In my view, the Creator designed and built us like a Babushka doll. Inside the physical body is another body, and then another, and then another. And by the same token, more essential than the I as ego (“ego” in Latin means “I”), is another deeper I, and then another, and then another.
I believe that it was intended that we reach God by knowing successively higher forms of our “I” or Self.
Certainly the masters of enlightenment agree. Sri Yukteswar Giri said that “the highest aim of religion is … Self-knowledge.” (1) We speak of enlightenment as Self-Realization, the attainment of the Supreme Self.
Moreover, the masters universally say that one cannot know God until one knows one’s self. Ibn Arabi for instance: “To know God is not an easy matter, until one becomes a knower of one’s self.” (2)
Or Al-Ghazzali: “Knowledge of self is the key to knowledge of God, according to the saying: ‘He who knows himself knows God.'” (3)
Or Krishnamurti: “Without first knowing yourself, how can you know that which is true? Illusion is inevitable without self-knowledge.” (4)
In fact our deepest, truest Self is God. How could it be otherwise? If all is God, how could we ourselves not also be God? St. Catherine of Genoa went so far as to say: “My Me is God, nor do I recognize any other Me except my God Himself.” (5)
Sri Rajneesh tells us to “begin with yourself. Do not ask whether God exists; ask whether you exist.” (6)
As incredible as it may sound, even the Divine Mother (Prakriti) may disappear, but the Self does not disappear (at least not yet), as Sri Ramana Maharshi reminds us.
“It is the experience of everyone that even in the states of deep sleep, fainting, etc., when the entire universe, moving and stationary, beginning with earth and ending with the unmanifested (Prakriti), disappear, he does not disappear.
“Therefore the state of pure being which is common to all and which is always experienced directly by everybody is one’s true nature.” (7)
To know our true nature, our true Self, it turns out, is the purpose of life. When we know ourself truly and deeply we know God, because the Self and God are one. When we know ourself deeply, we solve the puzzle of life and fulfill the purpose of life – that God should meet God.
“To attain enlightenment,” the Buddha reminds us, “without seeing your nature is impossible.” (8) And, upon knowing the true Self or our true nature, all that we could wish for is attained, as Sri Ramana reminds us: “When one’s true nature is known, then there is Being without beginning and end; It is unbroken Awareness-Bliss.” (9)
I think that, when Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me,” (10) he was pointing not to Jesus but to the Self, the I, or the “I am.” Certainly no one comes to the Father, or the Supreme Self, except by first knowing the individuated Self at progressively deeper levels.
All of Jesus’s parables of the treasure in the field, the pearl of great price, the great fish, and the mustard seed are about how knowledge of the Self becomes knowledge of the All-Self. Here is one parable:
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.” (11)
Put in other words, what Jesus is describing is how the aspirant sees a discrete light – the Self – in a moment of awareness called “spiritual awakening” by Hindus and “stream-entering” by Buddhists. This is what is meant by finding the treasure in the field, the field being the body. This occurs when the kundalini reaches the fourth chakra.
If the aspirant then meditates on that light, giving up all desires but to realize it fully (“selling all he hath”), then eventually that light becomes the light of the All-Self transcending all creation (the aspirant has “bought the field”). This occurs when the kundalini passes the seventh chakra and returns again to the spiritual heart or Hridayam. It is called sahaja samadhi. It is a permanent heart opening and brings all gifts.
Vedantic masters say that “you must realize absolutely that the Atman [the Self] is Brahman [the All-Self].”(12) Here is that moment described in the Upanishads: “I am that Self! I am life immortal! I overcome the world — I who am endowed with golden effulgence! Those who know me achieve Reality.” (13)
And here is Jan Ruusbroec referring to that same process in the Christian tradition:
“In this darkness an incomprehensible light is born and shines forth; this is the Son of God in whom a person becomes able to see and contemplate eternal life.” (14)
“It is Christ [the Son, the Self, the Atman], the light of truth, who says, ‘See,’ and it is through him that we are able to see, for he is the light of the Father [the All-Self, Brahman], without which there is no light in heaven or on earth.” (15)
And where is this Self to be found? Within, which is why Jesus would say: “The kingdom of Heaven is within you.” (16) The searchlight of awareness is to be gradually turned within, deeper and deeper and deeper.
These processes are what is being referred to when one says that one must know the Self first before he can know God. Meditation directed inward is an intensive spiritual practice. The path of self-awareness might be seen as what the meditator does when he or she rises up off their cushion and re-enters everyday life. It is an everyday practice of self-observation, responsibility, and acceptance.
So therefore it’s not narcissism or egocentricity to want to know the Self. It isn’t a trivial activity to observe the self and its ways. It isn’t frivolous. God has set up the round of life so that we can and must know our selves; doing so fulfills the purpose of life. There can be nothing more momentous, mystical, and miraculous than absolutely knowing one’s Self.
It is not service to self to know the Self. It is the most profound contribution to life because all of life is arranged, designed, set up to lead to this culmination of knowing the one Self, at which time God meets God, satisfying the commandment at the basis of all life.
So “Know Thyself” is the soundest of advice and the most sacred of duties. The path of self-awareness is specifically designed to allow us to know ourselves in this mystical and yet most practical way.
(1) Sri Yukteswar Giri, The Holy Science. Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1984, 6.
(2) Muhyidden Ibn Arabi, Kernel of the Kernel. trans. Ismail Hakki Bursevi. Sherborne: Beshara, n.d., 3.
(3) Al-Ghazzali, The Alchemy of Happiness. trans. Claud Field. Lahore: ASHRAF, 1971; c1964 19.
(4) J. Krishnamurti, Commentaries on Living. First Series. Bombay, etc.: B.I. Publications, 1972; c1974, 1, 20.
(5) St Catherine of Genoa in Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy. New York, etc.: Harper and Row, 1970; c1944, 11.
(6) Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, I am the Gate. The Meaning of Initiation and Discipleship. New York, etc.: Harper Colophon, 1977; c1975, 80.
(7) Sri Ramana Maharshi, Spiritual Instruction of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. Eighth Edition. Tiruvannamalai: Sri Ramanasramam, 1974, Chapter 4, Question 18.
(8) Bodhidharma in Pine, Red, trans., The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma. Port Townsend, WA, Empty Bowl, 1987, 9.
(9) Ramana Maharshi in Anon., Who Am I? The Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. Sarasota, FL: Ramana Publications, 1990, 24-5.
(10) John 14:6.
(11) Matthew 13:44
(12) Shankara in Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher lsherwood, Shankara’s Crest-Jewel of Discrimination. Hollywood: Vedanta Press, 1975; c1947, 69.
(13) Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester, trans., The Upanishads. Breath of the Eternal. New York and Scarborough: New American Library, 1957; c1948, 59.
(14) John Ruusbroec in James A. Wiseman, John Ruusbroec. The Spiritual Espousals and Other Works. New York, etc.: Paulist Press, 1985, 22.
(15) John Ruusbroec in JR, 74.
(16) John 8: 32.