In this piece, I continue with perspectives which generate suffering, specifically beliefs related to an “I.” These are the beliefs that most of us learn to accept as truths about being individuals. From a non-dualist perspective, they are false. When they are believed to be true, we suffer, sometimes acutely but more commonly chronically, like the suffering that comes from having a low-grade fever.
I Am in Control
This belief is so fundamental to our understanding of ourselves that most people will resist any notion that it is false. Almost all of us are raised with the understanding that I am the controller of my actions, my speech, and my thought. It is often the most intimate sense we have of who we are: I am what I do, say, and think.
But consider the possibility that there is no central “I” that controls these things. Consider that each waking moment, our system generates an experience composed of perceptions, emotions, thoughts, et cetera, and our system responds to those experiences in the only way that it can, leading to the next moment of experience. Think you the made the decision? Maybe. And maybe the decision is just the response of your system to experiences immediately preceding the decision. You might object, “But I can decide to do something different right now.” Who decided? Might not that act of deciding be just the next response of the system?
Most of us believe deeply in an “I,” but consider the possibility that the “I” is an illusion. Perhaps there is only awareness and a system built on patterns. The belief that a central controlling “I” exists is a source of false pride (“look what I did”) and great suffering—with that belief come the moods of fear, guilt, resentment, and others. Again, I find this belief to be one of the deepest and most intractable. As it has lessened in my own life, life has become easier.
Deep Down, I Really Am Wretched
This one relates to the belief above. If “I” exists, then it exists as a kind of self-object. An object has characteristics, both positive and negative. Start with the belief that “I” exists and watch how quickly characteristics get added to describe the “I”: smart, dumb, good, bad, pretty, ugly, nice, mean, and so one. Indeed, much of life appears to be about getting a clear definition of the “I,” starting with adopting the definitions offered to us by our culture: I am American, I am Chinese, I am Catholic, I am Muslim. But these big definitions are insufficient, so we seek ever finer distinctions in the effort to figure out who “I” am.
And because we accumulate characteristics, some overtly negative (“dumb”) and some creating the possibility of the negative (“you are smart” creates the possibility of not being smart), we develop a negative conception of “I”—what I call our “Wretched Self.” The belief in our Wretched Self is really a collection of self-directed negative assessments, usually being variations of a few major themes: I am inadequate; I am bad; I am less than; I am nothing. These beliefs are often understood as deep truths about ourselves, and lead to two major reactions: compensation and concealing.
Compensation shows up in the efforts to do things in our life to show to others (and perhaps to prove to ourselves) that we are not what we fear ourselves to be. For instance, someone who believes himself to be dumb might pursue a PhD (though external evidence usually does not change the underlying belief). Concealing is the general stance most of us take toward these negative self-beliefs: we do not want others to know these things about us.
The tragedy is that we belief these terrible things, and live aspects of our life from them; the comedy is that none of them are true. There are no self-objects at the center of our lives, so no characterizations about them can be true. Our systems are built with patterns—patterns of behavior, including of thinking and speech. We can assess our patterns (e.g., “I am not currently effective when presenting to groups”), and take action to improve upon them, but that is very different than believing that these assessments mean something about an underlying self-object. Be free of being someone, and suffering dissolves.
I Am Separate
When we are suffering, we feel very alone. The sense that we are separate from everyone and everything else can get quite strong. Caught up in fear, self-loathing, or apathy, I become more and more alone, more and more separate. The separateness is an illusion. We are connected to others and to the Universe, always. Our bodies are made of star dust; we belong to that which underlies everything; our personalities arise in interaction with others; what we think, others have thought; what we feel, others have felt.
I like the metaphor of a funnel-like shape, reaching down from the heavens. At the top, there is an opening that expands until it joins with everything. But as you go down, the funnel shape progressively gets narrower and narrower, until finally it ends in a point. The more isolated I experience myself, the lower I am in the funnel. Part way down, I still feel connected to others, but the further down I go, the more the others fall away. Finally, at the bottom, I feel completely alone and isolated.
Even at the bottom, however, I am still connected to everything. What has been lost in the experience of that connection. Remembering connection, even when it feels completely missing, begins the process of rising in the funnel. As I regain more and more experience of connection, I continue to rise. Sometimes I rise so high that the sense of being a separate individual disappears completely, at least for a while.
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Next piece, I will write about dissolving these kinds of beliefs.