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Today I received a very thoughtful email from a reader asking me about the view I express in You’re Trying Too Hard (available for free now) regarding ego.
He pointed out that while there is no actual ‘psychic structure’ called ego, there is a phenomenon in most humans of the facade we use to interact with the world, and perhaps that could be called ego as well as anything else.
Here’s what I wrote in reply:
I wrote that book nearly 4 years ago. It was a very truthful expression of my own experience. And I think it is a useful book because of the directness and clarity of it. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t without shortcomings.
One of the things I’ve learned over these 4 years interacting with a lot of people on this matter is that most people (just as I was) are locked into a chronic state of what I call unconscious self-rejection. And I believe that is a neurological habit formed from early childhood conditioning.
We could call that ego if we want. But what I take issue with is that in popular talk on the subject, ego is made out to be the enemy. I don’t see it that way at all. In fact, to posit the existence of a separate self and an ego at odds with one another is to reinforce the fundamental problem.
And ironically, the popular talk of ego actually projects all that is unwanted or feared or rejected onto this imaginary separate thing called ego that must be defeated or gotten rid of. Which is the very problem, not the solution.
Incidentally, for anybody interested in learning more about the approach I am taking to discussing this, I have a free email course that introduces the idea. You can sign up for it here.
I got an email today from somebody asking me how it is that identification can happen if there is no one to identify and how it is possible for there to be any change if nobody can make change happen.
This is a common theme among questions I receive.
Of all the things I’ve written about and spoken about, this business of there being no findable separate self seems to be the one thing that captures people’s attention the most.
Which, for my tastes, is unfortunate. Because I don’t think it’s all that important. Useful? Perhaps. To a certain extent. But not necessarily all that important.
I think a lot of people hope that seeing that who they’ve taken themselves to be is nothing more than an idea without an actual reference point will be…uh…enlightening.
And I suppose it could be. It all depends on how seriously you’ve take this idea. I suppose if you took it very, very seriously – really believed deeply that you are some reference point that the idea of the separate self refers to – then maybe it would be a major revelation to discover it was only an idea. Or maybe just a function of the nervous system.
But in any case, the separate self that we assumed was findable isn’t findable as we thought it would be.
In most cases this is no big deal at all. Just modestly useful in as much as whenever there is suffering that hinges on the assumption that the separate self could be found, the lack of findability would short circuit that suffering to some extent.
But still, don’t get too excited. Because it’s really not that big of a deal.
I’m reminded of those maps from hundreds of years ago that showed sea monsters at the periphery of the known. Whether or not anybody really believed one could just fall off the edge of the world, I don’t know. But the belief in the finability of a separate self is somewhat like believing you can fall off the edge of the world: discovering it’s not true doesn’t fundamentally change anything. But it might possibly remove some superstition and a touch of fear. Maybe. That’s not guaranteed either. But it might.
Anyway, the original point of this post was just to say this: we assume that there is an central actor making choices and doing stuff. And that assumption runs so deep, so to speak, that we wonder things like, “How could there be no chooser when choice is happening?” and “How could there be no one to identify or identify with when there is identification happening?”
And what I wanted to write about that is that all that we can say for sure without making assumptions is that happening is happening. This is happening happening. Identification is not proof of anyone doing the identification. Choice is not proof of a chooser. Life is not proof of someone doing life.
[image credit: Olaus Magnus’ Carta Marina]
I got an email a few days ago that reads:
You always mention that there is only „what is“ and that everything else is just conceptual.
So I was wondering „who“ is having these concepts? If there is no separate self then „who“ can take a closer look and see that there is no separate self?
If concepts just happen, like everything else does, then there is no one who could actually „do“ something.
In my conception I most of the time feel like a solipsist individual: Everything is happening around and for and through me.
And then there are times where I totally buy into the materialist idea, that we’re animals running around on their hind legs with brains that produce thought and the notion of a consciousness.
Could you share your thoughts on that?
Here’s my reply:
I don’t intend to say that “everything else is just conceptual”. In my view – what I actually perceive – there is only what is happening. That “everything else” that “is just conceptual” is what is happening. So it’s not excluded. There’s just what is happening.
And as far as I can tell, all that is happening is equal in weight, so to speak.
We do tend to be conditioned to give undue importance to the conceptual stuff, which is probably why so many people talk trash about concepts – because otherwise we keep on giving excessive focus to them.
But I’m not suggesting that we should swing to that extreme and condemn concept.
Still, the question remains: who can look? Who can either give undue importance to concept or condemn concept or see it as equally what is happening?
And I don’t think it matters. I don’t think it is worth getting hung up on trying to puzzle that out.
If you happen to firmly believe that there is some central character here around which all of (your) life happens, so be it. That is not a problem. Then you as the central character can look and investigate.
If you don’t happen to have such a firm belief and you can entertain the possibility that even the sense of self center is just more of what is happening – all equally happening without some having more importance than others – then fine. In that case, just let the looking happen. Let the investigation happen.
I do propose that if you truly investigate into the nature of what is happening, you’ll likely discover that no autonomous self center is needed for looking to happen.
But I don’t think it matters that you come to see it that way. It isn’t the conclusion that is useful so much as the looking with an open mind.
We’re so conditioned to look for conclusions. But in my view it is that insistence upon conclusions that is the problem we are wrestling with. What if life doesn’t really have conclusions? What if it is just a question? What if it is just open? Just happening?
Three emails to respond to in this post
I got an email in which the person asked me what is the fastest way to know oneself as one truly is.
The answer – and hopefully this is not too surprising – is this: this right now is already yourself as you truly are. It is already known. Whatever is known right now is all that there is to be known (right now).
The idea that there is some “true self” to know and that you don’t presently know it just feeds into the same old nonsense that claims that there is something deficient about you. So it is appealing; if you just know your true self then you won’t be so deficient. Then you won’t have unpleasant, uncomfortable feelings.
But the unpleasant, uncomfortable feelings are your “true self” whenever they are happening. Or if there are pleasant, comfortable feelings, that is your “true self” when they are happening.
Don’t look for something else. Don’t insist there is something wrong with you or what is happening. Allow this right now completely, including the discomfort and the resistance and the thoughts and the feelings and all of it.
This right now is the only truth there is. Stop trying to get rid of it. And stop believing you know what this is or how it should be.
I got an email asking me to write about the subconscious mind and re-programming it.
Sure. Why not. Here you go.
There is no subconscious mind as a thing. But as a concept it may have use as long as we don’t get hung up on believing it is a real thing that we need to be concerned with, do battle with, fix, improve, repair, etc.
We each are conditioned to believe – in a way that we might call below the conscious threshold, or subconsciously – that life is a certain way, that it plays by certain rules, and that we know who we are in relationship to life.
We could call that the subconscious mind. Again, don’t get hung up on that.
Fundamentally, those beliefs are based on the assumption of separation. Here I am. There life is. And I am endangered by scary life. Plus, to make matters worse, I am separate from myself. I have to control my scary, unacceptable, bad, impure self so that I can survive and become pure and acceptable.
How to re-program the subconscious mind? Stop assuming any of these thoughts are true. Stop acting on the assumptions in an attempt to protect yourself and armor yourself from both life and yourself.
Be vulnerable. Or, rather, acknowledge your innate vulnerability. And discover that none of your armoring and protecting from life and yourself ever actually kept you safe. It just kept you miserable.
The third email asks:
Can I ask – how do you feel about improvements that people can make to their lives which help their mental & physical health and wellbeing?
For example a good diet, sleep, regular exercise, having a purpose, belonging to a community or tribe.
If people don’t have these things but are awake, how does that affect those things?
Are we perfectly whole as we are and have everything we need, and those things are bonus improvements to anyone’s life?
Like do you still need those things as well as being awake? Is it worthwhile seeking out or waiting for the opportunities.
Here’s my reply:
We’re already awake. This is awakeness. This is the experience of awakeness. Don’t make awakeness into some future state you can earn or acquire.
We have needs. To deny that is only to suffer. We need to sleep. We need to eat. We need companionship.
Try to live without water. You won’t survive very long.
Awakeness is already the case and does not get rid of the need for water.
I’m reminded of the claims of breatharianism. When I was duped by the whole raw vegan thing a couple of decades ago, I was particularly interested in the promises of breatharianism.
The story goes: there are pure people who can live on breath alone. And then there are even people who have transcended the need for breath – who live on light alone.
The progression is: raw veganism, fruitarianism, fruit juice only, water only, breathing only, light only.
When you are purified enough, you’ll experience only bliss living on light.
See, there’s something wrong with you. You, in your gross state, are dependent upon horrors like food. OMG! That’s why you’re not always blissed out. If you want to have constant really good orgasm feelings then don’t have sex and don’t eat and don’t think. Just concentrate on Divine Light ™.
What is wrong with food? What is wrong with sleep? What is wrong with thought? What is wrong with anger? What is wrong with…gasp!…jealousy, fear, worry, anxiety, or any of the other experiences that happen?
If you’re a drunk waking up in the gutter every morning and your liver is failing and the only thing you can actually remember is puking. If you want a better experience for yourself, why wouldn’t you take steps to improve your life? Go to rehab. Join a 12-step program. Do Buddhist meditation. Eat more vegetables. Do psychotherapy. Get a new career. Whatever.
There’s no conflict between self improvement and recognizing your inherent okayness. Your inherent okayness isn’t about your behaviors and lifestyle being ideal. It’s just about recognizing the conditioning that seeks to avoid yourself because you judge yourself as unacceptable. So it’s just about discovering that what you have judged as unacceptable about yourself is allowed. Even if it is uncomfortable and terrifying.
So you can acknowledge your innate okayness and at the same time do things to support a healthier, happier experience. Because if you don’t do the latter, you’ll die. Just like if you try to be a breatharian, you’ll die. Because you’ve got to do the basic stuff to take care of your needs – needs that “awakening” couldn’t possibly resolve.
Today I received an email from somebody who wrote that many “awakened beings” state that life is a dream, and he wonders if somebody is having a pleasant dream (i.e. his or her life is happy), is that person obligated to wake up?
This is an interesting question.
Let’s look first at whether it is true that life is a dream.
What is it we are calling life? Most of the time it seems that what we refer to as life is a narrative about what is happening that centers around a particular character: me.
We distinguish this “life” from other states or experiences or what we imagine would be the absence of experience. We call these other states or imaginary states “dreams” or “death” or whatever.
So according to this definition, I find that “life” is not fundamentally different from “dream”.
Both “life” and “dream” are narratives that center around a character, which is what you imagine yourself to be.
From this perspective it is tempting to think that you – the dreamer – must wake up from the dream. But that misses the point. What needs to wake up? The only think that is “asleep” is “life”/”dream”.
All we are dealing with are word games. We can call this awake or asleep, but it doesn’t make any difference to the aliveness/awakeness that this is. What I’m getting at is not really different than any other word games or beliefs. We can say that the Earth revolves around the Sun or the Sun revolves around the Earth. It makes no difference to what is happening, because what is happening isn’t defined by what we think about it.
When we talk about waking up, all we’re actually talking about is the story line. Within the story we imagine that someone has woken up to the fact that it’s a story line. But all that happened is the story line now includes the narrative that waking up has happened and that previously there was sleeping.
Whether we’re talking about literal waking up or metaphorical waking up makes no difference either. We can speak about literal sleep and literal wakefulness, and all that has changed between the two is that in the state of wakefulness there is a narrative that says, “Now I am awake. Before I was asleep.”
But all the while, completely indifferent to the narrative, life is happening.
Notice that I’m not putting life in quotes in this instance. Because I’m not talking about a relative state defined by a narrative. I’m referring in this case to the actuality of aliveness that is happening. And the actuality of aliveness doesn’t care at all whether we imagine that this is asleep or awake. What difference could a belief make? It’s just word games.
Life doesn’t center around a narrative. Life doesn’t care about states. There is no central character to life.
Look for yourself. You’ll see this is true. At least I suspect you will. But whatever you do, don’t take my words and turn them into a religion or a new word game. Just look for yourself.
Most of us are conditioned to think that there is somebody here at the center who gets to claim all states as its own. So when there is “life” it is my life. When there is “dream” it is my dream. When there is deep sleep it is my deep sleep.
But isn’t that absurd? In the “life” state, the waking state, there is a character at the center of the narrative. In the “dream” state there is a dream character – the dreamer. In deep sleep there is a subtle character. But these characters are not the same. They are different characters.
There is no single character who can lay claim to all of these states. There are just states, each defined by the narrative that posits a central character for the state.
All of these states are equal in that regard.
Where a lot of philosophies go “wrong” in my opinion is they recognize what I am pointing to here, but then they posit the existence of some other, greater central entity – consciousness, awareness, whatever.
In that model, consciousness – the new central character – is what we are told we are. So we seek to identify as that.
But it’s the same game being played again. Why strive to identify as anything? It’s absurd. Here’s life happening. There’s no need to invent characters and identify with them.
Not that it matters. It couldn’t. Who would care?
But whatever. Just take a look and see if I’m not right.
All the striving always has to do with trying to fix some character we imagine ourselves to be. But if you can’t know that you are that character, why imagine this painful involvement?
So does anybody need to wake up? No. Not only is it not necessary. It’s not possible. Who would wake up?
Waking up happens. But it doesn’t matter. Not even to the character. Because the character is a fiction.
I recently received an email from somebody who expressed his misery in hearing a message that “there is no you”. He writes that he has become more fearful and feels more separate than ever. He says that he feels powerless since “I don’t exist”. He also describes that he feels compelled to “know it’s true” – about what I’m not quite sure, but I think I get the gist of it – he wants certainty, not doubt. And finally, he writes that he feels he is going in circles with thought.
I suspect we’ve all had some experience of this, though maybe not all to the same extent. So I think this is an excellent topic to cover.
I am reminded of the year that I was living in an unfurnished apartment in Vermont. It was completely bare except for a modem, a phone, a computer, and a futon mattress that I had hauled around in my van.
At the time I felt that I didn’t deserve to have any comforts. I sat on the bare wooden floor. And I would have slept on the floor as well, but I couldn’t manage it. I tried, and my arms and legs would lose circulation and I’d be unable to sleep. So I compromised and allowed myself the comfort of 2 inches of futon between my body and the floor.
I was still working as a computer programmer at the time. But most of my time was spent meditating, reading Tony Parsons and Joan Tollifson books, and praying for help to whatever might be listening (and yes, it did cross my mind at times that whatever might be listening might not be entirely benign). That and I was washing my hands a lot.
I wanted out. I really wanted out of my misery. I couldn’t bear the thought of having to suffer another day.
Every night I prayed and hoped that somehow I would magically wake up without the misery. And when I woke up with the misery in the morning I would pray and hope some more that my morning meditation would cure me of my misery.
Obviously, reading the Tony Parsons books I got the message that “there is no person”. And I would imagine that I understood and wonder why I still wasn’t enlightened. I even called Tony and told him I understood. He said something perfectly polite. And that was all we had to say to one another.
But here’s the thing. That whole “there is no person” or “there is no you” or “I don’t exist” shtick is just another thing to use as a distraction.
A distraction from what? From what is happening and the unavoidable realization that this is it. You can’t escape.
This was what I didn’t want to see. And as horrible as the suffering and misery and depression was, I now have to admit that unconsciously I preferred those things to what is happening as it is.
Not because this as it is really is all that horrible. It’s not. I mean, even if it is sometimes horrible, it’s certainly better than resisting what is and trying to escape on top of whatever is happening.
But we’re conditioned to believe – largely unconsciously – that what is happening is the worst thing. On the one hand we say that we want to become enlightened. We might even read about Zen and claim that we’re down with equanimity and the ordinariness of what is. We nod along with Alan Watts as he eloquently tells us these things.
However, we’re fooling ourselves. Because actually, we imagine (largely unconsciously) that what is happening is completely unacceptable. Not this. No, no, no, not this.
And you can see that is true because so long as you are looking for something else, you’re saying no to this. Even though saying no to what is turns out to be painful.
To really see that there is no separate self apart from this as it is right now is to lose all hope of escape or of things getting better. There’s an irony in that because things do get better when we lose hope – just not in the ways we thought they had to get better. But as long as we believe things have to get better, we’re stuck.
Because “better” isn’t about circumstances. Better is about no longer resisting what is, no longer imagining that you’re going to step outside of this.
I wanted to know. I wanted to understand. I read and read and read because I thought that maybe the next book would provide the key to understanding. Just as so many people write to me, I thought that I “understood it intellectually, but…”
What I woke up to wasn’t about understanding or figuring it out. It was simply about seeing the insanity of believing that I needed to understand or figure anything out.
This right now doesn’t depend on your understanding. This right now is all that is. There’s nothing to understand. Understanding cannot help because understanding always acts as a mediating force between an understander and the understood. But if you take a look right now you’ll see there is no such distance between you and this. There is just this. No mediating force needed. No mediating force possible.
Understanding is the obstacle. Fortunately it’s also a fiction. There’s only ever just this as it is.
And that seems like the worst possible truth. But whether you like it or not, it is what it is.
I will add, though, it’s actually quite nice. Just let go. It’ll be scary for a while. But just let go anyway.
Somebody sent me an email yesterday asking me to write a book about parenting.
I thought that was interesting for several reasons. For one, I’ve toyed with the idea – more on that in a moment. And for another, I wondered why anybody would think I have any authority to write a parenting book – at least in the usual way they are written.
I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a book on the subject not because I view myself as an authority on “correct parenting”. Rather, the idea would simply be to invite readers to explore many of the ideas many of us have about parenting and children and society and right and wrong and good and bad.
And the title I had in mind for the book is “Enlightened Parenting” – very tongue in cheek.
You may wonder what this has to do with the usual theme of this blog. Stay with me. It’s relevant. Even if you don’t have children.
Here’s what I’ve observed. Much of our striving for becoming perfect – perfect enlightened spiritual beings, perfect humans, perfect spouses, perfect parents, etc. – is actually striving for death.
Think about this for a moment. I’ve made this point about enlightenment before. But it’s worth making it again. The usual sales pitch for enlightenment is that it’s a perfected, transcendental state beyond the mundane. Once enlightened nothing will bother you. You will only ever be perfectly equinanimous (is that a word?). You will have achieved the middle way to such perfection that you’ll never again be troubled by anger, sadness, fear, worry, vanity, jealousy, etc.
Think about it. That’s not life. That’s the absence of life. Life is messy. Life is movement. Life is stuff happening.
My kids sometimes watch some nature documentaries. There’s always movement. Always stuff happening. There’s danger, hunger, sex, fighting, etc.
Where in life is stillness found?
We can use words any way we want, of course. We can have the insight that all movement, all life is happening now and here always. We can refer to that as stillness. And that is a useful pointer.
But that stillness is not the same as the stillness of death that we have perversely been seeking after.
Meanwhile, real life is already here. And when you see this – really let it sink in – you will laugh. You’re like Dorothy searching everywhere in Oz for the way home, but you never left.
Being the perfect parent – the way we imagine it – is not much different. Because the perfect parent and the perfect child come together in death. Because only in death is there no shouting, no crying, no anger, no sadness, no misunderstanding, no sickness, no disagreements, etc.
We have been taught that being a good and effective parent can be measured by the outcome. And specifically, the outcome is how “well-behaved” and “well-adjusted” is the child. Does the child yell? Does the child kick? Does the child cry? Does the child sit when told to? Does the child misbehave in public?
Your personal parenting philosophy may be lenient, of course. But before you dismiss what I am saying, really consider this deeply for a moment. If you wish to be a good parent and if you wish for your children to be good (or substitute ‘happy’ or whatever word you wish), how do you measure success? And I am reasonably certain that you’ll find that the measure is based on death, not life.
We were all taught to be good and well-behaved. All of us. Some more, some less. But none of us escaped being taught – inculcated, perhaps is a better word – to be good. Don’t cry. Don’t shout. Don’t make a scene. Don’t disobey. Go to school. Eat your broccoli. Make your bed. Don’t hit your sister. Be kind to the dog. Don’t pick your neighbor’s flowers.
I’m not saying hitting your sister is a desirable behavior from most perspectives. But I’m just saying that we learned to comply to be good, to get approval, to avoid punishment, to be loved, to get along.
But take a look at the result. Are you happy with it? Do you feel more alive or more dead? Look at the society we live in. Does this strike you as something functional, healthy, open, free? How many people go to their job out of joy? How many people are truly happy living behind masks, terrified to be themselves? How much of this is really working?
We have been conditioned to try to keep a lid on ourselves. And as a result, we’re suffocating.
What do we want? What did we always want but never got?
We don’t really want to be told what to do. We don’t really want to be told how to be.
We mistakenly think that’s what we want. That’s why we seek out spiritual teachers and gurus. That’s why we seek out parenting experts. “Just tell me what to do. Just tell me how to be. So then I can be good and right and feel content and not have these awful, terrible, unbearable feelings any longer.”
But what we’re actually saying and not realizing is, “Tell me how to be dead. Completely. So I don’t have to feel. So I don’t have to be me – this terrible, unacceptable, horrible, unlovable me.”
The children disobeying and crying and shouting and kicking. They make us uncomfortable because it reminds us that we’re not dead yet. We’re still alive. And life is messy.
Instead of trying to become something or learn how to do things right. I think it’s worth first investigating why we are so insistent that something is wrong to begin with.
How do we know that this shouldn’t be? Why shouldn’t we feel what we feel, including the unpleasant, uncomfortable stuff? Why shouldn’t our children be how they are?
My kids will try to hurt one another. Sometimes they succeed. Kids do that. And I will step in and protect them from actually getting hurt.
So I’m not suggesting a free for all brawl.
But I just started to notice how 99 percent of the parenting impulses I experienced were motivated by striving for death rather than welcoming the present reality of life.
Life doesn’t want to be denied or rejected. Life makes one very simple request: “Accept me as I am.”
I’ve received a bunch of emails lately that all deal with a similar theme – at least from my perspective.
That theme is one of needing protection from something.
The need to protect is a mechanism that happens. I am reminded of what bullies used to do in school. They would walk up and throw a punch at a kid’s face, stopping just short of landing it. The bullies would then laugh, “Haha! Made you flinch!”
The implication is that somehow the self protective mechanism is shameful. “Haha! Made you flinch!”
As if there was somebody in there who did that. Somebody who chose to flinch in self protection. Somebody who was wrong for doing so.
But that self protective mechanism is automatic. And it is useful.
We’ve internalized the bullies. All of us. Even if you were the bully, you too were bullied. The bullies were bullied by their fathers or stepfathers or mothers or stepmothers or uncles or older brothers or whatever.
We’ve all been bullied. And it scared us. We internalize the bully so we can stay on guard, make sure we bully ourselves before anybody else gets a chance.
So we mistakenly shame ourselves for feeling shame and for being bullied, for flinching, for the self-protective mechanism.
And along comes so-called spirituality, and we think, “Aha! This is what I’ve been looking for. This will make me right. This will make me okay. This will make sure that I don’t have to fear any longer, because I’ll be so pure, so perfect, so righteous that nobody can harm me. I can be done with that self protective mechanism forever.”
But the self protective mechanism is there. It’s a function. It happens. It’s not shameful. It’s useful.
Don’t try to get rid of it.
What I’ve been thinking about, though, is this. What have we imagined the self protective mechanism belongs to? What do we think it is protecting? And what do we think needs to take responsibility for the shame of its existence?
Somebody recently recommended that I read a book called The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller. I am reading it and very much enjoying it.
Miller writes from a psychoanalytic perspective (and a post psychoanalytic perspective as well). And she addresses this point in a way that is very much in alignment with my own observations. Her book also reminds me of some of what I have read of R. D. Laing – somebody whose perspective I also like.
It is one of the turning points in analysis when the nar-cissistically disturbed patient comes to the emotional in-sight that all the love he has captured with so much effortand self-denial was not meant for him as he really was,that the admiration for his beauty and achievements wasaimed at this beauty and these achievements, and not at thechild himself. In analysis, the small and lonely child that ishidden behind his achievements wakes up and asks: “Whatwould have happened if I had appeared before you, bad,ugly, angry, jealous, lazy, dirty, smelly? Where wouldyour love have been then? And I was all these things aswell. Does this mean that it was not really me whom youloved, but only what I pretended to be? The well-behaved,reliable, empathic, understanding, and convenient child,who in fact was never a child at all? What became of mychildhood? Have I not been cheated out of it? I can neverreturn to it. I can never make up for it. From the begin-ning I have been a little adult. My abilities-were theysimply misused?”
The one who needs to be protected is a false self. It is the one who was fabricated from all the shit we experienced where we were told either explicitly or implicitly that whatever was happening – what we were – was not okay. So this false self was invented as the acceptable one – the one who could get love and approval and acceptance.
There never was any such entity. It was always a fabrication.
The need for the false self was real. But the self itself was not. It was a artifice to have a sense of getting what was needed but otherwise not available.
It was only ever a play, though. Perhaps a comedy. Perhaps a tragedy. But it wasn’t ever real.
Unfortunately, we’ve been living as though it was real and we’ve been trying to solve the problems of this imaginary character.
It will never work. You can’t fix what never was in the first place.
All you can do is see that it never was.
That excerpt from Miller’s book sounds rather depressing – a childhood lost. But I don’t see it that way. Because if we lament the childhood lost, we are still fixating on an imaginary character.
Just see the false as false.
I’m not saying that makes everything easy or nice. But it’s essential.
I’ve been seeing this come up in a lot of conversations I’ve had lately as well. As long as we cling to the false as true, we try in vain to fix problems that we cannot fix. So we must see the false as false. That is an essential first step. Only then can we recognize the present freedom.
Today I’ve got four emails to respond to.
The first email says:
Since researching non duality and becoming familiar with space and awareness I actually become really depressed because when i realised space is all we are I kind of lost hope for some reason and have not slept well and my stress levels have got worse. A close friend of mine who attends tony parsons satsangs told me he has had similar thoughts and emotions.I am wondering if this is normal?
Here’s my reply:
Yeah, somewhat unfortunately, it seems to be common. I think it comes from finally realizing on some level that the fantasy we’ve chased after is not going to happen – or if it did, it would be empty.
But at the same time, I have to say, I think it’s the result of still holding on to an old model of reality instead of just letting go entirely of models of reality and acknowledging that reality doesn’t need a mediator.
I’ve told this story before, but it’s probably worth telling again.
I became enlightened once upon a time. It was really delightful. And to those of you readers who have been reading my blog for a while, stop snickering. I’m serious. I really did become enlightened. At least I thought I was.
It lasted for a couple of months. And then one day suddenly it vanished.
And it was hell. I was crushed. I was horribly depressed because I had several months of being enlightened during which I knew that I would never suffer again. Suffering was impossible because everything was so clear.
At least I thought it was all so clear.
But blessedly – and I really mean that, it was really blessed that this happened – I had this insight that clinging to enlightenment was suffering. So I let go.
And to me, that is the real “enlightenment”. It’s not about permanent bliss. It’s about allowing everything. Or, rather, it’s about discovering that everything is allowed.
It’s hard to believe from the perspective of the one who is seeking for enlightenment that ordinariness would be preferable. But that’s my experience.
Why am I telling this story?
Because I think this whole business of becoming depressed because of “seeing that we’re only space” is still clinging to a story of self – like the story of the enlightened self. It’s not true and it is a form of suffering that is unnecessary.
The story of awareness or space is just a story. It’s not “the truth”. The only truth there is, is unmissable. This right now is the truth. Not “the truth”. But this is truthful. It cannot lie because this has no pretense. It is just what it is and doesn’t need to be and cannot be interpreted or understood.
So my suggestion, for what it is worth, is this: let go of the story about all we are is space. And let go of the story that any of this means anything – including depression and insomnia. Instead of trying to understand it, just notice that this is what is happening. This is already the truth.
Another person wrote me asking for my opinion about an article about free will in The Atlantic.
The article presents different arguments for why we should get rid of the superstition of free will versus why we should continue to perpetuate the superstition even though there is no free will.
But here’s was my main takeaway: it seems like there are a bunch of religious zealots masquerading as intellectuals and philosophers, trying to convert us to their religion so that we can collectively save the masses from their sins and ignorance.
At least for my part, I don’t want to start a movement. I don’t want to form a philosophy or religion. I don’t want believers. I don’t want any of that. Because I’m not trying to save the world or save individuals.
I don’t perceive that anybody needs saving.
And I see that all the attempts to save everybody haven’t worked out so well.
Scientific experiments to find out if there is free will or consciousness or matter or whatever may be the case are, frankly, dull. Because all that these things can bring about is more understanding – which misses the point.
When we think we understand, we are placing understanding as a mediating force between ourselves and life.
But what good comes from it?
All we get from the deal is some self-satisfaction for having understood something and a whole lot of sense of lack, aloneness, and isolation.
Whereas, what is freely available to all of us at all times is our actual experience. And if we simply let all the clutter of trying to understand settle for a moment, we may notice that our actual experience turns out to be ALL that is available.
But don’t turn that into a religion. Don’t post that as a quote on facebook. Just look for yourself. And see what you find. Don’t try to find what you think I’m telling you to find. Just look for yourself. That’s all.
Another emailer wrote me asking some questions inspired by a German community in Portugal (really) that advocates for free love as part of a plan to create a utopia.
Specifically, the emailer asks if free love without jealousy would be possible in the context of understanding that there is no separate self.
She also writes: “In the site they talk about the issues of sex and love, left unresolved mean we can’t generate peace in the world. I wonder what you think of this idea?”
And she adds, regarding a utopia: “I wondered what you think about this and what you think might be better for humans – to organise such a society or to realise they are not what they believe.”
I think we all experience fears that we desperately try to avoid. And so we will do just about anything other than meet them fully. We will remain monogamous when we don’t want to, we will engage in risky deceptions when we really want honesty, we will go to war, we will chase after utopias. All kinds of stuff.
The expression “the grass is always greener” comes to mind. Our avoidance of fear allows us to deceive ourselves into believing that the grass is always greener. If I’m unhappy in any way now then when I hear of a free love commune in Portugal I will think, “Hey, that sounds like the answer.”
But how many times do we have to do this before we realize what is going on?
Utopia is only necessary because we are trying to avoid what is happening – our fear right now.
At least my experience is that once I meet fear, I am no longer driven to solve all the problems. Because the problems are trying to avoid fear.
I’m not trying to suggest that anybody should strive to meet all fear and never avoid any fear and never have any interest or hope in utopias. I’m not sure that’s realistic. Nor am I saying that polyamory is wrong or that people shouldn’t be polyamorous…I think whatever floats your boat is great.
But we can at least look and be honest. We can see that moving to Portugal and having sex with Germans won’t solve our problems.
Yes, polyamory challenges us to face fears. So there’s that. I don’t think anybody can be successful in polyamory and avoid the fears specific to that. But it does seem naive to me to propose that polyamory will solve all the world’s problems and the lamb will lie down with the lion.
And the proposal for a utopia sounds so noble. But first we should look to see if we need it. Are we really so sure this isn’t already it?
Think about this for a moment. Polyamory challenges us to face specific fears. True. But so does life more generally. What if we face the fear of not being enough, of being wrong, of failing, of dying, or being shamed, of losing, of being alone, of being hurt? What if we face the fear of this being it?
Fourth email asks about spiritual bypassing. “Is spiritual bypassing like the ego, something lots of apparently enlightened people agree exists, but really doesn’t?”
My response is: yes.
I first heard of spiritual bypassing three years ago from a friend of mine who was once my “spiritual teacher”.
He told me that a lot of people are spiritual bypassing.
To which I say, “Bullshit.”
Nobody needs to achieve anything or arrive anywhere. You can’t get more enlightened. You can’t win at life. Nor can you lose.
What I will say is this: I have observed that life involves much less suffering when I am willing to allow everything, including the stuff I want to avoid such as fear, anger, boredom, etc.
You can’t screw up life. But you can waste a whole lot of energy trying to avoid life.
In a sense, the whole spiritual bypassing thing hints at this – that you can use all kinds of excuses, including so-called spirituality to justify ongoing, painful attempts to avoid life.
But the reason I don’t like the spiritual bypassing idea is that it implies that you should be doing something and that you could fail and that there is a purpose to all of this with you, the chooser/decider, at the center of all of it.
And that is counterproductive.
So forget about that nonsense.
Instead, my proposal is that if you truly let go of the spiritual bypassing idea and ALL ideas that suggest to you that you can somehow win at life if only you get it right, you’ll be left with all the stuff you were trying to avoid by clinging to ideas such as spiritual bypassing.
It’s often uncomfortable to really see that you can’t win. Because it means you can’t avoid discomfort and fear.
But that’s life.
One of the people whose emails I responded to yesterday wrote me again. I hadn’t done a satisfactory job in replying to one of the points. Here’s what she wrote:
I did read the new post and I still don’t get it. How can there be no separation and no “abstraction” behind thoughts that refer to someone. To me that is the same thing as saying there is no person when clearly there is. I also wonder how the “I” that supposedly does not exist can make any kind of decision or take any action, if “I” am an illusion?I don’t know if my seeking is a compulsion….as in an OCD compulsion. Those had a much different feel than this longing or drive or whatever it is. True, I want to stop suffering and that is a big motivator. Who doesn’t? But I also want to know what is really happening, not what I think is happening. I want to wake up.Can you help me with this? Can you show me how to wake up?
Here’s my reply:
First of all, regarding your question of abstractions and persons and such. What I am saying is quite simple. It’s not difficult at all. So don’t try to look for a deep meaning.What I am saying is life is happening. However we describe it, what I am talking about is just what is obvious. So we might call it colors, shapes, sounds, feelings, movements, etc. That is what we can say with certainty. Do you agree with that much?
What happens, however, is we invent a non-obvious, unfindable behind the scenes entity. That’s what I am calling the abstraction. And we do this by claiming that all of this experience belongs to someone who is behind the scenes. That someone has no shape, no color, no size, no energy, no nothing. It is invisible, intangible, etc. So what proof do we have that this behind the scenes entity exists? How can you know it is true?
I am saying that I cannot know it is true. I have no evidence whatsoever. The only thing that even suggests such an entity is a thought. But what is the basis of the thought? Nothing. No proof at all. None.
Look and see if you can find proof positive of a behind the scenes entity.
All the supposed evidence that I have ever found isn’t actually evidence. So there are thoughts that we call “my thoughts”, which we then believe is proof of a behind the scenes entity. But what is the proof? Just a thought that says “these are my thoughts”. Whereas, in fact, in actual experience it is just thoughts. Period.
The same is true of feelings, perception, and everything else. Just what is happening and a thought that claims it for a behind the scenes entity that cannot be found.
The same is true of choices or decisions. We hold up the fact that choices apparently happen as proof that there is a behind the scenes entity making the choices. But look and see if it’s actually true. What is the proof of that? What I find is that choices apparently happen. Period. The fact that things happen does not prove that there are behind the scenes entities doing them. What is actually obvious is simply that things are happening. That’s it.
We can even take this a step further. Because we could say, “Well, hold on. There must be an answer. There must be a way to prove this one way or the other. So what about when we die? Maybe when I die I’ll become aware of myself as a spirit or soul. Maybe I’ll discover that the New Agers were right – that I chose this life to learn lessons and evolve to the next higher level of consciousness. Yada yada.”
Okay. But then guess what? Life will still be happening. And there will still be identification with some kind of imaginary behind the scenes entity. Because the actual experience would be what is happening. And to say, “I am this spirit. I am learning lessons and evolving to higher levels of consciousness,” is to posit the existence of a behind the scenes entity who can claim this for itself. My experience. My consciousness. My evolution.
Notice that all that is ever happening is a kind of dream. We have nighttime dreams. Then when we wake from the nighttime dream we say, “Oh, now I am awake to the real me.” Really? Take a look. You wake from dream to dream. From nighttime dream to waking dream.
The dream is what is happening. The dream is life. And that is all that can be said.
Some traditional advaita says that there is a dreamer – that the dream state and the waking state are happening in and as the dreamer. They say that you as the dreamer can know yourself, wake up to yourself.
But they are making the same mistake. They posit the existence of something outside of this which can never be found or experienced.
It is a nice story. It has a simple and appealing kind of logic to it. But it turns out to be another religion. Because we must take it on faith that this behind the scenes dreamer entity exists. Whereas in fact there is no way to know that. No way to prove it.
What we are left with is what is always the case. A mystery.
Why try to resolve the mystery? The mystery is life. The mystery is what is happening. Resolve the mystery at your own peril!
As for waking up. You are already awake – awake to the dream, awake as the dream. The dream is awakeness. The only problem is that you believe you are not. You believe that this is not awakeness. So you search for something other than this.
There are many hundreds, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people who will gladly tell you that you are not yet awake and that you must do such and such practice or attend such and such event or receive such and such transmission to become awake. Which plants doubt in your mind, so you search more.
What you describe is a compulsion. If you stop seeking what do you fear will happen? You seek to avoid that. And you will come up with all kinds of other rationalizations, but fundamentally, if you look you will see (I am 99.99% sure of this) that the real motivator is fear. You want to avoid whatever you imagine will be unbearably horrible if you don’t seek.
I could be wrong. But I am 99.99% sure of this. So look really honestly and see if it is true. And understand that you will have doubt and come up with all kinds of objections and rationalizations. But look honestly anyway. Set aside all of those thoughts for a moment, and just allow yourself to completely stop seeking for a few moments. Then notice the impulses to seek again. And see what motivates them. See what happens if you simply don’t pick them up or follow them. Just for a few moments.
In general, I think what underlies the compulsion to seek is terror. To call it merely fear is an understatement. It’s primal terror. Usually that’s what is there. Terror of being no one. Failing. Dying. No connection. No ascension. No liberation. No enlightenment. All alone. Empty. Nothing. Terror.
So normally we will do anything other than meet that fully. We will chase after any number of ridiculous fantasies.
The realization is at once liberating and horrifying.
The realization is that this is it. It’s liberating because you no longer need to try and escape all that is. You no longer insist that this isn’t it. That conflict is done.
It is horrifying because this is it! There is no escape. All the unwanted feelings are met. It is uncomfortable.
When I say all the unwanted feelings are met, I don’t mean that it happens in some flash of blinding light and then forever and ever you are free of unwanted feelings. I mean from now on there is no more belief that you can avoid the unwanted feelings. So whatever happens, even if it is horrifying, there it is. That’s it. No more hope that in the future you’ll escape into endless bliss.
Which is also liberating. Because as anybody who has faced OCD knows, to finally face your worst fears – even if those fears are realized – is freedom. And it is better to know that freedom than to cower from it and suffer.
People think so-called enlightenment is all groovy bliss. Whereas, in fact, to really see and know this clearly is often horrifying and uncomfortable. But it is also to know your innate freedom. It is to be fearless – not in the sense of having no fear, but in the sense of allowing fear, knowing that fear cannot harm you.