We exist in deep sleep or dreamless sleep as evidenced by our remembrance of the state during the waking state as when we say “I slept happily”. What also characterizes the dreamless sleep is that we exist during it without being associated with the body and mind. What is our real or true nature should be with us all the time. So, if the body and mind do not exist for us in deep sleep, then body and mind cannot be our real nature or true selves. But what exactly exists during deep sleep. Only pure awareness. One may protest at this point, saying that in deep sleep we are unaware. But the fact of the matter is since there is nothing to be aware of in deep sleep, that is, there is no body and world to be cognizant of, we are aware of only this nescience in deep sleep. That same awareness continues during waking and dream states, in which the pure awareness is contaminated with body-consciousness. So, since pure awareness exists in all the three states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep states, pure awareness is our real nature. Other name for pure awareness is Self, which is of the nature of sat-chit-ananda or existence-consciousness-bliss.
That is as far as intellectual understanding goes. How does one actually experience or realize this Pure Awareness or Self as one’s own nature? By self-enquiry. How does one do self-enquiry? Let us delve into it.
Mind is nothing but a bundle of thoughts. Of all the thoughts, the root thought is the I-thought. This I-thought can be said to be the mind or ego. Self-enquiry is simply an enquiry into the source of this I-thought or mind or ego as to wherefrom it is arising. You could do this by questioning “Who am I?”, or more correctly, “Whence am I?” In doing so, one’s whole attention should be focused on this inward search for the source of I-thought or mind or ego. Perforce, one should not be distracted by other thoughts. If other thoughts arise during this enquiry, one should immediately then and there pose a question “To whom are these thoughts?” The answer would be “To me”. One should then counter question, “Who am I?” and that takes one back to the enquiry.
If one conducts the above enquiry, the mind becomes more and more pure and attenuated and there will come a time when the Self is revealed to one. How long will such an enquiry take? It depends. In some advanced souls, only one session of such enquiry could reveal the Truth. In others it may take more such sessions.
In the state of realization, one is set free from all the karmic bonds that fettered one earlier. What that state is like cannot be put in words and only has to be experienced. What one can say is that such a realized soul sees the whole world as the Self because for him nothing exists apart from the Self. The Self is all there is for him. The whole world is a manifestation of the Self, including the people in it.
What is attainable through self-enquiry can also be attained through total surrender to God, wherein one gives up all sense of I and mine. Such a devotee has to surrender his ego at the feet of God, with his will being replaced by God’s will. He has to have no further thoughts about himself or his life, and be moved as God moves him, like a leaf blown around by the wind-currents.
In a way, the path of surrender may look easy but it is difficult to relinquish control by giving up the sense of doership. However, it is to be understood that even now, before we enter the path of surrender, our lives are being run by God right down to the minutest details. We only have the illusion of being the doers of our actions, whereas we are impelled to do all things by the Divine will. When we give up the sense of doership we at once attain to the state of beatitude and peace. If we take on the illusion of doership, we also have to face the consequences for those actions.
Whatever path one adopts for Self-realization, the sign of progress is the degree of freedom one has from thoughts and the peace one feels in one’s life. But strictly speaking, we are already the Self, so there can be no progress towards it. The only thing one does is one eliminates the wrong notion that we are not the Self, but the body and mind. Until we realize our true nature we will be subject to births and deaths. Only when dispassion and discrimination arise in us, the search begins.