In simple terms,“Atman” refers to the“ innerself ” or soul of an individual in Hindu philosophy. It is the essence that gives life and consciousness to a human being. You can think of Atman as the “true self” or the “divine spark” that resides in every person. It is unchanging, eternal and unaffected by the temporary experiences of life.
While our body, mind and emotions change throughout our lives, Atman represents that part of us that remains constant and does not change with time or circumstance.
It is as if, within each of us, there is a bright light that never goes out, no matter what happens around us. That inner light is Atman.
Differentiating Atman from Ego
The ego is an illusory construct or mask that we adopt, influenced by our experiences, education, culture and other external factors. It represents what we believe ourselves to be, and this belief is so strong that we often identify completely with it, forgetting our deeper, truer essence.
With its many attachments, desires, aversions and fears, the ego acts as a veil that separates us from recognizing and connecting with who we really are. It is this artificial identity that causes us to perceive the world from a limited and fragmented perspective, often causing conflict, suffering and misunderstanding. In many spiritual paths, overcoming or transcending the ego is seen as an essential step towards awakening to our true nature and living a fuller, more authentic life.
The distinction between Atman and ego is essential in Hindu philosophy and in many spiritual traditions. Although both concepts refer in some way to the “I” or “self,” they represent very different aspects of our existence.
Atman is the unchanging, eternal and true spiritual essence of an individual. It is the deepest“I” that transcends time, space and causality. Its nature is pure, transcendental and ever constant. On the other hand, the ego is the constructed identity that is formed from our experiences, perceptions and relationships in the world. It is a sense of “I” and “me” in relation to the external world, and its nature is mutable and phenomenal, i.e., based on phenomena.
While the goal of many spiritual practices is to connect with the Atman and recognize this true essence as the ultimate purpose of life, the ego is often seen as an obstacle on this path. Transcendence or dissolution of the ego is considered an essential step towards realization of the Atman.
Suffering, a common experience in human existence, is closely related to the ego. Because the ego is based on desires, attachments and a misperception of reality, it is often the source of suffering. In contrast, the Atman, being eternal and pure, does not experience suffering.
how to recognize the Atman?
To recognize our true self or essence requires introspection, inquiry into our own mind. Meditation is the essential vehicle to know ourselves, but in this article we will explore a particular meditative technique to identify the Atman, called Atma Vichara.
Atma Vichara, a Sanskrit expression that we can translate as “inquiry of the Self” or “investigation of the soul“, is a meditative technique used mainly in the Advaita Vedanta tradition. This form of self-inquiry has as its main objective to lead practitioners to the realization of their true nature, which is the Self or Atman, and thus to overcome the illusion of individuality and duality, to finally recognize the ultimate reality, Brahman.
The teaching of Atma Vichara was popularized in the 20th century by Sri Ramana Maharshi, an illustrious Indian sage. Ramana Maharshi emphasized that the question “Who am I?” does not seek a conceptual or intellectual answer, but is a tool for focusing on the very source of thought and identity.
To understand the value and depth of Atma Vichara, it is essential to recognize that most of us live immersed in a constant internal dialogue, a narrative that constructs and reinforces our identity and perception of the world. We are so immersed in this narrative that we rarely stop to question who or what is the storyteller behind these stories.
Atma Vichara’s technique invites the practitioner to interrupt this constant stream of thoughts and direct their attention to the very source of this narrative by asking “Who am I?“. This simple yet powerful question breaks the mental routine and challenges the constructed identity. At first, the mind may offer superficial answers, such as “I am a teacher,” “I am a mother,” or “I am astudent.” But these answers only address temporary roles and not the fundamental essence of the self.
As one dives deeper into the practice of Atma Vichara, it becomes clear that the initial responses are mere identifications with roles, bodies, emotions or thoughts. As one lets go of these identifications and goes deeper into the question, the mind begins to quiet. It is here that a deeper perception of the Self can emerge, an awareness that is beyond the fluctuations of the mind and that is witness to all experiences.
The goal is not to elicit a verbal or conceptual response, but to directly experience the presence that has always been there, unchanging, silently observing all changes and experiences. It is an experience of pure awareness, of being, that is not conditioned by time, space or circumstance.
As with any spiritual or meditative technique, Atma Vichara presents its own challenges. One of the main ones is the tendency of the mind to become distracted or resistant to the process of self-inquiry. Many times, our mind will try to divert attention with other thoughts, emotions or memories. At these times, it is essential to remember the purpose of the practice and return to the question “Who am I?”.
One of the biggest obstacles is expecting some sort of extraordinary experience or epiphany. While it is true that some practitioners report profound experiences, the true essence of Atma Vichara is the constant recognition of the underlying presence, which is ordinary in nature but extraordinary in perception.
Those who sincerely dedicate themselves to the practice of Atma Vichara often find a profound transformation in their perspective and relationship to the world. Recognizing that their true nature is pure awareness, a deep peace and equanimity arises in the face of life’s circumstances. Situations and events are viewed from a perspective of non-duality, where there is no separation between the observer and the observed.
In addition, Atma Vichara can lead to a feeling of connection and oneness with all that exists. By realizing that the Self in one is the same Self in all, the illusion of separation dissolves, leading to a deeper love and compassion for all beings, which is the ultimate goal in many streams of Hinduism.