We often hear the saying, “the older the wiser” or “old age brings realised knowledge,” but are greying hair, wrinkles, frown lines and wornout skin really the qualifications of wisdom? Everyday, things wear out. Computer software, food, clothes, smartphones, music, furniture, homes, and gardens – all become outdated after some time. It’s only natural that our material bodies wear out too. Yet, everywhere we look, messages to “enhance” our body bombard us. “Hide” this part, “flaunt” another, “cover” this, and “replace” that. Knowing we are aging, why do we strive to hide the natural effects of time? Where is the wisdom in that? We’re all getting older, but are we really getting any wiser? What if we could enhance not our short-lived body, but our consciousness? Let’s talk self-enhancement.
Psychologists describe the selfenhancement effect as the tendency for people to deprecate memories of their former selves to enhance their present appearance. For example, if someone shows me a picture of myself from three years ago and then a recent picture from three weeks ago, I am more likely to degrade the older version so that my current self is less affected. We may also experience the selfenhancement effect when we put others down, so as to promote ourselves more. But, according to psychologists, when we do this, we put ourselves down as well.
In a study by psychologists Michael Ross and Anne Wilson, a group of middle-aged participants were asked to rate their social skills, common sense, and self-confidence levels on a timeline. The results indicated that participants considered their skills were steadily improving with age, and their skill set was superior to that of their peers. In another experiment, the researchers manipulated the level at which people would criticise their former selves by describing the same point in time as either recent or far away. The more distant a memory of our self appears, the more comfortable we are at putting down that self.
Not only do we assign failure to the past, we simultaneously pull personal glories and achievements towards the present. In another experiment, students reflected on a course from the previous semester, in which they received their best grade, and a course in which they received their worst grade. On a scale from “feels like yesterday” to “feels far away,” most participants rated the course in which they received their best grade as feeling significantly closer to the present than the course with their worst grade, despite all the courses having taken place in the same semester.
Always seeking to feel satisfied with our personal achievements, we pull memories of success closer to the present and push failure away, constantly manipulating our memory of time.
Activating our Potential
Memories are extremely prone to defect, social influence, and degradation over time. But in the case of our own self, skill sets, and personal experiences, wouldn’t we expect our memories to be the most reliable? Why would we lie about, or to, our own self? Then again, why would we want to think we are degrading with time, or merely remaining constant? Perhaps the illusion of the ever-enhancing self reflects a core desire in everyone – the desire for self-realisation.
The dictionary defines self-realisation as the “fulfilment of one’s potential.” No one can deny that every person on the planet wants to achieve in life, and feel some success and happiness. To “self-realise” means to become the best version of our “self ” we can possibly be. People try to realise this potential in so many ways—through sports, academia, social media, social gatherings, creative arts, music, or a career, but achieving highly in some area or another requires knowledge of who we are and what we’re good at. We must know where our potential lies. This means understanding the real self.
How can we identify our unique potential? Are we all born with an equal chance of becoming a famous athlete, musician, or scientist, or are some people naturally more gifted than others? Bhakti-yoga science teaches that although one person may be gifted by birth with certain talents or skills, and another may develop qualities by practice and determination, all these unique attributes relate only to the type of body and mind we are born with. The real self, bhakti experts say, is not limited by the shortcomings of the material body and mind. It is not subject to memory distortions, bodily limitations, mental discomforts, or even time. The real self, as disclosed in the prime yoga text Bhagavad Gita, is eternal:
“For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. It has not come into being, does not come into being and will not come into being. The soul is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, and primeval. It is not slain when the body is slain.” (Bhagavad Gita 2.20)
A person’s self-potential is equally as powerful as another’s self-potential, because the soul is not limited by any material conditions. Every embodied soul has an equal potential to be self-realised—the only difference lies in our determination and sincerity to realise it.
Bhakti-yoga is the study and practice of realising the soul’s potential. Because real societal advancement requires compassion for the soul, this full self-realisation provides the highest welfare for society. In The Journey of Self-Discovery, compassion is discussed in a conversation between His Divine Grace A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder and teacher of bhakti-yoga in the West, and Dr. Gregory Benford, an associate professor of physics at the University of California at Irvine. Srila Prabhupada says:
“There are so many departments of knowledge: the medical study of the body, the psychological study of the mind, and ultimately spiritual, transcendental knowledge. The body and mind are simply the coverings of the spirit soul, just as this shirt and coat are coverings for your body. If you simply take care of the shirt and coat and neglect the person who is covered by this shirt and coat, do you think that this is advancement of knowledge?. . . the central point is self-knowledge, the knowledge of the soul.”
The dictionary definition of selfrealisation is not wrong, but realising our true potential requires real knowledge of the soul. So how can we get this realised knowledge? Perform a Google search? What are the more authentic and practical ways to understand this knowledge?
Sound Shapes Our Consciousness
Real knowledge is evidenced by actions, and the bhakti-yoga practice emphasises knowledge in action. The first step to understanding the true self is through the powerful method of sound. Just as music can change our mood, sound shapes our consciousness too, and consciousness is the symptom of the soul. In this modern age, bhakti wisdom texts recommend chanting the Hare Krishna “maha” mantra, literally the great or powerful mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. This spiritual sound not only uncovers the true self, but also connects one’s consciousness with the Supreme Consciousness, Krishna.
Real self-realisation begins when we attempt to reconnect with Krishna, the Supreme Person. Hearing the Hare Krishna mantra is the simplest way to rekindle this lost connection dormant within us. By the power of sound, our material existence transforms into a higher reality, and we begin to realise that the soul’s real nature is eternal, blissful, and full of knowledge. But we cannot realise this with our own faculties. Although we are tiny parts of the unlimited Supreme Whole, and qualitatively the same, we are not the same in quantity and are therefore subject to illusion. As studies of memory demonstrate, our body and mind are limited.
Real self-satisfaction does not require deprecating our former self, or distorting time and memories. We can enhance our current self simply and practically, using the tool of knowledge relayed by bhakti-yoga experts over thousands of years. And, unlike skills we may acquire or talents we may possess, the spiritual skills we gain in bhakti can never be lost nor can they degrade over time, as verified in the Bhagavad Gita:
“In this endeavor there is no loss or diminution, and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear.” (2.40)
The most dangerous type of fear is not achieving complete satisfaction in our human bodies before we die. But those who are entirely self-realised do not have such a fear, because they are at peace within themselves. Bhaktiyoga steps beyond just this lifetime and gives eternal benefit to the eternal soul. So, with nothing to lose and so much to gain, why not enter the spiritual laboratory and discover your real potential?