By Robert Butler
“Who are you?”
That is a question that has been asked in one form or another in virtually every personal growth workshop ever created. And it’s a good question. How can we learn to love ourselves if we don’t know who that “self” is?
Are we an array of microscopic cells that happened to have randomly formed themselves into a human body? Or are we a collection of our thoughts and experiences? Who is that person staring back at you in the mirror?
Even as a small child I remember thinking about this question. I couldn’t conceive that only a few years earlier I did not exist! My consciousness seemed as though it must have always existed. The seeing, tasting, smelling, etc. all seemed quite familiar and natural. Yet, it was the thoughts behind those experiences which gave rise to the conception that somehow or other, while inextricably intertwined, my body and my consciousness were not entirely the same thing. Heady thoughts for a six-year-old! And although at the time I didn’t understand the nature of this apparent conundrum, I felt certain that I, as an individual being, had always been here.
These ruminations perplexed me, even more so as I began to mature and became more and more inculcated into the expectations of family, school and society in general.
More and more, the expectations and pressures I experienced as a student growing up in a busy metropolis usurped my consciousness and natural curiosity. On top of that there was the never-ending influence of television, radio, popular music, friends, as well as the ever-present pull of my growing pubescent desires.
Yet, the question continued to nag me: Who AM I? Parents couldn’t tell me; schoolteachers couldn’t tell me; I never heard a satisfying answer from clergy of any denomination. I read every book and counterculture book I could get my hands on, including all the popular ones, and still nothing made sense.
As a teenager I began dabbling with LSD and had hugely mind-altering experiences that woke me up to an entire world beyond my body and senses—an entire world beyond my world. Yet, the true answers were still a mystery.
It wasn’t until my late teens when my best friend’s older brother (the smartest person I had ever known) returned from a couple of years living in an ashram that I began to hear answers that made sense. I was introduced to the Vedic literature of ancient India. One of the simple mantras of which is “Aham Brahmasmi” which translates to I am Brahman. Brahman refers to the all-pervading energy of the Supreme Godhead.
In this context, it simply means that in quality, we are made of that same energy as that Supreme Godhead. However, there is a difference in quantity. Just as a particle of sunlight is composed of the energy of the Sun; there is one-ness in qualities of light and heat, yet one could not claim that the particle is equal to the Sun in all respects. The Sun is immeasurably more powerful, yet the quality is one. A similar analogy could be made of the drop of ocean water and the ocean itself. One in quality, different in quantity.
He also introduced me to Bhagavad-Gita, the ancient Vedic text from India in which Lord Krishna advises the great warrior-prince Arjuna about the nature of the soul and its relationship to the material world.
Sung in Sanskrit on a battlefield just before the commencement of a great fratricidal war, He intended to enlighten Arjuna, who was filled with great doubts about what he was about to undertake.
In the second chapter, Krishna outlines the qualities of the individual spirit soul, its relationship to the material body, and ultimately its connection to the Supreme Soul. Most significantly to me at the time was that He proclaimed the individual soul to be eternal, unlike the material body that houses it. He further explained that based on our desires and activities in this world, we receive a body that is most suited for us, and when our time here is up, we discard it only to receive another based on our individual consciousness.
“Never was there a time when I did not exist; nor you, nor all these kings. Nor in the future shall any of us cease to be. 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.” (BG 2:12-13)
“For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.” (BG 2:20)
Krishna went on to explain that the individual soul (jiva-atma) is suffering or enjoying the material nature according to his or her own senses and mind, and that it is the consciousness created by our desires and choices that produce these results (karma). This made perfect sense to me and satisfied the questions that had burned in my mind since I was a young child.
He also explained the different processes of yoga and how one can control the mind and senses through practice and detachment from the temporary. Yoga is a Sanskrit word that means to join in union with the Divine (much in the same way the word “yoke” means to connect). He further explained that the goal of all yoga processes is to transcend the temporary and limited body and senses (birth and death), and join the Supreme Soul in eternity, knowledge and bliss.
This was all music to my ears, or my soul, to be more precise.
In the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition of bhakti-yoga from ancient India, hearing (shravanam), and chanting (kirtanam) are the first steps in the process of self-actualization. The transcendental sounds of the Sanskrit mantras pierce all the layers of the artificial ego, mind and intelligence and actually vibrate the soul itself, which can recognize those vibrations as something spiritual and eternal—just like itself. Thus, mantra meditation is considered by many to be a channel by which we can access our eternal selves as well as our source. It cuts through the layers of material clutter we have placed on our minds and releases us from lifetimes of false identification with temporary matter.
One cannot speak of the source of this energy, without mentioning love.
It is all pervading, universal, and eternal. It emanates from the Divine just as sunshine emanates from the Sun. There are times when we feel disconnected from that love, yet that state is described as illusory (maya). Although sometimes clouds may obscure the Sun from our vision, the Sun planet remains fixed in its position and is unchangeable. It is only due to our relative and temporary position that we sometimes do not perceive it.
Due to our identification with temporary matter, our consciousness can become cloudy to the point where we no longer feel connected to that all-pervading and eternal source of love.
The Sanskrit term leela refers to the ability of the Supreme to enjoy loving pastimes with individual souls. Those pastimes are simultaneously eternal and saturated with Divine Love. A deeper understanding is that each of us has been created for this purpose, so there is no question of not being worthy of love. The Divine has already decided the matter!
Once one has ascended to this platform of understanding, they can realize that because the living entity is part and parcel of the Divine, self-love is essential to our being and is thus the fundamental nature of our very selves.
Om Tat Sat
Even as a child, Robert Butler was fascinated with the nature of consciousness. A practitioner of Bhakti Yoga and committed vegetarian since the age of 17, he embarked on a lifelong journey to help himself and others uncover the mysteries of life. After living in an ashram in his late teens through his mid 20s, he traveled extensively, and delved deeply into personal growth and healing work. For the past twenty-five years, he has run a San Diego based nonprofit that supports three Bhakti Yoga ashrams and sustainable farm communities: Audarya Ashram in Philo, California, Sarahgrahi near Asheville, North Carolina, and Madhuvan in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica. He is an author, spiritual counselor and senior staffer with the ManKind Project, as well as a mentor with the Boys to Men Mentoring Network. He lives in Encinitas, California.
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Thank you for the article Robert. I took a class called Zen when I was at UCSB. Your understanding of the material is deep, and I am reminded of that class. Although I was too young to put most of the wisdom to practical use, it stayed with me until the present. Our professor was Allan Grapard, and he often told us in his French accent, “You are all deluded.” It was meant as a friendly tease, but he was also trying to point us in a direction away from Western media. While my meditation practice is only 2 years old now, I am finding more value in it than a lifetime of popular culture. Reading this serves as encouragement to continue on my current path.