Layers of Self

In order to fully understand ourselves, we need an understanding of the layers that comprise our existence. And true understanding comes not from theorizing or thinking, but from direct experiential inquiry.  Without this kind of inquiry we can have some ideas about who we are, but they will be based on flimsy assumptions and mental models, rather than a solid and tested foundation. Many have trod this path before us, and we can use their gleanings and discoveries as a basis, or even a kind of map to guide our own exploration, as long as we don’t confuse the map with the terrain and lose ourselves in the abstract. The Upanishads offer such a map, and the Taittiriya in particular paints a fascinating picture of the layers of self.

The Taiitiriya Upanishad describes the layers of our being as sheaths, each successive sheath contained within the others. It speaks of life as the inner being or soul of matter, mind as the soul of life, and wisdom (or gnosis) as the soul of mind. And the Upanishad also describes the most fundamental layer of manifestation, the soul of wisdom and therefor the soul of mind, life, and matter as well, as Ananda: bliss, comfort, delight.

So as we seek to understand ourselves, we can inquire into the nature and qualities of these layers, seeking direct, experiential understanding. The Upanishad gives us a clue in its articulation of the sheaths, and then we need to track down the prize through a deep, persistent inquiry. We can stand back from our habitual self-identification with mind, and stare into the frantic pulsing mental web, watching its workings and limitations, noting how it takes in sensory information, filters it through a sieve of past experience and rigid models, and feeds it to our faculty of discernment, which sorts and dissects and deduces. The mind is an incredible tool, allowing us to make sense of our environment, plan for the future, build beautiful and terrible devices for engaging with and controlling the world around us.  But remains only a tool, a faculty, a limiting power of division that be its very nature removes us from our environment and places us outside of it, alone encased within our skin. If we take the mind for who we are completely, then we commit ourselves to a cage with impenetrable bars.  But if we take it as a faculty, a layer of ourself, then we can benefit from its gifts but transcend them.

From our customary perch within the mind itself, we can look above and notice the downward pour of intuition that illuminates the mental cave with flashes, and then watch the mind grasp and grapple and reduce the flashes into a substance it can manipulate. Climbing up we can enter directly into a more expansive way of knowing, a wisdom that exceeds the mind’s escapades, vast and fluid, where a subjective knowing of the world around us becomes possible. What was ‘other’ becomes known as ‘self’, division becomes simply differentiation, our aloneness dissolves into an empathic experience of unity. Or we can peek up further still, squinting in the light of pure, unobstructed Delight of being. Being infused and inseparable with consciousness/force and joy – Satchitananda.

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The Embodied Experience of Bliss—Anandamaya Kosa

Awareness is at our core, and as it begins to take form it manifests outward, into increasing levels of density. Its subtlest element (manifestation) is space. At the level of space, is the anandamaya kosa. This is the point where the Vastness takes on physical form. As Universal Awareness moves into the individual body-mind system, its first and mostsubtle expression is bliss, or ananda. The coming together of Vastness and individuality is experienced as waves of bliss. Bliss is not the same as happiness that is dependent upon circumstance. In fact, happiness would not be a good way to describe the yogic experience of bliss. Yogic bliss is a deeply settled inner recognition of Unity manifesting into form. It is a sense of wholeness and inseparability from all of life that gives rise to love and compassion. Most simply put, from an individual perspective, bliss is experienced as profound and complete comfort on every level.
No matter what the situation or the circumstances of an individual’s life, ananda is always present. Its existence is not dependent upon feeling good, and it isn’t lessened by sorrow or pain. Ananda is just always there. If we inquire deeply enough, even in times of suffering, we will see that ananda is present. At the cellular level, the cell recognizes itself to be awake and alive and immediately recognizes the entire family of cells around it to be the same. Ananda is experienced in the body-mind as a spacious expansion of comfort and relaxation, the feeling of being at home in Universal Awareness and within one’s own skin. The experience of bliss is entirely natural and normal. You have very likely sensed it many times, and you may be aware of it already. The only reason you perhaps haven’t consciously noticed ananda is that you are usually preoccupied with something else. It is just right there, just underneath and supporting whatever else is going on within you. Ananda is most easily recognized during savasana or meditation. In quiet practices you may hear the primordial sound of Awareness moving into form. The ancient yogis call this sound Nada. Nada is expressed from the interface point where Awareness takes on form. Ananda is a whole-body-mind-support-template experienced by every cell.
For Space — Try This:
Stand in tadasana. See and feel the space around you. Can you hear the space? In the same way that we listen to the world externally with open attention, we listen internally. Where is the space within your body? Try feeling your joints. Soft joints are good places to experience space. Space is everywhere. It is within our structures, around them, and supporting them. But what is the consciousness of space?
Recline in a well-supported and comfortable savasana. Relax deeply. Follow the sensations of relaxation. You will notice a sense of comfort and release; keep going. Inquire: where is this coming from? Allow yourself to drop more deeply into the sensation until it dissolves into space, inner space. Do you hear a sound?