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Atma Bodha: What is self-awareness really?

Updated: Mar 22

Focus of the month - July 2023

written by Valery

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

– Rumi

As I am heading towards my 30s, questions around my self are coming up more frequently again: Who am I? What do I want in my life? Which person do I want to be? Maybe you dealt with the same questions or similar topics in the past.

In this month’s focus I would like to focus on the topic of self-awareness, and how it may help you find more kindness and calmness in your life. Before we dive into the topic, I would like to point out that this is not about self-optimization or self-centeredness. When we practice self-awareness, we cultivate a greater awareness of all aspects of the self, which may also be a contribution to the collective wellbeing.

The self – yogic vs. psychological approach

Let’s start by focusing on the term self. Have you ever asked yourself who you really are? We all probably know that feeling of being unsure about our identity or not knowing our true self. So let’s try to understand what this self is and distinguish between a yogic and psychological understanding.

According to yogic philosophy, the self is often referred to as the "Atman" or the "true self". It is believed to be pure, divine, and blissful. This self in the yogin’s understanding is a part of a greater, collective consciousness, which means that all living beings are divine and interconnected with each other.

In psychology, the self refers to an individual's personal identity, including their thoughts, beliefs, feelings, perceptions, and experiences. According to many psychological theories, the self develops through a combination of internal and external factors, including biological processes, social interactions, cultural influences, and personal experiences. It is shaped by ongoing interactions between the individual and its environment.

So what is self-awareness? Atma Bodha as part of self-awareness

We have to distinguish here between the terms Atma Bodha and self-awareness. If you take a closer look at the meaning, you’ll understand that Atma Bodha is a part of self-awareness: Atma Bodha (Sanskrit: आत्मबोध) can be translated into knowledge of the soul (Atman) or spiritual knowledge. Atma Bodha means "awakening to the self", also “realization of the self”. So it’s about this shift in perspective, identifying with the soul, as a part of the universal consciousness.

The term self-awareness is often used in the contexts of well-being and mental health, and it is also a fundamental aspect of the yogic journey, guiding you towards a deeper understanding of yourself on physical, mental, and spiritual levels. It is the ability to observe your thoughts, emotions, and sensations without judgment. By observing our mental patterns and reactions, we gain insights into our conditioned responses and belief systems. And through that insight, we have the ability to let go of old patterns and change for the good. Here you can see that the spiritual aspect, which is the awareness of Atman, is part of the definition, so one can say that Atma Bodha, the self-realization, is part of self-awareness.

What helps me to understand the concept, is to remember that we as humans have a life on this earth, with a body, thoughts, beliefs, feelings, perceptions, roles and experiences. Being aware of these “earthly attachments”, and simultaneously being aware of the Atman within, which is much greater than our personal identifications. So truly we are both - the Atman, the soul as a part of the greater consciousness, and me as a mortal human being. One of my yoga teachers at my last teacher training, Christopher Perkins, often reminded us that, according to the yoga philosophy, the name we have and the lives we live are unreal or an illusion. In meditation he made internally repeat: “the Valery (put your name here) show must go on…” . By talking about yourself like being a show, you tap into the collective consciousness and are able to take a step back to become the observer.

Through self-awareness to more self-love, kindness and harmony

"let go more than once

let go when an old pattern

wants to drag you back into the past

let go when narratives

run wild in your mind

let go every time you try

to cause yourself extra trouble

there is healing in repetition

soon, peace will feel familiar"

- Yung Pueblo, Lighter

In my 300h yoga teacher training in Mexico this year, I read the book Lighter by Yung Pueblo. He says that through self-awareness we all are able to heal our wounds and transform to the best possible version of ourselves – and again this doesn’t mean self-optimizing your appearance or career, it is about expanding the understanding of yourself, and learning how you can live with self-compassion and non-attachment to become emotionally mature. Through this, we’ll develop deeper self-love and kindness towards ourselves and for others, which finally brings more harmony into our lives.

Practice being aware of your mutual, human self

Since we often spend so much time ruminating over the past or worrying about the future, being self-aware means focusing on the present moment fully. Because this moment is where you live – not in the past, which has passed and cannot be changed, only learned from, and certainly not in the future, which is unwritten and which will be dependent on what you do here and now. The only thing that is constant is change. Self-awareness is a life-long practice, checking in with ourselves over and over again helps you ground, wherever you stand in your life at that moment.

“You are this vastness. This vista you see, this grandeur, this enduring strength—if you go deeply enough inside yourself, you will find not something small but something immensely spacious. This is the essence of the human spirit.”

– Donna Farhi

How to practice self-awareness:

  • Becoming present through a regular mindfulness practice

  • Finding time for deep and honest reflection – objective and non-judgmental

  • Observing emotions and seeking to understand them instead of just reacting to them

  • Practicing gratitude on a daily basis

  • Journaling

  • Getting support from a therapist or coach

Practice being aware of Atman, your spiritual self

Yoga teaches us that our everyday experiences, attachments, and identifications with the body, mind, and external world can create a sense of separation from our true self. Through various Yoga practices such as Asana, Pranayama, meditation and Mantra chanting as well as social and ethical principles, you can cultivate a deeper understanding of your true nature. By recognizing the self as divine and its interconnectedness with all beings, yoga encourages you to cultivate qualities like compassion, love, and equanimity. The ultimate goal of yoga is often seen as the union of the individual self (Atman) with the universal consciousness (Brahman), leading to liberation (moksha) from the cycle of birth and death.

How self-awareness contributes to the world

One of the things we did in my Teacher Training and which I will probably never forget, was a little ceremony, where we married ourselves – it was such a great and joyful experience, where I realized, yes it is so important that I take responsibility for myself, be there for me and commit to a long-term relationship with myself.

In a world, where so many people feel disconnected and lonely, it is more and more important to practice self-awareness. When we understand that we can hold ourselves and be tender with ourselves, we will soon find out that there is much more capacity to contribute our energy into the world and be there for others.

So I am convinced that self-awareness and self-realization are not self-centered or egoistic practices. They are the opposite, and will bring more kindness, love, and understanding into our world.

“You’re a spiritual being having a human experience. You’re not a human being having a spiritual experience.”

– Deepak Chopra

Further content on the topic

More inspiring quotes

“But the art of aging is life's great crescendo. Your aging is your loudest moment, your greatest depth. You exist to age. I think the art of aging is to age with humility and grace. To age and enjoy the process. To welcome age with open arms. Obsessing over the human body's physical condition and postures is another way of trying not to age.”

― Jessamyn Stanley, Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance

But without any identifications, who are you? Have you ever thought about it? When you really understand that, you will see we are all the same. If you detach yourself completely from all the things you have identified yourself with, you realize yourself as the pure “I”. In that pure “I” there is no difference between you and me.” – Satchidananda

“As children we found ways to protect ourselves from vulnerability, from being hurt, diminished and disappointed. We put in an armor; we used our thoughts, emotions and behaviors as weapons; and we learned how to make ourselves scarce even to disappear. Now as adults we realize that to live with courage, purpose and connection – to be the person whom we long to be – we must again be vulnerable. We must take off the armor, put down the weapons, show up, and let ourselves be seen.” – Brené Brown

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