When people use the English word “self” or any of its variations (myself, himself, etc.), they may refer to one or several things. Most commonly, they’re talking about the personal self or me. Yet if you ask them who they are, they’ll offer their name and profession: what I’m called and what I do – not what I am.
If you ask them who they experience themselves as being, they’ll probably think the question odd and be unable to answer it clearly. They may drop into stories to explain who they are. But if they explore the question, by default they’ll likely focus on the contents of their experience – this body, these thoughts and emotions, and related self-concepts. None of this is actually who they are.
As Lorne Hoff points out, we experience thoughts, sensations, and emotions. Thus, these are objects of experience, not who is experiencing them. Inner does not make them self.
In the Vedas, they have different words for the different types of self, allowing us to be more precise.
The self people are most familiar with is Asmita – the selfish me that possesses things as mine: my body, my emotions, my thoughts, my possessions. This is the identified ego driven by needs and desires. Because of when it typically develops, we might call it the two-year-old self. Mine!
Ahamkara is defined as the individuating principle. This is usually translated as “ego” and results from the intellect recognizing this as different from other. More subtle than the possessive self, it is the sense of an individual self. This begins with early separation from mother and gradually develops into the teens when the intellect becomes more prominent.
Both of the above associate various inner stories and ideas about who and what I am with the self-sense, enlarging it. These stories branch into multiple roles (child, worker, mate, parent, etc.), each with their own expectations about how we and others should and must behave. And those are heavily tied to unmet needs and can include internal conflicts. For example, the need for intimacy vs the need for safety. The self sense gets quite complex yet most of this is running automatically and out of our awareness.
Laughably, the ego-sense likes to feel in control and claims credit for what is experienced yet is a slave to its own identifications.
Aham is an even more subtle sense of I am, of being. It can arise only when the mind is quiet and a true sense of self can shine through. It is beyond all the mind associations above.
What’s worth noting here is that all the above are a “sense of self.” If we search, we can’t find any of them as they don’t exist as objects. We can’t experience “I am” as it’s a knowing rather than an object. Knowing that we are is under all experiences.
We may experience a contraction somewhere that we associate with a self-sense, but a contraction is the energetic impact of the identification rather than the sense itself.
In the awakening process, I’ve talked about head, heart, gut. We might call these the locations of the primary contractions or identifications that are released as we move through the stages.
Asmita dies when tight identification goes when we stop identifying with our aptly named possessions. Some people experience it falling away prior to awakening, some with the shift and some soon after.
I’ve argued that Ahamkara continues post-awakening but is no longer seen as who I am. But if we see it as a simple sense it could be argued it too fades out. The identification ends with awakening but the sense of individuation may fade over time as we become increasingly universal. We could say the function continues as a person but the sense fades.
The sense of “I Am” fades with the Brahman shift as we’ve moved beyond existence. We don’t feel like we’ve ceased to be, only that we’re inclusive of something even greater than being.
Deeper than the “I Am” sense is something that carries on, whatever the stage. This is Jiva, similar to how we use “soul” in the west. This is the point value of consciousness residing in the heart, the life-spark that enters at birth and begins the body breathing and leaves at death. It’s where the life force Shakti enters and becomes the pranas (chi).
Because Jiva is the point value of consciousness, it is like Atman below. It is both subject and object together. As it is an object, it can be experienced directly as a light shining within. It can also be known as our eternal self.
Most people go from ego identification to Atman identification with Self Realization. However, some people take a stop at Jiva identification with an established witness. They are the detached observer but the whole hasn’t woken up to itself in the point yet. (Witnessing before awakening)
For most people, jiva is the default or reference point for our life in this body. It’s what anchors the self or experiencer here.
And we have Atman, the cosmic Self common to all. This is consciousness itself, pure infinite being. As it is the ground of being, Atman can be known as both subject and object. We often first touch Atman in samadhi in meditation. It’s what we wake up to in Self Realization, then to it in the world in Unity.
For a period in history, it was necessary to step out of the mud of the world to make spiritual progress. Renunciate approaches became dominant globally. That time is over now but some traditions and their practices still culture a sense of “no-self,” usually meaning a loss of identification with the ego-self, Ahamkara. However, I’ve seen some use the terms “no-self” and “emptiness” due to the framing of their tradition rather than their experience.
Because I witnessed long before awakening, Atman or universal consciousness was clear and I don’t recall a sense of no-self or emptiness. Spaciousness always had a sense of richness to it. It arose as an experience of cosmic, infinite, effulgent, and universal Self.
The knowing of Atman unfolds in stages through to the Brahman stage when we go beyond Atman into Brahman. With Brahman, we go beyond any version of self as there is no longer anything to identify with.
Some texts also use the term Paramatman. This is translated as the highest Atman or supreme soul or primordial Self. This term is equivalent to how I use Atman. But some texts refer to jivatman or soul-self. Relative to Jiva, Atman is Paramatman.
Those first types of self are just a sense of self. How we’re identified in our experience. Because we’ve lost our connection to wholeness, we grasp and what we find in experience and identify with our separateness and the contents of our experience. This falls away when we rediscover who we are.
While a sense of self is transitory and personal, Jiva and Atman are enduring and actual things that can be experienced and known by anyone. Jiva is never separate from Atman. You can think of Atman as the ocean and jiva as the wave. Or Atman as aware of itself globally and at every point where Jiva is one of those points.
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