Persona, Personality & Self

By Swami Nirmalananda

Persona is the face you present to the world.  Personality is the aggregate of characteristics that you carry with you through the different personas.  The deeper unchanging Reality within is called “Self” in yoga.  The challenge is to sort it all out on the inside.  You get too easily mixed up in the different levels of identity and lost in the superficial levels of life, running around in circles and never feeling really fully complete.  Let’s look at the three levels of identity.

Yoga recognizes the importance of the fulfilling the different roles and responsibilities of your life, called dharma in Sanskrit.  Persona is the external sense of self that you create by these roles.  It is your whole sense of self when you are at work, how you are when you are with your friends and who you are at home and with your extended family.  You actually have multiple personas, some of them amazingly dissimilar.   You might be very quiet at work, yet gregarious at home or vice versa.  You could be considerate and loving to those you live with and still be sorting out some old anger with your extended family.  You even switch from one persona to another very easily, sometimes several times a day.

You also have personal characteristics that you carry through your many personas.  You may have a good sense of humor or you may be quietly insightful.  You might be a take-charge person, or you could be a person who prefers to wait and see about things.  Maybe you carry a sense of helpfulness everywhere you go, or you are an astute commentator on life and on the people around you.  These characteristics comprise your personality.

Your personality provides you with a distinct sense of self, different from other people.  It provides a more consistent sense of self than persona does, being made up of enduring qualities that yoga calls vasanas, your mental and emotional proclivities.  You can change them if you want to, but it takes genuine work.  You can decide to become more compassionate or to improve your ability to handle the practical things in life.  It will truly be worth it.  These unique and individual characteristics (or idiosyncratic quirks) comprise the way in which consciousness contracts to become an individual — you!

Beyond persona and personality, there is a deeper dimension which is called “Self,” atman or svaroopa in Sanskrit.  This innermost essence provides you with the internal sense of continuity while the surface revolves through many selves and an ever-changing external reality.  Inside, you are still the person you were when you were a child.  That inner essence has always been you and will always be.  Yoga is the process of finding your own Self.  Your Self is Consciousness-Itself being you.

So far, we have looked at three levels of self: persona, personality and Self.  You will always have all three.  The trick is how you handle them on the inside.  Consider this:  which one of the many selves are you coming from right now?  Whatever answer you give is a good answer — there is no wrong answer.  Problems arise only when you get stuck in the superficial levels of self, persona or personality.  Yoga helps you dive deeper to find svaroopa, the Self, which is your inner essence, from which happiness, joy and love arise.

You create your persona and personality through your memories.  Patanjali explains this in the Yoga Sutras:

Chittaantara-drshye buddhi-buddher ati-prasangah smrti-samkarash cha.   — Sutra # 4.21

…if mind were see-able by another mind, there would be an infinite regression

from one mind to another, as well as a confusion of memories.

This speaks to why yoga warns against developing and using psychic powers.  If you try to know what is in another’s mind, the memories of both get tangled together within you, making you go crazy because you lose your sense of individuality.  This shows how important your memories are, because you construct your sense of identity by your memories.

This is true of the memories that you keep reviewing like reruns inside your head, as well as the ones buried too deep for you to access consciously.  The more deeply they are buried, the more powerfully they shape your sense of self.  Yoga begins to unearth the hidden levels and clear a path to svaroopa, the Self.  It can even help you change your past because, fortunately, memories are changeable.  What you remember is not what really happened.  You have a highly selective memory, which edits out certain things and remembers others.  Worse, what you remember is actually a distorted report of what really happened.  This should not be a surprise to you —just check out your childhood memories with someone else who was actually present at the time!

Recent scientific studies have proven that your memory is unreliable.  A recent study reported work with a group of people over several years.  The scientists had each person do a series of simple puzzles, the “round-peg-in-the-round-hole” type of thing.  Every year they returned to do the same puzzles again.  Each time, the researchers told the people what their elapsed time was.  They kept getting better, because they were getting practice (and you always get better when you practice).  Every year, the scientists asked them what their time had been in the prior years.  What was really being measured was what their memory. Their memory of their elapsed times changed as their ability to do the puzzles improved.  As they got better at the puzzles, they shortened their past times — to show that they were better in the past.  In other words, when you feel better about yourself, your memories improve.  You really can change your past.

Yoga helps you with this.  You already know that when you do yoga, the way you respond to everyday situations improves.  More importantly, you can actually change your past and, when your memories change, your whole sense of self changes.  This is a profound healing of both persona and personality.  These two together are called ahamkara in Sanskrit, your externally-based sense of self, also often translated as “ego.”  You construct ahamkara through your memories, actions and thoughts.  When your thoughts and actions change, your ahamkara changes.  This is called healing.  It is called transformation.

While yoga reliably gives you these changes, they are not the goal of yoga.  The real goal of yoga is to find the Self and to let it shine through all the superficial layers.  This is because you will always have all three levels of identity.  You do not become free from ego (ahamkara) by destroying it, because it is the means by which consciousness becomes you as an individual.  If it goes, you go.

What happens instead is that you clear out all the gunk that blocks or distorts the way consciousness shines through you.  You make your ego as transparent as a sliding glass patio door, one that is so clean you cannot tell if it is open or closed.  Then svaroopa can shine through without distortion.

This gives you an internal feeling of vertical integrity, all your selves lined up inside.  Your personality and persona(s) become means by which Self (Consciousness-Itself) expresses itself into the world.  You live from the deepest level of your own being and even your emotions and memories are completely transformed.

Getting there is a process is of clearing out the old stuff; letting go.  Whether you let go gracefully or you kick and scream all the way, you will still have to let go.  The best part of this is that you are already on the way.  Doing yoga is a way to embark upon the inner journey quite consciously, but even if you aren’t doing yoga, you are on the path.  Life itself moves you — haven’t you noticed?

Be conscious about what you are doing, because you can use yoga to support any level of self that you hold dear.  Yoga can protect your persona, by doing yoga to recover from the strains of “holding it together” in a time of difficulties.  You can use yoga to protect your personality, doing yoga to just “get through the hard times.”  Or you can use yoga to dive deeper and deeper inside and base your whole inner being, and your whole life on the Self.  It’s your choice.  I always recommend, “Do more yoga!”

OM svaroopa svasvabhava namo nama.h

Click for online version (April 2003)