By David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastri)
Atman means the Self or soul, the very essence of our being as pure consciousness. It is common to all living creatures and pervades the entire universe.
In the modern world, psychology dominates our thinking relative to the mind and emotions, the self and ego and has its influence on how we view spirituality and yoga as well. We have also come to look at the Atman in a psychological light, sometimes to the detriment of its broader reality.
Spirituality is about the pursuit of self-knowledge and self-realization. There has been an effort to turn this into a kind of psychological self-knowledge, an analysis of human emotions as the prime factor. But Self-knowledge in the sense of the Atman is something much more than that. There is a modern effort to psychologize spirituality. On the positive side, this may help to spiritualize psychology, bringing yoga and meditation into psychological approaches. Yet on the negative side, it can confuse spirituality and yoga with mere human psychology. It can reduce our spiritual self or soul to the confines and concerns of the ego and our outer nature as a mere social or political entity.
Beyond the Psychological to the Cosmic Self
Our true Self is not the psychological self, which is the ego that is to be discarded for it to shine forth. Our true Self is not the personal identity of this particular incarnation. It is not the self-formations of emotion or our personal likes and dislikes. Nor is it our mental or intellectual identity through the opinions, beliefs and predilections of our thought processes. It is not even our human self but our soul that unites us to all beings and all worlds.
To put it simply: our true Self or Atman is a Devata or Divine principle. The Self is a principle of subjectivity, awareness and self-being inherent in all existence. It is the ultimate principle behind all the laws, principles and dharmas operative in this magical universe of mind and matter.
Our true Self is a divinity, a God or Goddess as it were, the very Divine power behind the manifestation of time, space and causation. We are God. God is our true nature. Yet this Divinity is not a theological principle but the very nature of existence that is self-aware, self-determining and self-responsible. This Atman or Self is Brahman or the Absolute Being-Consciousness-Bliss.
An important yogic approach common to both Veda and Tantra is to approach our true Self as a Divinity. This is to honor the Divine presence within us, to respect our own being and consciousness as sacred, immortal and untainted.
From the standpoint of psychology and the spiritual systems that use it as a cornerstone, such worship of the Self within can appear to be an adulation of the ego, an ignoring of our personal faults, and our responsibility to other people, a fantasy to cover over facing the hard realities of our emotional nature. Yet such psychological reductionism can also be rigid and can cut of the roots of aspiration and idealism within us.
An important law of the mind is that whatever we focus our attention on that we become. It is, as it were, the Divinity we aspire to become. The danger in fixating on the neurotic psychological self is that we end up becoming it, we can get lost in an endless obsession with its peculiarities, traumas and idiosyncrasies. We can reinforce the psychological self rather than releasing it.
We should learn to worship the true Self within us as the Self of all beings and the Being behind all existence, as the light of all the worlds. This can take us in an instant beyond our human problems and attachments. Our problems are inherent in our psychology which focuses on our personal identity as our true reality. We cannot go beyond them without opening up to that which in us that transcends them. This is the universal Self within.
To do so we must set the psychological self aside, which is also to learn to see it as a formulation of universal forces, elements and qualities, not as something unique to ourselves. All of nature works within us and moves externally according to the glory and the beauty of the Self within. Our psychological self is just another formation of nature’s energy and expression, but blocked to our deeper reality.
Of course, we all have a psychological self just as we all have human bodies. But focusing on the psychological self will no more take us to truth than will focusing on our physical bodies take us to pure awareness. We should give the psychological self its appropriate place in our lives as a mechanism of personal existence but not confuse it with our true reality.
The Freedom of the Atman
Feel free to let your personal self aside and be one with all. Feel free to give up your likes and dislikes, your joys and sorrows and find contentment in your own inner being beyond all gain and loss.
Feel free to go beyond your human self and find yourself in nature, in the plants, rocks, animals, in the clouds, sun and stars, and beyond.
Let your self-sense naturally expand like the wind through the release of your breath to the most distant horizon. Unite the light of your mind and senses with the light of the sun and stars.
Your true Self is the pure light of awareness beyond body and mind. It gives light, life and love to all creatures and brings beauty and bliss to the entire universe. Accept that light within and cease dwelling in its shadows in your outer nature.
Learn to worship that true Self within. Just as you offer flowers or prayers to the Divinity of your choice, do so to the Self as the divinity within. See the Devata in your Self and your Self in the Devata. Let Shiva, Krishna or Devi or whatever form you worship be reflected in your own Self. The Devatas are more your real Self than is your psychological Self. Learn to be one with that Atma Devata in all the Devatas. Let your true Self be all the Gods and Goddesses, Gurus and Avatars, which are only its manifestations. Unfold your Divine being and beauty with fearlessness and delight. Be yourself the God or Goddess that is your deepest reality and your true dignity as pure consciousness in manifestation.