When facing the question of what I really am, the advice that worked for me was, "Look at you."
Where else is the truth to be found? What can we trust to be the truth? Our senses are limited, our view is particular, our thinking bound up in categories and stories. Nothing even a hair's breadth from the core of what each of us calls "me" can be confirmed in any way as true.
When handed the idea that "the truth is you", it can easily morph into "the truth is in you." Nothing could be further from the truth, and the idea that the truth is in us is only a sidetrack that keeps us from facing the naked challenge that truth is.
There is a phenomenon that seems pretty consistent in online spiritual-ish groups. When someone claims some sort of awakening, or enlightenment, or increase in their level of peace, a troll inevitably appears to attack them. The troll will poke and prod and insult until they get a negative reaction from the person who made the claim. The troll will then hold this as proof of the lack of awakening in the person who made the original claim. The same can happen when someone is praised for being an awakened person, or a peaceful person. The trolls leap at the opportunity and hammer at the person so named.
There's a specific need in most people that I think is called out at such times. The same thing happens to artists who put themselves on the line. Some examples spring to my mind. The first one is of artist Marina Abramovic. She got a bit of Internet viral exposure a little while back when she did a performance piece where she locked gazes with whoever sat across from her at the table she was sitting at during the performance. During that performance, an ex-lover of hers sat across the table from her. He had not told her he was coming. They had not seen each other for many years after commemorating their romantic parting of ways by walking away from each other on the Great Wall of China. They started at the middle and turned away from each other and walked to the opposite ends of the wall, "without looking back."
However, that dramatic example is not the one I have in mind. With all the publicity that Marina Abramovic got from the above performance piece, an earlier on she had presented came back into the public awareness. She stood in a museum, with a table of assorted items including roses, markers, and scissors. She stood perfectly still, and attendees of the museum were invited to use the tools on her in any way they liked. At first, there was gentle placing of the roses in her hair and writing positive words on her exposed skin. As the day wore on, things took a darker turn. By the end of the piece she was topless, had words like "slut", "ugly", and "whore" written on her, she had been spat on numerous times, and she was bleeding from where people had whipped her with the thorny rose stems.
Another installation piece involved a real doll, dressed in business casual clothes, and sat out on a chair on a semi-busy sidewalk. Real dolls are anatomically correct, life-like sex dolls. So, it looked like a woman sitting very still on the side of the road until you got closer. The whole day was filmed. At first, people shyly came up and snickered as the prodded her. Many people took selfies with her. As the day wore on people slowly got bolder, re-arranging her clothes, and then taking her clothes off. Towards the end of the day, people got brutal, beating the doll with gusto.
Further examples come in the form of anonymous vitriol and threats of violence that await any woman who comes out as a voice on the Internet. Thinkers, innovators, scientists, game designers, artists, entrepreneurs, and women of any stripe are so often the victim of violent online trolling (including but not limited to threats of rape, beatings, and murder) that it has sadly become almost cliche.
It seems that ordinary, everyday people have a lot of pent up aggression looking for release. It also seems that said release is facilitated by having a target that won't retaliate. I can't see a more likely source for such aggression than fear. Naked, stark, simple fear. What else could make people behave in the depraved manner shown above? Fear drives people into a place of desperation, and they look for any way to make a claim to power. Victimizing the powerless is an unfortunately easy way to do so.
I think there is an analogy here with the people who hate on "awakened" people online. Most people have a cartoonish conception of what an awakened person is supposed to be like. Their conceptions of such people are clothed in characteristics attributed to the saints & sages in their myths. An awakened person is never supposed to get angry or complain, or defend themselves. They are to be meek and mild. This means they should not strike back when struck. Essentially they are all supposed to be like Gandhi, or rather a cartoonish representation of Gandhi. This means that haters and trolls get to lob their vitriol at the awakened person, and if said person responds in kind, well then obviously they are not awakened and the insulting party gets to mark a victory on their scorecard. If the target of the hateful posts does not respond, then the troll is more than happy to have someone they can attack to their heart's content.
Fearful people feel powerless, they feel angry, frustrated, and hateful. They look to be able to strike back the way they believe they have been struck. A target that won't fight back seems almost irresistible to them. So it goes.]]>
The seeker game is a funny one. I am referring here being a spiritual seeker. One who seeks to find the answers to the "big" questions in life. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? How does suffering end? Who are we? That sort of thing.
Seekers tend to seek each other out, at least during some periods of their seeking. The modern era of social media has done a lot for seekers looking to find the like-minded. I've been involved in a lot of these groups over the years and learned many useful distinctions and practices. However, it's not all a sack of roses. Spending time talking about seeking can become a distraction from seeking. Especially if those conversations take one away from one's path.
Here, in my humble opinion, is a list of conversations that seekers would do well to avoid:
How should I be?
There is nothing wrong with this type of conversation, on the surface, but for my money, it's better dealt with in early life learning from our families and culture. Not that those conversations should not be questioned, but since spirituality tends towards the "high falutin' ", questions of "how should I be?" get changed into, "what kind of supremely enlightened personage should I ape?" If you are looking into what it means to be you, then copying another person's mannerisms and code of conduct will only take you further afield.
What's the right thing to do?
This one is a lot like the first. If you are in a position to be discussing spiritual concerns then you should probably be mature enough to have some established sense of right and wrong. Once you allow someone else to transfer their sense of right and wrong onto you, then you leave yourself open to one of the big dangers of the spiritual world. Creep gurus. It's a sad-but-true fact that abuse of power happens more often when authority is surrendered to another person. Not all gurus are good guys, and most of them seem to be vulnerable to a sort of short circuit of morals. Since they are adored so openly for being so realized in a particular line of development, their other lines of development can atrophy. These characters can lose sight of what it means to be a civil human under the weight of being told how effortlessly perfect they are.
Am I on the right path?
This is a good thing to keep in mind, in my opinion, but it seems to be asked too early and too often by a lot of seekers. We live in a world of quick fixes, and short attention spans. I am a fan of changing paths, but only once you've gone far enough along on a path that you can honestly say you gave it its day in court.
What is enlightenment?
No one knows until they know. Before they know they spout nonsense about it. After they know, there's nothing to know, and therefore nothing to say. Of course, in Zen they would say, "but, you must say something", and I think they are right. However, again in this modern world of quick fixes, short attention spans, and encouraged false confidence, I don't think this conversation is one to be had in a casual environment.
What is the best way to get to enlightenment?
The one that works. If someone tells you something else, look for a price tag.
Now, I want to qualify all of the above and say that I don't think these are bad conversations to have. Not at all. I just think it's a bad idea to have them in certain environments, and most social media definitely qualifies. In small groups (and these can be online), with your community of seekers face-to-face, or with whatever teacher you are currently working with, I think these are great conversations to have. Context is everything. Watch yourself out there. Your path is important enough to deserve all your respect.
One of the things that confuses matters needlessly when applying the action of looking at you occurs when it gets put into the category of spiritual practices. This subtle category error can trip people up pretty badly and can stymie the usefulness of the looking.
One of the ways I get clear on this distinction is by referencing the old adage, "practice makes perfect." I happen to think that is a good saying to keep handy when you are actually engaging in practices, but you can see how it can mess things up a bit when you are not actually doing a practice. Looking at you is not something you get better at. It's not a skill you can refine or a technique you can master. There are no degrees of looking, as referenced by the saying, "practice makes perfect." You are either looking at you, or you are not. This is not something you can perfect.
It's like looking at the ceiling. When you are looking at the ceiling, you are not looking at the floor. Those are two different things to look at. It's the same with looking at you. You either are, or you are not. There are no two ways about it. The difficulty arises in the beginning. This stems from our lack of familiarity with what we are. This is something culture does not, and cannot, address. This is simply because what you are can't be put into words. Culture works through words. Because of that, in matters of looking at you, you are on your own. Which, I suppose, has a certain poetic appropriateness.
It can take a while for you to know that you are looking at you. It sounds kind of weird to say that since the one thing that is always present in every circumstance you find yourself in is you. You are, by far, the most common denominator in your life. However, it is true. Taking a direct look at ourselves is something we rarely do. It's like being in a bedroom of a person who digs stuffed animals. A lot. They say, "look at the blue monkey", and for a moment we are flabbergasted. It doesn't make any sense. We are not used to blue monkeys. Then we actually take a look around, and sure enough, there's the blue monkey, right next to the pink dinosaur. In my own case, I stumbled around with this action of looking for two full months before I "got it." It might take a while, it might not. It's also the case that it might not be a conscious thing when you do finally zero in on the target. For me, it was quite distinct. My mind was blown. Others I have spoken with who have taken up this suggested action have had much more subtle experiences with it. So it goes.
The other way in which the looking might be considered a practice is in the same way that someone might make a practice out of cleaning their sink every day. This is not something you get better at per se (although you might get quicker and more efficient at it), rather it is a thing you do with regularity to reap the benefits. The act of looking at you definitely has those, the chief of which is the washing away of accumulated lies about you.
The point here is that, if you think of the looking as something you work at getting better at, you will be missing the point. By a wide margin.
Dissolving the lies about what you are, and coming to realization about yourself does not change anything. How could it? You are already what you are, no matter what that is. Many in the spiritual game seem to take this as an indication that because of this there is no need to do anything. Often they advise that you simply stop the seeking and be you. (Of course stopping seeking is doing something, but that's beside the point.) I do not share this view. It took some work to install the lies that cover what you really are. It will take some work to uncover it.
This is one of the many paradoxes of coming to see what you are. You take action to uncover you, but you don't change at all. This is one of the things I like most about the simplicity of the looking. Inherent in the idea of taking a moment to look at something (especially you) is the notion that you are not trying to change anything. You are only looking. This puts aside the idea that you are trying to change anything, or acquire something new. You are just looking.
There is another double-sided trap here. The suggestion to look may come from another person. What another person can never do is to do the looking for you. They can offer refinements and can serve as a bouncing board to see if you are on the right track. They can provide encouragement. That's it though. I am not suggesting that there may not be things like shaktipat, energy transmission, empathy, telepathy, healing chi, or any other of the things that sometimes crop up to show how we are all not separate. What I am suggesting is that they don't matter in terms of the looking. Taking a moment to look directly at you, to expose the lies about you to the truth, is about a particular body-brain system doing so. That's how it works.
You must look for yourself. Someone else looking at the core of you (even if they could) would be something they might benefit from, not you. Without taking the time and effort to take a look at yourself, for yourself, the looking will never be useful for you. When someone else tells you what you are, they are sharing their impression. When you see what you really are, you are seeing truth.
The looking is something you do for yourself. There are no shortcuts. Luckily it is such an easy thing to do.
There's a bit of wrong-thinking I often see in spiritual groups. It's something of a piece of dogma in these circles, and like all dogmas, it limits clear thinking and stifles progress. My catch phrase in my own travel along the seeker's path has for a long time been, "Whatever works is good." Dogmatic concepts that slow our pace on the path are an example of what doesn't work.
This particular distinction is a pointer used when someone is looking into the true nature of the self (or lack thereof.) It points the seeker to a way of grappling with some of the difficulties presented by the task of coming to terms with what you really are. The most basic form goes something like this: "The eye cannot see itself. The witness cannot witness itself."
When a seeker begins to introspect heavily and look into the matter of the self (and what it really is) they can get into some confusing territory. This pointer is used to help people let go of some of the struggles involved. The idea is, that which seeks itself cannot see itself. The eye sees, but it can only look outward. This is very true as far as it goes. However, notice that this is because of the eye's characteristics as a physical thing. That, right there, is the source of wrong thinking in my opinion.
The assumption in this pointer is that you, whatever you are, you have the characteristics of a thing. Along with those characteristics come the limitations involved. Oddly enough, you hear this pointer often from people who also say that either there is no such thing as a self, or that the self is no-thing. The contradiction here is pretty obvious.
Seeking the truth of you means that you are the sole authority on what that is, and how it operates. Anything else would be about someone else. No matter what someone else says about you, if it goes against your findings when you look then a doubt of what someone else had to say is warranted. In the end, this only has to "make sense" to you.
I used to think I was looking for enlightenment. That was a direct fallout of another mistake, which was that I used to think I was a spiritual seeker. Neither of those was true. They were cases of mistaken identity. This mistaken identity stemmed from my confused lack of real thinking about what was driving me. It all started when I was five, but that's another story. What showed up for me at five was a question. That question was (as near as it can be put in English), "Being that I exist, why then can I not find my self?" That question stuck like a splinter in my mind and nothing would dislodge it. As I grew this question remained, like a constant itch reminding me that I had not dealt with it.
This question, "Being that I exist, why can I not find myself?" sounds like a spiritual thing. At least it did to me when I happened upon the idea of spirituality. Taoism and Buddhism especially sounded like they were concerned with this question. That was a mistake. They are not. Or, rather I have come to see that they are involved with that question in the wrong way. I am speaking here about how the of people who have a similar question in their heads (seekers, teachers, practitioners, gurus, masters, etc.) seem to handle the question. This hinges on a point that is hard to make in English. (I don't know if it's a hard point to make in other languages since I don't really speak any, but the trouble seems to be consistent.) The difficulty is that not all questions are questions.
Let me explain that last bit. Questions, as we normally deal with them, are handled by finding answers that fit. That's good as far as it goes. From what I can see, though, it doesn't go very far. When a question is answered, the answer inevitably seems to lead to more questions. In fact, the better the question is put together, the more it does this. I think that's a very good thing for normal life, development, and evolution. However, such a process of questions leading to answers leading to more questions doesn't do much for the kind of thing (also called a question because words are often pressed into serving multiple roles in order to keep the vocabulary of a given language manageable by a human brain) which spurs one on to becoming a spiritual seeker.
This other kind of question, the one that scrapes at the mind and won't stop until it is addressed, is more like a statement. It's a paradoxical presentation of how reality seems to be. This kind of question seems to cancel itself out, and yet it doesn't. It functions like a question because it demands a reply. That is as far as the resemblance to the other category of questions mentioned above goes. This second type of question cannot be answered. No answer will fit. Instead, the question needs to be directly confronted. The question needs to be faced on its own terms. Answers are often deflections or labels for putting something into a convenient category. As mentioned before, they lead to more questions. Answers will not do for these special kinds of questions. Instead, you need to face the question directly and not stop until the question goes. When such a question goes it does not leave an answer. Nor does it leave a void. When it happens you will not "figure it out." More than likely you will not even see the question go. One moment the question will be there with you, burning as brightly as ever. Perhaps it will be burning even brighter than it usually does because of all the attention you have fed it in finally facing it. Perhaps the burning will be so fierce that it will pain you. Perhaps it will seem as though nothing but the question really exists. Regardless of all that, one instant it is there in full force, an unmovable object consuming your life, and the next it is simply gone. Some people report a huge fanfare from such an occurrence. They talk about the Heavens opening wide, and the grace of God pouring down on them. To me that sounds more like an answer, and probably means the question was mistaken for the other kind. I really can't say. For me, there was no fanfare. For me, there was just a slight surprise. It wasn't until days after that I realized what had happened. That thing that had been stuck in my mind for so long that I took it for granted, was nowhere to be found.
Perhaps that is what spirituality is really all about; a treating of the burning question as the kind of question that answers make sense for. If that is the case, then spirituality will never deliver the goods it promises since most questions (especially those refined into strong form) always give birth to new questions when they are answered.
This all points to a consistent behavior I have seen in many of the "anti-spiritual" thinkers I admire in the spiritual milieu. It comes in many forms, but I find the way UG Krishnamurti expressed it to be the best. UG would often confront people who came to him with the question, "What do you want?"
For fortyish years, I thought what I wanted was enlightenment, awakening, Buddha-mind. I mistakenly believed that such a thing would relieve me of my question. What I really wanted was that question resolved. I didn't want it gone, and I knew any answer just led to more versions of the same question. I just wanted to be done with it. If someone had come at me with the, "what do you want?" tactic earlier, I might have saved a lot of time. I suspect a lot of people in the spiritual game would be saved a lot of confused groping with this tactic as well.
Personally, I say that whatever you want is groovy, Be honest with yourself about it, what the consequences of that want might be, and then if you still want it then go for it. The point here is that it's probably a good idea to actually move in the direction of getting it. For me, spirituality was in the wrong direction for dealing with what I actually wanted. Your mileage may vary.
It's an odd thing, having a website that addresses spiritual issues. I get lots of questions in my email, which is a good thing, but there is a sub-set of those emails that don't go very far. I realized today that these focus around the question of doubt.
Everyone walks their own path in the search for the truth about what they are. That is as it should be. Different things work for different people. Variety of approaches, and the spice it brings to the quest, helps to push these approaches farther along. It's a function of evolution, and I am a great supporter of it. I so not, in any way, believe that there is one method that works for all.
All I can ever talk about is what has, and what hasn't, worked for me. To do anything else seems foolish to me.
One of the things that has served me quite well is my fundamental doubt. As far as varieties of philosophy are concerned, the one that I have always kept close to hand is Skepticism. I do my best to not take anything at face value. (That includes Skepticism, but that's another story...) My slogan for this is, "doubt everything, question everything." This is a living practice. Even those things that have worked for me well for decades should also be questioned, to make sure I don't fall into a dull complacency.
I think we suffer from a deficit of doubt here in the West. As a child, I can recall countless times being singled out by a teacher. They would ask a question about something we were working on, and I (with all my social anxiety) would squeak out an answer. Then came the inevitable question, "Are you sure?" This question often came regardless of whether my answer was right, or wrong. I watched as other kids who gave their wrong answers with confidence were not asked the same question, "are you sure?" I learned that, having the right answer was not the point. Rather it was whether you had any doubt, or not.
From top to bottom, this attitude poisons our culture. The end result is that lack of doubt is valued (and rewarded) more highly than actually being right, or accurate. This leads to a society of people who assume that what those in positions of perceived authority are speaking the truth be default. There is a lack of independent fact checking, and self-education on important matters.
This atmosphere of doubt being a bad thing also makes it easy for people to get cemented in their views. When that happens, thinking stops, and dogma is substituted for contemplation.
When people come to my website with curiosity, they ask me questions about the suggestion I am making. That's as it should be. However, when the do so from a place of being convinced then we don't really get very far. As far as I can tell, one of the key ingredients of any kind of growth is a measure of doubt. How much more so is that true when it comes to the matter of the fundamental question least addressed in our various cultures: What are you?
Facing the question, "what are you?", can easily put us on rocky ground. The key is too not cling on to the first thing that feels like the right answer. In my experience it's also not good to cling to the second, third, or even the tenth answer. What worked for me was to drill at this question, relentlessly, doubting any and all answers, until the moment the question itself magically disappeared.
Of course, at that point, you are left with, "Yeah, okay, but what does that mean?"
Photo: Derek Bridges]]>
One of my favorite parts of the amazing book, "Be Here Now" by Ram Das, is where he talks about the general feeling of the community of seekers in the US during the 60's, and those who had gone to India to look for answers. He described everyone walking around, glancing at each other, catching eyes, and asking silently, "Do you know?" All the seekers were looking for someone who, "knew."
By the end of the book, Ram Das does a great job of pointing out (in a somewhat obfuscated way) that we all know.
The thing that we all know is what we really are. We all have as much access to the complete mystery of being as it is possible to have. No single being is more being than any other. The frustrating thing about what we really are is that it is true mystery. It is not something that can be stated in language, because language is inherently dualistic, and you are not that. Because of this, the truth of you is not something that can be known in the ordinary sense. Language stems from the ways our brains work. We map out the reality we encounter. We classify and categorize raw reality into a shorthand that we can more conveniently handle and manipulate. Anything that can be known, can also be stated. The mystery of you, not being containable by language, cannot be said.
This puts us in a bit of a bind. As humans, we are used to being able to "map the territory" and share that map with our fellows through the use of words. We learn, and we benefit from the life experiences of others in this manner. We pass on what we have discovered. Unfortunately, when it comes to what we actually are, this method falls short.
So, when someone asks us, "Do you know?", the best possible answer we can give is, "Yes, I know just as you know, but we can't talk about it." Those of us who don't know that we know are left with shrugging our shoulders and saying, "No, I don't know, I was hoping you did." So it goes.]]>