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The Concept of Self from a Yogic Perspective

Spirit, Nature, and Consciousness

In the metaphysics of Yoga there is believed to be a duality between spirit and nature. Spirit is pure consciousness; nature is the opposite of spirit. Human beings are a combination of spirit and nature. The body and mind come from nature, but the transcendental self comes from spirit. A key point here is that it is the transcendental self that comes from spirit, not the self we are aware of every day. Our thoughts, feelings, sensations, indeed our mind itself, are all the result of neural activity in our brain, and our brain is part of our body. Thus, our awareness is not our consciousness.

Our true self, the transcendental self, is a temporary manifestation of Spirit in essence. The great mistake in our lives is to confuse our body and mind with who we really are, to believe that this body and this mind are our self. The practice of Yoga, however, teaches us to still our minds, to eliminate all thought and sensation, so that we might be in union with our transcendental self and the universal spirit. Once we have accomplished this task, by subjugating our natural tendency to think and restraining our mind itself, we will know who and what we really are ( Yoga Sutras I:2,3 [Bailey, 1927]). This is not an easy task, but it has a great reward. As Sri Yukteswar told Yogananda:

The soul expanded into Spirit remains alone in the region of lightless light, darkless dark, thoughtless thought, intoxicated with its ecstasy of joy in God’s dream of cosmic creation (Yogananda, 1946; pgs. 489-490).

William James, America’s foremost psychologist, is best known for his theory on the stream of consciousness. According to James, it is the continuity of consciousness that defines our self. This is in direct contradiction to Eastern philosophies, which consider the conscious mind to be derived from the natural world, and therefore only an illusion. Eastern philosophies consider the transcendental self to be real, but obscured from us by the distraction of the so-called conscious mind. Can we find some compromise between these points of view? No! However, such a contradiction would probably not bother James. James (1892) did talk about the soul, the transcendental ego, and spirit as possible sources for the conscious self, but considered that possibility to be outside the realm of psychological study.

Discussion Question: Do you believe in a transcendental self (whether you call it self, spirit, soul…whatever)? What does this make you feel about your physical body? As for all of nature can you really believe it is just an illusion?


Karma is a difficult concept to grasp. We generally think of karma as the consequences of things we have done wrong, but karma does not apply simply to our misbehavior, it applies to all of our actions. An easy to understand discussion of karma has been written by Goldstein and Kornfield (2001). The law of karma can be understood on two levels. First, karma refers to cause and effect. Whenever we perform an action, we experience some consequence at a later time. The second level of karma may be more important, as it refers to our state of mind at the time when we performed the action in question. Our intentions, or the motives behind an action, determine the nature of the consequences we experience. The importance of this point is that we control the nature of our karma. This, of course, has important implications for personality development. Once we understand the karmic law, it is only natural that we should begin to plant the seeds of healthy karma. In other words, we should be inclined to act only in ways that are healthy and socially beneficial, so that the consequences we then experience will lead to greater well-being for ourselves.

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Source:  OpenStax, Personality theory in a cultural context. OpenStax CNX. Nov 04, 2015 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11901/1.1
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