Understanding the five coverings of our personality and our experiences

There are several ways of looking at our sense of our own individuality, our sense of the experience of this world and that of ourselves. Here, I would like to share one of the ways Vedanta looks at personal experiences as well as our personality. There are several uses of this way of looking at ourselves which I have enumerated at the end of this post. However, it is important to note that the aim of Vedanta for conducting this analysis is to reveal to us our true nature, our true self which is independent of these coverings and these experiences.

Before I describe these layers, it is also important to note that this explanation is where the Vedanta perspective meets the findings of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience research and so my use of words is more contemporary. Any limitations and inconsistencies are purely my own.

Our personality as we know it can be seen to be made of five coverings/ sheaths/ layers. Let us just call them the layers of our Individuality.

They are:

  1. Nutrition
  2. Vitality
  3. Emotions
  4. Intelligence
  5. Ananda

Lets us try to understand each of them:

Food and Nutrition: This is the layer formed out of the food, water, nutrition that we take in us. In this sense, our body is made of the food we eat. Hence, the saying ‘you are what you eat or ‘you become what you eat. Our food content and our food habits form the most visible aspect of our personality and also one of the most tangible parts of our experience. The next time you go grocery shopping or look at the food menu at a restaurant, ask yourself not what you wish to buy or eat but what you wish should become the visible you.

Vitality: This is the layer of our personality and experience that is the powerhouse of all physiological functions and our physical activity. We also refer to these as vitals as they are vital for our survival. It includes the five main physiological functions viz.

  1. Respiration: the main function that keeps us alive- we live as long as we breathe.
  2. Circulation: this includes our beating heart and the blood circulation through our arteries and veins.
  3. Digestion: the food we intake broken down and assimilated. The liver, stomach and pancreas are involved organs.
  4. Excretion: this system helps us throw out waste and unwanted stuff out of body in the form of sweat, phlegm and excretion.
  5. Intake and throw up: this allows us to chew, salivate, swallow and even spit. When you throw up after too many drinks, this is the force at work.

Besides these vital physiological functions, we also include here the organs of action including our limbs which help us get things done. They should be counted as part of this layer of experience too.

Emotions: We now move to subtle aspects of our personality and experience- the world of emotions. Emotions are largely automated program actions put together in the course of the process of evolution. The world of emotions is really a world of actions that happen inside our bodies- from facial expressions, posture and viscera (changes in heart and breathing). Emotional programs include all the various life regulation machinery that came along in the history of evolution.

These include:

  • Sensing and detection of conditions
  • measurement of the degree of internal need
  • The incentive process with its reward and punishment aspects
  • Prediction devices

Sensations and Feelings: This layer first includes our basic experience of all sensations, that arise from our five sense organs viz. taste, sight, touch, sound and smell. The sensation is a physical process that we can experience.

Feelings of emotions are composite perceptions of what happens in our body and mind when we are emoting. For the body, feelings are images of action rather than actions themselves.

There are three ways of generating a feeling of emotion:

  1. Modify the body: Doing anything to or with the body can generate feelings of emotions in the body. Examples include exercise, relax on an easy chair, a cool evening breeze or simply touching something too hot or cold.
  2. Give the impression as-if you have modified something with the body. Ever experienced a motivational talk or video? There is a surge of emotions in the body without we doing anything.
  3. Altering the transmission of body signals to the brain. Example administering painkillers, anesthetics, alcohol or mind altering drugs.

Intelligence and Perception: Intelligence is usually said to involve mental capabilities such as the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend ideas and language, and learn.

This layer also involves our sense organs but in a psychological and not purely physical sense. Perception refers to the way sensory information is organized, interpreted, and consciously experienced. Perception involves both bottom-up and top-down processing. Bottom-up processing refers to the fact that perceptions are built from sensory input. On the other hand, how we interpret those sensations is influenced by our available knowledge, our experiences, and our thoughts. This is called top-down processing.

Understanding the difference between sensations and perceptions is important here. Sensation occurs when sensory receptors detect sensory stimuli. Perception involves the organization, interpretation, and conscious experience of those sensations.

Ananda: There is no single parallel word for Ananda in English and so I decided to keep it as it is here. Ananda can mean many things like happiness, flow, quietude and all things they share in common, the experience of happiness that arises when one loses one’s sense of self. I believe this also includes the experience of flow, as called in psychology. Psychological Flow captures the positive mental state of being completely absorbed, focused, and involved in our activities at a certain point in time, as well as deriving enjoyment from being engaged in that activity. One loses one’s sense of self as well as time for a temporary period of time.

This ananda is also experienced in deep sleep which is dreamless of which we have no vivid memory of but we can tell with certainty that those were moments of happiness, peace, freedom, relief or rest. One also experiences this state of ananda in nirvikalpa samadhi, the highest meditative state a yogi can attain through ashtanga yoga practice.

There are many practical applications of this model. Some of those that I see myself as useful are:

  • Understand the priorities at different stages of life
  • Planning a balanced daily routine
  • Make lifestyle choices
  • Life goals planning
  • Work-life balance
  • Being a more complete person

I will discuss some of these applications later in a separate post.

Assuming now we have a fair understanding of the five layers, think of yourself and the people you know and think what are the causes that lie behind their five layers of personality and how these five layers influence their thoughts, words and deeds.

Here are four questions you can ask yourself while you do this self-analysis:

  1. Which layer do you identify with the most? For example, think what one may be identifying with when one says one is a foodie, or a fitness freak or a book worm or a fashionable person.
  2. How does one layer interact with another – the play of cause and effect between the interacting layers? Example: what is the effect of a certain diet or exercise or meditation practice or a certain drug or a certain obsessive thought or a certain line of reasoning on all the other layers.
  3. What is the optimum setup of these five layers that allow the us the best lives?
  4. Who are you really, independent of these five layers? What is the nature of that existence?

It seems like I gave packed in a lot of content here and I really have. There is so much to it and you can understand if you observe, think and analyse it for yourself.

All the best!

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