“The tragedy and comedy of the human condition is that we spend most of our lives thinking, feeling, acting, perceiving and relating on behalf of a non-existent self.”
Based mostly on rumor and hearsay, spiritual seekers tend to imagine that there is a long, arduous path winding up some metaphorical spirit mountain, at the summit of which a rare lucky few might finally attain an exalted state of Cosmic Illumination. A similar prevalent myth circulating in spiritual-type venues consists of the notion that those who, despite intimidating odds, do manage to scale the sacred peak are subsequently rewarded with all sorts of wonderful perks that are traditionally claimed to accompany such a magnificent feat. These include inscrutable wisdom, exotic powers, and a generally luminous vibration that spontaneously transmits the sense of deep peace and happiness to all who come in contact with such a recently-minted transcendental character.
Aspirants are continuously encouraged by all sorts of hopeful literature and “enlightenment porn” – extraordinary tales in which legendary individuals endure imposing challenges and daunting hardships in pursuit of the sacred goal, traveling to remote places and undergoing all sorts of remarkable experiences before finally being rewarded with the grand prize of perfection and grace. What’s rarely mentioned in these fables, however, is the truth that, rather than representing the pinnacle of one’s personal story, real liberation instead marks the end of that fanciful narrative – its utter collapse.
If there is a “person” still hanging around after some sort of profound experience, then it is not true liberation. It is merely a profound experience. All experiences are modifications of consciousness, but liberation entails recognizing the emptiness inherent in both experience and the experiencer, and indeed of consciousness itself. Rather than being the crowning jewel that many seekers expect, it is actually a beheading! Far from representing the triumphant event projected in its idealism, the revelation of the utter nothingness of the self-image renders a crushing blow to the ambitions of the ego mind – the ruin of its plans.
Moreover, rather than being the result of some ferocious, long-term struggle with our inner demons that the traditional mystical literature depicts, the emptiness of the self-idea can be recognized immediately. Reality is not far off, but present and obvious. All that is required is paying attention. We need to simply turn the light around, turn our attention back on its source, to notice that there is nobody there, there is no self that can be found, no solid and enduring entity. All along, we have been going on the assumption that there is some inner person, a matrix of perception, an organizing principle that is running the show – a “me” that must be asserted and even defended – but when we try to find that one, we cannot. It has all been a fantasy of interpretation on perception, and nothing more. How amazing!
Of course, when most of us encounter the absence of any center of consciousness, it can be quite disorienting, and so we quickly fall back to the default position composed of the safety and security of the known. It is after all very threatening for the seeker to find at the core, “vast emptiness, with nothing holy in it”, as the Zen Patriarch Bodhidharma once pointed out. It wreaks havoc with our personal narrative, the carefully constructed story of “me and mine” which we have been telling ourselves and others since we first learned how to talk.
Nevertheless, there are those of us who may become intrigued by the discovery of that space between our thoughts, and so return to that recognition again and again, until that space gradually becomes more of the dominant home for attention, rather than the fleeting parade of thought energy that normally occupies it. In the process, a silent, sky-like, selfless awareness emerges from the background, unbound by previous patterns of habitual and obsessive thinking and self-referencing, of identity games and masquerades.
Moreover, we recognize that this state is not something new which we had to acquire, some reward for passing through fire, but on the contrary has been our natural and native condition all along. Before the first movement of effort, we have already been free. The only problem has ever been the fixation of identity on the unreal, the impermanent, the masks and costumes which we were told and gradually came to believe amounted to a self.
Of course, merely seeing through the charade is a fine first step, but upon reflection, we can notice that we have picked up and indulged in some questionable patterns of behavior along the way, conflicts that have infected our lives and relationships. Consequently, we are now called by the power of that clear seeing to root out the chronic fixations of selfishness, such as greed, envy, hatred, ignorance, and pride which have contributed to the lack of authentic integrity and compassion that has previously characterized our life.
Before we jump ahead with all of that, however, let’s be clear on the initial glimpse that precedes the collapse of the house of cards which we have mistaken as our actual address. Although there may have been a lot of preparatory practices, the glimpse of recognition is sudden and unmistakable. Paradoxically, it is nothing special, because the inherent selflessness of consciousness has never been hidden. Rather, our true nature has always been obvious – right before our eyes. Indeed, a good part of the hindrance in its realization entails the stubborn belief that it can only be obtained as the result of some tremendous spiritual effort.
Again, the key is in paying attention. Do we need to jump through hoops to simply pay attention? Perhaps in these days of mental, emotional, and sensory overload, it does take a bit of effort to just sit down and shut up. However, it doesn’t have to constitute some big deal to stop and turn attention around on itself in order to discover who’s who and what’s what.
All we really need do is simply relax and take a moment to sense the clear knowing space in which everything is appearing. Allow the focus of attention to rest in and as that empty awake awareness instead of being distracted by the parade of appearances. Repeat as often as possible. That’s it!
The great contemporary Dzogchen master Namkhai Norbu simplifies the matter when he asks: “If we look at an object to our right and then shift our gaze to an object on the left, in the moment in which our first thought vanishes and before the second one arises, don’t you sense a fresh awareness of the instant, untarnished by the mind, clear, limpid, naked, free?”
The whole process of recognition need not be any more complicated than that. It is just such noticing that becomes the basis for our ongoing liberating practice – that clear realization of the absence of any limiting self-idea in the first moment attention is revolved back on itself. Paradoxically, that recognition of the absence of the conditional self occurs simultaneously with the intuition of what he calls the “authentic condition of instantaneous presence”.
This transparent presence is awareness itself – our actual nature and true identity, prior to the convincing hallucinations we assume to be “self” and “world”. It can’t be attained by determined will, guided discipline, eating right, or proper oral hygiene. There are no pathways nor obstructions to awareness. Nothing needs to be removed or improved for it to suddenly appear – it’s never been absent at all, except in our amnesia. Nor has anyone has ever attained some state called “Awareness”. Seeking for it is like water searching for wetness. It’s what we truly are, not an object of acquisition, nor something which we can somehow strategically become.
Because of our shift in attention based on direct recognition, all thoughts can now be recognized as soon as they arise as simply the uninterrupted energy of emptiness. They need not be accepted or rejected, manipulated, blocked, or invited. We need only persist in non-dwelling on any object of consciousness, clinging to none of them. That is all. In this way, all thought is left to dissolve on its own, and is thus self-liberated. Remaining relaxed as that pure, instantaneous presence, free from grasping or aversion, analysis or conceptuality, is what is known as “the fundamental union of view and meditation”, and begins with the recognition that there is “nobody there”—no solid and enduring self or person — only a fictional character in a virtual reality, or play of consciousness.
Furthermore, what applies to thinking can also be applied to emotions, memories, and perceptions of any kind. In the midst of all of our ordinary activities, we can embody this instantaneous, spacious presence. In fact, to do otherwise is an artifice and superimposition, and serves as the main cause of our stress and dissatisfaction in life and relations. We have driven ourselves crazy by investing our energy and attention in the unreal, maintaining the story of a fictional character we mistook ourselves to be. Really, the only sane thing now is to stop doing that. That is the gift of true, unconditional love – a refusal to be anything other than what we really are: nothing and everything.
“The everyday practice . . . is just everyday life itself. Since the undeveloped state does not exist, there is no need to behave in any special way or attempt to attain anything above and beyond what you actually are. There should be no feeling of striving to reach some “amazing goal” or “advanced state”. To strive for such a state is a neurosis which only conditions us and serves to obstruct the free flow of Mind. We should also avoid thinking of ourselves as worthless persons – we are naturally free and unconditioned. We are intrinsically enlightened and lack nothing.”
~ Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche