I take the following brief exchange during satsang to be of seminal importance:
Nisargadatta: “Outside your consciousness, does anything exist?”I Am That, p. 198.
Questioner: “It may exist without my knowing it.”
We need to understand that the questioner’s statement cannot be true. But how can that be, given that he seems to be saying something that most of us have readily believed or perhaps still believe?
The starting point for a contemplative science in Advaita Vedanta is direct experience. By “direct experience,” I mean whatever it is that can arise. A thought can arise; so can feelings, sensations, perceptions, and desires.
“Can a unicorn arise?” Yes, but only as a mental picture, not as a visual perception.
“Can an ego-entity arise?” Yes, but only as an I-concept, i.e., I-thought.
“Can mass or spin arise?” Yes, but only as concepts (i.e., as thoughts).
When the questioner states, “It may exist without my knowing it,” he’s making a mistake, albeit a common (realist) one. He thinks that objects can exist outside of direct experience, but that’s not true. There is no ‘existent something’ unless it is identical with a direct experience. Contemplate this until it’s clear.
So, whatever exists must be an experience.
“But how do you know this?” That which knows this is awareness. It’s awareness that is aware of any direct experience, i.e., of any arising. It’s awareness, then, that can “look” and “see” whether any experience could be outside of itself. Ask yourself: “Do I find any borders or boundaries in my direct experience?”
The answer is that there cannot be any existent outside of awareness. Verify that this is true.
Being Awareness Knowingly
“But if there is no experience outside of awareness, then how come I can feel pain without being aware of it?”
First, no pain can arise without awareness shining its light on the experience of pain. Understand this.
Second, there is a distinction to be drawn (at least for now) between (a) awareness illuminating experience X and (b) awareness knowingly illuminating experience X. The latter is sometimes called “metacognitive awareness.” That is, meditation could be said to be being awareness knowingly.
Being awareness knowingly means two things. In the first place, awareness is knowingly aware of, e.g., pain arising. In the second place, awareness is, above all, aware of itself. That is, awareness knows that it is itself–and nothing else.
One More Assumption: Coda
The assumption, of course, is that awareness is personal and is thereby limited. Investigate this until you know that awareness is impersonal and limitless. This is called self-knowledge (or moksha).