The teachings of Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) on enlightenment were simple but profound. In discussing any topic, event, thought or action he would always invite his visitors to simply ask: “Who is it that is asking this question?”, or, similarly, “Who is the thinker?”. This of course leads to the ultimate question: “Who am I?”, and the idea is, you guessed it, that you and I are not the personality in the body that we all intimately identify with. Beyond all these distracting bodily senses and distracting thoughts and desires, you and I are Brahman, the eternal life that merely is. Or, as Rupert Spira wisely taught: “Your existence in time is an illusion. You do not exist; you are.” The distinction in words seems very subtle, but it makes all the difference between experiencing yourself as a body in time and space, versus experiencing your Self as the timeless “all-in-all” that joins all life as one, outside time and space.
Students of A Course in Miracles will of course be quick to spot the similarities with Terms-summary #14 in the Workbook, titled “What Am I?” (WpII.14). The answer Jesus gives to this question is the key to A Course in Miracles, in that our one problem is that in the ontological instant just before the Big Bang, we preferred the imaginary ego-seduction of being an autonomous. split-off self, instead of gently laughing about the silly notion that part of Oneness could wrench itself from perfect Oneness. Here, then, is Jesus’ answer to the most fundamental question of all: “I am God’s Son, complete and healed and whole, shining in the reflection of His Love. In me is His creation sanctified and guaranteed eternal life. In me is love perfected, fear impossible, and joy established without opposite. I am the holy home of God Himself. I am the Heaven where His Love resides. I am His holy Sinlessness Itself, for in my purity abides His Own” (WpII.14.1).
Since this answer applies to every seemingly separated living thing, you and I are really no different from other life forms that we encounter. To be sure, the forms our eyes behold are distinctly different, and the values and beliefs that our ears pick up from others often differ markedly from ours; but beyond the senses and personalities, you and I and everyone share the same one life. The goal of Jesus’ curriculum called A Course in Miracles is to guide us slowly in gradually accepting this truth about ourselves, step by step. Since this acceptance ultimately implies the end of individual perception, emotions, and the body, we should expect to feel a slight twinge of resistance to Jesus’ course, to say the least. So the truth is “…repeated many times; next to be accepted as but partly true, with many reservations; then to be considered seriously more and more, and finally accepted as the truth.” (WpII.284.1:5-6).
As Ramana Maharshi taught, the key in this process is to become the observer of the self that seems to think and act in this waking dream we call our world; a world that boils down to a battlefield of egos fighting for autonomy. In the Course this is perhaps best exemplified in Chapter 23 of the Text, in section IV called “Above the battleground”, where Jesus poetically invites us to: “…Be lifted up, and from a higher place look down upon it [the battleground]. From there will your perspective be quite different. In the midst of it, it does seem real. Here you have chosen to be part of it [the battleground]. Here murder is your choice” (T23.IV.5:1-5). Why is murder our choice here? Because the ego dream of separation provides us with a seeming autonomous identity, which must constantly be defended against attack, which justifies our own attack, which of course merely reflects our own imagined original attack on God. And the fact that we seem to die anyway merely proves that God (Oneness) is a lie and that the ego is right: oneness has indeed been shattered, and death is more powerful than Love. The separation has truly been accomplished.
We can escape this vicious attack – defense – attack cycle by practicing Jesus’ instructions about the observer of the battleground. “Be lifted up” is really the invitation to choose to become the observer of the stage of your life that is currently going on. Imagine yourself sitting in a theater, looking at a play – and the play is your interpretation of everything that happens in your life. Interestingly, when people are asked to summarize the play of their life in a succinct poetic title, we often see phrases such as “Groundhog day”; “Fifty shades of misery”, “A series of unfortunate events”; “Rock bottom”, “Suicidal tendencies”, “Broke”, “Home alone”, etcetera. To Course students, this should come as no surprise, since we are always looking for problems just to ensure our special unique identity in a world wherein we can blame everything and everyone as the scapegoat, while secretly we suspect that we are the guilty sinners, but want to escape God’s imagined wrath. All this again affirms the “reality” of the separation. As author Joe Dispenza put it concisely: “Who would I be without my problems?” That’s the insanity of the ego. But you and I are not our ego.
So when Ramana invites you to pose the question “Who is the one thinking about this situation?” and you are in Jesus’ “observer” mode “above the battleground”, the answer is plain as day: the observed “you” on the stage, the “hero of the dream”, is a made-up construct, with the perennial goal of keeping a separated identity intact, and blaming everyone else for the sin of that separation. The distinction Rupert Spira uses between existence and being is also often found in the Course: existence means a made-up ego-identity in time and space, which is totally illusory, while being refers to the truth our eternal oneness, safe at home within the Heart of God as the extension of the Love of God. So the answer to Ramana’s question “What am I?” could be stated as: “I do not exist; I am“.
What’s the value of this exercise? Well, you will never again take the dream world as seriously as before. Your peace won’t be shattered by the least irritated frown from those around you. Your days will become much lighter, as you realize the value of each day in learning how to ascend the ladder to the acceptance of the Atonement; from existence to being. This, by the way, does not imply you become indifferent to what happens on the stage; after all, whatever happens we unconsciously want to happen. You merely let your thoughts and actions be guided by a much better inner teacher. As Ramana counseled: “Do not give up your earthly responsibilities. But take the time, whenever you can, as often as possible, to ask the question: ‘Who am I’?” This puts you right back in the observer mode above the battlefield, where you can make a better choice.
To conclude with Jesus’ heart-warming advice from the section “Above the Battleground” in Chapter 23: “When the temptation to attack [i.e., reject, condemn] rises to make your mind darkened and murderous, remember you can see the battle from above [i.e., the observer watching the stage]. Even in forms you do not recognize, the signs you know. There is a stab of pain, a twinge of guilt, and above all, a loss of peace. This you know well. When they occur [i.e., on the stage], leave not your place on high, but quickly choose a miracle instead of murder.” (T-23.IV.6:1-5). Happy observing!
— Jan-Willem van Aalst, May 2021