The Self and the self
One of the hardest aspects to grapple with within yoga philosophy and spirituality in general is the idea of the Authentic Self and the false self. Because “false” sounds inherently negative, I prefer “Self” and “self.”
What we’re getting at here is elusive and important. Our “self” is all the ways we describe ourselves and all the things we do. I am a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a friend, a teacher, and so on. These are good, life-giving roles that I play in life. Yet, while they contribute to who I am, they are not who I am. Franciscan priest, Father Richard Rohr says,
“We are not NOT our ‘self.’ We are not ONLY our ‘self’.”
Our “Self” is something much deeper. It is that which we always are and have always been. A Zen master would say our “Self” is the “face we had before we were born.” Rohr says, our “Self” is who we are before we’ve done anything right or wrong. You can’t earn it or lose it. Your “Self” is the essence of you.
A real-life glimpse
Let me share a real-life story. Several semesters ago, I had a student in my university class who was a charming, likeable, curious, and open guy. He would often arrive early to class and we would have easy, enjoyable, wide-ranging conversations. He taught me a great deal about his sport. He asked deep, thoughtful questions about meditation, breathing exercises and yoga.
This same student was super frustrating for me as a teacher. His work was slapdash and often thoughtless. It was evident that he was not doing the reading. He didn’t do several assignments and was often absent. Were it not for the relationship we forged in our conversations outside of class, it would have been easy to assume he was not interested in yoga philosophy at all.
The Self is who we are and the self is what we do
In thinking about how to illustrate “self” and “Self,” this student always comes to mind, because I was actually in relationship with both his “self” and his “Self.” The person I so enjoyed speaking with before class is his “Self.” His charm, his openness, his curiosity, his easy smile – these are all glimpses of the essence of who he is.
His lackadaisical work habits, his disinterest in the mechanics of academia, his frequent absences – these are all things he did (or, in his case, did not do), not who he was. And all of this doing and not doing pertained to one role of many that he was playing in life at the moment – a student.
I suspect, because of the glimpses he gave me of his “Self,” that he is an excellent son, brother, and friend. I can imagine him using the gifts he was born with (“the face he had before he was born”) to be an excellent public speaker, an engaging interviewer or journalist, a compassionate listener, or even a compelling teacher – more “selves.”
We all have many selves and one Self
While he was a poor student (for me), nothing in me thinks of him as a substandard person. In fact, I remember him fondly as someone I benefitted from knowing. And he is no different than any of us. We all excel in some areas and struggle in others. We are passionate about some things while being completely indifferent to others. We are all held in high regard by some and considered screw-ups by others.
We all have many “selves” and only one “Self.” Each of our “selves” is a window through which the light of our “Self” can shine. When we’re in the wrong role (acting as a “self” that doesn’t fit very well), the glimmer of our “Self” can be so dim as to seem non-existent. But it is still there. It might be submerged beneath the ripples or waves made by our “self” flailing around in the world, but it is always who we are.
Realizing that we are more than our selves is one way to a fruitful life
One way to find a contented, fruitful path in life is to pay attention to when the light of your “Self” shines into the world most brightly. To do this, most of us must try on quite a few “selves.” Some will feel comfortable. Some will pinch and squeeze. Some will fit for a time and then we’ll outgrow them.
This is valuable and necessary work in our development into healthy, whole human beings. Not only do you and I have and need to have a “false self,” we have many of them. Unless we’re paying attention (which most of us are not), it’s easy to assume that these things are who we are.
Contemplation (yoga, meditation, prayer) brings about this realization
If we’re lucky enough to be paying attention, these “selves” provide glimpses of who we are and always have been. Contemplative practices such as yoga, meditation, and many kinds of prayer are tools to help us understand that we are, to borrow Rohr’s words, not NOT the things that make up our “self.” We’re just not ONLY these things – we are so very much more.
Once we understand this, life, its ups and its downs, becomes a much richer and more fulfilling experience.
If you enjoyed reading and thinking about this most important aspect yoga philosophy, check out my self-paced Yoga Philosophy Master Class or replay my Zoom class Demystifying the Yoga Sutras course. And stay tuned for more course to come this spring!