What is the Atman? How Do We Experience the Self?

As long as we are enmeshed in the ego-life, it is essentially impossible to conceive of the status or existence of the Atman. We relate to the physical world, we relate to other individuals as if we are just this limited human existence and being, we perceive and react to everything from our own egoistic framework. We find it difficult, if not virtually impossible, to conceive of infinite and inter-related existence and universal oneness, even if our most advanced scientists and sages tell us that the entire universe is one and indivisible, with the same energy creating and running through everything. When we conceive of our death, we either believe that there is “nothing” afterwards or we accept the tenets of our religious teachings which either point to a form of rebirth, or entry into some kind of afterlife, of a heaven (or possibly a purgatory or hell) within which we will be reunited with our family and loved ones in the form that we experience ourselves and them in our current lifetime. Of course, none of this makes any sense if we take a wider view of things. When we age and die, worn and shriveled, or diseased and demented, we expect that after death we will be our young, healthy and vibrant selves of memory and join up with everyone in their best days and forms. After all, who would want to be rewarded with eternal life in heaven with friends and family if everyone was in the form they were at the time of their death?

In order to understand the Atman, we need to have an experience that takes us out of this ego-bound individuality and when such an experience comes to us, it suddenly becomes crystal clear that none of these ego-driven fantastic ideas can possibly be the end-result of the enormous and yet extremely detailed universal creation.

Lifted out of the limitations of the body-life-mind complex, we partake of a wider life. While we do not experience this wider life, we can yet use our power of visualisation to gain at least some approximate concept of what is involved. We can visualise ourselves in the vast silent realms of outer space, with no sounds that we can perceive, and vast empty stretches within which universes, galaxies, stars, planets, black holes make up a tiny fragment of the immensity. Nothing is moving in this wide space and we feel like we have spread out with a deep, unshakable peace. This space is a representation of the container within which the universal creation forms and carries out its activity. It is not disturbed by the activity but holds it without comment or response, observing, at peace and still.

We can move our standpoint from one object to another without losing the sense of unity with everything else that is created, standing apart, even while viewing from an individual perspective, experiencing the individual as a portion of that larger existence.

We can visualize each cell in our bodies as having its own level of awareness and existence, separately living, yet part of a larger unity that we call ourselves. The cells cannot exist without the larger being, the larger being does not manifest without the cells. The energy that enlivens both is the same energy, which itself comes from another aspect of the universal creation.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The self is felt either as universal, one in all, or as universalised individual the same in essence as others, extended everywhere from each being but centred here. Of course centre is a way of speaking, because no physical centre is usually felt — only all the actions take place around the individual.”

“Everything acts in the self. The whole play of Nature takes place in the self, in the Divine. The self contains the universe.”

“The Self or Atman is inactive; Nature (Prakriti) or Shakti acts. When the Self is felt it is first an infinite existence, silence, freedom, peace that is felt — that is called Atman or Self. What action takes place in it is according to the realisation either felt as forces of Nature working in that wideness, as the Divine Shakti working or as the cosmic Divine or various powers of them working. It is not felt that the Self is acting.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 7, Experiences and Realisations, The Consciousness of the Self, pp. 181-184

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