There appears to be a you having an objective existence, independent of your mind’s narrative of a self. The further impression is that this you has experiences. The you looks like a noun (changeable but roughly stable), while the experiences are like verbs and adjectives. (Something’s happening to you or by you, and it’s good or bad.) Supporting the impression of an objectively-occurring you is the physical body. Yet it’s easy to see there’s a great deal more to “you” than your body (bones, blood, electrical impulses, liver, brain).
The you that you believe yourself to be has no independent reality.
If you’re inclined to spiritual inquiry, or susceptible to impressions of varying “levels” of reality, it may appear as though the objectively-existing you has, broadly speaking, two categories of experience. One is the ordinary (having meaning to the ego-mind), and the other is the extra-ordinary. There will, of course, be a preference for the latter.
The extraordinary is marked by a pronounced relief from the familiar strain and limitation. Time seems to have stopped. A sense of well-being pervades. The mind is quiet. What have appeared to be problems no longer stand out in the landscape, or carry any emotional weight. The enduring impression of separation has settled like sand in water. “You” don’t seem to be there at all.
Yet there is awareness. If you are a truth-seeker, or just weary of regular life, and there’s a memory of the exquisite peace outside the limitations of ordinary mental processing, you may yearn for more of that. You cherish the recollection of what it was like, fondling the memory like a jewel in your pocket. Pursuit of another one of those (or better yet, a sustained “condition”) may become your primary focus.
* * * * *
The appearance of an objectively-existing you capable of having two kinds of experience is flawed at the start. The illusory nature of this real-seeming you is where the focus should go, rather than on seeking the preferred type of experience. You (as you ordinarily understand yourself to be) are capable of only one kind of experience: the kind the ego can have.
Here’s what happens. The mind thinks up a you, which appears to have an objective reality, and then that you has experiences. What’s obvious is the part about having experiences. It’s the first part that gets neglected: that your very self is created by the mind, assembled from mentally-produced material such as memory, label, identity, belief. In reality, there is no objectively-occurring you, independent of thinking it into being. There is only this moment, as lived (sensed, moved, felt) by the momentary form “you” are taking. Everything else is mind-generated: story, idea, emotional burden and its physical residue. If all of your mind’s content were wiped out, but you were still aware and alert, your brain undamaged, your experience would be reduced to the sensing of the immediate scene and the sensation in your body. You would not know the name for anything (yourself included), nor would you have any conceptual framework for anything you perceived. There would be no interpretation, no meaning-giving. Just awareness, observation, sensation. Direct encounter, without any intervening mental filters. Since your mind would have no prior content to make reference to, you would have — you would be — only this, right here. Knowing would be direct. Original. Utterly fresh. Like the awareness of an animal, an infant. You would be curious. Fearless.
* * * * *
The awareness that “experiences” the extraordinary is an intelligent spaciousness lacking personal features. It does not seek a certain kind of experience. Let alone does it judge, resist, or attach meaning. The mind-made you cannot do anything but interpret, seek, prefer, be dissatisfied. Being the center of its own universe, it has its eye on self-preservation. Its vigilance is unrelenting. The two — spacious intelligence and the mind-made self — have nothing whatever to do with one another. One does not touch the other. What each kind of awareness experiences as reality is unavailable to the other. The ego-mind has no access to anything outside itself. Awareness can’t be bothered with the ego’s idea of reality.
The ego-mind can experience only itself and its creations (opinions, emotions, identities). It cannot look beyond itself. It is incapable of seeing anything — itself included — without the bias of its own filters. It is incapable of awakening, of escaping its own gravitational pull.
* * * * *
If you stood in a town square and stopped passersby to ask how many kinds of experience they’ve had, they’d say “too many to count.” Certainly not just one. At the very least, there are the good experiences and the bad ones. Or the significant ones and the unmemorable ones. Each broad category contains numerous sub-sets: the good experiences having to do with love, with work, with creativity. Then there are the good love experiences that lasted and those that didn’t. And so on, endlessly refinable. Millions of verbs and adjectives. The point of view here, however, puts all ordinary experience into a single category, as distinct from the extra-ordinary. The feature shared by all ordinary experiences — from the euphoric to the devastating — is vastly more significant than their apparently valuable distinctions. What they share is that they are experienced by the mind-made self. They are, in fact, created by it. Once the lived momentary reality has been incorporated by the ego-mind (which occurs with lightning speed), the “reformatted” reality is all you’ve got of whatever actually happened. What would life be like if that process didn’t occur? What would it feel like to be “you”?
* * * * *.
During a moment of extraordinary awareness, you may notice that the familiar you is nowhere to be found. That conspicuous absence has everything to do with the exquisite nature of the moment.
You may be saying, If I’m not there at such a moment, how is noticing possible? Awareness is there. It’s capable of noticing. It’s just that it has no agenda.
But then, if you ask yourself what sort of intelligence asked that question about how noticing can happen, you will see it’s the ordinary mind.
* * * * *
If the you that you appear to be has no objective existence, why does it feel so real, so enduring? Subject to threat, requiring of vigilant attention? The evolving human mind became incredibly skillful at symbolic representation of reality. Language and the ability to visualize mean the mind’s illustrated story of outer life seems as real as reality itself. (In fact, the mental rendering tends to eclipse reality entirely, because it’s mistaken for reality.) This capacity has served us on a practical level, enabling our species to survive physical threats, adapt to the conditions of our environment, and create civilizations. In our early evolution, our mental picture-stories of threat related to the risk of starvation or predator attack — challenges to our physical existence. The trouble is that we tend to extend the mind’s gifts — to misapply them, as it turns out — to the creation of a self, which appears (like so many thoughts) to have an objective reality. When that self experiences threat (rejection, challenge to identity, instability), it’s felt to be an existential threat, because we have come to equate the ego-mind (along with the body) with “who we really are.” A serious challenge to the seeming reality of the mind’s sense of self is felt with the same emotional intensity as if it were a tiger bearing down. Meanwhile, the you experiencing danger isn’t even what you most deeply are. But because the self that’s subject to threat demands such vigilance, the Other is forgotten. It is, after all, so quiet and unmoving. It’s spaciousness itself, without agenda.
* * * * *
The only “you” that is real, actual, lived — that isn’t filtered through the mind — is the sensed encounter with momentary reality. That is all. The now is all you will ever have of life. Of yourself. It is all you’ve ever actually experienced. Every memory, every scrap of conditioning, was born as a now. See the difference between what is sense-able and feel-able, and what can be understood, named, narrated, recalled.
When the mind is still, there is no space between “you” and the now. Life is direct encounter.
Only, there is no separate encounter-ER. There’s no one being immersed “in” the moment. The moment is what you are, right then.
And that is all. That is all “you” are, ever: momentary reality as experienced in a feeling and intelligent body.
Yes, really. Everything else is a collection of memories held in the mind, as if in a suitcase, which is lugged into and out of every adventure.
We mistake ourselves for the contents of the suitcase. It’s the difference between a set of encyclopedias about a peach . . . and a peach.
The now is born and it dies, with the speed of a breath. If you aren’t in your head, “you” are there for reality, sensing and feeling. In the aftermath (the next now), there is memory of that moment, and whatever the mind wants to make of it, as well as any emotion that might be stirred by the thought. But that recollected and processed “now” no longer has an objective reality. It “exists” in the mind only.
Just as you do. The you that you believe yourself to be has no independent reality. It’s produced and maintained by your processing mind, which is serving (almost constantly) at the pleasure of the ego, which has you convinced that it’s you.
What you really are is fleeting, ever-changing. Thrillingly here, alive. If only you knew it.
It’s only when the mind-self turns on, with its assessing and story-making, that the familiar you assembles. Awareness becomes distant from what-is. You are no longer living in life; you are living in your head.
Many people spend their entire lives in their heads. When it comes time to die, they feel as though they haven’t lived. They’re right.
The awareness that knows itself in the now is not the you that lives in the head.
The you that the mind thinks up is incapable of experiencing the extraordinary peace and well-being of the no-you state. Even to call it a state is imperfect. None of the language here can ever be anything but a wooden approximation (language, a mental tool, being at a distance from reality).
* * * * *
To the ordinary you, this picture of reality, of self, is likely to be disturbing. At the very least, disappointing. Possibly truly alarming.
But! In those moments of transcendent awareness, the one capable of alarm is not in evidence.
Only if it were there could it be troubled by its absence.
The fact that the familiar you is missing from those extraordinary moments is a crucial piece of data. Disregard it and you will continue moving in useless loops, seeking the preferred kind of experience.
It’s only to the mind-made self that there appears to be a locked door separating “you” from the spaciousness that is your fundamental nature.
Trying to get the ego to experience transcendence is as worthwhile as searching for a key to a door that has no lock.
[Excerpt from possibly forthcoming book]Jan Frazier