Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of November 24, 2014

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True Self or No-Self?

(The Levels of No-Self: Part 2)

There is a paradox at the core of how the various spiritual ways represent who we really are. Some teach that we have in us a true self, a real I, the one in us who sees what we see, does what we do, and chooses what we choose. Others, most notably the Buddhist way, teach that we have no independent self. How can we reconcile these two views that seem directly opposed to each other: true self or no self?

The easier answer looks at the question in terms of levels, in particular at our personality that pretends to be our I, as discussed in the previous installment of this inner work series. Our personality is not a self, not our self. So the teaching of no-self is relatively straightforward to apply at that level. This approach to answering the paradox then goes on to say that at the next deeper level, beyond our personality, beyond our character, we find our true self, our real I. And that is true. However, it still leaves us with the paradox: true self versus no-self. Do we just say that the teaching of no-self only holds at the level of exposing our personality as a non-whole, a not-self, and then offers nothing further at the deeper level where we find our true I? That is not a reconciliation of the paradox; it just puts the two teachings into separate boxes.

Letís take a closer look at I, at our true individuality. First, we reiterate that this is not the I of each passing thought, not the self-referential attitudes and reactive emotions, not the I that is the subject of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Rather, when we are not lost in associative thoughts or reactive emotions, our true I is one that sees what we see, does what we do, and chooses what we choose. But because our I is the subject not the object, the experiencer of what we experience, the one that sees what we see, we can never see our I directly. But we can be it

The simplest way to begin to be our I is to work with attention. When our attention is not passive, not just absorbed into something happening around us, but is directed intentionally, it is our I that is directing our attention. Thus we can find our I in our attention, as our attention. The core practice of this consists of intentionally directing and holding our attention on something and of being the one who is directing our attention. In short, the practice is to be our attention.

Right now I am looking at a computer screen. Perhaps you are too. The screen is there in my vision. I am putting and holding my attention on the screen. It is almost as if there is a beam of attention going from me, from my I, to the screen. I am at the source of that beam of attention. I am the source of that beam of attention.

That I, my I, seems to come from my core, seems to be my core. As such, at first glance, it seems to be centered in me. But by repeated practice, by living with it, by becoming our I, a different and unexpected picture gradually emerges, namely that our I has no center. It is our center, but in itself has no center.

One approach to understanding this is by looking in terms of dimensions. Setting aside time, the world we live in has three dimensions: up-down, right-left, front-back. Our body is at the center of our experiential, three-dimensional world. And so it seems is our I. It seems that our I is somehow at the center of our body, though we cannot quite place it. And for good reason.

Our I is our will. Will does not exist in time and space. It comes from beyond time and space. It comes from beyond consciousness, as witnessed by the fact that our will, in the form of attention, can direct our consciousness, whereas everything else is within consciousness. So our will, our I, cannot be relegated to a particular point in space, cannot be said to have a center in our three-dimensional sense. Our I comes from a higher space of unimaginable freedom. That is why, in our deepest nature, we are free and pure.

Consider an hourglass, consisting of two bulbs and a neck connecting them. Our I is that neck, whereas will is the sand. The upper glass is an infinite source of will. The lower glass is our personality, where each particle of thought, emotion, and physical impulse claims its own will. The sand passing through the neck is our individual will, our I. To complete this picture, imagine that the upper bulb is infinite and that each human being is a different hourglass neck from the same infinite upper bulb, with each neck going to a separate lower bulb. From this we see that our I, seen from below, does appear to be our center, our core, but seen from above is really an opening to a higher reality, to the world of will.

True self or no-self? It depends on the perspective, as with the two sides of one coin. Below we are separate, above we are not. The One Life flows through us all.

For this week, please practice being your attention, being your I.


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