The Three Dimensions of Self-Realization

What does self-realization mean? Who is realizing what? Which self is being realized? What does the word ‘self’ actually signify? As with all philosophical, psychological or spiritual concepts, our understanding of this term is relative to the level of our evolution. The word ‘self’ is another way to refer to our subjective existence. Here, the one who exists is not merely an object for another; he is a subject to himself. So the word ‘self’, whilst used in various contexts, essentially refers to our sense of identity. Everything that exists has self; it is self that makes anything be what it is. However, to truly grasp who that self is, we need to be self-realized. Before it is complete, there are levels to self-realization. It is not always black and white. If one exists in a poor relationship with one’s identity, lacks reflective consciousness or is simply unconscious, one is too undeveloped to realize oneself. As that self evolves, it grows towards higher levels of the knowing of its own pure subjectivity.

The realm of self-realization has hardly been understood due to our inability to properly grasp the intricacies of the various dimensions of self that we are realizing. Without illuminating this subject with understanding, seekers on the path to the promised land of self-realization are bound to remain as confused as they always were. It is of the essence that we bring a deeper level of insight into our perception of the subtle dimensions of that very self that we aspire to realize.

Existence is rich and we must avoid the error of making things unreasonably simple, for they are not. Many teachers have over-simplified the nature of the spiritual path in order to reach out to the low consciousness of the masses. As a result, they have degraded the meaning of the teaching of self-realization, often to the level of absurdity. The spiritual path is deep, hard and already exceedingly difficult to comprehend for the earthly mind. This has to be accepted, for to propagate it as something naively simple and shallow will render its goals entirely unattainable. Having the correct vision of our spiritual evolution is the first and most important step on the ten thousand mile inner journey. If you want to embark on that journey, know that there is no shortcut – this will be the work of your entire lifetime.

It is impossible to understand the nature of the path without having the concept of the three dimensions of self-realization. It is like building a house: one needs to have a sense of its architecture, otherwise the roof will collapse. The three dimensions of self-realization represent the perfect, mutually dependent structure of our complete self. Self-realization is a state of wholeness that manifests through the awakening of the three levels of our existence: personal, individual and universal. To arrive at completion, we must realize our true self on those three levels. If one is missing, as usually happens, the others remain incomplete or even fall apart.

The universal dimension of self-realization refers to arriving at the state of unity with the beyond – transcendence, merging with the source of existence. The individual dimension of self-realization refers to the awakening of our higher individuality, our soul. The personal dimension of self-realization refers to our awakening on the level of me: self-realizing me, arriving at the state of pure subjectivity within the consciousness of me only. We have described here a model of self-realization that begins from the universal and descends into the personal, but our evolution actually ascends from the personal to the universal, while individual self-realization is bridging the two in both directions.

These three aspects of our evolution are absolutely interdependent and mutually supportive. For instance, our me can reach a limited level of evolution within itself alone, but only when it is linked to the soul, and through the soul to the universal self, can it awaken fully to its own subjectivity. Similarly, our soul can only awaken when our me has awakened to itself first. The soul then needs to arrive at universal self-realization prior to fully actualizing her own light. Finally, to arrive at universal self-realization, we must have the foundation of both personal and individual self-realization. Many traditions or paths rush to universal self-realization without establishing the base of personal and individual self-realization. How can they succeed? A house without foundations will fall in on itself.

Personal Self-Realization

In the science of enlightenment it is, somewhat bizarrely, the personal dimension of self-realization that has been most neglected. Some speak about the need for personal purification, emotional maturation or the development of personal qualities, but this is not what we are referring to here at all. We are referring to the evolution of me. This me has not been understood even to the smallest extent. People use the terms ‘ego’, ‘the mind’, ‘the watcher’ or ‘the witness’, without having a clue what they are talking about. Everybody is living based on their sense of me, and yet no one knows what it is, and even worse – no one cares. This is just sad. How can we speak about the spiritual path if the foundation of self-realization has not been grasped?

No matter what we shall become, me is our beginning and our end. It is present in deepest ignorance and it will be present in our transcendence. Our me is so precious and so little appreciated. Behind each thought, behind each emotion, perception, impression and sensation, there it is – our sense of me, that very identity to whom we are bound for life. It is even present in our dreams or when we are lost in imagination. It is always there and it always seeks happiness. Even when it wants to transcend itself, it is because it thinks that will make it happy or free it from unhappiness. Our me is our child, our true friend and life companion, our beloved. It is our highest responsibility to honor it and serve with all our existence the realization of its highest good, for we are that me.

The evolution of me into itself is long and complex and it is in direct relation to the evolution of our intelligence. Initially, our me is alone, living in its own bubble of reality. It develops primarily through its connection to the world and to other mes. It is hardly conscious of itself, other than being a subject to endless fears and desires. To assure its survival, me has become more and more sophisticated in the mind. It is able to create all kinds of strategies to manipulate the environment and, in the social context, to manipulate and navigate its connections with other people. However, gradually, as it becomes more complex psychologically and more sensitive emotionally, me begins to evolve beyond its need to merely survive. It develops higher needs and desires related to creating beauty, like art, or reaching more understanding, like philosophy or science. At some point in its development, it awakens its spiritual needs and longings. It becomes aware of its suffering, of its separateness, of its intrinsic lack of fulfillment. Then, it either begins to compensate for this lack by numbing its suffering or it chooses to seek a way out from its pain.

One of the universal ways in which our me hopes to bridge itself with creation is by seeking love and emotional fulfillment. The collective mind is constantly creating stories of love or great sacrifice. Most people dream of romantic love, of meeting their soul-mate and living happily ever after. But no one lives happily after finding what they were looking for, because it is that very looking which makes them forget their pain. Finding makes them remember their pain again and feel it even more deeply. The illusion of romantic love is a most interesting phenomenon. One could say that seeking romantic love is one of the tricks of nature to find the best match for procreation. In fact, it is much more than that. The concept of romantic love is relatively new, while humans have always been busy procreating. The higher, positive meaning of seeking romantic love is that it indicates that we have evolved to the point of seeking love itself.

There are many kinds of love; romantic love just brings out more passion and intensity of desire. It is not that romantic love is false; it can be beautiful when experienced from the right place and it is one of the best mediums to deepen our capacity for intimacy. However, it should be seen in the proper context: not as a way to lose oneself in another, but as a way to reach a deeper relationship with one’s own emotional self, learning how to love and open our heart, not just falling in love but having compassion for the other human being. Sooner or later, one comes back to oneself after falling in love, facing once again the inner emptiness. We do not wish to focus on the psychological evolution of me here. Rather, we offer these examples so these human matters can be seen from the right perspective. No matter how much it has evolved on the level of personality, me remains stuck in the state of forgetfulness – it remains unconscious and lost.

The next step in the development of me begins when it gets in touch with itself beyond the mind, beyond its whole psychological reality. This is the true meaning of entering the spiritual path. That intention to transcend the mind, however, should not be based on the wish to get rid of our personal identity, as is the overriding tendency of past spiritual traditions. Rather, it should be based on seeking me-self-realization. Me should not misconstrue its self-discovery as wanting to identify with something higher than itself.

There are teachings which refer to the realization of our individual self, but they usually mix up personal self-realization with individual self-realization. This is the case with Gurdjieff’s teaching, or at least with the way in which it is commonly interpreted. The spiritual practices he developed, such as performing complicated dances, forms or body movements in order to enlarge the capacity of awareness, were oriented to develop our permanent ‘I’. This ‘I’ was often referred to as our soul but in reality, what these kinds of practices can develop is not the soul but the observer. When done in moderation, they may facilitate personal self-realization. However, one must be aware that practices of extreme concentration can also be detrimental to the awakening of me because they over-crystallize the observer, preventing it from surrendering into its own subjectivity. Moreover, it is of the essence that personal self-realization is not mistaken for individual self-realization. The soul cannot be ‘developed’; there is still a large existential chasm to cross from awakening of me to the awakening of the soul.

There are two basic scenarios within current spiritual traditions. One is that our personal self is philosophically negated, while being developed indirectly through various common sense practices such as mindfulness or concentration. The second is that the teaching is geared towards the awakening of our true individuality (the dual path to enlightenment), but is not able to distinguish between personal and individual self-realization. Because of the confusion of identity that ensues, we are not able to realize our soul or our me correctly. There is a third scenario in those paths that lack any common sense whatsoever: me is not only negated conceptually but also practically and no work is done towards its development. According to such naïve movements, any practice or effort on the level of me would reinforce its illusory nature. Such views, common among commercialized versions of non-duality, are very ungrounded and lack basic realism. They try to build a house starting with the chimney.

Our me is the pivot of our existence and the base of our evolution into our soul and the beyond. Because it is the closest to who we are, it is the most intangible to grasp. It is like trying to see our eyes, hear our ears or taste our tongue. And yet it is there all along, the unnoticed subject to all our experiences, the silent witness of our human existence. Awakening of me is the first step in our evolution into our soul. How does it feel to realize our me? It is a strange thing, but what in most teachings they call awareness is actually me. They think it is something of the beyond, transcendent, but awareness is our me in its pure form. So one can be in the state of me and yet completely misunderstand this realization. This lack of understanding and erroneous interpretation is actually changing the nature of the experience, diminishing its value. For me to be realized, it has to meet itself. It is a state of profound closeness with who one is. It is not cold, impersonal and empty awareness – it is love and intimacy.

For instance in Zen, the focus on working with ‘awareness’, which is me, may lead to its awakening, no matter how they conceptualize their path. However, because Zen does not point to creating the proper relationship of me with itself, their practices do not result in personal self-realization. What kind of realization is born of their path? It is neither me nor soul nor universal consciousness: it is a condition of awakened me which is attempting to identify with the impersonal reality. One is in the right place but in the wrong relationship with oneself due to excessive depersonalization. As a result, the incorrect interpretation of the realization prevents both personal self-realization and surrender to our deeper self. Because one does not really know who one is, one cannot become the true subject of surrender into the consciousness of I am – the foundation is missing.

There are more or less two levels in personal self-realization. One is the awakening of conscious me, through which we go beyond the observer. The observer and conscious me are using the same center in the mind. Conscious me can be seen as an awakened observer, the observer that has realized its pure subjectivity. When the observer goes beyond the stage of being merely conscious of himself – when he merges with himself, dissolving the duality between he and himself – he realizes his pure self and stops being an observer; he becomes conscious me. Conscious me knows itself intimately beyond the mind: it does not need an object or thought to know that it exists. As it falls into itself, relaxes into its own presence and acquires the sense of being (verticality), it awakens the light of its subjectivity. Due to being connected to the vertical abidance in the now, it expands into itself, opening the quality of spaciousness. It is this spaciousness – born out of the pure subjectivity of conscious me – that transforms the self-awareness of me into awareness. Awareness is a non-dual state of conscious me which has integrated into itself the qualities of spaciousness and clarity.

The second level of awakening on the level of me results from surrender of me into the soul. In fact, it is not yet a soul: it is the impersonal energy of I am activated as the background of me. This level of me-awakening is already directly tied to the process of individual self-realization. For me to awaken more deeply, it has to surrender into the light of I am. The problem is that conscious me cannot surrender directly because it is meant to maintain its position on the level of awareness (in the front of the headspace). However, the intention of conscious me to surrender and the simultaneous presence of the energy of I am allow the awakening of the deeper dimension of conscious me – pure me. Pure me is the deepest level of personal self-realization and it bridges the dimension of me with the soul. Pure me is the extension of conscious me into I am; it is that part of me that can merge with I am without relinquishing itself. We cannot understand what or who the soul is without understanding pure me. There is no soul without pure me. The soul is a unity of I am and me. Pure me is the consciousness of I am, while I am is the impersonal aspect of the soul, linking her pure me with the universal light of existence.

Individual Self-Realization

For the soul to come into being, to self-realize, the light of I am has to enter our existence. One cannot produce this through practice; one can only mature towards it. Only grace can instill the energy of I am into the construct of our personal self. In most cases, it is a function of initiation from a spiritual guide. A guide is someone who has the key to unlock this door, to create the bridge, to allow this quantum leap to happen from me into I am. I am is the link, but this link is not enough to awaken our soul: our me must surrender and merge into it.

Individual self-realization is a function of fusing me with I am. We must bear in mind that the I am here is not universal consciousness itself, but rather a portion of that universal energy that is transferred into our internal reality to serve as a foundation for the birth of our soul. The soul is a meeting of the personal and impersonal dimensions of our existence; I am is her impersonal aspect. For that I am to become the soul, it has to absorb and integrate the consciousness of me into itself.

The event of becoming our soul is difficult for the linear mind to grasp. Who becomes the soul? I am is not the soul and me is not the soul, and yet someone becomes the soul. The miracle of soul-awakening is the event of me graduating from the dimension of me into the dimension of I am. It is me that becomes the soul through its own surrender to I am. The bridge between me and I am is pure me. Pure me shares the qualities of both me and I am, the personal and impersonal. However, it is not enough for me to surrender into I am in order for the soul to awaken. There has to be a meeting between me and I am: a meeting of love and consciousness, not just an energetic fusion. There has to be recognition and understanding, the event of becoming our deeper self. Here, ‘to become’ means to embody the light of I am through the consciousness of pure me.

Some may see the word ‘become’ as a contradiction in terms. How can we become something other than we are? We simply can. A small girl becomes a woman, and though it mostly happens naturally, she needs to recognize that she is different now. In the case of our spiritual awakening, that becoming is more of a quantum leap into our future self. Pure me has to meet I am as its own higher identity, born out of surrender and higher identification with who it is now becoming, identification with its impersonal light. For pure me, I am is not the universal self but her own higher self. Here, she realizes her sacred individuality. There are two sides to soul-realization: samadhi of pure me in I am, and the act of me becoming I am. Samadhi is just a passive absorption. Awakening to our soul is an act of recognition, a shifting of our sense of identity into our higher self. When me embodies I am, these two become one self – our soul. This is individual self-realization.

The soul is who we are on a deeper level than me. However, to realize our soul does not mean that we cease to exist as me. Even though the essence of our me has merged into the soul, it continues to exist in its own dimension as well, but this time without forming a separate center of identity. It becomes a pure expression of the soul. Me is the outward face of the soul, her window into creation, her living, active principle. Me is the axis of the soul’s intelligence, her luminosity. The soul needs me as much as me needs her; they are bound together in a sacred duality that constitutes the dynamics of being our higher self. Only upon soul-realization can our me fully awaken within the embrace of its higher self. Only then is it pure and do we realize its divinity. In its purity, me is an immaculate reflection of the light of creation. That is why it is allowed to merge into I am and give birth to our soul.

Universal Self-Realization

Our soul lives in another dimension. She is on the earth through her human identity but internally, she dwells in the inner realm. Her roots are in the beyond. However, for the soul to fully realize herself, she needs to merge with the universal reality. The fact that one awakens the soul does not mean that she is immediately complete and whole. To awaken the soul is to enter the realm of the soul, but to actualize her fully, several further steps need to be taken into her depth. Firstly, the soul has to awaken through all her centers: consciousness, heart and being. Then these centers need to be integrated and unified as one state of identity. The soul then needs to grow into increasingly deeper states of surrender until she fully merges with the realm of absence, becoming one with the source of creation. By merging with the inner realm, the soul transcends the dimension of presence. This is the meaning of universal self-realization.

As we can see, individual self-realization and universal self-realization are fully interconnected. The more the soul is in the state of surrender, the more she can actualize her pure nature. Her evolution into herself and her surrender into the beyond are two sides of the same evolutionary movement into the complete realization of our natural state of existence. The natural state contains all three dimensions of self-realization as the one, total, multidimensional consciousness of who we are.

Through her universal self-realization, the soul becomes one with the beloved, her creator. While in individual self-realization pure me becomes the soul, in universal self-realization the soul both becomes and does not become the supreme reality. She becomes the supreme in the sense that her deepest identity is rooted in her absence, not in her presence: it is as if before she is someone, now she is no-thing. Her presence, her very existence, is founded upon her surrender to the beloved, and yet she retains the faculty of being conscious of her own self. As long as she is conscious of being her unique self – that unique angle of perception of the creator – she is in relationship with the source of her creation. In that sense, through universal self-realization she does not become the supreme reality, but rather she realizes the state of unity with the supreme – she is in samadhi in god.

In Shiva sutras they say of a self-realized yogi: as long as he is in the body he is not Shiva, he is like Shiva. We would say that regardless of whether we are in the body or not, when self-realized we always remain ‘like Shiva’. To become Shiva is to die, to cease to exist, and this is not the purpose of our creation. We have been created to realize the true nature of existence not through our annihilation but through our consciousness. To become like Shiva is to become our soul; only then we commence a mature relationship with the supreme reality. One can mistake samadhi in Shiva for being him, but only Shiva can be Shiva. We are who we are. We are precious and just fine by being our own self, as long as it is our true self. Universal self-realization is the entry into the realm of Shiva, which is the beginning of a new chapter in our universal evolution into the fathomless heart of god.


For a definition of the terminology used, please visit the Glossary page.