Know Yourself First

Today I wanted to share an illustrative metaphor regarding the egoic mind and its relationship to the world we create. Many of us are caught up in attempting to force or manipulate the world into what we think it should look like. As well-intentioned as this may be, it is misguided. I drew this picture to help show why it is essential to know who we are first and foremost:

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For whatever reason, I forgot to include violence and war in the branches: Such unconscious acts based are also on the delusion that we are not, in fact, only ever waging war against ourselves.

We are largely in the habit of assuming things about who we are—primarily that the “I” we are focused on is a collection of memories, stories, personality, preferences, history, relationships, etc. This construct is actually a very contracted version of the true You. It is flimsy like a shadow, always changing, and subject to death. The ego-identity, for as important as the world makes it out to be, is actually non-existent.

It doesn’t even matter what the ego dresses itself up as. All are equally unreal in the ultimate sense, and none are more helpful to humanity than those who seek to rid themselves of such falsehood. All egos can become fundamentalist about whatever beliefs they take seriously.

Once this root is pulled, pure being can at last shine through. From here it becomes very clear what to do for our fellow humans, if anything at all. One realized being sitting in supreme peace actually uplifts the world far more than a hundred angry protesters.

This is not laziness, and this is not sitting and thinking. Being is neither of these things.

I was inspired to draw this picture by a Thoreau quote: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”

This is an appropriate statement for the way most of us attempt to act “morally.” We choose a few good behaviors, perhaps a “cause” or two, and become concerned about them. We then go on to believe—or at least act as if we believe—that the rest of our choices do not matter once we pick said causes and invest some energy into them.

We donate money to charity and yet purchase clothing made by children in factories. We protest war and yet go home to sharply chastise our spouses and children. We claim to love animals, yet we support industrial meat by eating it. We make claims about wanting to experience our Buddha-nature, but go on to loudly judge Christians. We say we love our family members, yet fail to accept them when they deviate slightly from the family culture.

The difference between what we profess to value and how we behave could not be more pronounced. Of course the mind always has clever justifications. I have heard them all and I have made millions of excuses in my own life for my callous thoughts and language.

It is rare to see someone striving to become effective in challenging the culture cumulatively. This is the only way it can really work, because every issue is indivisible from every other. We often settle for “good enough.” It is an act that protects the ego, which gets to continue imagining itself as this great, radical person.

Conversely, it may imagine it is never good enough, again thrown into hyperbole about what a “bad person” it is. Both views are equally delusional. The mind has many tricks to preserve its hold over us… whichever line of thinking works for the mind, it will use.

So what is this incongruity all about? Who does this?

It is not enough to answer that humans are, by nature, contradictory and bad. I find this belief to be weak and unexplored, the result of one’s own belief in themselves as being unworthy.

Throughout history there have been human beings (some are alive even today) who realized who they were and let go of half-measures. They existed in peace, gave themselves up, and become examples for what humanity is capable of.

It is worth mentioning that for these people, no matter how financially poor, there was never even a sense of sacrifice. Once you give yourself over to consciousness it becomes clear how blessed you are, even with limited “real world” accommodations. Ramana Maharshi allowed thieves to “steal” from the ashram where he lived and refused ownership of land given to him, so deep was his experience of his Self as All. He had next to nothing but was immersed in God. He was also vocal that there was indeed nothing special about him. What is called “enlightenment” is available to all, and is the opposite of “special.”

As far as ignoring the whole: The true mind does not do this. One who has awakened to Truth does not do this. The dream of separation and dualism is over for this one, and it is understood how hopelessly entangled we are with one another.

Another step: “entangled” is not even correct. We do not exist as separate entities from God, or anyone else for that matter. To be entangled or connected implies there are separate parts to connect. But this seeming separation—dualism—is playing out within a nondualistic consciousness.

 

And yet, and yet… words fail. Sit and see for yourself.

Our focus is extremely shortsighted. From egoic minds, we criticize the external world without taking the opportunity to turn around and notice our own patterns of hatred. Too, we miss the largest point, which is that we are what makes the external world. All of us. Together. This is a co-creative act no one gets to opt out of. You are creating the world and the culture right now whether you like it or not.

We try to take a chainsaw to capitalism, war, big banks, colonialism, political systems, poverty, racism, on and on. But, just like a tree or shrub, what happens when one limb is cut? It grows back, sometimes even stronger. All kinds of effort goes towards chopping away that which will absolutely grow back. The only permanent solution is to pull the root, which lies in your own mind.

Pulling the root of the ego reveals the truth of who you are. We must do this first, before attempting to change the world. Only then does it become clear where our strengths lie, what uplifting work we are suited to. It may not even be in any “big, grand” way. I know many people harbor dreams of being great spiritual leaders, but even this is often the ego’s sneaky attempt to dress itself up and project an “important” vision of itself into the future.

God has moved me to a town of 130 people with no social media and one backpack. I have about $600 total, and still have student loan debt. There is no long-term “plan.” Surely I am not living any common Westerners’ dream. It bears mentioning that external conditions really are not the point: Money/no money, stuff/no stuff, relationships/no relationships… It is not my lack of belongings that “makes me spiritual.” A simple, uncluttered way of life truly makes most sense to my heart, and we will all be steered in unique directions depending on our constitutions.

Upon realizing the Self, we may find that we are still moved to engage in activism, but it will come from a far more grounded and loving place—not one of divisiveness, revenge, or anger. This charged notion that “those people are doing something evil to me/us” will have dissolved.

In short: Know who you are, and do what you will. If you do not know who you are, drop as many things as you can and seek yourself. It is not a physical journey, and anyone can start taking steps. You really do not need to go anywhere but inside of your own self.

 

Location: En route from Burlington, WA to Mitchell, OR

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