Awakening, Culture, Enlightenment, Spirituality, The Ego, The Mind

Knowing True Freedom

Colloquially, the word “freedom” is used in conjunction with certain physical and political contexts—freedom of movement, speech, assembly, the right to vote, etc. What distinguishes these notions from spiritual freedom is this: Spiritual freedom is not dependent on anything external to one’s own state of consciousness. This is precisely what makes it the only true freedom. Freedom’s opposite is dependence, so if one’s sense of freedom is dependent on having certain external parameters met, we can see that whatever they have gained is not true freedom. It may be greater worldly opportunity or social mobility, and these things are important. However, we tell ourselves a tremendous lie when we tangle these things up with what it means to be free. I have no doubt that there are prisoners who meditate and that they are more free than, say, an American workaholic with a drinking problem.

It is unconsciousness itself that has mislabeled “freedom” in this way: If a large population can be convinced that they are free even as they take up soul-numbing tasks in order to survive and dwell in various addictions, the machine continues on unquestioned. We are most hopelessly enslaved when we wrongly believe we are free.

Though the idea that we are “convinced we are free” may elicit images of some brilliant (yet evil) ruling class, this is false. I do not believe there are any masterminds at the top of this pyramid. Sometimes, as we begin to peel back the layers of deceit and/or one-sided information we were fed as children, we can get lost in conspiracy theories. We come to believe that there is an order of shadowy overlords that have been calling the shots since time immemorial. Finding them out feels like juicy, privileged gossip, but, like other forms of gossip, these things are little more than a distraction. I don’t mean to dismiss that corporate conglomerates and wealthy, violent people hold a staggering amount of power in the world. They do, but there’s that key phrase: In the world. If we were each to find the part of us that is not in the world, would we be bothered so much? Moreover, would we allow such other people to run our lives if we felt empowered, whole, and alive?

The world has become this way because we believe we are small and that everyone has a “dog eat dog” attitude. When we live in such fear, these “shadowy overlords” have a foothold over us. Liberation—moksha, nirvana, enlightenment, awakening, etc.—cannot be taken, cannot be granted, and cannot be compromised by one’s outer circumstances. This is precisely why it is the answer to our ailments, both personal and collective: It happens in a place that is completely incorruptible.

A person who is truly free is the most powerful person in the world. Why is this? Because you cannot manipulate or coerce such an individual to do anything whatsoever. They move in accordance with their own compass, which is always pointed in towards truth. They will live in ways that others deem difficult or unpleasant before they sacrifice their freedom, because they know how valuable (and how rare) this freedom is. They need far less than one who is conditioned to require specific comforts in order to feel okay. Even a threat to the life of one who is free can be met with a smile.

Merely having this piece of information is enough to focus my life 100% on the path. It now feels like something of a “sidestep” to seek that which is not eternally enduring, complete, and freeing. The summit is in sight, and every distraction is a detour. As Ramana Maharshi said: “What is not permanent is not worth striving for.”

Looking around, can we find anything that is permanent? There is nothing that can be discerned with the senses that is not subject to decay and disintegration. This is not some “future disintegration” we are talking about: It’s happening now. All is in flux; we are spinning, changing, dying, and being reborn. Nothing in the play of consciousness—a term used to describe the happenings and appearances of our lives—is going to last forever.

Again, this is something most of us intellectually “know.” And yet, with attachments, fears, and desires for safety, our minds try so hard to make this not true. Grasping for safety, we think, if only everything could just stay the same. Yes, we “know” change is a constant, that nothing lasts, and that everything is subject to decay. But when it comes time to accept the end of a job or a romantic relationship, how often do we do so with grace, or even joy at the potential of the new?

Some of us spend our whole lives trying to bargain with the inarguable fact of change. The final change—death—will show us our errors in this regard, but it is not wise to wait until then to see them.

The spiritual path gets to the root of everything. Once we have exhausted ourselves trying to control this outside variable, and this one, and that one, we recognize that there is still a restlessness. It goes right to the middle of us, and it is unrelenting. We are constantly hungry for something ultimately satisfying. What is the thing that soothes this ache? How do we cease the frantic search to be sated?

On a large scale, this is what we have been doing to the planet for thousands of years. The collective ego sees the Earth as a thing to use rather than an organism to responsibly live within. We use one resource after another, taking temporary gratification over long-term well-being. The process of colonization and societal “growth” is indeed an addiction on a wide scale. Soon there will be nothing left to take, but we will still be trying to feed the ego, which, in something of a temper tantrum, will keep demanding the physically impossible: Unchecked biological domination. But nature will not have this; she has made her preference well-known in diversity, and we are inexorably chained to her rules. When we deny this, there is collapse. This has been shown in civilizations over and over again. Where will we turn when this all comes crashing to the ground? What kind of delusion are we living in if we believe this crash can be staved off forever?

There is also a reason why spiritual teachers don’t often bring up politics or systemic issues such as capitalism or the patriarchy.  It is not because they are apathetic, “above it,” or find these issues trivial. On the contrary, one who is on the path acknowledges the depth of suffering created by such hierarchies. We accept that the breadth of this suffering is unimaginable. We choose, however, to focus more intently on the root of these problems, knowing that pulling the root is the only way to effectively deal with any problem. The root is the egoic mind. This limiting, overly-personal mind lives within each of us, and in order for lasting change to occur, it is the thing that must be brought into awareness. The sprouts and weeds of real-world issues are more visible, but hacking at them while the root remains intact is not the best use of energy.

I used to feel like there were two entities within me, fighting. I desperately wanted “the good one” to win, even though it really felt like the evil one would consume me entirely. When we start to develop ourselves more, we do not treat the egoic mind like an enemy—the very idea that we can be “an enemy to ourselves” implies a belief in a caustic kind of separation. It alone is symptomatic of the egoic mind. What we do, quite simply, is notice it. We see that our minds are stocked full with unconscious conditioning, and commit, day after day, to doing what is necessary to dispel this unconsciousness.

Spiritual activists may stand for broader ideals, such as nonviolence and peace overall. To those who are very focused on specific aforementioned issues, this may feel ineffectual and weak. On the contrary: One who dwells in freedom and stands for peace is incredibly strong. They live the peace they espouse in as many ways as they reasonably can, and know that “peace” does not imply a dreamy utopia. (Inner peace can actually be experienced as a jarring stillness that stands in stark contrast to the thought-stream. It is not always welcome at first.) Mostly, they are courageous enough to stand in the middle of a world that is waging war on itself due to madness, and say, “I choose differently.” The will is exercised. The heart expands. The soul rejoices in being acknowledged, and the world wakes up a little more.

– lish

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Awakening, Conditioning, Enlightenment, Mental Health, Spirituality

Personality, Mental Health, & Conditioning

There is this misunderstanding that the spiritual life buffs all people into one personality type. When I talk of transcending the egoic personality—and go on to say that all personalities are egoic—what I mean is that “personality” is a conditioned feature in the human being. Ego and personality are two sides of the same coin, meaning that we confuse ourselves with our personal features. As far as most of us are concerned, we are our sense of humor; we are our fears; we are our various traits. There is no space between the identifiers and the sense of “I.”

The origin of the assumed identity (ego)  is as follows: We “make ourselves up” at a young age according to what is rewarded and punished by those around us. This reward-and-punishment process is generally carried out by those who were no more privy to the truth than we were. This understanding forms the basis for the logic of forgiveness for what we perceive to be the ways we were “unfairly” brought up, as well as the many injuries we endure and dole out as adults. To burn away this conditioned information within one’s consciousness is the aim of inner work: We seek to be restored to our innate nature in God rather than the various ways we have been taught to be. If you don’t like the word God, call it your true self—late into the journey these words are revealed as identical.

We enter the world in great fullness, alight with beauty, potential, and enthusiasm… yet the community, while well-intentioned, chops us down to size. We are taught well to temper ourselves and to back away from anything resembling extremity. Should extremity be expressed, it is quickly disapproved of, and in this way, we learn which parts of us are “okay” and which ought to live in shadow. Shadows do not disappear, though: They can only torment us with their supposed wretchedness, and in time they rear their heads in one way or another. The shadow parts are time bombs within us, and can only be defused through honest listening and love.

Ultimately it is the same soul we seek to strip down to, and I suppose this is where the notion of “spiritual people being all the same” comes from. What is missed is the fact that this greater soul expresses itself through each being in a different way: No one is special, but everyone is unique. It is as if the light gets “filtered” through our energies and comes spilling into the world based on individual virtue and flaw as well. The Perfect radiates through an imperfect lens of its own creation. The light is all the same, and the ego is the lampshade.

When the past loses its weight in the psyche and the mind touches that great zero, the personality built on past conditioning vanishes as well. The code is wiped clean from the chip that is the brain, and the relief from this code is incomparable. You become a great body of clear water with no bottom or surface, whereas before you were more like a mud puddle. You, as consciousness, are reborn while in the same physical body; this is the essence of being “born again” in the Christian sense. This rebirth can be, in a word, alarming.

The accompanying silence may feel sterile: When blaring thought has been a lifelong companion, the quiet seems hostile, an exaggerated version of how we often feel uncomfortable in external silence. You will seem different, because “you” are not “you” anymore. What I am speaking of here is the nature of a spiritual awakening, especially one that isn’t tried for. It will almost certainly leave you unsteady and confused for a period of time. Peace will visit you, and then you may ascend into madness. You will feel infinite and on fire and then be expected to go back to your desk job. There are no easy answers if you’re coming out of “standard mode” and into deep spiritual freedom; there is only one answer, it seems very hard, and I have said it before: Yield to the soul.

When people change too much too fast, it is perceived as “bad” to others. Just as we are attached to our own assumed identities, we are attached to other people’s as well. If one’s assumed identity is dropped or thinned, they may give off the sense that something is “off” or “wrong.” Watching someone else undergo the process of ego-annihilation can trigger immense discomfort. When you don’t want to play along anymore, you’re generally perceived as a nuisance, like an actor in a play who goes off-script or has a seat onstage while everyone is trying to keep on performing.

Society at large is generally nowhere near that great zero, and so it pummels forward, confused as to why you’re doing things differently. It will assign you negative labels and constantly try to coerce you into playing along again. You can do this if you so desire, the difference being that you know you are not the role anymore. Whether or not you try to show others they’re not their role either comes down to matter of fate; not every realized being becomes a teacher. The Buddha didn’t even particularly want to teach the dharma at first.

In time, you relearn everything. Yes, you lose some (or all) of the old personality, but gain the power to pick up whatever personality feels most suited to the moment. So we see that a spiritual person is not without personality; they are without a fixed personality, though beneath their flickering masks a steady “sameness” remains. This fluidity is their greatest strength, and a blinding joy is always near at hand.

In medical literature, “mania” is undivorceable from “bipolar disorder.” I admittedly recoil at the term “disorder,” as the word itself is a judgment. No matter how we try to overcome stigma, they very concept of a “mental disorder” says: Something is wrong. You are Not Normal and that is problematic. You cannot be trusted.

The following must be taken into consideration in any serious discussion on mental health: The mind that is considered “in order” in this world typically takes part in an overall process of unconscious destruction, is blissful only on rare occasions, full of mechanical reactions, and disinterested in challenging these qualities in itself. This mind is an amalgam of whatever its culture makes it to be. We have to ask: Does being without a diagnosis of mental illness alone mean that one is well? My answer is a clear No, not at all. It takes no education to know this, only a cursory glance at what it means to be a normal person.

I want to be very clear, because the way mental illness is understood is inaccurate and harmful and there is no sign of this turning around: The individuals who have historically defined “mental illness” have merely been of the acceptable societal conditioning, which is to say they are also not in touch with Reality. They are not sane, just crazy in the normal way.

It is tremendously frustrating to see this from the inside of such an episode: The whole world is backwards and your doctor’s the one who’s insane, but everyone is saying they are worried and that you must take these drugs. Your care is entrusted to people who know far less about you than you do. They force you to alter your consciousness, down to where you become once again malleable enough to accept what they say: You have an illness, you have an illness.

Not only that, but the rules are different in the mental hospital: Strangers are allowed to touch and grab you if they feel such treatment is merited, and there is no regard for the trauma this might instill and/or re-ignite within an individual. I was threatened that I’d be forcibly given a shot of antipsychotics if I did not swallow the pills willingly. You are constantly watched, but expected not to be paranoid or upset by this. Though there have been improvements, being a “mental patient” gives the staff license to laugh at and violate you, and sometimes they do, always underneath the condescending narrative that the whole production is “for your own good.” Many are completely unaware of the severe fragility and sensitivity of those they are trying to treat: We know you do not know us or what we’ve seen. It is infuriating, and even worse: All external manifestations of this fury are used as further ammunition to affirm the individual’s sickness.

Of course I am only presenting my side of the events, and I assign no blame anywhere. In all unjust events, people are merely responding to their conditioning; it is unconscious and therefore forgivable. Yes, people arrive in psychiatric wards due to instability, but often the hospital makes us less stable. When one’s condition is worsened by that which is supposed to “help,” we have to question what we’re doing.

Let us cast aside this idea that some are mentally ill and others are not. As far as I can tell, there are three categories we fit into:

  1. Those whose conditioning fits the society well enough. These people are deemed mentally healthy.
  2. Those whose conditioning does not match the society’s expectations, and/or who are seeking to expand beyond all this conditioning and find themselves. These people are deemed ill or strange, either formally or informally.

Both parties suffer, though one is generally more aware of their suffering, perhaps because the suffering is louder or because they’re paying more attention to it. Either way the effect is the same.

There exists the small third category of unconditioned human beings, and these people have always existed. To me, unconditioned humans are the only sane people the world has ever seen: They are full humans without culture or context. They may impact culture but take none of it on themselves. They can slip into any crowd and find a shared humanity over trivialities such as dress and social customs, without ever compromising the truth of their beings.

There is no way of knowing how many sane human beings have existed or do exist at present. When religions speculate on this, they are only doing guesswork; there are no fixed laws about “how many” can be realized at any given time. These people do not boast about their sanity. Indeed any time I declare myself “healed” or highlight my own “progress,” I am actually still indulging the remaining ego. We see it there, hungry, looking for crumbs of pride or validation in some way. It wants to show how “it gets it.” In seeing this we must smile and again recommit ourselves to the work: The wish to be completely free must trump all of our wishes to be seen as advanced, wise, and good.

– Lish

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Awakening, Consciousness, Enlightenment, Spirituality, Transformation, Truth

Notes on the Truth

The most confounding concern for any spiritual seeker is this: “How?” How do we “become enlightened?” How do we realize the Truth? How to we realize the Self? How do we stumble upon that which we really are? How do we become that which is infinite, changeless, and formless in our own consciousnesses, not simply in theory? Usually, for some amount of time, the mind is obsessed with the how, and chases after the moment of awakening like one might chase after anything else.

But if there is anything we can say about Truth, it is that it is paradoxical and does not follow any fixed laws. I will not lie and say there is a predictable way to attain it (nor am I fully comfortable with using words like “attain” for it). At best I can offer some tools that have helped to integrate my awakening, but it would be dishonest to say I was looking for what “I” re-discovered in myself, or that there is any particular method by which it occurred. It came out of nowhere in the midst of a life that felt rather saturated in problems. My entire being was blindsided by it, and this created a big mess. This is why I advocate for gradual, sane awakenings.

There is no logical consistency to it, truly no “path,” and no guarantees about it. Realizing Truth stands in stark contrast to every other “goal” as we are taught to approach it. We are conditioned to believe that anything worth having must be ardently striven for. To experience the Self outside of this conditioning, you even have to let go of the idea that Truth can be “gotten” in such a way.

I have no answer to the “how,” except to say that there is no surefire “how.” I believe anyone who says they do have a definite “how” is either lying or mistaken.

One of my favorite quotes is that “enlightenment always happens by accident, but practice makes us accident-prone.” If you are out of practice, it can still happen; it’s just going to be a lot more intense (and not necessarily in a good way) when you wake up. I invite you to read this piece by Osho on “accidental enlightenment” if you’re interested.

One metaphor I particularly like is that enlightenment is similar to being struck by lightning, and following a conscious spiritual path turns you into a lighting rod. If you take up practices, keep yourself sober and healthy, read books by reliable sources, and follow your heart in life, your being is probably at a place where it is drawing nearer to enlightenment (or vice versa.). You make yourself more likely to “get hit” in this way. Even better, if this lightning strikes, it will be channeled through you in a much better way than if you do nothing to cultivate your consciousness ahead of time.

It is also prudent to view self-realization with just as much respect as we do literal lightning: It can bring with it a sense of pure power. In someone who is spiritually immature (as I was, and am still growing out of), this energy is really not wielded well at all. To continue following this metaphor, we have to imagine someone very strong who has the presence of mind to calmly withstand being struck by lightning. I don’t know if this is possible, but let’s pretend: You could end up running around like a maniac, caught on fire by your realization (without practice), or standing in awe of the totality of this power, allowing it to surge through your being and inform you of what, if anything, to do next (with practice).

When we wake up, it also becomes clear that the Truth has been with us the whole time; it has only been temporarily covered over with various attachments, illusions, and other mental clutter. It is like remembering you have a fortune when you believed you were bankrupt or waking up in the arms of your lover during a dream in which they have died: There’s a wash of relief for sure, and also a great deal of joy upon seeing your own mistake in believing things were not always this way. In the face of Reality, your former ignorance is revealed as a kind of joke.

I have made metaphors like this before, and I will continue to do so: Trying to be enlightened is like “trying” to have a heartbeat. It is always there, and always has been. Still, you can bring more awareness to your heartbeat; then maybe one day it just pops into your conscious mind: The steady, life-affirming rhythm you never could have existed without becomes eternal in your awareness.

When you the see the Truth that lives inside of you, all mysteries and maladies of the human condition become clear and even simple to resolve: “All” we have to do is realize the Truth. A good skeptic will not believe this, nor should they. And even though the words may seem too trite and childish to carry weight—“just realize the Truth”—what I am actually speaking of is completely revolutionary, healing, and hilarious when it is realized. It is not what you think it is.

So what is the Truth? I am not going to define it, in part because it cannot be defined. Truth never changes and yet it never repeats; how could any honest person define such a thing? Every person really does have to look for themselves. Anyone who has encountered the Truth will know they cannot adequately “explain” it to you, nor will they ask you to accept anything they say unquestioningly. This is another issue I take with religious institutions: These organizations often insist that followers “must” accept certain things in order to be known and loved by God. The main problem with all this “you must accept x prophet as The Best Savior” stuff is that it is patently False. God requires nothing of you or anyone else. God is unconditional acceptance, nonjudgmental observance, and pure awareness of All That Is. This space is also within you, and it can be realized. To say otherwise is to trivialize and make a mockery of God: Imagining this God has jealousies, preferences, and plays favorites? What we are thinking of here is an ill-mannered yet popular teenager, not the Almighty.

Secondly, getting people to stop seeking by handing them the “correct” beliefs robs them of their opportunity to truly discover it. To me, this is the most tragic part: Clinging to and/or identifying with fixed mental positions means you have wrapped your purity up in a costume. Truth reveals itself once we give up our identifications, so when we try to goad someone into picking up an identification (as a Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, etc.), we effectively halt their spiritual growth. Anytime we “add” layers to ourselves—of belief or philosophy—we evade abiding in that pure state. Of course, those who dole out the “things that must be accepted” are not aware that they’re actually preventing the true spread of God in this world.

No one who has had this realization will claim they can give it to you. Instead they will ask you to look inside yourself, find your own answers, and never give up. They may suggest that you don’t make “enlightenment” a goal per se—indeed it is not “your” goal to achieve—but keep the thirst for realization close at heart.

In my quite limited wisdom, I would suggest not overthinking it, but seeking clarification from qualified teachers and books. There are many qualified teachers, but finding one requires some amount of spiritual discernment, since anyone can learn to simply say words about “existence” and “Truth.” Behind all this talk, there may be an ego seeking admiration and praise, or even just an ego that now assumes the role of a “spiritual teacher,” as if that means something fixed, with some superior sense of moral righteousness. With your own practice—meditation, reading spiritual books, breath work, journaling, yoga, or anything that truly stills your mind—you will begin to build up this kind of spiritual discernment. Dharma talks and satsangs will resonate in ways they did not before. You will develop “an ear” for those who are telling the Truth, and an equally astute sense for disingenuousness.

It is extremely helpful to find at least one spiritual friend you trust and clarify your knowledge together though conversation. I believe that two intelligent people looking inward can spark plenty of insight, even if neither has been “struck by lightning.” Asking is beautiful because it means we don’t know everything. It is always a humble act to ask questions. We must always accept that we really don’t know, and avoid falling into the trap of thinking we know much of anything at all. At some point accumulated knowledge even starts to feel like baggage—it just takes up space and it doesn’t get you closer to your Self.

Then, in one instant, the Truth arrives subtly and yet blindingly obvious. It is just the Truth.

– Lish

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