Who Is the ‘Me’ Who Knows Myself? (A Technical Analysis)

Regarding the prospect of self-realization or enlightenment — many, if not all seekers find themselves, at least initially, in an ironic quandary. 

On the one hand, one seeks freedom from limitation.  On the other, one wants to enjoy the freedom from a limited perspective with which one remains ever so reluctant to discontinue identifying with.

It is as if one is a prisoner seeking freedom from incarceration, who has grown so attached to the supposed protection provided by their jail cell — that one wants to continue surrounding oneself with it.

One of the most common questions that troubles seekers caught in this predicament concerns the obvious limitations that continue to plague the individual — even after the understanding of one's limitless nature. 

For example…

A common question concerns the frightening effect that the “attainment” of limitlessness (brahman) will have.  “When I acknowledge my true identity as all-pervasive awareness,” seekers want to know, “won’t I lose all sense of being me?”


“If I am all-pervasive awareness,” seekers invariably ask, “how come I don’t know what everyone else is thinking, and how come I don’t possess and/or have at my command the full range of all skills, talents, abilities, and qualities available to human beings – not to mention the host of super powers so often attributed to enlightened beings?”

Both of these questions betray a fundamental misconception about what self-realization means, and the order of reality to which the “enlightened person” belongs. 


Let us undertake an inquiry into the relationship between the apparent-individual (jiva) and the underlying reality of pure awareness (Brahman) upon which its existence depends — in order to gain some clarity on our existential predicament and lay to rest the doubts concerning our true identity.

It is true that you are pure, all-pervasive awareness (Brahman).  But this does not mean that you, as an apparent-individual (jiva), are all-pervasive.

Vedanta uses the analogy of the wave and the ocean to illustrate this idea…  


Just as the wave is the same water of which the whole ocean is comprised, the wave’s particular form does not constitute the entire ocean. 

In other words, the wave is essentially the same “thing” as the ocean, but the ocean is not comprehensively defined by any one particular wave. 

All waves depend for their existence upon the ocean, but the ocean survives and its essential nature remains unaffected by the breaking of innumerable waves. 

And even if all waves were to abate, the ocean would remain fundamentally ever the same.


In technical terms — after all, Vedanta is a science — we can say that you are limitless awareness (Brahman). However the upadhi of the jiva by means of which this truth is recognized — itself is not the totality.  

Just as wave may know with certainty that it's essential nature is not different from the Ocean's. Both are water (consciousness) alone. But one single wave is still NOT the entire ocean, at least while alive.

Upadhi is a Sanskrit word that means “a limiting adjunct.” 

An upadhi is something that conditions something else and makes it appear to be something that it is NOT – or to possess a quality that it does NOT originally have.  

For example, if I were to lay a clear crystal on a red cloth and ask you what color it was — you would most likely say it was red, because the color of the cloth would appear through the clarity of the transparent crystal. 

Due to the formless, attributeless nature of pure awareness (you this very moment) — the upadhi formed by the three-layered aggregate of the gross, subtle and causal bodies (sthula, sukshma, karana sharira) — conditions Awareness (you) and makes it appear to be an individual person (jiva).

3 Bodies

Of special note concerning this three-bodied upadhi — is that even though it (3 bodies) appears to be conscious, it is actually inert. 

In other words, it is in itself insentient, or not-conscious. 

You might think of it (your 3 bodies) as being a complex machine designed to perform the functions of perceiving, feeling, thinking, and acting.

Though it has no volition of its own, when awareness illumines this three-bodied upadhi – which henceforth we will refer to as the mind-body-sense complex – it becomes activated and spontaneously performs the said functions for which it has been designed by God or Isvara(Ref: BG CH18.61)

Despite all appearances, there is actually no independent will playing any part in the apparent activity/functioning of the mind-body-sense complex at all. Because the mind-body-sense complex is insentient matter, and as such has neither the capacity for will nor action.

Pure Awareness

And as for the “role” of pure awareness (brahman), due to its all-pervasive and perfectly-full nature, it entertains no desire and is inherently actionless

To what place could pure-awareness move, when it's already present everywhere

What change could be identified that would serve to delineate the execution of any action? 

And for what reason would it desire to act in the first place? 

What could it hope to acquire or accomplish whose fruit it doesn’t already possess or hasn’t already enjoyed?

The fundamental confusion concerning one’s true identity — indeed the fundamental confusion that is the root cause of all of suffering and discontent — arises from the misidentification of oneself with the mind-body-sense complex.

Due to this mis-identification which is inexplicably brought about by maya (the power of ignorance that is ironically inherent in omnipotent awareness; brahman) — the Self, when under the influence of ignorance — believes itself (by “looking” through the upadhi-lens of the mind-body-sense complex) to be perceiving, feeling, thinking and acting.

These four functions, however, do not really belong to anyone for the simple reason that there is not actually anyone to whom they can belong. 

Pure-awareness is certainly not an individual who possesses abilities, contemplates, desire and performs actions.  And the jiva (apparent individual) is insentient and therefore has neither a will of its own, nor the ability to function independently.

The bottom line is that perceiving, feeling, thinking and acting are not the personal matters we take them to be.  These functions are the products of a very mechanical process

When awareness (you) illumines the mind-body-sense complex — the functions of perceiving, feeling, thinking and acting spontaneously occur.


The process can be likened to the way a projector casts light through a reel of film in a movie theater. 

When the light shines on the film — images flash on the screen and action appears to take place. 

Just so, when Awareness illumines the mind-body-sense complex — perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and actions seem to occur.  That is, they do occur, so to speak — but this is not because there is some independent, volitional entity willing, conjuring, or dreaming them into existence and/or determining whether they are desirable or not, irrationally reacting or rationally responding to them by means of thought, word, and deed. 

All apparent action is simply the inevitable consequence of the spontaneous functioning of the mechanism of the mind-body-sense complex — when it is illumined by awareness.

Why I (Awareness) Can't Know & Be Everything

Understanding the impersonal nature of the subtle-body (sūkṣma-śarīra) is essential to our understanding of why I can’t know what everyone else is thinking and why I don’t have at my command all skills, powers, abilities, and qualities. 

In short, it helps explain why I (as an apparent individual) am not omniscient and omnipotent — despite having ascertained the truth that I am omniscient and omnipresent.

Though I am omnipresent awareness (brahman) — I become apparently limited through my identification with a particular mind-body-sense complex.

In other words, once I identify with a particular mind-body-sense complex — I am limited by the vasanas (preferences and proclivities) that condition and sculpt the kind of body-mind I am given in this lifetime.

Attributes, abilities, aptitudes, skills, likes and dislikes, desires and fears — all these are effects of the vasanas attributed to your body-mind in this life.

Just as when I look through the lens of particular telescope, the range of my vision is limited by the scope of that lens.

Similarly, when Awareness looks through the “lens” of any particular jiva (body-mind complex) — its capabilities and experience become limited by the attributes of the mind-body-sense complex defining it.

3 States

Another means of grasping this existential paradigm is to consider the three states of experience: waking, dream, and deep sleep. 

When Awareness is identified with the waker — it (you) experiences the jiva's subjective interpretation of the “outer” world (though it also includes inner thoughts and feelings ). 

And when Awareness is identified with the dreamer — it entirely experiences the jiva's subconscious thoughts; raw and unfiltered.

When Awareness identifies with the sleeper — it ceases to experience sensations, emotions, and thoughts altogether.  Its experience of being is no longer limited or conditioned by any kind of phenomena (neither īśvara-sṛṣṭi nor jīva-sṛṣṭi).  It simply experiences its unconditioned, limitless nature.

In all three cases — pure, all-pervasive awareness is limited to the capabilities and consequent experience of the particular mind-body-sense complex with which it is presently identified.

In short, Awareness is limited by either the waker or dreamer. Even sleeper limits Awareness, as it's covered by maya's tama-guna (macrocosmic veiling power).

This entire line of logic, of course, is only true from the perspective of the jīva in whom this inquiry is arising.

Pure awareness is “experiencing” the totality of experiences occurring “in and around” all jivas at once.

For example when your body-mind is undergoing deep-sleep (nothingness) — other minds in this world are still pervaded by pure-awareness (you).

But while wearing a mind-body-sense complex, I (as pure awareness) will only experience the functions and knowledge occurring to this particular jiva.

In other words, pure-awareness in its role as Isvara (totality of all jivas and inert elements in the universe) — knows/experiences everything.  Whereas, pure-awareness in its role as jiva (the one reading these words right now) — only knows/experiences itself. 

What Will Happen to “Me” Upon Liberation?

The following analogy might help clarify this point as well as illustrate the reason why it is impossible to lose oneself through either death or enlightenment.

Think of each jiva (body-mind-sense complex) as a house

For the purposes of this analogy consider yourself a conscious jiva which you're already accustomed with. 

Each house has it own architectural design, interior decoration, atmosphere, ambiance, and degree of upkeep.

When we enter any given house, we enjoy the unique combination of qualities that comprise that house. 

You obviously don’t come into existence upon entry into the house — even though you do come into a new experience

Neither, upon leaving the house, do we cease to exist. 

And even if the house were to burn down or was demolished by a tornado, or for any other reason you were unable to ever enter it again — your existence would remain unaffected by these circumstances. 

Though one would no longer experience the distinctive combination of qualities (as they were configured in that particular house) — one would remain ever cognizant and could experience the attributes of any other house still standing — or could simply enjoy the vast expanse of the great outdoors.

Now, in order to make our analogy more accurately reflect the relationship between the individual and the Absolute — imagine yourself (ie: the awareness you bring to the house upon entering it) — assuming the identity of the house and apparently empowering it.

What does “assuming the identify of the house” mean? You (awareness) limited by the apparent belief that you (awareness) are the house. And whatever falls or breaks in the house, is happening to you (awareness).

As long as you (awareness) remain within its walls — the house appears sentient.

But when you (awareness) leave — so vanishes the house's apparent independence.


Through such logical reasoning as we have employed in our inquiry, it becomes readily apparent that you (awareness) — remain ever beyond the scope — and therefore untouched and unaffected by any experience enjoyed through the mind-body-sense complex (within the illusory boundary-walls of the apparent reality).

Through many apparent selves — I do see while I, the real Self, remain ever free.


  1. Andre.
    Wonderful article.
    So clear and simple in its unveiling of the truth.
    I have asked myself both of the questions you posit at the beginning of your post.
    Most especially in the early part of my enquiry.
    I am experiencing one area where there is a lack of clarity though.
    In short, I don’t think or experience myself as a ‘ complex machine, designed to perform the functions of thinking, perceiving, performing and acting’

    I am still working through the understanding that thinking is a purely mechanical process and is not directed by will.
    Being a trained philosopher, it is in my natural to think deeply about issues that I feel are important.
    Therefore, I make a volitional effort to consider from different angles or perspectives and to try and make rational sense of what my enquiry delivers.
    This seems to involve an act of Will
    ( I could instead decide to sit on the couch, play video games , and/or eat ice cream instead).

    I will continue to work through this.
    Thank you so much for your efforts.

    1. =========
      I am still working through the understanding that thinking is a purely mechanical process and is not directed by will.

      Right after waking up, you (awareness) identify with the waker-jiva (viśva) called Robert. What is the experience of that identification? Thought stream. Spontaneous. Unintended. Unwilled.

      It’s not like thought-stream is deliberately planned thought-by-thought.

      This seems to involve an act of Will

      It’s act of will of Ishvara in the form of Robert-jiva. Not will of you (atman).

  2. The thought stream upon waking is spontaneous and unwilled.
    But as I order my thoughts to address a particular subject the thought stream becomes willed.
    Eg. In meditation during stage of dharana I will my thought back to the subject of my meditation time and time again until such thought becomes established in Dhyana.

    “ it’s act of Will of Isvara in the form of Robert-Jiva. Not will of you ( Atman).

    It seems to me then that the Jiva has no free will.
    If Robert does not make choices impelled by his own will, then in what sense can I be said to have free will.
    Robert-Jiva would then just be under the illusion that he is acting when in fact it is Isvara acting through his form.

    If this is the case, then there is no real freedom for the Jiva.

    1. (a) Stage of ignorance: I (body-mind) have free-will.

      (b) Stage of knowledge: I (awareness) don’t have free-will. The free-will belongs to body-mind, which has nothing to do with Me.

      Ironically, the point of free-will was to recognize that the real-I (awareness) don’t have free-will.

  3. Got it.
    Doesn’t think.
    Doesn’t act.
    There is nothing to will as I as Atman/ Brahman am the never changing reality that is already everything.

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