And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?”
~ The Talking Heads
The most important relationships we have are the ones we have with the thoughts in our heads. Our relationship to thought shapes everything that we experience and everything that we are.
Let’s start this inquiry by thinking about our identity – our self-concept. Think of your name. What does that name stand for? It stands for you. It is a word that stands for the person that you are – the person who was born on your birthday, has lived your life, experiences him or herself as you, and will die on the day that you die.
The great realization of the world’s mystical traditions is that spiritual ignorance is a result of misplaced identity. In other words, we have wrongly identified ourselves with what is often referred to as a small ‘s’ self and not the large ‘S’ Self that we truly are. But what does this mean?
To understand what this means we should start by looking closely into how we identify ourselves in the first place – go ahead, find yourself. The first place you will look might be your body. You will look at your body in the mirror and say this body is me. Of course it is not. It is your body, but you are not the body, you are the one who has that body. You might then look at your history and say that history is me – I am the life that I have lived. Again if you look closely it may be your life and your history, but that life and that history is not you. You are the one that has that life and that history.
If you keep going this way – examining all of the things that you identify with, you will find that in each case what might at first appear to be you, or at least an aspect of you, is not. In the end you will find that they are all just things that are associated with you, but they are never who you are. If you go even further, you will probably become frustrated because you realize that trying to find yourself is like trying to see the edge of your own eye. Every time you try to look for it, it moves away from your gaze. Your identity – your ‘self’ – is like quicksilver; you squeeze your fingers around it and it slips away.
In some schools of enlightened mysticism, exercises of this type are called ‘pointing out’ exercises or “neti, neti” (not this, not this), because by using them you keep pointing out that you are not what you think you are. If you engage with them over and over again, these exercises can lead to a dramatic experience of awakening. What happens is that you give up trying to find yourself because you realize that you simply do not exist as an object that can be seen. You recognize that you are pure subjectivity without substance. Pure awareness. In certain mystical schools this is called the experience of no-self, or emptiness. Those who are lucky enough to experience it will discover a profound liberation. They will see that they are not a limited entity bounded by a body, history or set of behaviors, because you are not a thing in the way that a table, or even a body is a thing. You are the awareness that is aware of everything.
The relief experienced in this realization is so profound that it will bring you to tears. It will take the world that you have known and flip it upside down and shake it all loose. It is as if you’ve been wearing a heavy metal straight jacket since the day you were born and it finally fell off. You see that you are full of ideas about who you are, about what you can and cannot do, and who you should and should not be. You discover that you have never made an authentic choice in your life because you have been acting out a script dictated by the ideas you have about yourself. You realize that you have not achieved true autonomous selfhood. You have only been a self-concept propagating itself through time and space. In that moment, you may look at your life and see that it looks like someone else’s. As you scan through your history it will be clear that although it had always seemed that you were making choices about what you wanted to do and who you wanted to be, in actuality they were all the result of ideas about yourself acting themselves out.