If you’re beginning to ask yourself the profound question, “Who am I?,” then you’re probably tapping into what the ancient Hindu sage, Adi Shankara, explained is the third layer of existence — after the subtle thoughts of the mind and the intellectual layer — your perfectly pure and divine self. This layer resides even deeper than our prana. It’s totally whole and needs nothing to complete it. Our inner self is already enlightened. It is already at one with the universe.
It’s just all our attachments, experiences, body, etc. that separates us from being in union with the Divine. So, if you’re sitting in meditation, asking yourself, “Who am I?,” whether you realize it or not, you’re in the process of peeling away all the layers that we’ve built up as human beings in human bodies.
Here we'll explore more about the philosophy behind "Who am I?," plus steps to take in helping you answer this big question.
Philosophy Behind 'Who Am I?'
If we travel back in time several thousand years ago to around 780 C.E., a sage known by the name of Adi Shankara worked to translate the Upanishads for us. He laid out a succinct explanation of the Sanskrit term, advaita, which basically translates to "non-dualism."
(For some background on these ancient Hindu texts, try The Main Message of the Upanishads Explained.)
Shankara taught us that we have a physical realm of existence, which includes our body and the energy that flows through the body. Then we have a subtle realm of being, consisting of our mind. This mind receives everything we think, all that we feel and everything we experience. We then have an intellectual realm. This realm processes everything we receive. After everything’s been processed through our preferences, we are left with what’s known as the ego. Our ego is the persona we have constructed our life around, everything we think, who we think we are, our character traits, etc.
Our ego is defined by and defines the roles we play in this lifetime. I’m a mother. I’m a sister. I’m a father. I’m a brother. I’m a teacher. I’m a writer. I’m an American. I follow this particular diet. I like this kind of fashion. My eyes are blue. My race is Caucasian. My past is this. My legacy will be this. My choices are this…. you get the picture. We often think we are our ego because we define ourselves by it.
(If you're unsure, here's How to See the Ego for What it Is.)
According to Adi Shankara and the teachings of yoga, this separation that we experience is actually an illusion, or what yogis refer to as maya. Adi Shankara even refers to the layers of ourselves that cover up our soul as maya.
Our physical body is called the annamaya kosha, or the "food body." Our minds are referred to as the manomaya kosha. The intellect is the buddhimaya kosha. The energy that flows through our body is called the pranamaya kosha. They are all illusory.
How to Answer 'Who Am I?'
As you investigate this profound question for yourself, it’s important to be inwardly compassionate because sometimes peeling away the layers can leave us feeling deeply vulnerable. Within this vulnerability there is profound opening, awakening and wisdom. Take the time to meditate in a safe space — one that feels comfortable to you — as you ask the great question, “Who am I?”
(Here's how you can Get Comfortable During Meditation With These Popular Postures & Modifications.)
When our meditation is over, it can be so easy to get wrapped back up in our egos, defining ourselves by the ever-changing world — all that we think, believe, feel and own. When this happens, simply find your still point — wherever that is. Maybe your still point happens in nature. Go to that place that helps unveil your true Self. Do the things that connect you to your heart as you continue to ask “Who am I?” Feel how good it is to be in a state of expansion, rather than contraction. The more you ask the question, “Who am I?,” the more those layers will fall away and you will exist in the expanded oneness of all that you are. You are the universe.
Journaling is an excellent way to contemplate these deep existential questions of the soul. You may wish to get yourself a beautiful meditation journal to keep your insights within. For some of us, writing down our thoughts and feelings as they arise helps to transform ourself in a way that feels more natural than mediation. However, you’ll probably find that meditation and journaling compliment each other beautifully.
Getting to Know You
One of the secrets to asking this question is knowing that the true you is never changing. It’s pure and it’s whole. Yoga, meditation, contemplation and journaling — all these practices help us to realize that. With compassion and presence we see clearly that all that the stuff of our ego is constantly in flux. It changes and it is not permanent. But your non-material self is permanent. It is this pure inner Self, this awareness that’s totally unbounded, which connects you to the other eight billion people on the planet. It’s what unites you with peace, unwavering contentment and the inner knowledge that all is well.
(Continue reading in Seek and Ye Shall Find: The Genuine Seeker's Experience on the Spiritual Path.)