“One day a six-year-old friend said to me, ‘Pretend you are surrounded by a thousand hungry tigers. What would you do?’ I visualized the situation as he had suggested and, coming up with no viable plan of action, said, ‘Wow, I don’t know. What would you do?’ And he replied, ‘I’d stop pretending.’”
By Bob O’Hearn
Most of us will typically point to our body, and then to our family, our job, our religion, our political affiliation, and so forth, in order to confirm the solidity of our independent existence. However, the problem remains that all those things keep changing, and so how is one really going to pin down and validate their own existence? Indeed, upon thorough inspection, we can recognize that nothing which we can perceive or conceive has any enduring reality, and that includes the pretenses and self-images that we’ve worked so hard to accumulate, nourish, assert, and defend.
If none of that is real, what is? Only Reality is real. It has nothing to do with names, forms, or temporary states of mind. Since it is limitless itself, it underlies all these superficial conditions. It is what is, exactly as it is. It transcends words and concepts like “existence” or “non-existence”. When all the false assumptions and presumptions and mental constructs fall away, what remains is what’s real. It is our own native awareness itself, the only thing that doesn’t change. It is what we are, even while we might be busy pretending that we are this, that, or the other.
Moreover, we cannot attain this awareness. Any effort to acquire it will only push us farther away. Since we are awareness, there is no need to chase after it, trying to add it to the ego-mind’s collection of self-confirming assets. It can never be an object of consciousness, since it is always prior to consciousness. Rather than trying to grasp the Real, a wiser approach would be to simply cease investing our attention and belief in the unreal. The unreal includes everything that we can think, feel, know, or imagine. Only then can reality emerge from behind the curtain of our self-imposed ignorance, and only then can we truly enjoy this present circumstance, whatever or wherever it might be.
Ignorance and un-enjoyment consist of imputing reality to that which is not real. The more we grant reality to that which is not, the more confused and unhappy we will be, and the more we will run around seeking here and there, trying to alleviate ourselves of the ensuing imaginary dis-ease. In fact, the only cure for the imaginary disease is to stop granting it reality. Stop pretending that the story of “me & mine” is what life is about, that we are an independent and alienated person in the midst of dangerous waters, and that there is some reason to be fearful and anxious about our own fictional creations.
Of course, saying that is one thing, but directly realizing it, and then actualizing such a liberating recognition in our life and relations, is obviously another matter altogether. The question is, how do we stop pretending to be what we are not, and awaken to who and what we really are? Fortunately, we have some useful guidance passed down from illumined sages on how to proceed — guidance which has the benefit of being time-tested and proven effective, when applied with devotion and discipline. It entails embarking upon a conscious process of listening, contemplating, meditating, and then cultivating/stabilizing.
Listening: If we don’t listen, then we won’t learn. Consequently, listening is the first step in the process of awakening. The opportunity may come through a variety of avenues, such as reading a certain text, or hearing an exposition from a teacher, watching a video presentation, or receiving some counsel from a friend or associate. In any case, something that we hear strikes us, penetrating our habitual fog, and resonating deep down in our being.
As the great Sage Sri Nisargadatta noted, “What you hear must enter you like an arrow and hit something deep within you. There must be an internal reaction; without the reaction what you hear won’t do you any good. You should know it when the arrow reaches its mark.”
In the common vernacular, we’ve heard of “Aha moments”, indicating a defining moment of sudden clarity, realization, inspiration, insight, recognition, or comprehension. For example, we might encounter someone who tells us that we are not the body that we have heretofore taken ourselves to be – that in fact we are much more than the physical manifestation. Living as we do within a material culture, we may have never considered such a possibility before, but now our interest has been aroused, and we begin to pay attention and listen more carefully.
This may lead to us pursuing more study on the subject, in effect listening to what various teachers have to say in regard to who and what we really are. By granting our attention in this manner, we have begun the process of exploration and inquiry which can open the door to eventual self-realization.
Contemplation: Having first listened, the next step is contemplation. In other words, we begin the process of pondering over what we have heard. “Is it true, and if so, what are the implications?”
Here, we employ our intellect in a consideration on the meaning and import of our initial insights and encounters with what we have heard. The intellect is a fine tool, when properly applied to the task of discernment. It can aid us in distinguishing the significant from the superfluous, allowing us to focus more clearly and effectively on what we really need to learn and understand. We carry around with us a lot of uninspected assumptions about the nature of reality, and by employing our refined intelligence, we can see through and release a lot of useless baggage.
At best, our conceptual faculty can point to that which lies beyond the realm of concepts, which leads us to the next step in the conscious process of liberation. Beyond merely intellectualizing about reality, one must eventually come to the direct experience of one’s true nature, otherwise they will always remain “on the outside, looking in”. Hence, the next step is direct seeing, also called meditation.
Meditation: The topic of meditation has generated enough written materials to fill up a huge library, and there are certainly many diverse and illuminating presentations on the subject that one can access through the various media. Fundamentally, true meditation is a process of deepening surrender, or letting go of all that we are not – all of our self-images, our pretense, our beliefs, assumptions, and mental fabrications, and thus all the sources of our mis-identification and ensuing stress and dissatisfaction. It does not so much represent adding a new tool to the tool box, as it does emptying of the whole box itself. It’s letting go of what we never were.
True meditation begins (and ends) with the discipline of silence. Unless we are able to quiet our normally chattering minds, we won’t get very far in terms of realizing what we are (and aren’t). Helpful in this effort is the practice of non-dwelling, by which we refrain from attaching to our thoughts and projections, but simply persist in a relaxed and alert manner to witness the thought stream, without manipulation or identification. We embrace nothing, and turn nothing away. None of it is what we are. When we see nothing, we can relax into that. Such stillness is the womb of Remembrance. Moreover, we are not trying to create some new, fascinating, or sublime experience. We are simply ceasing granting reality to the unreal.
Since we come to recognize, in the midst of our meditative inquiry, that everything which we thought we knew is not so, we can let go of our reliance on limiting beliefs and fall into the Unknown. In such surrender, a space is opened up for the shine of pure awareness to emerge from the background. It is the light behind the mind, which grants the universe the power to exist. Some may call it Love, but no term or description can really be applied, since it is beyond name or form.
At first, we may simply catch a glimpse, and as powerful as that initial insight may be, the power of our old habitual way of living and thinking usually returns to its dominant position in our psyche. The ego-mind is not so easy to dethrone, having ruled the roost for so long. It is a rare soul indeed who, having opened their eyes, is able to keep them open from there on in. Typically, it takes a lot of cultivation to fully embody the realization and so transcend all limits and boundaries.
Cultivation/Stabilization: As mentioned, old habits die hard. Even in the midst of profound realization, ego-mind can usually still be found trying to co-opt and claim it as its own, thereby affirming and confirming its existence. The great Sage Ramana Maharshi noted that, even if one were able to absorb themselves in high states of concentrative bliss (Nirvikalpa samadhi), they would be no closer to true liberation, at least until they were able to “root out the vasanas” (afflictions). In other words, even though we may glimpse our true nature, the poisons of greed, hatred, envy, arrogance, and ignorance still must be eliminated if we are to realize our immortal freedom and peace at heart.
This is where proper cultivation applies, in order that we may come to stabilize in recognition of our true nature, and reflect it in the way we behave and relate. Living with full integrity is the art of life, and being so, it requires all of our life, intention, and attention. There are many aspirants who have had deep realizations, but nevertheless still fail to embody what they have learned, because they have not thoroughly used that recognition which they gained in moments of insight to correspondingly see through and release chronic fixations and dysfunctional positions.
This is why it is traditionally recommended that one seek out a relationship with a qualified living Guide – someone who has been down this road already and can help one see straight and avoid the various pitfalls which can obstruct the way. It is not absolutely necessary, but there are very few who can go it alone, without some assistance, especially at critical junctures and turning points. Ego-mind is clever, our capacity to fool ourselves is enormous, and we all have blind spots which obscure and impede, often without our conscious knowledge.
What remains after this process is the same as what pertained prior to its inception, and it has only been our ignorance which has ever obscured it from us at any point. Awareness has not changed, only our appreciation of our true condition, or identity, has. We can’t strive to be this Awareness, since we already are this Awareness, prior to any sense of individual consciousness. We cannot become what we already are, we can only be “it”.
In order to do so, as the Sages remind us, we need to stop mistaking ourselves for what we are not – these bodies, associations, memories, sensations, or even consciousness at last. Our listening, contemplation, meditation, and cultivation must mature and ripen into the natural and spontaneous recognition that we are the luminous and timeless spaciousness of Awareness — Reality Itself – no longer prone to fooling ourselves that we are anything but “That”. In other words, we can finally stop pretending, let go of the unreal, and simply enjoy being who and what we truly are – the Source, the vital life, the manifest fruit, and the unfathomable beauty of Love.
“The most important thing is to enjoy your life and not be fooled by things.”