Anyone who has contemplated the nature of being knows they’re making up a story when they answer the question, “Who are you.?”
The story we make up depends upon who is asking the question. During a job interview, we deliver prerecorded messages about our work habits. At a cocktail party, we trot out some version of the most interesting man in the world. If we are speaking with a potential lover, we dim the lights and play romantic music.
An existentialist would say, “You are what you do.” In turn, we ask, “Why do we do what we do?” The thing that makes us tick, the mainspring that runs our clocks, is a collection of inherited traits, ideas, values, feelings, and accumulated magnetism that comes from mental operations evaluating our past experiences. The Tibetans know how to have fun. They call it bag chags. Hindus call it Vāsanā, and psychologists call it the accumulation of habitual tendencies which predispose us to particular patterns of behavior.
My particular bag chags predispose me to go on at length to set up a context in which my thoughts can be understood by others who may have had the same thoughts but cannot understand what the hell I’m saying. I suppose this trait is the result of frequent constant hammering by academic committees who were themselves hammered by other academic committees. It’s a cruel world.
Running Away from Home
My cohort, the collection of people who operate on their suffering in the ways that I do, comes from the materialistic West, a collection of cultures conditioned by the belief that reality is concrete, that the world is made of “things” called atoms which behave in a predictable manner described by a belief system called “science.” This mindset underlies our suffering. *See bag chags above.
Somewhere between the ages of 9 and 12, when we begin to realize that mommy cannot fix our suffering, we begin to rely upon the mind. So begins the journey. When we strike out into the world on our own, we may choose academic disciplines like philosophy or psychology to “figure things out.” When our suffering becomes acute, we pursue religious experience. When our native religion fails, we find it useful to run away from home.
Eastern paths become attractive. We fly trial balloons painted with “I’m, like, into…Aztec Toltec Buddha Hindu Cabala Mormon Sufi Zen.” Some may delve into western forms with eastern origins – Christian mysticism, or a variety of Pagan forms from ancient cultures. Others find solace in derived forms like astrology, the enneagram, numerology the I-Ching, Tarot Cards. Eventually, we return to our capitalist roots and rent a guru who has distilled a variety of religious and philosophical systems into a cohesive commercial package like A Course in Miracles, Avatar, Scientology, EST, and on and on from Bryon Katie to Zig Ziglar.
When these “other culture” fixes stop working, those of us who survive begin to meditate on the nature of Self.
The Big Bang
The problem of “self” began with the Big Bang. Physical science sees the Big Bang as a massive explosion where a Single Big Thing – literally everything in the Universe – went KA-BOOM and separated into zillions of things. As these smaller things traveled away from each other, the notion of space came into being. Because it takes a while for these separating pieces to get from point A to point B, the notion of time came into being. If you ask a science type how that Single Big Thing got there in the first place, he will begin to mumble. Chances are he is actually saying something, but most of us feel like a dog listening to a person speak. “Blah blah blah primordial potential blah blah.” Ms Oddi, my 5th-grade teacher, told me that God put it there.
Here is why The Big Bang is a Problem: In order to experience “being,” the “I” must separate from “The One.” There can be no “self” without this separation. Speculation on the nature of “self” is, therefore, a flawed narrative spoken by a first person narrator with a limited perspective. When my “self” thinks about my “self,” it is purely subjective.
We believe The Big Bang happened a long time ago because The Big Bang itself created time. Recursive self-generation contrives to create obvious facts that are, strangely enough, not facts. Each time you reach that timeless state where you are one with everything, you know, somehow, that time and space are contrived notions. The Self, however, rails against such an idea, because a separate, distinct individual can exist only after the Big Bang. All life is suffering because our notion that we are separate and distinct entities hurling through space at high speeds is a contrived notion. And yet, the tools our minds have for becoming conscious of existence, the very stuff of awareness, depends entirely on being separated from the one place we really want to be. What a pain in the ass.
Wu Li Masters
Physical science does not bother with the idea of self. In strict materialism, we are just bags of fluids with electrical pulses running through us. The best way to end suffering is to get a good job and buy a big truck.
People who have run away from home see the Big Bang as a metaphor signifying the separation from unity, creating the duality necessary for consciousness and awareness.
Please take a moment to adjust the contrast in your thought bubble.
Matter, or stuff, is made up of increasingly smaller units. All matter, from a galaxy right down to an atom in your fingernail, obeys the Laws of Physics. The good orderly direction of the Laws of Physics provides us with a measure of security. We feel safe, knowing that everything will be there when we wake up in the morning. Life is good. Then something terrible happens. Anarchy. An outlaw gang of sub-atomic particle physicists shows up. The Wu Li Masters (Teachers of Physical Essence) dance with The Merry Pranksters, and suddenly the Laws of Physics don’t work anymore.
Problems of duality did not arise in the field of science until quantum physics came into being. Until these guys started dissecting the atom, the laws of physics were a Fact. The solid, predictable nature of existence, heralded from the time of Aristotle right up until the Beatles made us start thinking about it, got blurry. Yes, there were smart people who understood what Albert Einstein was talking about way back when Henry Ford started up his assembly lines in Detroit, but most of us didn’t get it until we dropped a hit of acid. The Philosophers among us have come to terms with the anarchy by taking a cue from Einstein’s notebook. We know that everything is relative. It’s all about perception. The guys who work on sub-atomic particles feel the same way. They know that the observing system modifies that which is observed. It all depends on how you look at it.
Like the Self, which depends on its bag chags for a picture of reality that either promotes a nice, secure, safe feeling, or a churning nightmare of insecurity, the guys who cannot live with the contradictions between Newtonian Physics and Quantum mechanics have been scrambling for decades to explain why things ain’t what they’re supposed to be. Like a brilliant neurotic who cannot rest until he or she “figures it out,” they have come up with increasingly complex calculations that have rocketed out of the 4th dimension. We now have a calculus that can handle 11 dimensions. The secret formula for a unified field theory is hidden in the Tower of Babel.
The arc of descent
The Big Bang Happens. We are separated. We find our soul in a body, and we scramble to make sense of the world. We accumulate experiences and our mind incorporates these into evident truths, so we develop habitual tendencies – bag chags – that predispose us to particular patterns of behavior. Our personality, the mask we wear to navigate the world, colors our experience, and our bag chags cause us to behave in ways that accumulate something called “character.”
Most models of “self” hinge on duality: It’s all One, but here we are, separate from the one. We’re all in this together, but each of us is separate and distinct. Unless you’re one of the Three Musketeers, it’s every man for himself, which generates a trinity. In the egocentric world, it’s I, myself, & me. In society, it’s I, you, he/she/it. We take this for granted. Therein lies the rub. When Sri Maharishi Ramana followed the notion of “self” all the way to the end, he found nobody there.
Our notions of “self” are largely bound by culture. By culture, I mean a group of people who agree on a particular interpretation of archetypal myths. This unified interpretation makes things easy, in that there seems to be a hard, fast reality. It makes it difficult if that hard reality is difficult to accept. We become outcasts and we run away from home to find ourselves in alien cultures. The American experiment created a culture of outcasts united by the quest for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
For most of us born in the USA, culture is a quaint notion, an organizing principle enjoyed by our ancestors, but celebrated as little more than a nostalgic notion in our lifetime. As a result, we are confused. We have shifting notions of who we are, what our function is in the larger community. We adopt artificial roles that work for a time, then become dysfunctional as reality shifts.
Our interpretation of the myths that explain human existence alter with each film, with each novel, with each trend that comes along. We are barraged by images of who we should be, calculated to sell us laundry detergent. We find that we fall short. To cope with that, we have adopted post-modernism, a form of phenomenology that accepts everything as relative to a point of view. This works fine until we decide that we need to control reality in order to feel safe. We try to find security through romantic relationships, membership in clubs, professions, work, money, possessions, positions, status. Unless we are in denial or outright sociopaths, the quest for security, the attempt to control reality, results in fear, grinding anger, frustration, a sense of hopelessness. This is an arc of descent.
There is a hole in the doughnut and we seek madly to fill it with work, fun, love, booze, ice cream, hobbies, avocations, new shoes, a bigger boat, a faster car, fame, art.
Don Miguel Ruiz, in his book The Four Agreements, describes the fog we operate in. The Toltec term is the mitote. This fog is created by the false agreements we accepted – first as children in order to survive or to obey our caregivers, then as adults when we found we could get what we wanted, that we could feel safe by making false agreements. Ruiz describes these false agreements as the source of our pain. The arc of descent takes us ever farther from our true nature.
The arc of ascent
The hole in the doughnut is our desire to reverse the Big Bang, to be reunited with The One, The Divine, the Spirit of the Universe. God. Rumi describes the yearning song of the reed flute that is torn from its bed. That is our yearning, that is the hole in the doughnut. But we are human, separate, and everything we have learned is a result of this separation.
But there is something else, a quiet whisper, an intuition. We begin to understand that there is a lower self, that part of us that operates in the world beset with desires and fears., and a higher self, something or some part of us that is closer to the heavens. We begin to follow the bread crumbs that will take us back to the source. This is the arc of ascent. Often it begins when we run away from home and become seekers. For some, it starts in church or temple. For others, with the birth of a child, a magical experience in nature, a stroke, or a brain injury. The communication with the hidden part of ourselves, that vast connection we knew as children before the world jaded us, begins to open and we discover a different way of being in the world. We become free.
The range of Self starts at the lower end: complete self-absorption, and extends to the higher self: ecstatic awareness of the Unity of all Beings, which Ranger Bob calls having “both feet firmly planted in The Absolute.” We, all of us, experience the full range. At the low end, we suffer. At the high end, we feel joy. Our notion of self may be colored by the particular position between lower and higher self that we typically occupy with our mind and feelings. As we practice, in our daily lives, this movement from the lower self to the higher self, we embark upon the arc of ascent.
Thomas Carlyle presented the theological model for the arc of descent and ascent in his “Apologia pro via sutra, ” His attempt to master life through pure self-will plunged him into shades of Tartarian Darkness. After a long period of inquiry, he surrendered his agnostic logic. He emerged into the light by accepting Faith.
Gautama, born a royal prince, embarked on the arc of ascent by denouncing his birthright. He saw that life was suffering, that suffering was caused by wanting things to be different than they are.
Mohammed took a tour of the Seven Heavens with the Archangel Gabriel. When they reached the end of the seventh heaven, Mo was excited. At last, he thought, he would see God. But, there was nothing to see. Only a tree, the lote tree of the limits. There were symbols in the tree. “We cannot see God,” Gabriel told him. “Only symbols of his existence.”
The realization that the higher self is real, and that the lower self is an illusion, is called “enlightenment.” An old Zen proverb says, “After enlightenment, the dishes.”
Life goes on until it doesn’t. You never know what delightful surprise will come beyond the drudgery.
What we do for each other
Chances are you’ve worked your way through the problems of existence in your own way. Most of us arrive at the conundrum of the dual nature of reality, that we are somehow all one, and yet each of us is separate. Many of us have become enlightened. However, life is like a yo-yo. Sometimes it spins up. Sometimes it spins down.
When a friend gets stuck in the fog down at the bottom of the yo-yo string, we give him or her a nudge to bounce back up from the bottom. Winston Churchill said, “When you’re going through hell, don’t stop.”
When we get stuck in a rut so deep that we move in and furnish it, it’s time to run away from home. Try something new.
When the chaos of tumbling shards from the Big Bang gets overwhelming, we learn to enjoy the ride. That’s why God invented motorcycles.
The simple fact is, we were born knowing. But we need to be reminded of what we know from time to time. That’s why friends will tell us the same stories, the same parables, maxims, memes, jokes, the same truths time and again. We forget when we get lost in the fog of the day-to-day, and those same old things that we’ve already heard are like a signpost to remind us. It’s what we do for each other.
In the end, the true answer to the question, “Who are you?” is, “I am everything.” This sounds like a cop-out to most people, or, at least, a supremely egocentric answer. For those of us who have chosen a mystic’s path, the honest answer is “I don’t have any idea.” Anything else is just a story.