Finding your Essence
By Jerry Brownstein
Many people are seeking guidance to help them find their true path in life... their passion... their purpose. The Buddha taught that your purpose in life is to re-discover your true nature... your essence. When this true nature is realized your path becomes clear, and the divine states of loving-kindness, compassion, empathy and joy emerge. What is your true nature? Do you know who you really are? If you could look behind and beyond your surface personality what would you see? This is the great journey of our lives – a journey of remembering who we are and why we are here. It is through this remembering that we can make the connection to our essence – a connection that is vital to both our happiness and our fulfilment.
It has been said that we are spiritual beings having a human experience. This ‘spiritual being’ is your true essence, and your ‘human experience’ creates your personality – the beliefs and identities that you have acquired throughout the course of your life. It has been shaped by your environment and by the ways that you have adapted to events and situations. Your personality and your essence are both part of your wholeness, but the personality can become so complex and dominant that the light of your true essence becomes hidden. Many people are reaching the point where they become vaguely aware of this disconnection and they start to ask deeper questions like: Why am I here? What am I passionate about? Why am I not completely happy? The answers to these questions will emerge when you start to remember your true nature, and the first step is to become consciously aware of the separation between your personality and your essence.
Ramana Maharshi was a great sage of the Vedic yoga tradition who taught that the way to attain inner freedom and peace is to continuously ask yourself one simple question: “Who am I?” As you go on asking and asking this question, the answers begin to penetrate your surface consciousness... you go deeper and deeper... eventually you find your ultimate core... your essence. The key is to not accept the false answers that come from the surface mind – answers that are just labels that have been attached to you during your life. Labels like rich, poor, beautiful, clever, old, young, French, Spanish, etc., etc.. These are the superficial labels of your personality, but they do not answer the deeper questions: Who sees when I see? Who hears when I hear? Who knows that I am aware?
Let’s see where this leads in a hypothetical conversation in which we ask someone: Who are you? The first answer is likely to be the person’s name: ‘I am Linda’. But if I write out all of those letters on a piece of paper L-I-N-D-A, is that who you are... just a collection of letters? She realizes that we are looking for a more complete answer so tries again by telling us the details of her life story: I was born in 1978 and grew up in San Francisco, California, etc. etc.. That’s a nice story but if you had been born in a different place, gone to different schools, had different friends, etc., wouldn’t you still be you? Wouldn’t you still be aware of your existence? So she tries again: Who am I? I am a body occupying this space. I am 170 cm tall, I weigh 50 kilos, etc.. But when you were 5 years old you weren’t 170 cm... yet you were still YOU... the same person who is trying to answer this question was still in there.
You can see where this is going. Every answer that is about what you have done, where you are from or how you look, etc., does not really say who you are. These are elements of your surface personality, but they do not tell you who sees when you see... who hears when you hear... who feels when you feel... who watches your dreams... The real you is a deeper consciousness which is underneath your surface personality. So how do we find this elusive essence?
The great teachers from the past all had a similar message to help us find our true selves: You don’t need to learn anything – just remember what you already know deep inside – strip away the debris that covers and obscures what is already there. In order to do this they developed techniques that help us to let go of what we are NOT, so that we can discover who we ARE. All of these methods are essentially ways to detach from the illusions we create by identifying with the emotions and thought stories of our personality. The key is to turn off the endless chatter of your mind, and you can learn to do this through meditation, dancing, drumming, breathing, or other means. Once you have transcended the chatter, what remains is your essence. Eckhart Tolle explains it this way:
“When you recognize that there is a voice in your head that pretends to be you... and never stops speaking... you are awakening to your unconscious identity with the stream of thinking. When you notice that voice, you realize that who you are is not the voice – the thinker – but the one who is Aware of the voice.”
Taking time to meditate is the simplest and most practical way to develop this sense of the separation between your true self and your personality. Meditating on a regular basis allows you to become accustomed to being in a space of stillness. It is in this stillness that you begin to feel that there is a distance between your thoughts and your inner knowing... a distance between the noise of your mind and the awareness that dwells in your heart. Every now and then you will experience an ‘Aha Moment’... a flash of insight when it all suddenly falls into place... you become wonderfully overwhelmed by a sense of complete peace and understanding... and then it disappears. It is normal that these moments of clarity are fleeting at first, but they feel so good that you will continue to search for them. Just as exercising your body’s muscles makes them stronger, the more you flex the muscles of your awareness the easier and more frequent will become your awakenings.
This process is quite simple... but not so easy. First, it requires you to make a commitment to a regular practice that takes you out of your ‘normal’ consciousness. Equally important is remembering to also apply self-awareness and mindfulness in the context of your everyday life – not just on the meditation cushion or in the yoga studio. Watch the ways that you act and react to the events in your life, and become conscious of how often you are being driven by the old stories that are woven into your personality. The more that you become aware of the presence of these old patterns of behaviour, the more that you will wake up from the normal ‘trance’ of life. You may not have a profound experience every day, but embrace incrementalism – the gradual evolution of your consciousness. The fog of everyday life will become thinner over time and pockets of true clarity will break through more often. Your overall experience of life will change as you continue to wake up and self-remember. You will discover the part of you that lies beyond personality, ego and stories... your true self... your essence.