When you believe yourself to be a person, you see persons everywhere. In reality there are no persons, only threads of memories and habits.
In the conventional waking state, it’s typical for seekers to measure themselves in terms of past and present, and then to project their ongoing development, or personal evolution, into the future. Indeed, we can become quite impressed with our accomplishments, all the mountains we’ve climbed and obstacles surmounted on our road to perfect happiness, peace, and enlightenment. Conversely, depending upon changing circumstances and events, we may become somewhat dismayed and depressed about our seeming lack of progress, and so re-double our efforts to “make good”, and have things work out in tune with our conditioned ideals of how life should be.
What’s quite rare, in either case, is to actually question our core narrative – our very sense of personhood – the one who seems to be trudging along on an idealistic path from somewhere to somewhere else (and hopefully somewhere better). Rather, we go along with the typical assumption that we are the ones that we take ourselves to be in the waking state, and so struggle on day after day to achieve our provisional goals and satisfy our conditional desires (including our desire for spiritual enlightenment).
However, when we enter into the dream state at night, all of our carefully detailed plans and notions about our “progress” evaporate, as if the person who harbored them never existed. While asleep, we may find ourselves playing all sorts of roles, often utterly dissimilar from our waking persona, and this may be exhilarating or disturbing, and even disorienting, depending on the particular dream scenario we happen to find ourselves in.
Still, whatever dramas we may be entertaining in our dream state quickly fade into the ethers upon awakening in the morning, and though we may momentarily ponder our dream adventures, they nevertheless have little if any impact on our “normal” waking consciousness. Rather, we invariably return to our everyday sense of personal continuity, complete with measuring, concepts of time, schemes of evolution, or regrets about the past, convinced that we are this person appearing in the waking state — the one making all the efforts at transcending illusion, and striving to create a better, more prosperous, and enlightened version of oneself.
Ramana Maharshi made an interesting observation regarding these perceptions:
In saying “I had a dream; I was in deep sleep; I am awake”, you must admit that you were there in all the three states. That makes it clear that you were there all the time. If you remain as you are now, you are in the wakeful state; this becomes hidden in the dream state; and the dream state disappears when you are in deep sleep. You were there then, you are there now, and you are there all the times. The three states come and go, but you are always there.
It is like a cinema. The screen is always there but several types of pictures appear on the screen and then disappear. Nothing sticks to the screen. Similarly, you remain your own Self in all the three states. If you know that, the three states will not trouble you, just as the pictures that appear on the screen do not stick to it.
On the screen, you sometimes see a huge ocean with endless waves; that disappears. Another time, you see fire spreading all around; that too disappears. The screen is there on both occasions. Did the screen get wet with the water or did it get burned by the fire? Nothing affected the screen. In the same way, the things that happen during the wakeful, dream and sleep states do not affect you at all; you remain your own Self.
Consequently, from the “Self” position – or ground of awareness itself – all three states can be recognized as manifestations of the illusion of reality. Indeed, in a kind of cosmic twist of irony, the enthusiastic one who would make some sort of progress in freeing themselves from the illusion turns out to be part of that very illusion. Moreover, it is our fixation on and clinging to that very person, so carefully fabricated and nurtured, defended, and confirmed, that ends up being the main obstacle to real awakening.
Conversely, upon awakening, That which has never been implicated by the illusion born of the three states is at last revealed to be who and what we really are. To arrive at such realization, however, requires that we relinquish our tight grasp on the self-images by which we have habitually defined ourselves, recognizing that they are more like costumes that we try on, or character roles in a theater production, rather than a reflection of some substantial and enduring person. In other words, to truly begin to know ourselves, we need to let go and forget our self – the person we have imagined ourselves to be.
Of course, that’s easy enough said, but not so easy to do for most of us. As long as we cling to identification with a sense of self, believing that we are the body-mind-complex, we can never truly understand what it is like to live without that illusion. After all, to us it is not an illusion – it seems very real. If we cut ourselves in the kitchen, we suffer the ensuing pain and disturbance. When someone speaks ill of us, we keenly feel the hurt. Consequently, how do we go about seeing through the trance of personhood, when everything seems to conspire to convince us it is real?
For all but the rarest individuals, it is just about impossible to instantly penetrate the formidable trinity of “I, Me, and Mine”. Rather, that whole artificial edifice requires being dismantled, or systematically deconstructed, brick by brick, until the “Architect” is at last revealed. That one too, the Dream Weaver, must be seen through and let go, if we are to finally awaken to our true nature and condition. Moreover, although the intellect is a great and necessary tool in this process, it too must ultimately be transcended, otherwise our realization will always remain at the level of conceptuality, denying the heart its true peace and satisfaction.
Thus, we need to begin with what we have, and start where we are, by working directly with our thoughts and emotions. By quietly observing the mind, we can see that everything proceeds from our thinking. Indeed, Buddha preached that all beings are sustained by thought, and so this is where we begin – right where the whole case of mistaken identity is born. If we are persistent in our investigation, we can notice something very interesting.
What we presumed to be a continuous stream of thoughts is recognized to be not so continuous after all. In other words, there are gaps, gaps where the sense of self, of “I am”, is momentarily absent. If we enter into those gaps — the space between thoughts — we are treated to a sudden glimpse of open spaciousness, pure awareness free of any encumbrance. That revelation both attracts and frightens us. It attracts us because it is peace, but scares us because of its implication, the possibility that there is no solid person, no enduring and concrete “me”.
Disturbed by the pending loss of confidence in the reality of our self-image, the mind’s initial response is typically some effort to distract ourselves by exploiting all manner of experiences, attempting thereby to confirm our existence. We may spend quite a long time in such efforts, before finally realizing that experience itself is simply mind modifying itself, endlessly, but to no lasting effect. When the fascination with mere experience wears off, we become available again, but this time at a deeper level.
It is at this next level where we confront the emotional contraction, which is even more intimately entangled with our self-sense than our conceptuality. It also happens to be the area that is most by-passed by spiritual seekers, in attempts to avoid facing and acknowledging the painful wounds at the heart that so characterize this human experience. Most of those knots are active at a sub-conscious level, and so our cleverness and intellectual acumen will serve us little as we move to address the hard armor which we have grown around our heart to shield it from the implicit threat perceived in life and relations.
There is an old saying: “Only love can break a heart, and only love can mend it again.” Just so, in the course of our lives, we have all felt the wound of love, and most of us invariably react by shutting down emotionally, in the belief that we would be safe from further hurt that way. What we can notice, however, is that all we have done in the process is confirm our separation from life and relations, and that is the greater suffering. When we can allow ourselves to admit this, and become vulnerable and open again, we can feel the contraction loosening. We come to realize that we have within us all the love necessary to surmount any fear, if we can simply step out of the way and let that love function naturally. Finally, we can recognize that our true nature is love, and it is only when we contract back upon ourselves in fits of selfishness that we impede love’s full expression, which is happiness unlimited.
Once we have recognized the space between thoughts, acknowledged the futility of mere experience, and begun to untie the knot at the heart, we still must come to terms with the “fraud” of consciousness itself, which binds together the whole case of our mistaken identity and infuses the basic storyline of “me and mine” with the aroma of reality. The late Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa astutely noted:
“Consciousness consists of emotions and irregular thought patterns, all of which taken together form the different fantasy worlds with which we occupy ourselves. These fantasy worlds are referred to in the scriptures as the “six realms.” The emotions are the highlights of ego, the generals of ego’s army; subconscious thought, daydreams and other thoughts connect one highlight to another. So thoughts form ego’s army and are constantly in motion, constantly busy. Our thoughts are neurotic in the sense that they are irregular, changing direction all the time and overlapping one another. We continually jump from one thought to the next, from spiritual thoughts to sexual fantasies to money matters to domestic thoughts and so on. The whole development of the five skandhas — ignorance/form, feeling, impulse/perception, concept and consciousness is an attempt on our part to shield ourselves from the truth of our insubstantiality.”
In other words, it is consciousness which makes it all “personal”, and so it is consciousness itself that we must penetrate, if we are to recognize the utter nothingness of the self-image, and thereby awaken to our true nature. To that end, Sri Nisargadatta points out:
“Consciousness is an itching rash that makes you scratch. Of course, you cannot step out of consciousness, for the very stepping out is in consciousness. But if you learn to look at your consciousness as a sort of fever, personal and private, in which you are enclosed like a chick in its shell, out of this very attitude will come the crisis which will break the shell.”
In order to break free then from the trance of separate and enduring personhood, and all the confusion and suffering ensuing from the belief in some independent self, we need to first pay attention. It is not necessary to do some big song and dance, jump through remedial hoops pursuing a ritual of strategic maneuvers. We simply need to recognize the mechanism of identification and fixation that we ourselves have created and stop fueling it. This is what true inquiry is all about, as is the discipline of silence and the practice of non-dwelling. It is not adding another “doing” to the already busy and over-complicated mix demanded by the “me-project”, but rather a cessation of doing. As the great sage Milarepa suggested, “Whatever appears is mind. Throughout day and night, look at your mind. When you look at your mind, you don’t see anything. When you don’t see anything, let go and relax.” Fully embodying this sense of relaxed awareness and freedom from personal fixation in all of our life and relations is the mark of true spiritual maturity, and it is also what makes true love and compassion (which are the fruits of selflessness) possible.
“Ask yourself: ‘To whom does it all happen?’ Use everything as an opportunity to go within. Light your way by burning up obstacles in the intensity of awareness. When you happen to desire or fear, it is not the desire or fear that are wrong and must go, but the person who desires and fears. There is no point in fighting desires and fears which may be perfectly natural and justified; It is the person who is swayed by them, that is the cause of mistakes, past and future. The person should be carefully examined and its falseness seen; then its power over you will end. After all, it subsides each time you go to sleep. In deep sleep you are not a self-conscious person, yet you are alive. When you are alive and conscious, but no longer self-conscious, you are not a person anymore.
During the waking hours you are as if on the stage, playing a role, but what are you when the play is over? You are what you are; what you were before the play began you remain when it is over. Look at yourself as performing on the stage of life. The performance may be splendid or clumsy, but you are not in it, you merely watch it; with interest and sympathy, of course, but keeping in mind all the time that you are only watching while the play — life — is going on.”