Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of August 24, 2020

Empty Personality

(The Ladder of Will: 3)

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It was 1974. The young man sat on a cushion on the wooden floor of a beautiful room, along with a hundred others. One of those others spoke to the gathering about having seen his mind rehearsing, on its own, what he would say to someone the next day. Unremarkable on the face of it. Yet it struck the young man like a thunderbolt. Until that moment, the suspicion that he might not be his thoughts had been growing in him, but the idea had not taken root, not been clearly registered, and not been fully and finally accepted. This simple report of an inner rehearsal generating itself, which he suddenly realized had occurred in him also, many, many times, opened a window into his own mind with its continual flow of automatic, associative thoughts. This undeniable truth of the automatic nature of his mind and emotions came with such clarity in that moment that it tipped his understanding into a whole new world, a whole new set of possibilities.

Though he still had much more to work out, the sudden realization that he had been in chains his entire life without knowing it struck the bell of freedom in him. He saw that his very own mind and its previously precious thoughts went about their business without him. His thoughts typically have no thinker behind them. His thoughts think themselves. Yet he believed his thoughts, one and all. He believed in them as representing him, as close as anything to being him. He believed his thoughts all emanated from him. He believed his thoughts were his own inner voice, and he acted accordingly, except of course when they were so outrageous that he had to deny them. In which case, he would chastise himself for thinking such thoughts.

Yet here it was: his thoughts caught red-handed thinking themselves without his participation, without any intention on his part. This was both a shock and a relief. The shock of seeing that he was not what he thought he was, namely his thoughts. The relief that he no longer needed to consider all his thoughts, even the outrageous ones, to be his, nor did they represent him in any way. They were just thoughts generated by, and passing through, the machinery of his mind.

Furthermore, he eventually saw that this realization applies not only to his thoughts, but to his entire interrelated complex of automated patterns of thinking and feeling and acting, a complex that we shall call personality. This seeing and understanding the personality for what it is, this liberation, is called in the Sufi terminology the second fana. No longer are we fooled into believing our thoughts or our emotions are who we are. Yes, these programmed, associative, reactive patterns continue in us, but they no longer take us. We see them for what they are and going forward our personality occupies a much-diminished role in our inner pantheon of importance. It no longer determines our actions, our judgments, or our attitudes. We have choices. The second fana leaves us much freer to act on principle and by conscience.

This radical freedom in front of our personality is not a rejection of it. It is simply letting go of our identification with our personality. Rather than reject this mass of conditioning in ourselves, we accept it as it is and for what it is. Rejecting nothing, we befriend the totality of ourselves, including our personality, while seeing that we need not allow it to rule us. We need not buy into every thought and emotion as being who we are in that moment. Instead of being used by it, we become the user of our personality.

And we do need it. We honor this repository of all our memories, all our skills, all our interests and attitudes, our likes and dislikes, our fears and hopes, and our quirks. Shaped by all our past experiences, personality is our instrument for navigating this life. The second fana does not erase our personality, thankfully, but does put it in perspective by cutting the chain it had around our neck. We find ourselves able to relax more deeply than before, to experience and enjoy our life more thoroughly and directly than before, without mindlessly accepting our personality's view of and comment on every perception coming to us. Clearly, we have taken a step into freedom.

This revolution in our inner life ends our identification with our personality. It shows us that our personality is not who we are. Notwithstanding its ongoing and plausible claims to be who we are, its continuing thoughts that start with the word "I" or include the word "me," we now fully recognize that those are just words and that our personality is not I.

The second fana is a profound step in the evolution of our will. It removes the initiative from our personality. The flow of choice no longer begins in our automatic nature, where it is only a pseudo-choice, handed to us in a pre-digested, pre-determined form. Now we can choose what we do, what we believe, instead of our personality usurping our power of choice by having everything go by rote habit.

For this week, please take a fresh look at your own personality, at this whole mass of past experiences, attitudes, habits, and thoughts that seems to be who you are.


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