Each of us goes through life with two main selves. Most people remain aware of only one of them directly, which is the first one:
- Ego – also known as the self (small “s”), “natural man,” false self, small self, psychological self, all one’s experiences, memories, identity, relationships, skills, possessions, knowledge, perceptions, ideas, concepts, frustrations, sins, weaknesses, strengths, accomplishments, good deeds, etc. The darker aspects are also known as shadow self, darkness, Satan, Lucifer, the devil, Māra, enemy, adversary, son of perdition, father of lies, delusion, error, pride, vanity, selfishness, egotism, tempter, desire, aversion, imperfection, illusion, mortal, temporary, lost, fear, etc.
- True Self – also known as the Self (capital “S”), the real Self, the Perfect Man/Woman, the Spirit, the Soul, God the Father, God the Mother, God, Christ, Buddha, Nirvana, Atman/Brahman, Krishna, Vishnu, Spirit of God, the One, Perfection, Completion, Wholeness, Unity, At-one-ment, Heaven, Universe, Cosmos, Eternal Law, Holiness, Pureness, Light, Truth, Goodness, Beauty, Peace, Rest, Reality, true Identity, Eternal, the First and Last, Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, Immortal, Love, Lord, I AM, YHWH, Yahweh, Elohim, Jehovah, Most High, Adonai, Messiah, Savior, Allah, Creator, Wisdom (Sophia), Supreme Being, etc.
These are two different selves that are within each and all of us. We are all aware of the first self. This is who we think we are throughout the majority of our lives. It is our mental projection in our consciousness of the being that we think we are in the world. This includes our name, all the things that we have learned and “know,” the memories of our experiences since we were young, and even includes our physical body. This body is “ours.” We identity our “self” with all of these things. All of these things come together into an identity that we recognize as “me” in our consciousness. We recognize this “self” in the mirror, the body that we identify as the container of “ourselves.” We see our reflection, and we say, “There I am!”
Is this is a necessary self to develop in life? Perhaps. Many say that this ego, this self perception, this recognition of our localized self, is part of what makes humanity so advanced compared to other life on the planet. It may be our ability to distinguish between our self and others that is one of the foundations upon which we can establish greater buildings, form greater complexity, build better tools, think in more advanced ways, reason and imagine, etc.
But where it may make us more advanced compared with other life on Earth, it also comes with many downsides. We often find this self desiring things and not able to get them, which causes us suffering. We hunger and yearn to have things, and this causes a palpable ache inside us. We feel we want things, need to get things, desire to buy things, have to have things in our possession. We even feel we need intangible things like happiness, joy, love, prosperity, and so we go looking for these things. We want to build up the self, become greater, more well-known, richer, happier.
We also often find this self disliking things, and not being able to avoid them, which causes suffering. We run into difficulties or trials that we can’t escape. We want to get rid of things, eradicate unwanted things, avoid people we don’t like, escape weather that is unpleasant, run away from problems, silence viewpoints we don’t agree with. We want the pain to stop. We want darkness to flee, and to be free of all troubles. We need to shield this self, and protect it from injuries, physical and emotional. We often are ashamed about the past, and worry about the future.
There are good reasons to have some desires and to avoid pains, but often I think we take these too far, and they can cause us tremendous suffering in life. When we can’t get what we want, we suffer. When we can’t avoid what we dislike, we suffer. This can often inflict deep wounds in this self, which then causes us to feel broken and in need of healing. This is yet another need, and these continue to compound one on top of another throughout our lives.
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All the perceptions of this self are formed in our consciousness. That is where perception happens. When we have a thought or idea or perception or anything “come to mind,” it is because it is appearing in consciousness. Our minds are taking all the things we have experienced thus far in life and shaping our perceptions and ideas that then appear in consciousness. These ideas often come in the form of words or language, or at times as images or visuals. They are all objects of consciousness. When we perceive an object in consciousness, we often immediately own it as from our self. It is ours. We came up with it. It is our ideas, our perceptions, our words. Those thoughts in my mind are “mine.” This is what accumulates and defines what we perceive as the ego or self. This self may be considered to be the greatest object of consciousness, which we view as the subject, our subjective self. It is the culmination of all of our thoughts and perceptions in consciousness.
But is this self what we really are?
Are all the thoughts, perceptions, images, ideas, visuals, knowledge, names, labels, categories, etc. who and what we really are? Or are we something more than this?
Consider this: before a single thought arises in your consciousness, what are you?
Are you your name? No, that would be a label in consciousness. Are you your body? No, that would be a perception or a sensation in consciousness. Are you any of the things that arise as objects in consciousness? Any of them? If you consider this carefully and thoroughly, you may come to find that you are none of those objects in consciousness. They are like images that are painted on a canvas. Anything could be painted on that canvas. You could have received any name at birth. The circumstances in your childhood could have been very different than they were, resulting in a very different body today. The images that are painted on the canvas of consciousness are flexible, they change, they mutate, they adapt. You grow old. You change your name. Your knowledge and understanding shift and grow throughout life. You are not the same person today as you were twenty years ago, often significantly so. Even physically, the atoms and cells that make up your body have been replaced by new atoms and cells, perhaps many times over. If these objects that arise in consciousness are only objects in consciousness, and often change throughout our lives, can we say that they are what we fundamentally are? What are you before any thought arises?
What is a constant, it seems, is consciousness itself. It is awareness. It is the canvas upon which experience is painted, upon which all objects arise, whatever they may be. You are the consciousness that becomes aware, that is the light that flickers on in the morning when you wake up, and fades away at night when you go to sleep. It is this ever present being that is conscious awareness. You know you exist because you are aware. There is something that is “on” in your mind that allows you to perceive anything in the first place. It is what makes you alive. It is knowing before any object is known. This consciousness, this awareness, is exactly the same among all sentient life. There is no difference between the conscious awareness in my mind and the conscious awareness in your mind. The differences come when objects begin to arise in that awareness.
What happens when we sleep, when there isn’t conscious awareness? We are still something. What is it? When we are dreaming, you could still say that we are the consciousness upon which the dream is painted, the awareness in which things happen. When we are not dreaming, what then? What are you when the lights aren’t on, when there is no conscious awareness of anything?
If we dig down deep to that which is fundamental to us, I perceive that we find that we are still life. We are a living organism. We are the elements of the universe that have come together to form a collection of elements in which consciousness arises every day. But what are those elements? Einstein discovered that there is a correspondence between mass and energy. We can convert between the two. Energy is released from matter in a nuclear bomb. Matter is released from energy in the Large Hadron Collider. Matter and energy are just two different forms of the same thing, two manifestations of the same one thing. The elements that make up our body are also made of matter. They too could be converted into energy. In fact, a great amount of energy once went supernova in the cores of stars billions of years ago which formed many of the elements that now make up our bodies. Some day, those elements that now make up our bodies may be converted back into energy, such as in cremation or in the natural decomposition of our bodies back into the soil of the Earth. We too are this one substance, this one thing that manifests in the universe as energy or matter.
What makes our consciousness arise in our minds, in this collection of neurons in our brains? That is a question that has stumped many people for centuries. We don’t know exactly what makes something conscious. But I think it is safe to say that it requires energy. If there is no energy in our brains, then there is no consciousness. The food we eat is digested down into basic parts, and again, converted into the energy that our bodies need to function. A lot of that energy goes to our heads where it gets used in the trillions of neurons, action potentials, electrical impulses, synaptic transfers, chemical interactions, etc., that makes up the activity in our brains, and which somehow turns the lights “on” in our awareness. So not only are our bodies made up of energy that has been “crystalized” into matter, our bodies run on energy, often taken from matter. All this energy has come together to allow conscious awareness to happen. When we die, there is no more energy in our brains. All this activity stops. And the lights turn “off” in awareness. The energy that is contained in the matter of our bodies returns into the Earth, and is converted into other forms of matter and energy.
Now consider, when the lights turn on in consciousness, what do we become aware of in the world? We see sights, hear sounds, feel sensations, taste flavors, smell odors, etc. We are interacting with the matter/energy that surrounds us, that reaches our bodies, that enters into our bodies, that our bodies sense when we come in contact with it. Our consciousness that is generated by matter and energy is becoming aware of other matter and energy. We might say that matter/energy is becoming aware of and interacting with matter/energy. It is an elaborate dance of matter/energy, the matter/energy of the universe which is interacting, conversing, converting, exchanging, interconnecting, moving, forming patterns, breaking apart, flowing from one thing to another, becoming and ending, shaping and eroding, signaling and dispersing, in an endless dance of matter/energy. This goes on endlessly in nature.
The miracle of it is that nature knows that this is going on, somehow. Nature has become aware of itself. That Nature is you. It is I. It is all sentient creatures. It is Life itself that is aware of anything, even plant life that responds to its environment. This awareness seems to be universal in Life. Life is matter/energy that knows of other matter/energy. It is a collection of matter/energy that is formed in such a way as to be able to sense other matter/energy in the universe, and respond to it—to dance. We are part of that whole process, the matter/energy, the response, the dance. We are the matter/energy in the Great Dance that is this Universe. We are the Universe that has come to dance, to know, to perceive, to act, to create.
What is perhaps most remarkable is that we can become aware of this directly, in our consciousness. When the ego or psychological self fades away in consciousness, through practices that alter consciousness such as meditation, contemplation, and prayer, then the boundaries that we once thought of as our “self” also fade away. Our perception of our “self” as extending only to the boundary of our skin goes away, and we become Unbounded. Our finite self becomes Infinite. Our perception extends to all that is, all things that are. There are no more boundaries, no more limits. We sense our Oneness with all things that are, with the whole of the Universe itself. In a way, we are perceiving as the Universe perceives. We have the mind of God. There is no localized “self” anymore. We see with the eye of God, with all things being a part of who and what we are, all that matter/energy. We perceive our true Self, which is One with all other humans, all other beings, all other life, all other creation, all existence, all matter/energy, the entire Universe. We see what we really are, not the simple and small manifestation of matter/energy in a particular body at a particular time and place and small identity as a person living a short life of a few decades. We see that we are the All. We are that One that manifests in infinite ways throughout Creation, since the beginning, and extending to the end. We are that which endures, which is immortal, which sees all in all, things as they really are.
This is the second Self that many do not become aware of in life. When we can see past the blinders of our limited egos, our small localized bodies, our little stores of “knowledge” and perceptions in the world, then we can realize the larger truth of things. We can come to know our depths and heights, the more basic and enduring and eternal nature of our Being. The majesty and glory of each and all is truly a wondrous reality, because at bottom we are not separate. We are all part of this one thing called the Universe. The Love and Light and Truth that exist underneath all perception and duality cannot be communicated in words.
To be known, Self must be realized by each one, in consciousness, in that awareness that is both knower and known.