What is self-realization? Who am I?
Why is it so hard to answer this question without using the titles we have acquired through life? Who am I under my clothes, behind personas I put on, devoid of titles I gathered from external institutions?
The yoga tradition has invested thousands of years in carving out a path of self-realization. I will explain why this idea of self-realization can be so eluding and why it is essential. I will employ terminologies from Western Philosophies to make the topic more tangible.
Why is self-realization such an eluding topic?
The modern world is all about the subject reigning over the object.
All is for humans.
We believe that it is okay to deplete the planet’s resources if we need it to live in comfort. We assume that it is okay to adopt pets just for our pleasure. We consume way more food than we need because it tastes good. We experiment on animals. We develop and put technologies in use before understanding its cost of life on earth.
Education and employment systems encourage us to rise above the others.
We learn how to rise in isolation. We practice how to be alone and not need anybody. We want to be faster, more wealthy, more attractive, charismatic, and powerful than others.
All of the issues mentioned above encourage us to connect with our environment on a subject-object level. We can use M. Buber’s terminology and call it the ‘I-it’ relationship.
The I & it
In an ‘I-it’ relationship, there is a subject and an object. The object is the passive counterpart of the relationship. In this manner of connecting with life, we are sometimes the object and sometimes the subject.
Being the subject
Yoga warns us against seeing ourselves as the isolated doer of our actions or thinker of our thoughts. Yoga keeps reminding us that the “I” defined by the ego does not even come close to setting our actual limits. Trying to control life through our logical mind is exhausting besides being impossible.
Being the object
Being the object is also painful. It is usually not something we choose to do. As one of the most well-known existentialist philosophers, Sartre talks about how the gaze of the other subject makes us experience ourselves as objects. This happens, for example, when you realize somebody else is examining you as an object. Lacan adds that not only the others, but we also gaze ourselves as an object. Our gaze takes away our spontaneity even more sharply than others’.
As long as we connect with life through an ‘I-it’ perspective, there is no way out. It is like quicksand.
The more we separate ourselves from plants, animals, other people, the harder it gets to be our authentic selves.
Yoga is all about connection. We meditate to rediscover that we are not alone, that we were never separated. At the advanced stages of meditation (Dyana), the boundaries between the object of the meditation and the meditator get blurry. It is very similar to whar M. Buber calls the ‘I-thou’ relationship.
Why is self-realization such a crucial practice?
We rarely experience random ‘I-thou’ moments in life. It can happen while gazing into the eyes of a loved one through eye contact with a stranger. Sometimes it happens as an animal looks right into our eyes, sometimes as we stare at the beauty of nature. For a split second, every boundary vanishes. There is no time, no space, no distinction between the looked and the looked. There remain only two subjects connecting at a deeper level, recognizing themselves within the other.
In those moments, it does not matter what clothes you have put on, how much money you have in the bank, what schools you went to—your authentic self matters.
Those moments bring you closer to your authentic self. As I have said, the random moments are rare. If you want a continued experience of connected life, the way is to meditate.
‘I-thou’ is not the final stage. M. Buber calls the next phase as ‘I-eternal thou.’ Yoga calls it Samadhi. The merge happens between the ‘I’ and the divine. A. Judith claims that it is like experiencing all life, the whole universe as us.
The merge, in a way, is a terrifying experience. You have to strip away everything that has defined you throughout your life. You need to surrender to being nothing to rip apart all your boundaries and limitations. Then you become everything. Freedom is always a bit scary, but our soul craves for it.
Embrace the sacred within.