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Spiritual Butt-Kicking: A Nonduality Dialogue with Adam Pearson

Thursday, November 3, 2016 22:28
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(Before It's News)

Friend: I’m struggling with all sorts of things at the moment… There is not one area of my life I feel happy about, nothing’s right with anything in my life…
Adam: I hear you, and appreciate your honesty and openness. I’m curious though, what is it that is arising in your experience and saying that “there is not one area of my life I feel happy about”?
Friend: Well… it sounds stupidly simple to say it, but it’s a thought!
Adam: Yes, it’s a thought! Do you see it as a thought, or do you feel that it’s a fact?
Friend: Hmm… It feels like a thought that’s describing a fact…
Adam: Yes, that’s how it appears. In my experience, the situation revealed itself to be a little trickier and less obvious than it first seemed to be. Here’s how it seemed to play out in many cases over here: A thought–an interpretation of reality–arose. I believed it. After I believed it, I came to perceive the world as if it were true. As I perceived the world through its interpretation, I felt all the feelings that would be felt if it were true. What became clear was that it ultimately didn’t matter if the thought was true or not or if there was a fact behind it or not! The feelings would simply follow the belief in the thought. If the interpretation was a stressful, depressing, fearful, or anxious one, then those feelings would flow out of believing it, even if the actual situation were totally different… does that resonate at all?
Friend: Ah, yeah, that does resonate… and yet, it all seems so real…
Adam: Yes, it can seem as real as real can be. Because we perceive as we believe, we come to believe that what we perceive is real; it’s a self-validating loop! Something happens; a thought interprets the happening; we perceive the happening through the lens of the interpretation; then the interpretation appears as if it had always been the case! In this way, believing the interpretation projects it into perception and gives it a false sense of having always been here, like a card a magician seemingly produces from a hat that really hadn’t been there until she pulled it from her sleeve. It’s psychological sleight of hand, or sleight of mind! How strange!
Friend: Wow. It sure is!
Adam: So, thoughts are appearing that are arguing with what’s going on in everyday life, is that right?
Friend: Totally. All they seem to find is more and more things that are wrong.
Adam: Right, they look at things as they are and see how they’re not.

Friend: (laughs) Yes! Although it sounds pretty crazy when you put it like that. The thoughts see how things are and think they could or should be otherwise…

Adam: If they could be otherwise, wouldn’t they? Things are always as they are, until they’re different. Change happens at the only time it could ever happen: now.

Friend: (laughs) I guess they would!

Adam: Alright so these thoughts arise, and you believe them. “nothing’s right with anything in my life,” is it can you absolutely know that that’s true?

Friend: I want to say yes, but if I’m being really honest? No I can’t…

Adam: Thank you for your honesty. If I’m also being honest though, things look a little different from over here. How’s your breathing right now? Is your heart beating right? Is your bladder digesting right? Is your brain still producing comprehensible language right?

Friend: (laughs) Yes, those are all right. It’s easy to see that for the little things… With the bigger things, something feels off though…

Adam: Yes, that’s right. I would suggest that if given a chance, life can reveal that the seemingly big things may also be little things as seen “under the aspect of eternity” (sub specie aeternitatis), as Spinoza would say. But let’s entertain the mind as we find it, since it’s perfectly as it is right on time too. What areas of your life do you feel are not how they should be?

Friend: My job, my relationship, my spiritual life, my band. Pretty much everything.

Adam: Excellent. So, you said “my job, my relationship, my spiritual life, my band.” Do you see anything in common among all these things, any recurring word popping up in all of the situations?

Friend: Hmm… there’s nothing else it could be than… “my.”

Adam: Yes! “My.” So, all of these situations appear quite different, and if we wanted to go into therapy or do a social work assessment about them, we could find concrete solutions to tweak and change each of them on a relative level. But just for fun, how about we look at all of this from a different angle, that of nonduality; because if it turns out that the central problem isn’t in all of the areas of the life, maybe we won’t have to work on all of them them after all. Are you open to that?

Friend: Sure, let’s give it a shot.

Adam: Great, so here’s a radical suggestion: what if what’s causing the sense of dissatisfaction with all of these areas of your life isn’t the areas themselves, but the”you” that thinks it has all the problems and claims them all as “mine”? This sounds abstract, but humour me just for fun.

To be clear, I’m not saying you’ve done something wrong and should feel guilty about it. You didn’t do anything at all. I’m pointing to something deeper, an impersonal activity of the brain that is producing a sense of “me” being here from moment to moment. And I don’t mean that the issue is’the ego’ in some abstract sense that we can talk around and be all spiritually correct. If we were to go down that mental road, that would be this same activity at play, trying to be right and superior and special, or secure a feeling of rightness, superiority, or specialness for “me.”

What I mean is this: behind all of the problems, behind all of the problematic areas of “my” life, is there a feeling of being the “one” who has all of the problems, a deep feeling, a deep sense, that is personalizing everything it claims as “mine”?

Friend: Wow… that is pretty hard to see, but yes, actually. I doubt everything, but, although it sounds silly, what I don’t doubt is that all the doubts are valid and that I’m the one who has them, that they’re all about me and my life and that this me and my are solid and true.

Adam: Yes, that’s it! Can you feel that sense of being the “one” who has problems, the “one” who’s hurting, the “one” who’s thinking here and now?

Friend: Yes… that feeling is here now… and it comes and goes stronger and weaker throughout the day… the feeling of being “me,” the “one” all the thoughts are about…

Adam: Perfect!  That’s it: the mental activity that produces the sense that either “you’re” the thinker or you’re the “one” all the thoughts are about. That’s the thief. That’s the culprit. And that, I would humbly suggest, is what’s generating this all-pervasive existential suffering, dis-ease, and restless dissatisfaction. The only reason you may not have caught this mental activity in the act of producing the “me” that feels it is deficient is that you innocently believed the “me” the thoughts talk about to be “you.” And how could you not? It uses “I,” “me,” and “my,” so it sure sounds like “me”!

What happens though, is that, when we believe our self-centered thoughts and take ourselves to be the “me” they talk about, instead of seeing the illusory nature of this “me”–which isn’t even a thing, but the implied product of a mental activity–we find ourselves looking from the assumption that we’re it. We forget that its interpretation of life is an interpretation and take it to be life. We forget that these are simply thoughts spontaneously arising and come to believe that we are the thinker of them. Once this process culminates in a whole lot of mental anxiety, as it almost always tends to, we tend to look for freedom, not from, but for the “me” the thoughts say we are. We tend to seek out improvements for and of it, and search for happiness for it. And how’s that working out for us?

Friend: (laughs) Not so well at all… I feel like a hamster running in a hamster wheel… doing a lot of activity and seemingly going nowhere…

Adam: (laughs) Yes, exactly! And what a laugh you might have should you come to discover that it’s the belief that there is a hamster in the wheel that makes it seem to keep spinning! If you look for this hamster in the wheel of the mind, you might be astonished to find that there isn’t one. And in the clear seeing that there is no hamster called “me” in the wheel of trying to become and unbecome or get and have your way into peace, joy, and freedom, you might find that the wheel stops spinning! Who is that hamster we think is running the mind? Who’s this “me” the thoughts say you are? Check that out. That’s all I humbly suggest as far as the pathless spiritual path is concerned. Deeply investigate how this mental activity that Paul Hedderman calls selfing, or which we might also call egoing, is producing a feeling of being the “one” with all these problems.

Friend: I hear you. But I feel like can’t do it. Like I can’t see it. Like it’s too hard.

Adam: What says you can’t do it?

Friend: The thoughts.

Adam: Yes, the thoughts. And how can they know the future with such absolute confidence?

Friend: (silence) …they can’t.

Adam: Yes, they can’t. They’re “talking out of their ass,” as we might say, if we were spiritually sophisticated.

Friend: (laughs) Yes they are!

Adam: The funny thing is, though, that the thought “I can’t see through the selfing” is partially true. But only partially. The mental activity that produces the feeling of being the “one” who can’t see is blind. Seeing is not of the thoughts, it’s of us; we’re what’s seeing. The mental process is simply making things up out of nothing all day, isn’t it?

Friend: It definitely is. And it can seem to drive us crazy with the things it makes up…

Adam: Yes it can seem to do that, but it can never succeed to actually do it. Why? Because the beautiful truth about the “problematic me” the thoughts present you are is this: you’re not that! It’s the selfing, the egoing–the mental process that produces a sense of “me”–that says you can’t do it. Yes, it cannot see through itself; you can’t think your way out of thinking; that would be thinking. And thought is blind. But what’s seeing the thoughts? What’s seeing can see what it’s not. It has that capability. It can see through illusion with no thought or effort at all, simply because its nature is this seeing. What’s real can see the unreal as unreal. What’s seeing can see that what it sees can’t be what’s looking! And as St. Francis says, and as Paul Hedderman often quotes, “what’s looking is what you’re thinking for!”

Friend: (laughs) Could it be that simple?

Adam: Yes! It could! That’s why we miss it! It’s too simple for “you” and “I.” We tend not to notice what is always here, absolutely everywhere, at all places, and all times. It can be hard to notice what’s absolutely always present at all times, like your bellybutton.It’s a lot easier to see something that suddenly pops up like a jack in the box or a fart in an elevator.

Friend: (laughs) That’s definitely true! You know, I feel like I saw this once… But then I lost that vision… I got it, but now I feel like I lost it. And like I can’t get it back.

Adam: What says all of this?

Friend: The doggone thoughts… (laughs)

Adam: Yes! Thoughts are spitting out these possibilities. Just thoughts. And who’s “the one” that feels like it got it only to lose it?

Friend: I do.. or I guess you could say the “me” does…

Adam: Yes! Isn’t that exactly the same mental activity we’ve been talking about? Selfing producing a sense of being “the one” who got it and selfing producing the sense of being “the one” who lost it? It can do both very easily. It’s the same form, just different content. And both stories are spun out of nothing. They’re not true! Do you see it?

Friend: (laughs loudly) Oh man, it got “me” again!

Adam: (laughs) Oh yes, it’s a sneaky little bugger! That’s why we have to always remain humbly open to seeing more and more of its activity, claimings, and identifications, and all of its ruses to try to get us to believe in what’s not happening and place false conditions on peace and happiness now. Egoing is the ultimate ninja; it sneaks into a house and convinces the one who lives there that it’s the owner!

Friend: (laughs) It has convinced me very well, yes, it’s got “me” good! I feel like “my” problems are so many that there’s no way that I can ever fix them all.

Adam: I hear you. I really do. The good news is that there’s hope. And the beauty of these thoughts is that they’re just not true. “I felt, I will feel, I want to see, I can’t see…” These statements are just thoughts. They are not facts. They speak as if they’re true, but they’re not. They make bold assertions, often based on no evidence at all, all day, every day. But the truth that nonduality points us to is much gentler than the barrage of ‘personal’ thoughts that flow through each day. And it is this: You, as what’s seeing, what’s aware, and what’s awake here and now, never took on any of the burdens that you believe “you’re” carrying. To drop them, simply see if you ever carried them. Find out who feels like it’s carrying them. Then, if changes need to be made in life, they can be made, and if action needs to be taken, it will be taken. But all of it will happen on its own and you can relax into things being just as they are, even when action unfolds to make them different. There can be a sense of ease with all of it.

Friend: It would be beautiful if I could see that.

Adam: You can. I am confident in that. Just stay with it. Be gentle with yourself until then. All of these seemingly big, scary thoughts are only, as they say in recovery, False Evidence Appearing Real (FEAR). To what? To what’s real, us! As Paul Hedderman points out, “How can what’s not real appear to be real except to what’s real?” We, as what’s awake to this moment here and now, are free from the “me” that seems to be bound; we do not become free, we are it, right from the first. This is the Great Perfection–the meaning of the name of the Buddhist nondual tradition of Dzogchen (རྫོགས་ཆེན།)–of the essential nature of all things.

Friend: Wow, sounds serious…

Adam: (laughs) It’s not so serious! As Paul Hedderman jokingly puts it, “it’s just dogshit awareness” after all. In any case, faith really does produce strong effects here in the world of manifestation. We see it every day. This faith that we put into the empty balloon called “me” and puff up into a solid-seeming, but very vulnerable “self”–which could seemingly pop at any time and, thus, needs to be constantly defended from a world of threats–isn’t of the balloon. The juice that gives it its seeming reality is of our nature, of the reality that’s seeing it. We have simply been confused. Innocently and not knowing better, we came to believe that the thoughts that appeared were true and that their interpretations and road maps through life were valid. We really came to really believe that we were the “I” and “me” that the thoughts talk about and the “one” who is the hero of all of its self-centered stories. We came to trust the selfing mental process to tell us the truth about what we are and how the world is despite the emotionally dysfunctional nature of the life it claimed to guide and the many cognitive distortions that abound in its thought system…

Friend: Yeah, and it sounds both funny and kind of sad when you lay it all out like that. Both tragic and comedic: tragicomedic. I really do believe it too. I have just blindly trusted it all of these years even without any real evidence that its crazy stories were true. And look where it got me! It’s so subtle though, so deeply entrenched. It runs so deep, this feeling of being “me,” the “one behind” all the thinking, hearing, and feeling…

Adam: Yes, and this is identification in its rawest, most intimate and deepest form. We might hear these great masters talk about identification and think it’s some abstract philosophical concept far removed from daily life, but it’s not. It’s this feeling, the feeling of being the “one” who has all the problems, that all the “I” thoughts are about. Identification with form is the feeling that a particular thing or quality is “me,” pure and simple.

Friend: Totally. And for years, when I felt and believed that all of these feelings were “mine,” they all seemed very personal and heavy and serious… and I can see how that makes everything that happens hurt so much more…

Adam: Yes! And the truth is that it’s all very innocent. Really, it is. We’re not guilty or bad for falling for the play of this universe and identifying with the human protagonist who seems to be playing out a life here. When we perceive according to the mental interpretations we believe, the body reacts to what we believe to be true. Those reactions come in the form of all the “personal” feelings that it feels like “I” have and that all seem to reveal something about “me.” Usually, they come in the form of anxiety, which mimics the physiological response of fear. This was definitely the case in my experience… The anxiety was tremendous and highly generalized. Sometimes, it made it hard even to do something as simple as get on a bus because I believed the thought that “if I get on that bus, everyone will be looking and judging “me” to be worthless.” See how crazy it can get? No wonder so many of us struggle with so much anxiety!

Selfing will use anything at all to reinforce the sense of “me,” even unhappy stories. It will even cherish those as evidence that its view of “me” is correct. It doesn’t need stories about being happy and joyful and awake to the truth, although it will readily claim all of those too. So long as there’s a sense of “me” in place, regardless of the form, it will simply keep reinforcing it with whatever appears in awareness. That’s all it does. It’s simply a mental process of the network of neurons that neuroscientists call the ‘default mode network’ of the brain, and its function is to produce a sense of ‘me’ out of a me-less universe, a sense of solid individuality out of vast emptiness… and judging from the miserable state of most of our lives, it does it quite well!

Friend: (laughs) It sure does! I can see a lot of evidence of that misery here, but what does this all mean? Is it saying that the ego is the problem, like a lot of these teachings say? That we need to get rid of the ego?

Adam: As I see it, it’s a little subtler than that. I fully agree with how Paul Hedderman puts it. He says that the seeming ‘bondage point’ isn’t the ego; it’s the feeling of being the “one” who has an ego and the feeling of being the “one” who lost an ego. It’s the sense of being the “one” ‘who’s’ seeing, thinking, hearing, tasting, touching, is the victim of this world, and whose life is a thoroughly unsatisfactory mess.

Friend: (laughs) Sounds familiar!

Adam: (laughs) Yes! To play on Nietzsche, it’s “familiar, all too familiar”!

Friend: So it’s the feeling of being the one who “has” an ego and the who who “lost” an ego… is it also the same feeling of being the one who “has” a problem and who “lost” a problem? I’ve seen some of these problems come go, even though it feels like my whole life is one big problem right now…

Adam: Yes, that’s it. It’s the same feeling, the feeling of being the “one,” the ‘self,’ or as Paul says, the “long-lasting, independent separate entity.” That sums it up quite nicely. There is no self underneath all the selfing activity of cognition, emotion, memory, and perception; there is selfing activity, but no self either within it or produced by any of it. Thus, we are all running around living out self-centered interpretations of life and suffering the consequences of believing all of our insane thoughts about ourselves, but the ironic truth is that the center of self-centeredness is empty! Only centeredness is really possible. And even that is a little more conceptual weight than we need to carry. Our nature is centerless, or as the anonymous author of the Liber XXIV Philosophorum put it, it’s like “a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

Friend: But if there is no self, as the Buddha says, how does this mental process make it seem like there is? I don’t get that at all.

Adam: Great question. Consider the present experience right now… Doesn’t it feel like you’re the thinker, feeler, taster, toucher, seer, and so on, the one who’s doing all the perceptual, cognitive, and emotional processes that are going on in the body?

Friend: Yes. It feels like I’m the “one” who’s doing it all.

Adam: Right. That feeling is produced by the brain’s automatic, doer-less activity of selfing. The truth is that there’s no “one” doing all of these processes at all. They’re happening on their own, totally spontaneously. The river is flowing, but there is no one driving them. There is no seer, but the mental process infers that there is a seer and says you’re it. There is no thinker, but it infers that there is a thinker and claims that you’re it. There is no feeler, but it infers that there is a feeler and claims you’re it. All of this is only claimed, assumed, inferred, and presupposed. It’s this constant mental activity that produces the sense that there is a “me” beyond the pointing when all there ever is is the pointing. It is, in effect, pointing to nothing at all. However, it seems to be pointing to a long-lasting independent separate entity because the cognitive system remembers us as a body in the past, uses that memory to envision us as a body in the future, and then from the remembered past and the envisioned future, as well as the rivers of sensations flowing through the body here and now, it concludes that there must be a “me” that links all of this together.

In truth, though, it is never present evidence, never presently experienced to be the case. Everything we might take to be “me” or “mine”–sensations, perceptions, cognitions, rememberings, feelings, states of consciousness, bodily states, and so on–are all, as the Buddha says, impermanent (anicca), ultimately unsatisfactory (dukkha), and empty of independent existence (anatman). Each of these transient phenomenal arisings only has contingent, interdependent existence as a fluctuating form of patterned energy. The imaginary “me” that the thoughts are constantly going on about is always inferred from the past and the future and projected into the present as if it were a fact, but it is not a fact at all! All the pointing is pointing into nothingness and speaking of a self that never shows up, much like the character of Godot in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. All the inferring is inferring nothing at all. All the assuming fails to assume a nonexistent “thinker” into being. It’s all empty. It’s not that we need to get rid of the sense of “me;” it’s more than enough to simply watch the thoughts, watch selfing trying to produce the magical rabbit of a “you” out of the hat of spontaneously unfolding processes and catch it in the act, again and again…

Friend: How can I see this directly? I feel like it’s all so fuzzy. How could I see through it all, right into the heart of the matter? I don’t want to just think and talk about it, you know? I want to see it.


Adam: Of course! And that’s wonderful. We can’t talk our way into silence or think our way into being. Th truth is that if you simply entertain the possibility that the sense of “me” produced by all the selfing activity isn’t you and get very curious about seeing more and more of how it produces this false sense throughout the day, then all will become clear on its own. It’s so beautifully simple and light that the clarity will dawn on its own. “I” don’t have to see through “me” at all; that’s the grace of all of this. How could an imaginary thing see through itself? Why would it even need to? Wouldn’t it be enough to simply follow the cookie crumb trail of all of the thoughts inferring, assuming, implying, and presupposing that they’re about “me” back to this “me” and thereby see that there isn’t one? How long does it take to see through an imaginary “me”? Do you need to spend weeks digging through it and straining your eyes to see through all of it? There’s nothing to dig through! How great is that? Reality is so kind it doesn’t even ask you to pick up a shovel. The “me” will never see through itself; as Paul says, “you can’t experience your own absence.” You can’t see it because there’s no “you” to see.

As Nisargadatta and Ramana Maharshi point out, we’re not a thing that sees; we’re the seeing of all things. What we are can see the nature of the heist, claiming, and identification for what it is because the selfing is an activity. It produces a sense of “me” from moment to moment. How does it do it? As we’ve seen, it does it by remembering it’s “self-images” of you, and by claiming everything that arises and assigning it a story; either it’s “me” or it means something to “me.”

How do we come to see it for what it is, to catch the thief in the act? Inquire. If a thought pops up and says “If I had only done things differently that one time, everything would be great…” then simply ask: “who’s this thought about? Where is this “me”?”

If you follow Ramana’s advice and ask “to whom does this thought appear?” you may find that when you knock on the door of self, only silence follows. If you knock on the door enough times and no one shows up, it may dawn on you that maybe no one’s home! Either that or the house is haunted, by an imaginary “me” that doesn’t exist. It’s worse than a ghost in fact because at least a ghost was alive once; this nonexistent “me” never even lived! It’s quite like Casper the Ghost in that sense, who never lived except in our imaginations. Forget about killing the “me”; it’s enough to get curious about everything that’s posing as and implying that there ever was a “me” here at all. This is the way of nonduality in a nutshell. On the relative level of human life, all kinds of skilful means to solve problems and resolve issues like psychology, social work, economics, management strategies and so on have value. But what we’re interested in nonduality is going to the root of personal angst and malaise itself, and that is what this inquiry is all about.

Friend: So, I, as what’s seeing, can come to see this?

Adam: Yes, you can. Absolutely. You’re what’s real and what’s seeing. You’re capable of seeing what you’re not; that’s the beauty of your nature. To see through the mental mechanics that produce the sense of self, moment to moment, seems like a tremendous challenge to us as the human beings that appear within the vast emptiness of awareness; for what we really are though, it is no challenge at all. After all, how hard is it for a rat to get out of an imaginary maze? Simply see that the maze is imaginary, that, therefore, the rat has never been in a maze at all, and thus, there will not even be a need to get out of it! That’s truly being out, as Paul says, seeing you were never in.

Friend: Now it’s saying “but I love me, even though I hate me… I don’t want to disappear.”

Adam: Yes, it will say that. But what we are can never disappear; and this bondage of “me” we think we are never appeared in the first place. The essential nature of all things, as the Zen Master Hui-Neng calls what cannot be named, is prior to all bondage; that’s the nature of its freedom. So, nothing can really be lost. And nor will anything be gained. If this mental process posing as “you” is saying that it’s afraid of disappearing and you’re seeing what it’s saying from beyond it, how could it be what you are? If it’s over there and you’re over here, how could you be over there?

Friend: (laughs hard). Wow! Yes, how could I? And yet it comes up and says “don’t kill me! I don’t want to be killed!”

Adam: (laughs) These spiritual teachers who talk about us needing to kill the ego like we’re some kind of spiritual big game hunters may be being a little dramatic. The reality is gentler. The ego never lived in the first place; how could we kill it? Besides, the ego isn’t the problem; it’s just an abstraction of a mental process that’s full of gaps. The mental process doesn’t even have to come to an end; if you simply see, moment by moment, that it’s not you, has never been you, then that’s more than enough.

Friend: So, we don’t have to kill the “me”?

Adam: Not at all. You can put down your spiritual gun and return your spiritual ammunition! You don’t have to kill  the “me” because it was never alive in the first place. It’s not that there is no life; there’s simply no “me” that could claim that life as “mine.” You are not “the owner of my life;” you are the vibrancy of life itself! You’re not a step removed, you’re all-in! Thus, it’s not that you need to become free, it’s enough to see that the “you” who feels like it needs to become free isn’t you, and therefore there’s no need to become free. Our nature is inherently and unconditionally free!

How can we come to see that we’re not the “me” that feels it needs to become free? Because we can see that the mental process produces a sense of “me” that takes time to appear, is vague, nebulous, inconsistent, inconstant, and filled with gaps. If you’ve ever been fully absorbed in doing something you really loved, you may have found there was a period where the sense of self temporarily shut off altogether; in that moment, as they say in Zen, you were what you were doing. This is because in the flow state, the ‘default mode network’ of the brain, which produces selfing, can be temporarily deactivated. And if there can be activity and awareness even when the mental “me” isn’t there, how could it be what you are?

Pauses and gaps like these are important clues to the unreality of the “me” we take ourselves to be. Of course, once selfing comes back online or the gap comes to an end, the mental process attempts to presuppose that the “me” was there during the gaps too, but if you’re very present as what’s seeing right now, it will be be very clear that there was no “me” in those gaps at all. Moreover, if you, as what’s seeing, can see the gaps when the sense of “me” isn’t arising, how could it be what you are? Does present awareness have any gaps in it at all? Or isn’t its presence constant? If it’s constant and the sense of “me” is filled with gaps during which this presence is still here, which one is more likely to be what you are? I’d say it’s what’s constantly present, even in the gaps.

Friend: Wow, yes. When you put it that way, it seems pretty clear… and yet I stubbornly keep believing in this “me”…

Adam: Yes. As Buddhism says, we cherish this “me” we think we are, even though it’s so inconsistent and, in reality, all phenomena are empty of separate existence (anatman).

Friend: Yes, but how tricky that can be to see! Even now, the thoughts are saying “seeing this is impossible…”

Adam: There it goes doing its fortunetelling thing again! What is “Seeing this is impossible”? Is it a fact or a thought?

Friend: Hmm. It’s… a thought.

Adam: Yes! It’s a thought, only a thought. Just keep seeing it again and again. It will be more than enough. Really. After all, how can a thought, in and of itself, as content of cognizance know anything? Thoughts are only ever known; they don’t know in and of themselves. And they certainly don’t know the future–how could they?–even though they seem to talk as if they do all day. All this thought is doing is presenting you, as what’s seeing these words right now, a story, a possibility. When you, as what’s real, believe it, then you lend it some of your reality, and suddenly, it appears real to you. To quote Chef Emeril Legasse, “BAM!” The interpretation that the thought presents is just like a pair of glasses that you, as what’s seeing, are putting on and then seeing accordingly. It distorts your perception simply by the faith you put in it, which gives it all the meaning and apparent reality it seems to have.

Friend: Yes. I believe the stories about “me.” I believe them because they feel big and painful and make a lot of noise.

Adam: Yes! They make mental noise all day. In contrast, what we are, what’s seeing, what’s awake, what’s aware, is eternally silent. No wonder attention tends to go towards the noise! How much time do you spend watching the screen when you go to the movie theatre? Don’t the explosions on the screen tend to attract much more attraction? The same is true for us.

Friend: (laughs) They sure do! So what can I do about these thoughts, if I feel I really need to do something about them?

Adam: Ultimately, nothing needs to be done about them at all; relatively, we can practically seem to handle them in two main ways: we can either examine them one at a time or go to their source. In other words, we can either question them and see if they are true, Byron Katie or Cogntive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) style, or find out if the “me” that they claim to be about is really what we are. How do we do the latter? Watch the mental activity producing the sense of “me” from moment to moment. Catch it in the act of claiming phenomena as ‘mine’ and see if you can retrace the thought to the “me” it’s claiming it for. You might just find that all there is is the mental process planting flags like it’s conquering territories, but the country it claims to be planting the flags for doesn’t exist! If the country it’s claiming phenomena for doesn’t exist, then you’ll lose interest in the claiming and forget the “self” you think you are. As the Zen Master Dogen said, “to study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self.” The more you forget what you’re not, the more you’ll be present as what you are; what’s awake to this and every moment, which the Zen Master Bankei beautifully called “the Unborn.”

Friend: It really says that there are nothing but problems in “my” life, that nothing’s good enough…

Adam: Yes it does. It’s presenting thoughts as facts. And the thoughts aren’t yours. Nor is this life. This life was never yours or mine and the “I” in all of these thoughts never existed. We are life itself. Not a “me” living a life. We are what’s aware of all the stories, not the stories themselves or the imaginary character they presuppose they are about.

Friend: Yes, and yet how positive these stories are! The one coming up now says “I will never be satisfied…”

Adam: The funny thing is that it’s right in a way; the good news is that the truth is much lighter than the thought claims. It’s true that there is no satisfaction for “me” because the “me’s” very nature is dissatisfaction and agitation born out of constantly making up stories about “me” that aren’t actually happening (imagining the future and reinventing the past through thinking). The “me” is always trying to become somebody and feels the strain of that endless striving-to-become. It doesn’t occur to it for one second that the true peace might be found in simply being nobody. And yet that’s what all the great masters from the Zen teachers to the Sufi master Rumi have told us.

Friend: It’s scary to be nobody. At least when I feel like I’m somebody, it feels safely familiar.

Adam: Don’t you often feel anxious while you feel like you’re a “somebody”? How safe could that be?

Friend: (laughs) Well, when you put it that way…

Adam: And can you absolutely know that without that sense of being a flawed, unworthy “me,” life wouldn’t actually be much lighter, much less fearful, and much more peaceful?

Friend: No, I guess I can’t absolutely know that…

Adam: I’d suggest to you that this other possibility is a much lighter way to travel. That’s how it has played out here for a long period of time now. And it’s not a big deal at all. There are no spiritual accolades in it for “me;” if such credit and trophies were handed out, they should be burned! To quote Dogen Zenji, “to forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.” Let all the traces of realization and all the credit for doing nothing at all fall away. It’s all so much unnecessary baggage for selfing to claim as “mine.”

Friend: That gives me hope. And yet, the thoughts are now saying “I need to go and heal all my messed up conditioning before I can see through the me…”

Adam: (laughs) That’s a good one! How far do you have to travel to be where you are? Nowhere! How many criteria do you have to meet to be right where you are? No criteria! How long does it take to realize what’s always here? No time! Isn’t it wild how the mental process makes up imaginary conditions for you to meet before you can be peaceful and happy?

Friend: It sure is!

Adam: Doesn’t it keep setting up constant hoops that it says you have to jump through, only to postpone your happiness and peacefulness into an ever distant future that never comes?

Friend: Yes!

Adam: And yet how well has it worked so far?

Friend: (laughs) Horribly.

Adam: (laughs) Yes! The truth is far more gentle than these thoughts ever are. The truth is that peace and happiness are only ever now and that our unconditioned and unconditional nature was never harmed. The body can go through all kinds of pains and pleasures, wounds and healings, and ups and downs, but how about what’s seeing, what’s aware, what’s awake to this moment? Can you stab awareness? Can you shoot awakeness? Can you punch a hole in seeing? Good luck! Our nature is unconditioned and was never harmed. Nothing that appears within it can destroy it just like lightning cannot strike open the vast vault of the sky. When we realize it directly, all these imaginary conditions selfing is making up and imposing begin to gradually collapse like the house of cards they are. “You” and “me” are a house of cards. And there’s no one home!

Friend: I’m amazed that you managed to see through this, Adam. It honestly seems like a huge achievement, and I’m not being sarcastic!

Adam: (laughs) This “Adam” guy has never seen, appreciated, realized, or achieved or understood anything ever. That’s the beauty of it! This freedom was revealed not because of but despite all of “my” realizations, conceptions of truth, and understandings, which selfing was all too happy to claim as “mine”! Truth is much lighter than all of this spiritual baggage. Freedom doesn’t depend on all of the apparent achievements, successes and failures, or gains and losses of the human body-mind. It’s all okay just as it is. The freedom is prior to anything that ever seemed to happen. Why then would we think that we could produce it by making more things happen? It’s absurd!

Friend: (laughs) And yet we do think that! We act it out all day, every day!

Adam: (laughs) Yes! And we keep trying to “fix” ourselves, all the while assuming we were ever “broken” in the first place. My experience was that all the ‘fixing’ and self-renovations simply didn’t work. All they did was reinforce the sense of being the “one” who was broken. They couldn’t deliver the goods of ‘wholeness’ they promised. What became clear was that the only lasting fix was to see that we were never broken, and therefore, that there was never any need for fixing.

Friend: Wow. That sounds pretty radically different from what these thoughts are saying.

Adam: Yes! The truth appears radical from the point of view of the false. Funny enough, the false appears meaningless from the viewpoint of the true. It’s just like how a judge can place a criminal in a mental institution, citing their insanity, while all the while criminal believes that it’s the judge who is insane! Truth and falsehood don’t speak the same language. Falsehood talks; the truth of our nature is silence. That’s why nothing can be said about it. All that can be said is false, but only all of it. All we can really talk about is what it’s not. And yet, some impulse in us yearns to keep talking…

Friend: (laughs) It sure does! I wonder though… will this stop my body from tensing up? Will seeing this stop all the anxiety? Will I be chilled out once I see more and more of what I’m not and rest more and more as what I am? Will insults and compliments stop sending my sense of worthiness shooting up and down radically?

Adam: In all honesty, how the unfolding of this realization plays out on a human level can be radically different  from case to case. It can differ for everyone. All I can speak from is “my” own case.. My experience was that simply by entertaining the idea that I might not be the “me” the thoughts claimed to be about and that none of the thoughts were “mine” at all throughout the day, from rising in the morning to sleeping at night, gradually changed the whole quality of this life. Majour depression and suicidal anxiety that had been so extreme as to be almost be debilitating gradually evaporated out of this life. The overall feeling of neurotic heaviness that marked every moment of every day was gradually skimmed off and life took on more and more lightness, with no thought or effort to produce it.

With that said, what became clear here was that constantly maintaining the sense of being “you” and “I” is a tremendous source of strain, stress, anxiety, and fearful reactions for the body. It’s exhausting to keep maintaining this illusion of being a “someone” and fending off innumerable imaginary “threats” that might attack “my self image.” Having to constantly renovate this self-image and work on fixing this assumed to be broken “me” we think we are requires a tremendous expense of metabolic energy from the body. It stresses out the body, weakens the immune system, and causes massive tension. The body doesn’t know better. It just responds to whatever you believe as if it were real. It’s very trusting, even to its detriment.

When all of these fictional stories are seen as unreal and it becomes more and more clear that there is no “me” that the thoughts are about, we tend, as Paul Hedderman says, to travel lighter through life. As Paul says, “the geography of your life may not change, but whatever it is, you’ll travel lighter over it as this action figure of a human being.” This has very much been my experience. The strain on the body eases up. We chill out. Thoughts become fewer and more practical. Self-centered rumination tapers out. Perception seems to become clearer and sharper. Thinking and information processing seems to happen much more efficiently when it’s needed to accomplish some task. The body takes all of the energy it used to pour into sustaining the feeling of “me” and uses it to optimize all of its natural functions. It’s beautiful.

Again, this is just how it has been playing out here and your mileage may very, but the way it has unfolded here is that the body has relaxed and simply managed to flow over long stretches of time now. Given the brutal depression and suicidal anxiety that used to dominate the mind here, this is pretty solid evidence that there may be something to this way of seeing what we’re not. Of course, there’s nothing magical to all of this; it’s very ordinary and mundane. Sickness may still come, pains may still come, but it’s not a problem. There may still be identification with selfing, but it will be seen through more and more easily. The process of seeing through ever subtler identifications is very gradual and I expect it to continue until the breath ceases to rise and the heart reaches its silent end. This is very much an ongoing practice; there’s simply no one doing it–it does itself. That’s the beauty of it. If it were up to “me,” I’d probably mess it up!

It’s worth noting though that none of these ‘positive’ side effects was the goal. The focus–truth and freedom–and the goal  were always the same: simply to keep curiously seeing more and more of what I’m not. The seeing of what we’re not is both the Way and the destination. And what we’re not is everything the thought system claims we are, everything we identify with and take ourselves to be. As this process of seeing more and more of what we’re not unfolds–and once it becomes habitual, it assumes its own momentum and does itself–the mind tends to focus less and less on the past and future and abide more and more in what’s actually happening here and now. It’s not like we actively try to “be here now,” but that we find that Being is never *not* now. On a purely everyday, ordinary human level, this all translates into a very light and lovely way to travel through this life that’s felt to be more than enough.

Friend: Wow. That does sound like more than enough. Thank you. I’ll give this entertaining a shot. I have one last question though: when we see more and more that we’re not the “me” the thoughts say we are, does this mean we get less sensitive to if say, other people insult us?

Adam: Yes, this has been another bit of icing on the nondual cake. (laughs). As we stabilize more and more in simply being what we are rather than thinking about becoming what we’re not, we tend to simultaneously get more sensitively attuned to life and yet to take it much less personally at the same time. As we see more and more that we’re not this “me” the thoughts describe, we find that neither compliments nor insults tend to produce much of an effect on our emotional state at all. We discover a felt sense of unconditional well-being in our ever-present nature that neither increases with compliments nor decreases with insults because we clearly discern that all that can be complimented or increased is what we’re not: the good old jolly “me.” This is the experience here the vast majority of the time, although there is still more being seen through day by day. It helps to stay humble and open to seeing more as our true nature unravels more and more of its identifications with form. The really is a beautiful paring off that happens to the vegetable of this human life under the Chef’s hand of life (talk about a laboured metaphor!). When the word “self” falls out of “self-esteem,” all that remains is esteem. And that’s a very gentle, humble sense of well-being that doesn’t depend on causes and conditions. If you’re looking for spiritual fireworks, it doesn’t offer any, but what it does offer is far more fulfilling than impermanent peaks before impermanent falls.

Friend: Beautiful. But if we’re not this “me,” then what are we?

Adam: Here’s the part that the mind doesn’t like: our true nature cannot be known. It cannot become an object of knowing to a false subject called “me.” Any concept we might cling to to try to get a handle on it must ultimately fall away as not encompassing what we are at all. I’ve used the words awareness, awakeness, presence, consciousness, and so on to point to it, but ultimately even these must be discarded. We have concepts of all of these things and give them definite meanings. These concepts cannot capture what we are at all. All concepts are dualistic in nature and what we are poiting to is nondualistic; even the concept of “nonduality” is dualistically opposed to dualism! Throw both out!

In a sense, our nature is a great Unknown. And even this word fails to reach it. It’s no-thing at all and, as Jac O’Keeffe says, there’s nothing we can take away from that nothing at all. Selfing can make something out of it and use that to make a subtle idea of “me”–as happens often in the nondual community, as it turns out, when people identify with a subtle image of the “absolute” or “awareness” or fixate on emptiness–but this something is ultimately nothing. The truth is that anything we can add on to what we are, any conceptual veneer, only adds baggage to its infinite lightness.

You can’t get behind the camera of what’s seeing to know what’s seeing; you can’t get behind presence to know what’s present. It’s not a ‘what’ at all.  We can’t know what we are. Ever. But we can be what we are. And that is more than enough. Silence and stillness are more of our nature than anything else, but if the mind thinks it “knows” what we are through these words, throw them away too. Discard every concept and idea of what you think you are and be what remains, all while remaining open to selfing rearing its lovely head to claim this or that as the foundation of a “me” as daily life goes on as normal. Consider any word you could possibly use to describe what we are. Now consider its opposite. Now, reject both. That’s the most honest answer we can give!

Both the feeling of being an “unenlightened person” and the feeling of being an “enlightened person” are false; throw both out and replace them with nothing at all. Perfect! That’s the Zen way. Humility is a great help here to preventing the swelling of a lofty spiritual “me.” As is having a teacher or friend to kick you in the spiritual butt if you fall for the heist!

Friend: (laughs) Can you be that spiritual butt-kicker for “me”?

Adam: Sure, but only if you agree to return the favour! (laughs)

Friend: Deal!

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