We are constantly bombarded and consequently confused by superficial stuff. The media thrive on it. Most news bulletins spend inordinate time on the marital tribulations of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, the latest gossip about the Royals and what the Kardashians have been up to. It is surprising how we are titillated by such inconsequential rubbish.
And yet we shouldn’t be surprised. Many of us who are afraid to look reality in the face are inordinately obsessed with finding distractions to avoid this difficult task so important to our enduring sense of personal well-being. Strange as it may seem to most of us whose spiritual underpinnings are built on rather shallow foundations, our fundamental sense of well-being is primarily dependent on understanding who we really are.
The good Dr Phil always taught that we have to contend with two worlds, viz the external world and the internal world.
Our exterior world is revealed to us by our physical senses. Our sight, sense of smell, sense of hearing, tactile senses and so on. But we overlook that this world is itself a construct of our minds. Our mind gathers all these sensory inputs and constructs a map of this apparently real world that we have to negotiate in our everyday activities. Most of us put great stock in this world and no doubt it is important. Our physical survival depends on how well we negotiate this world. And it would be foolish if we didn’t pay it due attention.
However we can’t dispute that what we see as the “real” world is just a map of the exterior world constructed by our senses and lodged in our mind. Mind you, as the good Dr Phil reminds us, it is in many ways an accurate map as we can attest because we don’t bump into things as we walk around! But strive as we might this is neither where we should look for happiness nor where we should look to define who we really are.
In terms of our personal well-being it is quite obvious that we are more at the mercy of our inner world than of the outer world. So what is this interior world? It is the world of our thoughts, decisions, desires, ambitions, moral identity, beliefs and attitudes. But importantly it is where we attach meaning to things. As Dr Phil reminds us, nothing in this world comes to us with its meaning attached –we assign it meaning. And what a powerful thing this is. It is indeed truth that our well-being is more determined by how we interpret the world we live in than the physical manifestation of that world.
Sri Nisargadatta was a famous Indian sage preaching non-dualism. (He was the author of an influential book titled I Am That.) He wrote:
Your outer life is unimportant. You can become a night watchman and live happily. It is what you are inwardly that matters. Your inner peace and joy you have to learn. It is much more difficult than earning money. No university can teach you to be yourself. The only way to learn is through practice. Right away begin to be yourself. Discard all you are not and go even deeper. Just as a man digging a well discards what is not water until he reaches the water bearing strata, so must you discard what is not your own, till nothing is left which you can disown………
Without this discarding, you will be consumed by desires and fears, repeating themselves meaninglessly in endless suffering. Most people do not know there can be an end to pain. But once they have heard the good news, obviously going beyond all strife and struggle is the most urgent task there can be. You know that you can be free and now it is up to you.
Now this strategy outlined by the sage is easy enough to conceptualise but much more difficult to put into action. But playing out this realisation provides a rare and very fortunate outcome arrived at from introspection and enlightened self-observation.
When I understand who I really am (not my body, not my mind, not my name, not my profession, not my possessions, not my thoughts, not my race, not my nationality, not my family, not my tribe, not my religion, not my politics, and so on) all the physical manifestations of my identity fall away. Consequently, my identity is then not derived from accumulation of wealth, career success, or alignment with this or that political party, nationality, religion, profession or whatever. It will be seen that the continuing sense of “I” is derived from a growing ‘awareness’ of that core part of one’s very being which itself enables each of us to observe the ongoing conscious processes taking place in our “theatre of mind”.
Most of us link our sense of identity to the physical body, a conscious mind and its accoutrements. As a result of this we are immediately vulnerable. We are vulnerable because what we identify with is vulnerable. The physical body is mortal, rejectable, attackable and therefore vulnerable. Shoring up our sense of self when it is attached to something so ephemeral is hugely difficult and this attempt leads to the tyranny of ego which seeks to deny those influences and attempts to distract us from all these vulnerabilities. We strive to stave off these vulnerabilities by erecting defences that separate ourselves from others. This defence mechanism is what we know as fear. It is manifested in such behaviour as pride, aggression, anger, status seeking, and nationalism and so on.
But not only is our body vulnerable, so is our mind. A mind that is not firmly anchored can be assaulted by depression, anxiety, and a whole range of debilitating mental illnesses.
Our body constantly changes as we go through life, yet our sense of self remains constant. Similarly, our mind changes. Our thoughts come and go, our opinions change and we experience everything from mental turmoil to inner peace, yet all the while our same sense of self seems to endure.
The sages of the principal oriental spiritual traditions, came to understand that what was constant was not our mind, but that faculty we have to observe our minds = and this they called the Witness.
And then, we learn who we really, really, are we come to understand that at the core of our being we are all the same – not separate – and this understanding, this dissolution of separateness is what we know as love – the highest form of love. When we view the world through this paradigm we comprehend that our well-being is not dependent on the external world and the success of our fear-created defence mechanisms, but our well-being is dependent on the state of our internal world and how well we have come to understand and accept ourselves. We only come to understand and accept ourselves when we have an effective model of what it means to be human, and when we have that, our understanding and acceptance of others follows naturally.
As Robert Draper in his fine book Silence is the Answer explains:
When I buy into the idea that I am special, it makes me seem different; seeming different implies that I’m separated; being separated means that I’m alone; being alone makes me feel frightened; and being frightened gives rise to accusation and defensiveness. Thus defensiveness and accusation are the hallmarks of the seemingly special, who are really the self-alienated and afraid. So where is my core problem in difficult relationships? In the other’s unkind acts or dismissive behaviour? Or in my need to feed and protect my specialness and its so easily wounded pride?
Or again in Kenneth Wapnick’s From Futility to Happiness he wrote:
Only the mind’s decision for separation is the cause of suffering ………….. Thus if we do not undo the belief in separate interests, nothing will ever change; or if it does, some other problem will inevitably arise to take its place. Since we are seeking in the wrong place for the answer, no matter how well-meaning our solution, it will be wrong.
Further, he wrote:
Only the mind’s decision for separation is the cause for suffering. Thus if we do not undo the belief in separate interests nothing will ever change.
Competent human beings, then, have a world view that has integrated into it an accurate concept of what it is to be human. When we have such a worldview in place, we don’t have to fend off reality by constructing elaborate defence mechanisms. But most importantly we understand that the essence of our humanity is shared with each and every member of the human race. Some may be bemused when I call that realisation ‘love’. But in resonance with the wisdom teachings of the entire world, this is essentially what we are talking about.
Undertaking the process to come to this understanding that we have of the way the world is, can be difficult for many to understand. We know this because our worldviews are built on a whole set of underlying assumptions and beliefs that are seldom questioned and are often not even accessible to the conscious mind. Most transformations at this level only occur when the worldview is so out of kilter with reality that significant dissonance occurs.
Aldous Huxley, who knew a thing or two about spirituality, wrote:
If I only knew who in fact I am, I should cease to behave as what I think I am, and if I stopped behaving as what I think I am, I should know who I am.
Most of us believe our sense of who we are comes from two prime sources, viz:
- Our biological history and circumstances. From here springs our gender, nationality, religious beliefs, physical attributes and so on; or
- Our personal achievements. Associated with this are our education, qualifications, careers, sporting accomplishments and so on.
But the sage, Sri Nisargadatta, quoted above, believed otherwise. As you saw, he advised if you were to know who you really are, you must discard all such personal identifiers. You are not your name, your gender, your nationality, your religion, your profession, your thoughts, your body and so on. You approach this inner sense of self by discarding all that you know you are not.
(The method he described is very similar to the via negative which is the basis of Apophatic theology which asserts that we can never know God directly but only understanding what He is not.)
As I have often explained in my essays, our two principal methods of teaching rely on both Logos and Mythos. The wisdom traditions of the world rely a great deal on Mythos. They tap our intuitive mind through the use of parables and metaphor. In conclusion let me share a little story with you.
There is a Hindu myth that in the beginning all men were as gods. However men abused their elevated status and the gods decided to take away the essence of godliness as punishment.
“Where will we hide it?” they asked one another.
“It will need to be hidden in a place where they cannot retrieve it,” responded one, “So they can not again abuse it.”
“We will hide it atop the highest mountain,” suggested another.
Brahman, the god of all the gods shook his head. “One day Mankind will learn how to climb even the highest mountain, so that will not do.”
“Then we will bury it deep in the earth,” another god responded.
“No,” said Brahman. “In the fullness of time man will learn how to mine the very depths of the earth.”
After a pause another suggested, “Perhaps we can sink it to the bottom of the deepest sea.”
But again Brahman shook his head. “Sooner or later man will conquer even the ocean deeps.”
“Then what are we to do?” they mused.
“There is only one thing to do,” responded Brahman. “We will hide the god essence deep within Man himself. He will never think to look there.”
And this, of course, is what they did.
But of course the most perspicacious sages did eventually look there and that’s where they found the very essence of our being!