Who Am I – Does It Even Matter – The Yoga View of the Self


ACHARYA DAS: Haribol. I’d like to welcome everyone to this new yoga wisdom series that we will be producing from the Science of Identity Foundation. My name is Acharya das and I would like to offer my respects to you, namaste. And before starting I will offer an invocation to offer my respects to my spiritual masters and to the Supreme Being.

om ajnana-timirandhasya jnananjana-salakaya
caksur unmilitam yena tasmai sri-gurave namah

bhaja sri krishna caitanya prabhu nityananda
sri advaita gadadhara srivas adi gaura bhakta vrnda

he krishna karuna-sindho dina-bandho jagat-pate
gopesa gopika-kanta radha-kanta namo stu te

hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare
hare rama hare rama rama rama hare hare

So the topic we’ll begin with today is: Who am I? Does it even matter? The answer, of course, is yes. It matters a great deal.

We have very little time to actually discuss something that is quite profound and requires some significant consideration. So you’ll notice that underneath the YouTube window in the information thing there’ll be a link that you’ll see there to the Science of Identity Foundation, The Yoga View of the Self. And what I’d like to do is encourage people that if they would actually like to learn or to try and look at things in a little bit more detail and a little bit more structured way they can do that by going to that link.

So before I start I’ll just read a couple of paragraphs that are sort of like introductory. And they have come from our spiritual master, Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa:

“Who am I?” Maybe you’ve never even asked yourself this question. You might think you already know who you are. Unfortunately, however, it’s likely that you don’t know who you are at all and if you don’t know your real identity, you are in trouble. You’ll spend your life in a kind of dream state. You’ll falsely identify yourself as someone or something that you aren’t. Then on the basis of this false identification you will determine the goals of your life, and the purpose of your existence. You use these goals to gauge whether you are making progress in life, whether you are a success. And you are aided and abetted in this assumed purpose by a complex network of relationships with other dreamers. Of course, at death, and sometimes before, the whole thing turns into a nightmare.

So the subject of identity is extremely personal as it relates directly to knowing your true purpose in life, your reason for existing. The question, “Who am I?” is not a philosophical football meant to be kicked around coffee houses by pseudo intellectuals. It is a real life question. Nothing is more important and more relevant than to know who you are.

So as I mentioned, this is almost an impossible task in about 35 minutes to present such a profound proposition and to adequately give the type of explanation that can make people really appreciate.

As you probably might have read on the promotional material, generally when you ask people who they are, they have a tendency to just rattle off a whole bunch of labels, and invariably every single one relates to the body, the body that you currently have. Nowadays things have become a little bit more complicated, where people are assuming identities based on desires. What’s your state of mind? What do you feel like? That becomes a little bit more complicated because the outward manifestation, the body, may not be the same as the identity that the person is identifying with in their mind, so it causes like a lot of complexities.

But society—I mean, if you just look at the news, it’s like, “Oh my God!” You know, the political divisions, the religious divisions, the racial divisions, just all the different identities that people are adopting, and considering how to proceed in life and what they should be doing and what they think they deserve all based on these considerations. It is actually nothing short of extremely sad. I was going to say frightening but—It is a little bit frightening but I guess more sad than anything else.

So, you know, I often use an example that I’ve used a lot in the past. I would sometimes speak in some schools and—invited to speak on the subject. And you hand everybody out a little piece of paper and ask them to identify themselves. And they usually start off with a name, a sexual identity, a complexion, type of hair, you know, and the list just goes on.

In recent times there is a whole branch of science—and one of the great authorities on looking at molecular matter, or matter on a molecular level and how it’s moving about within any given body, is the Oakridge Atomic Research Center. And by putting radioactive traces into the body, introducing them and then running tests over time they can see how long it takes for these radioactive trace elements to become removed from the body. They become embedded in different cells and different parts of the body and eventually they get displaced along with the matter that’s making up cells and everything.

So they’ve found that 98% of all the atoms in the human body are replaced every year. Every single year 98% of who you think you are changes. Of course you don’t feel like you’ve changed. You still look at your selfies and go, “Oh, I wish I looked better than that.” (laughter) And kind of dream up how to re-engineer your face or your body so you look better or modify your hair cut or whatever.

You literally grow a new suit of skin every month. And within six weeks your liver has been entirely replaced. The lining of your stomach only lasts for five days before it gets replaced and even your bones—people think their bones are kind of like, you know, they’re going to last, they’re going to be there for a while. No. They’re also undergoing this kind of transition and the bones that you have now are not the same bones, practically, that you had even a year ago.

So experts in this area of research have concluded that there is 100% turnover of atoms in the body, at least every five years. So that kind of like opens up a whole bunch of questions about who do I actually think I am? And what are the ramifications of that?

So we don’t have time to get into all of the scientific things and I’ll refer you to that website, that web link to try and do a little personal study on.

I’m just going to jump straight to a point of reference that all people that say they are yogis, who are practicing yoga, will accept and use as a source of reference. And what I am referring to, of course, are the yoga scriptures, known broadly as shastra. So mostly—the most ancient of these, you know, were first recorded 5000 years ago and long before that they were passed on through an oral tradition where they were spoken by a spiritual teacher and the disciple or student learned them and was able to recite and pass it on to others.

So the very first one I just wanted to bring it to your attention, is from one of the Upanishads, and it is just two words: “Aham Brahmasmi.” And it literally means that I, meaning the living being, am not matter. I am neither the body, nor the mind. I am, in fact, what is referred to in Sanskrit as brahman. Brahman means that which is spirit.

You know, we live in a world, in a time, when people that are maybe somewhat practical or sensitive, they recognise that things are not so great and that if people lived more spiritual lives they would be much happier and life would be much better, and materialism is something that can be quite destructive on an individual level and for society as a whole. But when you ask people what is the actual foundation of materialism, you ask people what it is and what is the foundation of it, people quite often they have some sort of intuitive idea but they’ve never really thought and if you ask them to explain it to you what you mean by that, what exactly is it, they will sort of roll out, “Well, people are just too into material things and gathering stuff and being envious of what others have,” and they just roll out all these sort of broad ideas and it is a fact that these are some symptoms of materialism but the actual foundation of materialism is the very idea or notion that I am material; meaning: I am this body or this mind.

From the yoga perspective there are only two broad categories of energy in this world. Only two. And all these sub-categories of energy that we may come to learn about are, in fact, sub-categories. The bigger category, one form of energy is known as, broadly as matter or the material energy. We can think of what are the actual components that make up atoms we were talking about. In the Vedas they speak about actually sub-atomic particles that are smaller than what scientists are thinking of or referencing today. But everything is fundamentally built, everything that we see, smell, taste, touch, that we inter-react with in this world is fundamentally matter. But apart from matter there is another type of energy. This energy is known as brahman or spirit. And a spiritual existence, a more spiritual life, is built on the actual understanding that I am spirit. I am a spiritual being or as stated in this verse, “Aham brahmasmi”, that I am a spiritual being. And if I was to actually think about that a little bit thoughtfully and dwell on it a little bit and think about it repeatedly through the day at different times it would actually be quite transformative because I would immediately start asking questions: why exactly am I doing this and why exactly am I doing that? What benefit do I, you know, this spiritual being, the personality within the body, what benefit do I receive by it?

So this knowledge, this idea, this understanding that there is a spiritual energy, the presence of this spiritual energy can be identified. You can identify that it exists in a particular location by the symptom of life. Life is a symptom of a spiritual existence. There is some spiritual energy existing within and it doesn’t matter whether it is animals, or plants, or human beings. Anything that is fundamentally alive, that manifests signs of life, it does this because of the presence of this spiritual energy.

This spiritual energy is actually who you are. You know, we have all these ideas like I mentioned earlier, the little list that people make when they are asked to identify themselves and when I do that little scenario with some young people we talk about death. We talk about if somebody actually died and you attended a wake and you had your little list that that person had written down and you approach a coffin and you look in and then you look at your list, you will see that everything on the list, you know—My name is Jennifer, I am female, I am of this particular racial you know, or ethnic background. I am of this age. I am this tall. I am this weight. I have straight, black hair, shoulder length, you know. My complexion is, whatever, and you actually look and you look at your list and you look inside the coffin you’ll see that not one single thing has changed. That all of the identifiers are still there yet you feel this almost gut-wrenching reality that there is something actually, there has been this transformation where this person that I actually felt attracted to and could embrace and touch without, you know—it was actually something that I liked to do, now I am feeling somewhat repulsed. The idea of, you know, touching, embracing, getting close to is kind of like you know--There is this freak-out—and there is a reason for it and the reality, in short, is that you are not that body. You are the person. The person is a spiritual being.

You know, I really don’t like using this world ‘soul’ because it is so misunderstood and misused. People talk about, “My soul,” like something that you possess. Okay, if you have a soul, who are you and what exactly are you? You know, that kind of spins people out. “You know what I mean?”

“No, I don’t know what you mean. Do you know what you mean?” (Laughs)

You know, you don’t know what you mean either. It’s kind of like, you know, a little bit of a spazz out. This is now talking about getting to the heart of the matter, about who you actually are. Who or what is the self? Who am I?

In the Bhagavad-gita, in the second chapter, the 20th verse, Krishna says that the self is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. The self is not slain when the body is slain. So that’s like, “Oh, well, uhm—“ You know, we actually don’t think about this kind of stuff and particularly the great event of life known as death which we are all going to run into big time causes so much confusion and it’s because we are not trained in our thinking. We have assumed and accepted all kinds of dream ideas that are not factual and lived those ideas. There is, in one of the Upanishads, the Katha Upanishads, there is a really quite incredible—there are 2 verses and they speak to this topic with great clarity. The individual is the passenger in the chariot of the material body. So they are using this example of like a person driving a chariot or, of course, these days it’s somebody driving their car. The individual who is the driver of that vehicle is the living being. The mind is the driving instrument and the senses are like the horses that are pulling this chariot, propelling it through the world, stimulating action and reaction. The self is thus the enjoyer or sufferer of the association of the mind and senses. So it is understood by great thinkers. So this is a really quite interesting and really good example that explains this reality.

You know in the yoga process, and these days yoga has become so widely accepted and practiced, but yoga is for a singular purpose. It’s not a dual purpose. Anything else that you derive, anything—other benefit that you derive is simply a side benefit and unfortunately most people do not go beyond simply the practice of asana and perhaps some pranayam and perhaps a little meditation, whatever that means to the individual. But the actual sole purpose of yoga is to search out who is the perceiver or the seer of things. It’s kind of like, “What’s this guy talking about?” The perceiver or the seer? You know earlier we read this thing about existing in dream states and the reality is most of us exist in a very clouded state of existence. We are accepting certain beliefs as actually truths when they are not. Reality is: “I am not my body or my brain/mind.” These are simply vehicles, a vehicle that I am using.

In the Yoga Sutra, on the 2nd pada or chapter, the 20th verse or sloka it states that the seer or the atma is pure or transcendental even though it perceives this world through the mind. So, I will just talk about this a little and explain what it means.

You know, when we consider how perception takes place, and a good example to use is the eye. I mean your eye—I don’t know if you’ve ever actually seen an eyeball. Mostly people look at each other’s eyes and it’s in someone’s head and they look at it and they go, “Oh, you have such nice eyes.”

“Ay, yeah, you want to check this one out?” (laughs) just rip the eyelids open and give it a bit of a whack on the side of the head, it can pop out. You know, I’ve seen in sports accident, the guy got hit on the side of the head with a cricket ball and the eye actually came out. It was hanging on his cheek by the optic nerve. All of a sudden, the beautiful eyes don’t look so beautiful anymore (laughter). It’s kind of like we just developed these strange ideas; like hair. You know somebody looks at a woman’s hair or a guy’s hair and, “God, you’ve got such beautiful hair.” Yet, you know, if we are in somebody’s house taking a shower and you use their shower and you’ve got water sort of filling up and you go down and you kinda like—the drain’s all clogged and you’ve got to go down and grab that beautiful hair and pull it out. It’s kinda like, (laughter) you know, It’s kinda like about the same as picking up a cockroach or something (laughter) but when it is hanging out of their head it’s like a thing of beauty but that very same thing in the drain plug of the shower or the bath tub is just gross and disgusting.

We’re very confused about things and so seeing, you know, this idea of the eye, the eyeball. What is the eyeball? It is this gelatinous kind of gooey thing that’s filled with fluid and spongy tissue. It has a lens on the outside. You know, most people are thinking, okay the reason I can see, I can actually see, I see with my eyes. I see with my eyes. I am going to say, “Actually, no you don’t.” When light enters that eyeball through the lens it then goes to the back of the eyeball and it hits the back of the eyeball with all these photosensitive cells and these photosensitive cells are stimulated and release an electrical impulse. That electrical impulse travels down the optic nerve and into the cortex of the brain. It is simply an electrical stimulation of the brain. So when you think about it, your eyes are actually not seeing. All they are doing is transmitting light and that light is being converted to an electrical impulse.

So, okay if the eye is not seeing, who is seeing? Is the brain seeing? The answer of course is no. They’ve done all these tests on the brain. There appears to be, for the deeper thinkers amongst the neurological scientists, some perceiver of these things. And whether it is sound coming in or it’s smell or taste or touch or something that you’re seeing, it’s simply firing off all this stuff in the brain. But who’s seeing this picture? I mean, when you look around, I’m seeing a room and there’s walls and doors and windows and there’s people. Who is the one that’s actually seeing? And how are you seeing?

We don’t even think about this stuff; we just, you know, going for it. Like automatically everything’s just like, you know, happening. But this is actually the subject matter and the main and principal purpose for yoga: it is to discover this seer. Who is this seer within? If I believe that this vehicle with all its parts is me then my own search for happiness and for love will be directed towards trying to satisfy the vehicle. So in a sense I feed the vehicle while I, the person within, actually starve. And the example is given in the Vedas: it’s like a golden birdcage and somebody has got this beautiful bird in a birdcage and they’re just totally enamored with the cage. And every day they’re cleaning and polishing it and the bird inside is not being fed.

You know, this is our situation. Because of being caught in this profound illusion that this body that I have on is me, my constant pursuit of happiness is directed towards the demands of my body and my mind. And it’s usually not until I get quite depressed by that pursuit that I begin to think that there is something wrong or that there is something amiss. Why is it that I am not being happy even though I am doing all these things?

So the reality is that this aggressive pursuit of happiness and love, for most people, will end either early on in tremendous disappointment; or if not early on then later in life in a tremendous disappointment. So tremendous it can even become a source for a mental or nervous breakdown or great depression. You know, it’s so unfortunate and sad, the amount of depression that people suffer from in this world.

So—there’s another verse I was going to read from the Yoga Sutra. It’s also from the second pada or chapter and fifteenth sloka. That:

To the discriminating yogi all the fruits of past action, whether they be pleasurable or painful, are considered sorrowful because they all result in further bondage and suffering.

Yoga Sutra 2:15

This is the natural product, this is the natural result of the aggressive pursuit of fulfilment within this world. It just never ends well. Sorry. I’m the bummer guy. (laughter) And I’m sorry I have to share this truth with you. Well I’m not sorry at all. I’m quite happy to do it because what I would like see happen is that you actually find the happiness that you desire, that you find the peace that you desire, that you experience an amazing condition of profound love that you actually desire within your heart of hearts.

So there is this understanding by the accomplished yogis, as a result of both hearing from their spiritual master, reading scripture, and then their personal realization of these truths, where they undergo such a change that the way in which they even look at the world and what they see is completely different than what others see.

So I’ll just conclude with another verse form the Yoga Sutra, also from the second pada, twenty-fifth sloka. That:

When ignorance is destroyed the identification of the self, the atma, with matter, or the material body, it ceases. And this is a condition known as liberation.

Yoga Sutra 2:25

So we began with, you know, the question of who am I, and does it even matter? And the answer is: yeah. It matters a great deal.

If you do not undertake this actual journey, this pursuit of understanding and finding out who you really are it will be impossible, even by accident, you will not find the happiness that you actually seek in your heart of hearts. I mean, you can have all kinds of sensual experience. You can take material elements, molecules, and you can shape them into anything from chocolate to cocaine or whatever, and you can stuff these different, you know, manifestations of material energy into every single orifice of your body and it doesn’t matter how much you pack in there, you will never be touched in your heart of hearts by this experience. You may be stimulated and you may be exhilarated but you will actually not become happy or fulfilled.

So when we—if we have adopted this wrong understanding, that I am the body or I am my mind, and I live out my life in this illusion, I’m sorry, it does not end well. Not only is the journey filled with trouble, you know, there may seem to be some high points. Something new always catches our attention and we get all excited and exhilarated, but it does not end well.

So I will close things out there, but maybe just take a couple of minutes to answer a couple of questions that have come in. One question is: “Why do philosophers and yogis spend so much time thinking about this topic? How does it actually affect my real, everyday life?”

I need to first say that I am like really sorry that we’re working under such time constraint because to do justice to this actually wonderful question would take a great deal of time. But it’s down to this very simple thing: if I want to experience actual happiness, if I want to be able to experience the type and degree of love that I aspire for and hope for then this subject matter and considering it and learning to act upon it is the difference between becoming actually successful in life or your life being – sorry, I’m the bummer guy – your life being a failure.

You know, some time ago I had—my dad was put into a home, you know, where he needed a lot of care. He was always falling over and breaking bones and, you know, being stuck on the floor for four or five hours before anybody found him and this kind of stuff. He got to the point where he could not even, you know, take care of his body, his life. He couldn’t do things for himself. And so he was in this care place for not too long a period of time and he passed on and his death was very, actually very wonderful. We were able to have some very wonderful exchanges before that event.

But going in there and passing by rooms and looking in the rooms as you walk down the hallway and meeting and even trying to talk to some of these people—You know, a person who’s intelligent, you should go and maybe do a little bit of volunteer work. Or if you don’t want to do that, which would be very beneficial for you, at least go and show up and visit and think about, “This is where it all ends. This is where it’s all going.” I may be young and vigorous, or I think I’m young and vigorous because my body is, or healthy now, but hey, this does not last. There is another end to this story.

And then you just sit around and you just try to relive memories. And after a while that piece of equipment, your brain, starts breaking down and so your mind starts malfunctioning, you know? And it’s a very sad situation.

So there is no need to wait until this very last point of life to start becoming a little bit serious about trying to actually find the happiness and the love that we actually deserve, that is our rightful claim. But in order to do that we cannot be in any fantasy and we have to learn to live a very practical and spiritually focused life.

And the foundation of this type of practice is this meditation that we engage in, the use of this transcendental sound and the—either the engagement in kirtan, or the silent meditation, or the quiet chanting of these transcendental sounds are what is most transformative. And it is actually the foundation of a personal spiritual practice.

So I think we’ve just about run out of time, unfortunately. I had a few other questions that people have asked and my apologies for not being able to get to them. But perhaps next week or going forward we can try to do that. Okay? Thank you very much.

So we’ll conclude with some more kirtan, this chanting of these transcendental sounds, and we’ll use a mantra that I’m very fond of. It is also known as the mahamantra.