‘Outside Of Consciousness, Does Anything Exist?’

I take the following brief exchange during satsang to be of seminal importance:

Nisargadatta: “Outside your consciousness, does anything exist?”
Questioner: “It may exist without my knowing it.”

I Am That, p. 198.

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?

Direct Experience

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).

Nothing Has Ever Happened

Papaji, a disciple of Sri Ramana Maharshi, taught, “Nothing has ever happened.”


1. When there is the appearance of mind arising, there is also the appearance of space-time-objectivity.

2. Independent investigations reveal the following: (a) There are no objects as such; there are only arisings-to-awareness. (b) Time does not exist; there is only presence. (c) Space does not exist; there is only here.

3. Space-time-objectivity, as it’s ordinarily deployed, is only a concept, a concept of mind apparently arising. That is, space-time-objectivity is dependent on mind apparently arising.

4. Does the mind exist in its own right? The investigation reveals that it does not. The mind has no inherent, that is, independent, existence.

5. Since mind does not exist in its own right, that upon which it depends does not really exist. In which case, space-time-objectivity does not really exist.

6. Thus, nothing (no thing) has ever really happened.

* * *

“Why has nothing ever happened?”

A: No why!

“Well! What remains? What is here?

A: No question!

Neither The Wild Thyme Unseen Nor The Wild Strawberry: A Poem

The first poem is an excerpt from Eliot’s Four Quartets, the second–a reply–my own.


I. From T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Four Quartets

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.


And I said to Myself, O gentle Atman,
What is this death and
what this birth?
What is either to Me?

Unbecome am I
so that I never once
thought of death
as taking off an old, tight shoe.
No, not even once.
How silly would that have been?

Meet me, O friends,
where there is neither darkness nor light,
neither the wild thyme unseen nor the wild strawberry.
No this, no that.
No am, no is.
No I, nor you.
Just radiant love true.

Investigating The Fundamental Nature of Cit (Pure Awareness)

We can take very seriously satcitananda: Being-Awareness-Peace. In the last post, I only began to sketch an account of how an inquiry into the body reveals sat, or Being. Today I wish to consider how an investigation of the mind reveals cit, or Awareness/Consciousness.

Naturally The Question Arises

Naturally, the question arises, “Who am I?” Or: “What am I?” One common, pre-investigative answer is that I am the mind, so let’s start right here.

What Is The Mind?

When we accept the axiom that only direct experience can provide us with the ‘datum’ of our investigation, then this inquiry can move very quickly.

Test whether the mind is a container, definite space, or theater in which thoughts arise. There are only two basic cases to explore. One is that the mind is in the thought that has arisen. Is that true? No. There is only, well, the thought. The other is that the mind is in the interval between thought 1 and thought 2. Is that true? No. For now, we can call this emptiness or space.

The only conclusion we can reach, through force of higher reason, is that the mind is thought or, as Ramana often said, “mind is nothing apart from thought.” Whenever thought arises, mind arises. Now this does not mean that there are two experiences: mind and thought. It means, instead, that mind is numerically identical with thought.

The implication, a quite natural one, is that the mind is intermittent (anicca). That is, there is no-mind = non-thought, and there is also mind-rising = thought-arising.

Since I am that which perceives mind-rising and mind-falling, it’s immediately clear that I am not the mind.

The Witness

Remember that we’re essentially interested, here, in the question: “Who am I?” Or we could just as easily say that we’re interested in knowing what consciousness is. Undeniably, I am conscious. Undeniably, there are qualia, or phenomenal experiences.

But am I qualia? No, for I am that which is aware of phenomenal experiences–here, the experience of thinking, i.e., the experience that is itself none other than thinking.

To say that I am the witness is to say that I am the aware background (a) to which and (b) in which thoughts are arising. These appearances (thoughts) appear to me, the witness, and they also occur in the space of witnessing awareness, i.e., in me.

But this the witness fundamentally who am I?

I Amness

Nisargadatta, helpfully, points us to the simple fact: “I am.” He suggests that “I am” is the first manifestation.

When the witness involutes or bends back on itself and “wonders” what it is, then the witness is resolved into I Amness.

Abide here in and as I Amness.

Pure Awareness

However, I Amness is ultimately unsatisfactory. Why? Because it’s still manifestation. Naturally, there is a gentle, sweet, yet persistent “hunger” to know what the ground of manifestation is.

Am I naturally resolvable into I Am? No. There must be That from which I Am arose, That on account of which it (i.e., I Am) is.

But That is Pure Awareness, or cit. Knowledge of the Self must ultimately be knowledge of Itself. The inquiry cannot end until it’s clear that there is no inquirer, no inquiring, and no inquired into. There is only Self-luminous I.

The Investigation Of Reality (Sat) Via An Inquiry Into The Body

I. I Am The Body Idea

Perhaps the most basic teaching in Advaita Vedanta is that I am the body idea is ignorance (avidya) and, being ignorance, is suffering. One can hardly underestimate how essential this point is.

If I believe and feel that I am the body, then I take immediately on board the beliefs about having been born, about aging, about getting ill, and about dying. In short, identification with the body is the source of misery.

II. Two Basic Questions

Two basic questions naturally arise in experience. One is: “Where am I?” The other is: “What is?” The first is question of space, the second of reality.

Our investigation, the one sketched in what follows, can reveal that the answers converge on sat: Beingness or Reality.

III. A Teaching Tool: “A Swap”

My view is that some versions of the nondual teaching work by offering temporary, “higher” reidentifications that enable “lower” disidentifications. Just as the witness involves swapping awareness for the mind, so space (as we’ll see) involves swapping empty space for the body. How so?

Begin by investigating what the body is. It is (a) concept as well as (b) sensations. For the purposes of our investigation, let’s set aside conceptions, or thoughts, and focus solely on sensations.

Then we can ask, “Where are sensations taking place?” Our immediate reply may be: “In the body or on the surface of the body.” However, both are only concepts, so, again, for our present purposes they are ruled out. (I’ll discuss conceptions of the body in a separate post.)

Take a closer look: “Where are sensations?” Allow any sensation to arise. The sensation is an experience, yes, but where is it unfolding?

It can be seen that the sensation is unfolding in empty space. To say that the space is “empty” is to say that it is devoid of any thing. And to say that it is space is to indicate that it is “airy” and perhaps also infinite.

We might challenge the latter part by asking: “Is the space in which this sensation is occurring infinite?” Well, if it’s finite, then we should be able to find a boundary between, say, space 1 (“inside the body”) and space 2 (“outside the body”). But do we find any such distinction in direct experience? Go ahead and look: can you experience a distinction between one space and another?

You cannot. Any (mental) attempt at demarcation fails. What is revealed is that there is only one empty space.

IV. From Empty Space to Pure Awareness-Being

The question, “Where am I?,” is starting to firm up. Perhaps you are not in the body; perhaps you are “in the vicinity of” empty space. And perhaps “what there is” is not matter; perhaps it is energy. Or perhaps it is beyond energy.

But is this the end of the inquiry? It is not. Undeniably, there is one who is aware of this empty space, this field of energy. Undeniably, I am the one so aware.

But if I am aware of empty space, then it must be that I am not identical with empty space (on the Vedantic principle that the perceiver is not the perceived).

What, then, is the nature of Reality? I am. Which is to say: none other than Pure Awareness. Where is the nature of Reality? Wherever there is Awareness.

In a word, Awareness is.

So, I am not the body, and though the “swap” with empty space helps to free me from identification with the body, I’m not even space. I am that I am; I am Pure Awareness-Being.

V. Conclusion

The body identification is not an impediment to Understanding what we really are. Identification with the body naturally raises two questions: “Where am I?” and “What truly is?”

The misunderstanding is that I am in the body, which is in a spatiotemporally confined world. The Understanding is that empty space–a metaphor or symbol–arises in Me and is dependent upon Me and thus that the body idea arises in empty space, which arises in Me. And so, before Abraham was, I am.