Three Stages of Meditation

The reasons why people choose to meditate are as varied as there are people but from my own experience there is really only one real purpose to meditation: and that is to free awareness.

In our everyday lives, awareness is continuously being pulled by thought, by emotions, by events, by sensations, by dreams in every which direction almost non-stop. Perhaps, the only period of time this doesn’t happen is when we are in deep sleep and even that we can only speculate. If you think of awareness as a field (something akin to a magnetic field) then every thought, emotion, event etc is like a magnet that pulls the field causing it to morph into that shape. Awareness itself is shapeless, formless but when attracted by a thought it looks like a thought, when pulled by an emotion it feels like an emotion. Sort of like how water assumes the shape of whatever container it is put in.

But rarely, does it ever have a chance to exist undistorted. That is essentially what meditation is for – to allow awareness to return to its original state while in the conscious mind. Why do this? What is the possible benefit to awareness? There is no benefit to awareness. Awareness remains unaffected by all this pulling and distorting just as water would remain water no matter how many different shapes it would assume. No, the benefit is to the mind. Because, as we all know the mind is malleable. Over time, it begins to assume the shape and quality of the primary state of awareness being experienced. Just as a rigid rocky canyon, over millennia will gradually begin to reflect the same smooth graceful lines and flow of the river that flows through it, so too will a hard and rigid mind eventually begin to reflect the same grace and flexibility when awareness begins to flow unimpeded.

So, when I meditate this is my intention. Now, one cannot let go into this state easily, because the mind is used to anchoring awareness somehow (whether by thought, emotion, daydreaming). So one must begin the letting go process in stages:

The first stage involves letting go of the anchors of the mind. And what better way to let go of these anchors than to anchor awareness somewhere else. The body is the perfect candidate. You gradually learn to begin to shift the focus of awareness from thought to physical sensation: the feeling of your feet on the floor, the weight of your body on the seat, the rhythm of your breath as you deliberately inhale and exhale.

Other variations may involve focusing your attention away from the body and on a specific spot on the horizon, or a candle flame or on the sound of a mantra you have been instructed to repeat or on the underlying silence. All these are different anchor points we may use in order to free awareness of its more traditional mind based anchors of thought and emotion.

The second stage involves letting go of all these alternative anchors as well. When you have been meditating for some time and are easily able to sustain or move your attention away from thought/emotion you are ready to let go of these perception anchors and instead anchor awareness in the root sense of being: the “I am”. This is the subtle sense of existence that is always the backdrop of your experience. You can sense it right now, it is the sense of simply existing. Because this is such a subtle sense it is not easy to anchor awareness to it. Yet, once anchored here this is the most natural form your awareness can assume. Notice I said “form”. This sense of “I am” is still a reflection of existence in the mind. It is your mind’s acknowledgement/recognition of your own existence and therefore the subtlest of forms. The I AM meditation is a very powerful one, but ultimately awareness is still not free in this stage.

The third and final stage involves letting go of even the I AM anchor. There is no more registering, no more recognition, no more recording in the mind. Awareness perceives freely but there is no sense of anything being perceived or anyone doing the perceiving. In the previous I AM meditative state there is still a sense of fundamental separation between “I” and “the rest”. In this stage even that separation is gone. There is no sense of a meditation even happening. There is awareness, just no awareness of anything.

When I meditate, I generally tend to move slowly between the 2nd and 3rd stages. Sometimes, when I sit down to meditate, if my mind had been in a particularly busy state just prior I will begin by entering the 1st stage briefly by focusing on my breath or body to quickly shift gears from the high frequency Beta to more relaxed Alpha and then ease into the Theta meditative state. In the theta state the “I AM” sense is very strong and can be easily anchored into. Then, when the relaxation is deep and I feel the willingness to let go, my awareness detaches its anchor to the I AM.

An article I read recently on measuring the brainwaves of advanced meditators using EEG, stated that most of them are able to sink into the Delta brainwave frequency which is the frequency of deep sleep. I am convinced that perfectly correlates to the 3rd stage as I outlined it. When I enter into this state minutes can feel like seconds and there is no sense of myself or of anything occurring yet there is some minuscule amount of mind consciousness that exists somewhere just enough so that I can be aware, after the fact, of what transpired instead of being left with a complete blank as is the case with deep sleep.

*this article was originally published on the ConsciousLivingForum as my response to a query on meditation.

The 4 Layers Of Identity

As we attempt to arrive at a finer understanding of ourselves, we begin to realize that things are not as black and white as they seem. Sure, for the purposes of simplifying things it may suffice to split things into two camps and say that the ego is the false self, while the true self is simply the felt sense of existence, the I AM. But this sort of understanding is incomplete and does little to further our own growth within this lifetime. Then there are more ambiguous words like “personality” and “nature” which we try and fit into one camp or the other and yet they never seem to fit nicely within those lines. The people who equate their personality with their own ego end up becoming bland and dry as they seek to eradicate any color and vibrancy from their own self-expression. Whereas, those who equate their own nature with that of their I AM essence lose all capacity for restraint or common sense, acting on every impulse and rationalizing it to themselves as something that just is.

So, in this post I want to try and redefine some of these identifiers in such a way as will make sense and remove any ambiguity as to what these words mean. Even though, we tend to use some of these words interchangeably, they are not interchangeable. In fact, missing this point is the root of why a lot of us spend years spinning in circles in our own journeys of self-discovery. Hopefully, this post will help bring some clarity to the ways in which you understand yourself.

The 4 Layers of Identity

Firstly, let’s begin by getting rid of the words “true” and “false”. I find they create more confusion than clarity.

This “I”, that you are, is a composite sketch built through 4 layers. And with each added layer, there is an enhancement of our sense of individuality as well as our sense of separation from the world surrounding us. The fours layers are that of:

– Essence
– Nature
– Personality
– Ego

Each and every one of us operates through all 4 layers. No layer is any more “true” or “false” than the other but they do operate in a hierarchy. Essence is the root layer and the foundation upon which our Nature rests, which in turn supports thePersonality which eventually facilitates an Ego. Essence can exist without the other 3, Nature can exist without the Personality and Ego, and finally the Personality can exist without an Ego. But not the other way around. You cannot have an Ego, which is devoid of a personality, nature or essence.

Imagine that you are looking through the viewfinder of a camera at a breathtaking landscape. At first the image that you see is the closest rendition of the scene being witnessed. It is the unaltered replica of the original. But then, as the expert photographer you are, you decide that what you need is to increase the exposure by allowing more light in therefore making the picture brighter. This is the first stage of modification. Next, you also decide that you need to increase the saturation to allow more color in the image. This is your second stage of modification. And finally, you decide that there is some extra stuff on the periphery that you would rather not have in your picture and so you crop it out. This is your third stage of modification. The final product is a slightly modified, enhanced yet completely unique perspective on the same scene that a hundred other photographers are taking pictures of.

Similarly, this “I” that you are, was built through many layers and at different stages during your formative years. Let’s take a look at each of these layers in further detail:

Essence: This is the unfiltered first layer which forms the root of the identity. It is the quality of existence or beingness which is universal to all things that exist, animate or inanimate. In spiritual speak it has been termed as the “presence”, the “isness”, the “suchness” of everything. Or when turned inward it is the “presence”, the “beingness” or the “I-am-ness” of our own existence. Even if everything we thought we knew about ourselves turned out to be a mirage, this is one thing we can hold certain, that there is something that exists – even if that something cannot be expressed in words. This is the Essential Self , theTao that cannot be spoken : the undefined, unbounded and undifferentiated sense of just being.

At this level of existence, there is no sense of separation between the self and other. The presence of the self and the presence of the world are experienced as the same one presence of all that is. Or to put it differently, The “I-am-ness” of self and the “is-ness” of the world is felt as one and the same thing.

At this level, the self is experienced simply as “being”.

Nature: This is the second layer which creates the first modification in our identity. The Natural Self is our basic identity as a creation of Mother Nature. It is related to our own biology, to the natural world around us. It is encoded within our genetics: some aspects inherited from our ancestry and some aspects shaped by the natural and cosmic forces at play at the moment of our creation into these human forms. Your natural identity is formed very early within the womb itself and becomes evident within the first few months of your birth.

No two babies are ever alike. Each one has a certain temperament, certain predispositions, certain quirks, certain inclinations, certain talents, certain limitations. In fact, this is not something that is unique only to human infants. Animals too share the same qualities. A lioness can give birth to a litter of cubs each with their own unique nature.

Astrology and sun signs are more closely linked to your Nature than they are to your personality even though they are often confused to represent the latter. For example, it is true that Tauruses tend to be bull headed, Gemini’s tend to be impulsive and Leo’s tend to be independent. But as I stated earlier, your Nature is a function of many factors – the conditions of the cosmos at the time of your creation being just one of them.

To be connected with one’s own nature immediately brings one into harmony with that of our natural world. While there is some sense of separation that is experienced at this level there is still a very strong sense of being interconnected with everything. The natural world is felt as a giant cooperative, and the response is one of service to it. It is something akin to the relationship a small child feels with its mother.

At this level of existence, the self is experienced as a “creature”.

Personality: This is the third layer which creates the second modification in our identity. This personality is our basic identity as a social creature. It is who we fashion ourselves into in relation to those around us. Every human being has a personality because every human being has been raised by other humans. The one exception to this rule is in the case of feral children: those extremely rare cases of infants that were raised in the wild by animals. These children never had the opportunity to develop this layer of their identity to its full capacity. Yet, they do exhibit very rudimentary personalities since they are most often raised by the more intelligent species of animals, like chimpanzees, wolves, wild dogs etc. that live in complex social worlds and thus also develop personalities for the same reason we do.

The personality is our social identity. It is what makes us recognizable to each other as different individuals within our species rather than just clones of one another. Our personalities begin developing just a few months after birth and by the age of just a year can clearly be distinguished from that of our peers. The personality is exhibited in terms of our likes and dislikes, what excites us, what bores us, what terrifies us, what piques our curiosity, how we spontaneously express ourselves, who we are drawn to, what makes us withdraw, what causes us to expand, what we tend to resist, how we relate to others, how we relate to ourselves.

To be fully connected with one’s own personality allows us to find our own role, function and purpose within the social order. Whether that is to be a leader, a visionary, a planner, a designer, an organizer, an analyst, a creative, an artisan, a technician, a healer, a tradesman, a labourer, a revolutionary – a fully integrated personality is the product and reflection of the social times and circumstances in which you live. And so, the full expression of that personality has the power to affect the social whole in profound ways.

At this level of existence, the self is experienced as an “individual”.

Ego: This is the fourth layer which creates the third modification in our identity. This is our basic identity as a thinking, self-aware, self-reflecting and self-evaluating organism. It is the identity that is being manufactured and designed in real-time from one moment to the next based on feedback we are receiving from our environments measured against certain pre-programmed evaluation criteria (in the form of our beliefs and value systems). The ego is the last layer of identity to develop because it requires a certain degree of intelligence in order to be sustained. Human beings are the only species capable of creating ego identities. The ego first begins to make its appearance in children as young as two years old however, it only becomes the dominant operating layer a bit later on when the child is around five or six years of age. By adolescence, it begins to subjugate or drown out the influence/awareness of all the other layers (except the personality) and by adulthood it becomes firmly rooted as the dominant throne of our sense of identity.

The Ego is an artificial/information-based construct built on ideals, values, morals, attitudes, behaviours, habits, patterns and traumas that we have witnessed and internalized as our “reality evaluation critiera”. It is like a program that is constantly running in the background, tapping into the computer’s resources in different ways and creating an overall output which may be highly efficient and functional or highly inefficient and dysfunctional depending on the quality of the programming. If you equate yourself to a computer then your essence would be the electricity that powers the machine, your nature would be the fundamental design of your hardware (are you a Mac or a PC – what were you designed to do), your personality would be your OS and finally your ego would be the various programs that have been downloaded and are using up the resources of your machine. These programs can either be beneficial and lead to the machines optimal functioning or they could be malicious ware that causes the system to crash regularly causing loss of data and other issues.

Of all the above layers, the ego is also the most malleable, most open to change or transformation, both positive or negative.

At this level of existence, the self is experienced as the construct of “me” (with all associated labels and identifiers such as name, D.O.B., occupation, marital status, sexual orientation, religious and political views etc.)

The History of Identity

The evolution of man has really been a story of our shift in identity. As we evolved in our intelligence so too did our sense of identity bias itself towards the newer more sophisticated regions of our brains. This obsession we have with the newest, latest technology is a pattern that has perpetuated itself since the first homo sapiens walked the earth.

We began as a species rooted in the natural self. With little intelligence other than our ability to use rudimentary tools, we learned to respect and lived in harmony with our natural environment.

However, as we evolved we began to congregate and develop more complex social environments because we realized there was strength in numbers. We began to learn that the elements could be harnessed for our own needs. We learned to make fire to provide us food, fuel and warmth. We learned to harness water to irrigate our fields and the earth to harvest crops of our choosing. In a sense, we were beginning to learn that nature could be controlled. We learned to harness the power of wind to power our boats for exploration.

In our earliest stages of civilization, as we began to form villages and tribes, our sense of identity became rooted in our personalities. The social world now superseded the natural world in our hierarchy of importance. With our personalities came our social roles that allowed us to fit into the scheme of things. There were the leaders, the visionaries, the hunters, the warriors, the traders, the messengers, the teachers, the healers and so on: these archetypal personality types formed our very first occupations. And it was very easy to identify at a very early age what someone would grow up to be. Yet, our connection with nature remained somewhat harmonious even though it had shifted from a relationship of reverence and dependence to one of use and function. For the first time we became aware of ourselves as the most powerful creature on the planet.

It took only a few millennia of civilization for the human ego to arise. The ego perpetuates itself based on precedence and prediction. With enough precedence and success, we now began to believe we could take complete control of our environments and destinies. Nature ceased to be a being that we lived in harmony with and instead became an inanimate resource that we could plunder with abandon. Expanding and growing our societies became the fevered cause that began to drive our evolution as a species. And as our societies grew from the size of small villages to great cities and vast empires, so did our own fear of survival within the social order.

We looked around and no longer saw a world which understood and valued us for who we were and our place within it. Instead, we gaped into the giant maw of a beast, which could only be avoided if we strived persistently, from moment to moment, to prove our worth and value to it.

And so, we became frantically obsessed with our own image and managing how we were being perceived by others. The brilliant design of the ego is that it simultaneously offers both a highly sophisticated sense of individuality as well as the most intense sense of isolation from one’s own environment.

As, you can see, we evolved from beings that were once at one with the cosmos, to beings that were distinct from the universe yet at one with our natural environment, to beings that were separate from nature yet at one with the social order to finally becoming beings that are hopelessly separate from all of it: the cosmos, mother nature and other human beings.

This transition of identity has led to most of our suffering and yet it is not the end of the story. For it is when we have reached the pinnacle of suffering that the return journey to integration and harmony can begin.

The Reason Why We Suffer

From all this analysis, some might (and many have) erroneously concluded that therefore it is the Ego that is the cause of human suffering. But it is not. Let me explain why. Saying the ego is the cause of our suffering is like saying the 5th gear on a car is the cause of all traffic fatalities. It’s true that the faster you drive, the more the risk of serious injury increases. But is that a reason to eradicate the 5th gear of a car?

Novice drivers in many countries are prohibited from highway driving at least for a year or so until they are considered experienced enough to be able to handle driving at the highest gear. In other words, the higher the gear we drive at the more we grow and evolve in our own mastery. Granted, there will always be poor drivers and bad judgment calls on this highway of life, yet this is hardly a reason to eradicate the highway altogether and instead calls for an even higher degree of awareness and alertness of the road.

So why do we suffer? It all has to do with where our sense of self focus rests. On which layers of identity is it rooted?

Let’s return to the analogy of the driving a car on the highway for a moment. As the driver, the fundamental reality is one of the road: the highway itself. It’s what all the cars and all the drivers have in common. It is the single winding thread that unites us. A masterful driver is always aware of the road: the feel of it, its curve, its bank, its imperfections, its texture. S/he feels it like s/he feels h(er)imself: at one with it. Have you ever heard of the saying many bikers use: “being at one with the road?” This is what the saying points to. When you feel no sense of separation between yourself and the road. This road is a metaphor for life, of course. And, to “feel the road” is to feel the presence of each moment as it passes and to feel grounded in that sense of being present. Then every action that one takes emerges from a place of built-in harmony with life’s flow. The awareness of the road is synonymous with the awareness of the Essence layer of our identity.

Next, comes the awareness of the vehicle. Perhaps, you are driving a car, or maybe you are driving a truck, maybe even a motorbike. As the driver, how well do you understand the nature of this vehicle. What is it designed to do? Is it designed to carry passengers, is it designed to carry cargo, is it designed to simply carry you? The rules of the road will differ depending on what vehicle you are driving. As a truck only certain lanes may be open to you, as a motorbike you will have to be aware of your vulnerability on the highway. A truck that drives like a car can be a menace on the road, a motorbike that doesn’t understand its own limitations is doomed to crash. As the driver, how aware are you of the nature of your vehicle? If it were to run into trouble how equipped are you to address any mechanical issues? The awareness of the vehicle is synonymous with the awareness of the Natural layer of our identity.

Next, comes an awareness of the kind of vehicle, the design and performance it was intended for. Are you driving a sportscar, a sedan, an SUV, a sportsbike, a chopper, a cube van, a semi? When you are tuned into the design you simultaneously understand the vehicle’s personality: is it fast and fun, slow and dependable, quick and versatile, enduring and economical? This will factor into how you choose to drive and how other drivers will inevitably drive around you. It is the leading influencer of social behaviour on this highway. Awareness of design is synonymous with awareness of the Personality layer.

And, finally we arrive at your own agenda as the driver: where you want to get to, how fast, using what route and at what expense? These are motivations that every driver has that lend richness, texture, complexity and variety to the experience of driving. They can also create confusion and chaos. It all depends on which layer of identity the driver’s awareness is rooted in. The driver’s own agenda corresponds with the Ego layer.

A driver whose awareness is rooted primarily on the road, secondarily in the nature of the vehicle, thirdly in its design and only fourthly in their own agenda or purpose is in harmony with the hierarchy of the entire system. Any and every act will emerge from a place of alignment. This doesn’t mean mistakes cannot occur, but even these mistakes are used as catalysts to the further enhance the driver’s experience and mastery.

However, take for example a driver that is instead much the opposite. This driver is most invested in and primarily aware of their own agenda: where they want to get to, how fast and at what expense. Their awareness of the design of their vehicle and its optimal performance comes only secondary. Their awareness of the kind of vehicle they are driving and the purpose it is built for is almost ignored. And finally an awareness or feel for the road is practically non-existent. This kind of driver is in complete disharmony because their own sense of identity operates in a reversed hierarchy to that of reality. This sort of driver causes disruption to the flow of traffic, delays for others and themselves and increases the risk of accident.

Similarly, in our own lives, the person whose sense of self is most deeply entrenched in the ego construct of their own minds is designed to suffer the most and as a result perpetuate the most suffering for others. They are merely attempting to survive and “get ahead” based on their limited grasp of what this life is about. It doesn’t matter what their intentions are. They may be ill intentioned or well intentioned, living for their own benefit or the benefit of others. Regardless, if their sense of being is rooted in such ideology with little awareness of the underlying layers of reality, suffering and confusion are sure to follow.

So, what then is the solution to human suffering? The answer is straightforward: an expansion of awareness and the integration of all 4 layers of self in to one seamless whole.

Awareness and Integration

The response of most spiritual traditions (especially the Eastern ones) to the dilemma of living from the ego, is to deny it completely and instead root ones identity in the fundamental layer: in our own Essence or beingness.

This is a great first step, but then what? Unfortunately, for most of the wisdom paths, this one step seems sufficient. The problem is most of these teachings emerged at a time when our social structures were still relatively simple and so there was actually a built in support structure for those willing to renounce “living” all together. They became monks and cloistered themselves in monasteries and were revered and lived off the charities of other people. Such an option simply does not exist in today’s world and nor should it. Cloistering oneself is akin to pulling the car onto the shoulder and putting it in park. Sure, you can feel the road under you and you aren’t causing anyone suffering, but you ain’t really going anywhere either.

As I said, reconnecting with one’s being is the first step in the rehabilitation of the identity. It’s like the problem driver who goes back to driving school and relearns the basics. Connecting with the nature of the road is the most basic thing one can learn and it is simultaneously the most powerful.

However, once that awareness has been found and becomes the solid centre from which we learn to operate, then we are ready to integrate the other layers of the self. We then begin to willingly explore our own nature through connecting with our own environment. What is this vehicle we have been given? Is it a car, a truck, a motorcycle? Only driving it will teach us. We see how it responds to the road and how the road in turn responds to it. All the while it is the road that is the primary teacher. Having developed a firm understanding and feel for our own nature we are now ready to experiment with our vehicle’s design: its personality. Here the road becomes both simultaneously a fun and terrifying teacher: encouraging us when we are being too timid, chastising us when we are over reaching. Little by little, as we learn about our own speed, resistance, torque, audacity, restraint, reliability, endurance the road drives us to experiment and discover more even as we drive upon it.

Finally, when we have learned about our own designs, the road asks us: “Where shall I take you?” Notice the question is not : “Where do you want to go?” but “Where shall I take you?”

Because, it is the road that has always been in control. And it is the road that allows you to exist as one of its expressions. Integration leads to the realization that all is one, both on the outside and on the inside. That we can exist as a being, a creature, an individual and as a me all rolled into one, but only in that particular order. That separation is only a matter of perspective. And that all perspectives can coexist in harmony in a hierarchy of significance. The moment that hierarchy is disrupted the whole construct falls apart.

When we value simple presence over the cycle of past and future, life and death; when we value mother nature and our eco-system over our human and social motivations, when we value our social interactions through community and relationship over our own personal agendas; when this is the hierarchy of experience in which we live our lives – then we are fully integrated beings no longer capable of suffering.

At the end, the evolution of the self is an echo of every other form of evolution that happens in the universe. It is a cycle with one movement leading to greater and greater differentiation and the return movement bringing about an integration of every point. When the circle is complete, we become whole.

The Fundamental Anxiety

I stand alone, silent, still, breathing deeply in the dark. The streets are faintly lit by the pale waning moon. Not a soul in sight. The floorboards on my porch creak as I shift my weight. The air is cold but still. A silent night as bare of sound as the trees are of their leaves. Could I be lost in eternity? But no, the tap….tap…..tap….of water falling on a neighbors roof reminds my mind that time is passing. Tap! There goes a moment. Tap! There goes another. Tap! And still another. Yet, what they really feel like is a different experience of the same one moment.

I want to get to the root of our suffering. Tonight. There is no better time. Breathing deep into my belly and out….in and out…. my mind falls silent as I connect with my most essential being. “Where am I?” asks a question. “I am everywhere”, responds the answer. The whole world pulses with my own breath….In….Out…In….Out. All is well. All is one. One seamless movement. And yet….

What is that? Deep in my belly, in the heart of my gut, in the most forgotten of all spaces there is a tremor. I use my breath as my vehicle to drive my investigation. In! more deeply. Out! more deeply. My diaphragm responds immediately. As I approach closer, the tremor reveals itself more fully as a trepidation. In! more deeply. Out! more deeply. My curiosity turns to fascination. My diaphragm heaves like a locomotive gaining speed. Drawing closer still the trepidation reveals itself more fully as fear. “Not enough! There’s more!” A voice says from somewhere. Fear of what? My stomach begins to habitually contract. “There’s nothing to see here!” it seems to say, cringing and cowering from the breath’s persistence to dig out its secrets.

“Past the fear! Its too sensational. Don’t be arrested by it,” says the voice. What lies beneath the fear? In! more deeply. Out! more deeply, driving deeper and deeper, I arrive at last at the core: that bubbling, seething molten hotbed of dissatisfaction. I call it the Fundamental Anxiety. It is the root of all our suffering. It is the unseen force driving all actions in this world just as the molten core of the earth causes the continents, oceans and atmosphere to shift. It is here that the lofty peaks of our ideals are fashioned. It is here that the chasms of our despair are carved. It is here that the mannequin forms of our egos are forged: those ghostly, immobile entities that remain devoid of life no matter how much we try and dress them up.

I watch with morbid fascination as the molten mass churns like a cauldron of vile witches’ brew. Closer and closer I advance until I can feel the sear on my skin. Through the deafening roar of cries and moans I am listening for a single voice. In! more deeply. Out! more deeply. I am at the very edge of the precipice now straining to hear….

And then it comes like a painful wail echoing through my mind “Why have you abandoned me?”

My mind is silent. The only sound the tap….tap….tap…of water falling on the neighbor’s roof. I open my eyes as the waning moon drifts behind a cloud. The trees, bared of their leaves, create silver silhouettes in the pale light. This world is still the same…but different. Everything we think and believe we are is nothing more than a deviation from the truth of our essential self.

This mind is an escape hatch.
This ego is a ghost.
This world is an illusion.
All suffering is caused by the Fundamental Anxiety.

What is Effortless Living?

I live a minute away from the beach. Its a freshwater beach so the waves don’t get too large but on a windy day, the lake can look just like the ocean. The only thing missing is the scent of salt in the air.

I sit by the lake sometimes. I owe everything to her. It was by her side over 10 years ago that I had my first awakening. I have poured all my anger, grief, jealousy, bitterness into her for years and she has always accepted it lovingly without complaint. Nowadays, our relationship is somewhat different. She is my companion in silence. We grow still together even as the surface moves. And in this silence new insights come. She is not only my companion but also a companion to the geese, the loons, the cormorants and the gulls that live in communion with her. They seem to understand her ways so much better than me. I am still a novice in that regard…

What is effortless living? Is such a thing even possible? With questions of this nature I have always turned less to the gurus/philosophers whose words, although profound and wise, always fall short of transmitting the heart of the experience. Instead I turn to my teacher, the lake and her agents: the gulls, the geese, the cormorants, the loons to show me a deeper truth.

I often sit out on these rocks that jut far out into the lake. Alone with the elements, with civilization just a memory fading behind my back, I feel a deep spontaneous letting go and find myself entering a vast empty space that I can only describe using the word: home. The other day, I sat in this way out on the rocks, watching a gull glide. It was a windy day, the water was unusually choppy, the sky grey and ominous. The wind had a mind of its own, switching directions whimsically from one moment to the next.

The gull caught my attention with a single cry. The sound pierced through the howl of the wind and the crash of the waves with urgency. This was not just some arbitrary cry. It was purposefully directed to grab my attention: “Watch!”
I was being summoned.

From about fifty feet in the air the gull plunged to a mere ten above the water directly in front of me and began dispensing his wisdom. Being somewhat slow to catch on, I initially thought he was screening the surface for fish, but then it slowly dawned on me that his glance was fixated on me. I silently acknowledged this and the gull proceeded with his lesson. Without a single flap of his wings, riding only the vacillating currents of the wind, he shot back up about thirty feet in the air. Then, he swooped in a wide arc downwards and finally leveled off merely an inch above the water, before swooping back upwards into the sky. All without a single flap of his wings.

An insight entered my mind, “Energy is all around us waiting to be used. Those who are ignorant to this fact will flap their wings uselessly. Those that understand this will soar without a single flap.”

He then dove to about ten feet above the water again and then performed his next demonstration. He began to allow himself to be “tossed about” by the wind. He would adjust his wings so as to catch the full force of the wind and be blown rapidly in its direction like a kite, but then at the last moment would readjust his wings and allow his body to fall back to its original position using gravity. Then he would repeat it by being blown in a different direction, and then would return to his original spot ten feet above the water in front of me. He did this repeatedly, allowing himself to be blown in directions even he couldn’t predict. But each time he would return without fail to his original spot.

“Those who cling too much to the winds of change are easily carried away. Those who rely too much on the gravity of predictability and constancy, never leave the ground. There is a time for releasing control and a time for taking it back. At the end its really all a matter of timing.”

For his final lesson, he lifted vertically in the air coming to rest in a certain spot in my line of sight. And in that single spot in space he stayed, hovering so still that one might have wondered if he had in fact been pasted against the sky. His tail and wings twitched ever so slightly now and then, yet despite all the wind’s ferocity and sudden shifts, he remained unperturbed and unmoved from this spot in the sky. He would crook his head towards me every now and again as if to ask, “Do you understand?” His body appeared as relaxed as if he were lazing on a rock in the sun, even as chaos reigned around him.

As I marveled at his ability to remain still despite all the elemental forces at work, a different insight came to me instead,

“I am still because of the elements. You witness only the conflict and chaos apparent on the surface, whereas I am aware of a deeper underlying harmony that unites this apparent chaos. It is this harmony that I embody through my stillness. Through my being I unify all the forces competing around me. I am the single point at which the entire Universe converges into a seamless whole. And I bring this deeper truth of unity to the surface by living it.”

The lesson complete, he flapped his wings soaring high above me and remained circling in the distance for a while.

“Play with the forces of Life. That is what you are here for. I fly because it is fun and for no other reason. Play is an expression of joy, of a love for the experience of living. Those who have forgotten how to play are grounded in the seriousness of their own lives. They cling to this rock or that because it provides them a certain stability. But rocks are easily tossed or drowned by the tides. The only stability to be found lies within your own heart, not in the words or actions of others. Only you can know what feels true to you. Follow that truth and that resonance, because that is how you align your wings with the wind. Then even though challenges may come, there is a joy even in facing those challenges, even in being overcome by them. Because joy does not result from the realization of any particular outcome but rather from following the inner promptings of your own heart.”

With that he gradually faded from sight and I returned to my silent communion with the lake.

The Root of All Addiction

I was recently asked a question about addictions  which prompted me to write this article since I haven’t written one on the subject before. Although, when we think about people being addicts we usually associate the image with those who have substance abuse issues or display excessively indulgent behavior  patterns, addiction is something that I think we all can and should be able to relate to. Because the tendency towards compulsive behavior is a very human tendency and even if the behavior being exhibited isn’t of an overtly negative nature, it all stems from the same place. And that is a sense of void that we all have experienced in the pit of our cores. It is what drives us to engage in the ways that we do.

But what is the fundamental motive that drives addiction? Is it the release, the freedom, the control, the lack of control, the security, the danger, the heightened sense of awareness, the oblivion, the escape, the sense of significance, the sense of insignificance, the sense of connection, the sense of power, the sense of letting go that the addiction provides? Or is there some underlying thread of commonality uniting all these seemingly conflicting motives for why we indulge in addictive behavior?

For example, someone addicted to cocaine may be driven by a need for that heightened sense of awareness and robust self-confidence the drug provides. Someone addicted to ecstasy may be driven by a need for the deep empathetic connection and bliss states the drug provides. An alcoholic may be driven by a need for the dullness of sensation and the emotional outlet that alcohol provides. A gambling addict may be driven by a need for the feeling of power and control over fate that winning provides. A sex addict may be driven by a need for that sense of validation and acceptance that sex provides. A workaholic maybe driven by a need for that sense of feeling valued and esteemed that productivity provides. A person with an eating addiction maybe driven by a need to feel emotionally fulfilled and abundant.

Although, the surface motives for each of these addictions seem different, the root motive is universally the same: the addiction provides the addict a momentary sense of completion, of feeling whole.  And that links right back to that fundamental void we feel in the pit of our cores. It is driving our choices and decisions on a daily basis to a greater degree than we realize.

Everyone is an Addict 

We are all addicts on some level. The subset of people that we typically classify as addicts are those who display behavior patterns that fall within a fairly narrow range of activities that are very clearly self-destructive and damaging in nature. Hence, someone who smokes obsessively is an addict because they are destroying their lungs. Someone who drinks obsessively is an addict because they are destroying their liver and causing emotional pain to others. Someone who gambles is an addict because they are risking financial ruin. Someone who eats obsessively is an addict because they are risking a heart attack. But what about someone who works all the time because they feel they need their boss’s approval, or someone who is afraid to say “no” and so always agrees with what everyone says, or someone who is constantly surrounding themselves with people who like them because they are afraid of being shunned, or someone who goes from one relationship to the next because they are afraid of being alone, or someone who is constantly on their phone or computer because they find greater safety in technology than in human connection.  Are they not also addicts?

And what about the vast majority of the 7 billion of us on the planet who are constantly thinking from sun up to sun down, often regurgitating the same thoughts over and over again in our heads, creating imaginary scenarios that then cause us stress, anxiety, worry and strain. Are we not all addicts to our own thoughts?

Addiction runs on many many levels. What we generally describe as pathological addiction is what we see in an individual’s outward demeanor. But, so many of our hidden inner processes display the exact same patterns and yet, since no one can overtly identify them, we remain free of such classification.

Addiction is fundamentally a state of mind. It is a state of mind rooted in a sense of lack. It is also a state of mind that believes that this lack can be fulfilled by the achieving of some external goal: whether that goal be a cigarette, a drink, a romantic partner or a new promotion. And even though, achieving the goal repeatedly fails at providing anything more than a temporary state of fulfillment, the mind convinces itself that if it can just fulfill itself in this way on a regular basis then it will achieve the inner harmony it is in search of.

Even though the flaw in this kind of thinking is obvious, here is why it is such an easy trap to fall into:

Firstly, our physical bodies are designed to seek constant replenishment. You wake up hungry, you seek food, you feel fulfilled until the afternoon when you feel the sense of lack gnawing at your stomach again which then prompts you to seek food again and so on. You could say that the body is “addicted” to food and in a sense it is, however since that is its very design it has no choice in the matter. This is its natural state.

The problem is that when we operate from a purely reactive state of awareness, we lack the ability to evolve beyond this basic intelligence that our bodies are programmed with. And so when the mind encounters some psychological feeling of lack, it goes about (quite innocently) trying to fulfill the lack in the same way. This pattern is further solidified by the body (which takes its cues from the mind) which then begins to mimick the mind by displaying physical cravings. So, a smoker will feel the craving for a cigarette just as physically as someone starving may feel hunger. And the same goes for people addicted to activities like gambling, sex and work. Its this one-two punch of the psychological mechanism coupled with the physical feedback the body provides that then “convinces” the mind that what it is doing is the right thing for it.

Which is why even in the face of some very obvious threats like liver disease, heart failure, lung cancer and financial ruin, many intelligent people continue to persist in their addictions. When such behavior is labelled as “ignorant” or “stupid” (as was the theme of the series of anti-smoking commercials that aired in Canada) the real ignorance lies with those who are so quick to jump to such conclusions.

Breaking Addictions

We as a society have a certain discomfort with delving too deep within ourselves. When it comes to addictions, if someone is able to break the habit of the addiction that is often sufficient proof to us that the person has been rehabilitated and has “triumphed” over their addiction. But the reality is the aftermath of breaking an addiction can often be extremely dark and depressing for the addict. Because in the absence of the substance, they are now forced to come face to face with the void of unresolved issues and unfulfilled needs that spurred their addictive behavior in the first place.

One solution often provided is to engage in more healthy behaviors. Exercising, hobbies, socializing, work, community support : are all seen as productive avenues through which to channel those tendencies and to build self- esteem. And while they definitely do have positive effects, they don’t always serve to address the pathological need that drove the addiction in the first place. Someone who was addicted to drinking is now addicted to Yoga. On the surface, his life will show a positive upward swing, but the underlying void is still driving his actions. He is still helpless to his addiction, although the object of that addiction has now been replaced with something more wholesome.

Then how does one break the root addiction? That primary hankering to always feel complete?

To answer this we must first understand: what is the root addiction? the root addiction is our addiction to our own minds.

Our Mind-made Realities

We all understand that our minds, while highly developed are also highly flawed devices. Our memories are unreliable, our projections of the future nothing more that best-guess estimates and our understanding of reality scant at best. And yet, we attribute a level of significance to our own thoughts that far exceeds what they should actually receive.   In other words, we pretty much believe everything we are saying to ourselves.

Which is why are as opinionated as we are and are willing to defend our opinions with such fervor. To the mind, facts and opinions are not so clearly distinguishable. Which is why a  sentence such as  “that guy is wearing a red shirt” and “that driver is an a**hole” both feel equally true in the moment they are expressed. Without further reflection or inquiry, both statements just go down in our minds as equally true facts.

This sort of thing is happening a million times a day, even to the most rational of us. Even the most objective and  scientific mind still has thoughts like ,”that guy is a jerk” or “i’m not good enough for him”. Because, when referencing the image we see of ourselves in our own minds, it is extremely difficult to remain objective. And the reason for this is that we are most emotionally invested in our own self image.

Its always easy to give a stranger sage advice, but when the same issue hits closer to home with a family member or yourself, then clarity goes out the window because this suddenly becomes an emotional issue. Emotions are the visceral bonds that tie our thoughts to our bodies. By causing physical responses within us, they silently imply the reality of these thoughts. Its the same feedback mechanism I mentioned before that addicts feel.

As long as we continue to hold on to the entrenched beliefs that our minds are capable of providing us a true representation of reality, the root of addiction cannot be exposed.

The Mind is a Mirror

The mind is a glass that acts as both a mirror and a lens. It is the mirror in which we see our own reflection and it is the lens through which we see the image of others and the world. But if the glass is flawed or cracked then all we can ever see are distortions of reality and never reality itself.

Often the flaws and faults we see in other people are reflective of flaws and faults we perceive within ourselves. The glass is the same. The blemishes distort in both directions. You could, of course, endeavor to try and fix each and every flaw or gap by attempting to fill it with something or the other, which is essentially what we all do through our various classified or unclassified addictive behaviors. But when the medium of perception itself is flawed, what are the odds that we are going to be very effective in addressing those issues?

The key then is to go beyond the mind. Not to transcend it by reaching some elevated state as many spiritual paths propose. But by going to a much more primary and immediate state of awareness which is readily available to each one of us with very little effort. The benefits of this are two:

First, because this primary state of presence is our natural state aligning with it immediately gives us a sense for what feels natural. It may sound absurd, but we have grown so accustomed to living in ways that are unnatural and misaligned with us that this has now become our “new normal”. Its like how an addict can only feel “normal” while they are on their drug. The power of this first pointer, is to realign with that base state: the state of sobriety.

Getting sober is what this is about. But its not just the kind of sober that an alcoholic experiences when they quit drinking. Its the sober you experience when you give up your addiction to your own mind and its pseudo-reality.

The experience of this state of awareness has a completely different quality to it than the typical thinking state of awareness that most of us remain trapped in. There is a sharp sense of alertness yet a complete lack of any fixation or focus unless absolutely necessary. The natural state is one of openness, inclusion and unprejudiced awareness of all elements in one’s environment. It sounds fantastical but its actually the state we all experienced effortlessly as children.

Watch a young child and the alertness and absorption with which they navigate their present. You will never encounter that “dead zombie” gaze or that “out to lunch”, “lost in your own head” look that most adults tend to have about themselves quite frequently. Kids always appear here and now, intensely.

Which is why very young children rarely display addictive behaviors or patterns. These typically develop upon exposure to persistently harsh or negative environmental stimuli. Again, the mind developing in its own flawed way, based on the reality it sees around it.

Which is why you can always trace back addictive behavior to some childhood hurt, trauma, neglect or unmet need. While a proportion of these tendencies are also influenced by genetics, genetics are only indicative of potentialities not actualities. A child may be born with a genetic predisposition towards impulsive risk-taking behavior but unless there are environmental factors that further enhance and trigger those tendencies : like living in a home with domestic abuse or alcoholism or poverty, the odds are slim that those tendencies would manifest as full blown addictions later on in life.

Becoming Grounded in our Primary Awareness

Under every work of art lies a blank canvas waiting to be exposed. Under every story lies a blank page waiting to be written on. And beneath each of our minds lies an empty and undistorted space of awareness that offers us the potential to weave a completely different narrative of who we are.

But how does one become aware of this primary space? Just as you become aware of the blank space on a page by peering between the lines, you become aware of this primary space of awareness by peering between your thoughts. Even though our mind’s carry a high momentum and often thoughts are slamming into one another with very little space in between them like subway commuters at rush hour, those spaces do exist. Anything you focus your attention on magnifies in scope. As you begin to turn your attention towards those little pockets of empty awareness in between all the noise and hoopla of your inner dialogue, they gradually begin to expand in size. They key is to take a relaxed, rather than aggressive, approach with the process.  Because unlike the normal thinking state in which thoughts aggressively compete with one another for your attention, the primary state is one of openness, ease and inclusion. Which is why a relaxed approach which is more reflective of that state is more likely to help you access it than an aggressive goal-oriented approach.

Certain meditative techniques, yoga, easy exercise like walking or jogging can also assist in helping you more easily access this state.  Spending time in nature is a powerful way of reconnecting with that natural space inside you as well. The more you access this state of awareness, the more of a calming, harmonizing effect it begins to have on your being.

You may find a significant amount of internal resistance begins to crop up after your initial few forays. After all the mind is addicted to a certain sort of nervous and restless energy to drive it. This kind of harmony doesn’t provide it the necessary fodder by which to fuel its emotional agendas. And so, the more you begin to experience this state, the more strongly you may feel a backlash effect from the mind that is firmly stating its claim on your attention.

Every addict experiences withdrawal. And this is what withdrawal from the mind  looks like after the initial euphoria and calm subsides: a sense of extreme emptiness,  meaninglessness and purposelessness, depression, anxiety, heightened fear, bursts of anger, despair, shrinking away from people among many others. The more severe the symptoms the more we are shown how intense our addiction is.

To get even a basic sense of this: just try sitting still in silence in an empty room by yourself with your eyes closed and not thinking a single thought for 5 minutes. You will see what a strong resistance your mind throws up at the prospect of doing something so utterly basic. How is it that something that seems so fundamentally unchallenging as sitting quiet and mentally silent is such a feat for us to accomplish? This resistance reveals the extent to which we are addicted to our own pathological need to keep thinking.

Over time, as we gradually learn to allow ourselves to rest and return to our primary awareness, we begin to see first hand just how flawed and misleading our own minds can be. And by extension, how flawed and misunderstood our own view of the world and our own self image is. Grounded in this primary awareness we are finally able to see the mind’s distortions with clarity and objectivity,

Healing the Cracks

Distortions in the mind’s perception are the direct result of cracks in the psychological makeup. And just like cracks in a mirror or lens are created by some kind of physical blow or abrasion that has been inflicted, so also do our psyches form cracks and fissures when we are exposed psychological pain at a young age. It doesn’t even have to be something as significant as a physically abusive parent. It could just as simply be a passing comment made by another child such as, “her nose is so big” and that can cause enough of an impact on a person that for the rest of her life, whenever she looks in the mirror, all she sees is a magnified distortion of her own nose. And by comparison, all she sees is how everyone around her has such nice noses. Something like a “nose” can become a significant metric for self-esteem.

This is a trend that affects not only individuals but entire cultures. In India, fair skin is considered greatly superior to dark and skin bleaching is a very common practice among women and even men. In Japan, having big round eyes and a small face is considered so desirable that girls routinely undergo cosmetic surgery to have their eyelids reshaped. In the west its about power, efficiency and robustness: a lean, hard muscular body and big breasts. In south america, far more women get implants in their behinds than in their chests and so on. We build caricatures of ourselves based on how our minds are distorting reality to us.

The point is, because our psyches are so malleable and impressionable as children, these sorts of cracks and fissures are utterly unavoidable. Nor should they be avoided. They provide us necessary catalysts for personal growth and understanding. Its like, you would never think to  take apart a motorcycle that’s working perfectly . But if its broken or causing significant issues, you may just be forced to do that. And in turn you not only deepen your understanding of how the motorcycle functions, but you also deepen your appreciation of what it means to ride a motorcycle. Similarly, these various defects in our own minds provide us the opportunity for self-reflection, deeper understanding and in the process a deeper appreciation of what it means to be human.

Yet, an opportunity is all it is and all it remains unless it can be seen. The reason people persist in their negative behavior patterns is often because they fail to see the opportunity it provides them for inner growth. They keep riding the broken motorcycle to the ground rather than recognizing that there is a fundamental issue here that needs addressing.

Which brings me to the second and more important reason for grounding oneself in the state of primary awareness. Because it is the only place in which real, long-lasting healing can happen.

Releasing and Inquiry

Healing begins with an inner commitment, a resolve to discover one’s self inside and out. This is not to be mistaken with trying to reach some elevated, transcendent state of consciousness which is what a lot of new age rhetoric seems to promise. This is about the willingness to confront the totality of oneself: with all the hurts, lacks, misgivings and darker drives. Its a willingness to see all the good and the bad within oneself and the resolve to remain bipartisan and non-judgmental through the process. Self-discovery is not self-improvement, Self-improvement presupposes many things about how one should be. Whereas, self-discovery is only concerned with how things are.

Once, you have become sufficiently comfortable accessing that space of primary awareness and have resolved to being open to anything and all they see within them, then the process of healing can begin.

The things we find hidden deep within the attics of our own minds, when we are willing to delve deeply enough, can be overwhelming. I am not referring just to thoughts or memories but emotional energies, moods and even physical sensations. When the flood gates open, its like the valve on a pressure cooker being released. It all comes rushing out at an intense pace.

Now, more than ever, it is important to remain relaxed in that space of primary awareness, just allowing it all to happen rather than jumping up and reacting to what it feels like. Easier said than done. And in moments, when it becomes overwhelming it is important to breathe deeply and ensure a quiet, safe, alone space in which to let it all happen.

The mind may (and will) throw up all kinds of protests and provide convincing arguments as to why you shouldn’t persist. Its the same way the mind can convince you to have that smoke, to drink that drink, to toss in one last bet on the blackjack table. Give it its space to say its piece and then let it be. If you try suppressing your mind, avoiding it, forcing it shut it will only serve to incite it further. Resistance feeds the conflict. This is not a battle. This is your own inner civil disobedience movement.

Just as Gandhi realized that you can bring down an entire empire without war but simply by withdrawing your consent and support of it, you also have the power to bring down the entire false structure of your pseudo-reality by withdrawing your investment in your own thought based reality. And just as Gandhi’s choice was an act of compassion not aggression, so too is this approach one that shows compassion to the mind. Because even though it may appear so, the mind is not an aggressor, it is not an oppressor, it is not your adversary. The mind is an innocent tool of cognition, which has merely performed the function that it was designed to : to absorb the influences of its environment and to project a reality that is congruent with those influences. Since the influences are themselves flawed, so too is it inevitable that the mind’s perception would also be flawed. It is for us to be able to develop the awareness to step outside of it, so that we may witness it objectively and then immerse ourselves in it again by behaving in a manner that helps it realign its perspective.

Over time, when sufficient negative energy has been released from the system, a natural calibrating effect begins to occur. The mind-body system is a natural system just like our eco-system. Imbalanced  forces acting upon it and within it will always cause ripple effects that touch each and every corner. Yet, when those forces are removed, the system has an in-built intelligence to slowly resume a state of balance and stability. Being grounded in primary awareness, gives exactly that space the mind-body system needs to release those dense suppressed negative energies and to gradually restore the psychological homeostasis.

The effect is an all pervading feeling of well-being, inner fulfillment and sense of inner completion or wholeness. Looking back we are able to see that what we were really craving all along through our addiction was this same exact feeling.

This process of rooting oneself in primary awareness, releasing pent-up negative energies and arriving at a place of inner balance and harmony is not a “one and done” deal. Our conscious and subconscious minds are a labyrinth of hidden passages and caves where hurts and pains go to hide, so it takes time and devotion to unearth them. As we live our lives, we encounter new scenarios and challenges which push us deeper within our selves to go explore in some new and previously uncharted directions.

That is what the process of self-inquiry is about.  It is the digging and unearthing aspect of self-reflection that never lets us get too comfortable in whatever reality we are currently experiencing. It is what prompts our inner experience to keep flowing rather than to stagnate. Harmony and balance is all good but it also begins to encourage inertia and stasis after a while, if there is no further movement within.

By persistently questioning our own presumptions about reality, we keep ourselves fluid and it is this combination of releasing pent up energies and delving deeper through self-inquiry while keeping one foot grounded in the space of primary awareness that keeps us ever-evolving and growing in a net positive direction. It enhances our own self-reliance, our own personal power and frees us of those very pathological addictions that once promised us completion but only served to estrange us from our deeper selves.

What does it mean to “Be Spiritual”?

This word “spiritual” is a tricky one. It has been layered with so many centuries of belief, dogma, culture, ritual, magic and rhetoric that we have become completely muddled in our own heads about what it actually means.  Ask any two people what it means to be spiritual and you could get drastically different answers. And the fundamental reason for that is that we are indoctrinated at a very young age to define everything we experience through the eyes of our culture, including our own spirituality.

As a result, one person’s definition of being spiritual may involve confessing their sins and attending church every Sunday, another’s may require praying in a mosque and living in obedience with the words of the Koran, while another’s may involve praying to various deities and performing penances at a temple. Beyond mainstream religion there are other venues through which many today attempt to access their spirituality. Some are drawn to ancient shamanic practices of connecting with the spirit of nature, others turn to mystical techniques designed to unlock latent powers hidden within the mind. Still others seek inner harmony by unifying their thoughts, emotions and actions through the practice of yoga, meditation and mindfulness. And while each of these various paths and expressions of spirituality has its own unique flavor, none of them has anything to do with what it actually means to be spiritual. Just as a beautiful painting may reveal the degree of creativity and artistic capability a painter might have, but cannot convey what it means to be creative, so also do our various religions and wisdom paths reveal the degree and capacity to which we can express our spirituality yet it can never convey what it means to be spiritual. But isn’t that the promise that leads us to follow any of these paths in the first place?

The Dilemma of the Modern Spiritualist

We live in a world in which we like things to be clearly explainable. Ambiguity is the enemy of reason. And so we like everything: including our lives, our relationships, our careers, our politics, our understanding of the world to be clearly comprehensible to our minds.  Nothing must be left to chance, all must be well thought out and perfectly rational. The dilemma that then occurs is that there is nothing “rational” about spirituality. In fact, from a purely scientific point of view there is no such thing as “spirit”. There is only matter of which we are comprised and from the evolution of this matter arose our conscious minds that are nothing more than highly developed mechanical processors of information and stimuli. We can feel emotions, make choices, have dreams and aspirations but there is nothing more to it than what can easily be explained as being caused by the myriad neurological interactions in the brain. Which is why atheism is sharply on the rise in our culture both as a response to our excessively religious past and also as a strict denial of any non-rational or “un-scientific” claim. So the first spiritual dilemma we face in our contemporary times is: is there such a thing as “spirit”?

The second dilemma, is that there is an unspoken misconception that being spiritual necessitates a belief in a “God” or some higher power that is in control of our reality. And that the ultimate goal of one’s spirituality is to submit or surrender one’s will to this higher being. So, whether you call that power God, Jesus, Allah, Yahweh, Shiva, the Source or the Supreme Being, the All-That-Is,  the highest virtue a follower of any of these paths can aspire to is complete surrender to this power. This is probably the number one point of contention that most atheists have with religion and other forms of spirituality: this implication of surrendering one’s own authority and reason to the whims of some fantastical unverifiable entity.

The final dilemma is the subtlest one of all. Regardless of what spiritual path one is on, each accepts that at their core they are a spiritual being. In other words, that they are spiritual. And yet they are paradoxically upon their path in order to learn how to be spiritual. Its a perplexing dilemma. Either we are naturally spiritual in which case there is no need to learn to be spiritual. Or spirituality is a quality that is learned in which case we were not spiritual to begin with  in which case the entire premise of it collapses. It is like trying to teach a child how to be a child. It is kind of absurd if you think about it.

And yet if you were to, say, take a child from a war ravaged country, who has not known anything but violence, pain and destruction and introduce him to a life of love, play and nurture then it might not be such an absurd proposition after all.  The child is still a child, but in this extremely destructive environment he has disconnected from his own essence and so by guiding him he may be encouraged to reconnect with that essence.

The fundamental goal of any spiritual path is to lead you back into connection and harmony with yourself. Not by adding anything new in the form of doctrine or belief but by subtracting your own fears and misconceptions of reality. Of course, most of these paths fail massively in this approach because these intentions have been buried over centuries by their proponents under institutions built on power, manipulation, dogma and rigid ritual practice.

The De-Spiritualization of the Self

The famous quote of Descartes “I think therefore I am” is the primary tenet upon which we build our sense of identity even if it is ultimately false. From an early age we are constantly receiving feedback on “who we are” from our environment which starts with simple things like a name and a few basic roles and then proliferates into opinions, beliefs, ambitions and ideologies. By early childhood we become fully integrated into this “avatar” that has been built for us to play based on the rules of society and the context of our culture. By adolescence we have very little or no recollection of being anything other than this avatar, although we may rebel every once in a while against the limits and conditions that have been set upon it. And by adulthood, the transformation becomes complete and we find ourselves living small, meaningless lives filled with struggle and mundane repetition.  Yet, somewhere hope remains that there must be more to us than all this and so we turn to the religions or spiritual teachings to tell us what that “something more” is.

And yet such an approach is doomed for failure, because paradoxically its not “something more” we are in search of. Its something less. Burdened by the rigid unyielding structures and rules of these avatar identities we yearn to unyoke ourselves from them. But how can we, when we have spent an entire lifetime believing that this is who we are? 

It can only begin when we face the reality that who we have become is nothing more than a concept. This person that you are playing is nothing more than the world’s idea of who you should be. It is a systematic brainwashing that we all are subjected to at an early age and once completed we then in turn subject the next generation to the same. And so century after century, generation after generation, we condition ourselves as per the needs and demands of our culture. In other words, you are being categorically de-spiritualized by your culture just as the child in his war-torn country is being de-humanized by the ravages of war. With every label you adopt from this world informing you of who your are and your relevant place in it, you are losing yet another means of connecting with who you actually are in your essence.

Yet, it is a process we all go through: this brainwashing and de-spiritualization that then sets the tone for the struggle and suffering we must endure through the rest of our lives while we blindly grope to regain some sense of that connection. Many find solace in the major religions or spiritual traditions but sadly the process of brainwashing just continues even there since that mechanism of deep insecurity, which keeps us constantly seeking outwards to some external authority to provide us our sense of self, still continues to operate unimpeded, just within a different context.

The only way to transcend this pathological reliance on outer authority and addiction to the conditioned identity is by breaking your reliance on it . This is more easily said than done. As with any other addiction, the first step lies in becoming aware of this trend in your own life. Begin by noticing that compulsive need you have to see and evaluate yourself through the roles and labels you have adopted and how rarely you sense what it feels like to just be you.

Try this as an exercise:

What would it feel like if, for just one moment, you ceased to be someone’s: mother, father, spouse, son, daughter, sibling, employee, boss, owner, citizen, representative, customer, teacher, student or any other role you can think of? Feel yourself stepping out of each role as if you were stepping out of an outfit or costume.

Then take it another step and see if you can drop some of the labels you are accustomed to using in perceiving your own image such as: control freak, depressive, loser, short-tempered, impatient, driven, successful, hard-working, procrastinator, anti-social, selfless, anxious, selfish, victim, tyrant, fearful, determined, indecisive, worthy, unworthy and a host of others.

Finally, just for a moment see if you can let go of your name: that one word that was given to you but which you were free of at the moment of your birth. Without this name there is nothing left to define you other than this palpable sense of the breath in your body and an overwhelming sense of being here and now. Feel this essence fully and viscerally because this is the most authentically spiritual experience you will ever have.

Addressing the Dilemmas

From this space of having stripped ourselves of all our mind imposed concepts and while being rooted in this essential experience of self, we now turn to address some of the dilemmas we identified before.

1) “Is there such a thing as spirit?” The answer is NO. Because the question is being posed in a flawed manner. It assumes that “spirit” is an object, a “thing”,  that can be conceptualized by the mind and thereby quantified by it. However, the mind itself is a secondary layer of experience to the more fundamental one of spirit. It is the spirit that has and experiences the mind, the mind cannot experience the spirit. Which is why although our minds (our thoughts, opinions, emotions, moods, worldviews, knowledge, motivations) may change and evolve substantially over time, what it feels like to be you in your most fundamental essence is constant. It has never changed. You don’t need to analyze it, just feel it first hand for yourself.

So, if we were to re-pose the question to say, “Does spirit exist?” Then, the answer would be YES but even this is an incomplete answer. The complete answer would be “YES, it is the only thing that really exists.” Everything else has only a relative reality. The reality of your identity is relative to the social and cultural context of your environment, take the context out and the identity collapses. Even your material reality of being a physical body of the human species is relative to the scale at which the universe is being perceived. If you were to view it at a quantum scale then even this reality is shown to be simple a “version”. For the purposes of this article I will not get into any more detail on the topic. Suffice to say, that the reason spirit is more fundamental is because it exists independently of any of these contexts. It is in fact, most simply put, the essence of existence itself. The two are synonymous. When you say “I exist” it is the spirit of existence that you are sensing with your own being. When you say “that exists” it is the spirit of the other’s existence that you are sensing. And at this primary level of experience, there seems to be little that separates the experience of self and other. Spirit is just spirit whether sensed in one’s own being or in another’s.

2) Does God or some Higher Power exist? Again, the answer within the context in which the question has been framed is NO. Because, once again it is being setup to identify God as some entity that can be conceptualized by the mind and thereby quantified by it. The other hidden claim is that this “God” is “higher” and therefore by comparison separate from the individual’s own being or spirit.

It is the limits of language that can only make sense of ideas through comparison that makes it such an ineffective tool for conveying matters of the spirit. Just as you can explain yourself hoarse to a blind man about what the redness of a rose looks like, similarly you can write volumes (and many have) on what it means to be spiritual and not even make a dent.

God when taken as some entity separate from the spirit has always caused incredible confusion. Because first it communicates that there is something even greater and more fundamental than spirit and second, that in order to be truly spiritual one must submit to the will/love/worship of this entity, thereby undermining the inner resolve that spontaneously arises when one is connected to one’s own spiritual essence.

Instead, return to the exercise outlined above. Arrive at that place where you are free of your mind’s labels and feel the essence of your own existence. And while in that space, turn your attention to the world that exists around you. Without labeling or categorizing what you see, absorb yourself in the essence of the moment. Feel the existence underlying the objects and events happening around you. The buddhists have a term for this. They call it “suchness”. Another term used is “isness”. These terms may seem strange, even comical to a skeptic, but they are actually very nuanced and point to that fundamental quality of existence that pervades everything, material and conscious. This suchness, this isness, this indivisible sense of existence is what the natives refer to as the “Great Spirit” or the “Great Mystery”. It is the essence of Life. It is that effervescent quality of reality that brings this particular moment “alive” compared to the ones that have passed and the one’s yet to come. It is an all encompassing sense of being of which our own existence is a necessary part.

So, to ask the question “Does God exist?” Is like asking “does existence exist?” God is existence itself, the very fabric upon which every experience conscious or material plays out. And so each of us is essentially experiencing God 24/7 through every thought, emotion, activity and event we engage in. It is our most fundamental experience. And in that sense, it is impossible to get any closer to or further from “God”. However, any other conception of God as a deity or force is utterly erroneous and misleading. And so in that sense, I personally dislike using this word “God” at all, since it carries the burden of centuries of misunderstanding.

Instead of generating some kind of belief in a God, it is simply enough to recognize that the spirit that you are is not detached from the spirit of all that exists. It is all one seamless whole of experience.

3) This brings us to the final dilemma outlined above: “to be spiritual or not to be spiritual?” If we are already spiritual beings then how can we learn to be spiritual? The answer is that you are not learning to be spiritual per se but are instead learning to associate LESS with your avatar, that de-spiritualized and largely mechanical social identity that you have come to believe you are. Instead of accumulating MORE ideas about who you are in essence, you are simply LESSening the number of labels you use to define yourself. You are seeing yourself and the world through fewer filters, fewer boundaries and boxes that your mind is accustomed to building around things. And with each line that is erased you arrive a step closer to your essence.

By learning to ground yourself in this space, you simultaneously feel more connected with the underlying forces of nature and circumstance that operate around you. You are in tune with them on an intuitive level before the mind even comes into play. From this intuition comes wisdom and a willingness to work with reality as it arises rather than some alternate more rosy picture the mind may conjure up.Yet, ultimately this is not about being stuck in some supremely connected and peaceful head space either. While, reconnecting with that spiritual essence can be deeply affirming, there is a more powerful potential to this choice.

Previously, I had said that our social and cultural reality based on the roles we adopt is not our fundamental reality. However, that is not to say that it is not important. Because it is here, within the social arena,  that all action springs forth and change comes into effect. It is here that the latent potential of our spirit can be realized. It is here that we can express and create  in alignment with our own natural capacities.

Being spiritually connected, we can continue to play the same roles we were once lost to, without giving them an absolute reality. We can choose to identify with certain labels without burdening or imprisoning ourselves with them. We can act from a place of authenticity even while we interact within more traditional or mechanistic social scenarios.

So, What Does it Mean to be Spiritual?

In a nutshell, this is what it means to be spiritual. It is the most basic recognition that “I exist” without the need to further qualify what that “I” is. It is reacquainting and reconnecting with this essence until we begin to feel grounded in our own existence rather than being lost in our minds. And finally, it is about integrating that deep confidence and harmony which spontaneously emerges as a result of that felt connection, into the minutiae of our daily lives and our relationships.

To be spiritual simply means to be fearlessly authentic.

Losing All Hope

Hope is nothing but a mental mechanism for dealing with uncertainty. But it isn’t a “thing”. It has no reality. If I were to flip a coin for you, you could hope for “heads” all you want but it wouldn’t change the outcome. However, if you are excessively invested with the outcome of the coin toss and the uncertainty of what may happen is driving you to distress, then hope pacifies your mind by telling you that a favorable outcome is quite likely. But has it changed the 50-50 odds in anyway? No. It has only magnified the favorable outcome in your mind. Despair on the other hand has the opposite effect. By projecting an excessively bleak view of reality it minimizes the odds of a favorable outcome in our minds.

The problem with hope is that it breeds despair and vice versa, despair breeds hope. And that is because when “hope” encounters the reality of life it is either rewarded or it is punished. There is no middle ground. So if I were to toss the coin and you hoped and hoped it came out “heads”, then your reaction would be one of elation if the result was indeed heads. You would congratulate yourself on the strength of your hope and for having the courage to sustain it against all odds. However, if the result were to be tails, then you would be deflated by it, unable to fathom how despite all your hoping life still dealt you the hand that it did. And this would cause you to despair, feeling that there is no hope left in life for you.

But the reality is that there never was any hope in the first place. Because “hope” isn’t a thing. Hope draws you out of alignment with your present and pulls your attention and emotional investment into some imagined future that may or may not come to pass. It has its place, of course, and can be a powerful tool to help the mind initially cope with circumstances of intense difficulty or trauma, as for example, living in a war-ravaged country, facing life in prison, battling a terminal illness. But in the long term there is always a backlash effect that is felt as a result of this sort of distortion of reality.

We are a culture that was built on the industry of hope. Hope is what makes us move, what keeps the gears of our system grinding. The hope for a better life, the hope for a better job, the hope for a marriage, the hope for popularity, the hope for approval, the hope for  a vacation, the hope for a better body, the hope for success, the hope for an early retirement, a new car, a new home, a new phone, the hope for the world to be a better place, the hope for our children, the hope for freedom from it all, the hope for inner peace: no matter what brand of hope you subscribe to, if you look closely enough, hope is what drives most of our lives.

It’s not our fault. It isn’t anyone’s fault. The human mind is fearful by design of what it cannot understand or comprehend. Life is incredibly uncertain by nature and this degree of uncertainty is unacceptable to us. Especially in such a highly rational and control-based society there is no room for “let’s just see what happens”. And so we invented hope and built an entire culture around it. It became our “new normal”, a positively skewed version of reality. In this reality a coin lands “heads” 70 per cent of the time and for those who truly have the courage to dare and to dream, that percentage could rise as high as 80 or even 90 per cent.

This is what I believe Thoreau meant when he said, “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” This desperation is the result of that constant sense of reaching for something that is forever just beyond our grasp, instead of finding fulfillment in what life has to offer in this moment. And each time we fail to reach, we despair a little more which then drives our efforts to hope just that much more the next time around. Thoreau saw this insanity and went into the woods to live alone far away from it all.

That doesn’t need to be the solution for everyone. You can escape the circumstances of your life but you can’t escape your mindset. And hope is a mindset. The only way to break free of the quiet desperation – this cycle of hope and despair – is to face yourself head on and fully with a radical honesty. No better future in which to absorb yourself, no morose past in which to wallow in self-pity. Simply begin with the full acceptance of “this is who I am and this is what life is.” Ground yourself profoundly in this realization. And with this clarity see how this statement has always held true no matter how far back in the past you were to transport yourself. And likewise, notice how remarkably consistent it would continue to be no matter what kind of future were to unfold for you.

Hope keeps us transfixed on the trivial details of our lives, but if we allow ourselves to come back into our present and feel ourselves being grounded in this space, we realize that this is the space where true power resides. Because it is only this spot of time that we have any control over. It is only now that we can effect change, never later. And regardless of how fantastic or bleak our circumstances may be, real life only ever happens here. When we align ourselves with the rhythm of life as it unfolds, we lose our adversarial approach to it and instead learn to work in harmony and in cooperation with her designs.

What is the Ego?

(this is an excerpt from something I wrote on  the conscious living forum)

The ego is not an entity. It is the product of a habit, a process. It is an evolutionary adaptation. The ego is not the “I”. It is the sense of an “I”. The image of an “I”. It is the product of awareness looping back onto itself.

Our capacity to have an ego is linked to our capacity for conceptualization. Which is why we are never born with an ego. It develops as our ability to abstract develops. As we learn to “think”, so do we learn to think about ourselves. All thought is abstraction. Thinking about doing my taxes and actually doing my taxes are two separate things. Similarly, thinking about being myself and actually being myself are two separate things. The ego and the I are forever separate.

Which is why clarity of thought is imperative in developing a realistic ego. Because all the ego is, is the mind’s best guess estimate of reality. Just as if I have a rigorous background in accounting, my thoughts about doing my taxes are likely to be a very close approximation of how actually doing my taxes will really turn out. Similarly, my thoughts about who I am are likely to be more aligned with reality if I have developed a rigorous understanding of my mind and how it works, through introspection, meditation and just plain living.

The various ways in which our moods, thoughts, emotions and physicality interact and affect one another, all cause distortions in this image. The more distorted the image, the more problematic our experience becomes. Because distortion is a deviation from reality. And this deviation, this distance, is felt as a massive inner gap – A void that we are compulsively playing catch-up to try and bridge. And yet, ironically enough, all that effort only serves to expand rather than collapse that gap.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the ego is that rather than a single construct, it is a composite of several alter-selves. This is particularly evident in people who tend to be bi-polar or manic and swing from extreme to extreme. They literally feel like a different person from one mood swing to the next. Yet, all of us experience this phenomenon even if it isn’t to such extremes. From moment to moment we literally become different people. In a moment of despair, the person that arises is self-critical, pessimistic, victimized and lacking energy. In a moment of anger, the person that arises is self-righteous, unrelenting, threatened and forceful. In a moment of happiness, the person that arises is benevolent, sharing, enthusiastic and even forgiving. And so on.

In fact, rather than a single identity, the ego is a village of identities. I call mine the village of Shiv. And in this village of Shiv live a variety of colorful characters. There is the Opportunist, the Wanderer, the Tyrant, the Geek, the Scrooge, the Salesman, the Sage, the Warrior, the Victim, , the Seer, the village Idiot, the Empty One, the Leader, the Empathizer just to name a few out of many others. And in this village is an amphitheater in which the different characters come to voice their opinions and concerns and debate with one another. In any given moment, what I experience to be my ego-in-that-moment is determined by which characters are standing center stage and the quality of their conversation. Over time through my ego’s evolution, the presence of certain characters has faded giving way to others leading to a more cooperative and beneficial conversation. Yet, the stage is always open to any and all who want to express their concern. I learned that banishing certain characters from the stage breeds silent mutiny.

Yet, regardless of what is happening on the stage, regardless of how the ego manifests in each moment, none of this has anything to do with the “I”. Because the “I” is not a character. Instead the “I”, is the empty stage of the Amphitheater which is available to any and all to come and express themselves upon it. And in moments when there is no one present in its space – that “I” just is.


Being and Becoming

As a young child, being comes effortlessly to you. You have little need or desire to question who you are because there doesn’t appear to be any doubt about it in the first place. You don’t search for the meaning of life, because you already are the meaning of life: one of its many expressions. And your experience unfolds spontaneously. You have few expectations of other people and hardly any of yourself. Being is experienced not as some unique sensation but rather as the thrum of life itself: the canvas of all experience. And any ‘sense of self’ you may have is inextricably linked with that sensation of being.

But that dynamic begins to alter as you begin to learn about the ways of the world. You are taught that to have an identity in this world is crucial in order to survive. Those who have a clearly defined and consistent identity are often the most likely to succeed. There is no room for spontaneity here. No room for “just be yourself and see who shows up.” Society thrives on the predictability of its members. And in order to be an upstanding member of such a society one must learn to become predictable.

This identity you were taught to cultivate is your ego. It is a composite sketch of every role you play, every responsibility you hold and every belief that you subscribe to. It is your uniform (with corresponding name tag attached) by which you can be identified, addressed and boxed. Still, at least for a little while, through childhood, there remains a faint sense of ‘playing a part’ that continues to operate somewhere within the psyche. As children, we have this innate desire to ‘play’. And that comes from the need to step away every once in a while from all the seriousness and believability we ascribe to life, and to just wallow in that waterhole of spontaneity from which we all are nourished.

Yet over time, that desire begins to be overshadowed by something that grips you with a greater urgency: this uncomfortable hankering to become.

It is constantly reiterated to you by your superiors, your peers, your leaders and your world: that you need to become more than what you are in order to be accepted. After all everyone else seems to be in a tearing hurry to do it, so you feel compelled to act accordingly so as not to be left behind, or even worse – isolated and alone. And so you begin to foster those aspects of yourself which gel with the consensus values of the collective while simultaneously suppressing those parts of yourself that are out of synch with it. You begin to see yourself through the ‘eyes of others’ and attempt to correct yourself in order to become more relevant and relatable. This is the momentum of perpetual becoming which is essentially what your ego is founded upon.

Becoming implies that there is something unfinished/something incomplete/something lacking. As soon as you insert a sense of self into this process of becoming, you now have the image of an unfinished self, an incomplete self, a lacking self. This incomplete self is your ego: the work in progress; the never perfect, never good enough, never finished image in construction.

This activity of cultivating an identity that began innocently as a means of operating pragmatically within the world has now turned into a full blown addiction. And any addict will tell you that, while under the influence, it is difficult to separate the real you from your addictions. And so you spend all your energies obsessively fussing about this image that you have created for yourself: modifying it, overhauling it, tweaking it, chipping away at it. You may even turn against it, hurl slurs at it and blame it for all your woes. But this is no different than an artist throwing a hissy fit and punching his paintings for causing him so much grief.

When the only way you can recognize yourself any longer is through the garb of this incomplete costume, then your reality also becomes one of perpetual unfulfillment. And since everyone around you is strutting their own costumes, you become forever preoccupied with evaluating your image in comparison with theirs. That’s when life turns into a creepy masquerade ball that never seems to end. But rip off the costumes for a second and suddenly everyone looks rather bare and foolish underneath.

At some point the sheer futility of the charade begins to get to you. You struggle to keep up with it and something about the whole thing begins to smells fishy. What started as an innocent bedtime story has now become your worst nightmare. And you begin to search desperately for some sense of self which is reliable, dependable and true. Yet the momentum of becoming is paradoxically what also fuels this search for truth. Since, you’ve learned to live your life through an image for so long, in your innocence you end up searching for just another image: this image of your “true self”.

And so the ego continues to perpetuate in this new direction of becoming authentic, becoming free, becoming whole. Yet unfortunately, this becoming momentum is exactly what prevents the authenticity, the freedom and the wholeness from being your reality. But you cannot prevent it. You cannot stand in its way. You must allow it to run its course. You traverse every potential passage in this labyrinth that is your mind and hit a dead end each and every time before you finally realize that this whole thing is rigged. It’s a setup to keep you going, to keep you seeking fulfillment. Because as long as you are seeking, you can be kept distracted, as long as you are distracted you can be kept powerless, as long as you are powerless you remain predictable and as long as you are predictable you can be controlled.

At some point the futility hits like a load of bricks. And you suddenly see that all you have been doing is sitting on a stationary bike furiously spinning the wheels while imagining some sort of movement forwards. To see this is to truly empathize with what a hamster on a wheel feels like. Ever wonder why they keep running even when it’s clear they can’t really get anywhere?

The moment you stop, you realize that this becoming, that all 7 billion of us are engaged in, is only a game: just a playful aspect of an otherwise rather purposeless and inherently meaningless existence. Just like kids often play make believe games like “doctor”, “house” and “cowboys” in order to enjoy their time, we adults do too. We play games such as “career”, “marriage”, “family”, “religion” and “politics”. Except we forget it’s only a game and begin calling it “the real world” as if the one we had been living in as children was “the fake one”.

The momentum of becoming is a tool you can use to overlay your life with some purpose and meaning, just as a painter may overlay their canvas with strokes of different colors. Yet, you remain all the while aware that all this meaning is only artificial. Beneath it all is the being that has always existed regardless of the experience. And this being requires neither meaning to justify it nor purpose to perpetuate it. It is simply life emerging spontaneously from within and without, for no other reason than because it can.

The Emerging Self

gestalt_triangle“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” was a phrase coined by Aristotle. It is a sentiment that has been echoed numerous times: in all the old spiritual and religious traditions, in western philosophy, in modern psychology and psychoanalysis, in holistic medicine, in art.

In fact, this phenomenon of emergence, is readily verifiable in your own conscious experience. You are aware of your body and its physical sensations, your mind and its emotional and mental processes and yet there is a sense of being something or someone more than just the sum of all these physical, emotional and mental processes. You feel yourself to be more than just this body-mind, even though you cannot identify what that is, it is an essence you feel quite palpably.

Perceiving the Space

There is a concept in photography called “negative space.” It is the idea that, when taking a photograph of an object, the space around the object is just as important as the object itself. A balanced photograph is one in which the photographer has given as much thought to the shape, size and position of the empty space surrounding the object as he has given to the object itself.

To illustrate this, look at the figure above. In the image, there are only 3 objects present. Three “pacman like” black objects at a symmetrical distance from one another. Yet, almost instantaneously a 4th figure emerges into view which technically isn’t even there. It is a white triangle at the center, which appears to the eye, clear as day. In fact, you may even notice this white triangle before you notice the black objects.

The negative space in this diagram, appeals to the eye in its symmetry, in its organization and as its central focus. In fact there is a distinctive sense that the only purpose of those “pac-man figures” is to bring about the emergence of this white triangle. And as a result,  the triangle becomes the subject of the picture. Yet, paradoxically there is no triangle, from a material or tangible perspective.

And that is essentially the missing piece of the puzzle when referring to your own identity. Because the physical sensations, the thoughts, the emotions: these are all the objects within the image that is your consciousness. But what gives you your essence as an individual is what lies beyond them. That space. That gap. That intangible yet vitally important “negative space” that is central to your experience of self. Then the body with its sensations and the mind with its emotional and mental phenomena merely serve to bring about the emergence of this self, which is central to the whole experience of this lifetime.

In religion and spirituality this emerging self has been coined by various phrases such as the soul, the spirit, the true or higher self. And we use such terms to point to something which is otherwise without any shape or form. This spirit is formless just as space is formless. It merely adapts and juxtaposes itself perfectly to the form of the persona, giving it context, significance and purpose.

Reconnecting with the Self

Try a simple exercise. Sit in a chair in a room or outdoors and observe the sights and sounds around you. Become aware of the form that the empty space assumes between the things and people in your environment. Become aware of the intermittent spaces of silence between the various sounds that enter your ears. Rather than focusing on classifying what the objects and sounds around you are, focus instead on the gaps in between them. All you are doing through this exercise is orienting your mind to perceive negative space.

Once you have practiced this a few times with your environment, see if you can turn this process inwards. When you reflect upon yourself as a person and as a personality, see if you can focus on the space that lies in between all those thoughts and sensations that arise, which seek to give your personality continuity. Orient your attention away from the content of what you are thinking and feeling and point it instead towards that sense of existence, that palpable feeling of being alive here and now, that underlies those thoughts, emotions and sensations.

You will find a sense of self emerging which is very different from the usual personality that you are accustomed to associating with. This self is not dependent on thought to propagate it or emotion to enhance it. Rather it sits separate and whole from all that phenomena. It is the space in which all the phenomena occurs. Yet, it is fluid and conforms itself effortlessly to your mind and its activities. And when the activity subsides, there it is again, unchanged and unperturbed.

Connect with this self which emerges when body, heart and mind are allowed to fade into the background. Even though it has no material reality, it is paradoxically the only reliable constant you will ever encounter in this lifetime.