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One of the incomplete views of the self that many of us have grown up with comes from an interpretation of the Cartesian maxim “I think; therefore I am.” Descartes shared that statement not to define what it means to be human but rather as a discovery of a statement that could not be refuted. Nevertheless, as a culture we seem to have adopted that statement as a definition of who we are: that our ability to think is synonymous with being sentient.
This point of view with thoughts as our most intelligent and evolved aspect of the self, is not the only way to view the self. Believing all of our thoughts to be true can lead to more stress, unhappiness, and lack of fulfillment in life. One of the alternate views of the self comes from the yogic tradition, and it would flip the Cartesian sentence to “I am, therefore I think.”
In fact, one could say that grasping the concept of “I am” above and beyond our thinking mind is one of the primary ways meditation is most useful in our modern culture. We have grown so attached to the belief that we are thoughts and feelings, rather than that we have thoughts and feelings. The former way of moving in the world means that we often are in a reactive mode, ruled by the whim of every changing thought and emotion. The latter offers us a place in the driver’s seat, observing and experiencing thoughts and emotions without identifying our whole self with them. We are much more than our thoughts and emotions, and the yogic tradition speaks of the self and the five koshas, or sheaths.
From the model I grew up with, it looked like authenticity meant expressing every emotion, reacting in the moment with whatever thought came to one’s mind, and letting emotions be the dominant force in relationships. This model did not look or feel right to me, so I didn’t fully embrace it, and I wondered what other ways there were of being authentic.
Through the study and practice of yoga, meditation, and Ayurveda, it became so much clearer to me what it means to be authentic, and how to frame the experience that we have powerful thoughts, emotions, and feelings that come up so strongly at times.
A model that helps is the model of the Koshas. Kosha is Sanskrit and is translated as sheath in English. And the koshas are layers that make up aspects of our human experience, like onion layers with the center being our true nature. We can imagine that our true nature — peace, lovingkindness, and wisdom — is at the core. And the Koshas are: the physical (food) sheath, the energetic (life-force) sheath, the mental sheath, the wisdom (intuitive) sheath, and the bliss sheath. That order begins with the most energetically dense sheath, the physical, and it ends with the most subtle, the bliss sheath.
When I learned this model, it felt more accurate as a reflection of my experience in life. It did feel accurate to note that I am a being who has a physical body, an energetic body, a mental body, an intuitive body, and a bliss body. Through that model, when I am experiencing a challenging emotion, I don’t feel it shakes the core of who I truly am. Instead, who I truly am is the compassionate witness to whatever experiences I am having in the respective Kosha.
Through meditation we experience that we are not our thoughts and emotions, rather we are the calm, steady place that can witness thoughts and emotions before deciding what to do with that information. We can pause and choose when and how we wish to speak and act that aligns authentically with our values, how we wish for our relationships to be, and how we wish for our life to unfold.
Meditation can be so helpful in restoring our sense of equilibrium once we identify through which Kosha(s) we are experiencing some kind of discomfort.
In order to feel a sense of balance in the physical Kosha, it helps to really take care and love the body. A supportive meditation for this is a body scan. Once you get comfortable in a seated position, scan the body from head to toe slowly. Pause at each body part, take a few deep breaths, and invite that body part to relax (without forcing). Allow this to take at least 10 minutes.
It is often said, “where breath goes energy follows.” In order to tap into the energetic Kosha, focus on breath awareness as a meditation. Notice the quality of the breath, notice the rhythm of the breath, and follow it without needing to modify the breath. As you tune in to the breath you can bring a sense of steady and calm to the energy body.
One way to help calm the mind is to focus energy away from it and focus on the heart. Loving-kindness meditation is a wonderful way to do this. Through this meditation, send loving-kindness to yourself, then to people it is easy to love, then to someone with whom you have a small conflict, and finally to all beings. Take your time, allow yourself to feel the feelings of loving-kindness fill your heart and being.
Focusing on a meditation that allows us to explore “I am,” makes space for us to be with one of the big questions of life. A meditation where you quietly ask yourself repeatedly, “Who am I?” and wait for the answers can lead to greater connection to wisdom and intuition. Another meditation on the true self is to repeat the phrase, “I am That.”
Mantra meditation is the practice of repeating a phrase over and over. The phrase can be an affirmation, and it can be a spiritually grounded phrase, too. There are a variety of mantras such as “so hum,” which means I am, and all of them are powerful in their own way to connect awareness to something greater than what we experience in the physical plane.
Practice connecting with the five koshas in Discover the Layers of Being: Exploring the Five Koshas, a six-part series with Daniel Sannito, available now in the Chopra App.