by Sharon Gannon |
August, 2014
Identity: the Jivamukti FOTM
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.”

Teaching Tips

Summarize: You could summarize the message of this FOM by pointing out that the two important practices that the essay suggests in order to bring about a shift in identity away from the small self to the enlightened Self are:

  1. The remembrance of God; and
  2. Kindness towards others.

Q: How to remember God?
A: Here are a few suggestions:

  • Chant God’s Name.
  • Practice with an elevated intention—to realize God.
  • Pray before you take action—any action.
  • Offer your actions to God—let go and let God. Say “Not my will but Thy will be done.”
  • Meditate.
  • When you receive a compliment, defer to God.
  • Practice svadhyaya, which means the study of the Self (with a capital “S”) through:
    • Satsang—set aside time everyday or every week or whenever you can to be in the company of others who are interested in enlightenment and commit to limiting your conversations/discussions to only elevated subjects.
    • Read spiritually uplifting books that speak of Divine subjects, for example: Upanishads, Srimad Bhagavatam, Bhagavad Gita, Bible, Koran, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, I Am That, The Inner Goddess, The Ashta Chap Poets, etc., or biographies of saints, for example: The Journey Home, Autobiography of a Yogi, Death is the Last thing to Die, etc. Don’t read mundane books or magazines or watch TV or films with a violent/mundane theme.

If you feel psychologically disturbed and feel the need to seek counsel with a therapist—do it with the intention of ultimately uplifting yourself to become an instrument for God, rather than to continue to mire yourself in the old game of seeing yourself as a victim and blaming and complaining about others.

Q: How to be kind?
A: Extending kindness to include other animals and the Earth, not just human beings. Eat a vegan diet. Be more eco-logically orientated. Don’t waste water or paper. Go out of your way to make others more comfortable. Listen to them. Speak well of others. Don’t engage in gossip. Take care of others—feed them, be concerned for their happiness and wellbeing. Put the happiness of others first. Feed the wild birds. If you live with a cat or a dog, feed them good nutritious food—cook for them. Do things for others anonymously (so as not to inflate your ego). When you care for others your own obsession with yourself begins to diminish.

Scripture Study: You could further elaborate on Tat Twam Asi by adding another great Vedantic teaching: neti neti. So the teaching would be: I am that, not this, not this. Then you could go into some examples of thises and thats. You could also read directly from the Chandogya Upandishad, chapter 6, which is where the statement tat twam asi is found. It is given as a teaching from the sage Uddalaka to Shvetaketu, his son, in answer to the question, Who is the Self? It forms the refrain, “you are that.” I especially like the translation by Eknath Easwaran as it is quite beautiful, flowing and easy to read.

Focus on Vinyasa: The yoga practice of vinyasa recognizes that in order to bring a heightened level of consciousness into your life you must be able to be fully present and embrace each moment as it is and then let it go without regret, holding on or apologizing; in this way you free yourself to be present for the next moment. Through mastery of vinyasa you are able to break the habit of doing things unconsciously, which often results in regret and guilt. You can practice with an elevated intention in order to contribute in some way to the happiness and freedom of others.

Focus on a particular chakra and its corresponding karmic relationship. For example while practicing backward bending asanas focus on forgiving others who have hurt you. This can result in a breakthrough where there is a realization of the illusory nature of otherness. You see that no other person can hurt you, because all the seemingly other people in your life are creations of your own past actions. If you feel that you have been hurt or treated unfairly by another person, it is only because you have hurt or treated someone unfairly in your past. Through the power of love manifested as forgiveness otherness disappears.

Chanting: Explore the meaning of tat twam asi through the experience of chanting it as japa recitation. Chant “Make me an Instrument for Thy Will, Not mine but Thine be done Free me from anger, jealousy and fear, fill my heart with joy and compassion” Explore the possible meaning of this prayer/invocation and what it might mean within the context of an asana practice, or in a work, family or social situation.

Just for Your information: The Bob Dylan quote at the end of the essay is taken from the song, The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest from the album John Wesley Harding.