Monday, April 3, 2017

What is the Atman? Lessons from Wizard of Oz

In ancient wisdom texts like the Bhagavad Gita (written between 400 BCE and 200 BCE) and Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (written thousands of years ago), we read that the Atman is eternal, and that we are Atman. The Atman is the soul or the seer within us, yet it is not be confused with our mind, our persona, or our faculty of seeing. The Atman is in essence "the man behind the curtain," to invoke a favorite line from the 1939 American film, The Wizard of Oz.

In this classic film, the great Oz tells Dorothy and company to not pay attention to the man behind the curtain once they discover him. They have traveled far to the Emerald City to ask the great Oz for that which they lack: a heart, home, courage, a brain. And so, naturally, they will not leave without a response.

When they finally stand before his presence, anxiously awaiting his response, the ghostly green face of Oz speaks thunderously from a cloud of smoke above the throne. Yet this projection begins to break down. The technological malfunction points to an error, and the three-dimensional emerald face is confusedly revealed for what it is. Toto sniffs out the real Oz: a man behind the curtain. The great image of Oz was a constructed persona, designed to create awe and fear. This little man that steps out from the projection booth does not appear to be as powerful or omniscient as the image and reputation that he had worked so hard to "be."

Yet when he has to admit who he really is, a change occurs. As he begins to interact with Dorothy and her friends, we see him, a much kinder self; all that orchestration was a smoking mirror and a lifeless prop hiding a true, more inspiring Oz. Oz soon dismisses that projected self and steps away from the loneliness that it had created. How was it that he had not seen that his true self - his Atman - would free him from his bondage to what he believed in his mind that he was, i.e. this projection he had created? His inability to be who he truly was led, in the end, to nothing but frustration. Free from his booth and his efforts to control all the gadgets, bells, and whistles that constantly needed to be updated in order to maintain this projected self image, the actual man behind the curtain is happy and generous. He is no longer driven by an image; he is in control, and he seems blissful, happy, and fulfilled, as he bestows his newfound wisdom upon Dorothy and her friends: "Everything you were looking for was right there with you all along," he says.

Likewise, we would do well to realize that we too are the man/woman behind the curtain. We are not all the wandering thoughts, correct or incorrect, fears, or imaginations of our mind. Patanjali reminds us of the need of the separation between the seer and the seen, for the Atman, consciousness, is not made of the limited psychic material of our mind, just as Oz is not made up of the lighting and smoke he selected for his projection in the world. A good step (and Patanjali offers a few) to steer our minds in a more enlightened direction is to study wisdom texts, and to learn what the tradition we opt for has to say. In focusing on the eternal, in meditating on whoever our God is (Patanjali does not name God), we begin to separate ourselves from the identity we have taken on through our birth - that is, an identity that is projected/constructed in some ways by our color, our gender, our culture, our politics, etc. Behind that projected self, there is the man or the woman behind the curtain. Beyond all the vritti (Sanskrit word referring to the activities of the mind: our right thinking, our wrong thinking, our metaphoric thinking, our fear of death, our clinging), there is the Atman, the soul: consciousness. Thus, in the second line of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali very concisely defines yoga:


Yoga (yogaḥ) is the suppression (nirodhaḥ) of the modifications (vṛtti) of mind (citta)||2||

Yoga is the stilling of the mind. The 8 limbs of yoga are the path to stepping away from the projection booth. And like Oz, we realize that what we seek has been with us all along.

My deep thanks go to Edwin Bryant, guest speaker at Yoga Mandali of Saratoga Springs March 31-April 2, for illuminating so many of us this past weekend as he expounded upon this verse and many others in the Yoga Sutras. I could not help but think of The Wizard of Oz as I reflected on all that Dr. Bryant shared, and I hope you all enjoyed the allegory as it is meant to be anecdotal.

If you are interested in reading Edwin Bryant's thorough commentary on the Yoga Sutras, I highly recommend the reading as it is accessible and well-researched. You can find his books in virtually any bookstore - and here.

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