I don’t mean the famous question from the band The Who, the one that sounds like it’s being answered by an owl. I really want to know . . . who are you?
When we’re faced with that question, we often begin with our labels. I’m a teacher. I’m a musician. I’m an artist. I’m an insurance agent. I’m a carpenter. Even our name is really just a label.
But do those labels answer the question? Who are you? Really? If you stop being a teacher, you don’t stop being. If you stop being a carpenter, you still exist. You could abandon even your name and still be.
Those labels are like nesting dolls, those Russian wooden dolls that, when pulled apart, reveal a slightly smaller version of the same doll, which can be pulled apart revealing another slightly smaller doll, and so on. In the same kind of way, we add layer and layer of identity until we forget who we really are and begin to identify with the shells.
According to many great spiritual teachers, who you are is none of the things that you might use to uniquely define yourself. Those specific parts of your personality, your talents, your intelligence, your sense of humor, might be how you express yourself in the world, but they are not the essence of you.
Our lives begin as a purity of essence that quickly gets covered up. Our parents give us a name. They begin immediately to tell us who we are. “You’re so pretty.” “Oh, what big eyes.” “Such a sweet smile!” We first know ourselves as seen through the eyes of our caregivers. They are our first mirrors. As we grow, we take on more identifying features. We get them from family and friends and teachers and television and bullies and . . . ourselves until we have completely covered that essence. Many of us eventually reach a moment when we decide we want to know who we really are deep down inside. This is often initiated by crisis, a dark night of the soul, a collapse of our ego’s scaffolding.
Advaita Vedanta is the school of Hinduism that focuses on non-duality. It holds that pure consciousness, what Hindus call “Brahman,” is the only reality. That single reality, that non-dual reality, is unified Divine energy that is the life force in all creation. There is no dual you and I or I and God. There is only one life. It is nature. It is Divine. It is you. It is me.
Advaita Vedanta teaches that we are made up of five layers, called koshas. Kosha literally means “sheath,” or you could think of it as a cloak. Like nesting dolls, we wear these cloaks over our Divine Essence. The first cloak is the physical body. It is the dense material cloak. The second kosha or cloak is the energy body. This is the layer where the chakras and the divine meridians are located. The third cloak is the mental and emotional layer. The fourth is the wisdom layer. The fifth is the layer of bliss. Vedanta yoga often ends there, though some teachers add the sixth layer, and this layer is referred to as the True Self.
Uncovering this essence, our true self, is our spiritual work. We are not in search of something because we already are that which we think we’re searching for.
Who are you? You are pure love, pure peace, pure Divine Presence. You are this pure essence even when you can’t see it for all the layers covering it. You are the you are. I am the I am.