Who Are You, Really?
To take this a little deeper I need to explain a fundamental concept in both the philosophy and psychology of Yoga. When most of us look at the world around us, we think of that which is behind our eyes looking out and observing the world as being our essential self. It seems so obvious as to be a truism, something completely unnecessary to even point out. When I am sitting on my couch and laughing as I watch the Simpsons on a Sunday night, it’s me that is laughing. The Yoga tradition, however, would say that is not the case. The Yoga tradition would say that it is your mind that is doing the observing and being amused by Homer and Marge. What is in fact your essential Self (with the capitalization being emphatically intentional) is deeper “within” than that. Remember the five sheaths that I spoke about earlier? The essential Self lies within that last sheath (anandamaya kosha). It is a spark of something that is both immanent – meaning so fundamental that it is inherent in what you are as well as being inherent in everything else, organic or inorganic, living or not living – and transcendent – meaning it exists outside the material world and is therefore eternal. This is why there is the acknowledgement of a higher power embedded in Patañjali’s eight limbs.
So you have within you, you are in your essence, something that remains completely unchanged by the anxiety of world war, or the stress over making enough money to pay the bills, or the pleasure you feel when having sex or the joy you experience when being made to laugh by a humorous TV show. The snag is that this essential Self is sheathed in all these layers that are constantly affected by all these things. I had the concept explained to me once rather beautifully and elegantly by Swami Karunananda at the Yogaville ashram in Virginia. Picture a clear night with a full moon high and bright in the sky. Under the moon is a lake and the mirror-like surface of the lake reflects perfectly the image of the moon. Then a rock is thrown into the lake, causing the surface no longer to be still. The ripples and splashes that the rock has made completely distort the image of the moon so that it cannot be seen.
In this metaphor, the moon is the essential Self. The lake is the mind and the surface of the lake are the senses. According to Yogic thought the essential Self is so not of this world that the mind cannot perceive it directly. If you like (to go back to the concept of the five koshas) the mind, which is represented in the last but one of the five sheaths (vijñanamaya kosha) can only look outwards at the other increasingly material sheaths and not inwards at the last sheath, that of the soul or the essential Self. The mind can only perceive the reflection of the Self. Thus the lake knows only the image of the moon reflected on the surface and not the actual moon. Anything that disturbs the surface of the lake, such as the rock, will distort and even obscure the image of the moon. Those disturbances can be strong sensations in the body from illness or discomfort, they can be cravings fed to you by the senses or they can be emotions. The effect of these disturbances results in our everyday, mundane existence.