That art thou

“That art thou” is the pinnacle of teaching in the Chandogya Upanishad, a central text of Hinduism.

“In the beginning, there was Existence alone; that is one only, without a second.

He thought ‘Let me be many and let me grow forth.’ Out of Himself, He thus projected the universe.

He entered into every being and every thing. All that is has its self in Him alone.

He is the Self. And that, Svetaketu, That art Thou.”

They called this “existence itself” Brahman, and the individual soul they called Atman. Hence the central spiritual revelation: Atman is Brahman.

The different religions conceive of “existence itself” by different names, but they all have some form of “that art thou” moment.

I think it ultimately comes down to the individual. For some, being “children of God” is the most powerful and moving expression of our relationship with the divine.

For others “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” makes the most sense.

In fact in Christianity there are countless ways of expressing the good news that we are not separate from God.

In Buddhism we see a new approach to convey non-separation by doing away with the hallowed Hindu notion of atman. Anatman means “no atman”. There is no self and no Brahman. All is “empty” of self, sunyata.

Yet this emptiness is itself enlightenment, another realisation that we are not separate from all that is.

And as Buddhism evolved people found new ways of expressing non-separation, focusing on Buddha-nature within ourselves and all sentient beings, focusing on Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in devotion, prayer, and oneness, with numerous esoteric and mystical practices and sects each having their own emphasis and nuance.

Whatever the teaching, all seek to bring us to a point of realising we are not and have never been separate from the power that created all existence. And further that we should therefore fear nothing, want for nothing, but instead dwell in the love, joy, and contentment of being one with the divine.

Turning disappointment into eagerness

There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. – Leonard Cohen

Religions stress the impermanence and emptiness of desire in contrast to the abundance of love and joy that awaits us in the divine.

Echoing the Buddhist Four Noble Truths we are told that life is dissatisfying, and lasting satisfaction proves elusive.

But at the same time we still live in this world. And even enlightened or holy men and women do not rush to end their lives to be closer to God.

Life has a purpose. But how could any purpose be higher than the ultimate goal that awaits us after death?

What value does this dissatisfying life hold? How are we supposed to engage with something intrinsically dissatisfying?

In fact it’s not a flaw in existence that our desires are never lastingly satisfied in this lifetime, because if they were lastingly satisfied we would cease to grow, develop, and expand.

The whole of creation is unnecessary, strictly speaking, but we are told that God went ahead and created everything anyway, because He is not a God of necessities.

Like a writer can’t help but write, it tells us something of the nature of the divine that it outpoured itself into the manifold forms of existence.

An abundance of life and matter and elements and being and movement and energy, coalescing and evolving and coming apart and expanding and growing and changing.

Creation is alive, and the creator is alive too.

What feels to us like dissatisfaction in life is only so when we look for things that complete, finish, or conclude life, even though we ourselves and everything else continues to grow and change and expand.

Dissatisfaction is like getting upset when my smartphone can’t run the latest apps.

But would we be happier if people stopped making new apps instead? Would we be satisfied if we got to iPhone X and said “okay, that’s enough now”?

Why stop there? Weren’t the old Nokia 3310s good enough in their day?

If we want to start complaining about new technology we can go back at least as far as Socrates warning that reading and writing would lead to forgetfulness and false presumption of knowledge.

Satisfied and eager for more

A much better place to be is in a state of appreciation for the things we have, and eagerness for what is coming.

My current smartphone is amazing and I feel good just imagining all the future forms that this technology will take.

I know full well that this particular smartphone, or any piece of technology, will not bring lasting satisfaction.

There will always be more. And as more comes, it too will not be the end point.

Because satisfaction does not come from things it comes from us. And it is out of our excitement and passion and wonder and inspiration that new things are dreamt into being.

Life is dissatisfying when we keep looking for things to satisfy us. But life is satisfying when we embrace the excitement and eagerness of the growth and expansion and change that we are a part of merely by being alive.

It’s not just about new technology, it’s about everything. We are all continually evaluating and refining what we want out of life. No sooner do we arrive somewhere but we begin to work out where we would really like to be.

The idea of “satisfied with what is and eager for more” comes from the Abraham Hicks material. So does the observation that we can either work with this process of refining and embracing what we want, or we can fight it by fixating on what we don’t want.

The latter is precisely what keeps us stuck in feelings of dissatisfaction and worse.

Eagerness and enthusiasm are so much more enjoyable! There is so much to be gained in embracing the positive and turning towards the wanted aspects of life.

And most importantly, doing so makes sense of the otherwise confusing disparity between the love and joy of our creator and the apparent flaws and faults of the world.

Everything is perfect as it is

The mystics attest that everything is perfect as it is.

As a teenager I accepted this and sought to arrive at the same perspective – to experience everything as already perfect.

But I could never seem to maintain that experience of perfection, and in my efforts to regain it and hold it for longer I inadvertently accepted a new premise:

Everything is perfect as it is, if only I could realise it.

Realising the perfection of everything became, paradoxically, a personal imperfection I struggled to overcome.

In the Abraham Hicks material, it is advised that we adopt an attitude of appreciation towards “what is”, to accept that where we are right now is exactly where we are meant to be.

This can seem hard to stomach when we don’t like aspects of our present reality. But the whole point is that our focus, our expectations and our attitude create our reality, so the best thing we can do to improve reality is accept it and appreciate it as it is.

But the caveat is that there’s only one reason why we seek to improve reality in the first place: because we believe we will feel better.

Insisting that circumstances change before we can feel better is putting the cart before the horse. But so is insisting that nothing change until I feel better.

Not only did I make “realising perfection” an unattainable desire that embodied all the imperfection in my reality, but I implicitly insisted that nothing at all could improve or should improve until I achieved that desire.

I told myself there was no point doing anything, because anything I could do was irrelevant and deluded without my goal of “realising perfection”.

Realising perfection, the very thing that was supposed to eliminate imperfection and struggle, became the narrow focus of all imperfection and struggle.

I wanted to be enlightened, and I determined that life itself was meaningless and irrelevant unless and until I accomplished that spiritual goal.

So what now?

Well, everything is perfect as it is, is an attitude rather than an accomplishment. It’s not a “realisation” to be gained by sufficient understanding (even though I understand it now). Instead it is an attitude to adopt that makes life feel better…as though everything actually were perfect.

Because the perfection of everything includes not only external things and other people, it includes my own self.

As I sought to “realise” perfection before, I continued to view myself as imperfect. But if I view myself – and everything else – as perfect, then…that’s perfect!

Enlightenment and Depression

So…if your sense of self is really just a bunch of thoughts and impressions created by your mind – or more profoundly: the mind, Buddha-nature, God, consciousness, Brahman – then doesn’t that mean experiences of negative mental states like anxiety and depression are also products of this same mind?

All thoughts and impressions come from the same place. So although on the relative level your depression can be viewed as your reaction to negative life-events, on the absolute level there is no difference between “you” and “your reaction”. Both are products of mind.

Which is pretty weird, if you think about it.

It’s as if you’re a character in a story, and you think the things that befall you are due to your beliefs and choices and actions. But in fact both you and all the circumstances in and around you are created by the author. You have no control, because “you” are just another part of what is being written.

So when “you” start thinking about this, it’s not as though “you” are exercising your autonomy and control over your thoughts and circumstances. It means the author has gone from writing “you – who doesn’t think about this stuff” to writing “you – now thinking about this stuff and realising how weird it is”.

Likewise, these mental states like depression and anxiety; it’s not that “you” suddenly become afflicted by anxiety or depression. There’s no central, coherent, unified “you” who suffers those states. Instead the author has gone from writing “you without depression” to writing “you with depression”. If the depression stops, it will be because the author is now writing “you with depression stopping and feeling relieved about it”.

So what’s going on? Is the author an arsehole? Why is he or it inflicting so much suffering on everyone?

Well, the weird thing is that there is no “everyone” on whom suffering is inflicted.

There are temporary thoughts and impressions, some of which contain the belief that there is an “everyone” who is suffering.

But there are other temporary thoughts and impressions that recognise all thoughts and impressions as coming from the same place.

The thoughts that are full of suffering only think they are full of suffering. They aren’t actually full of suffering.

In other words, if you are depressed, but you then recognise that all thoughts and impressions come from the same place, then it’s not that you would stop being depressed, but that the “you” who feels assailed by depression would no longer be a separate, distinct, enduring entity who can be assailed by things like depression.

If the author writes a character experiencing depression, it’s not as though he first writes the character and then assails them with depression. No, the author writes the character-with-depression as one thing. Then later he writes the character-after-depression as another thing. There’s no actual, continuous character who exists from beginning to end and is assailed by depression, then recovers from it.

Moment by moment, our thoughts and impressions are coming from the same place. They don’t linger. Like the frames in a movie. Some objects in a movie scene might appear to stay still while others, like the actors, move around. But in reality we are seeing continuous individual frames. The sequence is composed of individual frames, and for an object just to remain static in place it must still be reproduced one frame at a time in every frame.

On the relative level we all have individual reasons for the negative mental states we experience. But on the absolute level, our negative mental states are all due to one thing: we mistake the “self” of our thoughts and impressions for an actual entity.

But who commits that mistake? Isn’t it too a product of the same author?

This is why there is such ambivalence about the nature of delusion in Buddhism, and the nature of evil in Christianity. If God is all powerful, is he also responsible for the existence of evil?

One thing is clear: despite the ambivalence over causation, delusion will be overcome and evil will be vanquished. There is no ambivalence about the end. Delusion and enlightenment, evil and good, they are not viewed as equal and opposite pairs.

Depression is a horrible experience, but when we recognise that both the experience and the apparent subject of that experience are products of thoughts and impressions that arise from the same place, then both the suffering and the one who suffers are transcended. The son of man has nowhere to lay his head.

At the same time, there comes the realisation that even this realisation itself has come from the same place as all the other thoughts and impressions. The quality has changed, but not the source.

And at that moment there comes the realisation that this realisation too is coming from the same place – that the author is now writing himself into the story as the author. And everything it took to arrive at this point – all the suffering and confusion and striving and grasping and gradual realisation – that too was the author, writing everything.

And when it stops, when realisation is replaced with forgetfulness and the door closes once more and it feels like “you” have returned to normal…who do you think is doing that?

When suffering is good for you

Suffering is a key theme of all religious traditions. They tend to treat suffering as something inevitable, but not intrinsic. That is, we all suffer, but only because something has gone wrong in us, the world, or reality itself.

Christianity and Buddhism (and everything in between) attest that true peace and contentment cannot be found in worldly things, or in the satisfaction of our desires.  From a religious point of view, we are all suffering whether we realise it or not. The first step is to realise it.

But it is possible, with sufficient wealth and self-delusion, to distract ourselves from suffering. We can run headlong into distractions – career, relationships, experiences, whatever will feed our pride and fill us with the promise of self-sufficiency.

We can let suffering feel like our opponent in the private drama of achieving success, personal validation, vindication, of finally making it. We can attribute our suffering to not being busy enough, or rich enough, on not having enough holidays, not having the right friends, not having the right distractions.

But these efforts will only intensify our suffering in the long-run. They will turn us into the kind of person who doesn’t know how to suffer, or more importantly, doesn’t know how to let go of the roots of suffering.

Because the roots of suffering lie in our false sense of autonomy, our desire to be in control. At the deepest level of our being there is no “me” to exercise this control, there is no interior agent behind our choices and decisions. Our efforts to feel in control are vain in light of the actual causes and determinants of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

The mind is very powerful.

It creates an impression of our reality – both the external and internal components. It also makes decisions in accordance with the reality it creates.

But the mind makes these decisions automatically. It weighs the evidence, arrives at a judgment, and thus the decision is made.

It does not require there to be a further arbiter of these decisions, yet we nonetheless have the strong impression that there is a “me” who guides these judgments and makes these decisions.

This is the crux of the problem: the mind creates all our impressions, yet we have an impression of a self, a “me”, who controls the mind. This means that the mind feels bound and controlled by the very impressions it has created.

The mind treats this impression of a self as if it is an actual self. It treats it with care. Like a spoiled child it caters to its whims. It factors this impression of a self into its decision-making so that its decisions are consistent with the illusion of this self being in control.

It creates a center where none exists, and then acts as though that center is vulnerable yet powerful, in control yet susceptible to losing control.

This is the delusion of self that the mind suffers – a delusion the mind itself has created. This is likewise the sin of pride, the root of all sin that seeks to make us the authors of our own glory.

As Isaiah wrote:

You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?
Shall the thing made say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,
“He has no understanding”?

But what makes pride so difficult to be rid of, and enlightenment so hard to achieve, is that this delusion of a self persists even when we seek to let go of it.

That is why Christianity invokes grace so strongly – the free gift of holiness and redemption that comes from God in spite of our own efforts. If it came via our efforts it would only increase our pride.

Likewise, the point of enlightenment in Buddhism is that there is no enlightenment once the delusion of an agent, a self who is in control, is erased.

But the mind does exist. And there is, in essence, no difference between the deluded mind and the enlightened mind. It’s the same mind all along.

That’s why suffering can be a gift, when it encourages the mind to stop investing in the false impression of a self. Suffering is, after all, something that makes sense only in the context of a self who suffers, desires, strives and fails.

All thoughts come from the same place

I feel like I’m in control of my thoughts, choices, actions. It’s as though I’m steering myself through life, trying to avoid obstacles and collect rewards along the way.

And right behind the steering wheel is ‘me’, a sense of self that is possessive, vulnerable to harm, and carries with it a persistent identity.

Buddhism tells us that if we observe this sense of self closely we’ll find that there is no substance to it. It’s made up of multiple thoughts, ideas, and images. Like a trompe l’oeil or optical illusion, these thoughts and impressions create the mental illusion of a substantial self where none exists.

But who is the subject of this illusion?

The mind is the subject, or in some traditions it is pure consciousness itself.

The problem for humanity then is that we think we are these possessive, vulnerable and persistent selves subject to fear and craving, when in fact we are minds, or consciousness.

Or to put it another way: we are minds that mistakenly identify with these illusory selves.

These illusory selves might be possessive, fearful, and full of craving, but our minds are not, our consciousness is not.

Asking the wrong questions

But why do our minds identify with this illusory self? Why do they try so hard to sustain the illusion? And how can we finally dispel the illusion?

These are (in my case at least) the wrong questions to ask, because I am asking them with the assumption that I can gain understanding, maybe work out where it’s all going wrong, and then fix it.

In other words, I’m treating the “illusion of a self” as just another obstacle to steer myself through.

The roots of the illusion run deep. The mind is deeply deluded. Ultimately there’s nothing you can do to free yourself, because anything “you” can do will just be part of the illusion.

All thoughts come from the same place

But even these wrong questions are not coming from “me”, because both the questions and the sense of self are coming from the same place, from mind or consciousness.

If all thoughts come from the same place, then whether we are deluded or enlightened is beyond “our” control. And whether we stay deluded or cease being deluded is likewise beyond our control.

Recognising this truth is itself a step toward enlightenment. Enlightenment being ultimately freedom from the heavy delusion of this possessive, vulnerable, fearful and desirous self that the mind believes it must maintain.

Nowhere to lay your head

Buddhists go to a subjective extreme: everything in your experience is a thought-form or impression arising out of the emptiness of pure consciousness, persisting for a moment, and then falling away back into that same emptiness – the whole time not truly other than emptiness.

Christianity goes to an objective extreme: all beings are contingent on the divine being for their nature and existence. We exist only via limited participation in God’s being, who is pure being-itself.

In either case, we can take refuge in the objective reality of God or the subjective reality of ’emptiness’ as our true home and true self.

But in the meantime, inquiry, practice and diligent effort seem to be a part of the progress toward liberation from the illusion of self, until we arrive at the point where any further effort is counter-productive.

As one famous Hindu mystic put it, it’s like using a stick to poke and stir a fire. When you’re done with it, you throw the stick in to burn as well.

Pride and the delusion of self

Seeing parallels between religions as diverse as Christianity and Buddhism depends on a familiarity with the themes expressed in their mystical and esoteric writings.

For example, it is thought by many that Buddhism denies the existence of a soul and that it aims at a nihilistic destruction of the psychological self.

Likewise, many believe that Christianity focuses on heavenly rewards for earthly virtue, through a peculiar filial relationship with a supernatural being, mediated by arcane, seemingly arbitrary laws or commandments.

The reality is that Buddhism and Christianity are neither the same, nor are they entirely different.

But after many years of reading the commonalities have come to the fore, and the differences seem much less significant. I don’t spend time worrying about how reincarnation can be reconciled with the Christian afterlife, because in terms of my own practice these questions are not significant.

What are significant are things like the Christian perspective on pride in relation to the Buddhist perspective on the illusory nature of the self.

Here’s one of my favourite passages on pride, from the 4th Century ascetic monk, John Cassian:

For as he (viz., Lucifer) was endowed with divine splendour, and shone forth among the other higher powers by the bounty of his Maker, he believed that he had acquired the splendour of that wisdom and the beauty of those powers, with which he was graced by the gift of the Creator, by the might of his own nature, and not by the beneficence of His generosity. And on this account he was puffed up as if he stood in no need of divine assistance in order to continue in this state of purity, and esteemed himself to be like God, as if, like God, he had no need of any one, and trusting in the power of his own will, fancied that through it he could richly supply himself with everything which was necessary for the consummation of virtue or for the perpetuation of perfect bliss. This thought alone was the cause of his first fall.

What he’s describing is the fall of Lucifer, who was the greatest of the angels but succumbed to pride and so fell from heaven.

Cassian describes the sin of pride in terms of Lucifer’s false belief that attributed his own greatness to himself rather than to God. Cassian goes on in the context of the subsequent fall of man:

For while he believed that by the freedom of his will and by his own efforts he could obtain the glory of Deity, he actually lost that glory which he already possessed through the free gift of the Creator.

The logic of pride and the fall is the same. It is a mistaken belief in one’s own powers and self-sufficiency. Cassian draws on scripture to demonstrate the contrast between pride and the corresponding remedy of humility:

For the one says, “I will ascend into heaven;” the other, “My soul was brought low even to the ground.” The one says, “And I will be like the most High;” the other, “Though He was in the form of God, yet He emptied Himself and took the form of a servant, and humbled Himself and became obedient unto death.”

Finally, Cassian describes how we can overcome pride:

And so we can escape the snare of this most evil spirit, if in the case of every virtue in which we feel that we make progress, we say these words of the Apostle: “Not I, but the grace of God with me,” and “by the grace of God I am what I am;” and “it is God that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.”

That last line is especially significant, as it undermines the freedom of the will and sense of agency that are themselves the greatest symptom of our pride.

This is where I see a direct parallel with Buddhist teaching on the nature of the self. An important part of this teaching is that our sense of self and our cherished identity are a delusion that we take for real. Enlightenment amounts in part to seeing that these selfish thoughts and impressions are not substantial, that there is no self who sits in control of our will and actions.

This is what “puffed up” means in Cassian’s words. Pride is an inflation of our sense of self, til it obscures the reality of our total dependence on God.

The problem with the Christian teaching on pride is that we often interpret it in very limited, human terms. We think pride is just about arrogance, and selfishness is about being inconsiderate of others.

But taken to their extreme we see both in the nature of the fall and in the remedy that pride is much more profound than this. On a spiritual level, pride is a mistaken belief in the primacy and power of our own will. Or to put it more strongly, it is a sense of ownership and control over our will, when in truth “it is God that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.”

Christianity is predominantly a devotional religion, focusing on the individual relationship with God. Yet in the depths of this relationship the mystics report a sense of their own negation in God’s love. That is, they experience a union with God that totally changes their own sense of self and agency.

Buddhism is not typically a devotional religion. Instead it focuses on this experience of the negation of the self, without attempting to express in devotional terms the reality into which the self is subsumed.

But in both cases, the obstacle to this insight is the delusion of control, of will, of self-sufficiency. Buddhists will not talk of it in terms of pride and humility, and Christians will not talk of it in terms of self and no-self. Nonetheless it is my belief that they are speaking of the same thing.