One has the sense that there is a kind of permanent presence – a unified whole – that attends this experience of existing. Before anything occurs – any seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching – there is this awareness, this boundless flow in and to which all phenomena and sensation appear.
In contemporary nondual traditions that include A Course in Miracles this is often named “awareness” or “consciousness” and we are told that “we are that.” It is the great “I Am.”
For example, here are a few lines from one of Nisargadatta’s talks that are generally consistent with this theme.
Give attention to how this “I Amness” has appeared – then you will know. Accept this identification only: that you are this manifest pure beingness, the very soul of the universe, of this life that you observe, and presently you are just wearing this bodily attire.
Robert Adams, a devotee of Ramana, often shared with his students an essay he wrote entitled Confessions of Jnani, which included the following paragraph.
I am infinite, imperishable, Self-luminous, Self-existent, I am without beginning or end, I am birthless, deathless, without change or decay. I permeate and interpenetrate all things. In the myriad universes of thought and creation, I Alone Am.
I am not insisting that Nisargadatta and Adams were confused. I am asking if reading their work as if they were confused is at least as valid as reading it as if they were clear and correct.
Clearly both men came to an insight about identity that was premised on the enduring nature of the experience of “I am,” which they did not associate with temporal material processes. And one can understand that! When we make contact with this “I am,” it feels and seems both infinite and eternal.
But the way a thing feels or seems may not be the way it actually is, right? If I hold up my hand I can neatly blot the distant hill from my field of vision, but my hand is not larger than the hill. It just looks that way, given the physics and biology involved.
In the middle of a moonless night when I go out to see the horses, they appear faint and hazy, even up close. They are not actually spectral quadrupeds – it is simply how they look given the physics and biology involved.
The question is: can we extend this fact to our experience of “I Am?” Can this sense of “I Am” which Nisargadatta and Adams (and countless folks in that contemporary advaitic tradition, broadly defined), simply be how it feels to be a human observer?
What if “I am” is explicable not in grandiose spiritual terms but rather in physics and biology? This is just what it sometimes feels like to be a human observer – with these specifically human perceptual and cognitive abilities? It’s just what it is – no more and no less. This – this this.
That would strip the “I am” experience of its spiritual gloss, wouldn’t it? It would take God and Christ and Samadhi and the Buddha right out of the equation . . .
Would that be okay? Why or why not?