Addiction, Conditioning, Mental Health, The Ego, The Mind, Uncategorized

How the Ego-Identity Perpetuates Addiction

After my last post, I felt compelled to write more re: the ego, the mind, and addiction. It is my steadfast belief that transcending the unconscious ego (also know as the “assumed identity”) holds the key for solving every mental health issue that plagues humanity, and truly every issue that plagues humanity. That includes addiction.

I’m going to make my standard disclaimer that “understanding” the ego and consciousness occurs on different level than the conceptual mind. You might wonder, “how else can something be understood if not with the mind?” And the answer is that there is another part of you, an infinite dimension within that has always and will always be there. It is your ultimate destiny to experience this limitless nature eternally. This “limitless true nature” is not something fuzzy or conceptual. It is not an idea or a belief. It is as real and enduring as the blue sky or your beating heart—more real, even.

If you’re lost and don’t know what to do with your life—a common ailment in our society, particularly for young people—take heart. There is really only one thing to do: Find that limitless dimension and dwell in it. Put this at the top of your “to do” list, and let life take care of itself.

The Disease that is Conditioning

Addiction is not a disease on its own, but a particularly noticeable symptom of a greater disease. Words like “disease” and “illness” mean very different things to me than how they seem to be used colloquially. All conditioned minds are, in their own ways, diseased, and probably 99% of minds in the world are conditioned. Conditioning is the single, overarching illness of mankind. Its symptoms are myriad: fixation, neuroses, depression, anxiety, fear stories, preoccupation, worry, rumination, confusion, delusion, projections, chronic unprovoked anger, all the way up to psychosis and extreme attachment.

This is what addiction is at its most basic: An extreme attachment to a person, activity, or substance. We can study biochemistry, genetic predispositions, and environmental factors, but when it comes down to it, addiction is nothing more than a strong psychological attachment rooted in the false identity.  Attachments can be broken—we have all done this with ex-lovers, toys we outgrew, and friends we’ve lost touch with. Overcoming the addiction largely depends on how much damage has been done to the body while engaging in the habit and how severely one’s identity is wrapped up in said person, activity, or substance.

This second part brings me back to the ego-identity: For one to transcend their ego, the ego must fully accept its nature, which is not ultimately real. This “great revealing” is often referred to as an ego death or a psychic death or any other number of depressing phrases, usually ending in the word “death.”

Although I have experienced this annihilation and can attest that it does feel that way, I find these phrasings to be unnecessarily frightening. There can be no death for something that never existed in the first place, and the “imagined you” never really did. “You”—as a particular person—have always been a thought or a dream; it’s just that you take the dream Very Seriously up until the moment you wake up. This is why the waking up is glorious and beautiful and hilarious… until it isn’t anymore, because the ego almost always resists its death (which is not actually a death.).

Why Your Ego Uses Your Mind Against You

Just as any animal fights with everything it’s got to avoid dying, such is true with the unconscious ego. So, when our attachments (addictions) become a large part of who we think we are, the ego fights to keep them. This is because you threaten it when you take away the things it imagines it is: A gambler, a drinker, a smoker, a pothead, the partner of someone who isn’t nourishing to you, an over-shopper, a bulimic, an anorexic, a depressive, etc. It doesn’t want you to give these things up, because losing part of the identity is still felt as a loss, even if the “losing” is of something that’s hurting your body and mind.

The ego’s response is to resist. This is the crux and hook of addiction, and why addiction seems so hard to overcome. We identify with the activities we do regularly, so when we stop doing these activities, our identities feel that they are dying. The ego responds by weaponizing the mind, which will sporadically come to throw some seemingly unbearable cravings at you, usually when you’re right at the cusp of leveling up into a more free state. This will go on for some time, and I will write more about how conscious awareness is the only long-term solution for this. In this way we see that eliminating the false identity altogether holds the key to a full recovery, not only from addiction but from everything else we find so troubling about our lives.

I do not know how many treatment modalities specifically address the ego-identity (and/or fully acknowledge that this construct is always illusory), or the way giving up addictions threatens it. I’m sure there are some, and there are probably books that include this kind of language, and that is all very wonderful.

My wish is to see these things well-enough incorporated into mainstream discussions on addiction that people don’t have to suffer through dozens of ineffective treatment programs and do all their own research to find this stuff out. I want to also say that this isn’t even spiritual “woo” stuff we’re talking about: We’re talking about who you think you are, whether that image is rooted in reality, and how your mind maintains this supposed identity for better or worse.

What it Means to be Recovered

Just as I believe almost everyone has the illness of conditioning, I find that very few people are “recovered” and “sane.” To me, this means we have completely overcome the psychological illness that is conditioning, and that we abide in our true selves at all times. It sounds impossible, but this is partially because we treat ultimate liberation like an impossible myth. It is not that.

It is very sad to me that so many people seem to believe “you’re always in recovery,”  or “never really free from addiction.” My genuine advice here is to constantly remind yourself that can be fully liberated from your demons. Whenever a therapist/doctor/friend says something along the lines of “well you’ll always be recovering,” internally tune that shit out and listen to your inner self, which is always seeking to abide in everlasting freedom. You will not seek all your life, nor will you be recovering all your life. It may be a long, dedicated process, but to call it “endless” strikes me as a lowly way to view humanity and we are not meant to be lowly creatures, even if we often act like it (out of ignorance.).

I generally reserve words like “sane” and “well” strictly for the unconditioned mind, i.e., the one that does not falsely imagine itself to be a particular person in this particular world. (I do not claim to have this mind, though I have glimpsed its reality.). This mind is very, very different from the one we normally operate in:

It is still, clear, unattached, unconcerned with time outside of practical matters, free of suffering, and utterly impersonal. In this mind there is no psychological “drag” which brings the past into the present. It is alert but not anxious. It does not identify with anything in the world. Its sense of self is universal, meaning that it sees that it is literally the same as everything and everyone else. This mind—the mind of Christ, the mind of the Buddha—wants nothing for itself. All notions of the “small me” vanish, and we become pure consciousness in human form. This is a person who enters the stream of the universal energy rather than fighting it, like we so often do no matter how this harms us. This mind leads to harmony and peace within the individual, and often moves them through the world encouraging others to that end. This is what your mind has the potential to become, if you just take your chance to look.

And these are the key differences between “recovery” as it is understood through the common lens and the kind of recovery I am talking about: One desires a functional member for society; the other desires total human potential and nothing less. One does not presuppose a true end to all suffering; the other does. One does not help the individual fully understand his/her existence but rather helps them “maintain” in a very base way; the other understands that until we know our true nature unshakably, we are impoverished. One puts limits on how beautiful, expansive, and equanimous life can feel; the other discourages all limitations because it knows all limits are false.

It may sound like a high bar I have in mind when I write about recovery and/or human potential, but to suggest anything less would be deceitful. We should not settle for anything less than what we truly are.

– Lish

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Addiction, Inner Work, Mental Health, Sobriety, The Mind

Getting Sober Without AA

Full disclosure: As of this writing, I’m “only” 8 months sober. I put that in quotes because—if you’re like I was—8 months might sound like an unfathomably long period of time without alcohol. When you’re regularly drinking, going 3 days feels like a stretch. So, to many sober veterans, 8 months ain’t nothin, and maybe they’d think I should shut my mouth because I’m so new to this thing. But to a drinker who is trying to quit drinking, 8 months feels like forever away. (Also, I know I’m not going to drink again.)

In 2015, when I first googled “Getting sober without AA,” this article by Mishka Shubaly popped up. It’s a great article, the heart of which is this: No one gets to define sobriety for you but you, and there’s no “one right way” to get there. If you give up booze but take mushrooms one weekend, you can still hold yourself in high regard, knowing you aren’t about to fall off the rails. Also: People have really whacked out ideas about what addiction is. I loved the article. I wrote to Mishka about my struggles with alcohol, he wrote back, then I got sober… and two months later I was in the mental hospital experiencing a full-on ego death. (I did not write to Mishka about that.)

Even though I thought (and still think) Mishka is a stunning human/writer/recovery story, the answer to my googled question never really appeared. I knew there had to be people who gave up drinking without Alcoholics Anonymous. Where were they? What did they do? How’d they subvert the demon of alcohol addiction without the meetings?

Basically, I’m writing the post I wish had existed for me when I’d gone looking for it a little over 2 years ago.

Also: The first thing that came to my mind when I asked myself How *have* I managed to stay sober for 8 months? was this: I have no clue.

It’s a miracle as far as I’m concerned, but that’s kinda how I feel about life in general. Then I got to thinking and realized that there have been all these things I’ve done; they’ve just so fully become parts of my regular life that they hardly feel worth mentioning anymore.

  1. Start paying attention to how drinking really makes you feel. With rare exceptions, you are not going to quit drinking the first time you try to quit drinking. Or the second. Or the 20th. And that’s fine! You’re still cultivating awareness about this thing (I think AA calls it “gathering information”), and part of that means you’re still going to drink. However, you know now that you don’t want to do it forever. You can use these times of drinking to consciously notice a) How the body tends to physically reject things like hard alcohol, b) How much harder it is for you to hold your train of thought and maintain an intelligent conversation when you’ve had a few, c) How dull and sleepy your mind feels after even one, d) How your head/stomach/soul feel after a big night out. Bringing awareness to the total lack of awesomeness here did a lot for me. Most beautifully, alcohol genuinely ceased to be enjoyable.

  2. Start paying attention to the ten million stories you (consciously or unconsciously) tell yourself about alcohol. Things like, “it’s fun,” “I need it to socialize,” “I just like it,” and/or “it’s relaxing.” Underneath every single one of these justifications there’s an accordion of self-investigation just waiting to unravel, i.e., Why does the mind interpret becoming less conscious as “fun”? There’s a whole lot of stuff to look into just by questioning the basic premises of your “whys” for drinking.

  3. Journal about all of this. Go to an art supply store and get yourself a rad journal you’re going to want to write in. Pick something that feels new and hopeful, and just get to writing. I’m willing to say it doesn’t even matter what you write, except that you do it. Writing relieves pressure from the mind and allows you to see your own “logic” on paper. It’s you talking to yourself about yourself in the privacy of You. There are highly therapeutic opportunities here, provided you’re able to be honest with yourself.

  4. Check out Hip Sobriety. I’ve never taken one of Holly’s courses, but I follow her on Instagram and I’m pretty sure I’ve read everything on her blog. Holly’s is an amazing story about a woman who once appeared to “have it all,” except that she was semi-secretly crumbling beneath the weight of several addictions. I have more than a suspicion that a lot of us (see: many millions) fall into this category: We’re normal, busy, hardworking people… who kinda just have to poison ourselves into unconsciousness to make it through the stress/confusion/Groundhog’s Day vibe of our daily lives. (Does this ring a “that’s really messed up” bell to you? It does to me.) Holly’s all about getting sober because being sober equals freedom, and about challenging the stigma of addiction so that we can actually be given the chance to survive this totally preventable and totally curable disease. Even though I’ve never met her, I love her, and her work has been incredibly inspiring to me. Along these lines, it doesn’t hurt to just stock up on addiction memoirs, binge on addiction blog posts, etc. This just helps to remind you you are not the only one working on this thing! Not even close.

  5. Do anything else. You heard me: Anything. Else. Okay, maybe not harder drugs, but I mean all those other little things you avoid out of guilt. Things like eating a whole box of macaroni and cheese and a pint of ice cream for dinner? Go ahead and do that. I am not encouraging you to transfer addictions, but to let yourself off the hook completely for every other thing you chastise yourself for. For instance, I ate a lot of cake. I bought an unnecessary amount of tea. I smoked cigarettes. I got Indian takeout (appetizer/entree/naan) and ate all of it in the span of several episodes of Arrested Development. Give yourself a fuckload of credit for dropping the sinister drug out of your life, and take it one step at a time. Giving up too much at once is a recipe for disaster, so just try to be gentle with yourself.


There are a lot more, and when they feel timely, I will of course post them here.

It feels important to say that navigating life sober is still nowhere near easy or comfortable for me. I’m pretty sure I only ever liked large groups of people because in our society, they usually come standard with alcohol. No, I don’t know what to do with my hands except be awkward, and there is no magic pill to snap you into being totally at peace in your sober skin after years of ingesting a dependency-causing neurotoxin. I’m sorry, but discomfort is the name of the game for a while. Luckily, discomfort doesn’t kill—addiction does.

Oh, and guess how much time I spend alone? Almost all of it when I’m not at work. I know this is best for me, being that I’m still in the “spiritual cocoon,” but it does get pretty lonesome. I have always appreciated solitude, but sometimes I step over the line into that bad word, “isolation.” Still, I’d rather risk isolation than try to force conversations I don’t know how to have naturally anymore in situations I don’t feel like myself in anymore.

My point here is this: Don’t be surprised if something bigger starts to shift in you when you give up huge, identity-bolstering habits. “Being a drinker” is probably something you’ve built into who you think you are. Letting that go means your assumed identity will take a hit, and the assumed identity (ego) really doesn’t like this.

BIG, BLARING WARNING: Your ego will use your mind to retain its solidity, and this is not a maybe. It 100% will happen that your ego uses your mind against you. This is when you start to think things like “oh but such-and-such holiday is coming up; I can’t be sober for that,” or maybe you casually envision yourself on a camping trip with, of course, a beer. These are the sneaky ways the mind lures you back to those behaviors which maintain the old identity you’re (rightfully) trying to outgrow. In this case, your own mind is literally holding you hostage. Don’t let it win.

Very infrequently, my mind still does this. I imagine myself some years in the future, drinking straight from a bottle of red wine, blasting Rihanna and dancing in somebody’s living room. This delusional projection is always  a super fun and sexy time. Pretty quickly, I wise up: I see what you’re doing, mind, and it’s back to reality, which is something like me folding socks alone and listening to Rihanna.

The most important thing I want to instill you with if you’re considering giving up alcohol is this: You can get sober and live an amazing life. It will not be without its difficulties, but you can handle them, because you’re incredible and perfect and strong. I know that’s true.

– Lish

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Mania, Medication, Mental Health, Reality, The Ego, The Mind, Well-being

Reflections on the Mental Hospital

It’s been two years since I was involuntarily hospitalized, and I finally feel strong enough to say this outright: I am not ill. During that time I was undergoing an ego death, or a complete loss of personal identity. Here’s the thing: Personal identity actually is an illusion, and it’s the greatest illusion of all. Jesus Christ and the Buddha knew this; thousands of others have known it as well.

I was locked up for nine days and diagnosed as bipolar, type 1, with psychotic features. It was a bad time for everyone involved, but I no longer identify with this diagnosis.

That experience—and the time I’ve spent researching and recovering—have formed the basis of my understanding of mental illness. On the other side, I am dedicated to writing about mental health, consciousness, and society in a way that was never presented to me as a psychology student or as a patient.

The main points could (and will) be expanded on and turned into posts all on their own, but can be summed up as follows:

  1. All mental illnesses are the result of conflicts between the unconscious ego (who we think we are) and a greater emerging consciousness (what we really are). This is also true of our “average” neuroses, including the collective mindset that propels us to knowingly destroy ourselves and our planet.
  2. The solution for this is to raise consciousness. This is work that cannot be brought about by all the diet fads, medications, social justice movements, or religious practices in the world. Raising consciousness is done by way of individuals fearlessly questioning their assumed identities and refusing to settle for the answers of the conditioned mind. I do not mean to imply this will be an easy or immediate solution, but that it is the only way.

I’m not the first person to say these kinds of things.

One of my all-time favorite books, Yoga & Psychotherapy: The Evolution of Consciousness was written over 40 years ago. It asserts much of what I’ve said, and still it hasn’t seemed to make much of a dent in the machine of psychopharmaceuticals or the “chemical imbalance” theory. In every regard, humanity’s mental health (particularly those humans in the West) has continued to decline.

Why don’t ideas like this gain traction? If understanding consciousness and the unconscious ego holds “all the answers” regarding mental illness, why do almost no mainstream psychiatrists pay attention to these things? The answer is simple: Because they have not experienced the shattering of the personal ego or the reality of pure consciousness themselves. Transcending the ego—even temporarily, and not under the influence of drugs might I add—is still a pretty rare occurrence.

For one to see that higher consciousness literally solves every problem, they have to know it for themselves. The average psychiatrist doesn’t know much of higher consciousness, nor are they interested. This is true for most of us. However, I pick on this field simply because these are people who have decided to make a career out of tending to the mental health crises of others. They ought to have a clearer understanding of what they’re dealing with.

A psychiatrist—whose livelihood and identity are at least partially wrapped up in seeing people through a limited, illness-oriented lens—cannot psychologically afford to seriously consider these matters in a new light. This is because the very nature of such ideas threatens who they think they are (their egos). The unconscious ego fights very hard to maintain that it is real. Therefore, such professionals will not likely take up a dedicated meditation practice or thoroughly investigate their own minds. They will not likely consider the seemingly “far out” works of other doctors who have had spiritual experiences. And until they find out for themselves, these theories will get dismissed as superstition, even as our rates of mental illness continue to climb.

They do take notice when mindfulness and meditation are proven to act as beneficial treatment modalities. Of course, this is only because the science points to it, and not because they have direct experience with its usefulness. That attitude—“I believe in things only when research shows evidence”—is detrimental and weird and (presumably) Western.

The “show me the data” mindset turns us away from our inner wisdom. It makes us feel like we need someone else to prove what’s right in front of our faces. If we just took a moment to tune into ourselves, we would know everything about how backwards our current way of life is. We would see the toll it is taking on us spiritually, mentally, and physically. Even better, we would know exactly what to do about it.

This is even truer when it comes to things like psychology and sociology. Every time I read a headline about how “research shows” something negative about guilt, isolation, or the effects of social media, all I can think is, “No shit. Why did some researcher spend his/her energy ‘proving’ something that anyone can verify just by being human?” We do not need to have our basic emotions and healthiest ways for living confirmed for us by experts.

Now I’ve gotten a bit off track, as is common. The main points of this section are as follows:

  1. Psychiatry is largely blind to the truth of mental illness because so few professionals have transcended their egos.
  2. Studying the external world has some amazing benefits, but it cannot lead us to the truth. It can also distract us from the things we know innately just by being humans in this world.

If this post has an air of judgment and/or resentment, I own that. I do not pretend to be 100% free of ego. Hospitalization still has a charge for me, in part due to the shame I harbor about that period of my life (I’m working on it.). Also, being hospitalized was straight-up traumatizing. When I listen to my body, there’s still a churning in my stomach and a tightening of my jaw around this subject.

I definitely needed help—that’s why I took myself to the hospital. I will, however, always dispute that I was a grave danger to myself or others, and I will always resent that such a judgment got to be made by a bald jerk DMHP who talked to me for all of an hour. And while I’m sure I met his criteria, his criteria is what I’m here to question.

This brings me to another very important point: Locking someone up who is experiencing an ego death actually worsens their prognosis. After an episode like this, some people retreat entirely from spirituality out of fear. The whole thing scares the hell out of them because they don’t want to lose their minds again. Others latch onto their diagnoses and spend their lives chasing a modicum of “stability” because that’s what they’ve been told to expect, when really there can be so much more beauty and peace in life. Still others spend time in a long limbo of confusion only to dismiss the experience as a “breakdown” rather than a catalyst for growth.

We desperately need more conscious people in the psychiatric field. (Really, we just need more conscious people in the world.) What exactly do I mean by “conscious”? Those who have seen through their false selves and directly experienced who they really are—consciousness.

I don’t know how to make this happen. Consciousness can’t be forced on anyone, but I do know this is the only way our collective illness will be healed.

– Lish

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Awakening, Mental Health, The Ego, The Mind

The Future of Awakening

Enlightenment could be* something we see more and more of in the coming generations. Due to the rampant destruction of our home planet, moving past the ego is really the only evolutionary card that remains: We have conquered all other forms of life, temporarily outsmarted the process of natural selection, and increased our numbers at a staggering rate. The cleverness that has allowed for this to occur is precisely what’s killing us, because our minds have not yet been cracked open by great consciousness.

We are, by and large, still at the level of the egoic mindset—the sincere belief that we are separate, special entities consisting primarily of body, mind, and not much else. It isn’t that this belief is false so much as that it’s a very small piece of the real picture. What you are is limitless, but living from the personal ego is inherently limiting.

This internal change is only thing that can bring us deep peace in times of chaos. It will allow us the equanimity to be generous when we ourselves may be living in scarcity, as well as the power to decide how we want to experience life even if things are burning to the ground (which they likely will.). In short: Widespread enlightenment is the only thing that will get us through the apocalypse. It even can dramatically change how the entire thing goes down.

Now, I know “apocalypse” is kind of an alarmist word, but I mean it in a good way. The literal Greek meaning for apokálypsis is “an uncovering.” Wikipedia says this: “In religious contexts it is usually a disclosure of something hidden, ‘a vision of heavenly secrets that can make sense of earthly realities.’” Is it not clear that we are living at the threshold of the apocalypse, both in layman’s terms (the world as we know it is coming to an end) as well as the religious way? When we pay attention, it becomes very obvious, as well as what we need to do about it: Wake up. Uncover those heavenly secrets and live by them. Everything else is just treading water.

This is the widespread movement towards true sanity. Just by reading this post, you’re a part of it. By becoming more aware of yourself as a truly conscious being (not just a conditioned mind in a human body), you will play a huge part in our internal revolution. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you.

What is Awakening?

I’d like to be clear on what I mean by “awakening.”

To many, “awake” means “being aware of social/environmental issues and injustices.” It means activism, speaking out against certain things, and becoming more conscious of what we consume. While admirable, that’s not what we’re talking about in terms of spirituality. In fact, devoting ourselves to forcibly creating change in the outside world is often a distraction from the chaotic mess inside. And it goes deeper: When we wake up, we see that just about everything we’ve done from a less-conscious position was nothing more than a distraction, something we did to avoid ourselves.

I once had many reasons to avoid myself. I lived dishonestly, but couldn’t fully see it because when the dominoes start to fall you’re likely to lose your shit. Without training, we often resist the Truth at all costs. And while I am still in the process of melting away my reflexive ego, I know without a doubt that I am pure consciousness. The mind/ego often pulls me away from this knowing, but the more I watch it, the easier it becomes. Life begins to flow more effortlessly and peace becomes my default mode.

So what is “waking up”? It is waking up to who you truly are, and who you truly are has nothing to do with your worldly identities. Waking up is an immediate re-connection with the Absolute (or the Divine, if you like), followed by a sustained choice to stay in this place. It is waking up to ultimate Reality, which is limitless and unknowable by the conditioned mind.

And it really is felt like that: A shaking awake from a strange dream where you sincerely felt like you were a particular person, that certain things were very important, and that you needed x, y, and z to be comfortable. These things (and many more delusions) just start to melt and fade. If we can relax into it, spiritual growth can be an enjoyable challenge, rather than a long, harrowing episode of “wtf is going to happen to me?!”

By the way, this aforementioned episode is only ever harrowing to the ego. It will be the one screaming. The true you is always totally fine, safe, and at peace. But after you wake up, the ego’s days are numbered. It knows this, and does not go quietly. Your mind will try to convince you of many, many things to keep you under its control. Learn how to stay aware of all this (rather than engaging), and you, too, can become a free, unlimited being.

Witnessing the Ego

Awakening is still a rather rare phenomenon. I don’t know why this is, other than the fact that our seemingly slow growth is part of the play of consciousness. When Reality (us, Truth, Self, same-same-same) is seen and fully incorporated into your being, it can seem preposterous that you were ever so unconscious, and that so many people still are very unconscious. What are they doing? Who do they think they are? Why are they in such a hurry to get to the next place where they’ll likely be dissatisfied?

The newly awakened ego can get really caught up in such questions (which are actually judgments). We have to learn how to watch frustration rise in our beings. There are many opportunities for practicing this every day. We become truly grateful for these opportunities, even if we’re gritting our teeth at the time.

This “watching” is probably the most powerful skill to develop as you come into your awakened self. Once it sees that it’s on the way out, your ego will try to reassert itself over and over and over again. The simple watching of it—its sneaky mechanisms that try to pull you back into being a small and suffering person—will eventually starve it out of existence.

This is what it really means to be “self-aware.” You are aware of your true Self, and just as importantly, you are aware of those things that are non-self: Your emotions, your ego, and your thoughts. They unfold within you, but they’re not you. They’re fine for now, but not worth paying attention to when the rest of you is actually infinite.

Enlightenment vs. Worldly Awareness

When I say “awakening is rare,” I mean on a real, soul level. There are plenty of us who mentally understand the concepts of the ego and pure consciousness. However, when we look around, we find that the vast majority of us are still not living from our true identities. We are, by and large, quite caught up in projections about how the world “should” look and investing our energy into external issues that will never actually be resolved without widespread internal transformation.

Sometimes, we blame individuals for the state of the world. When we’re feeling a bit smarter, we blame “systems.” Do we see the insidious nature of blame? All of the problems are placed “out there,” onto someone else, even though our interpretations for the world are created in our own individual minds. We happily ignore the structures in our own minds that create these systems, because doing this kind of looking can really create a sense of discomfort.

I don’t want to sugarcoat the spiritual process in any way: To the ego (which we are most likely operating as), this unfolding can be extremely rough. Spirituality still has a reputation for being this kind of dreamy, lofty thing. From my old ego, I imagined it like that, and then I got my ass handed to me.

Spirituality actually is existential, undeniable, solid, and life-changing. Awakening can be felt severely, and it even has the power to drive you literally insane. I believe this is especially true for those of us who are enculturated to the Western ways of seeing the world, which revere mental aptitude—even though this aptitude rarely buys us happiness. (The perils of our overactive, unmastered minds is evidenced in part by our astonishing rate of mental illness.)

Often, we don’t like to admit that our anger, derision, and tearing down of others is just as harmful as anyone else’s. The ego always feels justified in having these emotions and acting them out. But, underneath the many reasons why “our hate is more okay than their hate,” there is the same energy, and we can’t argue with energy.

Our cleverness has been trying to argue with energy for a very long time, and yet we keep digging ourselves into a deeper hole. Sometimes, when violence (aka traumatizing someone else) temporarily “wins” us something, we think we’ve beaten the universe… and yet here we still are, traumatizing one another. (This is not a blanket statement against all violence, because there are no blanket statements that are true all the time.) Many of us are still mad enough to think that evil can be driven from the world with “the right kind of evil act.”

But the laws of our universe have been the same since this universe was born, and we don’t have the power to change them (nor do we want to, when we really understand them.). If we want to make a difference we must look at ourselves with even more piercing attention than we look at everything else.

We change the world like this, mind by mind.

– Lish

*Note: When I first published this post, I said we would be seeing more of awakening in the future. As I reflected on this statement, I realized that I was self-selecting and making assumptions. Because I read/listen to so many things regarding awakening and consciousness, it feels that way. But when I really look at the world, I don’t know. I want it to be so, but I have no idea. One thing is sure: Raising consciousness is how we get out of our current existential predicament.

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Addiction, Awakening, Conditioning, Mental Health, The Mind

Addiction and the Conditioned Mind

Usually when I tell someone new that I’m sober, they ask if I go to meetings. My answer is no, I do not. This opens up a new line of questioning, or I feel compelled to explain myself further. For many people there is an unspoken understanding that getting sober “on your own” isn’t really possible, and that those who think this is an option are doomed to fail. I’m not here to argue that it should be done alone, and agree that it’s probably easier when there are a lot of other people supporting your choice. But it is possible; all it takes is a bit more consciousness.

“I just use a basic awareness approach,” I explain, “I watch my mind lie to me all day long, and simply do not buy into its lies.” That really is it. It’s that simple—and that hard.

In recovery from anything, we learn to watch the habit-ridden mind spin out its familiar patterns. Here’s the key: We just keep watching it and remaining aware of the crazy things it says without being moved to action. We realize that just because a thought or impulse is arising, that doesn’t mean we have to follow it. Craving? So what? We’re cravey for a minute, and then we’re not. This is the nature of the common mind: It pulls us in different directions all the time. It is not a safe place.

Using awareness becomes very difficult with severe addictions because, over time, addiction systematically lowers our ability to exercise choice. Still it is true that if we make the commitment to change a habit that no longer serves us, all we must do is strengthen a new way of being: Every time we stay aware of the mind rather than acting out the entrenched impulse to drink or smoke or use (or do anything), we become a bit more free. This is the basic internal process of all recovery from addiction, no matter what the modality is called.

It feels important to note that nowhere in my line of thinking is this idea that “I can’t drink.” Why remove my agency like that? To say this is inherently disempowering; it carries a subtext of “but I would if I could.” Therein lies immediate suffering. It shows that we view giving up alcohol to be a sad consequence of our mistakes, but this really isn’t true. Stripped of its allure, we can clearly see: Drinking alcohol actually isn’t that awesome. Surprisingly enough, ingesting poison isn’t super beneficial for a happy life. This is true especially when we experience certain levels of freshness and clarity that we just can’t feel while drinking regularly. Experiencing consciousness in its fullness makes getting drunk laughable.

Every day—dozens of times a day, even—we know we actually can drink. We can do and say many things that are harmful. We can… but we don’t. We are humans with some amount of will, and this will becomes stronger the more we use it.

We rewrite the mind’s patterns in this way, transforming ourselves little by little. When we are very near to freedom from the mind, it even begins to feel like a fun game. When it comes down to it, we—being pure, unconditioned consciousness—are just playing with our conditioned human minds. We are entertaining the mind through many lifetimes, and its every move is a requirement for our eventual liberation. We come to see that in the end, the mind was really an opponent we created for ourselves.

And why did we do this? Just for fun, just to do it. It is beautiful and hilarious when we win the game, and necessarily a surprise. It’s kind of like hide and seek, except that instead of opening the closet to find freedom hiding there, freedom appears magically before us when we least expect it.

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I’ve read a lot of popular blogs and stories on addiction, and I see what makes them popular: The drama. We love this juicy notion of “battling addiction,” “me vs. alcoholism,” “how my demons almost won,” etc. We feed on a Hollywoodesque creation of good vs. evil in the storyline of the whole world, unconsciously sustaining a war of cosmic forces that ultimately doesn’t even exist!

We actually energize the mechanisms of evil by giving evil our strongest attention. Similarly, we give addiction power and strength by treating it like an “enemy” we must “defeat.” Psychologically turning oneself (and the world) into a battleground ensures casualties, and we should also watch our propensity to do this. It makes life more difficult than it needs to be, plus we can even become addicted to this kind of drama. The unconscious ego loves drama because it results in an intense story to affix itself to.

But it is not “my addiction” or “my disease” that dresses alcohol up to appear as a fun choice. The simpler fact is that it is really the conditioned mind—the mind I practice observing as often as possible, and the same kind of mind most humans occupy—that does this. This  conditioned mind (and the various ways such minds influence each other in the collective) is the root of all behavioral/mental disorders, as well as many physical diseases. This makes our solution to such problems actually quite easy to see: Get everybody unconditioned!

It may sound simple, but once we start on the path, we see that there’s actually way more unconsciousness we must bring to light than we ever bargained for. No one can make this journey but us, on our own. And like any journey, it has its perils. Usually the mind convinces us to go back to normal mode, because shit just gets too scary. The mind will pull out all the stops to prevent us from escaping it, and fear is one of its most seductive ploys.

And the fact is that most of us are still so unconscious that we don’t even care to look deeply at what’s going on. We feel the process is unnecessary, having zero understanding of what it could mean for the entire world if we were to each take the journey and not turn around on the path.

Something very strange has happened with the concept of mind in the West: We identify with it almost totally, worship it, and live in it, often to our own detriment… and yet we continually diminish its power. “It’s all in your head,” we say, as if that’s no big deal. Psychosomatic illnesses are often treated as “less real” than those we can find an organic basis for, and we say things like “mind over matter.”

But what if we acknowledge that this mind has also created the matter and the very challenges that lie before us?

This is our true situation, though I don’t want anyone to take my word for it.

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We are very often under the mistaken belief that “we use our minds.” In the vast majority of people, this is not the case, for as our minds remain conditioned, they are using us. There really is no reason for happiness to be a struggle. There is no reason to feel bored, stuck, or trapped. There is not even any real reason to seek if you can feel utterly full of peace and joy right where you are (until we are even done experiencing joy and peace, but that’s for another post).

If you were, in fact, using your mind, would you use it to be miserable, negative, addicted, confused? Would you use it to be full of peace or full of discomfort and neuroses? Would you choose to experience life as a strange yet interesting adventure, or a series of difficulties to “get through”?

Everything we are discussing here is at the root of the spiritual path. Buddhism, at its heart, is about discovering the natural mind, the buddha-nature which is everything (as well as an infinite, perfect nothingness which also creates every thing), which we may also refer to as pure consciousness or God. Buddha-nature is always here. Consciousness is always here. Christ is always here. Allah is always here. The Holy Spirit is always here. God is always here. We are always here. There are many ways of saying this same thing, and all prophets have seen this same thing. You can fully experience this thing when your mind becomes completely unconditioned.

Our conditioning goes much deeper than we tend to appreciate in our ordinary dialogues. Often, people on the fringes of the political spectrum are under the impression that they have seen through their conditioning. In reality, questioning the status quo barely scratches the surface. It’s very common to question the easier things and stop looking when we start to feel uncomfortable or frustrated. If we continue to suffer from anger and walk around feeling judgmental, prideful, and caught up in the past, we are still very much under the spell of conditioning. We cannot help our fellow beings if this is our situation.

Things we take for “basic facts” must also be taken into consideration. Our “rational conclusions” should be turned and considered anew. That doesn’t mean we reject everything that has been presented to us, just that we have a genuine willingness to take it all into question. Some of the most seemingly “open-minded” people will never do this because it is so threatening to the identity.

However, if we do this honestly and sincerely—and do it until the bitter, sometimes-terrifying end—we will find that something miraculous awaits us.

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It is not just drinking that my mind tries to lure me in with: All thoughts and feelings which keep my being small are things I watch. For example, in meditation, the mind often says things like “What’s next?” “This is boring.” “I should be writing.” “My heart is beating too fast.” “I don’t need to be doing this.”

All of these are various forms of resistance to being present; they are just ways we cover up simply Being. Please note that there can be no peace within ourselves or in the world until we are at least okay with just being. The glory of consciousness is that we can even become superbly blissful just being. We are contented and joyful and clear-seeing, just sitting still. There is nothing to “entertain” or even “relax” us. We can just be here.

If we see the conditioned mind for what it is—a small game we’re playing within an unlimited consciousness—freedom is soon ours, because we become that unlimited consciousness. That goes for addiction, and for many more psychological afflictions.

– Lish

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Mania, Mental Health, The Mind, Well-being

The Blessing of Mental Illness

We can think of the conditioned mind as a jail cell that we mistake for the entire world. When we see reality (i.e. “wake up”), it results in the equivalent of departing from this cell and into the wide open world. It’s like we march instinctively to the door of the cell—a door we never knew existed before that very moment—and step out into a vast field, experiencing sunlight for the first time. In many cases, we don’t know why we’ve been moved to this action.

Many people take steps towards the door. They become “spiritual” and challenge a few of their old beliefs, yet ultimately remain in the cell. Sometimes they’re right at the door with their hand on the knob, and they turn around to go hang out in jail for a while longer. The person always has a logical explanation for this action: “It’s not the right time,” “I have more important things to do,” “I’m fine the way I am,” “This doesn’t make any sense,” and “I just can’t accept this,” to name a few. When we get really close, the mind becomes even more preposterous, desperately trying to keep us in its grip. It might even say “Stop! I’m dying!” even though our bodies are perfectly healthy.

The cell of the mind can be very compelling. It has many tricks to keep us trapped within it. Nonetheless, it is the destiny of all beings to exit our cells. We will all discover true freedom and know the Absolute; it is only a matter of when.

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While beautiful, this departure from the old mode of thinking can be very overwhelming: A lasting shift means you can’t walk back into the cell. You turn around and the door to your cell is locked, or, more accurately, the entire structure has disappeared.

This is why awakening can feel so chaotic, especially for those of us who do not (consciously) seek to awaken. All our lives, at the encouragement of the world, we sincerely take our minds to be who and what we are. We believe the things the mind says about us, no matter how contradictory. We believe the things it says about others, no matter how cruel or simplistic. We cherish the mind and build it into something that seems strong. We stock it with stories and information and world-based knowledge; we use it to reinforce itself and our egos by finding all the “right” things to think. We become entranced by our personal histories, continuing to regale ourselves and others at every opportunity. And yet, for all this effort, identification with the mind and the past is always a misstep.

On the quest for fulfillment and Truth, we often make this misstep over and over and over again.

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Those of us who experience mental illness can feel like we’ve been born into awful jail cells: They are tight and cold and perhaps the only food we get is stale bread and butter. What I am describing would be the equivalent to a depressive and/or anxious mind; it affords little comfort and is incredibly limiting. (This notion stands apart from one’s intellect, which can still be extremely sharp. A strong intellect isn’t of much use if the mind itself keeps the person in tremendous pain.)

In terms of thought, such a mind can convince us we are worthless, that life is not worth living, and that there is something dramatically wrong with us. It will show us only what is evil and sick in the world; it may even unconsciously invite evil and sickness in order to affirm itself. I remember this mode of life now as a distant memory or an absurd dream.

The most important factor for this jail cell to go unexamined is not that it be an enjoyable place, but that it be stable. Most of us feel perfectly okay with our small cells because they feel consistent enough. We can even observe that many people in this world are not comfortable in their minds at all. We can see on the contorted faces of “important people” that they are miserable, taking everything seriously, constantly having to maintain their egos. They lead ridiculous lives, and the people around them help build their distorted realities. The minds they occupy and identify with are not cozy, but they are reliable, and this reliability is enough to prevent one from seeking true freedom.

Someone who might do well in this world (materially speaking) would be someone with a nice jail cell, a comfortable-enough mind. Here they are given various foods, room to stretch out, and a lot of things to read and look at. They take themselves as “fine”—maybe even “happy.” And as far as their reality goes, this is true. The dream of thought in which they operate is a nice enough dream that waking up is no concern of theirs. Such is their course in life, and you cannot wake up someone who sincerely wants to stay asleep. However, as life on Earth becomes increasingly tense for humans, I expect there will be fewer and fewer of us who have the luxury of remaining unconscious in such a way.

Those who are comfortable and/or stable within their minds have very little motivation to leave. This is the blessing of mental illness: The level of discomfort that the mind can bring is the very factor that compels us to get out of it.  Self-hatred, chronic anxiety, fear, neurosis—these things are like the jail cell shrinking in size, perhaps becoming unlivable. When the mind becomes unlivable for extended periods of time, we might call this severe depression, which our culture explains in various ways. The primary causes of depression are very simple.

Mainstream psychiatry overcomplicates this simplicity and misses the point that human beings don’t really exist in a vacuum separate from the rest of the world. We only act like we do, and this great pretending act is actually one of the main causes of widespread depression. All through life we bullshit ourselves about who we are, usually without the luxury of even knowing we’re doing it.

Sometimes we see suicide as a way out of this unlivable jail cell. Here, we see just how hopelessly entangled we are with our minds: We believe that only way to escape the mind is to escape life itself. It doesn’t need to be this way. You can be free of a choking mind without ending your physical life—so free, in fact, that you will regard your depression as strange in retrospect. You do not have to live in your mind. You do not have to allow your thoughts to dictate your entire existence.

What you are is so much more vast and perfect than your jail cell. Discovering this vast perfection is only a matter of distancing yourself from those thoughts that pull you in, inviting you to live in them. It is in this way that we find who and what we really are. In this discovery, our prior suffering is small and faraway. It cannot touch the Truth.

We must learn to reject the mind’s tricks over and over and over again, to simply stay right here.

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The mind I took myself to be—the mind that was called “bipolar”—was like a shifting jail cell. There were times when this cell was filled with many beautiful things. It was enormous. It had a cozy bed and art on the walls and all the books I ever wanted. It had music and jewels and Indian food and gelato. Then, immediately and without warning, this cell would transform into a stark, tiny dungeon with nothing in it but the dirty floor. The height of my cell’s ever-changing nature occurred during a major manic episode and in the year that followed it.

What was once called “an illness” has revealed itself to be a great teacher. The whole time, as a deeper consciousness was germinating within my being, I experienced this mind as a terrible burden. It felt dense and heavy, like I just couldn’t go on within it (and I didn’t.).

Today, I couldn’t be more grateful for the levels of instability my mind has reached. What these experiences have taught me is that the personal mind simply cannot be a stable place, even for those who externally seem very stable. Its desires change from day to day, hour to hour. It will claim it wants one thing and then compel us to do the complete opposite. It can convince us to harm our bodies and environments in various ways. It will cling to events that occurred many many years ago. Being powered by the mind, these events will hold our beings hostage, destroying our opportunity for joy. The mind is certainly capable of clinging to stable depression rather than accepting the challenge for freedom, which would require that it lose its power. It will judge. It will make Heaven and Hell for us, perhaps in the same day.

Its instability is ultimately revealed in death: The personal mind will end when the physical body is no longer sustained. Only in our discovery of the timeless Self (that which is outside of the personal self) do we know life in its fullness. The jail cell of a conditioned mind represents both impermanence and smallness, both of which create suffering. 

Getting out of the cell and coming to know your true mind—this is where everything is.

– Lish

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"Levels", Mental Health, Reality, Spirituality, The Ego

The “Unplanned” Awakening

An uncontrollable pull towards higher consciousness is the defining feature of a spiritual awakening. (Actually, the defining moment is the “click,” the actual “moment of waking up” that occurs for reasons I can’t explain. There isn’t much more I have to say about the “click,” at least not right now.)

I’d like to address why I have chosen to use the phrase “higher consciousness.” I’m not a huge fan of a hierarchical concept of consciousness because it immediately invites the ego to compare “its level” to that of those around us. We often want to know where we are on the scale, affirming that we are above some, like our parents and/or annoying co-workers maybe, but below others, like saints and realized mystics. Unless we remain vigilant, visualizing a hierarchy of consciousness tends to reinforce the mindset that we are better or worse than others. The conditioning that goes into imagining ourselves as better/worse than others is very deep-seated, and requires diligence to overcome. There is a lot of habit energy bound up in this way of thinking, so it takes a lot of fresh awareness to alter.

And when we get down to it, pure consciousness is not rooted in ideas of “higher” and “lower;” it cannot be “thought to,” and it cannot be defined. It simply is. All attempts to define consciousness fail immediately and always will, because definitions serve to create something static, and consciousness is not static… except it is, in a way, but also always moving. This thing is beyond both chaos and order; beyond movement and stillness. The experience of it does feel supremely still compared to the frequent inner chatter that often reigns in the mind, but it is also ever-flowing, not inert.

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From Basic Teachings of the Buddha, by Glenn Wallis.

And yet it still feels important to say that awakening pulls one towards “higher” consciousness, simply because that is my lived experience of awakening. When I am really here, I feel unquestionably higher than when I am bound up in habits (higher than before, not “superior to others.”). It feels undeniably better to rise each morning without a hangover, sit down, light some incense, and come back to the home in my heart than to repeatedly harm myself. Speaking of higher/lower in this way is not a moral judgment call, but a statement on how differently we can feel and live. It is about the experience of life becoming richer, more free, and more joyful, versus more trapped, more isolated, and more cravey.

There is suffering and not suffering. There is the feeling of being mired in past events, allowing old events/interactions to haunt us, and there is having personal power right now. If you try both of these experiences on, it becomes very clear which is more preferable, AKA “higher.”

Additionally: without the understanding that expanding our consciousness can result in a better direct experience of life, what would our motivation to do it be? This thing will not get us money. It will not get us fame, power, popularity, or any other tangible reward. It will not even “save the world.” In the beginning, we trust our intuition that there’s something greater than these things to attain to (or else we would never let go of our desires for such things), and there is.

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Awakening can happen whether the unconscious ego likes it or not, and whether or not we went looking for it. The unconscious ego may really, really not like it. The difficulties that can arise when the ego is resistant to its illusory nature, of course, may all be part of what you need to grow, but man, they can also be really rough. You can make things easier on yourself by not denying or resisting that you’ve woken up. This can only happen if we are aware that it has happened to us.

This was one of the main reasons why “my” awakening (which I put in quotes because it is not really “mine” to take credit for) was so incredibly fraught with chaos, confusion, and humiliation. At the time of the “click,” I didn’t even know things like ego deaths were possible. Throughout my education, I don’t believe we ever discussed the possibility of psychosis being thought of as a “spiritual emergency.” The message here is loud and clear: Smart, educated people understand that brain chemicals and genetics are “real,” and all that spiritual stuff is “not real,” or, at best, it’s still “less real” than science. (One of the most amazing and frustrating things about waking up is that you find literally the exact opposite to be true, but, I digress.)

I had meditated only a handful of times, and then stopped, because I wasn’t ready. There were times when I felt heavily bombarded with the reality of death as an abstract idea sometime in “the future,” and this bombardment gave me intense hits of anxiety, usually when I was trying to get to sleep. Still, I somehow always managed to sidestep this thought, get out of bed in the morning, and continue on in life as usual (“as usual” was with great suffering and anger, btw.) Part of this, again, occurred because that’s what I chose for myself, albeit unconsciously: This was what I needed to end up in this exact place right now.

But on a worldly level, it’s been difficult because spiritual/existential matters are are pushed very var away from the collective mind. We don’t sincerely talk about these things. We tend to dismiss them as unimportant and/or avoid them completely. These are uncomfortable conversations most of us shy away from, the result of being repeatedly conditioned to believe that engaging with such thoughts is “heavy,” “morbid,” or simply unnecessary. This is because a lot of us do not understand our own existences, and it feels more important that we take care of our material needs (for many, this is a real concern), and/or more pleasurable to remain caught up in whatever-else we talk and think about. I definitely still fall prey to this temptation, just like I do to the temptation of pumpkin cupcakes.

However, in many parts of the world, material needs are not really a concern anymore. Humans are so far beyond needing to worry about their survival needs, and therefore it follows that our energy should be expended to consider other matters. Why do we not turn towards life’s ultimate concerns once shelter, food, and safety are obtained?

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From Thich Nhat Hanh’s Silence.

The answer lies in that conditioned discomfort with matters of life and death, along with a persistent feeling that there must be “more” we have to get and achieve before we’re ready to pursue things of the existential nature. Our culture is very good at engendering this kind of insecurity and providing us with distractions even if we do feel “secure enough.” It can feel as if we are living in one tremendous practice ground, trying to stave off mindless entertainment and other indulgences left and right.

Many of us do not really feel safe, even if we have plenty of material comforts. We are often on guard about losing our jobs, our spouses, our friends, our money. The truth is that losing these things is certainly possible, and that nothing is guaranteed to us in life. Rather than face this fact and find solid ground within, we usually try to just keep everything on the outside “under control.” On some level, we’re  aware of the futility of these attempts to control life. “We” will not always exist, our jobs may become obsolete, we may get in a terrible accident or contract an irreversible illness, our relationships may become strained and distant, and there really isn’t anything we can do about these things.

And still, because these can be very uncomfortable realities to think about, we avoid them. Or, if we do acknowledge these truths, it’s fleeting and panicky. I’m not suggesting we sit around and ruminate on how we could lose everything anytime, nor that we sit around wishfully imagining how everything could “get better” in life. Both lines of thinking are out of touch with reality, even if the latter temporarily makes us feel better.

We must simply accept the impermanence of everything “out there.” Doing so makes a huge step towards inner stability, which is the only lasting stability we’ll ever find.

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If you (like me) have/had an ego that was/is bound up in being overly-thinky, judgmental, and somewhat damaged, the process of awakening will probably be extremely intense. You’re trying to heal, make intellectual sense of the whole thing (you can’t), and perform daily obligations that suddenly feel ludicrous. It’s overwhelming, to say the least, but that is the nature of an unplanned awakening.

And it should be mentioned that all awakenings are “unplanned.” You cannot sit down with a calendar, plan on meditating for two years and then say “and then, on September 21st, 2019, I wake up.” The mind likes these kinds of “plans,” because then it feels like it’s “doing” something. It is much more unsettling (and exciting) to know that you could awaken at any moment, triggered by almost anything. We may not even experience it in this life, and that’s okay too, because we can still ameliorate our suffering by taking up certain practices. Turning awakening into a planned goal is understandable; the potential for it often gets us “on the path” in the first place. And yet, it is never something we can guarantee.

At best, we can prepare for it, so that the resulting changes are handled with skill and deep awareness.

– Lish

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