“O Architect! You are seen! You shall build no house again. All your rafters are broken. Your ridge pole is shattered.”
It’s a bit scary, and often even threatening, to begin the process of questioning one’s entrenched habit of conceptual self-definition. For most of us, it provides a kind of buffer between ourselves and the apparent chaos of the phenomenal world. Our cumulative personal story revolves around how we think of ourselves, and our identity based on such stories is all we are ever attempting to enhance, comfort, satisfy, and protect. Even such a well-regarded spiritual teacher as the Buddhist author, Pema Chodron, recently wrote: “In a book I read recently, the author talked about humans as transitional beings—beings who are neither fully caught nor fully free but are in the process of awakening. I find it helpful to think of myself this way.”
The truth is, she doesn’t really know who or what she is. Nobody does. However, we tend to adopt these pretenses in order to better navigate the objective world. Inevitably, we begin believing our stories, imagining that the personas we’ve assumed actually represent who we are. As a rule, we are unable to rest in our fundamental not-knowing. We become anxious, restless for an adventure in which we can immerse ourselves, as children do in games of make-believe. This whole realm, and even the so-called higher realms, are simply stages where we can perform in various roles for our entertainment and edification.
The only problem in all of this is when we suffer, based on the fate of the character with whom we have fused. We suffer because we have forgotten our essential immortal spirit nature while pretending to be this or that form exclusively. We suffer, in other words, due to our conceptual self-definitions. Instead of holding them lightly, we cling to them desperately and won’t let go, sometimes even after the death of the human body-mind vehicle. Of course, nothing is wasted, even our suffering, which can be transmuted into wisdom if we pay attention to the natural order of things — their transience and transparent emptiness.
What then are the mechanics of this construction? In chronic reaction to the perceived dilemma that characterizes “ordinary life”, the comparative mind becomes addicted to imagining various alternative scenarios and then projecting future outcomes, thus reinforcing its presumption of present unhappiness. In just going about our everyday business, such embedded strategies constitute a persistent pattern of avoidance, especially when the circumstances du jour appear to be challenging.
If we are perceptive, we may come to realize that these various challenges are actually gifts in the form of tests of recognition. They are graciously provided in order for us to discover how we will respond in numerous simulations. Will we continue indulging in escapist fantasies, or finally awaken to what is always standing right before us? In that way, they are both an invitation to recognize what we are habitually up to, as well as an opportunity to go beyond the patterned grooves of dreamy sleep-walking and complacency.
As we awaken from the conditioned daze of our amnesia, we can utilize these tests as a means of inquiry into that which we are always trying to run from and avoid. For example, why do we scare ourselves? What is the reactive mechanism within our psyche that is regularly superimposing stress on life, and infusing it with a felt quality of fearfulness and dissatisfaction?
Certainly, we can stop in the midst of our narrative and face ourselves at any moment. However, the implications of that stark possibility disturb us. Instead, we are attracted to and become enamored of all sorts of hopeful schemes, or else seek to linger in a nostalgia of pleasant memory states, with past and future vying for our anxious attention, and all the while resisting the simple act of resting — right here, right now.
Such “resting” requires a profound letting go of our fixations and cherished images, a deep and abiding surrender born of genuine humility. However, the fascination-free state is considered boring to the typical spiritual seeker, who is driven by uninspected motives to fill up emptiness with all sorts of toys and games. The last thing most seekers really want is to have their whole story revealed as compounded fiction, so instead they easily become enamored of blissful energetic states that may appear in meditation, for example, employing them to confirm their existence, rather than recognizing them as transient modifications of consciousness.
On the other hand, by virtue of the radical decision to truly stop in our tracks, discard our distractions of choice, and nakedly face ourselves, the whole theatrical melodrama of “my story” is seriously undermined. By refusing to grant any enduring reality to the passing thought parade generated by the self-fixation, the narrative itself will eventually run out of fuel and lose its seductive and compelling allure. The first act of compassion, in this case, is to take off the mask.
Of course, such a daunting prospect is the last one ego-mind would care to endure. After all, its very survival is totally dependent on the perpetuation of the “me-story”, an all-consuming project of effort and personal validation, and thus it will struggle mightily to maintain that illusion, at least until the futility of such efforts is made apparent by virtue of the grace of failure. As Sri Nisargadatta notes:
“Unless you make tremendous efforts, you will not be convinced that effort will take you nowhere. The self is so self-confident that unless it is totally discouraged it will not give up. Mere verbal conviction is not enough. Hard facts alone can show the absolute nothingness of the self-image.”
To fail completely involves the cumulative recognition that “you” can’t do it. Alert and persistent inspection, typically coupled with the mentorship of a qualified guide, will eventually reveal the utter futility of the ego-mind’s efforts to endure and triumph. The whole scheme, the compounded strategy, is hopeless! As it turns out, the one that would awaken in some glorious enlightenment story is the very one that is obstructing true realization, and it is only in the total frustration of the ego-mind’s ambition that the clear light of our native radiance is free at last to emerge.
Spiritual aspirants tend to expect some drama, perhaps some ethereal fireworks display in their crown chakra to herald their passage, not a boring sort of petering out of their ambition, leaving them with no glamorous flag to wave or shining persona to point at with the pride of accomplishment. The real process is not a matter of addition, but more of a humbling subtraction which is thorough and relentless, until nothing is left — no willfulness — and that is, paradoxically, everything.
The Western teacher Adyashanti describes the process well when he writes: “Asking, ‘What is the Truth?’ is a demolition project. Most of spirituality is a construction project. We’re ascending and ascending — ideas are ascending, kundalini energy is ascending, consciousness is ascending. It just keeps building, and a person feels, ‘I’m getting better and better.’
But enlightenment is a demolition project. It simply shows you that everything you have ever believed was true isn’t. Everything you take yourself to be, whatever your self-image is — good, bad, or indifferent — you’re not that. Whoever you think others are — good, bad, or indifferent — is not true. Whatever you think about God is wrong. You cannot have a true thought about God, so all of your thoughts about God tell you precisely and exactly what the divine is not. Whatever you think the world is tells you exactly and precisely what the world is not. Whatever you think about enlightenment is also precisely and exactly what it’s not.
Do you get the flavor of it? It’s a removal project. What does it remove? Everything. And unless it’s a removal of everything, it’s not ultimately liberating. If there is one thing or a single viewpoint that hasn’t been removed, then liberation hasn’t happened yet.”
When the mind moves, stories are spawned. Be before mind, and stories will take care of themselves. However, how many are able to drop off the mind and come to rest as the natural unqualified presence of awake awareness? Certainly not the mass of humanity, or even the mass of spiritual practitioners. Consequently, we need to be very discriminative with our story-making.
While immersed in the relative, objective sphere of time and space (as all of us are), there will be narratives, because that is how humans organize chaos. Even several levels above this vibrational frequency, there are still narratives, just more subtle.
The writer Jonathan Gottschall noted: “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” The question is, to which narrative will we grant reality? Depending on our choice, so is the world created. The current world is the result of stories we have collectively fashioned, and so will be the world which comes next.
At its foundation, our typical story is built upon, and is designed to confirm, some sense of personal self and individual doer-ship. However, upon thorough investigation, it can be recognized that this sense of “self” derives from a misreading or misinterpretation of the causes and conditions of life and experience.
Afraid of death and the possibility of nonexistence, we desperately conceive of and then cling to a fictional narrative of permanence underlying the flux of experience and perception. Rather than recognize causes and conditions for what they are, we reify their obvious effects, granting these hypostatic entities a substantial and enduring facsimile of personhood.
The ensuing story of “me and mine” is representative of our deepest desires and fears – played out in the repetitive activity of grasping and avoidance, craving and aversion. However, by recognizing that all phenomena arise, thrive, and vanish dependent on perpetually changing causes and conditions, we can begin to see things as they actually are, beyond any imaginative stories of a concrete, independent, and enduring self and its dreamy entanglements.
The whole carefully constructed edifice of that ambitious house of cards begins to teeter when the ridge beam of “me”, the central character, becomes suspect. Perhaps, when we look closely, we find that the whole story was just a case of mistaken identity? Consciousness took form, but then came to believe that it was that form, to the exclusion of all else. From there, the whole chain of causation was elaborated, and it truly is a chain, binding us in fixed identification to a fabricated tale, a seemingly endless loop of hopeful idealism alternating with dissatisfaction and disappointment that we take to be our lot, and from which we have always been desperately seeking relief.
True relief, however, will only come when we cease investing in our dream-like personal story to the point that it becomes non-binding. By refusing to buy into escape plans, or even anyone in need of escape, we allow our prior nature to reveal itself. No longer chasing alternatives, we rest and become still. In that stillness, that silence, what we truly are — our primordial identity — is allowed to emerge from the background, and it is such an innocent simplicity, really, that we may wonder why we took so long to notice it, in all of its ordinary splendor.
“The very idea of going beyond the dream is illusory. Why go anywhere? Just realize that you are dreaming a dream you call the world, and stop looking for ways out. The dream is not your problem. Your problem is that you like one part of your dream and not another. Love all, or none of it, and stop complaining. When you have seen the dream as a dream, you have done all that need be done.”