Your physical body, your personality, your beliefs, & your societal roles. These are the components that make you the person that you are, right? Well not exactly. While you may come to believe that you are a combination of these physical and mental characteristics, the truth is that you not. In fact, you are much more.
Hidden behind the illusion of self is an illuminous part of your being that is your true self.
At this level, which is beyond the ego, blissfulness doesn’t waver and happiness doesn’t subside. Since the deepest desire of every human being is to find lasting levels of fulfillment, it should be everyone’s primary objective to start living from this place.
Fortunately, by exploring the wisdom found within the eastern spiritual traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism, we can gain an understanding of how we come to associate with the ego, or the false sense of ‘I.’ With this knowledge in hand, we can then begin to dissociate ourselves from this part of our being and move towards living from the only place where true happiness is consistent.
There are many truths that can be found within the teachings of the great Hindu seers and sages, but perhaps there is no lesson as important as the one given to us by Ramana Maharshi, the saint of Arunachala. Maharshi told us that to perceive beyond the illusions of the physical and mental realms, we can ask ourselves one simple question. To remove the veil of ignorance, connect with the one divine reality, and live beyond the grasps of the ego, Maharshi told us to ask ourselves ‘Who am I?’
What is the Ego:
In the world of eastern spirituality, it is widely assumed that the physical, mental, and material levels of reality are nothing more than an illusion that keeps us stuck in the cycle of suffering. At the sensory and cognitive levels we come to believe that we are solid individuals who are distinctly different from others. There is no doubting the magnificence of the human brain, but unfortunately it is from this very magnificence that an individual’s ego is created. By using, storing, and recalling a seemingly unlimited amount of information, the human brain constructs a self-image, labels sensory input, and makes judgments that are based upon our past experiences.
There are a variety of aspects of one’s self that make up the ego. When you label, judge, compare, and contrast yourself with others, you are making egotistical distinctions that separates yourself from the truer connectivness of reality. Whenever you think of yourself as actually being your physical body, personality, thoughts, emotions, and societal roles, you are associating with your ego. While this part of ourselves tells us that we are a solid and separate entity that is different from the rest of humanity, the truth is that we are not. In spirituality, this false sense of ‘I’ is the illusion of self.
Hindu mystics and Buddhist monks point to a number of spiritual truths that show us how an individual’s self-image is not as solid or real as they come to believe. Teachings about impermanence tell us that everything in this universe is in a state of constant transformation, which means that our bodies, thoughts, and emotions are actually inherently ungraspable. Furthermore, the law of karma tells us that the there is a cause and effect relationship that assists in the construction of your ego, your thoughts, and your beliefs. While you may think that you are a solid and fixed individual, the truth is that the actions you have taken and the reactions caused by your behavior continue the ongoing process of shaping who you are.
The Illusion of Self:
By examining the various parts of your self-image, or ego, it will become quite clear to see how your true self is beyond the limiting and faulty characteristics that you believe yourself to be. The truth is that you are not your physical body, you are not your thoughts, you are not your emotions, and you are not your social identity. In reality, these are the very components of the ego that create the illusion of self.
The Physical Body:
Through inner exploration, the great spiritual teachers of the past came to realize that the human body is not a solid and fixed object like we assume, but rather a constantly transforming bundle of energy. Scientists, who now agree with this notion, tell us that at the most minute level, the human body is nothing but small waves of energy moving together in a synchronized way. Yet, this truth doesn’t change the fact that when we look in the mirror, we believe that we are seeing ourselves. Fortunately, this notion can be dispelled. As we grow older as individuals, we feel as though we have been the same person throughout our lives, but never really analyze how our bodies have changed overtime. If you look at a variety of pictures from childhood to adulthood, you can notice changes in every aspect of your body, but you still feel like the same individual. If you were actually your physical body, these changes wouldn’t occur. How is this possible then? I think the best answer comes from the famous French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience,“ he told us.
Your Thoughts and Emotions:
Celebrated Buddhist nun Pema Chodron uses a clever analogy that helps to show how one’s deeper nature is much greater than their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. “You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather,” she tells us. It can be very easy to mistake yourself as actually being the thoughts, emotions, and feelings that you experience throughout any given day, week, or month. Due to the impermanent nature of reality, however, our perceptions, thoughts, beliefs, and emotions are in a state of continuous change. Furthermore, your cognitions are dependent upon particular situations and circumstances that arise in your life. You may consider yourself to be an angry person, but you are not angry all the time. Where is the angry person when you are on a family vacation having fun? You may think that it is best to avoid people all together, but what happens to this belief when you really click with a new friend? Just as you can notice how your physical body changes over time, you can observe your thoughts, feelings, and emotions constantly changing depending upon the circumstances that you find yourself in.
Whenever you go to a party and meet new acquaintances, your initial conversations are typically focused on exchanging information about both of your social identities. You may identify yourself as being an accountant or nurse, while they may tell you that they are a engineer or lawyer. You will also probably exchange information about your significant others, children, and interests in life. Beyond these basic identifiers, which you confuse for being your true self, you also unknowingly think that your age, religion, and upbringing definitively distinguish you as an individual. The truth is, however, that attaching ourselves to these labels is just as problematic as attaching ourselves to our physical body and cognitions. By examine the nature of social identity at a drastic and nominal level, it becomes clear to see how the identities that one believes themselves to be will continuously change throughout their lives. At a drastic level, an individual may get divorced, switch careers, or change religions, yet still feel as though they are the same person. And at a nominal level, everyone of us is alternating between various social identifies all the time. Just think about the different roles that you take on at different times of a given day. From 9 to 5 you take on the role of a hard working employee or boss, from 5 to 10 you act as a loving parent, and from 10 to 12 you transform into a passionate soulmate with your significant other. With this being said, it is probably a good time to revisit the all-important spiritual question: ‘Who am I?’
Reconnecting with Your True Self:
If you have determined that you are a fluid combination of these various aspects and knowingly or unknowing take on different personas at appropriate times, then there is only one more question to ask:
Who or what has the ability to watch as this continuous personal transformation occurs?
Beyond the ego created illusion of self is a part of your being that hasn’t changed since you were born. Spiritual sages tell us that only at the level of the true self, or pure consciousness, can we find the happiness and fulfillment that we seek. When you live from this place, you can not only watch the ego continuously transform, but also enjoy the gifts of life without judgements, disappointments, or feelings of separation. In order to reconnect with your most natural and intimate state of unwavering present-moment awareness, you will have to focus on your own spiritual development and growth.
Thankfully, there are a wide variety of useful activities that you can undertake to move yourself away from the ego and towards your true self. It is certainly helpful to study the teachings of great Hindu sages and modest Buddhist monks, but to truly disassociate yourself from the illusion of self you will explore within the depths of your own soul. By using the practice of meditation as a vehicle that takes you to transcendent states, you will quickly come to know your true self. Once you have uncovered your inherent radiance, you will then only have to continue the process of dismantling the illusion of self until you reach ‘sat, chit, ananda,’ or ‘existence, consciousness, bliss.’