Like thousands of others, I keep a copy of Sri Nisargadatta’s I am That on my bedside table, along with whatever I’m actually ‘reading’ at the time. Because you don’t so much as ‘read’ I am That as you do swim in it from time to time.
After one dip into its waters, I sank into a momentary stillness. Trying to sponge up his words about the ‘witness consciousness’ – and knowing I’ve been here several times before.
All spiritual practice — he says, ‘consists in shifting the emphasis from the superficial and changeful person to the immutable and ever-present witness’. The witness is our deep-level awareness of what is—the continuum of consciousness that never changes — the quiet stillness of the land-far ocean — unaffected by the waves of thoughts and emotions churned up in the surf of memories.
I began to swim in the feeling behind the words, and entered a state that felt a bit like looking through a telescope at the stars, except that the stars were key moments in my life. I opened the breadth of my immediate experience to ‘a mind which is spread in time’. I felt a bit like the time traveler in H.G Well’s The Time Machine, with the dials of my invented contraption running — a mind spread in time — backwards through my personal history: 2020, 2010, 2000, 1990, 1980, 1970. 1970. The dial stopped here.
I am 8 years old. It’s night time. I am lying in my mother’s childhood room at my grandmother’s house. The bed is large and I am alone. It’s summer, so even though it’s 9 o’clock, it is not dark. In fact, the room is filled with that late summer glow that everyone born in the 60s and before remembers – before the sun changed. There’s the chest of drawers, the wardrobe with it’s oval mirror, the enormous armchair that no one ever sits in. But I am staring at the wallpaper. My grandmother’s wallpaper is a continuum for me. Because my parents were in the armed forces, and nothing stayed the same for very long. So this wallpaper already had significance in that it was emblematic of continuity; and for a child, continuity is security.
The picture I have of it in my mind’s eye is vague. There are flowers, of course, largish, Victorian-style on cream with blushing reds and pinks. I’m unsure of the exact design. It doesn’t seem to matter.
But then some more flotsam; a message in a bottle. That 8 year old girl distinctly recalling sensing a consciousness deeper than her thoughts. She went into it, further and further, remaining fixated on one spot on the wallpaper the whole time–through the corolla of a windblown rose, the floral equivalent of a black hole. Windblown. Mindblown. Like a recall to the fleshy secrets of the womb. And then a vast changeless continuum of absolute peace. And then the whole of space-time coalescing around a single thought.
You will remember this later.
And here I was, ‘later’ being a bit of an understatement, remembering it 52 years later. How odd. It was as if I’d planted that thought-seed back there in time and only now had it met the conditions to sprout.
And that peace returned, and I saw how it was impossible for the I to exist in the way it appears in the mind. Because the encounter with the witness consciousness was the same at 52 as it was at 8. Nothing, absolutely nothing had changed. So what about all those experiences that seemed to make up who I was? What were they? They were memories fabricated into emotions. They were unreal. The real was the continuum itself. At least, it was a whiff of the real.
I came out of this reverie and looked down at the open book in my hands. And this is what I read: ‘When questioned, they dissolve.’
Nisagardatta was referring to our prevailing sense of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ — our experience of our own identity as some distinct indisputable reality. The memory of what has happened to us, he says, remains after the event itself, and this memory takes the shape of our identity. When we recognize that ‘I’ and ‘mine’ is simply bundles of fears and desire based in memory, you will see that this ‘I’ and ‘mine’ has no foundation in reality. When questioned, they dissolve.
It is like washing printed cloth. First, the design fades, then the background and in the end, the cloth is plain white. The personality gives place to the witness, then the witness goes and pure awareness remains. The cloth was white in the beginning and is white in the end; the patterns and colours just happened — for a time.
All I have to do now is bring my grandmother’s wallpaper to mind, and the witness consciousness emerges naturally. A code. I spent a while on the internet later, looking up vintage wallpaper from the period (my grandmother was a frugal woman, not one to re-decorate on a whim, so I had to explore a wide time period). I couldn’t be sure. I kept thinking, yes, maybe, no. The one I attach to this post is very, very close. But the truth is I could have planted anything: a spiderweb, a passing cloud, a dandelion clock, the smell of apple crumble fresh from the oven. Of course, ‘I’ didn’t do anything at all, really. It’s all a trick of the light.
I like to imagine that millions of us in our childhoods planted such codes inside our software, secret lockets containing balms of wisdom ready to penetrate the pain of our limited selves. Or perhaps it is our evolved future selves leaning down to calm our burning foreheads. No matter. Here’s to this branch of magic, conspiring on behalf of our higher selves. Just when we need it the most.