Defining one’s self as a person is a matter of perspective. A New York Times article, circulated on the Internet, whimsically illustrates the difficulty in pinning down one’s self-identity. It contains an answer to the standard college admissions question, “Are there any significant experiences you have had, or accomplishments you have realized, that have helped to define you as a person?” Here’s an excerpt from the response:
I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice with my bare hands...I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row. I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing. I can pilot bicycles up several inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook thirty-minute brownies in twenty minutes...Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear...I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. I have been caller number nine and have won the weekend passes...On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami...I have spoken with Elvis. But I have not yet gone to college.
Of course, that applicant’s college admission was approved.
We all find ourselves confused by our point of view from time to time. We imagine we are the person who can stand in the slowly moving line at the bank and still return home before the rice burns. We picture ourselves watching television while at the same time writing thoughtful letters to friends. We paint the bathroom expecting that we will finish without getting paint on the new shirt we have chosen to wear. One identity competes with another.
In addition, these identities are upon us almost the instant we awaken in the morning. There isn’t time to step back—to form a coherent sense of direction. Life presses us into action; we have little time to reflect and from time to time our sense of identity recedes behind even darker clouds. Brief flashes of self-recognition are lost in the strikingly complicated fabric of inner experience. The self-talks that wind through consciousness bear little resemblance to the identity we imagine we are cultivating. Our image is transformed mercilessly by cravings, expectations, urges, and desires. We know that we are not fully present, but we must go on anyway.
Problems with self-identity are further complicated by our relationship with the external world. Our profession, life roles, desires, and relationships dictate much about who we think we are. More importantly, we internalize the messages we receive from these relationships. We believe we are the mother of so-and-so, the holder of this or that job, the seeker of a certain pleasure, or the doer of such and such deed. We are fragmented both within and without.
Who Am I?
Difficult philosophical questions await those who decide to search for the meaning of self-identity that lies beyond our relationships with the external world. They must ask, “Who am I? What is the nature of the self? Is the self a permanent or an impermanent reality?” Within the yoga tradition these questions are contemplated in depth by the followers of the path of Vedanta, a philosophical school associated with some of the earliest texts in yoga, the Upanishads. But there is another way to address the question of self-identity within yoga—a technique that can help students even during the murkiest days when the simplest questions of identity seem confusing. This is the practice of the mantra so’ham (pronounced “so-hum”).
Difficult philosophical questions await those who decide to search for the meaning of self-identity that lies beyond our relationships with the external world.
So’ham is a compound Sanskrit word, the union of sah and aham. Together, on the most obvious level, these two sounds mean “I am That.” But there are many deeper layers of meaning. “Aham” is the personal pronoun “I.” However, because the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet begin with “a” and end with “ha,” the pronoun aham also stands for all the letters of the alphabet. According to the science of mantra, these letters (or sound vibrations) reside within the human personality, and therefore aham represents all the powers and forces that comprise the individual person. To recite aham is to include in one utterance everything about one’s self.
The sound so is modified from the sound sah. It is the pronoun “that,” but of course it must refer to something if it is to have meaning. The referent, in this case, is not any temporal object, but pure, undivided consciousness. In other words, so’ham means that none of the temporary forms of the universe with which “I” identify are the true me. I am the infinite consciousness, dwelling in the body and mind.
Unlike sounds that denote an object or concept associated with the external world, the sound of the mantra so’ham (or any mantra, for that matter) is an identity itself—a “body,” so to speak. Its meaning is the new perspective which it gradually unveils to those who recite it. Repeating the mantra with dedication and openness to its energy invites the guiding potential of the mantra to enter the mind.
A Thread of Reality
A mantra can be chanted out loud, or recited quietly, but it is most effective when it is allowed to reverberate in the mind without being externalized. The Sanskrit term man, the first part of the word mantra, may be translated as the verb “to think,” and it is related to the English word “mind.” The second part of the word, tra (related to the Sanskrit trayate), may be translated “to protect, guide, or lead.” Thus a mantra is a thought that protects, guides, and leads. Reciting the so’ham mantra leads to the clarity of self-awareness.
The sound of so’ham is coordinated with the breath. (It is one of a very few mantras practiced in this way.) According to the Gheranda Samhita, during inhalation the sound “so...” resonates in the mind; during exhalation “hum...” is heard in the mind. Each sound lasts through the entire breath. The mantra is not vocalized or made audible—it simply resounds in the mind, flowing along with the natural movement of the two breaths.
Beginners sometimes make the mistake of accommodating their breathing to the pace of the two sounds in the mind. Although the mantra so’ham is indeed calming, it is much better to let the breath flow at its natural pace and to hear the two sounds of the mantra as if they were its accompaniment. Very soon, breathing will relax and the sound itself will enter the body and mind. Then the breath and the thought of so’ham flow together as one.
Is It for You?
So’ham does not require initiation. It may be practiced by anyone. Its presiding energy is called in Sanskrit sutratma, which means “the life thread of the individual soul.” It is thought that all human beings recite this mantra with their breath. That is why so’ham is sometimes called “the sound of the breath.” In yoga, a mantra is brought to consciousness and strengthened by the power of individual attention, and it then acts as a thread joining the individual mind with the underlying center of consciousness that resides within.
So’ham does not require initiation. It may be practiced by anyone.
Is there a basis for these beliefs? Within the world’s spiritual traditions, the belief that sound underlies the manifestation of the world is widespread. In Genesis it is written that creation proceeded when God said, “Let there be light.” John writes in his gospel that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” Similarly, a yogic text called the Spanda Karika states that the nature of mantra is one with the infinite reality.
But it is not necessary to have a faith in these traditions to practice the repetition of so’ham. All that is needed is a genuine willingness to let the sound become the relaxed focus of attention. Then the coordination of breath and sound can have its natural effect on the mind and personality.
Practicing in Daily Life
So’ham is often used for meditation practice. It helps develop a relaxed mental focus and allows for a smooth transition from meditative concentration involving the body and breath to a purely mental concentration. But you will find that even a consistent meditation practice does not entirely prevent you from becoming confused about your self-identity from time to time. Life’s entanglements are powerful. In the midst of such confusion, the sound so’ham, coordinated with the breath, can bring you back to a sense of self-presence. This simply requires that you invest some amount of attention and energy in remembering the sound. This is an active process, but not a demanding one. And the longer you sustain your awareness of the sound, the more your mind will find rest in it.
How can you accomplish this? Even in the busiest and most distracted times, there are moments in which virtually nothing is happening. The moments are brief, and they appear and disappear throughout the day. One may occur while you are walking in the hallway from your office to a conference room, or when you are sitting, looking out the window. Or perhaps when you are waiting for a friend to call you “right back,” or the toast is in the toaster. If you are emotionally in need of the mantra the moments will be obvious, and you will be able to recognize and use them.
It will help if you practice the mantra regularly. Get up early enough to be able to spend a few quiet moments feeling your breath flow out and in, listening to the sound so’ham in your mind. After work or distracting activities, take time to refresh yourself with this practice. Before bedtime, clear your mind and emotions by again resting in the sound.
Then, in the midst of your day, let the sound return to your awareness. It will not disturb your concentration or disrupt your actions. It will simply provide an alternative to the mental and spiritual uncertainty that steals your peace of mind. Since the breath is always flowing, so’ham is a practice you can use anytime. Try it now for a few minutes. Be who you are. That is the outcome of remembering the wonderful mantra so’ham.