What is this ‘I’ with which we so identify and which we spend our entire life-time feeding, pampering, protecting and re-producing? What is this ‘I’ that we fear for after death? Will the ‘I’ be extinguished or will something survive?
For thousands of years, yogis, sages and seers, as well as the yogic texts, have clearly stated that there is just one ‘I’ – behind every action, every thought, every feeling in our lives. This is the Conscious Presence in each moment. This ‘I’ expresses itself at different levels of ego-identification, which we will describe in the following paragraphs. Though they define our moment to moment experience, these ego states are ultimately unreal. We can call these ego-levels of I, the ‘me’.
All of us know the personal ‘I’ of daily life. In yoga, this level is called the ahamkara – literally, ‘I do’ – our sense of ‘I’ comes from our identification with the body/mind and the role or roles we play in life. We have a sense of I-ness and individuality – me-ness – which we fulfil and express by doing and achieving. If we don’t achieve certain things according to our desires or ambitions, our sense of self-image suffers and we feel like a failure. If we fulfil our ambitions and desires, we feel we are a success; temporarily we have a positive self-image and the ego-I or ‘me’ feels good.
This level of ‘me’ also includes thinking. Many people, especially intellectuals, get a sense of worth and a feeling of fulfilment by thinking and conceptualising. Here the ‘doing’ is in the mind. This level is indicated by the dictum of the French philosopher, René Descartes, when he stated ‘I think, therefore I am.’ The individual identifies himself, or herself, as a thinker. Our sense of self-existence comes out of the fact that we think. But despite the proposition of Descartes, this level of identification, which is the unquestioned stance of modern western belief, is not the fundamental ‘I’ at the core of our Being.
On a slightly deeper level comes the sense of ‘I’ which in yoga is called ahambhava – literally ‘I am.’ This level of ‘I am’ is not meant in a fundamental or mystical sense, but rather the sense of ‘I am so and so: John Smith or Brigitte Dupont.’ This feeling of ‘I’ depends more on a self-identification with who we are as a personality, rather than what we do. This ego state can also be called ‘me’.
The next level of self-identification is called asmita which refers to the sense of ‘I’ on a more existential level. It can be summarised by reversing Descartes’ statement ‘I think, therefore I am’ to ‘I Am, therefore I think’ or better, ‘I am, therefore I am enabled to think’. According to yoga and Hindu philosophy in general, Being is considered to be fundamental and thinking, secondary. This indicates that out of our Being comes the possibility to think as well as to feel, intuit and perceive.
We can get a taste of asmita, the Being aspect of the ‘I’, during meditation, although there is still a sense of identification, albeit perhaps tenuous, with the ego-personality.
On a more fundamental level comes the sense of ‘I’ as Consciousness (atma), which can be realised when the mental processes stop, or dissolve, albeit temporarily. At this point there is a re-identification or re-cognition of what we are as Conscious Presence. Ultimately, this is the only ‘I’. All the other levels of ‘I’, no matter how real they may seem in our daily experience, are illusory and conditioned projections of the mind. At the level of Consciousness, we are able to say ‘I Am’ or to use the Biblical statement, ‘I Am That I Am.’ This is not an egotistical statement, but a realisation that transcends our sense of individuality. At this level of identity we know that we are not really separate from other beings and things. This realisation arises in a super-meditative state known in yoga as samadhi (literally, ‘absorption into Reality’); it engenders compassion for all other humans and all creatures.
Yoga or any spiritual path will take us on a journey through the different levels of ‘me’ to arrive at realisation of our fundamental identity as ‘I’. Then we discover (or rediscover) the truth of our existence.
Note: The Sanskrit language is traditionally used to describe yogic terminology. In the above text, these are shown in italics.