The Three States

When you’re in your normal, daily, waking state of being, for about sixteen hours of your day, you automatically assume that the person you are during these hours is you. Right? “The guy on your driver’s license,” as James calls him. That’s who you think you are.

You’re walking around, thinking and acting as a person, and there is a continuous life that happens as an unbroken thread – your life – regardless of the fact that sleep interrupts this waking state for eight hours every night. When you wake up in the morning, life goes on, as if there was no break. You know your name, where you are, and all the details about your life, because your memory fills in the sleep gap effortlessly.

But have you ever thought about what happens to waking-state guy when you are asleep? I think most of us have the assumption that waking-state guy becomes “dormant,” the body immobilizes so it can recharge and regenerate, the mind sorts out the events of the day through dreams, and in deep, dreamless sleep we get a nice, peaceful break from all mental activity. It’s kind of like hitting the “pause” button on your life.

Is that what’s really happening? Is the guy on your driver’s license present, even as a dormant presence, in your dreams at all? Where? When dreaming guy appears, he thinks he of himself as the only “me,” and he doesn’t even suspect that anyone else besides himself is the real “me.” To him, the only world is the dream world, and he is completely convinced the events he experiences in the dream are 100% real!

To the dreamer, there is no waking-state guy. He never thinks, “Hey, I wonder if I’m warm enough in my bed right now.” When you are dreaming, you take yourself to be that person you are in the dream, and that world is all you know.

Doesn’t this set off some alarm bells? Like for instance: when I’m dreaming, and I have no doubt at all about the fact that I’m that guy in the dream, then couldn’t that same thing be going on when I’m awake? Couldn’t I be in a similar sort of “dream” right now, convinced this “I” is the real me?

Mightn’t I wake up any minute, and like I do when I come out of a dream, might I not say, “Oh, that was just a dream. None of that was real. That was an imaginary person in an imaginary world.” Yes, you might.

Before I talk about the implications of that line of thought, let’s look briefly at the third state you might be in, and that is deep, dreamless sleep. In deep sleep, you are peaceful. You remember this peace in the morning, but while it’s happening – while you’re in deep sleep – you have no knowledge of it happening. You have no knowledge of being present there.

The deep sleep state requires a bit more of a discussion than I’m going to try and undertake here. Suffice it to say that the deep sleep state, the dream state, and the waking state are the only three possible states you can appear in. It’s the experience you’ve been living for your whole life, and yet it’s pretty easy to have it escape your notice that you are always appearing as one of those three states.

So now back to the discussion of what is implied by the fact that both waking-state and dreaming-state guys think they are the “real” you – the “only” you. And in deep sleep, you’re there, but you don’t know you’re there. So examining the three states of your being over the course of a 24-hour period, you have to now ask: Which one am I?

Am I the guy who is here for sixteen hours a day, doing his life, but is conspicuously absent the rest of the time? Am I the guy who has really oddball, nonsensical adventures at random intervals during the night? Or am I the guy who doesn’t even know he is there for several hours at a time? Which of the three are you?

Answer: none of the above.
YOU are the substrate of all three states! You know this to be true: “I am always here, in all three states. I am present in waking, I am present in dreaming, and I am present in deep sleep.” YOU are the consciousness that pervades them all, in all their differences. YOU, unchanging consciousness, are never absent, in all three states. It is YOU that illumines the presence of these three different “bodies”.*

Now, the most valuable knowledge we can glean from this “Three States” teaching is that which sheds light on the waking state. Why? Because that’s the guy who suffers. Waking-state guy is the only one who longs to be liberated. So what can waking-state guy take away from this teaching?

Well, first of all, just by having read through this, you’re looking at the “I” in the waking state somewhat differently, I hope. The assumptions about this waking “I” being “who I am” have weakened just a bit, enough for you to go exploring. You may now be thinking, well, then, is this a dream, too? Why should I presume that this waking-state reality is any more real than my nighttime dream? And how would I wake up out of this waking-state dream? And into what would I awaken?

I would awaken into the knowledge that the one unchanging, continuous presence which pervades all three states – consciousness – is actually who I am. This is liberation!

And simultaneously, I would see that the liberated one – Mr. Liberated Waking State – is not a real entity at all, but merely an object appearing in consciousness, just like the dreamer and the deep sleeper. So Mr. Waking State was never bound, and he was never liberated. All three states, including the liberated one, collapse into simply the one consciousness that is
YOU – already free, without form, without a body, without a state.

So use this wonderful teaching to start thinking along these lines. You never were this person in this waking state. When you’re walking around doing your daily stuff, just stop for a minute and think about who this is, this waking-state person. Where is he going to be when I go to sleep? Why do I think this is who I am? What is overarching all three states that is here right now? While I am dreaming, what will I be then just as much as I am right now? Consciousness! Already free, beyond bondage and liberation, beyond all limits.

*This is the gist of the “Three States” teaching of Vedanta. Its origin is the Mandukya Upanishad. The Three States is only one of many teachings of Vedanta. But you can see how powerful just one of them can be, as a means of self-inquiry. Sometimes James will remark, “You only need one teaching. One will do it.” And yet there are at least one or two dozen to put in your tool box, to sort out who you are as the Self from who you are not. What I’ve written here is a very basic telling of it. Here is a translation and commentary by James Swartz that goes into much more detail.

The Bliss in Not in the Peak Experience

I received an email asking about the experience of oneness, and what can be done to keep or bring back that experience. And the writer expressed frustration that “they” always say, “Quit chasing experiences,” without offering any alternatives. The writer also asked me, “If liberation is ‘all that,’ shouldn’t it feel like that, too?” Good question! I responded:

James Swartz and Vedanta will also be part of that chorus that says to quit chasing experiences. But the way James is different is that he says, go ahead and chase – go ahead and have a burning desire – but for the right thing! Chase self-knowledge, chase having the solid knowledge that you are that unchanging, incorruptible peace in which all experiences come and go, and that you don’t need anything. The “good feelings” come from this knowledge.

Since we’re always so focused on our feelings, and use them as indicators of how we’re doing, we tend to go back in our memory to times in the past when we felt the best, and we want to duplicate those same circumstances. For seekers that’s often the epiphanies – the non-dual peak experiences, or those times when we suddenly are overcome with an absolute feeling and knowing and experiencing that the whole universe and whatever it appears in is all one “piece,” we are completely merged with all of it, and everything is known to be perfect for all eternity. Or maybe we have a more gentle epiphany, where it is revealed to us through experience that “I am not a body, I am consciousness, and all this appears in me.” These experiences are so powerful and pleasurable, and together with the lingering residual effect, can last just a few minutes, or for quite a long time. Some people say they have stayed in a non-dual experience for months, or even years.

But they always wear off eventually. The experience of non-duality never stays, and it can’t stay, because it is an experience, and all experience passes. That’s the nature of experience, by definition. Experience is something that happens to a person, and there isn’t anything that happens to a person which is permanent and unchanging. So there is no way that this experience of “I am pure consciousness and bliss, untouched by the world” can ever be permanent. Ever. Permanence and immutability are the province only of the Self – YOU! – this is what does not change. You, consciousness, do not ever change, and your very nature is already this bliss you seek. And as pure consciousness, you are the only permanent, unchanging one. All the experiences come and go
in you.

But what are we supposed to do about this? What action can we take, and where’s the bliss?

What’s frustrating about the popular teachings is that they say “quit chasing experiences,” but then they imply there is nothing you can do at all. They say, “there is no you to do anything.” And that’s the frustrating part. What, you’re just supposed to sit around in limbo forever? I don’t know what they expect, really. Vedanta addresses this, and tells you what you can DO. I’ll try to give you a sneak peak in this article, and something you can actually work with.

Liberation only ends suffering. That’s all. Liberation does not provide beautiful experiences. Beautiful experiences – all experiences – are for the person. Liberation is
not being a person. The wonderful peak experiences are great, and they are useful, while you consider yourself a person. They set a reference point you can never go below, because you know what you experienced, without a doubt, and you can never forget it – you can never un-experience your peak experiences. So they are very good footholds in terms of knowing that reality is non-dual, and moving upward from there.

But because they feel so good, and are so freeing, we think that’s what the goal is – we must be shooting for a permanent non-dual experience. But that’s not what liberation is. Why not? Because a non-dual experience is still just an experience, and all experience is frustrating in the end because it is changing all the time. No experience lasts. There is no such thing as “a permanent non-dual experience,” because there is no such thing as a permanent experience of anything. Experience is change, by its nature.*

And if what we ultimately want is something that changes, like experiences or possessions, then we are asking for major suffering. I have heard so many times from people who had a peak experience that they cling painfully to the memory of. They pine for the experience to return, just like we’ve all pined for some relationship that we think we never should have lost. Relationships come and go, and so do experiences! Why bother pining?

It’s been about five years since my last peak experience. I just don’t have them anymore. I had a few really good ones early on, and they were footholds, like I mentioned, and you have had those, too. But they might just stop happening! You might never have another! Then what?

Luckily, the peak experiences are not where the “good feelings” ultimately come from. So where do the “good feelings” come from? Does liberation feel good? What feels good about it, and in what way?

Think about it this way. When you have a peak experience – or any pleasurable experience, actually – why do you like it? You like it because the longing has stopped. You are fulfilled. The desire for things to be better has ceased, for a time. The feeling of incompleteness, inadequacy, self-doubt, it’s all gone. In the moment of that wonderful experience, all you know is joy. What is that? Where is that joy coming from? Can you think of where that might be coming from?

Might that not actually be your true nature? Might not this amazing, boundless joy be actually coming from your own self? Where else? Take a look. We experience this all the time, all day long – every time a desire is fulfilled. It’s always here, but we notice it most when we have gotten something we want, because we’ve stopped wishing for a different experience for that moment. When a desire is fulfilled, the resulting joy is the “I alone” – the one consciousness, the Self,
you. The bliss comes from you, not from outside.

Why do we long for objects, and for feelings and experiences (which can also be thought of as objects)? We actually long for them not because of what they will add, but because of what they will take away. Obtaining a desired object takes away the desire. Gain the object, lose the desire. And when the desire is gone, we feel good. The object was only a means to an end, the end being the removal of the desire. It could have been any object, depending on your mood of the day or this particular time of your life. The objects always change, but the removal of desire is always the goal. Why do we want to get rid of desire? Because when desire is absent, we feel happy. When desire is absent, you are revealed. Just yourself. Just consciousness. And we know from experience that the subjective state in non-desiring is blissful. This is why we keep trying to obtain objects and experiences!

But if we realize this joy is simply what is going on all the time, as ourselves, we can stop this chasing after things and experiences to fulfill us. Just go straight to the Self! Just direct your mind to yourself, to consciousness. You’re already present all the time. This is what we are trying to do indirectly, through an object – we are trying to reach the unadulterated joy of the Self. We think it’s about the object, but it’s not the object we’re after – it’s the joy the object falsely promises to provide. Get the object and notice what happens. Is this something new, this feeling? Did the object bring a totally new kind of feeling, or is it the same familiar feeling you always get whenever any desire is fulfilled? It’s always the same, isn’t it? And why? Because it is YOU. It never leaves. This is right here, all the time.

So this is one of the tools Vedanta uses. It’s the teaching of “The Joy is Not in the Objects.” Or for the purposes of this article, we could call it “The Bliss is Not in the Peak Experience.” Just by looking at your daily experience through this one filter will really shed some light on where your thinking is messed up. And Vedanta has a whole bunch of different tools like this. This is only one of many. This is what is so helpful about Vedanta. If one thing doesn’t work, another will. It comes at the problem of your messed-up thinking from a lot of different angles. There is no way you can fail, if you apply yourself to it.

People like peak experiences because during them you feel like you are one with everything, and nothing is missing, etc. etc. Chocolate and sex can make people feel almost as good! So a peak experience is not a unique happening, it’s just the highest along a continuum of things that make people feel good. And every one of them is temporary. And every one of them derives their bliss from the same place – the Self.

Am I suggesting that you “keep looking” until you know yourself as this Self? No, I’m giving you a real tool you can use. I’m suggesting that you watch as your mind goes through the process a thousand times a day of wanting something (or wanting to avoid something) and fulfilling that desire. And apply yourself to noticing what happens when you get the desired thing, and how it makes you feel happy, and then just sit with that main question – what’s the source of this happiness? What can it be but you?

You are happiness! Can you come to any other conclusion? Now, when you work with this tool for a while, and when you discover you are the happiness, is there any need for a peak experience to bring you happiness? Or anything to bring you happiness from outside?

This is one piece of the puzzle. You can listen to James explain this in any of his Self-Inquiry series. One of the first things he always addresses is “The Joy is Not in the Object.”

The bliss is not in the non-dual experience of oneness and merging – the bliss is in you! So put your attention in the right place when you are looking for the source of the bliss. Looking for it externally (in experiences, for example) will only waste time. It won’t get you any closer to bliss. But looking for bliss where it actually is – in YOU – now that will be a fruitful use of your time. Once you find it where it actually is – in yourself – no more peak experiences will ever be craved, and the answer to your question “Shouldn’t this feel good?” will be clear.

*I need to mention another of Vedanta’s essential teachings at this point, which explains that liberation is knowledge, not experience. Liberation is the knowledge that you are pure consciousness, not the experience of that. The knowledge uproots the ignorance, and that’s a one-time thing, so ignorance does not return. It’s this – the removal of ignorance through knowledge of what you are, and not experience of what you are, that defines liberation. See James’ book on the topic of “Knowledge vs. Experience” to learn more, or read some of his email satsangs on the subject here. He also talks about it in all of his audio series.