Chapter 4: A Milestone Marked Zero
That highest spiritual element,
the atman, is unalterable by nature,
and has a quicker motion than the mind.
The sense organs cannot
reach it, for it precedes them all.
In its stillness it surpasses all moving things.
Only in its presence does the air govern all the activities of all living beings.
In its stillness, the atman - the highest spiritual element - is the fastest among the fast. It surpasses the motion of sense organs and the mind because it is prior to both. It is, before either was created. It is beyond both of them.
It is very necessary and useful for the seeker to understand this sutra. The first thing is that we are ignorant of this highest spiritual element; we don’t have any knowledge about it. It is us, and yet we do not know it at all. It is the ultimate depth of our consciousness, from where our being is born and developed.
If you imagine yourself as a tree, understanding is made easy. The leaves on a tree spread out into the sky; behind the leaves branches lie hidden, and at the end of the branches is the top of the tree. The tree also has roots below, hidden in the interior of the earth. It is not too difficult for a tree to believe that it is leaves only, because the roots are invisible; they are hidden deep in the interior. So it is possible that the tree may think, “I am a cluster of leaves,” forgetting that the roots are there also. But its forgetting them makes no difference. The roots will go on doing their duty in spite of that. Leaves cannot live long without their roots. It is interesting to notice that leaves cannot live without roots, but roots can live without leaves. Even if we cut down the whole tree, the roots will be doing their work and a new tree will sprout and blossom. But if we cut out all the roots, the leaves will simply wither, dry up and die. They cannot give birth to new leaves. The roots that are hidden deep below in darkness are the real life.
If we consider man as a tree, the things we call thoughts are nothing more than the leaves of the tree - and we look upon this sum total of thoughts as “I am.” Roots lying in the depths are the real things, they are the highest spiritual element. But just as the roots of a tree are concealed deep underground and in darkness, so is our highest spiritual element, the atman, concealed in the primordial depth, in existence. From there we receive the essence of life, from there comes life itself. From there flow the streams of life-energy, and up into our leaves. If those roots are not there, our leaves cannot be there. So on the day on which those roots shrivel, our leaves wither, our branches dry up, people say of us, “The man died.”