Don’t know where it came from, don’t know where it’s going…
How do you reconcile the spiritual seeker’s yearning for “no self” with the equally sought-after desire for a psychologically healthy ego? Are these seeming opposites compatible? If so, how? Is one better than the other?
Since someone taking the second course of my Life Principles Integration Process online courses (which is about such spiritual matters) asked me…here’s my answer:
Lesson 1 brought up for me 2 topics I’ve struggled with for awhile. The first is how do you reconcile a spiritual “no self” with a “psychologically healthy “strong I.” In other words if you truly see all as one, and practice no resistance (or as you call letting whatever happens be ok) how do you at the same time set boundaries and no longer allow “unhealthy people, things in your space” because by definition in doing that you are playing the duality game.
The 2nd is how do you reconcile – trying to control the game and therefore get the outcomes you want with the co-creative process with spirit. Isn’t there a bigger picture or a higher self that might have a different agenda than what our ego thinks it wants at the moment? So how do you play with the energies and when do you try for outcomes and when do you “let go and let god”.
You’ve asked a key and fundamental question.
First, I want to say that I don’t think any of this is metaphysical (which is how almost everyone looks at it). Metaphysics is the refuge of those who don’t understand something–to solve the dilemma of not knowing, they attribute what they don’t understand to something mystical, something beyond the physical. This really doesn’t answer the question, though– other than saying “God did it,” or “The Tao did it,” or something like that. It just pushes the question off onto “God,” or something else.
This is a type of magical thinking, where you make up a “something” to be responsible for something you don’t understand. This might make you feel better, but it doesn’t really solve the problem. And, some of these questions aren’t answerable, and never will be answered. Acknowledging that, and being comfortable with not knowing, is the mark of a spiritually mature person.
At any rate, with that introduction, here’s the answer to your question (some of this is newer thinking for me and isn’t fully developed in the course lessons).
The universe is one interconnected thing/event, flowing along like water in a river. But our mind divides this one thing/event into supposedly separate things and events. These separate things and events, however, are just ideas about reality. They don’t really exist other than in our minds.
These ideas about reality are, however, absolutely necessary. Our nervous system creates them because they help us to survive and navigate our way through life. One aspect of dividing things into this and that is the creation of preferences–what Alan Watts called the Game of Black and White, where the main rule is that White Must Win. This is called ‘having attachments” in the language of Eastern philosophy. And though this game is the cause of suffering, we have to play in order to be here.
This is what is called “a double bind”–a “damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t” proposition. There is no way to be human without having preferences. If we didn’t prefer eating over not eating, or procreating over not procreating, or being safe over not being safe (etc, etc) the human race would have been gone long ago. These preferences, of course, also include such things as setting boundaries, as you mention in your question.
So people must, and do, try to “control the game.” If you don’t try, you can’t survive (and, if you weren’t trying to “control the game” there wouldn’t be anything to do). Yet if you do try, you create suffering. Can you see how this is a double bind?
Many people see experiences of the transcendent, where there are no distinctions, as an escape from the suffering and frustrations of being a human being. In fact, most of Hinduism is about getting to this state (“moksha,” or liberation) and, hopefully, staying there. In Zen, though, being established in the transcendent is only the third of five stages (there are many other ways of naming these stages, though, some of which include more than five–the Ten Ox-herding pictures, in Zen, for instance–but they’re really the same stages divided in different ways). And, many Zen people acknowledge that human beings can’t escape making distinctions and becoming attached to things.
In Hinduism many of the famous gurus mostly just sit in a no-mind blissed out state called samadhi–they’re in this third stage, permanently established in the transcendent. However, they can only do this because in their culture they are so revered that their followers take care of their human needs. When someone gains the ability to be in the transcendent continuously, rather than just “visiting” (through meditation or some other practice), it seems as if they have escaped from the human condition. From the perspective of the transcendent there are no distinctions, no suffering, no this or that–just peace.
Despite this, the human condition eventually hits this blissed out person over the head. Human beings have to eat, defecate, come in out of the cold, and so forth. Blissed out or not, they have to deal with several aspects of the human condition from which you can’t escape. These are:
1) Cause and effect: We’re all caught in a giant matrix of cause and effect. Cause and effect is, in fact, one of the most significant aspects of that one thing/event that is flowing along like water. Cause and effect subjects us to physical forces beyond our control: gravity, weather, the sun, geological events, etc. What’s more, there are billions of other people (and animals) who have agendas different from ours.
This means that sometimes we don’t get what we want, or sometimes get what we don’t want. Though we learn to do what we can to mitigate this, ultimately cause and effect is beyond our control and all of this getting-what-we-don’t-want creates suffering. Being in the transcendent might make a person not give a shit about cause and effect, but they still can’t escape from it. Many of the consequences in the cause-and-effect matrix don’t depend at all on whether or not you give a shit.
2) Impermanence: All things, including everything you have, want, or love, eventually ends. This includes the thing you’re most attached to: that which you think of as “me.” This dilemma of impermanence also creates suffering.
There is no escape from cause and effect or impermanence, and the fourth stage is one where these realities rear their ugly heads and must be dealt with (which happens, however, from a perspective of knowing the transcendent and having a LOT of awareness that other people don’t have). Then, finally, Stage Five is where you finally (if you ever make it) successfully transcend and include both the transcendent and the relative, where you integrate the “being” part of life with the “human” part.
One way to look at this would be to say that someone at this fifth stage knows that there is no escape from the human condition (i.e., cause and effect and impermanence). So, with incredible awareness, this person CHOOSES how to relate to the human condition. Where the average person makes distinctions and becomes attached to this or that UNCONSCIOUSLY, with little awareness of the consequences, the awakened human being chooses his or her attachments, with an awareness of the potential consequences (or at least being much more aware of them than the average person–I don’t know that anyone can ever be FULLY aware of all the consequences).
Zen master Genpo Roshi, for instance, has said that he CHOOSES to be attached to his wife, his children, his motorcycle, his dog, etc. He knows that these things are impermanent, and he knows that they may not always act in the way he would like them to. So he makes these distinctions and enters into these attachments with his eyes wide open, knowing the consequences of doing so. He doesn’t get to choose “no consequences,” but he can choose WHICH consequences.
Not making such distinctions, or not entering into attachments–if that were possible (which I don’t think it is)–would make life dry and boring–in fact, lifeless. To be here, to be a human being, you have to play the Game of Black and White. The question is, will you play with awareness, by choice–or unconsciously and automatically, without choice?
I’ve written two lengthy articles about these five stages on my (this) blog. The first one is called The Five Stages of Waking Up and the second (which is the post right after that one) is called (I think) So There You Are, Enlightened. You might want to read them.
But wait, there’s more. I received this answer from Maureen:
Thanks so much after 20 some odd years of “searching” you are the only one who has ever explained this in a way that makes sense. Conscious “choosing” to play the game makes total sense. Before it always seemed like you either had no attachments and had achieved enlightenment. bliss etc (how do you do anything) or were attached and still on the road of suffering. Realizing the consequences and doing it consciously is brilliant. Thanks SO much.
And I couldn’t resist answering her:
I will say, though, that this process of waking up isn’t an easy one, in many ways. (Do, by the way, go read those blog posts–and, there are quite a few other related posts on the blog, too.)
As you probably already know, just to have a deep and bona fide experience of the transcendent escapes most people. This is largely because to have such an experience you have to let go, at least temporarily, of your entire Internal Map of Reality, with all it’s ideas, beliefs, concepts, etc., and also all your dividing of the world into this and that. You have to go to a place where there’s just awareness, but without any contents of awareness. This isn’t easy to accomplish. If you even get close to letting all this stuff go, even for a moment, you get a weird feeling of having nowhere to stand, no reference point around which to build your sense of “me.”
This freaks most people out, and keeps them from “taking that first step off the 100-foot pole” (as they say in Zen). This step is a leap into the unknown, and for some reason most people think something negative will happen, even though that isn’t what happens. You can do certain things to make it more likely that this experience of pure awareness will happen, but in some ways whether it happens is a matter of grace (which really means “nobody knows why it happens to some people and doesn’t happen to others”).
Then, to get to a place where you can do more than just visit the transcendent is an even greater accomplishment. This involves an even more complete dropping of your identification with your mental map, your “I’m me” reference point.
I might add, though, that this doesn’t mean you permanently lose your mental map. As I said, you need one to survive. Rather, you become keenly aware of the difference between that map (including your idea of who you are) and the territory it represents AND YOU RARELY, IF EVER, FAIL TO BE AWARE OF THAT DIFFERENCE, even if it looks to others as if you’re behaving just like everyone else. You go from the deluded place of BEING your idea of who you are (ie, thinking that your idea of “me” is the same as the real me) to HAVING an idea of who you are, but without confusing that idea with the reality. As I said, that map is not only handy, it’s absolutely necessary.
Then, there is the fall from grace, so to speak, where the relative world inevitably intrudes into your experience of the transcendent and informs you, so to speak, that despite your transcendent experience there is no escape (other than death) from the human condition.
Finally, there is (if you ever get there) the integration of the relative and the transcendent, the fifth stage. You transcend AND include both the relative and the transcendent–you integrate your humanness and your beingness.
Each of these stages (even including the fall from grace, which in many ways is a tour of the hell realms of being human) is a monumental accomplishment. VERY few humans get to the last stage. Most of the people who are thought of as “enlightened” in popular spiritual culture are actually in stage three (Eckhart Tolle, for instance, is at stage three, [it appears that way to me, anyway–but what do I know]–as, I think, is Byron Katie, and many of the popular Hindu gurus).
This entire process involves a continuing and expanding increase in awareness. Though part of this is awareness of the transcendence–the part most people want to be aware of–you also become intensely aware of the suffering inherent in the human condition. Before a person reaches the stage where they fully embody the transcendent (stage three), human life is almost entirely about trying to escape from, mitigate, or find ways to distract oneself from suffering. Most human activities–seeking power, knowledge, redemption, salvation, riches, or status; following various health regimens or seeking creature-comforts; or becoming absorbed in certain pastimes–are natural human attempts to escape from or distract oneself from suffering.
When someone reached that third stage, where they can really hang out in the transcendent, rather than just visiting, that person has become extremely aware. Later, when the fall from grace (inevitably) comes, this awareness makes it a certainty that this person will feel not only their own suffering, but also that of all living things. This happens with an incredible intensity. No distraction or attempt to escape–no religion, money, power, fame, knowledge, health regimen, or anything else–can keep such a person from feeling the full extent of all human suffering. This would be unbearable without the deep and total experience of the transcendent. Even then, the enormity of one’s own suffering, plus the endless suffering of all other living things, hits you like a ton of bricks.
In Buddhism this experience is personified by the bodhisatva Kanzeon, the embodiment of compassion. Kanzeon feels and holds the entire suffering of all living things. If a person goes far enough in this process they, in a sense, become Kanzeon. (The other major embodiment is that of wisdom.)
When you stop trying to escape from the human condition, when you stop trying to grab at everything you think might possibly save you from the-way-things-really-are (cause and effect and impermanence in particular), and you really allow yourself to be fully aware of the entire spectrum of existence, from the greatest bliss to the greatest suffering, you are face to face with REALITY, as it is. To handle this requires tremendous courage and tremendous awareness. (And you can’t just “decide” to face reality in this way. If it happens, it is a result of a lot of practice and a certain amount of grace–for want of a better word.)
The person who has arrived at this point is no more and no less caught in the human condition than any other person. They’re just much more AWARE of the way things really are. I’ve said that awareness provides the solution to every human problem for which there is a solution. Awareness also puts you face to face with the many aspects of being human about which you have no choice, to which there is no solution.
Once you gain this kind of awareness, it’s too late to say, “This is too much. Forget it.” You can’t just decide to go back to hoping that more money, power, love, knowledge, the right religion, the right dogma, the right theory, or even enlightenment (or, for that matter, anything else) will save you. It’s very clear at this point that nothing can or will save you (or anyone else) from the human condition. There you are, right in the middle of an incredibly mysterious situation over which you have only the slightest amount of control. You don’t know why it’s happening, you barely know what is happening–and you don’t know for sure where it came from or where it’s going.
There’s nothing left to do but live. When it’s time to eat, eat. When it’s time to sleep, sleep.
And when it’s time to party, party.
(click the player above to listen to this post)
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