Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

 

Inner Work


For the week of April 4, 2011

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Cracks in the Illusion

(The Path of Liberation: Part 2 of 10)

If our self is an illusion, though a very persistent, convincing, and all-pervasive illusion, if freedom lies somewhere beyond that illusion, and if our contact with the spiritual depths is blocked by the illusion, then where is our hope of lifting this first veil? Only by seeing through the illusion, seeing our self for the illusion that it is, again and again, until the moment comes that we are thoroughly, irrevocably convinced, can the illusion be dispelled for good. For that seeing, it is not the illusory self that sees itself, but rather our I that sees, the one in us who really is us, who sees not just mentally, who sees without needing to resort to inner commentary to prove or confirm the seeing, who sees with clarity and directness, whose seeing results in new understanding that becomes part of us.

To see the illusion of self, we focus on its cracks, on the places that the illusion falters, where it fails to live up to its claim to be us, its claim that our personality is who we are. Those cracks appear in various forms, but arise principally from the fact that our so-called self actually consists of many, disparate, uncoordinated, disjoint parts that lack the claimed integration. Each part of our illusory self says “I,” claims to be us, and when it takes center stage for even a moment, is us. But then another part, another “i” comes along that either does not know or does not care about the previous “i” and takes us in a different direction altogether. One part wants to smoke tobacco, another part wants to eat three pieces of cake, a third wants to keep our body healthy, and a fourth wants to look slim and trim. Our supposed self is a seething mass of such contradictions. There is no self in any of that, or rather there are many selves, many i’s, many conflicting or simply unrelated wills, urges, and agendas.

In advance, I intend to do some particular thing. But when the moment comes, I do something else instead. One self says yes and another says no. I make promises to myself, promises I do not keep. Even worse, I sometimes make promises to others that I fail to keep. The i that makes the promise lacks power over the i that is in control at the moment we would have carried it out. We tend to sweep such occurrences under the rug of unconsciousness. “Oh well, another New Year’s resolution down the drain.” But that doesn’t quite work. It leaves a bad taste, an uncomfortable feeling of disappointment with our self. If we really take it to heart, that disappointment can turn to disillusionment and point us toward the road to liberation.

We believe in our thoughts, we believe we are our thoughts, or at least that our thoughts are a direct expression of us, of I. We think “I”, “I will do this,” “I will eat that,” “I will say this.” We believe we are that thought “I” or that it is very close to us. But the practice of watching, noticing our thoughts, shows us that our thoughts think themselves, quite well, with no prodding or help from us. Our thoughts, for the most part, run automatically, by association with some random external event or perception, by association with another thought, or by chaining off some memory. The thought “I” typically has no more substance to it than any other thought; it is just a sound in our mind. Yet our automatic thought processes and patterns form the bulk of our personality, the bulk of the illusion of self. Our thoughts go on and on, and so we believe that is I going on and on. But our I cannot be just an automatic process or set of sounds in our mind. This automatic nature of our thoughts is another crack in the illusion of self.

Our thought machine also occasionally spews up some disgusting thought or image, something totally out of step with our personal values. Our response goes along the lines of “where did that come from?” “That’s not what I really think — is it?” Each such event further cracks the illusion; for clearly those thoughts are not who I am, not what I believe to be my coherent self. They are just thoughts, more or less random, without me in them or behind them. You are not your thoughts.

Our emotions also run on automatic. Someone says or does something or something happens and my emotions react of their own accord. Then the thought arises: “I am angry” or “I am sad” or “I am afraid.” But it’s really the emotion that is emoting, the anger is angry, the sadness is sad, the fear is afraid, all on their own. The emotion affects my thoughts, which toe the line by saying “I am angry” and thereby give cover, perpetuating the illusion by claiming that there is some unified, independent “I” in me that has chosen to be angry. But each reacting emotion creates its own “i.” The automatic nature of our emotional reactions is yet another crack in the illusion of self.

Our emotions also affect our body. Strong emotions affect our breathing pattern, our heart rate, our posture, our muscle tensions, and our facial expressions. Our body is thus not in control because it is subject to our emotions, subject to our thoughts by taking actions dictated by thoughts, subject to our intentions and choices. My body is not who I am.

Yet our body also does many things quite well on its own, like breathing, walking, and digesting. This sounds trivial and obvious, but fully absorbing the fact that our body functions without our intentions or choices necessarily driving it, can be a revelation, for we believe our “intention” is responsible for all our actions. Our body and brain together have many skills, necessary to us, like the language skills of speaking and decoding the speech of others. These skills are not who we are; they function on automatic. Our personality subsumes the powers of our body, adding them to the illusion of self. Personality inflates our episodic intentionality into the false notion of an always-on intention, an always-present me or I. But noticing how well our body performs without any intention on our part puts the lie to this aspect of the illusion of self.

The apparent whole of us, our personality, our self, is not what it seems; we are not what we seem to be. For this week, notice what you can of the cracks in your illusion of self.


     

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