Discovering Your Sākshi Self
Who am I? What real part of me stays the same while everything else about me seems to change? So many of us have asked ourselves these questions throughout our lifetime. In looking for an answer, we may ask ourselves, ‘Am I the body?’ The body changes; we are born, we grow, we develop, we age, then the body dies. No, we cannot be the body. ‘Am I the mind?’ Thoughts come and go, the mind goes through its likes and dislikes, its judgements, anger, love, hate. No, the mind too must be impermanent. I ask myself, ‘Am I a daughter, wife, friend, mother?’ Are these permanent or impermanent? These all can also change. Then what is permanent? Vedānta says Truth, the Oneness of all, and that Oneness is something we have forgotten because we get so caught up in the trappings of this material world. A person can go through life striving for all the material things that bring comfort - a well paying job, a beautiful home, cars, family life, and still feel an emptiness inside that these things don’t seem to satisfy. Once we start to inquire about what does bring lasting happiness and contentment by looking within, sitting with a Truth teacher, the question many of us have asked, ‘Is this all there is?’ goes away and we begin to step into our Truth.
Through the teachings of Vedic Spiritual Studies with Acharya Shunya, we are shown a different way to see ourselves in this world. Deep within each of us is something separate from the changing layers of our ego/personality that we accept as “I”. In Sanskrit this is called sākshi, which translates as ‘the observer.’ We can access this observer through our sākshi bhāva (observer feeling) in our day to day lives. It is always with us and has always existed, Vedānta says.
Our ego/personality, which Acharya Shunya calls ‘the actor self,’ is something we need to live in this world. To do our jobs, make a living, take care of our families, perform all of our day to day tasks depends on this actor self. Though there is a practicality and utility to this part of ourselves, it is not all of who we are. When we ask what connects us to a greater purpose, a deeper, satisfying, knowing what Life is all about, this is where accessing our sākshi bhāva within starts to uncover our True Self.
This observer witnesses all of our thoughts and actions without judgement or desire for certain outcomes. Acknowledging the observer brings a sense of relief from our everyday likes and dislikes, worries, ups and downs of the mind which we previously thought defined our existence. When we feel a presence within that is unchanged and independent of the life circumstances around us, the fluctuations of life feel somehow lighter. We can access this observer by the practice of stepping outside or away from thoughts, our actions and only observe. It can be done, if only for moments at a time. We can step outside of our small selves and be in the moment. For example, at a family gathering, there may be one relative that can never be appeased and is always finding fault, and instead of getting caught up in their story like we usually would in the past, we simply step back and observe. By observing, judgements fall away and a genuine feeling of compassion arises. To truly become aware of the pulse of Life within us and all around us, this Observer dissolves into a feeling of unity and oneness with all.
Awakening to Soul Consciousness
The ancient Vedānta texts, the Upanishads, say our entire existence as we perceive it in daily life is due to one long sleep of the soul. Awakening to the presence of the soul is a journey through three states of consciousness.
In the Awake state, we are living in this physical cycle of birth and death, we are bound by impermanence. Everything in this māyā (world of phenomena) changes. My teacher, Acharya Shunya calls this māyā a magic show; things appear to be so solid or permanent, then disappear. We are bound by impermanence, but we don’t question what or if anything persists underneath the changes because we’ve totally forgotten our true Self.
How then do we find our true Self? Through an awakened teacher (guru) who questions everything in this world and asks us to do the same.
Through Sādhanā Chatushtayam (a series of conscious behaviors a student of Vedānta cultivates so they can progress on their spiritual path) teachings of viveka (discrimination between what is real and what is not real in this world) we ask ourselves on a daily basis, “Is what I’m experiencing real? Is it unchanging or will it be something different in the future?” Is this world not bound by cycles of change? The child is born and depends on the mother and father. Over time the child grows and becomes an adult, the mother and father grow old and now depend on the child. Is this Truth that never changes, or untruth, which is always changing?
An awakened teacher will ask, “Are you in bondage through this world dream or are you present?” Present to Truth that never changes through past, present, and future cycles of time. This Truth cannot come from the senses. Our strong feelings come from the actor who is trapped and allured by this material world.
In the Dream State the “I” (ahamkāra, ego) is invested in the astral realm. This realm is more subtle than the gross physical world we encounter when we are awake, but still has fluctuating qualities. Dreams are all mind-made. They can seem so real upon waking but as the day unfolds we forget our dreams. Acharya Shunya related this to the cycle of birth and death; we fall asleep and wake up in another life.
The Deep Sleep State is said to be where we lose that identity with the actor self. It may be only for a few moments, but for those moments we are in bliss and wake up feeling renewed and refreshed. According to the Upanishads, in this deep sleep, we die a symbolic death as our consciousness disconnects from our senses and mind. During this deep sleep for a few moments everything is shut down, gone, this consciousness is at its deepest place, this consciousness curls back into a seed. Here the actor finds some rest in the heart.
Practices to Identify with the Observer
Practice in your waking state being the observer, whether doing daily tasks at home, at work, in traffic, or a family gathering. Our true nature is to observe, so this is not hard to do because you are expressing your true Self. The more the sākshi bhāva, the less reactive the actor. What if you Observed your emotions as part of the actor’s emotions? Another teaching from Sādhanā Chatushtayam is known as vairagya (dispassion) or non-attachment to our emotions. This practice of reminding ourselves that passing emotions belong to the actor and do not affect our deepest Observer Self helps us differentiate between what is temporary (emotions) and what is eternal (the sākshi / Observer). Vairagya cultivates a little space between the actor and the Observer and this gives us a chance to respond consciously rather than impulsively react to life situations.
Try to observe the actor in the awake state, and then before sleep, ask to observe in the dream state, and possibly evoke the sākshi bhāva which is already there during deep sleep.
Have you had that perfect, deep, satisfying sleep? What do we experience after a good sound sleep? We wake up saying, ‘I slept well.’ If you were asleep, how did you know you slept well? There must be something that was aware while you slept. It was that which is always present, your sākshi, who knew.
The deep sleep state is said to be almost like a short death - we are no longer in a dream state as the doer, we are in a state of suspension where the mind seems to disconnect from the senses, no thoughts to disturb, a complete settling of the mind.
When we are in an observer state all the way into the depths of deep sleep this is where awakening happens. What if the observer and not the actor was awake where this māyā is at its densest? The observer pierces thru this fine layer and on the other side is Pure Consciousness. This sākshi consciousness is a substratum of all the changes the actor goes through. The more aware we become of our observer state, the less we will be carried away by external changes of consciousness and internally your true nature starts to be revealed. You will be able to distinguish between the actor and the true self.
As we practice bringing in the observer, we will have less reactivity, improved relationships, and a knowingness emerges within. Compassion will rise within. We will start to see our loved ones, not through our judgements or agendas, but we recognize them as ourselves, a Oneness unfolds. God is waking us up from this cosmic dream, this material world, what we were believing to be our reality. What is not real, falls away, and Self-Realization starts to breathe within. Our sākshi gradually helps the actor become a freer actor and we start to live from our Heart center and Life is sweeter.
This article comes from Hamsa magazine. We welcome you to enjoy reading each magazine to benefit from summaries of and heartfelt reflections on Vedika founder and Acharya Shunya's teachings, written by students of her Spiritual Studies Program.
The author Sākshi Joanne Banuelos is a student of Acharya Shunya, and serves as the Student Coordinator of the Vedic Spiritual Studies Program.
Learn more about how you can study Vedanta with Acharya Shunya in her Vedic Spiritual Studies Program.