By Govinda Kai
One of the most important terms yoga students should familiarize themselves with is the idea of the Atman.
The Atman is the word to describe the individual "soul". It is that part of each one of us that is our essence, the pure energy within us that is completely transcendent, undying and beyond all limitations of time and space. Our physical, mental and emotional bodies are merely "koshas" or temporary coverings to this most essential aspect to our being.
Becoming clearly aware of the profound distinction between that part of ourselves that is transcendent and that part of us which is merely transitory is an essential component of traditional spiritual practice.
To know the Atman directly in our personal experience is the main goal of yoga practice.
All the diverse methods of yoga practice are all designed to lessen and eventually completely dissolve the obstacles between the practitioner and his or her ability to directly experience the Atman.
Most people have very little, if any at all, direct experience of the Atman. This is because the condition of their minds is relatively "impure". This means that most people's minds are composed mostly of conditioned or habitual patterns of thought and emotion. These conditioned patterns interfere with our capacity to see and perceive ourselves in a clear manner.
Traditional yoga practices, as well as, many other spiritual practices are all designed to unravel and dissolve these habitual patterns, so that the adept can begin to perceive themselves and their reality as it really is and not as they project it to be.
It is not until these habitual patterns are mostly dissolved can the individual practitioner can begin to have any chance to directly experience their own pure essence or Atman.
What happens with most people is that they are entangled in their own minds and senses to the degree that they misidentify themselves with their "koshas" or temporary coverings. In other words, they identify themselves mostly with their bodies, their thoughts and their emotions. This happens to such a degree in many people that they actually think that they are fully identified with their physical possessions. That is why many people feel such distress and anxiety when some object that they own is either lost or damaged.
What happens when you put most of your focus on those aspects of your self and your reality that are superficial and transitory is that you begin to lose your capacity to directly experience those parts of your self that are more subtle and deep. If you identify yourself with the part of your self and your life that you come to know through your mind and senses, you essentially distract yourself from those parts of yourself that are only available through the more subtle faculties of your intuition and awareness.
Another significant distinction that is important for serious practitioners to understand fully is the difference between perceiving through the mind and senses and perceiving through the subtler and more pure levels of awareness. It may seem in the beginning that there is no difference, but in fact, the difference is supremely impactful.
It is through concentrated and sustained practice that a yoga student can begin to know the difference between these two avenues of perception. The development of these subtler and more pure faculties of one's awareness is what is instrumental in dissolving the entanglement in one's own mind and conditioned patterns of thought and emotion.
As layer after layer of the conditioned patterns of the mind begin to unravel, one's capacity to directly experience the Atman become more and more enhanced. Basically, the energy that was formally utilized in the perpetuation of the mind, the ego and the stimulation of the senses becomes more and more directly utilized towards the ability to see and experience the more subtle aspects of the self.
It must be understood that an over-identification between one's self and one’s own mind and ego and other superficial aspects of the self (body and external objects), not only prevents one from directly experiencing the Atman, but produces an enormous amount of mental and emotional suffering. As you become more and more free from this kind of entanglement in your own mind and ego, there is a tremendous sense of freedom and relief.
It is surprising and shocking in many ways to begin to feel a part of your self that you had previously been inhibited from having any direct experience of. An entirely new way of seeing and experiencing your self and the world begins to become available.
The way that one sees and perceives the world has tremendous power. As your perception shifts, it is almost as if the very fabric of what the world is made of begins to change. The limits that one automatically assumed was a basic part of the world suddenly will begin to disappear. Where there once was scarcity, conflict and fear, there will appear abundance, harmony and love.
This, essentially, is the power of directly experiencing what is known as the Atman.
The more direct experience you have of the Atman, the more you become freed from the delusions and misconceptions of the mind and ego that afflict most everyone in the world today. As such, you literally begin to walk in a different world than most of the other people on the planet today.
All the suffering in the world today, all the social ills and all the great pain that is being perpetuated in the world today can be directly tied to the power of the ignorance that is produced from the mind and the ego of man.
It is only by knowing the Atman directly can we begin to resolve the deep entanglement that we all have with our own minds and egos.
The kind of spiritual ignorance that is the result of the mind and ego should never be underestimated. In many ways, you could say that this kind of delusion and ignorance has been with us since the beginning of time.
As such, it is no small task to overcome these mental afflictions and to eventually to know the Atman directly.
That is why yoga in its truest sense is a fully comprehensive practice. It not only requires the engagement of all your faculties (physical, mental, emotional, intellectual and psychic), but it also requires very concentrated and sustained effort over a very long time.
Especially in the beginning of one's practice, this kind of dedication and discipline can be very challenging. When one has only known the reality produced by the mind and ego for most of one's life, there really appears to be no other reality, no other way of seeing and moving in the world. Thus, there oftentimes is very little available motivation for taking on such a momentous task.
This is precisely why there is such enormous emphasis placed on the importance and the role of having strong and experienced teachers and guides in the yoga tradition (and in other major spiritual paths as well). It is through the power and the wisdom of a strong teacher that we can get the necessary support, inspiration and faith to undertake the arduous journey to overcome our habitual tendencies. Otherwise, it is far too easy to fall prey to the distractions and seductions of our own minds and egos.
The more direct experiences you begin to have of the Atman, no matter how small and infrequent, the easier the journey towards the Atman will become. Any kind of direct experience with the Atman has incredible power because these experiences will permanently alter one's perception and experience of one's self and one's reality.
The Atman is the same as what is called Brahman. Brahman is the name for that which is the ultimate reality, that which is complete transcendent, all pervasive and beyond all time and space. It is also described as pure consciousness, that which is the source of all things. The only difference between the Atman and Brahman is that while Brahman is the ultimate reality both inside and outside of us, Atman is the ultimate reality that exists within us. Thus, the more one experiences Atman, the more one experiences Brahman. The more one experiences Brahman, the more one actually becomes Brahman.
That is, the more one begins to take on the qualities of Brahman.
The first thing one will begin to notice is an increasing freedom from any kind of mental and emotional stress. A deep inner peace will begin to pervade your mind, heart and soul at all times and with no regard to what is happening in your external environment. Following that, you will begin to notice that any and all anxiety and fear will begin to disappear from your life. Your will become more and more motivated in your actions from a place of pure love and compassion.
You will begin to notice that a deep and profound kind of joy and bliss will begin to permeate the very depths of your heart and soul. You will begin to notice that there is a sense of great unity and commonality with all people and all things. You will see and experience yourself not as a separate entity but as a part of a greater whole. This sense of deep connectedness will extend to all areas of your self and your life. It is an exhilarating feeling to say the least.
You will begin to notice an increasing capacity to tap into your deeper intuitive and instinctual abilities. That is, you will be able to be sensitive to energies and aspects of life that most people are blind to. This is the beginning of the cultivation of real wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to directly experience and to know things that you do not seem to have any direct physical connection to. The reason why this kind of wisdom becomes available to you is that you are increasingly not limited by the mind and by the kinds of limitations that apply to most ordinary people.
More than anything, what is most dramatic about directly experiencing the Atman, is that the spiritual power and light of the Atman will begin to shine through your very being. We all know or have met someone in our lives who seems to have a greater and more pronounced kind of "radiance" than most other people. These people just seem to "shine" or give off some kind of special energy. Their very presence has the power to change the very environment in which they inhabit. Their very presence has the power to uplift and to even heal the hearts and spirits of others. This is a strong indication of the kind of person who has had more direct contact with the Atman.
We are all supremely blessed with the practice of yoga. Through the teachings, through the very special beings that have embodied the teachings of yoga, we have the chance to find true liberation from the chains of the dysfunctional mind/ego. We can come to know that part of ourselves that has the power to transform each one of us deeply. As we transform ourselves we also naturally transform the very world that we live in. We can, if we so choose, certainly come into direct contact with that which is known as the Atman.
I wish you all grace and faith and strength in your journey,