Understanding How Awareness Can Be Universal: Deep Sleep And I Amness

The nondual teaching which states that Awareness is global (that is, universal) can seem as if it doesn’t make sense. Certain satsang-style questions abound. Like: 1.) If I am Universal Awareness, then why can’t I read others’ minds? 2.) If I am Universal Awareness, then why do I feel “tethered” to a narrow set of experiences? 3.) Or, simply, if I am Universal Awareness, then how come I don’t know it?

Let’s see whether we can make sense of this teaching from the point of view of manana (or seriously pondering the Truth).

Ignorance: Experience and Identification

We begin, quite naturally for any Advaitan, with a brief account of avidya, or ignorance. Because phenomenal experience (touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, hearing, thinking, desiring, and so on) is, seemingly almost immediately, turned into “I am in pain,” “I am seeing,” “I am thinking,” and the like, it can seem as if I must be identified with the body, the senses, or the mind.

Here, we must underscore two facts. First, early on in sadhana, there can seem as if there is a preponderance of rapidly arising experiences (seeing, thinking, etc.). Second, the “I am this” thought can also seem to occur lightning-fast. As a result, ignorance through superimposition is intelligible: it certainly seems as if I–this bodymind–am the one occupying this limited world in this manner (e.g., “I am thinking”).

Deep Sleep

You may have come across ample arguments about the relevance of deep sleep in the teaching of Advaita Vedanta but have yet to experience “much flavor.” If that’s so, then let’s take another pass at a different kind of argument.

For our purposes here, deep sleep can be defined simply as Awareness-without-experiences.

Then two things are immediately clear. First, since there are no experiences (no seeing, thinking, etc.), there can be no preponderance of experiences. (Obviously.) Second, since there are no experiences, there can be no “this” to which “I am” can mistakenly identify itself (“I am thinking,” etc.). That is, there is no such thing as “I am thinking” in deep sleep.

Absent experience, there is also, then, the absence of any apparently limiting identifications with body, senses, or mind. The latter, in short, is simply not possible.

Deep sleep, on this account, is essentially equivalent to kensho in Zen: that is, to “sudden awakening.”

Deep Sleep, So To Say, in the Waking State

Then the question arises: what is conducive to bringing about deep sleep, so understood, in the waking state? For Ramana Maharshi often says that one can only see through ignorance in the waking state. After all, awakening is being deep sleep knowingly–that is, being Awareness knowingly.

Nisargadatta on I Amness: Concentration

It’s right here that we can fully understood the astonishing gift that Nisargadatta has given to us. His atma yoga essentially amounts to this: “Abide in I Amness.”

But what is it that makes this an astonishing gift?

First, Nisargadatta wants us to remain at the very incipience of all manifestation: remain, that is, right when and where subtle form emerges. Do you see the relevance of this?

And, second, like a great Chan master, Nisargadatta urges us to concentrate completely and only on I Amness. And–this is especially noteworthy–intense concentration on I Amness makes it impossible for experience to arise. But if no experience can arise, then there can be no lower identifications. And if no experience can arise, then I Amness must sink back into the Absolute. Because there can be nothing that would apparently limit Awareness, it can be understood, now, as only universal, as only ever having been universal.

Now, on account of philosophical contemplation, it is clear why the teachings, over and over again, urge us to constantly meditate on the Self.

The essential point, at this point, is sraddha: the deep faith or conviction evinced in diving deep into meditation.

There Is No Mind

Early on in sadhana, it may seem as if we need to drop the mind whenever there is any identification of Consciousness with mind. In so doing, we presume that the mind exists, only to insist: “I am not the mind.”

Later on, we may approach the matter more skillfully from the point of view of the Direct Path. We can do so by asking: “Does the mind exist in the first place?”


Following Atmananda, we use only (i) direct experience together with (ii) higher reason to investigate this question.

Thus, we can ask, “Do I have any direct evidence for mind? That is, do I find mind in direct experience?”

There can only be two logical possibilities here: either mind exists in thought, or mind exists between thoughts.


1. Now, if mind exists in thought, then mind is nothing other than thought. And if mind is nothing other than thought, then it is subject to the same fate that every thought is subject to: to wit, perishability.

But if mind is identical with thought, then in what robust sense does it make sense to speak of mind (as something allegedly perduring) at all? Why not simply apply the principle of parsimony and just speak of thinking-arising so as not to entertain any longer the belief in mind as a hypostasis or reification?

2. Yet perhaps mind exists between thoughts. What, in direct experience, do we find between thoughts? We find only silence: no container of thoughts, no theater in which thoughts appear, no mirroring of some so-called external reality, etc. In fact, all we find is Awareness.

Both lines of higher reasoning point to the conclusion that, concerning mind, there is no “there there.”

3. Understand that we have no other logical options, provided we stick to direct experience. For positing some theory or other about the mind amounts to proposing just another thought. But then the same analysis in 1 applies to 3. And trying even harder to find something that answers to mind, a la 2 above, only yields the same open space of Awareness. We don’t discover mind; we just discover, by virtue of being, the same Openness that we are.


There is simply no room left for mind, as some existing entity, in our account of Reality. The essential point for sadhana, then, is that these lines of higher reasoning expeditiously put to the rest any possibility that “I am the mind” for there is simply no way in which I, Awareness, could be that which does not exist. Just as no one seriously believes that she is a unicorn, so no one taking the above in reasonably and confirming in through meditation can take seriously the belief that she is identical with the mind.

The Humble David Godman Asks The Great Nisargadatta About Enlightenment

In this beautiful interview, “Remembering Nisargadatta Maharaj,” (thanks, Alexandra, for sending this to me!), David Godman, who has done much to make Ramana Maharshi’s teachings more widely available, speaks of his meetings with Nisargadatta. Everything below the “*” is from Godman’s interview/essay. Especially moving is what Nisargadatta says at the very end.


My question was really, ‘If one discounts the theory of reincarnation, which you seem to do, how can someone like Ramana Maharshi get enlightened with no desire for it, no effort and no practice, while everyone else struggles unsuccessfully for decades and fails?’

‘It’s the chemical,’ announced Maharaj. ‘Some people are born with a pure chemical and some are not. Those with a pure chemical get enlightened, and those with an impure chemical don’t.’

‘The chemical’ was one of Maharaj’s idiosyncratic analogies or metaphors. I think it was derived from the chemical on a roll of film. We are all issued with a ‘chemical’ at the moment of conception, said Maharaj, and that is our destiny for this life. In one sense it is like a roll of film, a script that has been given to us for this life. Traditional Hinduism teaches that we have prarabdha karma, an unchangeable destiny for this life that is an inevitable result of actions that have been performed in previous lives. Maharaj couldn’t incorporate past-life activities into his ‘chemical’ theory, but he did have an alternative selection of factors to offer.

I can’t remember whether it was during this particular conversation or on some other day, but I remember asking him about the components of ‘the chemical’. He replied that it was a combination of a wide variety of factors: parents’ genes, astrological configurations at the time of conception, the future environment that one was going to be brought up in – these were just a few that he mentioned. These all coalesced at a particular moment and issued a body, or rather an embryo, with its appointed destiny.

‘This is all very deterministic,’ I said. ‘If the purity of the chemical determines whether or not we get enlightened, why should we even care about it or not? What is the point of trying or not trying, wanting or not wanting, if the purity of the chemical has already decided the matter for us in advance? We may as well all go home.’

Maharaj replied, ‘No, it is not completely determined in advance. The vast majority of people in the world are born with a dirty chemical. Nothing they do or don’t do will make any difference. Enlightenment is not for them, and most of them won’t even care about such matters. At the other end of the spectrum there will be an extremely small number of very pure beings who will become aware of their true nature without any striving or inclination.’

He didn’t say so, but I assume he would have put Ramana Maharshi in this category.

‘Between these two extremes,’ continued Maharaj, ‘there are a small number of people whose chemical is only slightly impure. These people have a chance to get enlightened. If they can meet with a Guru who can show them the truth and if their earnestness and seriousness are high enough, they can purify their slightly dirty chemical and find out who they really are. That is why we are all here today. People who come to a teacher with a strong thirst for freedom are the ones who have only a few impurities. They are the ones for whom liberation is possible.’

Finding Out Who You Are… Or Just Passing The Time

For a brief moment, the visitor, presently speaking with the teaching master Nisargadatta, gets it:

V: You mean to say that we should remain at the point of [the] emergence of consciousness? Shall we then understand this?

M: Yes, I have been telling people exactly that.

V: Then you mean to say that unless I stop the rising of consciousness, I shall not understand this play of the Unmanifest, manifest, body suffering etc., and that all my talking is actually only blathering and therefore a mere nuisance.

M: Yes, it is just entertainment to pass the time.

The Nectar of Immortality, p. 171

What we should expect at this very moment is for the visitor to get very quiet, to drop back into I Amness, and to abide there (that is, right here). Nisargadatta also says throughout The Nectar of Immortality: “Just be [as I Amness]. Do nothing.”

Regrettably, the visitor then turns, almost immediately it seems, and says, “That means when we visit and sit near you, in fact it bothers you.” “No,” Nisargadatta effectively says.

Hmmff. What patience Nisardagadatta shows here!

Nisargadatta’s late teaching (that is, from the period around 1980-1) couldn’t be any clearer: just stay at “the borderline” between being and non-being. Be very quiet. And let yourself be ‘taken away’ by this koan about the source, i.e., about That from which total manifestation, or beingness, arose.

That’s it! That’s all there is to say! Just stay right here!

For everything else–all the theoretical knowledge, all the storytelling, all mundane concerns, and so on–is just so much passing the time.

Without Awareness, There Is No Experience

It’s astonishing to realize something that kept, before then, going past one’s understanding. It’s this: Without awareness, there is no (direct) experience.

That is, if awareness isn’t shining its light on experience X, then experience X cannot appear. There’s no there there.

To be clear, it’s not as if experience X is “waiting in the wings,” only for awareness to “bright it on stage.” Nor is experience X “dormant” or “latent” before it is made “active.” It’s much simpler than this–and much more shocking: the truth is that experience X arises only when and just so long as it’s lit up by the light of awareness.

If that weren’t astonishing enough, it may then dawn on you that every experience is appearing in the space of awareness. In some sense, it could be said that experience X is “floating free” in the open, welcoming space of awareness. Or it could be said that X is arising “out of” the ground or field of awareness, only to then subside back into this ground or field.

Not only is every experience an arising to awareness; it’s also an arising in awareness.

But then what is most astonishing of all is to understand–directly and intimately–that every experience is nothing other than awareness. What a surprise! It’s as if the experience were draped in or saturated by awareness. No, clearer and closer than that: it’s as if the inner heart, essence, or very vibrancy of this experience just were awareness. The very shining of this arising is the shining of awareness. The very “make” of the arising is precisely, and only, awareness.

If this sounds like Sri Atmananda, well that’s because it is. And also because it isn’t. It is in the sense that clearly his investigation leads one to the understanding above. Yet it isn’t in that the practitioner is, and can only be, the one who directly sees what is now apparent in his or her own experiential understanding.