The Science of Knowing Who You Are
Atma refers to the body, the mind as well as the soul. Atma can also refer to the Supreme Soul, or Paramatma. Paramatma is an expansion of Krishna that lives in the hearts of all living entities, giving knowledge, memory and forgetfulness to the individual soul as they desire and deserve, according to their karma.
I remember being 15 years old, lying on the rocks in a forest at night and staring at the stars, wondering. “Who am I? Where have I come from? Have I always existed or did I start existing at some point? What is this ‘I’, a combination of my body and mind, or something more? Am I a spiritual being or is it just my imagination? What does spiritual mean?”
Let me share with you a little bit of what I have discovered about my self on my journey on the Krishna path.
Where Are You?
Suppose you ask someone to point at their arm. And next to point their finger at their foot, legs, stomach, back, shoulders, and head. Then ask the same person to point at themselves. Most likely they’ll point at some part of their body. You can say, “But you just pointed there and said it was your chest, or your head, or your stomach. Where are you?”
When a person dies, in some funeral traditions the friends and family of the deceased gather around the dead body or the coffin, and grieve. “My husband has gone”, or “My grandmother has left us”. But the husband is laying right there! All the molecules, blood, bones, nerves, brains and organs that make up your grandmother are still there in front of you. What do you mean “she is gone?” If her body is still in front of you but now you see that the body was not her, the question remains: Who was she all along?
It is quite obvious – we are separate from our bodies. In fact it is so obvious that we often fail to become consciously aware of it, although we say it many times a day. When we hurt our foot, we say “I hurt my foot” as if the foot is something we have, not something we are. Yet we think we are the body all the while referring to it as “my body”. Not “I body”. There is a definite difference between “I” and “my body”.
How is it possible to forget one’s own identity?
The Vedas give the following answer in Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.84.24-25:
“A sleeping person imagines an alternative reality for himself and, seeing himself as having various names and forms, forgets his waking identity, which is distinct from the dream. Similarly, the senses of one whose consciousness is bewildered by illusion perceive only the names and forms of material objects. Thus such a person loses his memory and cannot know You.”
Here in the material world where we have been traveling through millions of lifetimes and getting buried by millions of impressions and conditionings, it is no wonder if we lose touch with our true identity as a spiritual being. Krishna consciousness, or our higher consciousness and awareness of our true self, becomes covered by material conceptions and qualities. As a result we are like a dreaming person, asleep to the spiritual reality of the existence, thinking the dream is all there is. Though as soon as one wakes from the dream, they will know it was only a dream. This is what self-realization aims at – to re-awaken the dormant spiritual consciousness within us.
What is spiritual and how can we perceive spirit?
The Vedas describe that “the building blocks” of spirit are sat-chit-ananda: eternity, knowledge and bliss. This is how the Supreme Soul’s, or God’s body is like. He has a spiritual form of sat-chit-ananda, and we individual souls, tiny parts of the Supreme, do too. Because our consciousness or soul is currently locked in a material body and mind, we cannot fully understand what spirit is, simply because it is out of the reach of the material senses, that perceive only three dimensions anyway. That is why in the Eastern traditions learning form the pure spiritual master is always emphasized – spiritual knowledge and realization can descend to you, but you cannot “gatecrash” your way into it.
“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.”
Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Chapter 2, text 13