Remembering Who I Am: The Nature of Self
By Jessica K
I know I should be sleeping now. And yet I had to come here, to the river, after dropping my son off to school. I worked all night and yet the needs of my soul outweighed the demands of my body. So here I am, atop a flat rock-white and black quartz mingled with gray and yellow sandstone—no doubt remnants of an ancient glacier that once swept through the area. Observing my breath rise as puffs of vapor drift into the space that separates me from infinity as I chant the names of God. While it dissipates into the clear morning air I am reminded of part of a verse from James 4:14 in the Bible:
“What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”
What me? I suddenly muse. That which I normally designate as myself—a mother of two, a wife, a daughter, an aspiring devotee? The latter description is the one that strikes a chord within my heart now. Above all, what am I? I am a jiva soul trying to make sense of it all and working it’s way through a labyrinth of maya struggling to reach the center. To the heart of the Absolute itself. To Krsna. Our material bodies might vanish after a given number of years, but who we are, our nature’s essence, has existed eternally. The spark of love that lies at the core of our hearts longs to be engulfed in the flames of Divine love. Krsna’s love. Radha’s love.
My feet shift in the mixture of sand. It intermingles itself with a variegated display of quartz, granite and sandstone strewn out upon the shore of the swiftly flowing river. The river. It has it’s job to do. To flow. To upturn soil and small rocks and carry away debris in its wake. To carve out stone and quench thirst. To harbor teams of life darting beneath its waters.
Like its sure and steady current I seek to establish the flow of my practice to create a stream of consistent erosion to the shores of illusion. At this moment a single prayer fills my heart, my mind. That bhakti might flow, unhindered by stagnant mediocrity and the impediment of spiritual apathy. That it would no longer be constricted by the heartaches and challenges of material life but instead run steadily forth, spilling itself generously upon the shores of my consciousness so that it becomes a flood. So that it becomes unlimited. Until I know what it truly means to surrender, to love and serve God completely.
I have to admit, it was sorrow that initially caused me to take a left to get onto route 66 turning towards the state park that resides just minutes from our house. Echos of doors slamming and voices raised in confrontation clattered dimly in my mind as I proceeded up the narrow road lined with an assortment of conifers, adorning their evergreen mantles amidst patches of barren maples, birches and oaks. I knew I needed to be alone, to find solitude, so that I could simply chant and remember Krsna. And so that I could also remember who I am.
There is a difference between the false ego-that which we normally designate as ourselves, and our true ego—our true self. Srila Prabhupada stated this difference in some of his purport to Bhagavad Gita As It Is, 13.8-12:
False ego means accepting this body as oneself. When one understands that he is not his body and is spirit soul, he comes to his real ego. Ego is there. False ego is condemned, but not real ego. In the Vedic literature (Brhad-aranyaka Upanisad 1.4.10) it is said, aham brahmasmi: I am Brahman, I am spirit. This “I am,” the sense of self, also exists in the liberated stage of self-realization. This sense of “I am” is ego, but when the sense of “I am” is applied to this false body it is false ego. When the sense of self is applied to reality, that is real ego.
Accepting our bodies and that which the world readily describes us as in terms of class, race, gender, nationality, will always lead to suffering and will only entrench us further within the quicksand of maya. Using such words as “my” is like attaching weights to our feet already burdened with shackles. What is needed is the realization that those are only temporary labels, transient positions we only now find ourselves in. But won’t forever. And when that comes, what also dawns is the realization that we are not here, on this earth, to satisfy our own desires, to satiate our own sense cravings that oftentimes dominates our motivations and hence actions, but instead that we exist eternally to love, to serve, to please God. There is freedom in that. It seems almost a paradox of sorts to finds such joy at the realization of the prospect of being something the material world would think less of you for being—a servant.
In Swami Tripurari’s book, Siksastakam of Sri Caitanya, he illustrates beautifully the danger of this false conception of self and the need for souls to develop not an ego-centric sense of self but a serving ego.
A serving ego is the basis of all expressions of bhakti-rasa. Whether one experiences oneself as a servant, friend, elder, or lover of Krsna, all of these experiences of sacred aesthetic rapture are expressions of service intensified to different degrees. This serving ego is the antithesis of the enjoying ego, an identity based on material attachment in a self-centered world of “I” and “my.” Any position in the world of divine service—even that of a dust particle at Sri Krsna’s lotus feet—is desirable in comparison to the highest position in material life, pada-pankaja-sthita-dhülî-sadram vicintaya. Unfortunately, most would prefer to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.” (86)
I gaze at the jagged ice clinging to the edges of the river. Running water can be seen beneath its thin surface. I finally rise to get up and the thought comes to me that I am still at the beginning of learning and understanding what it truly means to serve Krsna. To reach the point of serving him completely, with pure love, seems so far away. Almost unreachable at my given vantage point. And yet, this faith within me, a quiet sense of assurance, tells me that it’s possible. That Krsna has been merciful to give me wonderful association with sincere devotees and a guru who speaks truth to my heart seems a good beginning.
I’ll conclude with words from Swami Tripurari, in his commentary to his translation of the Bhagavad Gita 4.40. In his commentary he speaks of the futility of doubt towards one’s success in spiritual life and its destructive nature. And that to question one’s success is also to put limitations on God’s power. Faith is an essential quality for the vaisnava. An existence without faith is a miserable existence for it is one without knowledge and experience of God. May all who tread this path seek to cultivate and nourish this essential quality.
Those who question whether knowledge will ever fructify in themselves and are thus doubtful will never be successful. They lack faith in the inconceivable power of God and remain preoccupied with their own shortcomings … Those who doubt that they will be successful on the spiritual path, yet believe in it, cannot find happiness in this world nor will they attain the next. They cannot find happiness in this world because they know from scripture that there is no enduring happiness here, and they lack the self-confidence necessary for happiness and success in general.