What is the True Self? How can this question serve the world?
Spiritual practice aims to reveal our deepest, truest self. Our practice can connect us with an identity based on ‘isness’, being or presence, an experience of ‘I am’, of unchanging consciousness. This consciousness is like the sky, a backdrop to all changing, temporary identities. We are conditioned to place our identity with transient layers: I am the body, I am young, I am old, I am this social role, I am this thought, I am this emotion. We are taught to identify with the changing experiences, the cloud of thoughts, the storm of emotions, the changing weather of our social roles. Yet all along as we identify with this or that, there is a presence that simply is, like a vast blue sky that remains ever present, even as weather patterns come and go.
Nisaragadatta Maharaj (1897-1981) was an Indian spiritual teacher of Advaita Vedanta, non-dualism. He describes his experience of being, of the non-dual state: “To me nothing ever happens. There is something changeless, motionless, immovable, rock-like, unassailable; a solid mass of pure being-consciousness-bliss. I am never out of it.” (1)
Two extraordinary movements of life arise from this beingness: wisdom and love. From this changeless state Nisaragatta also describes his experience in this way (2):
“Wisdom tells me I am nothing.
Love tells me I am everything.
And between the two my life flows.”
- Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
Beingness shows us that there is no individual seperate from the rest of the world. There is no duality, no self and other. There is only oneness of all life. This is wisdom, to know ourselves as nothing, no thing, no seperate thing. Another extraordinary movement arises from our beingness. As we realise we have no seperate identity, we realise we are - everything. There is no self and other - only Self. We are all that arises. This is love.
Our spiritual practice has the capacity to give us a radical identity of a beingness so deep that we know ourselves as not seperate, which is the greatest wisdom, and we also know ourselves as all that is, the deepest love.
Do you think this radical beingness is something the world might need right now?! As we face humanitarian, ecological and systemic crisis, we need a radical reorienting of our cultural story of self. The hyper-individualism and materialism of industrial societies feeds the hungry ghost of the seperate self. When we act as though we are seperate, this in turn feeds the destruction of the web of life. Can we know ourselves as a strand in the web of life? Can we understand that our own existence is nothing without the existence of all that is? We can move beyond an identity based only on ourselves to an identity based on family, community, society and to all of life.
Norwegian philospher Arne Naess believes we have not only an egoic, social or metaphysical self, but an ecological self as well (3). When our identity expands to see ourselves as a strand of life, intimately interconnected with all of life, then the urge to protect life is less of a moral duty and more of an act of sanity, truth, wisdom and love. This is the great call of deep ecology, to move from an anthropocentric paradigm to a biocentric one. We are here to serve, protect and love all of life.
How do we live this connection with all of life, authentically? Identification is an almost inevitable part of being human. The identification changes over a life span, from merging with the mother as a baby to gradual stages of individuation. Examples from my life include identifications as: a girl, a sister, a daughter, a survivor of family violence, a yogi, an activist, a yoga teacher, a mother and so on.
The wounds we experience can lead to emotional identification: identifying ourselves as the emotions we experience. We do not need to stop the identification but simply bring our awareness to it. Clouds, emotions, thoughts, identifications will arise, no issue, the sky is still present. Can we hold the space for our identifications from the vantage point of the sky of our awareness? The embodied listening practice developed by Gene Gendlin, called Focusing, does this in a profound way (4). It highlights that our language is one of identification. ‘I am very angry’ describes the entire ‘I’ or self as ‘very angry’. An alternative stance is offered in this description: ‘I am sensing a part of me is very angry’. Then the witnessing consciousness views the anger from the vantage point of the sky. We hold the larger bowl of consciousness even as we authentically feel our anger. We can allow all our identifications to be here, held in the light of consciousness.
Coming back to our sky analogy, non-dualism reminds us that the cloud is not seperate from the sky. There is one majestic sweep of life that includes all existence. Buddhism describes life not in linear casualty but as an interdependent co-arising of all phenomena, an infinite web of interconnection. Similarly quantum physics acknowledges the impact of relationship on all phenomena. A self and an object cannot be defined in separation, only in relationship, since the subject affects the object. Science points to a level of interconnection and interdependence within the whole web of life, that spiritual traditions have described for aeons.
Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh uses the term ‘interbeing’ to describe the profound interconnectedness of all life. Interbeing stretches our understanding of who the self is. This radical reorienting of our identity is described in his powerful poem “Call Me By My True Names” (5).
“I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda….
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.”
Or in the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (6):
“I live my life in widening circles
That reach out across the world.
I circle around God, that primordial tower.
I have been circling for thousands of years,
And I still don't know: am I a falcon,
A storm, or a great song? ”
“I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world.” I feel that this is my manifesto and has been since I was a teenager. My life is not my own. And I think of another teenager, a young woman aged 15 years old, Greta Thunberg in Sweden, who decided one Friday to strike for climate action. A strike of one person. A year later, millions of people led by students, have striked around the world saying that change is coming. When I hear the clarity of these teenaged activists, I hear the non-dual, ecological self speaking. If one strand does not live in honour of the whole web, it can bring about destruction of the very web of life. Yet our deep interconnectedness means we also do not know the ripple effects of one small step by one person. We can choose what self we want to act from, as individuals and as a culture. Who do you become when you act on behalf of all of life? What greatness is in your actions as you act for the world?
1. Nisargadatta, Maharaj, I Am That: Talks With Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, Chetana Publishing, 1973
2. As above
3. Naess, Arne "Self Realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World," Thinking Life A Mountain, with John Seed, Joanna Macy & Pat Fleming, New Society, 1988.
4. Gendlin Gene, see library www.Focusing.org/gendlin
5. Hanh, Thich Nhat, Call Me By My True Names, The Collected Poems, Parallax Press, 2005
6. Rilke, Rainer Maria, Book of Hours, Love Poems to God, Translated by Anita Barrows & Joanna Macy, Penguin Putnam Inc, 2005 (First published 1905).
Anahata runs Deep Listening Circles and The Empowerment Project designed to foster expression, inquiry, listening and action on behalf of all life.