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Jivamukti Focus of the Month, August 2014: Identity, by Sharon Gannon

tat twam asi That Thou Art, or You Are That -Chandogya Upanishad

To see yourself in others, in all others, to see so deeply that otherness disappears…when that happens only One remains and that is Love. You are that. In the words of the Chandogya Upanishad: tat twam asi. This is what it means to be enlightened. An enlightened being is one. One what? One who has dropped the pretense of self, one who does not see themselves as separate from other selves. One who has lost themselves in Love, lost themselves in Oneness. My goodness, how to get there?

A person is either actively seeking knowledge of the “lowercase” self—jivajñana—or knowledge of the “uppercase” Self—atmanjñana. The Sanskrit term jiva refers to the individual self, atman refers to the eternal, cosmic Self, and jñana means knowledge. To seek atmanjñana is to seek enlightened Self-realization—dropping all egoic tendencies. We awaken to who we really are beyond our individual body, mind and personality. We let go of the sense of I, me and mine.

But before we can awaken and know the Self, we must have knowledge of the self—jivajñana. Everything in our lives revolves around identity. We spend the first part of our lives trying to find an identity and the rest of our lives doing our best to defend that identity. We are attracted to certain things, people, situations, music, books, food, clothing, lifestyles, etc., because these fit in with how we would like to see ourselves and how we would like others to see us. How can we avoid becoming trapped in the prison of our identity, disconnected from the mercurial essence that feeds and connects us all as one complex cosmic entity?

Yoga teaches that to realize the eternal Self, we must first come to terms with our seemingly individual self, and that means becoming comfortable in our own skin, with who we are as a person, with our relationships with others and the experiences of our life. No one can escape their destiny. A person must acknowledge the karmic seeds they have planted in the past and when they come to fruition do their best to work through the ripening process. The Bhagavad Gita, an ancient yogic scripture, is a story of the necessity of doing one’s duty, as well as a manual on how to reshape one’s destiny by planting the right kinds of seeds that could help one evolve and eventually be liberated from the wheel of samsara and the illusion of the ego. In the Gita, Krishna instructs Arjuna to do his work but at the same time to think of God; in that way one’s karmas become purified, as selfish motivation is overwhelmed by selfless action. Misidentification (avidya) is cleansed from our souls, and the atman is revealed. The yoga teachings are quite clear about the importance of bringing past actions to completion before we can renounce the world and become Self-realized. To resolve an action is to bring it back to its original nature, and love is the original nature of all things.

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali suggests that we offer ourselves to God and our success will be assured: Ishvara pranidhanad va (PYS 1.23). We ask to be made an instrument for God’s will as we relinquish our “own” will. Becoming a Divine instrument is to identify with the atman. A jivanmukta—a soul who has awakened to the atman while still living in a body—lives in the world and might appear like a normal person—a separate individual—but in fact they live liberated from that separateness because they don’t identify with it, but rather with the atman. The key to shifting this identification is to strive to become more other-centered, to awaken compassion, which will bring the clarity needed to see through otherness.

If we live to enhance the lives of others, by doing our best to contribute to their happiness and freedom, then eventually but inevitably there will be a shift in our perception of ourselves and others. We will begin to see in a more expansive light and perhaps get a glimpse of who we really are—tat twam asi—and that is when the magic begins. Or as Bob Dylan might advise, “So when you see your neighbor carryin’ somethin’, help him with his load, and don’t go mistaking paradise for that home across the road.”

— Sharon Gannon

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