The Loss of Some Infinite Thing
If you’re reading this the chances are you’re looking for something.
Something in your life must be rubbing at you for you to be reading a site like this. A feeling of something lacking: what David Foster-Wallace called ‘the persistent gnawing sense of the loss of some infinite thing.’
Perhaps it’s been tugging at the back of your mind for a long time, appearing in moments which should have been deeply fulfilling and somehow never bought you quite ‘home.’ A voice which whispers ‘there must be something better!’ Or, ‘now I’ve got that thing I wanted so much and it still feels empty….’
Perhaps it’s more urgent than that. You might be experiencing severe depression and dis ‘ease’.
Every moment an agony, every breath a noiseless cry for help. All those voices in your head, those wants and hurts, regrets and untapped anger. More than anything, you long for silence.
It’s nothing to be ashamed of. That was (and often still is) certainly the case here.
I remember being on idyllic beaches in Asia, chalk-white sand, coconut palms, azure sea. Internally, there was a sense of something incomplete, something dissonant, I could never put my finger on.
Sometimes this would become such a loud cry, it was like I was going out of my mind. Externally, there was paradise, what I’d been longing for. Internally, there was hell.
Everything in fact that I strove for in life simply failed to deliver. All the career goals, partners, far-flung travel destinations were palliatives at best. Try it, if you haven’t already. Try to find something, anything, which delivers lasting peace. My feeling is, if you’re even reading this, you’ve done that and it’s come up short. Because at the end of all attempts to find completion in the ‘world’ comes spirituality, that final place you come to – perhaps reluctantly – because you’re desperate, and you’ve been travelling for lifetimes, and you’re so damn tired.
So that’s our starting point. Something infinite lost. And the sure knowledge that everything you’ve tried so far hasn’t worked.
Since you’re here searching, let’s be clear about the parameters of this search. You want to end this ‘dissonance’, find completion and peace in your life. Sound about right?
You’re not happy, there’s something which needs to be ‘fixed’, you’re like a pinball which has ricocheted too many times around the machine and now you just want to STOP.
We all search in different ways for an end to this feeling of dissonance. Virtually everything we do on this planet, if you think about it, strives for just that. You pour yourself a drink, book a holiday, find a lover, read a book. You’re either seeking distraction, in which you’re moving away from discomfort, or you’re seeking completion in which case you’re seeking to overcome it.
Most human beings spend their entire lives doing just this: moving away from pain, or moving towards pleasure. It’s exhausting.
A spiritual seeker is, in fact, a sort of exaggerated version of a normal human. The spiritual seeker moves obsessively towards that which He believes will improve things, and away from those He believes will not.
In my case, seeking took every form imaginable.
First came a huge amount of travelling, more than a decade of it. New vistas excited for a time, but as each one grew familiar I realised my backpack contained more than t-shirts and notebooks. It was full of the same familiar stories, the same unease, self-criticism and doubt. Wherever I went these things came too.
Then there was a fair amount of dabbling with narcotic substances, trying out different ‘states’, each one of them offering a different prism of experience that seemed momentarily to offer relief or diversion. After a time I saw that what returned was always unchanged. Propelling myself into hallucinatory streams or opiate trances felt like painting myself with a new colour for a while. But underneath, all was the same. Nothing could stain it.
Many teachers were consulted, from many traditions. Faith healers and vision questers, shamans and dervishes, crystal healers and Tantrics, witch doctors and fortune tellers. In the cosmopolitan marketplace of experience, salesman appeared from every corner to cater to my needs, offering balms and potions, mantras and meditation practices. I ingested substances, chanted and purged, sat in sweat lodges and beat myself with nettles, practiced yoga and breathing exercises…
All of those things offered promises of solutions and fuelled the hope for something to change in my life. Many of them felt healing in some way, and yet inevitably not for long. As the solutions kept failing to deliver, the inner dissonance increased in volume, so that life seemed like a steadily constricting net, in which I thrashed and fought, often in bleak misery, intense psychological pain.
Conventional psychotherapy, which I’d avoided for many years, came next. Awkward sittings in chairs for long conversations ‘examining my ‘story’ and ‘coming to terms with the past’, while going deeply into habitually ingrained patterns of belief, possibly root causes of anxiety. There were medications and palliatives which left me numbed and dead inside.
Finally, on a day where things couldn’t really get much worse, there was the remembering of a teacher’s name, mentioned in passing by a friend many months before and disregarded until now. There was an internet search for the name ‘Mooji,’ and there was the watching of a video by said teacher, in which he posited a question that rocked my entire world.
‘Who am I?’
In that single moment, there was an inner thunderclap. It was as if, after being locked in a dark cell for years, containing not one single piece of furniture, one suddenly notices a tiny metal box in the corner containing a key! How could I have not noticed this before?
What I knew unequivocallywas that I had looked as hard as I could ‘out there’ for solutions. I’d tried a million practices to change ‘me’, perfect ‘me’, dissolve the demons which afflicted ‘me.’
None of them had worked.
Feeling I had looked everywhere, I was at my wits end. There was no one else to run. And now this simple, unassuming question. A question pointing towards the one place I hadn’t looked!
Initially, the search is based ‘out there’: in the world we appear to inhabit, and in a marketplace which promises perfection or fulfilment for an individual. We may linger there for many years, tasting and sampling all the myriad solutions on offer. But ultimately, they all fail. The search becomes increasingly frantic, there’s a sense of desperation in the air. And then something cracks. We realise – absolutely – that the search in the world is inherently limited. Intensive trial and error has shown us that it simply does not work.
And so we come to the only place we haven’t looked, the place we’re looking from. The seeker itself. For years, everything in the world has been questioned and examined and broken down to no avail. But now the search is spun round on itself in a radical about-turn. Now comes the final question, the master question.
Who is the one seeking?
This is a river turning back towards its source.
Self-Inquiry: The Search Turns Around on Itself
When one has done enough ‘self-improvement’ the rope runs out. Improving the ‘self’ is exhausting, ineffective, expensive, and ultimately a shattering experience. You may as well try to polish water, or capture sunlight in a jar.
Watching the video by Mooji, I saw a new possibility open up. This man appeared to be questioning identity itself, the nature of the individual. ‘Who am I?’ he asked. ‘Find out!’
Hearing this question for the first time, it’s like a cosmic fuse it being lit. You can hear the striking of the match, the flare of sulphur, and the sizzling of the fuse as it accepts the flame. This fuse, when lit, can never go out. Because every dissatisfaction in life, every personal slight, negative feeling and unhappiness fans it. It’s as if life is willing the fuse to burn to its conclusion. It wants to detonate.
Self-Inquiry, as its traditionally called in India, marks the true beginning of the spiritual quest. Until now, you’ve been lost in the illusion, at play in the world, washed up on the shores of samsara. But when you begin this practice of self-inquiry, all that comes to an end. The world has ceased to please you. Now you’re going into your cocoon. At a critical point, you simply STOP and turn around and acknowledge that ‘I must find freedom at any cost!’
The traditional practice of self-inquiry is based on a very simply premise. Know Thyself. It requires patience, focus, dedication, and the ability to question some fundamental truths in your life. Proceeding down this path requires the systematic uprooting of many of your most cherished truths. So you have to be willing to burn everything. All of the teachings you’ve come across until now. All of the psychological discoveries, deep philosophical truths, adherences to practices and any notion of a goal. Burn them. Put everything you know about yourself into the fire.
‘“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 18:3)
Self-Inquiry is about asking: who isthis person who appears to be running your life?
Who is calling the shots here?
Who is this ‘I’ who cracks the whip so violently at times and then, at others, simply disappears?
Spend some time asking the questions. Carry this around in your day to day life and observe how insubstantial the ‘I’ is.
Recognise when it appears and disappears.
Come to the definitive conclusion, based on your own testing and experience, that this one is insubstantial.
At this stage, that’s all we need to discover. Just keep questioning this until you can be absolutely certain in the core of your being.
Another few feet of the fuse is burning out.
The Personality is a Prison
What is it we love so much about young children? They’re spontaneous, open to anything. Tears one minute, laughter the next, their moods can change in a nanosecond, and they don’t hold grudges for long. They’re intensively alive, mischievous, joyful, completely free.
We love them because they are travelling light! Free as of yet of psychological baggage, they’re open to the world itself, without barriers, free conduits for life-force, passionately themselves.
They’re not trying to be anyone, or become anything, they inhabit the present moment completely.
At the other end of life’s journey, you may know one or two retired folks who fit the caricature of the old grouch. For some elderly people, everything is a problem! No matter what one does to try and help them, it’s not good enough. You take them a cup of tea and it’s too hot. You bring them some ice cream and it’s too damn cold! For these people, life is a huge burden. Because for seventy or eighty years they’ve been picking up ideas and opinions, gathering certainties about the world so that now they are totally overburdened. They have an opinion about everything and everyone. In this state, it’s simply impossible not to be grouchy!
As one is involved in the practice of self-inquiry, these observations can help. Most of us lie somewhere between these two poles. But if we’re involved in the practice of spirituality, it’s certain that we’re already encumbered, desperate to lighten the load in some way. Our personality is becoming too heavy for us to carry on with.
Clearly, then, it’s the lightness of the child we’re searching for, some re-entry to that garden which we’ve been ejected from. If that’s the case, perhaps it makes sense to see that the Garden, to use a common metaphor, represents a time before personality. And Hell, which is something many of us are intimately familiar with, describes a life totally governed by opinions, thoughts and ideas.
Have you considered that the ‘I’ who appears to be running your life is in fact nothing more than a bundle of opinions, thoughts and ideas?
The more you accrue, the harder life becomes.
The more you think you know, the less open you are to learning.
The more you have to protect, the more you have to lose.
The more you have to lose, the more afraid you become.
Recognise that this ego structure, this personality which appears to be piloting the vehicle of your life is something that you’ve picked up, built brick by brick like a game of Jenga. It wasn’t there when you were a child. It is a work in progress, an unfinished symphony. But just like jenga, the more it builds, the more shaky it becomes. The higher it gets, the more it sways in any summer breeze. It is unstable, needing constant propping up.
Self-inquiry is going to pull the whole building down in a giant roaring crash.
Let’s consider the pure open awareness of a young child. Initially, in the first year after birth, sounds are just sounds, forms are forms, colours have no name, and there is no apparent separation between ‘I’ and world. All that exists is what’s happening. A seamless tapestry of experience without cause or effect, without self-consciousness of any kind, needing no labels.
Onto this blank canvas, the loving parents insert a name. Jo or Miguel or Serena or Piers. Immediately after the child is born, the name is added. And it is repeated hundreds and thousands of times within earshot of the young child so that, within a year or so, the child has received its first piece of conditioning.
You are a name. This name is you.
From then on, if someone shouts Bob or Jill you do nothing, you don’t turn, you let the sound pass without reacting. But if it’s your name which is shouted, Piers, then you turn because it’s understood that this is personal.
This is the birth of the ego, the first condition added to pure being. It’s the birth of what Hindus call ‘maya’, illusion, because it’s as if pure being has fallen under a spell of hypnosis. The seamless totality has struck a Faustian pact as soon as it believes itself limited.
Consider that your given name, whatever language it’s in, and however many syllables make up its spoken form is not actually you. It’s a symbol of you, just as the word ‘tree’ isn’t a mighty redwood and ‘dog’ doesn’t describe what a greyhound at speed is. Language is a useful tool but part of this process of self-inquiry is to realise that it is not the thing itself! It is in fact, a pointer, an arrow, a limitation.
Every time language is used it’s forming a barrier to direct experience.
Does the word ‘blue’ describe the infinite shades which make up a summer sky, or a piece of lapis, or the water over a coral reef. Or is ‘blue’ just a vague designation, a fairly poor approximation of the thing itself. Even the complexities of language: think cobalt, azure, cerulean are all no nearer, really, to describing the thing itself. They’re just words.
Descriptions inhibit our actual experience of the present moment.
So even though my name is Piers, that is not what I am. Recognising that is the first part of this process of self-inquiry.
What is this ‘Self’ we call ‘I’.
What is it made up of?
Does it have a gender or a form?
It is limited?
The whole idea is to be silent. Not to add affirmations or words to your garbage pail. It is already filled with garbage. By garbage I mean, preconceived ideas, dogmas, opinions, samskaras from previous lives, you’re filled with these things and you are a reacting machine, you react, that is what you do all day is react, react, react. Therefore when you try to learn more knowledge and you read more books all you’re doing is adding on to the garbage pail. Of course most of you realize, the highest truth is to delete, not to add.. ~ Robert Adams
Ivan Pavlov was a famous Russian physiologist who discovered something revolutionary about his dog. Pavlov discovered that his dogs would begin to salivate whenever he entered the room, even when he was not bringing them food. Over time, the arrival of their master had become so closely affiliated with the imminent arrival of food that his very footsteps would start a series of conditioned responses in them, of which drooling was one manifestation.
We humans are exactly the same.
As a young infant, all manner of conditioned responses are burned into us. Certain behaviours yield certain reactions. A certain tone of voice means love, another means rage. The blank canvas of pure awareness which is an infant’s true nature is first conditioned with a name, and then with many, many other things, some of them culturally specific, others a quirk of the family we’re born into.
Don’t behave like that it’s unacceptable.
We’ll love you but only if you behave like this.
A child runs into the room with a mouse it’s found in the garden, full of excitement, cradling the mouse in its palm. ‘Look mum, look Dad, a mouse!’
Then comes the response: Get that thing outside at once. It’s dirty, full of disease. Go and wash your hands immediately!
That could be one conditioned response to a situation which is going to deeply impact that child’s understanding of the world. It’s an example of how we limit our children, how the work we have still to do ourselves is simply pushed onto the next generation until it’s let go of, once and for all.
During your process of self-inquiry, recognise that this ‘I’ you call yourself is limited in just these ways. It is full of likes and dislikes, conditioned responses that you simply have no control over. This is not your fault, this is the human condition.
But you did not implant your fears and anxieties.
You have no control over the things you like and the things you fear.
This apparent self who bears your name is a conditioned being, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, who salivates at certain moments, quails with fear at others.
Imagine a situation which unnerves you. Put yourself in that situation and you can predict, virtually exactly, how it is going to make you feel, what thoughts it will provoke, what physical reactions.
Perhaps your stomach knots, your heart rate quickens. Then the same thoughts start up again in your head with their familiar commentary.
Recognise that this is all conditioned response that you have no control of whatsoever. You are powerless.
You can watch the responses, watch the thoughts arising in retort to them, watch the body doing its thing, and it is all happening like clockwork. The body is a storehouse of memories like this, continually drawing on the past.
Then remember that, as a young child, you already existed before all of this. Before all these new arrivals: name, conditioned responses, even the sense of ‘I’, you were already here, and you were doing just fine. The heart was beating, the skin was regenerating itself, the mouth was moving to find milk from the mother’s breast.
Use self-inquiry to look at all this and make certain of it in your own experience. You’re on the quest to discover your true nature, what the Zen Buddhists call ‘your original face.’
This true nature is there before all conditioning, before all ideas, thoughts, and objects. Put simply, if you’re thinking about it, that’s not it!
It’s there before thought. If you’re reaching for it, you’ve already missed it.
In its most contracted form, the personality becomes a cage which literally starts to suffocate us. Bombarded by compulsive thoughts and obsessions, the situation starts to look very grim indeed. In some cases, mine included, it reaches a point where suicide becomes a form of fantasy. The possibility of escaping this ‘I’ is something one longs for above all else. Even if suicide is not actually a realistic proposition, the idea of it is incredibly alluring for it appears to offer the only way into silence.
Depressed people are at the end of the road, completely at war with what’s going on. The internal narrator has become louder and louder until it’s Hitler himself, ruthlessly harsh to everything he sees, never satisfied, and talking nineteen to the dozen inside your head. Is it any wonder that people turn to alcohol or drugs to escape something like this?
In cases of depression, it may be well nigh impossible to begin self-inquiry. First try yoga, tai-chi or meditation exercises to bring yourself into a state of calm. Consult a doctor if you need to. Spend time working with counsellors or psychotherapists to find a level of ease within the story because if this work is not done, the mind is unlikely to slow down enough to allow close introspection. Afterwards, you can return to self-inquiry with a greater openness, and perhaps with a mind which is spinning a little bit more slowly.
The main thing, however, about depression is to realise that is the most selfish disease on earth.
Depression, literally, is an obsession with ‘self.’ It arises with harrowing frequency in modern societies partly because we have a lot more time on our hands, and because we’re spending more time alone than we ever have in human history. Both of these things are fuel to the inner narrator, who becomes empowered by all this time and attention, and increasingly critical of what it finds.
An old folk saying ‘idle hands are the devil’s playthings’ offers a great truth about mental health. As so many of our parents know, keeping busy is one of the best ways to stay happy. When you’re swamped off your feet, the chances are you simply haven’t got time to think too much about what’s wrong with right now! But give yourself a long period of solitude and all of a sudden the mind starts to whisper and whir, and before too long one thought is running into the next to the point where crisis can rear its head.
One manifestation of this, and there are many others, is depression. Our natural open state of being is literally de-pressed.
If this is the case with you, start to patiently and compassionately investigate the actual state of affairs. Who is the one who is buffeted by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? Who is the one that, in Pablo Neruda’s words, is ‘sick of being a man.’
If you find the answer to this question, you may come to see that depression, rather than being the bane of your existence, is in fact ‘the lucky dark’ to use John of the Cross’s phrase. Let this depression burn away what you are not, and emerge into freedom.
Finding a Teacher
Learning most things: driving a car, playing the guitar, how to cook a soufflé, requires a teacher. And having been through about six driving instructors myself, I can attest that, even in those instances, it’s not easy to find someone who can get you where you need to be! But in this business of spirituality it’s seemingly even more difficult. Tradition has placed these people in highly elevated positions, they often wear different clothes, behave on outlandish ways, and are waited upon by hordes of devotees.
Most of that is nonsense and should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt.
At the same time, a true teacher offers a living example it can be valuable to witness. Encountering Mooji, there was a powerful inner ‘yes’ before any words had been spoken. His very presence attests to his silence and peace.
In your path of Self-Inquiry there may be many periods of doubt and frustration, in which the mind does its level best to scupper your best efforts. In such moments, the presence of a teacher can be the greatest boon imaginable. Here is One who can show you the way. Here is One who has walked the difficult path you appear to be walking now. Here is One who can pick you gently back up when you’ve slipped off the path and, with a few words of reassurance, correct your course again.
Whether or not you choose to revere your Teacher, place flowers on an Altar each morning, and touch his feet when you enter the room is up to you. Those are Hindu traditions, sometimes adopted in the West, and play a beautiful part in that particular culture. But it’s not necessary unless it’s your particular inclination.
In this extraordinary internet age, there’s nothing wrong with hearing different teachers either, as long as your gut tells you they’re rooted in the True Understanding. I spend time listening to Jean Klein and both Krishnamurtis, Randall Friend and Rupert Spira, Leo Hartong and Tony Parsons, Eckhart Tolle, Osho and Chogyam Trungpa. Given what’s already been said about the sheer difficulty of putting this teaching into words, hearing diverse teachers can offer a series of differing versions of the same idea. If you notice the common threads that overlap there begins to be a felt sense of what this is all about.
Put aside the idea of the ‘guru’ who wears white and has the honorific ‘Sri’ in front of his name. Focus on finding a teacher whom your instinct tells you is deeply rooted in Freedom.
The syllable gu means shadows
The syllable ru, he who disperses them,
Because of the power to disperse darkness
the guru is thus named.
— Advayataraka Upanishad 14—18, verse 5
Peel off the Labels!
Self-Inquiry, or the process in which we turn around and begin to investigate the ground of our being, brings us back to a place before mind. This is not difficult to find: all of us, if patient enough, can ascertain that when we wake up in the morning there is a moment of quietude before the internal narrator wakes up too. Or we can use Bob Adamson’s ‘pause a thought’ and see that yes, we are still present, in the substratum which exists prior to thought.
In the course of your self-inquiry come and rest in this place as often as possible. This is your homeground, the place from which the world springs. Recognise that, before the labelling mind, everything here simply IS.
When something vibrates in the atmosphere, it moves the air particles around it. Those air particles in turn move the air particles around them, carrying the pulse of the vibration through the air until they reach our ear drum. The mind then ‘decodes’ these vibrations and labels them sounds: bird song, a crying baby, the clatter of rain on a tin roof.
This decodifiying process is the basis of conceptual thought. Patterns of sensations are processed and labelled. The human mind is the most complex decodifying machine in this universe.
But now consider what is actually happening when one hears the sound of a cuckoo. Not what is happening within conceptual thought but what is actually occurring in a way which could be measured. All that we can say about this is that ‘something is vibrating in the atmosphere’. That’s the actual event.
The brain, of course, has other ideas. It is a labelling machine and so it loves to recognise first that it’s a bird, or if you’re French ‘oiseau’ or Zulu ‘inyoni.’ Then it wants to get into specifics: it’s a ‘cuckoo’, or even a Yellow-billed Cuckoo and so forth. But no matter how specific or intricate this labelling gets, it’s vital to recognise that the actual event is unchanged. That event – something vibrating in the atmosphere – is reality. All that comes after that is the human mind trying to codify reality and, as we’ve already discussed, language is, at best, an approximation of reality, a finger pointing at the moon and not the moon itself.
Self-Inquiry is about recognising that this thinking mind, which has so many uses, and which serves us well at times, is also deeply conditioned, volatile, and often simply wrong. It’s a useful tool to have around but it is merely a narrator, sometimes fluffing its lines, and often distorting the facts.
Self –Inquiry is about coming back into direct experience, and letting go of the need for labelling. It’s about coming to a deep understanding that the narrator is unreliable and has been ruling the roost for too long. We are looking for contact with Reality Itself, those simple sensations of sight, sound, taste and touch which are our direct contact with the Universe.
But how can we live without mind, I hear you ask?
Well, when you play a gruelling game of tennis, running from one side of the court to another for two hours at breakneck speed, are you using the mind? When someone serves at you at 80 miles an hour do you think, ‘Oh I should move my racket back now and angle it just like this and then use my right forearm to propel the ball back over the net’
No, of course not. There is simply movement. Tennis is happening. The body’s natural intelligence is at a work and, without exception, it’s far more intricate and subtle and effective than the anything the mind could come up with.
We don’t need labels. That’s the basis of living in freedom. Labels are a barrier to Truth, a conceptual framework which struggles to compress reality into vowels and syllables.
Krishnamurti put this most beautifully when he said: “The day you teach the child the name of the bird, the child will never see that bird again.”
Housebuilder, you have been seen
It is said that after the Buddha obtained enlightenment, he whispered the words: ‘Housebuilder you have been seen!’
What house was he talking about?
Take your pure unconditioned awareness of a child and add on a whole upbringing of ideas about who you should be, what you should do with your life, what’s acceptable and what not. Both mind and body are now hopelessly enmeshed in patterns of reactivity so that this primal life force is continually buffeted, at every step of the way, by conceptual limitations. Rather than being simply allowed to evolve in its natural way, it has been shaped and moulded by a thousand well-meaning teachers.
Brush your hair before you go to that meeting.
I’d rather you didn’t go to that house, she’s a bad influence.
You can’t dress like that, what will people think.
There comes a point in many of our lives when all these voices in our head start to drown out the real joy of living.
The internal monologue becomes so voluble that we just can’t enjoy the present moment anymore.
Who we really areseems a distant memory, buried beneath a lifetimes worth of rubbish.
Two and half thousand years ago, the Buddha also felt like this. He was not the first to discover enlightenment but he was one of the most gifted in speaking about it.
He sat down under a tree and began to observe his experience.
What AM I, he asked himself.
Isn’t there something lasting in this world, something which is not continually buffeted, something which will not succumb to sickness, old age and death?
Sitting under a Bodhi tree, he began to observe the nature of his experience. He saw breath streaming and a continual flow of sensations in the body. He saw thoughts passing like clouds.
Suddenly, he understood the nature of the universe! He understood what was real and what was false. And he realized, once and for all, the nature of the human mind.
He saw that the mind itself is a house builder, stacking up the jenga blocks of thought in every moment.
What he had taken himself to be was the totality of the structure described by the jenga blocks, a patchwork of memories and projections linked together in the mind.
But in the moment of enlightenment Buddha saw that this could not be true. Because ANY thought, no matter what its substance, cannot last forever.
Thoughts come and go, and yet he still existed.
Buddha saw that his true identity existed before thought, and yet mind’s continual stream had for years convinced him otherwise.
Buddha had discovered his true nature, that Self which exists before any thought or conditioning, that pure being understood by children and for which temples have been built the world over.
Continue the practice of Self-Inquiry until you find that pure, timeless, unconditioned awareness which exists before mind.
It is home beyond the very concept of home. It is silence, space, freedom.
Oh housebuilder! You have now been caught!
You shall not build a house again.
Your rafters have been broken. Your ridgepole demolished.
The unconditioned consciousness has been attained.
And every kind of craving has been destroyed.
(Dhammapāda, verses 153,154)
Discovering the Ground of Being.
Many teachers have attempted to describe the thing the Buddha found and yet, as has already been discussed, language makes this almost impossible. We trying to find something beyond language and yet we have to use language to point to it. What a conundrum!
Self-Inquiry uses a sort of deconstructionist method to try and reach it, dissecting the nature of experience piece by piece. Hindus sometimes call this practice ‘neti neti’ which means, ‘Not this, not that.’ It’s intention is to throw everything out that you have believed yourself to be until your true identity becomes apparent.
So in the course of our analysis we may ask, ‘Am I the body?’
This is one of the easiest to discount because it seems clear that, if I lose a leg in an accident, I am no less ‘me’ than before.
What if I lose two legs?
Two legs, two arms and a body?
What if science finds the capacity to keep a severed head alive in a jar. Imagine you arethat severed head! How will the ‘I’ feel then? Your body will be totally gone but still, you will be able to say, ‘I’ exist! I am still here.’
So we can see that the true nature of this ‘I’ does not depend on the body.
Now look to see whether ‘I’ depends on thought. This is what meditation is for. Sit quietly and let the thoughts come and go. Do this regularly if you need to in a comfortable position. Or simply do it at the bus stop, when you wake in the night, or in any free moment. Look and see if you exist before thought.
Of course you do. The thought ‘I am’ is only some language which points to a feeling.
At this point, the search is getting interesting and that fuse is burning a little more loudly now. Because self-inquiry is leading you closer to truth. Old falsehoods are being tossed out! It’s worth mentioning, however, that these old patterns of belief (I am my thoughts, I am my body) are deeply ingrained. It’s unlikely to transpire that you simply notice this once and the reflex is gone forever. Rather, gather yourself in a state of open, loving observation in which you continually investigate these false beliefs. Every time suffering arises, it follows that you have once again become hypnotised into believing you are one of these things and you may have to investigate once again.
When someone loses a limb it is common for the nerve ends to still feel that limb exists.
Such is the nature of self-inquiry. It takes a fierce persistence and determination to uncover what is true, and to discard the false.
A teacher I like, Sailor Bob Adamson from Melbourne, offers one of the best ways to discover the ground of being I’ve come across. Simple, Aussie directness.
Bob says: ‘If you pause a thought, are you still here?’
It’s hard to argue with that one. No matter how complicated the thoughts, and how much you’re believing in the picture they’re painting, just pause them for a second, let them all go, and you find you’re still here.
What you are is not the picture your mind paints.
It is not the totality of the structure suggested by the jenga blocks.
Just smash the whole thing down and see what’s left.
Pure unconditioned awareness without any qualities, or limitations.
Now ask what is the nature of this One?
Waiting for the Big Bang
Given that this all in the field of spirituality, and that we’re talking about people like Buddha and states like enlightenment, all sorts of conceptual roadblocks may occur to distract and hinder. Eckhart Tolle, for example, appears to have woken up one morning completely free. Byron Katie is another. Tony Parsons walked across the park and got it. Douglas Harding discovered ‘It’ in the Himalayas.
Just forget all that.
Imagining a bright light that’s going to end all your troubles is a huge limitation to the unfolding of the journey.
And in most cases, it simply doesn’t happen like that. There can be numerous moments of seeing the nature of reality and then forgetting it. Long periods of blissful silence in which it feels apparent that our very nature is peace, followed by dark periods of agitation and seeking in which that feels very far from true.
Realise that the more you look for it, the further away you get from it!
Since the nature of the search is to dissolve the illusory nature of the seeker, seeking is only going to perpetuate the illusion.
Catch 22 again….
Self-Inquiry involves a huge amount of persistence and patience. But be careful, a ‘patience’ which is only a waiting for something to happen carries a subtle agenda. You must rest in openness, more than that actually BE openness. Let the thoughts come and go. Notice resistance when it comes. Offer compassion to the mind as it launches yet another volley of cunning strategies to pull you back in. And have no agenda.
You are the Witnessing.
You are the empty space into which thoughts come and go.
Having inquired deeply, you conclude that your true nature is that before any conditions, before any phenomenon. And what recognises phenomena but mind.
Mind appears IN you.
And so if the thought arises, which it will, ‘maybe this it when ‘I’ get enlightened’, you simply let it fall away, as you do with all the others.
You are left in Pure Silence.
Getting Out of Your Own Way
Let it be said clearly that this teaching, and what it points to, is not the cure for all ills. Many enlightenment stories involve someone bursting out into hilarious laughter when the nature of reality is seen for just this reason.
What is seen is what has always been here. Nothing vanishes, nothing appears. Everything is exactly as it was.
This includes mind. All those opinions you had before aren’t going to go away. A passion for tomatoes and a hatred for olives will probably remain your dietary preference. If you’re of a solitary disposition you’re unlikely to become a party animal. You may still enjoy alcohol, espresso, even cigarettes, and hang out with the same crowd.
But there is one huge, colossal difference. None of it will be personal.
Beforehand, when the illusory ‘I’ was believed in, everything was reflected through this prism. In that realm, events are filtered through a range of concepts, judged on their positive and negative connotations, either bolstering or diminishing the individual navigating a hostile shifting world.
Afterwards, it is as if you have got out of your own way. The internal narrator who has taken over the whole direction of the play is relegated to the back of the theatre. You can hear his voice piping up from time to time but his status as impostor is now clearly understood. He is the narrator. The play itself has an intricacy, a power and a beauty he can never touch.
With the annoying narrator now suitable quietened, the play can be enjoyed as the extraordinary collection of scenes it actually is, the performance of a lifetime. In this play, there may be peace and strife, harmony and discord, laughter and tears. If you thought that these fluctuations would no longer exist you’re in for a surprise. All remains exactly as it was.
What’s different is that where before you would be protesting at one point, cheering wildly at others, now there is an acceptance of the totality.
Your ability to control the direction of the play has been seen through.
If actions need to occur, they will occur. But you don’t need to plan for it, think about it afterwards, strategize for a way to avoid it happening again, or engage in conceptual breakdowns of the drama. Quite simply, You are the drama. All there IS is the drama. So where would be the one to have any kind of a problem with it?
An Absence loud as thunder
Rupert Spira recounts a brilliant story of a servant who has been waiting hand and foot on a tyrannical old man in the attic for many years without actually seeing him. When the servant finally plucks up the courage to actually look for the old man, he is nowhere to be seen.
Such is the case with you, too.
This person who answers to your name, who has brothers or sisters, lovers, enemies and friends, and appears to be housed in a body which looks awfully like your own is an illusion convincing enough to hypnotise almost everyone, certainly most of the six billion people on this planet.
When looked for, this ‘I’ character is nowhere to be seen.
It can be absolutely startling when this is truly perceived for the first time, overwhelming and deeply moving. This absence is as loud as divine thunder.
Perhaps you’ve touched on this already in life, without knowing what it was. Walking through the forest on a late summer evening, smells of earth and pine needles in your nostrils. All is quiet. Suddenly, you notice dust motes spiralling in shards of sunlight. Everything seems preternaturally animated and vital. Shivers down your spine and the overwhelming feeling of pure joy at being alive.
Or you’re looking into your lovers eyes, and the intensity of longing bursts out of the crown of your head and threatens to bring down the stars. After the lovemaking, this silence encompasses all things. It is love beyond even the concept of love, the deep sighing of existence.
Other people touch on this in more dramatic moments. A car which veers off the road and comes to a halt before the cliff edge. Or at the end of a long, debilitating illness in which every fibre of ones being has enaged in resistance only to suddenly, for no apparent reason, let go. Surrender brings us into direct contact with what is and the effect is like a window pane between us and the world has been suddenly smashed. We are bathed in the beauty which had always been there, and which had been hidden from us until now.
In these numinous moments, there is the sense of something discovered and if you’re not careful the mind will race back in to crow about it. ‘Yes I’ve found it! I am exceptionally clever! I have reached the top of the mountain.’
Numerous spiritual aspirants have spent a lifetime trying to recapture a moment like this, without realising that via their efforts they move further down the mountain!
This numinous silence and space is what has always been there. Until now, the narrator has muddied the waters with his constant judging and bickering, whispering of a world ‘elsewhere’ where you’ll find the happiness you seek. In actual fact, the happiness has always been here.
It was your own shadow which was concealing it.
So what is left in any given moment when the individual is seen through?
All that is left is experiencing.
The Universe is experiencing itself.
And there’s no one there to enjoy it but itself.
Conditioning Continues to Arise
When it is clearly seen that the ‘I’ is insubstantial and cannot be found, a new possibility opens up in our life. All of a sudden a way of being which is not designed to augment or shield a sense of personality is allowed to flow, and with it many of the deeply help beliefs are given room to fall away. This moment is sometimes called ‘awakening’ and it can feel like a huge turning point, a chance for genuine happiness free from the constricting personality.
It is as if a cork which has been stagnating life’s natural flow is suddenly released. Afterwards everything is flow.
Nevertheless, no matter how clearly this is seen, for the most part old habits and tendencies, neural pathways in the conditioned mind, and going to persist.
If you have a deep pathological fear of the dark it will still be trigged by the basement during a power cut.
If you hate spiders, your heart rate is still going to rocket when a black widow steps out of the shadows.
If you’re afraid of public speaking, you’re unlikely to suddenly join a debating group involving long spells of talking over a microphone.
Think back to Pavlov’s dog. This is all conditioning in the machine. It’s out of your hands now as it always was. But what is recognised now is just this: It’s out of your hands. Whereas before the inner faultfinder chimed in with self-criticism, now it is seen that both the reactivity and the inner critic are equally conditioned. You just leave them well alone.
Engaging with eitherthe conditioning or the inner critic is simply like putting your hand back in the fire. Now you still simply stay as you are, the open expanse which contains the whole drama, and allow everything to play itself out.
Make no effort to become involved.
After all, who would be the One to do so?
What is extraordinary about this process is that, in this open space, free from any kind of interest, the reactivity meets its Kryptonite. For all these years, it’s as if the constriction of the body and the racing of the mind have been strategies for being heard. When really listened to for the first time, it’s as if they suddenly start to wither and die, heard at last, and no longer needing to hold onto existence.
Truly listened to, and no longer engaged with, they fall away of their own accord.
You are the World, the World is You.
In the Rinzai school of Zen, students are given koans. These seemingly impenetrable riddles are designed to implode the conceptual mind, and propel the student towards the nature of reality.
One of the more famous of these reads: ‘If a tree falls in the forest, will it make a sound?’
Hearing this question for the first time, most people conclude that yes, of coursethe falling tree makes a sound!
In actual fact, this is not the case. Science shows us that, without our eardrums for sound waves to vibrate against, there IS no sound. Similarly, without our irises for light waves to pass through there is no light. And without the nerve endings in our skin there is no hard, no soft, no hot, and no cold.
Without someone there, there is no tree, no forest, no world. We are actualizing this world by our very presence. Presence and world are not two things.
All of self-inquiry boils down to this. Presence. Perception. Consciousness. This is the substratum of existence, the ground of being. Francis of Assisi pointed to it by saying ‘What you’re looking for is where you’re looking from.’
This is your original face, the empty canvas onto which all the conditioning has come.
Until now you’ve been lost in the movie, your spirits soaring when the hero is winning, then sinking again when the hero is captured. But now the movie is coming to an end and you see that all of this sound and fury was appearing on a screen. That screen has ALWAYS been there.
But could the story appear without the screen?
Could any movie be shown without a surface to project it on to?
Without the existence of a screen, there could simply be no movie.
And when we say ‘I watched a movie’ we are including the presence of the screen without even realising it. Without it, watching a movie would not be possible.
In the course of your self-inquiry come to see that the ground of being is identical with Awareness, or Perception. This open, empty space is always there, before any Thoughts, and it is there when thoughts disappear.
Any single thought about who you are needs this screen to appear on.
If you see this, the fuse is about to blow the whole cinema right out of the ground.