“What is really your own, you are not conscious of. What you are conscious of is neither you nor yours. Yours is the power of perception, not what you perceive. It is a mistake to take the conscious to be the whole of man. Man is the unconscious, the conscious and the superconscious, but you are not the man. Yours is the cinema screen, the light as well as the seeing power, but the picture is not you.”
The common descriptions transmitted about Realization in many of the traditional spiritual paths and wisdom systems revolve around the affirmation of some essential, eternal, and transcendental Self behind all phenomena, hence the term “Self-Realization” or “God-Realization”. In that respect, the conscious process of recognition runs counter-intuitive to those traditional programs. In the conscious process of true inquiry, all identity descriptions and self or Self-images are seen through and recognized as mere conceptual designations. We realize that what we are cannot truly be described by human language except in terms of negation. As the Sage Nisargadatta notes succinctly, “You cannot know yourself through bliss alone, for bliss is your very nature. You must face the opposite, what you are not, to find enlightenment.”
In the silent equanimity resulting from such insight, we can observe our conditioned programs, our delusions, our human limitations and foibles, failings, and apparent faults, and yet not be compelled to frantically seek out and commit to some kind of remedial curriculum or self-improvement scheme designed to modify them. In a nutshell, we simply recognize that none of them amount to a “me”, are not my self, and are not what I am. In fact all we can really say is, “I am not this, I am not that.”
With the liberating benefit of such direct recognition (and not just intellectual agreement), the power of the binding, afflictive poisons such as greed, envy, hatred, pride, and ignorance is undermined. They no longer have a target, a landing place. No longer is there grounds and rationale for a perpetual war with oneself. No longer is there a call to divide oneself into conflicting camps of light and dark that in turn need to be reconciled by some prolonged and superhuman effort, just so that we might finally become what we already are. In fact, the more attention and energy that is expended in efforts to sculpt ourselves into some spiritually-correct version of ourselves, the further away we travel from our own true nature and being.
On the contrary, the process of conscious recognition involves the art and practice of “non-doing”, founded upon a genuine humility and surrender. It is important that this be clearly understood, because most of us tend to indulge some inflated or idealistic notion of what we are or want to be, complete with all sorts of provisional betterment projects and ascension goals, rather than simply relaxing and coming to rest in the timeless aware spaciousness of our true nature, the limitless unknown.
On a cautionary note, many seekers may tend, especially in the beginning of the conscious process, to engage analytical inquiry techniques such as “Neti, Neti” (Not this, Not this) purely at the level of the intellect, and that is to be expected. However, there is danger in lingering in the conceptual domain and concluding that the job is done, once there is some verbal conviction. This is why we might encounter certain people who can “talk the talk”, but are still afflicted by the passions and behaviors characteristic of the self-possessed.
Unless the inquiry penetrates deeper than the realm of mental formations and cuts off the root of all identification and self-positions, it will not ultimately be very transformative, and can even pose as an additional hindrance by fattening the “spiritual ego”. Indeed, clinging to an intellectual understanding of the emptiness of the self-complex can actually interfere with or impede its direct recognition (or clear seeing), which is something of an altogether different nature.
In any case, by directly recognizing the emptiness of all that we once took to be ourselves (both negative and positive), we can cease fixating on those obsolete stories. There is real wisdom in just being, although such wisdom is difficult for the usual seeker to allow in. As mentioned earlier, it is counter-intuitive to the spiritual self-improvement program, which is designed solely to create a more agreeable story. As it so happens, no story is true, because all stories are based on the false assumption of the existence of a separate and enduring person, a “me”. Every story, every appearance, is of the same nature as a daydream. What knows the daydream? That which knows the day dream is not the daydream.
Upon sincere and persistent inspection, we can recognize the utter impermanence of all our stories, all daydreams. With that realization, we will come to understand the futility of the various salvation schemes which we have been chronically employing. We observe in the process how such strategies have systematically superimposed notional programs of bondage and unhappiness on our natural, prior state of freedom. Such a liberating recognition blossoms by allowing one’s total energy and attention to relax from its fixations and compulsiveness, becoming less rigid and more receptive to the fact that nothing needs to be attained, modified, enhanced, redeemed, enlightened, or improved.
It has only been our angle of vision that required some adjustment. We have been so entranced by the illusion of a solid and independent self-sense that we have been unable to appreciate the spaciousness in which it and everything appears and disappears. However, when we return attention to that which is always already aware, the self-fixation naturally drops away.
There is a great relief in that revolutionary shift of perspective, allowing for the emergence of our natural spontaneity and playfulness. Moreover, as we relinquish the struggle to define ourselves as “this or that”, we are not only returned to our native innocence, but we also experience the arising of real compassion for others — those who may still be under the influence of the stressful conditioning programs that keep them enlisted in the divisive inner warfare.
Whatever we attach and cling to invariably becomes the source of our distress. Consequently, by seeing through and letting go at the root of such distress – the obsession with and absorption in the fiction of “me and mine” — we can instead relax and enjoy life for its own sake. The implanted motive to work on myself in order to get better, more luminous and holy, more profound and attractive, will cease motivating us.
After all, we may be dead before tomorrow! All we have is this moment now. If we are drawn, for example, to certain spiritual practices such as meditation, they need not be taken up in order to become someone else – some idealized version or religious fantasy of ourselves. Rather, they can instead just be appreciated as a natural enjoyment of the physical form which we are occupying, not unlike going for a walk or drinking a glass of cool water. Sitting still and not knowing, not dwelling on or grasping at the parade of passing thoughts, is one of life’s great pleasures, especially for those who are no longer subservient to artificial agendas!
With the loosening of the grip of fixed patterns of identity, we can gratefully come to recognize each experience in life as a gift, regardless of the form it arrives in. Each possesses its own beauty, particularly when we don’t expect or demand that it be anything other than what it is. Rather than assuming a victim mentality when things seem disagreeable, we can as co-creators inquire into our own responsibility. In such recognition, we become eminently present and “ordinary”, without the heavy and unwieldy baggage of either sorrowful regrets or idealistic projections holding us back and weighing us down.
Having allowed our true nature (which has been heretofore obscured beneath heaps of rationalizations, second-hand beliefs, and habitual reactivity spawned by hope and fear) to reveal itself, energy and attention are freed up to the point where we can simply live for the sake of life itself, doing whatever we do, purely for the sake of doing it. As it turns out, that is enough — to just do it, just live it.
Moreover, there is a curious but common assumption that, without holding on to a self-idea, one would be rendered dysfunctional or even incapacitated in the objective sphere, when in fact, it is actually the superimposition of the self-idea that more often than not complicates activity and impedes unfettered functioning.
The Thai Forest master Ajahn Chah put it perfectly when he said: “Once you understand non-self, then the burden of life is gone. You’ll be at peace with the world. When we see beyond self, we no longer cling to happiness and we can truly be happy. Learn to let go without struggle, simply let go, to be just as you are – no holding on, no attachment, free.”
Recognition is nothing other than the arrow of this understanding finally penetrating our mental and emotional armor, finding its mark at the heart, and really sinking in. It is not seeing a grand supernatural vision or bathing in special, blissful states; it is opening our eyes to how callous and arrogant and even silly we can be, how resistant and reluctant and fearful, and how (by trying to be knowers) we have gotten in our own way. As the mystic Angelus Silesius humorously noted: “God, whose love and joy are present everywhere, can’t come and visit you unless you aren’t there.”
Conventionally, we can know a lot about ourselves. After all, we’ve been working on that story all of our lives, featuring “me” as the central character. Nevertheless, the only valid self-knowledge for us in this realm is the recognition of what we are not, starting with the body-mind organism, and including everything we think and believe to be real. What we truly are can never be an object of perception, since whatever is perceived cannot itself perceive. As Nisargadatta clearly noted: “You cannot be witnessed by you; only what is other than you can be witnessed by you.”
Furthermore, even the discoveries in modern science are pointing out that nothing is what it appears to be. The eminent physicist Niels Bohr (echoing the Buddhist Law of Dependent Origination) noted: “If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet. Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real.” Indeed, as far back as the second century, the renowned Buddhist adept and scholar Nagarjuna (often designated as “the second Buddha”), taught that everything that exists does so dependently, and everything that is dependently existent necessarily lacks independent objective existence, or in other words, is empty of any real or inherent existence.
Interestingly, developments in modern neurology employing MRI brain scans have revealed that the “me-sense” is a neurological figment that occurs when nine different areas of the brain are active at the same time. There is no actual personal “self” ever, just a neurological sensation of a “me”.
In any case, truth itself can never be an object of consciousness, since consciousness itself is transitory. Hence, it must be prior to consciousness, and thus ungraspable by the conceptual apparatus. One can only recognize that one lives in untruth, in a dreamy fantasy. U. G. Krishnamurti deftly summarized: “The body does not exist except as a thought. There is one thought. Everything exists in relationship to that one thought. That thought is ‘me’. Anything you experience based on thought is illusion.”
Likewise, liberation is not some reward granted by the universe for following the right doctrines, or aligning with superior religious sects or philosophies. It is not an attainment — nobody “attains freedom”. Such a make-believe story — that one can become something other than what they already are — only reinforces our perpetual sense of dissatisfaction (though it certainly keeps the preachers in business).
Indeed, the one who would be free is the one who has been obscuring real freedom, and it is that one who disappears in the light of true recognition. Otherwise, we will continue to cherish the belief that we can somehow acquire lasting happiness, if only we become more like this or less like that, while stubbornly insisting to ourselves that we exist as separate and enduring persons. We don’t.
“Thus, any body whatsoever . . . any feeling whatsoever . . . any perception whatsoever . . . any mental processes whatsoever . . . any consciousness whatsoever — past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near, is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.’ Seeing thus, one grows disenchanted with the body, disenchanted with feeling, disenchanted with perception, disenchanted with mental processes, and disenchanted with consciousness. Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is released.”