Just so we’re clear, reality cannot be understood by reading a blog post, or even by reading every book that’s been written on the subject.
While I’ve gained a deeper understanding about this stuff through books, the concepts are peanuts compared to the lived experience of seeing. It’s like knowing the textbook definition of love versus actually falling in love. It’s like studying all the facts about the moon landing versus standing on the moon. Reality, as we’re considering it now, is something we must directly see.
It really is amazing that we manage to walk around feeling like we’re aware of reality when we’ve probably never taken the time to deeply examine ourselves and/or the world. When cornered, we may come up with many sophisticated reasons for avoiding such examination. Underneath these reasons there is a basic fear of discovering that everything we think we know is false, or an “unreadiness” for waking up. We are all at different places on this path, even those who call themselves atheists. If we don’t feel ready for this realization we’ll cleverly avoid it by any means necessary.
But until we follow through with self-examination, everything in life goes assumed, down to the most essential thing: Who we are. When “who we are” goes tacitly assumed but never realized, we’re in deep trouble. Walking around in mistaken identities creates all of our problems in life. When almost everyone walks around assuming they’re something they’re not, it amounts to a world filled with the wide-scale insanity we’re exposed to every day.
With uncompromising self-inquiry, we can see what we really are, and with this seeing comes a whole new reality. This experience can be mind-blowing, and that’s no joke: As your conditioned mind gets blown to bits by the power of pure consciousness, you might temporarily experience a different reality (or a series of different realities) than those around you. Sometimes people will call you psychotic, forcibly keep you in a hospital, and/or tell you that you have a chronic mental illness. It’s up to you to decide if this is true. (Some very forward-thinking psychiatrists have also referred to these episodes as “spiritual emergencies,” a term worth looking into if you’ve ever been called psychotic and don’t know what to make of the experience.)
Having said all that, I’ve drawn a diagram to conceptualize what’s going on here:
- Self, pure consciousness, Being, Reality, God… there are dozens of different words for this same thing. This is a supreme state of consciousness to which you ultimately belong. It’s always been here, never isn’t here, and never won’t be here. It is boundless and never changes. This is the thing that you are underneath all of your mental content and conditioning. How do I know this is true? Because I have seen my Self fully, and I am it still. My evidence is my experience. I was never willing to take someone’s word on it, because the whole idea of “God” didn’t make sense to my mind (and it still doesn’t.). You can also experience this at any moment, because you also are it. Just as we can shift our attention away from a TV show and notice the warmth of our bodies, we can shift our attention away from the external world and notice the deep stillness and awareness of our true selves.
This is the difference between theology actually knowing consciousness: One relies on thought, history, “facts,” dialogues, teachings, and various interpretations that can get really screwed up over time. The other—the thing I am talking about—is as simple as looking up to verify that the sky is blue. You don’t have to read books or debate anyone about it. You don’t have to study or follow a series of steps or abide by someone else’s rules. You can just look up: Yep, still blue. Still here.
A belief in God on its own isn’t of much use. 85% of the population believing in God does not prevent us from continuing to kill, destroy, and consume. Unless we go live in a monastery, we are all complicit in this great life-denying system, even if we abhor it, and even if our participation feels indirect.And yet, psychologically divorcing oneself from all notions of spirituality doesn’t make a person any better. This is because belief or disbelief in these matters has nothing to do with how sanely we actually behave. The true identity of every human must be experienced if we are to put an end the illness that pushes us to act in such ways.
This is to say that finding your way back to who you really are is the greatest work you can do in this world.
- You come from this vast, ever-present state and take on the form of a human. It is in this way that you experience dualism*: The world is basically full of things that are you and things that are not-you. This is the world of relationships and objects, all of which can only be defined because you exist separately from every other thing.
As a human, you quickly learn to identify with the body. Our culture encourages this by assigning enormous meaning to biological sex (this doesn’t always correspond to male and female energies which have become known as the crude gender roles). It’s also made worse when we apply great meaning, particularly about self-worth, to our bodily appearances. Our culture also encourages this, because it turns out there’s a lot of money to be made off of our insecurities.
Young children are often still immersed in the knowledge of their true Being. This is why they tend to be much happier than adults. They don’t know yet that looking a certain way or having some amount of money supposedly “means something about them.” They know better than to get caught up in such details, so their joy is just present and accessible. This isn’t something we can say about most adults in our society, and it’s because we’ve been conditioned so heavily to believe we are these small, little things.
- You develop a more complex (conditioned) mind: You get enculturated and turned into a Christian/Muslim/atheist/anarchist/American what-have-you. You use your given strengths, turn them into a career, and identify with the label of “entrepreneur” or “craftsman.” You believe that these labels are very important, because you seriously think these things make up who you are… except you’re not these things. You’re actually pure consciousness, remember?
This mistaken identity can be thought of as the unconscious ego, and it’s the one most humans have been operating as for quite some time. As long as you’re in human form, you will have an ego. If you realize yourself and live from your true identity, you will have a conscious ego. For example: I know I’m not really a writer. I am aware of the fact that the form that sits here writing is not what I truly am. This ego may be a writer for now, but my true self is just the Self.And again, it isn’t enough to just accept this stuff mentally. Each of us has to look inward and find out if it’s true for ourselves.
- Through this body and mind, with a modicum of consciousness, you have a human life. Throughout this thing you will know pleasure and pain, fear and hope, ecstasy and agony, and everything in between. It can be a pretty fun ride… for a while. But as long as you sincerely believe you are the ego more often and with more conviction than knowing you are pure consciousness, suffering is inevitable.
This is because the ego (body-mind) has a definite shelf-life, as does every single thing around you. If we do not live with the constant awareness that the play we live in is inherently unstable, changes can feel unwelcome and frightening. Furthermore, the normal mode of life and thought can just get stagnant. Pure consciousness, on the other hand, is timeless and yet it always feels brand new.
The advantage of being human is that we can, while in our bodies, learn to consciously erase the caricatures we typically regard as “ourselves.” This allows us to shift back to that inimitable, original state of the Self while retaining our knowledge and working memory (if we like).
Doing this is the aim of all genuine spiritual seeking.
*Like the word “ego,” “dualism” also gets a bad rap when it comes to the spiritual lexicon. But dualism is not bad, just like the conditioned mind and the ego are not “bad”—they’re just parts of a play on the omnipresent stage of pure consciousness. When the play is seen through, there’s nothing wrong with it at all. In fact, it’s even better because you know you don’t have to take the whole thing so seriously anymore.
Pure consciousness is the page upon which all of life is drawn. It is the only true reality, and yet it infuses all that we experience. Sometimes I hear people discuss things like “alternate realities,” and for a time I was fascinated by such imaginations as well. But this doesn’t actually make sense: By definition, there can only be one reality. If there are “multiple realities,” which is actually real? For something to be real and true, it must be real and true all the time.
This brings me to a difficult to understand yet important point: Relative reality vs. Absolute reality. Absolute reality is the state I have already discussed—pure consciousness. I would like us all to see it, be it, and watch life unfold miraculously. Relative reality is the play you’re experiencing now, within the Absolute. Relative reality is the realm where your dog, your lover, your job, and your philosophies play out. Absolute reality is the stage that is both apart from and within these things.
Yes it’s paradoxical, but this is only problematic to the mind which believes everything should be tidy, digestible, and supportive of the false identity.
In case you haven’t noticed yet, life doesn’t actually work like this.