Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of March 28, 2011

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The Illusion of self

Introduction to the Path of Liberation Series

We believe we are whole and we believe we are free: two beliefs that prove false, misleading, and a source of untold angst. Our mind and emotions consist of many moving parts, some appearing infrequently, others persistent and familiar. These parts include all kinds of urges and tendencies, skills and knowledge, styles and patterns of thinking, feeling and interacting, likes and dislikes, attitudes and assumptions, fears and aspirations, strengths and weaknesses, and much more. Taken together, these parts make up what we call our personality, our self, what call me. This is who we believe we are, who we give our name to.

The parts of a car combine to function as one whole, all serving the same overall purpose. When we drive the car, all its components respond in a coordinated fashion. We view the parts of our self, of our mind and emotions, in the same way, as forming one whole like the components of car do. The problem with that commonly held view is that, unlike the parts of a car, the parts of our mind and emotions do not make a whole, do not all serve the same overall purpose. The parts of our personality are like a jumble of unrelated or semi-related small programs inside a computer, each with its own agenda and serving no collective function. These programs vie for run-time in a nearly random fashion; though not quite random, because some are strong patterns of thought and emotion, whether genetically driven or acquired by habit, patterns that get more run-time than our other programs.

Because one or another of our programs is always running, with others waiting, clamoring, in the wings, because the computer, in this case our body, exhibits stability, and because we are so familiar with the more frequently running programs, we believe this is who we are. We believe this set of programs, this personality, this mask, is us. And remarkably, insidiously, that is a self-fulfilling belief, because it moves us to allow our I, our will, to be controlled by whichever program happens to be running. We buy into our personality, our program of the moment, and let it run the show, which it does by usurping the power of will from the true I that we have surrendered to it. Because we have unwittingly given our power over to it, our personality appears to be the source of the power to run our show and thus we believe in it. And that belief enables it to run the show. If this sounds like circular logic, it is, and that is just the point.

This is a messy conundrum.

Messy because our resulting inner life is haphazard, chaotic, and disorganized: anything can happen in us at any time. External events push our buttons, starting up that particular one of our many programs, without any choice on our part. Someone frowns at me and, depending on the circumstances and my programming, anger, hurt, or disappointment start up inside my mind and heart. But because I believe that my programs are me, I interpret this as I am angry, I am hurt, or I am disappointed. And that belief, that interpretation causes my true I to get entangled and I actually become angry, hurt, or disappointed.

The flow of causation, the flow of forces, goes from outside to inside: the external frown kicks off a reacting program in me, and my belief that the program is me puts my I under its influence, so that I am now angry. One name for this process is identification: using the inherent freedom of my I to give my I over to the reaction, using my freedom to become enslaved. This goes on all day long in an unending variety of ways. I abdicate my freedom and am controlled by every thought or emotion that rises to the center of my mind stage.

Of course, this overstates the situation a bit. We have enough sanity not to act on every crazy notion that enters our head or heart. But still we identify with all of it, whether or not we act on some particular. Every pattern or program that shows up, claims to be me, I believe it, and so it truly is me. I become my personality, I become this jumble of programs and patterns, reactions and associations. In Buddhism, this is known as the illusion of self, the major illusion standing between us and enlightenment. In the West, the self-centeredness behind personality is known as the ego, standing between us and the Kingdom of Heaven.

We experience our personality in so many ways: as our closest companion, as ongoing commentary on our life, as planning or rehearsing what we will say or do, as dreaming about what we want, as our views and opinions, as our anger, hurt, suspicions, and jealousies, as our unending stream of thoughts and memories, each triggering another, on and on. All this is so familiar, so private, and so intimate, that we easily and unquestioningly fall into the illusion that this agglomeration is me, this dynamic hodgepodge is who I am.

In the coming weeks, we will examine further aspects of the Path of Liberation:

    1. Illusion of self
    2. Cracks in the Illusion
    3. Peace of Meditation
    4. Coexistence
    5. Exposing the Illusion
    6. Freedom in Presence
    7. Be Your Attention
    8. I Am
    9. Complete Liberation

For this week, please contemplate this notion of the illusion of self, the notion that who you think you are is not who you are, it is only your personality, your mask, and it hides the your real Self. Does this matter? Deeply, for it blocks our potential of becoming our Self, of fulfilling our destiny, of living a full, complete, and wholehearted life.

See Also: Stages of Freedom


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