Who really is the actor of all the roles we play in our lives?

Based on chapter 2 of The Advaita Life Practice by Jayant Kalawar now available at Amazon

In the previous post we looked at what it is that you are acting out – the multiple roles you play in your life. In this post we will contemplate on who it is who acts out the multiple roles we play every day of our lives.

Who learns what actions to perform in a role? Who is the experiencer in this process? Or, better yet, let us ask: “What is the nature of this experiencer, this actor, this learner?” It is through contemplation of these questions that we begin to access the subtle teachings of the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads.

The “Mundaka Upanishad” uses a powerful example to get us thinking about who we are. It asks us to picture a tree on which two birds are sitting: one is actively pecking and eating, and the other is simply gazing at the whole situation. When we act, we take the position of the eating bird; when we ask “who is it that eats?” we take the position of the observer bird. In actuality, we are always in both positions: as an actor or the eating bird and, as the one who observes the experiences and actions without getting involved, the observer bird.

The rest of this essay asks readers to put themselves in the position of the contemplative, observer bird, as the one that watches the actor bird eat the fruits on the tree of experience but does not partake in the experience itself. This observer position is called SAkshi.

When we begin observing and contemplating our roles, and the fields on which we play them, we can ask “what is the nature of the actor in our self in the various fields of activity we encounter?” Instead of answering this down-to-earth question directly, Sri Krishna, through the voice of the narrator of the Bhagavad Gita, gives us an indirect answer: When we comprehend the nature of our fields of activity we will, in the discovery process, begin to answer the question about who acts in them.

The first and the overarching postulate in the thirteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita is that our body is our basic field of activity and that our “I” arises on this field. Our experience comes from the “I” interacting with the operations of three subtle components of the human manifestation: Chitta, Buddhi and Manas.

In this postulate, the central actor is the ‘I’ vibration, represented in Sanskrit as Aham (I am) kara (that which does) and written as AhamkArA. Often when transliterated into English, aham is lazily represented as ego. To reemphasize, ahamkara is that which vibrates with the sound ‘aham’ and comes closest to ‘I am’ in the English.

The aham vibration comes out of the buddhi, the capacity for awareness – the other two being chitta and manas. Buddhi, the awareness function, is an aspect of the subtle universe extended into the human manifestation. Chitta is connected with the physical senses and space-time experience, and captures and processes physical and space-time experience into memories. It is the store-house of ‘if-then’ physical experience based memories and includes the faculties of language and categorization. Manas is the lake of thoughts. The three – buddhi, chitta and manas – form the link between Brahman, the subtle universe, and our human manifestation. The thoughts that occur in manas are produced as a combination of current physical experiences and the memories from chitta and, additionally, leavened by subtle wisdom from buddhi.

The ahamkara or the ‘I am’ vibration which emanates in its pure form from the awareness component 9the buddhi), at some point, begins playing a central role in attaching to the thoughts from manas. The ahamkara begins attaching itself selectively to these thought, which are influenced by chitta, and through this selective attachment – what the west calls – the ego identity emerges.

The pure “I am” aham vibration together with the attached thought (a combination of memories from chitta and current physical experiences) triggers actions by the physical body. It is in this way that the aham vibration is the actor, the physical body is the stage for the action, and the buddhi, chitta and manas become the backdrop in the theater.

The ahamkAra gains apparent independent identity by associating with the memories of physical experiences and distancing from the subtle, which is its true nature. The process by which the aham vibration attaches itself to thoughts of physical experiences and categories, in the manas and the chitta generates the scripts and the acting out of these scripts through the physical body.

To simplify further, let’s ask the question: How do we go about playing our various and active roles in the three fields of action: work, money and relationships? Our answer will be: With our bodies, of course! To further elucidate this complex concept, let’s use the currently popular Nintendo Wii Gaming system as an example. The apparent field of activity is the screen, but what happens on the screen is based on the movements of the fingers of our hands and feet on the Wii device. This is no different from how we use our bodies to act out our social roles. The rest is just a projection. In fact, it is a huge projection. In fact, it is a huge projection on to multiple screens in a complex experiential universe with billions of people and animals and insects and plants playing the leela of the “Universal Wii”, all at the same time; a giant dynamic collage that is constantly being projected on multidimensional screens of which we only see three in all its kaleidoscopic beauty.

In the next post we will contemplate on the question ‘What constitutes this body that is our field of activity?”

 Jayant Kalawar is the author of The Advaita Life Practice, available at Amazon.

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