For hundreds of centuries, mystical Hindu sages and seers have expounded their religion’s most important spiritual teachings throughout the enchanted lands of India. Unlike any other place on earth, an unquenchable thirst for God pervades the mystical country where citizens value eternal truth above all else. When one explores teachings from the world’s oldest religion, regardless of their faith-based beliefs, it is certain that they’ll find a seemingly endless variety of spiritual wisdom that’s relevant to their own life. Assuredly, one of religion’s most important lessons revolves around the two parts of ourselves and the silent witness within. In the Upanishads, one of Hinduism’s most sacred texts, this truth is brought to life with a beautiful yet simple metaphor:
Two birds living together, each the friend of the other, perch upon the same tree. Of these two, one eats the sweet fruit of the tree, but the other simply looks on without eating.”
While it may be easy to assume that an enigmatic combination of body and mind makes us who we are as individuals, the truth is that we all have an eternally unchanging part of ourselves that is who we are at the core of our beings. As the great Hindu mystics and ancient scriptures have told us, it is only by pulling back the ego’s veil of ignorance that we can realize our truest self as the silent witness within and begin enjoying the life-affirming benefits that come with this understanding.
The Illusionary Self:
To rightfully recognize your true self as the silent witness within, it’ll first be imperative to understand how the combination of personal components and characteristics you come to believe yourself to be are nothing more than an artfully constructed mirage or the illusion of self. This truth becomes clearly visible when considering the transitory nature of our behaviors, mental cognitions, and emotional states.
Think for a moment about the day-to-day activities of an everyday individual who from 9 to 5 acts as a hard-working and dedicated employee or boss, from 5 to 9 morphs into a loving parent and spouse, and from 9 to 11 transforms into a passionate soulmate with their significant other. Undeniably, each of these three activities will bring about different aspects of the individual’s personality, as well as perpetually changing cognitions and an assortment of dissimilar emotional feelings. Moreover, this transformation of demeanor can be further seen when considering the still varied ways they behave and think while at a charity event with friends or out running errands. After coming to realize the dynamically changing qualities of this person, and ourselves, we must wonder what actually makes them the individuals they so vehemently believe themselves to be.
Beyond daily activities, it is similarly easy to see the continuously changing nature of ourselves when considering the impermanent characteristics of our physical bodies and social roles. Throughout your lifetime, for example, your apparently solid body will ceaselessly change at the cellular level and consistently take on different physical forms and characteristics.
As this happens over the long term, the person you believe yourself to be goes from being a toddler, to a teenager, to a parent and eventually a grandparent all the while you take on different interests, mingle with different groups of people and potentially even switch careers. So are we really solid and fixed individuals as we assume? The truth is that not only are we, not the concrete people we believe ourselves to be, but also that it is directly because of our ignorance towards our deeper nature, the silent witness within, that we remain unable to find the fulfillment we crave at the core of our beings.
The Eternal Self Within:
Even before the dawn of recorded history, Hinduism’s great seers had already gained vast insight into their unfixed nature at the surface level. This, however, doesn’t mean they didn’t find a part of themselves where wholeness and continuity resides. In fact, it was the same mystics who peered deep within themselves to discover the impermanent nature of their bodies and minds that discovered an eternally everlasting dimension within their hearts. The now immortalized seers told us that this is the Atman, soul, eternal self, or silent witness, and it should be each of our foremost objectives to connect with this part of ourselves with hopes of eventually living permanently from this point of reference. Additionally, according to ancient Hindu scriptures, this is the place of unwavering awareness or pure consciousness, and it is where true happiness resides.
Just as the metaphor of two birds shows, each and every one of us has two distinctive parts of ourselves. While at the level of our thoughts, emotions, desires, and reactionary ways, we resemble the bird who relishes in the various tastes of the world, our truest self parallels the other bird who sits patiently and contently watching.
Unfortunately for the frantic bird, because the impermanent qualities of the fruit can never satisfy the cravings it develops, it’ll never be able to find true liberation and happiness. The second bird, however, lives in eternal ecstasy because its fulfillment isn’t dependent upon external things. Comparatively speaking, this simple analogy illuminates the two primary dimensions of ourselves, the ego and the Atman. In the estimation of the great Hindu sages, for us to find what we crave at the core of our beings, we must move our focus away from the bird that is full of desires and start living as the blissfully contented one. One great seer who regularly talks of this truth is the Hugging Saint Amma. She tells us:
The impermanent, which is the body, is given too much importance. The permanent, which is the Atman, is completely forgotten. This should change.”
Connecting to The Silent Witness:
Unless we gain an understanding of what the pleasure-seeking bird, or ego, bases happiness on, the joy and bliss that we experience will continue to remain dependent upon the circumstances we find ourselves in. It is certain that the true feelings of fulfillment we seek at the core of our beings will never be accessible to us by clinging to pleasurable experiences, people, and things because they, just like our thoughts, emotions, bodies, and societal roles, are bound to the universal reality of impermanence. The only possible way to begin experiencing perpetuating joy and happiness, regardless of your conditions, is by connecting and more deeply associating with the other part of yourself, the watchful bird or Silent Witness, because at this level everything remains perfect at all times. Fortunately, to move ourselves away from living at the level of the ego, in favor of the true self, there are a number of important spiritual practices we can undertake.
The process of connecting with your deeper and truer nature assuredly will have to start by cultivating and developing your natural ability to be aware, or mindful, of yourself and the changing nature of your body, thoughts, and emotions. It is only by first becoming consciously aware of the impermanent nature of these ego characteristics that you’ll be able to disassociate your true self from them. As luck would have it, the practice of meditation offers us the opportunity to vastly increase our levels of conscious awareness as we move closer to self-realization.
Additionally, a variety of immortalized Hindu sages have offered invaluable advice for breaking away from the ego and connecting to the true self. For example, the teachings of Ramana Maharshi, which are based on the single question ‘Who Am I?’, can be especially useful because you’ll be able to discover how the Atman, or silent witness, has the ability to objectively watch how your mind and body are continuously changing like the waves of an ocean. Yet still, your exploration doesn’t have to start or end here as there is a wealth-spring of Hindu wisdom that awaits. Regardless of which direction you decide to go, what’s most important is that you diligently strive to connect to the silent witness within. Maharshi tells of how important this actually is:
Your own Self-realization is te greatest service you can render the world.”