The Mind-Blowing Fantastic-ness of Being a Person


art by Keith Haring

In my last post, I concluded with a couple of questions, the first of which was: “what does it mean to be a person?” It’s an often-overlooked question in spite of its obvious importance to… people. That’s one reason why, whenever the issue of person-ness arises in my yoga philosophy workshops, I make a point of asking participants to offer their thoughts on what it means to be a person. The Sanskrit word for ‘person’, purusa, figures prominently in yoga wisdom texts such as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali so it should come as no surprise that the issue would come up in any meaningful discussion of yoga philosophy.

The response to my query usually includes ideas such as ‘to be conscious or self-aware’, ‘to keep learning and growing’, ‘to have the ability to communicate’, or ‘to have a soul’. Most of the replies I get suggest what I consider to be the essential element of person-ness but it’s rare that someone directly states my preferred answer: to be a person means to have senses.

The experience of being is the first mandatory pre-requisite for being a person and senses are the requisite vehicle for experience; without senses there is no facility for the experience of being or any other experience. In order for our experience to be coherent our senses need to be organized. The organization of senses is called a form. The existence of organized senses that facilitate lucid cognition and articulate action implies the existence of other persons with whom to interact and, by extension, an environment within which stimuli are experienced and relationships are enacted: a person does not exist in isolation. *

Our current vehicle for experience is an organized set of material senses. As such, our experience is limited to matter. After all, senses made of matter are suitable for apprehending matter so, for most of us, if it’s not matter then… it doesn’t matter. However, if, on the basis of faith, we accept that there is something that exists beyond the world of our material experience – something spiritual – then we may think of spirit as being the opposite of matter. We might therefore assume that whatever we see in matter will not be found in spirit: matter is influenced by time therefore spirit is eternal; matter is completely unconscious so spirit must be fully conscious; matter is relative, hence spirit must be absolute; matter takes on different forms so spirit must be undifferentiated and formless.

Hold the phone: let’s look at that last bit of reasoning a little more closely: we think that ‘form’ automatically means ‘material form’. But who says? Why do we make this assumption? After all, the opposite of ‘material form’ isn’t ‘no form’, it’s ‘spiritual form’. As soon as you put the appropriate qualifier in front of the word ‘form’ we can see a false premise that gives rise to flawed logic.

Just for argument’s sake, let’s entertain the notion that the function of matter is to conceal spirit. If this were true then a person immersed in material consciousness, which, for the purpose of our discussion I’ll define as a person who identifies as being their material body, would not be able to apprehend anything spiritual. Conversely, a person absorbed in spiritual consciousness would have the capacity for spiritual experience by virtue of having uncovered spiritual senses.

Let’s take our theory one step further: suppose that what we mean by matter and spirit being opposites is that matter and spirit are two sides of the same coin, two aspects of one unifying element. In this case we could say that matter is a transformation of spiritual energy but we could not say that spirit is a transformation of material energy. Why? Because in this case, the two sides of the coin are not equal: matter, by virtue of it being temporal, cataleptic, and inert, is inferior to spirit, which is eternal, conscious, and dynamic. Matter is like the side of the coin that’s in shadow, perpetually facing away from the light that illuminates the other, spiritual side of the coin. Eternal, conscious, dynamic, and illuminated trumps temporary, unconscious, impotent, and enshrouded. Hence, matter is an inferior energy whereas spirit is a superior energy.

This brings us back to the potential for spiritual experience by virtue of having uncovered spiritual senses. The process of ‘uncovering’ is really more like a kind of yogic alchemy: if matter is a transformation of spiritual energy then yoga is the reverse engineering of that transformation: yoga transforms the ‘lead’ of the material energy back into the ‘gold’ of spiritual energy. Hence, the ‘person’, or purusa, in spiritual consciousness apprehends a spiritual world filled with spiritual forms engaged in spiritual relationships though the agency of spiritual senses.

And it gets even more far out. For example, let’s consider that everything in the material world is relative and dualistic: I experience the world through my senses but I am not my senses; I am the possessor of senses. We always speak of our bodies in the possessive: I have a body. To make this admission implies that the ‘I’ who has a body is somehow different from the body ‘I’ has.

If spiritual experience is just the opposite of material experience then spiritual experience is absolute rather than relative and there is no distinction between the senses and the possessor of senses. In other words, on the spiritual level there is no distinction between form and substance: we are our spiritual senses. This is a very different understanding of non-duality than the much simpler and, in my opinion, vastly less interesting proposition that the ultimate spiritual reality is bereft of form, qualities, senses, and, consequently,  person-ness.

So what is the unifying principle that holds the two sides of the coin together? Where is the light that shines on one side, casting the other in shadow, coming from? Why should we accept the idea that the Absolute Reality is a person? Will I ever tire of cliffhangers? Enquiring minds want to know.

* Fans of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, please take note: I will address the issue of kaivalya – isolation – as it pertains to spiritual person-ness in a future post.

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