Not About the Cheese: Atmabhava as The Nature of Existence

To practice atmabhava is to embody the belief that we are all innately divine, holy, and noble. This divinity does not exist outside of ourselves and we are never separate, nor rendered exiles to the supreme fact of existence: humanity is an embodiment of divinity, and we are all manifestations of God, or “Hari, Rama, Allah, Khuda, Om or Amen,” as Swami Satyananda writes in Atmabhava. Atmabhava is defined by Swami Satyananda as “seeing everyone in oneself and oneself in everyone.” Atmabhava is the answer to dualistic thinking and discord. We are all one, and if I try to see, truly attempt to empty myself of prejudice, opinion, and belief as I fully observe another, feeling his hurts and desires as my own, if I keep expanding, I will discover that  nothing exists outside of the perimeter of myself, because the self has no perimeter. Human beings are beings, not objects or nonentities, and thus what we experience either is accessible to all of us or has been directly experienced by at least one of us.

Do we believe this? Do we want to believe this? Do we even care? Do we desire to demonstrate more than casual regard to the cashier, or anonymous annoyance at the cars stock-piled on the highway during rush hour? Do we wish to bestow another with a sense of belonging when that other angers, confuses, or repulses us? Why is it worthwhile to care?

It is certainly safer and more convenient to insist on myself as the center of my experiences, observations, and sensations. When I deem myself as center, I devoid myself of my responsibility to how I treat others. Within this prism of thought, I reference all actions to myself, so that nothing belongs to me outside of me: the death of my neighbor’s husband concerns only my neighbor, my partner’s frustrations with my attention to work frustrate only my partner, and my roommate’s concern about “Who ate the last of my cheese?!” thwarts only her cheese-infused culinary aspirations. I do not have to expand my understanding or extend my own conscientiousness to that other, because they are others, objects operating around the center of myself that are sometimes useful in serving my own agendas but mostly useless, irrelevant, and intrusive epiphenomena. But when I render myself as center, I automatically render beings as others, and this making of the other is a fundamental act of violence. This act of violence eventually comes for the perpetrator of the self-serving system of thought, a karmic reckoning that the perpetrator cannot steel herself away from in her false bubble of protection. Any time the perpetrator participates in other-making, she disconnects herself from her own humanity, for failing to recognize another’s humanity is actually a disservice to her own.

Humanity goes into hiding each time we look away from another’s experience. Each time we fail to see another as a being entitled to her own feelings, thoughts, and experiences we commit an act of violence, an idea that psychologist R.D. Laing discusses in The Politics of Experience. On a gross level, this act of violence injures the other, but on a subtle level, the act doubly wounds the perpetrator, who experiences a fracture of consciousness and stagnation of spirit unknowingly. When violence is understood within this framework, we can begin to perceive it as a pervasive phenomenon that occurs in the most subtle and benign of interactions. To recognize the distress of my roommate bemoaning the last of the cheese, for instance, I must be attuned to my own experience of distress. I register her words as complaints when I am disconnected from my own experience of distress. This registering is then followed by systematic justification, criticism, invalidation, and alienation: “The cheese was old anyway!” “There was barely any left!” “You’re always complaining!” “Get over it.” “Whatever.” I attack the other and then shun the other, solidifying myself as center again.

When I interact with the symptoms of one’s experience, such as my roommate’s frustration with running out of cheese, I refuse to acknowledge the cause of her experience, which takes shape as the symptom – – but symptom is not experience. In other words, the cheese was never about the cheese!

My roommate could be distressed about the cheese for a myriad of reasons: financial insecurity, a general feeling of lack of appreciation, the survival-induced fear of running out of food. When I refuse to examine the cause of her distress, I fracture and repress the part of myself that can relate, and thereby other her. I act upon the other as object and the other as object acts upon me. But when I open my consciousness to seeing her experience and feeling it as my own, I give myself more space to experience my own humanity. Where there is seeing, there is expansion. And where there is expansion, there is life.

We must expand. We must uproot the belief that we are the center of all. We must conjure the courage to move beyond ourselves, to learn that what we think lies beyond ourselves is actually us, more us than the desire to contract and remain within our self-imposed perimeters. In Freedom from the Known, J. Krishnamurti writes:

“So long as there is a centre creating space around itself there is neither love nor beauty. When there is no centre and no circumference then there is love. And when you love you are beauty” (Krishnamurti 94).

Our nature is love and beauty. Love and beauty are expressions of divinity, and divinity is pervasive just as life is expansive. Neither can flourish when consciousness dilates or fractures to the narrow idea that I am separate-from, other-than, and myself-abiding. Swami Satyananda writes in Atmabhava:

“You are born as a human being not just for the purpose of living the life of a human being but in order to realize the depth of consciousness, the height of consciousness, that magnanimity of your soul within yourself. You have something in you and you have to realise that. That is why the Vedas proclaim, ‘Tat Twam Asi’ – You are That, about which we have been talking, that God, that eternal God. You are that God. The God of whom the Vedas talk, the God of the Bible, the God of the Koran, the God about whom people have been talking since eternity, that God, that reality, that cosmic reality – you are That” (Satyananda 15).

Atmabhava is not a mere nice idea or a lofty spiritual principle to attain. Atmabhava is the fact of human existence and the practice of preserving this existence.

I am That – – I am the driver who cuts me off, the neighbor in mourning, the roommate concerned about the last of the cheese – – I am the cashier, the debt collector, child, mother, teacher, reader; I am the poor, the rich, the destitute, the hopeful – – I am any and every anonymous other because there is no other, there is no separation, only unconscious perimeters erected around an omnipresent force that infuses all of us with life and irrevocable humanity. Human beings correspond to human beings, without exception. We are all each other – – We are That.

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