“Who we are is awareness. But we block it with our self-centered thinking.” – Charlotte Joko Beck, Zen Master
Take a step back in your mind. Become aware of being awareness seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking. Be the awareness.
Do the previous statements seem nonsensical? This is only because our culture is egocentric rather than consciousness centered. I assure you, you CAN become aware of being awareness seeing what you see, hearing what you hear, feeling what you feel, thinking what you think. You CAN become aware of awareness, of BEING awareness. This is of the utmost importance if you wish to evolve into a clearer more centered and peaceful person, if you wish to be centered in consciousness rather than your wild and sometimes crazy mind, in your ego.
Now, importantly – who is there? Who is this that is seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking? Who is this awareness? It is you and not you. Yes, there is a very definite experience of a “me” – AND – there is no one. Welcome to paradox. Westerners don’t take well to paradox, and this is a problem, for paradox is reality. Existence is everything. It is not this OR that, it is always and can only be this AND that. And the this AND that we are exploring here concerns being both a person and that which a person emerges from – like we have bodies that appear and function as separate entities, AND these bodies emerge from a field of energy where there are no boundaries, only varying degrees of density of atomic structures. We are separate AND we are not. Welcome to paradox, but the paradox we are exploring here is not concerning physical energy and bodies, but rather consciousness energy and individual minds.
Returning to taking a step back in your mind: if you sincerely explore this, there will be the realization that when in the experience of being awareness, there is no “me” there. Yes, there is a “me” that experiences DOING the seeing, hearing, feeling and thinking and this “me” is centered in the body and in the experience of mind and it is very personal. AND there is the “me” WITHIN WHICH the amalgam of seeing, hearing, feeling, and thinking OCCUR and it is impersonal, it is just processes of seeing, hearing, feeling and thinking. In this perspective, “You” are the field of experiencing consciousness. As is said in Zen, there is no one there. This is where the personal “me” steps back and the direct experience of awareness comes into the foreground. There certainly is this personal and separate “me;” this sense of self does not disappear, it is not, however, center-stage, so to speak. This is what Joko Beck means about “self-centered thinking.” The experience of separate self is no longer at the center of consciousness imagining itself as the source of consciousness.
Continuing this exercise, having taken a step back in your mind, I ask you to next step OUT from your mind INTO what is seen, heard, felt, and even thought as experiences not “in here,” rather as just what is occurring in the field of experiencing consciousness. I also ask you to take note of the spacious felt-sense of comfort, ease and well-being that occurs with this perspective.
This is not how we typically relate to experience. We typically relate to experience as if it is happening to someone called “me” inside this body and mind experiencing the world “out there.” This is the sense of ego-self, all of experience tied together along with a hidden backdrop of unconscious factors psychologically conditioned into us giving us identity and preferences and prejudices and opinions and subtle levels of security or insecurity, confidence or anxiety, optimism or pessimism and a whole host of other factors giving the flavor of the sense of “me.” But who is this that is the conscious awareness that is the primary experiencer of all that is experienced? Who is this experience of awareness?
Can you take that step out – to be the pure experience that doesn’t need to hang itself onto an identity? This may seem like a crazy proposition, and perhaps it does have something to do with what we conventionally describe in this culture as “crazy,” but I assure you it is about being absolutely and completely sane. Here, I am introducing the phenomenon of “dissociation,” defined in psychiatry as detachment from the personality that sees, hears, feels, thinks, etc. in this matrix of experience we call “me.”
Generally, this dissociation is understood as a psychiatric symptom of some very serious mental disorders, and it is when we remain fixed in identity with the contents of mind, with the ego. It is a withdrawal of the sense of self from the usual contact with the world that is considered normal. The term is generally associated with rather severe psychiatric disorders, the most extreme example being catatonia – where there is a total withdrawal of the personality from any contact with the external environment, or Multiple Personality Disorder, where there is the withdrawal of the primary personality into alternative personalities. Lesser, but still significant examples of pathological dissociation are periods of loss of time, or orientation, what is called “fugue” – and this can be on a spectrum from momentary to extended periods of amnesia. What marks these states as mental illnesses is that they are steps BACK WITHIN the mind – a withdrawal – from the contact interaction with the me-in-the-world that is the balance between inner and external realities, and these disorders are usually “self” protective psychological defense actions in response to overwhelming trauma of some sort. They are, again paradoxically, healthy and unhealthy – healthy in that they are protective, and unhealthy in that they become, in a sense, alternative ego-states, places in the mind where we live that are not in any remotely accurate contact with reality
I am suggesting a very different kind of “dissociation” or detachment from the personality as has been conditioned as the sense of “me” that is a very healthy form of dissociation. It is a detachment from identity in the personality in which rather than a withdrawal of consciousness energy into a walled off or even completely alternative “me,” there is very healthy detachment of identity from the contents and activity of the mind as we project the sense of self OUTWARD Into the space of consciousness within which all the activity, the senses and thoughts and emotions arise. In other columns I have addressed this experience that everyone has and is identified as a “peak” or “zone” or “flow” moment, where the sense of separate self dissolves into the direct experience of seeing, hearing, feeling, acting in the moment, as the moment, and these moments are very satisfying and pleasurable.
“Our suffering is in our resistance to what is.” – Eckhart Tolle
We have all experienced being ensnared in painful “self-centered thinking” when our lives are confronted with some degree of difficulty or trauma, and as long as our sense of “me” is caught in the whirlwind of self-centered thought and emotion that accompany these experiences, we are in distress. I want to point to how the resolution of our distress always comes when we allow a letting go of holding our identity in the distress, when we step back from the identification, and then step OUT into acceptance, when we become the “what is” without resistance, as Eckhart Tolle would instruct us to do. There is this moment when we just become the moment as it is – the relationship, health, financial, or professional crisis – and there is no longer a beleaguered “me” there. We surrender our self-centered thinking into pure awareness of what is. Only then can we regather our lives and move on in a healthy manner centered in whatever action is necessary to address the “what is.”
The radical practice I am suggesting is to live all our life in this manner – not needing peak or calamitous circumstances to let go, to dissociate, self from the egoic personality. Learn to use the egoic mind as a tool, just the same as the body is a tool, for engaging and working with the world. It is not who you are. You are the awareness that HAS a body and mind. Learn to not block it with “self-centered thinking.” A skillful craftsperson takes good care of their tools – so too, it is important that we take good care of the tools of body and mind – just don’t confuse them for who you are – any more than you would confuse yourself for a hammer or a skillet if you function as a carpenter or a cook. Dissociate self from the tool of mind and you can become a master crafts-person of life – awareness personified.