Spiritual practice inevitably brings us face to face with the profound mystery of our own identity. We have taken birth in a human body. What is this force that gives us life, that brings us and the world into form? The world’s great spiritual teachings tell us over and over we are not who we think we are. But does that mean there is no self or a search for true self?
Persian mystics say we are sparks of the divine, and Christian mystics say we are filled with God. We are one with all things, say others. The world is all illusion, say others. Some teachings explain how consciousness creates life to express all possibilities, to be able to love, to know oneself. Others point out how consciousness gets lost in its patterns, loses its way, incarnates out of ignorance. Hindu yogas call the world a lila, or a dance of the divine, much like Dante’s phrase, “the divine comedy.”
Buddhist texts describe how consciousness itself creates the world like a dream or a mirage. Modern accounts of near-death experiences are filled with reports of wonderful ease after leaving the body, of golden light and luminous beings. Perhaps these, too, confirm how we are unaware of our true identity most of the time.
When we look into the question of self and identity in spiritual practice, we find it requires us to understand two distinct dimensions of no self and true self.
When the Buddha confronted the question of identity on the night of his enlightenment, he came to the radical discovery that we do not exist as separate beings. He saw into the human tendency to identify with a limited sense of existence. Then he discovered that this belief in an individual small self is a root illusion. It causes suffering and removes us from the freedom and mystery of life. He described this as interdependent arising, the cyclical process of consciousness creating identity by entering form, responding to contact of the senses, then attaching to certain forms, feelings, desires, images, and actions to create a sense of self.
In teaching, the Buddha never spoke of humans as persons existing in some fixed or static way. Instead, he described us as a collection of five changing processes: the processes of the physical body, of feelings, of perceptions, of responses, and of the flow of consciousness that experiences them all. Our sense of self arises whenever we grasp at or identify with these patterns. The process of identification, of selecting patterns to call “I,” “me,” “myself,” is subtle and usually hidden from our awareness. We can identify with our body, feelings, or thoughts; we can identify with images, patterns, roles, and archetypes.
Thus, in our culture, we might fix and identify with the role of being a woman or a man, a parent or a child. We might take our family history, our genetics, and our heredity to be who we are. Sometimes we identify with our desires: sexual, aesthetic, or spiritual. In the same way we can focus on our intellect or take our astrological sign as an identity. We can choose the archetype of hero, lover, mother, ne’er-do-well, adventurer, clown, or thief as our identity and live a year or a whole lifetime based on that. To the extent that we grasp these false identities, we continually have to protect and defend ourselves, strive to fulfill what is limited or deficient in them, to fear their loss.
Yet, these are not our true identity. One master with whom I studied used to laugh at how easily and commonly we would grasp at new identities. As for his non-self, he would say, “I am none of that. I am not this body, so I was never born and will never die. I am nothing and I am everything. Your identities make all your problems. Discover what is beyond them, the delight of the timeless, the deathless.”
Because the question of identity and selflessness is subject to confusion and misunderstanding, let us go into it more carefully. When Christian texts speak of losing the self in God, when Taoists and Hindus speak of merging with a True Self beyond all identity, when Buddhists speak of emptiness and of no self, what do they mean? Emptiness does not mean that things don’t exist, nor does “no self” mean that we don’t exist. Emptiness refers to the underlying nonseparation of life and the fertile ground of energy that gives rise to all forms of life. Our world and sense of self is a play of patterns.
Any identity we can grasp is transient, tentative. This is difficult to understand from words such as selflessness or emptiness of self. In fact, my own teacher Achaan Chah said, “If you try to understand it intellectually, your head will probably explode.” However, the experience of no self in practice can bring us to great freedom.
Deep meditation can untangle the sense of identity. There are, in fact, many ways in which we can realize the emptiness of self. When we are silent and attentive, we can sense directly how we can never truly possess anything in the world. Clearly we do not possess outer things. We are in some relationship with our cars, our home, our family, our jobs, but whatever that relationship is, it is “ours” only for a short time. In the end, things, people, or tasks die or change or we lose them. Nothing is exempt.
When we bring attention to any moment of experience, we discover that we do not possess it either. As we look, we find that we neither invite our thoughts nor own them. We might even wish them to stop, but our thoughts seem to think themselves, arising and passing according to their nature.
The same is true of our feelings. How many of us believe we control our feelings? As we pay attention, we see that they are more like the weather-moods and feelings change according to certain conditions, and are neither possessed nor directed by our consciousness or desires. Do we order happiness, sadness, irritation, excitement, or restlessness to come? Feelings arise by themselves, as the breath breathes itself, as sounds sound themselves.
Our body, too, follows its own laws. The body which we carry is a bag of bones and fluid that belong to no one. It ages, gets sick, or changes in ways we might not wish it to, all according to its own nature. The more we look, in fact, the more deeply we see that we possess nothing within or without.
We encounter another aspect of the emptiness of self when we notice how everything arises out of nothing, comes out of the void, returns to the void, goes back to nothing. All our words of the past day have disappeared. Similarly, where has the past week or the past month or our childhood gone? They arose, did a little dance, and now they’ve vanished, along with the 1980s, the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, the ancient Romans and Greeks, the Pharaohs, and so forth. All experience arises in the present, does its dance, and disappears. Experience comes into being only tentatively, for a little time in a certain form; then that form ends and a new form replaces it moment by moment.
In meditation, precise and deep attention shows us emptiness everywhere. Whatever sensation, thought, whatever aspect of body of mind we focus on carefully, the more space and the less solidity we experience there. Experience becomes like the particle waves described in modern physics, a pattern not quite solid, ever-changing. Even the sense of the one who is observing changes in the same way, our perspectives shifting from moment to moment as much as our sense of ourselves shifts from childhood to adolescence to old age. Wherever we focus carefully, we find a veneer of solidity that dissolves under our attention.
The real world is beyond our thoughts and ideas; we see it through the net of our desires, divided into pleasure and pain, right and wrong, inner and outer. To see the universe as it is, you must step beyond the net. It is not hard to do so, for the net is full of holes — Sri Nisargadatta
As we open and empty ourselves, we come to experience an interconnectedness, the realization that all things are joined and conditioned in an interdependent arising. Each experience and event contains all others. The teacher depends on the student, the airplane depends on the sky.
When a bell rings, is it the bell we hear, the air, the sound on our cars, or is it our brain that rings? It is all of these things. As the Taoists say, “The between is ringing.” The sound of the bell is here to he heard everywhere—in the eyes of every person we meet, in every tree and insect, in every breath we take…
When we truly sense this interconnectedness and the emptiness out of which all beings arise, we find liberation and a spacious joy. Discovering emptiness brings a lightness of heart, flexibility, and an ease that rests in all things. The more solidly we grasp our identity, the more solid our problems become. Once I asked a delightful old Sri Lankan meditation master to teach me the essence of Buddhism. He just laughed and said three times, “No self, no problem.”
Misconceptions about “no self” and emptiness abound. And such confusions undermine genuine spiritual development. Some people believe that they can come to selflessness by struggling to get rid of their ego-centered self. Others confuse the notion of emptiness with inner feelings of apathy, unworthiness, or meaninglessness that they have carried from a painful past into spiritual practice. Some students use emptiness as an excuse for a withdrawal from life, saying it is all illusion, trying to make a “spiritual bypass” around life’s problems. But each of these diseases of emptiness misses the true meaning of emptiness and its liberating freedom.
To try to get rid of the self, to purify, root out, or transcend all desire, anger, and centeredness, to vanquish a self that is “bad,” is an old religious idea. This notion underlies the ascetic practices, such as wearing hair shirts, extreme fasting, and self-mortification, that are found in many traditions. Sometimes such practices are used skillfully, to induce altered states, but more often they only reinforce aversion
Worse, what comes with them is the notion that our body, our mind, our “ego,” is somehow sinful, dirty, and deluded. “I (the good part of me) must use these techniques to get rid of the self (the lower, bad part of me).” But this can never work. It can never work because there is no self to get rid of! We are a changing process, not a fixed being. There never was a self-only our identification makes us think so. So while purification, kindness, and attention can certainly improve our habits, no amount of self-denial or self-torture can rid us of a self, for it was never there.
Let it be known! Let it be televised, billboarded, broadcasted, tweeted and other wise proclaimed: There are saints and heroes among us. Throughout our history, every generation has seen saints and they are with us even today. They speak simple truths and express those truths simply. Their expressions are love; unconditional, undiluted, unadulterated love. Their expressions are freedom and liberation from anything that might bind or limit the human being. They embody the best of humanity and provide us with a tangible ideal. These saints and heroes have total clarity, are totally purpose and mission bound and need nothing from anyone. What they give is given abundantly and freely, without expectations and they do not conduct transactions. They work tirelessly and relentlessly and ask for nothing in return except that we should pay it forward.
We will not know how big a difference they are making to this world until they are gone. This is because we enjoy flash and fireworks, and the day to day lives of these people are as tedious, thankless and unglamorous as the lives of the least pretentious among us. They go about their work quietly and effectively with no advertisement and no marketing. They live as we do, with the same exigencies and needs.They wear clothes, sleep and eat food. Their bodies are as perishable and time bound as any other. To communicate they need to talk, to communicate over long distances to many people they need to use phones and the internet. To go from one place to another they need to walk on feet, drive in cars and fly in aeroplanes. They could be a friend, a husband or a wife or divorced, they could also be a renunciate in monk’s robes. These are actually just titles and carry little or no significance. What is significant is impact on the world; how much value is added, how many lives saved, how much quality of life is improved, how much solace given, how much relief and aid provided. This they deliver objectively and unstintingly. What interests us far more are the lives of the rich and the famous.
We would rather read articles and gossip about movie gods and rock stars than books written by saints who have seen other realities. We focus on the minute details of the lives of crooked politicians and spend hours debating and speaking about them, but we still re-elect them into seats of power, we also put money in their pockets and ensure that they live like kings. This is what we are being fed by media houses and newsmakers of the world, who are very much aware of the lack of balanced output and are intentionally keeping our attention fixed on the entertainers, killers, criminals and celebrities of our world. As soon as an enlightened master’s stature and purpose bring them any money, which they immediately distribute or spend for the welfare of others, we criticize them and tell stories of their greed and the way they are manipulating their disciples. Could it be because some rich individuals and groups might miss a slice of the pie?
What saints represent is freedom, light and love. They also represent a danger and a threat. They practice and preach liberation, independence and fearlessness, the implications of which are far reaching. If the things that they are teaching and exemplifying are true, then we need to re-evaluate. We may have to start asking questions, may have to introspect. Every aspect of our lives and the way we choose to live would come under the microscope. We may have to change. Anyone who may have some hold on us would begin to lose that hold; anyone who may have monopolised our time, our energy or our talent may begin to lose that monopoly since the closer we are to the truth, the less fear we have.
We also have a lot to lose, since we have become very comfortable with our lives as they are and we may have to accept less comfortable realities. We may lose status and we may have to face the scorn and ridicule of our own families, our friends, neighbours and colleagues. So the saints of our times and times past represent this double threat. The established power bases and status quo, which are built on fear, greed, manipulation, ignorance and propaganda will lose credibility and become transparent. At the same time our lives, which are built essentially on selfishness, suppression, competition and gratification will become equally transparent and incredible.
It is a lot easier to just ignore the truth and anesthetise ourselves with television, fast food, parties, pursue achievements and accolades and a whole host of other pastimes thinly veiled as the things which give our lives meaning but which are in fact merely glorified distractions. There comes a time however when we can no longer turn a blind eye. Our saints and heroes are men and women of conviction and persistence. Their powerful presence and undeniable contributions to the world translate subtle truths into shining, glaring, blindingly obvious truths which cannot be ignored. Then comes dilemma, we can either heed or silence the voice of truth. In the past we simply killed them. In the case of Jesus, when his powerful presence and iconoclastic teachings became too much of a threat to the religious and governmental establishments of his time, he was tortured and crucified. WE crucified Jesus. In the case of Socrates, when his bold philosophy began to awaken in his contemporaries the spirit of inquiry, we imprisoned and poisoned him. WE killed Socrates. We did the same to Osho in 1990. Later, after they were no longer around to correct our misunderstandings or challenge us with their alien truths, we made religions out of them, realising all too late that they were great saints. Of course, their consciousness is always available, but still there was reason to regret what we did, we not only missed our chance but we ill used and executed a beautiful soul.
When we cannot kill them we resort to underhanded and filthy methodologies, we attack their credibility and their good name with sleaze and scandal. Suppression has bred taboo, and we have weaponised taboo against our heroes. Take the case of Sai Baba of Shirdi, whom we took to court on the accusation that he had impregnated a woman named Radhakrishna Mayi. Take the very recent case of Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma), a book has recently been published which talks about rape scandals in her Ashram among other equally distasteful allegations. She has made a massive contribution to our world, she has saved many lives and helped build homes in post tsunami Indonesia and India, she has been more effective in this crisis than the UN or any other singular organisation. Who stands to gain something from such character assassination? Who is envious of the attention and respect that true masters earn? Rank egotism can be found in every walk of life, most disturbingly it can be found even in so called spiritual circles and among so called spiritual masters. True masters as stated earlier need nothing from anyone and would never stoop to such depths, usually they handle such attacks with dignity, poise and elegance, keeping cool and calm under fire. This is a demonstration of their stature and their wisdom.
We have chosen to ignore the sizable and noble contributions of saints time and again, focusing instead on slanders and gossip form the rumour mill. We undervalue positivity and discard positive deeds and feed on negativity. A saintly soul lives an entire life selflessly, gives up the days and nights of his or her brief years on Earth and asks for nothing. If he makes one mistake, or God forbid, does something every other human does like get married or have sex, we chew him up and spit him out. Does it matter who sleeps with whom, who wears what and who drives what car? Such blatant immaturity is obviously spurious and baseless, since the whole ethical system that we are standing on as justification for our outrage is always changing to suit the times or to suit the law makers or whoever happens to be pulling the strings at the time. Morality, as enforced by society is a tool for control and for power, it never lasts and it stays the same.
The world teeters on the brink of cataclysm and humanity stands to lose the very things which make us human, our compassion and our kindness. If we cannot take action on behalf of ourselves and our brothers and sisters, then the least we can do is to not interfere in or hamper the efforts of those who are working ceaselessly for our sakes. What could we possibly gain from destroying saints? I urge you, I beg you, let them be and don’t give credence to the childish words of slanderers and naysayers.
We should embrace our heroes, listen to them, love them and respect them. We can! We can even take a page out of their book and become heroes ourselves. Don’t miss the opportunity to connect with those saints and enlightened ones that are with us now, grab the chance. Look to your own experience before you look to your neighbours’ opinion, then decide for yourself.
Author: Hein Adams
Inspired by the articles “Who’s Afraid of the Truth” parts 1 and 2 by Mohanji
If there are 7 Billion people on earth, there are as many personalities, with concepts, ideas, fears, conditionings, and all other flavors of life that one could possibly think about. As I have always mentioned, constitution wise, we are “hand-made” and not a factory product that looks and feels alike and whenever man tried to create evenness among his subjects, serious tragedies took place; wars, death and displacements happened.
Each being on earth is unique, irrespective of the species. This also implies on one’s free will. We create our destiny. We ourselves, through our own thoughts, words, emotion and action created our own destiny. We are the creator or script writer of our own life. Soul is only the aiding factor or the fuel that fulfils the journey – the energy that made the script into action. Nobody else is responsible for your life, your experience, even though many a time, you need co-actors to bring forth effects in experience. So many actors sequentially join and leave the play and each actor has his or her relevance in the play. None is less or more important. Everyone added their flavor.
In your life story you are certainly the hero and the rest are the supporting actors. But for each supporting actor, they are the hero of their own script. Comedy, tragedy, drama, action, horror, satire and all its variations are usually part of every script. Each actor represent different flavors of life. They join hands and spice up the drama of your life. They make it worth it. Sometimes the show makes you cry, sometimes it makes you laugh, sometimes it creates fear, sometimes love. The story continues. Many characters happen in the play.
Concepts and questions such as why cannot God remove evil from earth makes no sense when we understand how the infinite power operates. God is neutral, just like our own soul. It is objective, non-interfering and in perfect detachment from the actor or the action. God allows all characters to come and perform on the stage or it never interferes at least. Since each player is also the script writer of his own drama, God allows the experience of the play, irrespective of its theme and reason. There is no good and bad in God’s realm. There is only truth and experience. Man goes through many relative truths before he understands and attains the absolute truth. This trial and error is part of every being’s life.
God shall not take away this experience of existing in duality until one finds his unity. Duality is indeed the state as well as experience that leads one to unity. This truth cannot be underestimated. Without duality, there is no creativity. When me and my father become one, there is nothing to experience anymore. Only when the object and the experiencer are separate from one another, there is an experience. When eyes become one with the sight, there is nothing to see. When tongue becomes taste, there is nothing to taste. When ego and all identities dissolve and man becomes one with God, there is no more search. There is only beingness.
This state can be achieved only at the end of the drama. The chosen script should be acted and completed before the merger can happen. The audience or the operator cannot interfere and change the script nor duration. Sometimes, some characters attain sudden death and disappear from the drama. Even this is part of the original script even though it may seem to the audience as quite dramatic. This is the chosen effect, by the script writer. If a Wow happens in the lips of the audience, the script writer attains fulfillment, even if it means a tragedy.
Author: Mohanji, mohanji.org