What if our soul is, as poet Mary Oliver says, “pure light that shines where no one is”?
In her poem (conveniently titled Poem), Mary Oliver speaks to the notion of the soul like this: “Airy and shapeless thing,/ it needs/ the metaphor of the body. . . to be understood/ to be more than pure light /that burns/ where no one is.”
But the body, metaphor or not, isn’t an obstacle to transcend on the way to something higher, something deeper. Rather it is both the avenue to know the True Self, as well as a knowing in and of itself. Truly the marriage of the form and what animates it, the True Self, is the full picture of the human experience.
I’ve always said that poets are yogis with a pen and wield the same searing awareness as sages. Mary Oliver’s inquiry into the nature of the soul is perfectly aligned with Vedanta, ancient yoga philosophy, which states that we all have several layers or sheaths called kosahs which shroud our True Nature and by practicing awareness to these layers, we come to know what lies beneath. The body isn’t the only metaphor for our True Self. Other koshas, or layers, include our energy body, our thought and emotional body, our subconscious beliefs body, etc.
Vedanta philosophy says that what is real is the True Self and what is false is the koshas. All the koshas, feel very real because we can see, feel, think, or otherwise substantiate them, right?Vedanta says that when we really get down to it, anything that is changeable doesn’t qualify to be the True Self, the part of us that by definition can’t change because it always is.
And here’s the tricky part, even though koshas, the changeable parts of us, aren’t the True Self, they are the most easily accessible parts to be aware of, and therefore are perhaps the only way in which we can experience and come to know the “pure light” which is awareness itself.
And how does one substantiate that concept? We come to know ourselves through practices like meditation and yoga, dance and love. Practice to listen. Listen to practice.
These koshas are like mummy wrappings. And while not the most “real” part of our being, give us clues at least to what’s underneath, to what is real. For me, yoga is the dance between that pure light True Self and the mummy wrapping outer self. Yoga is finding where those two realms meet and converse. Sometimes we get small glimpses at our pure light and understand the rest of the world with astounding clarity, or at least can appreciate our bodies, emotions, etc.
The hardest work is not to mistake the wrappings for the light, nor detest the wrappings because they aren’t the light. Eventually we stop seeing the mummy’s wrappings and start seeing simultaneously the wrappings and the light.
Then something really magical happens: we look at someone else and see or sense the same light beneath their wrappings of pain, ego, cynicism, or whatever, even if they neither see us or themselves in that same way. This vision into someone else’s light is compassion at its lowest form and Oneness at it’s highest. When we’ve seen ourselves and others from this deeper vantage point, we won’t/can’t go back to not seeing or knowing.
Plus, with this new vision into things as they truly are, we wake up to a beautiful awareness and find heaven in the most ordinary of things, like the breeze on our skin, the smell of garden, or the sound of the music. We become astoundingly and exquisitely aware because that is what we are the pure light of awareness.
One of the oldest mantras is the world is The Gayatri mantra which states, “Everything in the heavens and in the earth and in between is arising from one effulgent source. If my thoughts, words and deeds reflected a complete understanding of this unity, I would be the peace I am seeking in this moment.” It’s just sometimes we forget. We forget our true nature. We forget our source.
Yoga means union and is a practice that literally helps us to re-member, to come back together, body and soul, both individually and collectively, until we realize we are all part of the same big source of vital aliveness. We come to realize that this work is never ending that we will always have to work and continue to refine our ability to see.
When we see a lifetime of work ahead of us, it can sometimes feel a bit daunting. But here’s the good news: IT FEELS GOOD! It feels good to practice. It feels good to see. It feels good to experience the world with this kind of clarity, especially when balanced with yoga’s two tempering qualities of sukam sthirim, of ease and steadiness.
In her other poem, Bone, Mary Oliver says this:
and what the soul is, also
I believe I will never quite know.
Though I play at the edges of knowing,
truly I know
our part is not knowing,
but looking, and touching, and loving,
which is the way I walked on,
through the pale-pink morning light.
She says that we will never know. Not truly. But the degree to which we do know is the ability to simply practice of awareness which can happen while looking, touching, loving. This is the essence of our practice, the practice of every-day living.
The conscious crooner Leonard Cohen so eloquently addresses this topic in only the best Leonard Cohen fashion possible. Quirky factoid: from a young age Leonard Cohen has always felt most comfortable wearing a suit. I’m talkin’ full-on jacket and tie 365 days a year. I think his dad was a tailor. In his song Going Home, recorded at 78 years old just a few years before he died, you get the sense that he understands his own imminent mortality as he drops these poetically poignant lines:
I’d like to speak to Leonard
he’s a sportsman and a shepherd.
He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit. . . .
He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube
Without my sorrow
To where it’s better
Without my burden
Behind the curtain
Without the costume
That I wore
Leonard Cohen is talking about finally taking off that 3-piece suit but of course is simultaneously talking about shedding the small self, the old rags if you will—body, ego and all that—to see the radiant Self beneath. There’s also a tacit teaching that it’s through the body that we learn to ultimately understand beyond the body. This shedding of the costume could be the enlightenment after a lifetime of lyrical contemplation (in this case set to iambic pentameter none the less!) or perhaps the radical change that happens when we die.
After all, like he notes of himself, aren’t we all physically reduced to the brief elaboration of a tube? Check out this song. Leave it to L.C. to speak to the most sublime holy and eternal part in all of us directly and bluntly while his raspy voice poetically paints the perfect picture with his concise lyrics. Such clarity in vision can only be express with equally clear words, after all language is a philosophy, an art, and a practice in itself.
I invite you to practice dancing between the realm of self and Self. Perhaps this will help us see ourselves and our world more clearly.
Scott Moore is a senior teacher of yoga and mindfulness in the US (New York, Salt Lake City, LA) and abroad and currently lives in Southern France. When he’s not teaching or conducting retreats, he writes for Conscious Life News, Elephant Journal, Mantra Magazine, Medium, and his own blog at scottmooreyoga.com. Scott also loves to run, play the saxophone, and travel with his wife and son. Check out his yoga retreats to places like Tuscany and France , his online Yoga Nidra Course and his Yoga Teacher Mentor Program