chanting.
In his translation of Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras, I. K. TAIMNI points out that the process of Self-realization involves a whole series of awakenings in which ultimate consciousness focuses itself progressively in subtler and subtler vehicles. This technique is usually termed Raja (i.e., Kingly) Yoga and may represent a final technique implicit in the various other systems. Generally, theosophical writers suggest aspirants use whatever method they find most conducive to their personalities, since all techniques eventually lead to the same end. Even Hatha Yoga, which Annie BESANT, for instance, finds ineffective because it attempts to control the higher vehicles by controlling the lower (whereas the reverse is needed), has value as a preliminary practice. Some theosophical writers even recommend, as a preliminary practice, japa or repetition of a phrase or mantra (sometimes translated as “that which leads the mind”).
In an anonymous article entitled “Self-knowledge,” presumably written by Helena P. BLAVATSKY, a simple but interesting list of suggested requirements was given:
The first necessity for obtaining self-knowledge is to become profoundly conscious of ignorance; to feel with every of fiber of the heart that one is ceaselessly self-deceived.
The second requisite is the still deeper conviction that such knowledge — such intuitive and certain knowledge — can be obtained by effort.
The third and most important is an indomitable determination to obtain and face that knowledge.
Self-knowledge of this kind is unattainable by what men usually call “self-analysis.” It is not reached by reasoning or any brain process; for it is the awakening to consciousness of the Divine nature of man.
To obtain this knowledge is a greater achievement than to command the elements or to know the future. (CW 8:108)
There is also a passage in the Katha Upanisad (I. ii. 22-23) that throws considerable light on this subject:
Having meditated on the Self, as bodiless in the midst of bodies, as permanent in the midst of impermanent, and as great and pervasive, the wise man does not grieve.
This Self cannot be known through much study, nor through the intellect, nor through much hearing; it can be known by the Self alone that the aspirant prays to; the Self of that seeker reveals Its true nature.
Here the word translated “Self” is Atman, the spiritual component of the sevenfold system in theosophy. The seeker has obviously reached a very advanced stage on the Path since he or she is able effectively to meditate on that which is outside of time and space and is formless. There is this further fact:
One who has not desisted from bad conduct, whose senses are not under control, whose mind is not concentrated, whose mind is not free from anxiety [about the result of concentration] cannot attain this Self through knowledge. (1. ii. 24)
When the foregoing stanza is converted from the negative to the positive, one finds in it a formula for Self-realization.
Obviously, since the spiritual life is, like all other things, subject to law, results are not gained without steadfast effort. The law of karma is immutable. In the realm of the spiritual every human individual has to qualify for higher consciousness through an evolutionary process that cannot be avoided. Theosophically speaking, it seems possible to shorten the process by undergoing certain developmental disciplines such as those required by Raja Yoga, and these requirements are only avoided in those extremely rare cases where an individual has undergone the necessary training during a previous lifetime, but they cannot be bypassed by chemicals or extreme mortification of the body. It is a frequent mistake made by Western aspirants to expect almost instant enlightenment. When such things happen, it is presumably the result of practices done in previous lives. In fact, the very expectation of a rapid achievement on the Spiritual Path is counterproductive, being egocentric. Patience and application are always required.
An almost universal problem is a tendency to identify ourselves with the physical world and our physical bodies, even though we know intellectually that everything physical is impermanent and only the purely spiritual is permanent. But mere verbal affirmations and philosophical arguments about this problem accomplish very little. Appropriate exercises leading to permanent realization of oneself and the oneness of life are needed, not just intellectual affirmation of that fact.
In other words, the candidate has to comprehend the Laws of the Higher Life. These are the laws that prevail on the various planes where the individual has to function when centered in his or her higher consciousness. Thus the emotional and lower mental activities have to be managed wisely and consistently. There are a number of yogic disciplines that may enable the candidate to develop these abilities. There are also certain preliminary requisites, such as abstention from mind-altering substances (hallucinogenic drugs, alcohol, tobacco), a diet consistent with health and non-violence, continence in sexual practices, and physical cleanliness. Guidance of a competent teacher, whether in person or in writing, is also strongly recommended, if not absolutely necessary.
Since the process of Self-realization is progressive, it is reasonable to assume that one cannot attain it in a single lifetime, that a great deal of work must be continued over a number of lives. But this is not to be considered onerous or unpleasant, for the practices, once undertaken regularly, have their own rewards, one of which is deeper wisdom and greater serenity and joy.
Annie Besant has concisely described the condition of a Self-realized person in a talk on “The Law of Duty” delivered to the Annual Convention of the Indian Section of the Theosophical Society in Varanasi on the 26th of December, 1902, when she stated,What then is the Spiritual? It is alone the life of the Consciousness which recognizes Unity, which sees one Self in everything and everything in the Self. The spiritual life is the life which, looking into the infinite number of phenomena, pierces through the veil of Maya and sees the One and the Eternal within each changing form. To know the Self, to love the Self, to realize the Self, that and that alone is Spirituality, even as to see the Self everywhere alone is Wisdom. All outside that is ignorance; all outside that is unspiritual. If once you understand this definition, you will find yourself compelled to choose not the phenomenal but the real, to choose the life of the Spirit as distinguished from the life of the form, though on the highest plane. You will be compelled to choose definite methods for evolving the life of the Spirit, and you will search for the knowledge of the law which shall enable the Consciousness to unfold, so that it may recognize its unity with all Consciousness everywhere, so that every form shall be dear not for the sake of the form but for the sake of the Self, which is the life and reality of the form. (Reprinted in The Laws of the Higher Life, 1903, 1912, 1973, pp. 30-1.)
See also ENLIGHTENMENT; SELF; SATORI; SAMADHI; UNION; FANAH Path, The.
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