Here are some comments on a couple of popular slogans within contemporary spiritual circles, namely the ideas that “you are not your thoughts”, that “identification with form is wrong”, and that “all thinking is evil”. There might be differences in interpreting these words, but something is implicitly missing or not quite right with these statements.
In contrast to many others, i refuse to speak about life in absolute terms because we are all living in the relative world, and because i do not believe that any human being is able to reach or embody or represent the absolute within space and time.
It is time for a lot of people to sober up and face the facts instead of reciting crazy fantasies and beautiful second-hand ideas.
First of all, let’s point out the two important concepts here: self and self-image or identity. The definition of identity could be formulated as “anything the self identifies with”, literally anything it considers to be “the same entity”. Various neuroscientific experiments show us that the “self” cannot be located or restricted, that it is probably just a byproduct, a phenomenon of consciousness, some even say it does not exist, that it is totally made up (1). This sort of statements is true in some way, in the objective context, but not from a practical point of view.
As we grow up we develop a sense of self, and while it is obvious that this can become very problematic, from ordinary psychological suffering to a whole range of mental disorders, i don’t think it is possible to throw it out the window just like that. It may change gradually or dramatically, you can dissociate and identify solely with something you call “Self”, “Awareness”, “Being”, “I am-ness”, which is utterly foolish, you can influence and play with it an many ways, however i don’t think we can live without it. I went very deeply into this matter years ago and i saw it can’t be done, or at least, that it is not a sane thing to do.
The self is of course an image, an appearance (not necessarily an illusion, as explained below), but without it we would not have any stability or direction in life. We would not be able to learn, to mature, etc. This is not so hard to see i suppose.
It gets much trickier to realize that we are all locked into the representation system of the brain: our mind can be seen as a sort of “Matrix” (as in the blockbuster movie yes, which is in fact loosely based on G.I. Gurdjieff’s teachings), as a virtual reality generator of the world, including our “selves”. We don’t really see the world, we see our representation of the world, distorted, fragmentary and biased. Our mind tricks us to believe that the images it builds up are correct, complete and objective, that’s all (2).
There is the largely untapped potential of looking at something more directly, with childlike innocence, fresh and non-judgmental, but there will still be some unconscious processing going on before the signals become consciously aware within you. You are the processing and the interpretation of the signals. The moment you fully come to see this, to realize how your mind constantly deceives you, that there is an unbound self without the known (no-self?), not as an intellectual fact but directly, as it operates in realtime, including all its implications, the whole perception changes, but you will still be stuck in your mind and body.
The point is: within time it is impossible to get out of your “Matrix”, out of your consciousness, out of the essential ways of the world. You may dream or imagine that you can fly, that you are totally independent from others, that you will save humanity, but the underlying truth will hit hard sooner or later. In case of subtler fantasies, it is much more difficult to face the truth. Most of us are total experts in trapping ourselves in stories, illusions, especially the very negative and depressing ones. In these situations the letting in of truth can be an overwhelmingly liberating experience.
Even if you are able to be highly awake, you can only be aware of a very small part of what is going on, since our system is constantly filtering things out. When you are focused on something, everything else drops to the background. People who have gone more deeply into the matter will say: that would mean we are all eternally trapped inside our realities, without any chance of getting free!?
Well yes indeed, partly at least, but could it not be very likely that, since every thing is one, the wholeness or emptiness can be “found” or “sensed” in every part, including our brains and minds? Consciousness can be seen as an electric field, a process, that is part of or connected to our mind-body process or energy field, which in return cannot be separated from the other processes going on in the universe.
We are all part of this big ongoing mystery, and supposing everything resonates, it is only a matter of not resisting, of opening up the mind, to tune into the aliveness of this mystery.
We can all come to realize that our reality is not the ground, not the essential truth, which is infinitely greater and cannot be grasped, only conceptualized. Even hardcore atheists and cannot deny the existence of something (nothingness?) that can’t be explained. Well, okay, they can, they have the right to feel independent and isolated of course.
Each one of us is bound by a whole lot of determinism, by natural laws and natural cycles. There is no escaping this. Most of us are also largely determined by our personal past and the surrounding culture, and from that we can break away. It is however much easier to conform to society, to cling to a fixed identity, to act and react according to existing patterns, and not to question the whole system.
Much of the past only lives on through images, through knowledge, but it still has relevance. It is ingrained in your mind (3), in your body, in your behavior, in the state of the world as it is right now. As the memory function of the brain cannot be separated from the rest of your consciousness, it is silly to think that you can actually be free from the past by discarding or ignoring it. There is no other way than to be more aware of the whole, to discern illusion from that which still holds true, that which is an actual representation of a fact, a worldly fact. As the saying goes: “The truth can and will set you free”.
There is even more to it. There is also the unconscious part of the mind, your many “I”‘s or subselves, your inhibitions, your instincts, … Unless you discover more about yourself, exploring the depths of your mind-body, you will remain largely stuck, controlled by invisible parts of your past. The whole idea of freedom, of free will, becomes laughable in this respect.
It might seem harsh, but you could state that many of us live as robots, not aware of our programmed minds, caught in a web of beliefs and unnecessary restrictions, with many blind spots and mechanisms to stick to what is known and not to ask any deeper questions. Emotional reactions or other behavior can be totally automatic, and many people do not become aware of this unless there is a serious breakdown, or a social malfunction.
We should keep in mind that total unlearning and unconditioning is another fantasy of the absolute, but you can take it very far if you want to.
Ultimately, reality may merely be a construction of the mind, and probably there is only the emptiness of the here and now. How far will that insight take you? How are you to face the “unreal” problems of the world, your own problems, those of your loved ones, …? What about your fears and desires?
Since it is impossible to tackle the whole all at once, the most urgent question is: “Where do i go from here?”
We usually don’t see that all is included in the here and now: both the past and the future lie within it – the actual, the factual, the non-factual, the desired, the most feared, the probable, the most likely, the impossible, …, and, most important of all: the unknown.
Confusion can only fade or disappear by seeing through the whole of thought, both the personal and collective, by being very skeptical, by holding anything to the light of your own intelligence and seeing whether it is illusory or not. Active thinking and actively and passively observing, meditation in action, is indispensable to become more integrated and aware. Only by embracing and coming clean with your past and integrating all parts will you find peace within yourself. No magical trick, state of enlightenment, divine intervention or whatnot will do that for you.
Aside from the above reflections, is it actually possible in this world to live without any identity, without any self-image? How would you communicate? How would you make a living? How would you relate to people? How would you survive without a sense of self?
Stating that “all identification with form is wrong or unhealthy” would mean you cannot listen to music, watch movies, read books, or even have a decent conversation, because you can only connect with something or someone by identifying. Correct me if i am wrong!
The moment you start clinging to the image(s) is when the trouble begins. An example: suppose you like listening to classical music. Even if you did not care at all about your self-image, this would still be part of your identity, something you feel connected with. The liking gets stored anyway. This does not mean that you are attached to the music or the composer. Attachment and identification are two separate mechanisms.
As long as identity is not exclusive, and more of a question than an answer, i don’t see any problem. See for yourself, go into it, see what is happening.
You are your mind. You are your thoughts. You are you body. But you are also more, potentially much more and less than that. You are the world. You are a process. The more you get in touch with the truth of things, the more you open yourself up and allow insight to come about, thought changes, your reality changes, you change.
Only in a state of freely thinking, of seeing and not judging, not knowing, can there be space to allow the energy that keeps your reality accurate and actual, up-to-date.
Meditation has no end-goal, it is it own means and end. It is our only tool to live in a truth-based reality instead of an illusion-based one.
Whether we like it or not, no matter what, we are all trapped in reality. The liberation from psychological suffering lies in looking deeper and beyond, in opening up to a larger perspective. The question of self and identity cannot be solved, is not to be solved.
Being aware of oneself, of one’s images, of the facts, being open to the changing nature of all things, is the key to change, to act intelligently, to be free from choice, free from illusion.
That is the one and only freedom, the true meaning of being fully awake and alive.
(1) cfr. “The Ego Tunnel” by Thomas Metzinger (haven’t read it myself though)
(2) to learn more about this, read Charles Tart’s “Waking Up” or “States of Consciousness”, for example
(3) “Synaptic Self – How our brains become who we are” by Joseph LeDoux gives an excellent overview of how self emerges and persists through the whole brain system of neurological functions and interactions