You get a bunch of paddy crop from the field. It goes through winnowing and then threshing. Then the husk-covered rice is taken to a mill and pounded on a mortar. The husk is completely removed, leaving the rice within for polishing and ready for consumption. Why does Sri Adi Sankaracharya describe such an agricultural process in a book that helps reveal your real self? It is yet another brilliant simile that he want us to understand, through which we arrive at the knowledge of who we are in reality.
Just as the tiny grain of rice is covered by sheaths of husk, the self or the awareness called ‘I’ remains covered by the five sheaths of the physical body. And just as the rice is de-husked, the atman or ‘I’ should be mentally de-husked of its coverings.
How is this possible? The grain of rice is a physical matter and de-husking it can be achieved. The removing of the five sheaths is not a physical action. Even though the gross sheath of matter is a physical one which is very tangible, it is not the physical removal which is mentioned here. The sheaths of wrong understanding and identification have to be removed from our mind.
This is done only on the seat of meditation and there is no violence involved in this. While sitting down quietly for meditation and beginning contemplation, just let your mind run through the whole body from the feet up to the head. The whole body is visible to your awareness. Just as your car is visible to your awareness and hence the car is not you, your own body, visible to your awareness, is not you.
The same logic applies to the other four sheaths too, though they are not physically seen like the body, but can only be known and experienced. The breath and movement of vital airs in the body is known and experienced. Since it can be objectively perceived by you, it is not you, but just belongs to you. The mind is a flow of thoughts. They are filled with likes and dislikes. You are a witness to your own likes and dislikes, just as you are a witness to your own car. Just as the car belongs to you, but is not you, your thoughts belong to you, but is not you.
Among the thousands of thoughts, there are many that have strong feelings and they direct your thoughts, words and actions. Those feelings that move you are only witnessed by you and are not you. When you go to sleep at night, you experience a thought called, “I don’t know”. Since you experience it, it is not you, just the cool breeze you experience is not you. Who then is the real you? That is the answer that you will eventually find at the end of your meditation.