The Breath that is Me

The Breath that is Me

Eastern religions approach ultimate reality through the inner path. By entering their own “atman”-a Sanscrit word that means both “breath” and “self”, they seek to find the Atman of the universe. Not everyone will find this approach helpful or enlightening. But for some it may open up an unexpected avenue for understanding the mystery of our existence For what is more puzzling than that we are free, conscious end individual persons?

Filp-flop experience

Have you ever had what I call a ‘ flip-flop’ experience? When everything is suddenly turned upside down? When you notice that you have been looking at something the wrong way round? That something you’ve been searching for was there all the time staring you in the face? It has happened to me a number of times. Like sleepily looking for my spectacles early in the morning and finding that I was wearing them already! Or the time that I went to visit the Bishop of Patna and asked the friendly workman in overalls in his front garden what kind of man the Bishop was. He turned out to be the Bishop himself!

My most important ‘flip-flop’ experience was of a different nature. And I will never forget it.


I was at the time teaching at a missionary college in Hyderabad, India. I had many Hindu and Muslim friends and took an active interest in their religion This brought me to visit the Temple at Yadigirigutta during the pilgrimage season. “Risky” some people told me, but I did not heed their warning.

narasimhaLike many Hindu temples it lies on top of an impressive hill. Pilgrims climb up through steps hewn out of the rock until they reach the Goparam, the tower gate through which one can enter the temple compound. Most temples have the shrine of the main god in the centre of the compound, with smaller shrines in the arcades on either side. But in Yadigirigutta the main shrine, the garbhalayam, is a cave inside the hill. The pilgrims were queuing up to go down the steps and the corridors that led to the cave. I joined them. It took forty minutes before we reached the central place of worship which held the statue of Narasimha, the idol with the lion’s head.

I was fortunate. Standing next to me in the queue was an educated Brahmin, keen to discuss religion with an intriguing foreigner.

“Why do you come here?”, he asked. “Tourist interest?”

“No”, I said.

“Do you know Hinduism?”

“A little”.

“Have you made a vow to Narasimha?”

“No”, I said. “What vow do you mean?”

“Most piIgrims come to resolve a vow they’ve made in the course of the year. When someone in the family was ill, for example, they might have promised Narasimha to present a coconut if he would cure the person involved. I’ve come to offer thanks for the successful delivery of my eldest son. Have you come to offer something?”

” No “, I admitted . ” I’ve just come to look and pray”.

“You’ll have to offer something“, he said, “whether you like it or not. If you don’t present it yourself, Narasimha will take it”.

I changed the conversation. “Is Narasimha truly God for you?”, I said.

“No”, he answered.

“You mean he is only a manifestation, I suppose”. I had often heard Hindus say this.

“No”, he said. “I mean more than that. For me the most important manifestation of God is myself.”


“Yes. I know God exists. I know what he is like. I have experience of him because he is in me in the deepest roots of mv personaIity”.


It is strange. I had read about this Hindu conviction, but it had never struck me the way it did then. In a flash of insight I saw the truth of it. I knew I had discovered a valuable truth which I needed to digest and make my own. I continued the rest of the visit to the shrine in a mechanical sort of way, almost in a trance. Like the other pilgrims I had a brief glimpse of the idol, received some holy water and prasad before I was pushed on again- on the way out.

I sat down near a pond at the back of the Temple where people were taking ritual baths or just washing their feet. There I worked it out for myself. I’ve always believed the whole world makes no sense without an overall principle that binds it all together. That principle, underlying everything, is God. But Iike most people in Europe I had always sought for traces of this principle in the world around me. I had seen signs of his presence in the wonders of nature, in the mystery of the universe, in evidence of purpose or power. It had never struck me that the closest sign of his presence could lie in myself.

This may seem abstract and philosophical, but for me it wasn’t and isn’t. It’s something very practical and immediate. I know I’m not God. But I also know that there are depths in me that are much greater than I am. My desire to live, my desire to be myself, my desire to know, my desire to love and be loved – it’s like a flame fed from within from an unknown but very powerful source. That source, that deepest origin of myself, I realized is God.

There are many ways in which one can try to penetrate the mystery of existence – many ways to seek God. I ‘fIip-flopped’ when I suddenly discovered that the seeker in me was also God.


It is common knowledge that Wellington defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo in 1814. But I read some German historians who give the credit to General Blücher. There is even some truth in their contention. Wellington might have lost the battle if his German ally, after a twenty-four hours forced march had not reached the battle field just when the French were breaking the English ranks! Some Dutch authors – with much less credibility I’m afraid – ascribe the victory mainly to the few Dutch battalions that took part. They are stated to have halted the French at Quattre-Bras for some hours: long enough for the other allies to assemble. I wouldn’t be surprised if some French people were to maintain that, in spite of all appearances, Napoleon was the true victor at the event!

It all depends from which side one looks at things. So much of what we think of as fact is no more than our interpretation of that fact.

It is good to let the implication of this well known human trait sink in. Each one of us has his or her way of interpreting life, of understanding existence. By its very nature this ‘frame’ we fit everything in, will limit our power of perception. It will give a slant to what we observe. It will minimise or hide some aspects of reality. It will open up parts of the world and close others. To discover what we overlook will require taking up a new position so that we can look at the world from a new angle. All of which is easier said than done.

To have an idea of what we will need to do at a much higher level, consider M.C. Escher’s woodcut, entitled ‘water and air’ (below this paragraph). If we move our view from the top of the picture to the bottom, we experience a strange shift of perspective. On the top we see flying ducks: at the bottom we notice white fish. In the middle we are confused. Because on top we focus on the black (with the white as background), going down we then need to change focus to the white (making black our background). You can see the change over if you try to fix your gaze on the images in the middle.


Even more symbolic to me is a lithograph of the same artist which he called ‘the encounter’ which you can see below. White men and black dwarfs emerge from a wallpaper to shake hands on the foreground. Because they ‘meet’ on the foreground they are both presented as equally real. But looking at their origins on the wall, we observe the problem we had before: we either will concentrate on the black patches and take note of the dwarfs; or we will look at the white silhouettes and observe the human men thereby reducing the dwarfs to black blobs between them! It is a curious sensation. It illustrates that our limited perception does not allow us to pay attention to all aspects of reality at once. Does the artist suggest we should allow the part of reality we suppress to come out into the open?


Each one of us, of course, has his or her ‘dark spots’ his or her peculiar ‘frame of reference’. But there is also a one-sidedness, a partial blindness, we may incur as a group, as a cultural community. Our notions and thought structures depend for a great deal on the common view of the world which we inherited with our language. There is a good amount of ‘interpretation’ in the cultural heritage that surrounds us; much of it extremely valuable, but some of it biassed and lopsided!


Both people in the East and in the West have searched for the meaning of existence. But the approach followed was often radically different. There is no question here of right or wrong, but of various paths seeking the same goal. For us in the West it may sometimes be helpful to leave our own cultural ‘frame of reference’ and see reality from the point of view of oriental wisdom.

Take, for example, the classical argument tor God’s existence found in the West. It proves the existence of a Creator from a universe that cannot explain itself. The famous astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle, agnostic throughout his life, has recently come to acknowledge that the universe could not exist without a Mind that directed evolution according to a predetermined plan. He demonstrates the necessity with mathematical calculations in his latest book, ‘The Intelligent Universe’. As he put it in an interview on the BBC: “I’ve lived in the countryside ever since my retirement. When I walk along the road and I see those stone walls around the fields, I know they did not build themselves. I know damn well they were made by farmers. And what about those metal contraptions they call cars that keep whizzing past? Surely they didn’t come about by chance?!” It is the classical argument from effect to cause.

Oh Lord my God,
when I in awesome wonder,
consider all the works Thy hands have made,
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed, then sings my soul
my Saviour God, to Thee:
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!

Sir Fred Hoyle, while studying things outside himself and discovering the presence of a Higher Intelligence as their maker, displays the typical Western, outward-looking approach to reality. This approach may also partly be responsible for his earlier agnosticism in the first place. For we are treating Reality as Iying outside ourselves. God then so easily becomes the Great Stranger, the Totally Other, the one Infinitely Removed from us. He is looked upon as the Unseen Cause. Small wonder that he is easily lost sight of by people who are immersed in studying physical processes, such as scientists; or by those who float on the small events of everyday.

There is no need to seek so far from us. Look at yourself, the East tells us. Basically everything that exists must be united, one. There is an infinite scale of higher and lower beings, but whatever exists must somehow partake in that same quality of “being”. In ourselves, therefore, we carry a portion a trace, of that Ultimate Reality that underlies all things that are!

Ancient oriental thinkers expressed it in this way: If we understand the clay of one clay vessel, we have somehow understood what all clay vessels have in common. If we become aware of the fact that we are, we are touching the Being at the root of the whole universe.

What is it that makes me the individual person I am? What is it in me that can think and speak, that wants to love and be loved, that makes me myself? The most wonderful mystery of our existence is that undeniable, yet inexplicable fact ot our “self”. I know that psychology can enlighten us a lot on how our self awareness shrivels or grows. It cannot explain the origin and reality of my own particular, individual self.

“Think about the mystery”, the East tells us. “There is a principle of life in you, a trace of divinity, which puts you in direct touch with Ultimate Reality itself. When you see something beautiful, there is mystery in the beauty, but even more so in the one who sees … . ”

“It is not the appearance of things you should seek to understand, try to know the one who sees.
It is not sound you should seek to understand, try to know the one who hears.
It is not speech that you should seek to understand; try to know the speaker.
It is not the mind you should try to understand; try to know the thinker …..”

“Just as the rim of a chariot wheel is fixed onto the spokes and the spokes are fixed onto the hub, so the degrees of existence are fixed onto the degrees of consciousness, and the degrees of consciousness are fixed onto life.
This life is the conscious Self, blissful, ageless, immortal.”

Kena Upanishad 11 ,1-3


It is interesting to note that there have also been Christian mystics who have recognised that we can meet God in our own deepest Self. Notable among them is Jan van Ruysbroeck who lived in Flanders six centuries ago (1294 – 1381). “God is more interior to us”, he said, “than we are to ourselves. His acting in us is nearer and more central than our own actions. God works in us from inside outwards. Created beings work on us from the outside”.

Why is each one of us an individual? “Because God has made us after his own image”, Ruysbroeck said. He understood this reference to the creation story in a unique way. The reason for our “self” is that each one of us is an expression, an imprint of the eternal Self of God”

“The essential and highest individuality lies-in God.
All creatures exist and live and are preserved by being united to God.
The moment they were to be separated from God, they would return to nothingness.”

“Our link to God is the self we possess, a self that reaches beyond ourselves; it is the origin and mainstay of our existence and our Iife.”

“The essential unity of our personality with God is not of our own making …. Our spirit receives according to its most interior and highest being, in naked nature so to say, the imprint of God’s eternal image and God’s own radiance-all the time without ceasing!”

“Created by God, we undergo every moment of our life the imprint of God’s eternal image. Like an untarnished mirror we cannot fail to reflect that image.”

“The image God has of us gives all of us life and existence. Our created being is anchored in that image as in its cause …. Thus our personality rests in God, and flows from God, and hangs in God, and returns to God as its eternal source.”

Ruysbroeck’s adversaries accused him of being a pantheist,that is: someone who makes all reality divine. He was not. But more than other mystics he pointed out our direct origin from God.

Seeing our true self

Among living beings, as far as we know, human persons alone are aware of their ‘self’. Usually this is an implicit awareness. It is not easy to see our deepest self, like a hand trying to draw itself in Escher’s drawing. 


To help us focus on the mystery of our deepest identity in a more explicit manner, here are some tips-showing you how you could go about it.

* Watch a child for a length of time. Notice the many things it has from its parents, from its friends, from our British way of life. Then observe the various traits by which the child shows it has its own personality. Now switch from watching this child to memories of your own childhood. Imagine you are looking at yourself, the way you were looking at the child. See yourself act; hear yourself speak; remember what you thought. Between the many things that you inherited or copied, where did your own ‘self’ assert itself? Can you draw the lines through till the present day?

* Start working on a list of decisions you took in your life that were truly your own. Put them down on a piece of paper that you keep ready at hand so that you can add items when they come to mind in the course of the day. After some time look at the list and jot down under each decision what you believe were your reasons for taking that decision. Take your time. Work at it during some leisure moments. Then, in a third round, ask yourself: How do these reasons reveal my true self? Who am 1?

* Another approach would be to write a report about yourself, as if you are describing yourself to a neutral observer. Write about yourself in the third person. Be as honest as you can be, pointing out favourable and unfavourable traits. Try to explain what it is that makes you tick’. What should someone else know to understand you fully? What is unique and different in you? What is really ‘you’ and what is not?

Assessing ourselves is not easy. That is why in all such methods we start by noting down facts. The facts lead us to reasons and motives. These in turn reveal our inner personality.

The Immortal Self

He who lives in the water, yet is different from the water; whom the water does not know; whose substance is the water; who controls the water from within-he is the Self within you, the inner power, the immortal.

He who lives in fire, yet is different from fire; whom the fire does not know; whose substance is the fire; who controls the fire from within-he is the Self within you, the inner power, the immortal.

He who lives in the sun, yet is different from the sun; whom the sun does not know; whose substance is the sun; who controls the sun from within-he is the Self within you, the inner power, the immortal.

He who lives in all beings, yet is different from all beings; whom all beings do not know; whose substance is all beings; who controls ail beings from within-he is the Self within you, the inner power, the immortal.

He who lives in the eye, yet is different from the eye; whom the eye does not know; whose substance is the eye; who controls the eye from within -he is the Self within you, the inner power, the immortal.

He who lives in the ear, yet is different from the ear; whom the ear does not know; whose substance is the ear; who controls the ear from within -he is the Self within you, the inner power, the immortal.

He who lives in the mind, yet is different from the mind; whom the mind does not know; whose substance is the mind; who controls the mind from within -he is the Self within you, the inner power. the immortal.

He who lives in insight, yet is different from insight; whom insight does not know; whose substance is insight; who controls insight from within -he is the Self within you, the inner power, the immortal …..

He is the unseen seer,
the unheard hearer, the unthought thinker,
the unknown knower.

There is no other seer than he, no other hearer than he,
no other thinker than he,
no other knower than he.

He is your Self, the inner power, the immortal.

Brhad Aranyaka Upanishad 111, 7

Text by John Wijngaards, first published by Catholic Enquiry Centre London in 1984.
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