Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of April 25, 2011

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Exposing the Illusion

(The Path of Liberation: Part 5 of 9)

Eventually we reach a tipping point, where enough moments of directly seeing and accepting the truth about our identification with personality, about its illusory nature, have accumulated and purified our view of ourselves sufficiently to prepare us for that singular moment of particularly clear seeing and letting go, the moment when freedom, permanent freedom, dawns. For the ten thousandth time, we see our thoughts and emotions generating themselves in response to each other or to our body or to some external event, we see how we fall into believing we are these thoughts and emotions, believing we are the patterns of our personality. But this time it all changes, this time we get it. We see it as a mechanism, as a set of learned programs and automatic tendencies. We see it as our mechanism. We see that we are not now and never were that. And this time all the pieces fall into place: the seeing is vivid, effective, permanent, and irrevocable. It changes our understanding and changes who we are. After this moment of unmasking, we are never again fooled into believing in our thoughts and emotions, believing that our personality defines us or is us.

This is the great transition from achieving intermittent states of seeing how automatic, disjointed, self-generating our personality is, to the permanent station, the new level of being of understanding the illusion, of incorporating that understanding into who we truly are, so that the understanding is now part of us. No longer do we need to try to remember the truth about our personality, for now we are that truth, we have moved beyond that illusion.

Though this new understanding signals a permanent change in our level of being, our personality does not disappear, nor would we want it to, for it contains all that we have learned, our skills, our patterns of interaction with the world, our knowledge about the world. So associative, automatic thoughts and reactive emotions still arise, and may even catch hold of us temporarily. But soon we notice that and their hold on us diminishes and evaporates. We now truly understand that our personality is not who we are and never again do we surrender ourselves to it. We have debunked and discredited the illusion, and put down a great burden in the process.

This step of permanently exposing the illusion of personality is a kind of inner death, which the Sufis call the fana’i afal, the second fana: ceasing to be attached to our personality, to the contents of our mind and emotions. In Buddhism, this is the first liberation, the first stage of enlightenment: realizing the emptiness of self, that the contents of our mind and emotions are not a self, that there is no self, no independent self in that.

Prior to this freeing ourselves of ourselves, we may have some fears about it. What would I be without my personality, without what I have known as me all these years? Without my likes and dislikes, won’t life be dull? In the event, these and similar fears prove unfounded. Our personality does not disappear. Our old familiar habits of thought and emotion remain. Our likes and dislikes stay with us. If we liked chocolate cake before the moment of freedom, we still like chocolate cake afterward, only now we are not driven by those likes and dislikes. We are free to choose. The big difference is just this freedom, the cessation of attachment and identification. But will I still care about my loved ones when I am no longer attached to them? Yes indeed, love does not diminish, it even grows, as does our capacity for responsible action. Nothing is lost in this freedom, except the illusion of something that never existed, the illusion that our personality is our self. And in its place, in our further work, we gain our real self.

From here, the next steps on the path of liberation are a matter of consolidating our new-found freedom, putting it on a sound footing, and ultimately moving toward further fanas or stages of enlightenment; this first liberation is not the end of the path, nor at this point of exposing the illusion is the first liberation fully accomplished. After every death, after every fana, there is a resurrection, a baqa, a new beginning, a new life. So now we move toward that new life.

Meanwhile, the self may try to reappear in various guises. Consider the following. Before we realize that our personality is not our self, that we have no independent self, we may fear that step, that possibility. When we do discover the truth directly, it seems obvious. And then as we realize its ramifications, that truth seems wonderful and exciting, seems to and actually does open a new chapter of our life. In that excitement and wonder we face the trap of making something of nothing, of considering the situation as having a no-self self, that I am no-self. We make no-self into a thing.

Just as we formerly reified our evanescent collection of patterns of thought and emotion into a personality, and our personality into our self, the discovery of the illusory nature of that supposed self prods us to reify its absence as the no-self, as if we are the no-self. At first the realization of no-self is liberating, but then it can fall into making the “the no-self” into a new self. Instead of becoming a person liberated from self, we fall toward becoming a person who has a “no-self self.” We may think “I am free because I have no self,” when what we really mean is “I am liberated ¬¬— and thus wonderful — because I have a no-self self.” With time and continued practice, this danger passes.

For this week, notice your personality, your associative thoughts and reactive emotions, notice your perceptions causing reactions, and notice how all of that has a pseudo-life of its own without your initiative or intervention. Notice that your personality is not you and let your attachment to it evaporate.


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