Levels of Identity: The Incarnate Self, Soul and Nondual Self
In order to not break up the flow of the book, but wanting to offer a little more about the nature of the basic levels of selfhood so that the reader can have a better sense of our own experiences and perspective, I will talk at greater length here about this theme of levels of identity. I will begin by restating the couple of paragraphs in Chapter 17 where one of the links to this appendix appears, and then go on from there.
One of the perspectives common in spiritual teachings is the view of human nature having essentially three types or dimensions of identity and experience. The first is our familiar self as an incarnate human being. This self is characterized, for most of us, as being based, in part, around identification with this body and this life, in this location in time and space.
Going deeper into our nature we can uncover another aspect of ourselves that is often called the soul, the transpersonal or higher self, the wisdom mind, and similar terms. This aspect of our nature is relatively more permanent, endures from life to life, and is the Self that harvests wisdom and spiritual qualities during the course of our evolution, not only during human incarnations, but between lives, and in other realms of experience.
The third basic level of our nature is often called Atman in Hinduism, rigpa in Dzogchen, the transcendent self, Spirit, and so on. This Self is characterized by its realization of its radical nondual or transcendent nature. Philosophies differ on exactly how to understand this level of our nature, but a common recognition is that its nature is ‘beyond’ even the soul or higher self, and is radically beyond words and concepts.
Naturally, people use all these various terms in different ways. For instance, sometimes a teaching might call the third level the Higher Self or Soul instead of the second level as I did here. So there can be confusion about terms. Most often I use terms like the incarnate self, the soul and the nondual Self. From the point of view of the nondual Self, all three aspects of our being ultimately have the same ground or essential nature, which only appear distinct from a relative point of view.
In brief, the philosophy, based on our experience, that Karen and I embrace is that all these levels are both of the same essential nature and also distinct from each other at the same time. This is a viewpoint that might be termed ‘integrated nondual realization’. This view embraces not only the unitive perspective of transcendental mysticism, but also the relative dimension of time, karma, stories, and activity. It is a marriage of the two poles of existence – the nondual or transcendental and the relative.
The soul aspect of our nature, in our experience, is the ‘middle Self’ that is the both aware of the incarnate, form and worldly aspect of reality, the relative, and at the same time is also rooted in the transcendent or nondual Ground or Absolute. Subsequently, the soul is not identified so much with a particular incarnation, yet it is, albeit in a more expansive way, actively participating in each incarnation. Because it is more deeply embedded in a larger realization of identity and reality, and has continuity of identity and experience from incarnation to incarnation, it has its own understanding of the nature and purpose of each incarnation, and it views each incarnation in the context of a larger story that begins in the distant past and culminates in the attainment of nirvana or Self-realization, though even this is a doorway into another phase of existence, the ‘post-liberation’ phase.
A basic aspect of the first two levels of our identity, our normal human or incarnate self and our soul or higher self, is a sense of time, and therefore, of participating in a ‘story’. Since each basic level of selfhood participates in its own way in time, or experiences its own type of time, each has its own sense of story about who it is and ‘what is going on’. The story of the normal human incarnate self is invariably based on an understanding that is limited to its current incarnation, and subsequently, to motivations and values that are, in large part, the result of identification with its current physical body and human personality. We, as human beings, seek to survive, to enjoy the world through our senses, to seek fulfillment in relationships, work and so on. These are the normal values of the incarnate personality.
The core values and motivations of the soul are that, although being in a state of much greater spiritual awareness, wholeness and virtue (patience, love, contentment, peace, wisdom, etc.), the soul is still seeking an even greater fulfillment in nirvana, full nondual illumination, or what others might call God-consciousness. This state of liberation, enlightenment or nirvana is not to be found in some particular realm such as a heaven world, especially not one that need take us away from ordinary human life. It is a state of consciousness that can be realized anywhere. The soul (the way we are using the term here) is that part of us that, though much more intuitive, virtuous and wise than the incarnate self, has not yet fully realized nirvana or full nondual enlightenment.
The soul is still tainted with the experience of being a separate being, though this is much less so than the normal incarnate human being. The soul has a much stronger foundation in a more intuitive, holistic, interconnected state of realization. But this state, though based in a stronger realization of interrelationship, is still not fully liberated from a sense of separation, which continues to taint its experience. The attainment of nondual realization at the time of full liberation for a human being not only releases the soul, but also the incarnate self, from any remaining sense of separation. At liberation, all three levels of identity are realized as interdependent aspects of one being, which is also known to be interrelated with all of reality.
Though one is liberated from a sense of separation upon attaining nondual enlightenment, one does not lose a sense of individuality. Only now this individuality is of a new order, one in which individuality is realized as radically interdependent with all life.
So the ‘story’ of the soul is the spiritual story of its journey towards full liberation and enlightenment through repeated human incarnations, which also includes its growth in expressing this unfolding wisdom and love within the world, both physically and in more subtle worlds. The soul’s experience of its story is always a ‘spiritual’ story, regardless of the state of consciousness of the incarnate self of any incarnation. But gradually, over many lives, a time comes when the values of the incarnate self begin to reflect those of the soul. Then the consciousness and story of the incarnate self, over a series of lives, begins to merge more and more into that of the soul’s, and so the incarnate self also gradually embraces a path to Self-realization, a path of deepening love, wisdom and transcendent mystery.
The way that both the soul and incarnate self understand the inevitable goal or result of their series of incarnations will vary depending on individual philosophy and experience. It may be viewed as a path to liberation, to enlightenment, to God-consciousness, harmony with Nature, the Tao, and many other points of view. In my view, there is merit in most of the many perspectives that I have encountered, so that I embrace a kind of multifaceted view, an understanding of how they all are part of a richer understanding of human nature, evolution and spiritual potential.
The third level or aspect of identity, the transcendent or nondual Self, is that part of our nature that is even more transcendental than the soul, in that is already rests in nirvana or nondual realization. In this sense, it does not share the sense of time and story that are a natural part of the other two basic levels of selfhood. The nondual Self (rigpa in Dzogchen), that aspect of our nature that already realizes the nondual nature of reality, is beyond distinctions of temporal and eternal, individual and universal, manifest and unmanifest, and other fundamental polarities. As such, the Self neither embraces nor rejects either dimension of these polarities, including that it does not either embrace or reject the dimensions of time and story. As spiritual awakening unfolds, all three levels are integrated, resulting in an illumination of the relative levels of soul and incarnate selfhood by nondual realization, yet in a way that does not interfere with them. This ‘non-interference’ is a inherent characteristic of nondual realization, since the nondual presence does not judge, evaluate or seek to change anything, including trying to transcend, end, negate or control the soul, mind and body.
Subsequently, resting in nondual realization, this level of our nature, which we as incarnate humans will all gradually realize, is able to fully integrate with the other levels of selfhood, because it does not seek to eliminate, control or affirm these levels. That aspect of our nature that realizes the transcendental or nondual nature of self and reality is, therefore, able to be realized in the midst of ordinary human life.
The perspective described above has parallels in many traditions. One similar perspective is familiar to some people and so I will mention it here is from Tibetan Buddhism. It is the doctrine of Trikaya or the “Three Bodies”. These are the Dharmakaya, the level of our nature in transcendent nondual illumination; the Sambhogakaya, or the ‘enjoyment body’, a luminous subtle body; and the Nirmanakaya, or ‘manifestation body’, the incarnate expression of an enlightened being. This view is very similar to our understanding and experience. The three, for those who are familiar with this teaching, are, in our view, the expression of the result of the full enlightenment of human nature, which results in the transformation of soul consciousness into the Sambhogakaya, and the transformation of the incarnate self into the Nirmanakaya. The soul is, therefore, the form that the Sambhogakaya takes before it is fully enlightened, and the incarnate self is the form the Nirmanakaya takes before it is fully enlightened.