In this passage, I wish to express a fundamental paradox of spiritual thought -- though perhaps the notion of a spiritual paradox is redundant, as the longer one reflects upon spirituality, the less he can discern where paradox and spirituality are distinct from one another.
The nature of this paradox also involves a second staple of spiritualistic pursuit, which is that vexingly unfamiliar familiar -- the self.
Taking the two themes together, you might expect here some insight into “the paradox of the self” -- perhaps this phrase even captures spirituality in its total essence, though for now, I will leave that conclusion to those who know better.
The origin of our questionings, the trail of breadcrumbs that leads us down the path of earnest investigation, is a no more than a curious observation.
Namely, that we so often hear from people who, as a result of great passion, focus, diligence, or excitement, express the sensation of losing themselves to their passions.
In the abstract of course, the notion of “losing yourself” is horrifying; such a condition forms the basis for a profusion of mental illness. And yet if you posed to one of these people, at what time in their life experience they feel most alive, and most true to and secure in themselves, it is not at all unusual for that same person to perceive his period of prolonged “selflessness” as in fact being the moment when he felt most in control and aware of his self.
How curious too, that in social company we might become “self-conscious,” and though on the face of it, these words might indicate being in touch with and true to our inner ideas, such a reflexive disposition in fact quite often seems an obstacle to it.
One concludes that our self is always coming and going, and certainly not at our own behest. Moreover it seems our true self mercifully arriving is more accurately termed a departure, of the anxiety and critical consciousness that obstructs it. When we are being critical, we are in control -- we scrutinize, we plan, we think -- yet our line of reasoning heretofore implies that to be in control and aware is to separate yourself from yourself. The state of thoughtless focus we call our true self accompanies loss of control, a willingness to follow impulse and intuition. A deeper connection at the price of lost personal, rather “selfish” autonomy.
In short, there are ample contradictions in terms.
To lose yourself, all too often is to find it. That which makes you, you, seems to be that which destroys and dissociates you from yourself.
If I could be so bold, I would claim with good certainty to know clearly the linchpin of this misunderstanding. And -- if, before I reveal this insight, you’ll indulge my only partly facetious wordplay -- perhaps by now it might not be surprising, that this linchpin is found, on the face of it, in the most surprising of places. Though we might do well to drop the entire concept of surprise, as we begin to find that, depending on how we look at it, things can be surprising in their unsurprisingness, or unsurprising in their surprisingness. This same logic might demand as well our jetsaming the term "paradox" to describe this linchpin, as it is paradoxical in its non-paradoxicality and vice versa.
But with no further of my ado done, the messy cause of this mess is this: the self itself.
In reality, surely, there is no self to be found, but only a vast diversity of experiences, some of which, for whatever our reasons, we might label as more truly ourself than others.
Of course in labeling, we prime ourselves for contradiction, as rules are made, quite literally to be broken -- for if a rule was so self-evident and pure as to be beyond contradiction, we could not recognize its opposite in order to create it as a rule in the first place.
In other words, to recognize something as so is to declare its possibility to not be.
And so the implication for our discussion: in declaring the existence of a self, we create the potential for its nonexistence.
The sense of a self, and confusion about the self, are the same statement, and are cried out simultaneously.
“Is” and “is not” are expressions of same the essence.
All is one.
If I might break the fourth wall of my prose,
let me tell you, that quite honestly...
... it is possible I’ve lost touch with concrete meanings and clear explanations by this point.
(Though whether losing meaning and clarity might constitute a true understanding is very much a relevant point at hand.)
Though perhaps my instincts, which many sages claim hold some greater power to spear at truth, knew best in guiding me to write as I have done.
In any case, let us take in a few breaths of clarity, and finish with a return from the more abstract domain of art to a more concrete philosophy.
From this writing, I would advise you to take what you can, and make sense of what you will.
Of the ambiguity I investigate -- the mystery and the existence of the self -- I cannot yet provide clear interpretations, and you should in general regard this post as an exploratory first dive into the matter, more so than a definitive solution.
One thing, however, may be clear:
if we abdicate our sense of what a “self” is altogether, if we stop playing the game, and stop searching for it in the first place, if we reject the notion that it exists, that it is relevant, that it is even an object to be found -- in short, if we reject our knowledge and decide to know nothing of the self’s true nature -- every associated problem seems to disappear.
This insight may well support our earlier postulates: regarding the confusions of the self, it appears inescapable that the self itself is at the root of the problem.
That in all this self business the drama creates the excitement, the solution the problem, the challenge the fun, and the action the inaction, is certainly metaphorical of a game.
Whether we consider it a play might as of now be our prerogative, though, because of the binding power of thoughtfully ordered reason, we may in the future be absolutely compelled to regard it as such.
As always, more work to be done on this topic in the future.
There are, broadly speaking, two experiences of mind.
If I might be pressed to use other words, the mind performs two particular functions that we directly perceive.
Ok, so your brain does two things.
And they are these: to sense, and to think.
Of all life’s mysteries, it would be no exaggeration to consider the phenomenon of sensation among the most perplexing. Don’t be turned off if you think I’m being melodramatic. Mountain peaks have been scaled, ocean depths explored -- we landed on the freaking moon!
And those problems don’t even sniff the challenge of figuring out what sensation is.
How it is that we can see, feel, hear, or touch remains… well, just out of it. Sure, there are scientific mechanisms which explain it -- explain the process, that is -- but not the phenomenon! What amount of words or descriptions could ever truly capture… blue? Or soft? Or embarrassed? What makes a particular sensation a sensation? People ponder whether they could explain sight to a blind man. Well -- can you explain it even to yourself?
One thing is for sure: at the root of the mystery of the senses, lie the answers to reality itself. Because so far as any one man can know, reality and sensation cannot exist without the other.
But no matter the mystery, sensation exists as a phenomenon.
However it does it, that’s the first thing the brain does.
Second: to think. Let me ask you: do you know what thinking is? You may think that you do. You may feel it.
Do you know?
Allow me to put forth an idea -- resonance.
An initial impulse, followed by ever-decreasing aftershocks. Vibration.
This pattern, or metaphor as you may call it -- I believe most adequately sums the nature of thinking.
If you are inside, think about a warm, sunny day.
Don’t you see the grass? Hear the birds? Feel the sun? And yet of course, no such things exist in your immediate surroundings. Yet you perceive some impression, though deadened, perhaps muffled, of the same sensations. Look closely and marvel! How can you “see yet not see”?
That is what I mean when I say “resonance.” What the mind has sensed once, it can “play back” -- totally independent of further stimulation.
Imagine a life without thought now -- an experience consisting only of sensation, of taking in -- ingesting but not digesting. You experience that reality when you are engrossed in film, or music, or dance. How wonderful it is!
Though by this I really shouldn’t imply thought to be some enemy to the unencumbered beauty of thoughtlessness -- let us save pejoratives for another article.
For now, we stick to a more objective look.
Returning to the notion of resonance, we must also consider a distinct phenomenon that accompanies it -- which is abstract thinking. Now, the meaning of this term can often feel… abstract. Let us mend the pain of confusion.
Abstraction is symbolism. Symbolism is one thing standing for another. A clover is not merely a clover -- it also evokes ideas of luck and the Irish. There you are -- symbolism -- one thing standing for something else entirely.
You should appreciate that this is a phenomenon made possible by resonance alone. In reality, a clover cannot bring about a physical Irish person, nor can it create luck. But in a reflection of reality, senses can be mixed and matched, joined with feelings, correlated and bound together, such that the sensation of one produces a resonance of another.
This is thought.
Abstract thinking enabled by resonance.
See now, how such abstraction is a requisite for language?
A letter, take “s” -- a visual form, is paired with a sound. Not one heard physically, but resonated from an earlier hearing. Combining this sound with others forms words, which themselves are sounds paired with meanings, which are images or sounds or smells.
It all breaks down to sensations, all referring to each other.
Meaning is abstraction. Paired senses, resonating with each other.
I suppose when the eastern mystics say, "all life is vibration," their observation rings true.
(And here you thought you'd get a single post without a spiritual reference shoe-horned in. Didn't you get the memo? It's all connected, baby!)
So that’s your brain. A bit simpler now?
To become wise, you must under stand your confusions.
Knowledge builds upwards: conscious thoughts float on top of deeper feelings. What, in your mind, you can see most clearly, is most superficial. Remember that.
Impulses begin as deep neural pathways -- ones which know only fear and pleasure -- and transform, blossom into feelings, then feelings into ideas, and ideas into thoughts. There for us to sense are only these most refined mental concepts -- so far removed from the source that they have often become delusion or fiction. Yet we take these thoughts to be true simply because they are there, despite that most of what we are, and what we believe goes on behind closed doors, outside of our imagining and thinking, in the subconscious.
This is not to say this subconscious cannot be accessed.
Doors were made to be opened. But first, realize that while the whole kaleidoscope of your mental universe seems ever in flux, its entirety can be traced back to but a few roots. Diversity of thought is merely a reflection of the endless array of stimuli and experiences we have in this world.
So much has been said in the annals of spiritual literature about the importance of distinguishing the observed from the observer. Here on this site, we’ve done nothing to put an end to this task. However you’d do well too conceptualizing the whole situation in another light -- not as observer and observed, but as reflector and reflections.
At least, it’s another way of looking at it.
Your mind, the reflector. Your thoughts, its reflections. To know yourself, there is only one goal: to throw out reflection, and find the reflector -- which is the essence. The essence of you.
That which reacts -- not its reactions.
Imagine looking in a mirror and seeing not the reflections, but the essence of the mirror itself.
Mind bending, isn’t it?
But nevertheless, find me somebody who can do this and I will show you someone who understands, who is self-aware, who is wise.
But let’s try another metaphor, this one only a bit more extended.
Ready your imagination.
Envision a vast forest, that stretches in all directions to the horizon. The trees are bunched close together. They are probably well over one hundred feet tall, and bunched so close, that at the tree tops, where you are, nothing can be seen of the forest floor. An undulating blanket of interwoven green leaves stretches out, brightly illuminated by the sun. Leaves shimmer, and glow, fluttering green. Just feet below, are the twisting branches from which the leaves sprout. But quickly, as you move lower still, things become dark.
As you would descend downwards, you would notice curling twigs combining into branches, those branches into limbs, and limbs into thick trunks.
While leaves flutter, trunks do not move. They loom, in towering and silent stillness. Down, all the way to the forest floor, where the sound of the wind high above can no longer be heard.
This is the mind; this forest imagery another allegory.
Think first of the leaves -- they flutter, they are delightful. But they are weak in a way, mercurial. They point every which way, and so point in none. They shift as the wind goes, each with a mind of their own.
At this level, you cannot find security, nor permanence. Indulge in observation, watch how the leaves go. From such chaos nothing can be known, so be content to know nothing. Rather see, and no more.
But go deeper, you will find there is stability and order. You will find there is direction. You will know how ideas are supported and organized, and the forces which structure all that above.
Leaves are mere reflections of environment -- the result of interplaying sun, water, and wind. And most conscious thought is this way. Reflections of sensations, myriad, fluctuating ... intellectually worthless.
Discover what is beneath. Under stand the canopy, and you will know something timeless, strong, and sure.
All questions, confusing as they may seem, when examined, dissolve into air.
Knowledge comes through sensory investigation; intelligence is the patterns built upon these senses. All you know begins as stimulation, information -- you observe it effortlessly. Then thinking juxtaposes, and synthesizes predictions and patterns from this raw data, placing thoughts into coherent systems and schemes. This process takes effort, burns calories -- for it induces the physical re-wiring of the mind such that where before there was nothing, now there are pathways, relations, and sequences, all free to fire.
Hence from the physical sensation you come to know objects of the mind, be they beliefs, opinions, or principles.
This twofold process constitutes education. Sensation and construction. You observe, and then you build.
You might see how absent the scene is any sort of question.
What is there to question?
(If that isn't the question, I don't know what is...)
Sense and build. Seek not to question, for nobody ever learned by asking a question.
Learning occurs when the questioning finally ends.
Further, the primary goal of education is not to inspire questions, or to teach which questions should be asked or how often. Questions come automatically, naturally and in no short supply to a curious, supple mind.
Rather, education must teach the pupil to remove himself from his questioning phase as fast as possible, so as not to become lost in the questioning and kept from an answer.
Towards this end, we must outline the nature of our questions, and understand what they represent.
Let's begin with how, what, when, where, and who. I'll lump them all together.
These are desires to seek information, and sensation. You’ll have no trouble learning if you stick to asking these, for they address the effortless process of sensory input.
Ask these questions to get to the facts. Can't go wrong with those.
But “why”… and “how”… here we have some more complexity, and trouble. For they do not seek to procure mere sensory information. Rather they go towards those processes of the mind that organize and arrange those raw sensations into secondary patterns and opinions.
"How" implies achievement, and here we bring in all manner of problems. For desire tends to obfuscate education.
Remember you assume a goal and a value system when you ask this question. You desire something. It is critical you understand exactly what you desire, for the more clarity you have here the simpler the answer will become.
“How do I become a better student in school?”
Now you must work to deconstruct the question. What means “better” to you? Higher grades? More learning? More discipline?
“How can I have a nicer personality?”
What is “nice”? Can you achieve “nice”? Can you act “nice”? You can do things, say things, feel things. But “nice”?
See how easy it can be to hide behind this question of "how" -- hide behind vague words and confused terms, and mix up your emotional desires with your assessment of fact.
Break down the terms until they become ones you understand.
Figure out exactly what you want. Don’t settle for umbrella terms you do not understand. Get yourself into tangibles, because only upon tangibles can you act.
And finally “why,” which is perhaps the most perplexing question of them all, and one we sense to be most important of the lot.
Of all the questions, here I find it prudent to say the least in words, though the most in meaning.
Understand that there is no “why.” Why seeks cause, which is subjective construction. The answer to “why” is a matter of your choosing. If you desire causal theory, choose away to your hearts content. But do not mistake your machinations for educations.
Don’t allow yourself to become consumed by such an answer. Stay grounded in what is.
Become formless like water.
Become light as air.
The mind builds, but doubt always can destroy.
So root yourself not in things which can so easily be brushed aside. There is no idea which is true, or beyond doubt. If it can be doubted, it is an idea, and a mere object of contemplation to be sculpted or molded at whim. Associate yourself with it, become an idea, and look how others can do the same with you.
Ideas are merely creative frameworks used to see the world this or that particular way, or accomplish this or that task. But an idea says nothing about reality. It is a work of art. Look at ideas as you would a painting. Analyze them. Question them. Always be aware of your ideas. You must know exactly why you have built them up, and you must know exactly how they can be torn down.
Objectivity is subjective.
Pragmatism is idealism.
The truth lies.
Reality is not real.
Can you see how these are so?
Become a surgeon, the realm of ideas your object of study. Know how to pick them apart; know how to sew them back together. Confusion is your scalpel; questions the force and direction of your incisions.
As long as you have these things, you are invincible to the pull of ideas.
For no matter how compelling someone’s ideas may be, you will shout:
“Is that so?”
“How do you know this to be true?”
“Who has told that this is so?”
“You may speak of this all you like but leave me out of it! I know nothing of it!”
"Keep you opinions to yourself what use do I have for them!”
You will not be hypnotized. You will not be brainwashed. You will stand above theory, ideology, and logic. Everything that is built can be taken down. Observe yourself, learn the ins and outs of deconstruction.
As you do this, you become a master of the mind and all its going-ons. You will understand all your impulses, machinations, and plans. And you will be free to choose among them totally at your discretion. You will see the wheels spinning in others, and you will be free to entertain them or knock them down.
The realm of ideas is vast -- read next of all the things you will be free from if you can achieve such a state of mastery.
All of your problems are ideas.
All your worries are ideas.
All of your negative opinions of others; all of their negative opinions of you.
All of your theories, and the theories of science.
All ideas compelling you to do this or that.
All normatives -- that is, all beliefs of “should,” that one action or thought is preferable to another.
From all these things you will be free, standing above, outside of them. Able to entertain them, yet ready to knock them down at a moment’s notice should you be so inclined.
Paper tigers, hollow ringing, straw men -- so constitutes the majority of your existence.
Start looking. Start studying. Great strength is waiting for you.
Let me now at last tell you: there is one driving force behind all the activity of the mind, and it is fear.
All theories, ideas, and opinions -- are held by men who desire, like rats in a storm, to crawl back into their shelters. Children hold onto beliefs, create theories which fill this or that gaping hole in their souls.
If you would like to put behind you childhood and become an adult you must know virtue. And there is one true virtue: it is the willingness to look fear in the eye and understand what lays behind it.
In doing so, you can understand your mind and begin to live outside of it.
Here it is: a separation from ideas, from the mind… it is a separation from fear itself, which is a separation from every issue you have in your life.
That is not to say they disappear.
But no longer are they yours to trouble yourself with.
Like chains you have suddenly discovered were never bound at all; go now you are free.