Central to Hindu philosophy is the concept of the Self. This word in Sanskrit is “Atman.” In essence, this is the totality of all being.
While conceptions of the self vary throughout eastern philosophy, including the different views shown in Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta, Atman in Yoga of Patanjali repreents directly to the connection between the human world (a microcosm) and cosmic reality (macrocosm). Here, the two are inextricably connected , in what’s known as a monistic view of reality – the microcosm is fundamental to the macrocosm, and they are one.
It’s this understanding that serves as a basis for much of Indian thought. Atman – the plane of reality that serves as the common ground of the universe – teaches us that our beings are fundamentally connected. Indian thought derives principles from this, such as ahimsa, and by understanding it ourselves, we can find ideas that encourage fostering a more positive, happier life.
While you may first think of the “self” you identify with – that unique being that is fundamentally you – Atman is used in the most inclusive sense possible. It includes not only the self that is you, but also the self that exists, and makes up the entirety of the universe.
Ponder this for a moment: The idea suggests that all of existence, from the most basic forms of matter to the most complex, are made from the same underlying “stuff.”
In many ways, it is difficult to understand the self in this context – that is, the context of the self being “everything.” As philosopher Alan Watts recognized,
From the standpoint of logic, we can’t say anything about everything…You have to be able to put it into a class. Classes are intellectual boxes. In order to have a box, there must what’s inside the box, and what’s outside the box….But when you come to what fundamentally is, you’re without a box and cannot talk about it logically.
Watts explores the problem our minds wrangle with when posits that ‘all is one.’ As he explains, without something to compare it to – spatially or descriptively in some other manner – it’s difficult to understand. An example of this would be to ask yourself, “Where is the Universe?” This question feels impossible to answer, for if we were to say it is somewhere, we would need to reference some other point of space: It’s next to this other universe. It’s over here which is defined by not being over there.
But the purpose is not to confuse the mind – just because something cannot be put into a logical category, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Understanding the Self as All Selfs
Part of the reason the human condition is predisposed to have a hard time understanding itself is because an apparent disconnection exists in the world. While there are vibrations, energy, and matter that interconnects and binds us, our senses are not able to view all of them the same way we view our current material reality.
For example, it has been said that in a single vine, there are 100 good ideas. As so it is with people. But unlike the vine, or deeply connected forests for that matter, humans have no apparent physical connection to each other. There are no cords or wires connecting all of our existences. This predisposes a rational mind to believe, based on its limited sensory information, that it is separate from the rest of reality. Just as we do not notice the functioning of our nervous system, we do not notice the self.
But Indian thought encourages us to recognize that we do have one mind, and this is exampled in the patterns and similarities expressed by the universe.
Consider the continuity of the human body, just on a physical point of view – two eyes, two hands, two legs. Consider the shared experiences, and the archetypical patterns that exist in human nature and history. This is evidence of the interconnectedness not only of one species, but of all beings and all things.
The Usefulness of Atman & Reaching Moksha
The concept of Atman is useful for the mind and soul for several reasons, from encouraging one’s self to be more compassionate to feeling a sense of liberation from worry. In fact, practicers of Hindu thought are directed toward the concept of Moksha – the experience of self-realization and self-knowledge. is one of four main goals in life In essence, when one is able to understand Atman and the self completely, they experience Moksha, seeing the connection of all beings, including them self, in the universe. When one reaches this, empathy, understanding, and love become more possible to follow and attain.
Take time to consider your own understanding of the universe, and while it may differ from exact Eastern thought, consider the implications of the concept. Would you live your life differently with the understanding each and every person, and being, is central to what truly is you?