If we try to search for a needle in a haystack, just think of how long it would take to remove all the hay one by one to find the needle? Yet there is no other way it can be done, except may be to search with a magnet.
The search for the Self is not so difficult because there is no big bundle that needs to be removed. There are just five layers, which are not to be removed, but which are just to be understood that they are temporary, changing and that they are not the Self.
Sri Adi Sankaracharya in the Vivekachoodamani, having negated the five layers, one more pervasive than the other and hence more subtle—body, breath, mind, intellect and bliss—now glides the mind to what is the Self.
The Self or I is illumination itself. It is completely different from the five layers of the personality. It is the witness of the three states of consciousness—waking, dream and deep sleep. It does not have any modifications. It is free of blemish. It is to be known as eternal joy and for the realised one, it is realised as one’s own self or I, the word we commonly use to refer to our self.
When the teacher says, “What remains after analytically removing the layers is to be known as the Self,” the student raises a doubt. “After removing everything as impermanent and illusory, especially the five sheaths, I do not see anything else than an emptiness of everything. With what does a learned man then can seek to attain oneness with the Self?”
This question translated in a more understandable example goes like this. There are five objects in a room. The teacher goes with the student and asks him to remove the five objects one by one. “Now look for the Self,” says the teacher. The student naturally replies, “There is nothing here! With what can I search for the Self?”
Until there is patience to go through the study of the Upanishads under the guidance of a Master, the search for the self will only end in a childish misunderstanding that there is nothing after all to search.
The teacher here patiently guides the student. He first praises the student for his observation. “You have said it right, O learned one.
You are indeed an expert in contemplation. Know the knower called I or Atman, with the help of an extremely soft, subtle yet sharp intellect, to be that which pervades everything that you know and that you don’t know too.”