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self vs. Self: How who we think we are determines what we do

Identity is a huge aspect of our culture. Who we are, where we come from… Our human identity is very much tied up in perceptions about our religion, ethnicity, family history, and so much more - even to the point where we sometimes make exceptions for things that we would otherwise find to be unacceptable.

According to the teachings of yoga, the Self (big “S”) is subtle. It is something beyond our everyday ideas about who we are. The Self is eternal and unchanging. We are born, we get old, and we die, but the self does not age, it is not diminished by illness nor by death. Whether we realize that it is there or not (or to what degree), the Self is now as it was previously and as it will always be.

The “self” (little “s”), on the other hand, is a construct of the mind, which is always changing. Most things about this self change: our looks, our interests, even our families. Though they are impermanent, we are strongly identified with them. We think that we are our looks, our interests, and our families instead of the eternally divine beings that we truly are.

There are so many elements of our selves that we identify with so strongly that they even go to the point of eclipsing our morality. I have heard and read often in the past about people who are “mostly vegan,” but who eat fish (or parmesan cheese or ghee) because they are Japanese (or Italian or Indian) or because it’s a family tradition. But who is really Japanese or Italian or Indian or a member of a family? It is not the Self, but the self.  The eternal self is not attached, and therefore not aligned with such identification. When we make moral decisions, but use these arbitrary identifications to derail them, we suffer the result of that inconsistency.

As a result of this mis-guided alignment, we do things that would otherwise be objectionable. We may eat foods that fall outside of our otherwise-enforced restrictions with rationalizations. But we should remind ourselves that these types of cultural or familial obligations are a product of our lower mind. When we go inward to discover the truth, we will see that we are not these associations and, as a result, should not make decisions that cater to them exclusively. We must use the higher mind’s power of discernment to determine whether we are acting out of influenced habit or out of our own morality.

Even more complicated is the idea that the Self is also neither an omnivore, vegetarian, or vegan, so why should we concern ourselves with diet? It is because the Self is a manifestation of the divine. It is within every living being, but is more evident in some than in others. The divine does not manifest as strongly, as my teacher says, in a graveyard. If we are committed to a quest for the true Self, then we must prepare the body and mind to be suitable tools in this quest.

We not only use these labels and identifiers of the self to stay morally inconsistent, but also to distance ourselves from others. When we see people (or any beings) as different or in some way unlike us, then it is our excuse to judge. This judgment of foreign behavior causes us to cling more tightly to the identifications we’ve assigned to ourselves, creating an ever-widening gap between “us” and “them” and ensuring that we are never truly united.

Ultimately, we are not the labels that others place on us, nor even the labels that we’ve placed upon ourselves. We should never forget that our true identity is something higher, which is worth the effort of realizing. Once we’ve found this higher Self, we are without that which separates us from others and ourSelves.

Nicole Nicole Sopko is a Chicago-based yoga teacher who has been living a vegan lifestyle for the past 15 years and views that transition as her first yoga practice. She is also a dedicated student of Sri Dharma Mittra, who encourages students to recognize the light in all beings. A believer in the power of yoga as a lifestyle, Nicole feels that a playful yoga practice enables a person to approach the more mundane aspects of life with a lighter heart and a more accepting attitude. Her yogic journey has played a big role in her life and she feels lucky to have the opportunity to share that journey with others.

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