Living Inwardly

By Swami Shraddhananda

Coming to the United States in 1957, Swami Shraddhananda was head of the Vedanta Society in Sacramento from 1970 until his death in 1996. He was the author of Seeing God Everywhere and Story of an Epoch as well as many articles published in both English and Bengali journals. “Living Inwardly” is found in Seeing God Everywhere.

In my everyday life is not necessary to have a comprehensive knowledge of my internal world. And even if I am interested in it, I have to gather information about it from the external world. Don’t I have to study anatomy and physiology in bodies that are not my own? Don’t I have to learn the workings of the mind by studying other people’s minds? So it seems that I pursue most of the values of my life in the external world. My internal world, while an integral part of my existence, merely functions as a means to utilize and enjoy the external. It doesn’t matter if I give only a minimum of attention to it, for, as an average person, I consciously live almost completely in the outer world.

Under these circumstances, inward living cannot be of interest to average people; it seems not only unnecessary, but fanciful and strange. Their only knowledge of inward living is that of the psychopath who withdraws from the objective world and lives entirely in self-created fantasies. So much has been written about such abnormal behavior that many have become suspicious of any kind of contemplative life. They even dislike inwardly-directed religion. Thus they choose a religion that is no more than a social force, a behavior pattern which must operate in the workaday world like any other element of outward conduct. Many regard the mystical tradition in religion with contempt and correlate it with psychological immaturity.

The Katha Upanishad explains:

God made man’s senses pointed outward from his very birth, so that man always looks outside of himself and never within. Extremely rare is that wise person, who, desiring immortality, directs his senses inward and perceives the truth of his own innermost Self.

But the rarity of a phenomenon should not cause it to be labeled either as absurd or as nonexistent. In the field of science, sometimes far-reaching knowledge has been deduced from a single and extremely difficult experiment. This is especially true in the science of spiritual knowledge. To attain spiritual truth we must be prepared for unusual undertakings. We should not be discouraged simply because this is not the way chosen by average worldly people.

The unusual endeavors through which we each seek to unravel the ultimate mysteries within our own lives and personalities may be called inward living. Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of this life? Why do I have to struggle this way? What is my place in this vast universe surrounding me? At certain moments in our lives these and other profound questions trouble us and we want clear answers. We are not satisfied with mere intellectual speculations.

According to Vedanta, it is possible to find unequivocal answers to these questions by directly experiencing the reality of God. This kind of experience requires a suitable adjustment in our way of understanding. A shift of emphasis must be made from the external to the internal world; it requires a reorientation of our living habits. Within the core of our personalities, says Vedanta, is a spiritual Reality. It is birthless and deathless, unlimited by time, space, and causality. It is infinite Consciousness and infinite Bliss. Far from the common view that supersensuous experience is not normal, it is the empirical life which is aberrant, a dislocation from a spiritual state of perfection.

Let us not be caught up in such questions as how this common aberration got started. This question is quite unimportant. For us, the important thing is to discover the truth. And Vedanta assures us that this discovery can be made here and now. The concluding verse of the Katha Upanishad says:

Having received this wisdom taught by the King of Death, and the entire process of yoga, Nachiketa became free from impurities and death and attained Self-knowledge. Thus it will also be with any other who knows the inmost Self.

Any person, then, having the courage, patience, and perseverance to carry on the experiment can hope to attain Self-knowledge. Again, Self-knowledge is, in the language of the Mundaka Upanishad, “the foundation of all knowledge.” The individual’s center is identical with the center of the universe. In the last analysis, the true nature of what we call the outside world is spiritual. In the vision of truth, the external and internal are only arbitrary divisions of what is one continuous, indivisible Reality—the Spirit.

The Taittiriya Upanishad speaks of the five koshas, or sheaths, which cover the Self. They are, as it were, five screens which prevent our vision of the Self. The technique of inward living gradually removes these sheaths, allowing us to attain the eternal Ground of Existence, the core of the personality, our true Self. The first covering is the physical body, the annamaya kosha. A person’s consciousness is almost always centered in the body. When I say “I,” I mean my body. The identification of consciousness with the body is so natural and complete that it seems almost impossible to challenge it. Yet this extrication of the “I” sense from the body can be achieved, and to the extent that we achieve it, we are prepared for the experience of higher truth.

The second covering of the Self is the pranamaya kosha, the totality of the vital energies responsible for the various physiological functions within our bodies. When I say “I am breathing” or “I am digesting food,” I identify with two forms of this vital energy called prana. The Upanishads prescribe various meditations on prana for the purpose of raising one’s consciousness from the body to a higher level of the life-force. Those who can identify with that powerhouse of energy attain great control over the body; they spontaneously experience a new feeling of freedom, strength, and joy. Consciousness on the level of the pranamaya kosha is subtler and more powerful than that of the first covering, the annamaya kosha.

Next comes the mental sheath, the manomaya kosha. This is the portion of the mind that receives impulses from the external world through the senses and then sorts them.

The fourth sheath, the vijnanamaya kosha, brings these processes to a conclusion. Vijnana means “certain knowledge”; it includes the three mental activities of feeling, willing, and knowing. In the manomaya kosha, thoughts have not yet taken a specific shape; they are vague, amorphous, and hence ineffective. But on the level of the vijnanamaya kosha, the nature of the ideas has been determined, and the resulting clear knowledge is ready to be connected with action. The vijnanamaya kosha has been translated as the “intelligence sheath.” The manomaya and vijnanamaya sheaths together constitute what we call the mind.

The Upanishads have clearly distinguished the mind from the prana, or the life-force, and special meditations have been described that teach us to be deeply conscious of ourselves as thinking and creative beings. Shifting the center of the personality from the body and life-force to the mind opens up new channels of superior wisdom. Yet the mind, both in its role of accumulating and in clearly determining ideas, is only a sheath—a covering concealing our true nature.

As we expand awareness from the body to the vital energy and the mind, we must know that we are more than just thinking beings. The fifth covering is the anandamaya kosha, the blissful sheath. This is the element which contributes joy to our experiences. The many kinds of pleasures and satisfactions that we derive from the wide range of our activities all come from this sheath of bliss. As we detach consciousness from the four previous sheaths and approach the fifth one, the experience of bliss becomes more intense, and the gross delights which come from sights, sounds, and tastes are left behind in the experience of subtle joys which do not require external stimuli.

What is beyond this fifth sheath? The Atman—the Self, the personality’s true center. The Atman witnesses all the experiences that come through the five sheaths. It is pure awareness. All that we know through our sense organs or mental processes is known because of the innermost Self within. It sits quietly behind the five screens and radiates Consciousness through all these layers. The Atman is the true subject of all experience. It is infinitely more than the physical body or the vital force or the mind and intelligence or all these put together.

When we discover the inner Self which is our true nature, our lives completely change. We can then no longer use the term “inner life.” It was only for starting the journey to the Self that we had to speak of living inwardly: from the standpoint of the Self there is no such distinction as inner and outer. We use these terms with reference to the body. Once we realize the Self we find that everything rests in the Self. This whole universe with all its multiplicity is nothing but an expression of the consciousness of the Self. At this stage the seeker is able to say, “This universe is resting in me and I am in everything. I am one with this universe. Self-knowledge is the realization of the oneness of my own truth and all the truth outside of me.”

In order to discover our true Self—the Ground of our existence—we have to practice detachment from the non-Self, which is comprised of the five sheaths. By the practice of detachment no flight from life is meant; rather it means a sober, calm, and unbiased attitude toward the objects and events around us and in us. Those who aspire to knowledge should fulfill their duties and responsibilities as well as they can, but they should keep themselves free from over-involvement in any situation. They should not place too much hope on anything in this perpetual flux of events. They should not forget that the goal of life is to realize the eternal truth, the true Self.

In this realization alone can we understand what this life means. All our deeper questions become clear only when we discover ourselves as pure Spirit. The state of Self-knowledge is described by the Chandogya Upanishad thus: “I am below. I am above. I am behind. I am in front. I am in the south. I am in the north. I am all that is.” And again:

From the one I pervade the many. From the many I go to the one. Shaking off all imperfections as a horse shakes dust from its hair, freeing myself from body-consciousness … I who have realized my true Self am now identified with Brahman, the Supreme Reality.

Swami Vivekananda—The Next 100 Years
September 1, 2012
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Living Inwardly