“Once you realise that there is nothing in this world which you can call your own, you look at it from the outside as you look at a play on the stage, or a picture on the screen, admiring and enjoying, but really unmoved. As long as you imagine yourself to be something tangible and solid, a thing among things, actually existing in time and space, short-lived and vulnerable, naturally you will be anxious to survive and increase. But when you know yourself as beyond space and time — in contact with them only at the point of here and now, otherwise all-pervading and all-containing, unapproachable, unassailable, invulnerable — you will be afraid no longer. Know yourself as you are — against fear there is no other remedy.”
By thoroughly examining ourselves and our relationships, both collectively and individually, we can recognize a fundamental source of our chronic and habitual conflict: wanting things to be other than they are. That dominant desire for things to be otherwise coalesces most directly in the primal effort to survive as an independent entity, even in the face of inarguable impermanence.
So many wise voices through the years have weighed in on the subject that it would seem a bit redundant to proceed further here, but regardless — let’s set the scriptures, the consensus wisdom, and the prevailing hearsay aside for a moment and see what is true of us.
What is at the core of our motivation, in all our thoughts, impulses, behaviors, intent, striving? Is it not survival? We don’t know what we are, but whatever we are, we want it to survive, to endure. Even in the depths of any catastrophe, we want to keep on going. Beyond that, we want to thrive and expand. After all, we are not separate from life, and that seems to be the job of life – to endure and thrive, and expand to infinity.
We have many methods we use to survive. Some of us survive by grasping, and some by avoidance. Some survive by attempting to control the world around us, others by submitting to the controllers. Some of us survive by stockpiling whatever we believe we lack.
Paradoxically, however, whatever is used to survive inevitably becomes the basis of the very condition that limits us, and so inadvertently becomes another obstacle to the natural flow of life itself. Indeed, our chronic fixation on survival actually keeps the awareness of Life’s support and abundance at some distance from us.
Survival is all about the conditional. It is conditional on being stronger, smarter, and more specialized than any competition. Survival pits one living being against another and everything becomes justified, any action is condoned in the name of survival. In this system, there is no support, there is no chance for an all-win situation. All our energy goes into defense. We end up creating enemies where there were none. Whatever technique we use to survive will be the problem in our life.
Survival is based on an identification with fear, lack, and limitation. As such, it is a reaction to the felt experience of contraction, the knot at the core of the human experience that spawns the alternating cycles of desire and avoidance.
In that regard, the contemporary teacher Anam Thubten makes a good point when he writes: “There is a deep seated fear of life because of the unpredictable and wild nature of it. So we are always trying to control and master it, and, doing so, we kill it. That fear has to do with insecurity. We are insecure because we think we will not be able to survive unless we have firm control over life. This approach is truly unrealistic. And as long as we are caught up in this meaningless game, we will never know how to embrace and celebrate life, which is the only thing there is to do.”
Prior to the elaboration of all of that, of course, we can inquire: what is it that survives? Obviously, the physical body, even in the most optimum of circumstances, comes with an expiration code. Even if we were to extend our lifespan for thousands of years, whatever is born will eventually die. Trying to squeeze a few more years out of the biological vehicle can be acknowledged as an understandable but ultimately futile effort, at least in the scheme of eternity. Nevertheless, there are few of us who would not want just one more day, when faced with the prospect of their imminent physical death.
Beyond the three dimensional “earth body”, is there an invisible (to our eyes) portion of the being, usually called the “soul”, which lives on eternally and survives the death of the material self? Certainly, most religions seem to suggest so, as does the huge body of testimonies submitted by near-death experiencers throughout the ages. Although categorizing such a belief as an error of “eternalism”, upon his awakening, even Buddha himself reported remembering all of his past lives, which he claimed to be able to recount in exact detail.
More recently, there have been a number of credible experiencers who have provided fascinating reports, such as Nanci Danison, Anita Moorjani, Natalie Sudman, Eben Alexander, and Thomas Mellen Benedict. One can also visit the Near Death Experience Research Foundation website to review over 3500 documented cases, at http://www.nderf.org/. On the scientific side, researchers such as Dr. Michael Newton (here) have hypnotically regressed clients into reporting a plethora of experiences of life between lives. Also of note is the research of Julia Assante. All of that is very hopeful, of course, for the mind which fears its own extinction, and yet, is it really true, that there is some permanently independent and continuous “person” that survives?
What is being questioned here is the very presumption of personal continuity itself. After all, it is only memory that holds in place the image of some continuous being, and memory itself is a rather flimsy, arbitrary thing. For example, we have little memory of the person we took ourselves to be when we were children, or even when we were in deep sleep last night. The body itself replaces every cell on a regular basis, and even moment to moment, we are not the same person that we were previously, based on the ongoing process of conditioning by thought energies, relationship factors, and environmental variables.
In fact, the concept of our own existence is always arising and dissolving, spontaneously. When it appears, we take it to be real, but even when it is absent, the assumption of our enduring continuity is rarely questioned. Since everything about our self is in a constant state of flux, what is it that grants some sense of continuity, in turn prompting the effort to maintain and survive? Is it not the primal sense “I Am”? Indeed, one can observe that all subsequent notions regarding our enduring continuity spring from that original assumption.
One salient point which we can notice is that this sense of “I Am” arises in mind, and since it can be observed, the very act of observation implies that there is something prior to it. What is prior is Awareness, the silent background, but it is not personal. In fact, we are that which appears on the screen of awareness, and whatever appears, disappears. Only awareness remains. As Ajahn Maha Boowa noted: “This vanishes, that vanishes, but that which knows their vanishing doesn’t vanish. . . all that remains is simple awareness, utterly pure. “
It is awareness which makes the difference between reality and memory. Ramana Maharshi said: “You are awareness. Awareness is another name for you.” When we practice being aware of being aware, rather than identifying with the time-bound play of consciousness that passes on the screen, then we are closer to the real continuity, but keep in mind that awareness itself is not perceivable or graspable. It is what makes seeing possible, but is itself unseen. The observer is beyond observation, and so whatever is observed, perceived, is not who or what we truly are.
Another useful metaphor that can be employed here is the image of a glass sphere, or crystal ball, in which bubbles are appearing and dissolving. Awareness is like that crystal ball. All of our thoughts, feelings and sensations are the bubbles arising and disappearing spontaneously within the sphere. The crystal ball is unchanging, while these various appearances arise as transient events. There is a particular bubble that emerges, known as the sense of self or “me”. It has a complete story of identity made up of many thoughts and feelings linked with it, like a cluster of bubbles.
This “me” complex can become quite captivating and assert itself as “the main event”. It is the contracted energy of mind manifesting as the sense of being a solid and enduring person. This is the experience of limited body-mind-self in the psycho-physical realm we call “this world”. The thought-complex floating in this sphere is who and what we mistake ourselves to be. This dream-like entity dominates our entire field of consciousness. Nevertheless, at no time does this fleeting self-sense amount to a “real” person. It is just a persistent but temporary projection of mind, a dreamed self. It has a beginning and an end. Awareness alone remains.
However, any conceptual designations or intellectual inferences regarding awareness only reside at the most superficial level of recognition, and often end up impeding the vivid living realization of our own primordial nature. They do that by imprisoning us within an endless loop of contracted mental energy – the illusion of being a knower. Many a self-assured seeker falls into that trap, from which it is very difficult to extract oneself, due to the arrogant and misguided belief that there is nothing more to see.
The direct experience, on the contrary, is the liberating “open bowl head” of transparent free expansion into the vastness of an immense unknown. In the ecstasy of that spontaneous epiphany, the issue of survival is utterly moot – there is only this profound and joyous Presence without spatial boundary or temporal boundary. It is what we are, unborn and imperishable — an unspeakable Mystery beyond anything perceivable or conceivable.
It includes all of the quicksilver appearances of individual self and phenomenal world, but is never limited by them. Without beginning, it is beyond death, and thus beyond any struggle or quest for some form of invulnerability. All of our concepts about love, truth, happiness, liberation, and the very Divine are merely a pale reflection of That – our primal nature and identity – from whose perspective the whole totality of the universal manifestation is but a tiny shiny bauble in the hand of a care-free child!
“In death only the body dies. Life does not, consciousness does not, reality does not. And the life is never so alive as after death. What was born must die. Only the unborn is deathless. Find what is it that never sleeps and never wakes, and whose pale reflection is our sense of ‘I’. Relax and watch the ‘I am’. Reality is just behind it. Keep quiet, keep silent; it will emerge, or, rather, it will take you in.”