As I am sitting at my computer writing these words, I become aware of the sensation of thirst. Simultaneously comes the thought, “A cup of tea would be nice.” This all happens spontaneously without me first deciding to be thirsty and then to think of tea.
If you watch your mind, you will see that thoughts arise of their own accord. Please, do not simply accept or reject this. When you honestly observe and investigate, it will become clear that you are not the thinker of your thoughts. What this chapter will try to show is that you are also not the doer of your deeds. This may go against your deepest convictions and beliefs, so I ask you to suspend the judgment that may come up as a reflex and see what is really being offered here.
All apparent decisions and choices are thoughts. To act upon a thought feels like choice and is labeled choice by the language, but choice is really just the expression of whatever thought arises most predominantly. I did not choose my desire for tea, nor did I choose the stronger desire that I should finish the paragraph first, but that is what is spontaneously happening.
This is not to say that I am an apparatus without free will. There is actually no individual here to be deprived of free will. The thought of “I” and the thoughts of tea and typing merely unfold as a manifestation of the animating energy of Pure Awareness.
From this perspective, there is a sense that life is simply living, thinking, and acting through you and as you. The Taoists call this Wu Wei, which loosely translates as non-doing. This does not mean doing nothing in the sense of inertia, but rather that everything—including “your” thoughts and actions—is happening naturally and of its own accord. Lao Tsu describes it in the Tao Te Ching as follows:
Tao, without doing anything,
Leaves nothing undone (37)
Less and less is done,
Till only non-action remains.
Nothing is done, yet nothing is left undone. (48)
In Buddha’s words:
Suffering exists, but none who suffer,
The deed there is, but no doer thereof.
We all know the feeling of being in the flow of things. At such times, we lose ourselves in our activity. Writers frequently have this experience when the words seem to simply pour onto the page and they have no idea what the next line is going to be until they write it. Most athletes also have moments when suddenly everything clicks and they manage to perform beyond their normal capacity. There are sometimes moments during lovemaking when lovers melt into a union that knows no separate individuality. Or what about narrowly averted accidents on the highway where you later wonder just who was steering the car? I’m sure if you think about it, you have had several such experiences in which you forgot yourself and everything seemed to magically fall into place.
This forgetfulness is very different from forgetting your friend’s birthday or where you put your glasses. Nor is it like the absentmindedness induced by too much booze or too many tranquilizers. It is a forgetfulness that is alert and alive. This losing oneself in the flow is a taste of what is meant by “the action of non-action.”
All works are being done by the Gunas (or the energy and power) of nature, but due to delusion of ego, people assume themselves to be the doer. (The Bhagavad-Gita Copyright 1988 by Dr. Ramanand Prasad V3.27)
Although being in the flow feels wonderful, the idea of our actions happening by themselves instead of through our free will can be upsetting. This is especially true for the western mind, which tends to view free will as either an inherent quality of one’s prized individuality or a gift/test from God to see if one is strong enough to do the right thing. For the atheist, his doing or failing to do the right thing may be a measure of his true character; for the religious person there is a lot more at stake, since for him it determines the quality of his after-life.
From the free-will point of view, the idea that something is living through us can be quite objectionable. It seems to reduce us to mere marionettes, implying a helplessness, which is hard to accept. Furthermore, there arises a fear that if nothing we do is truly our own action, then people have an excuse for undesirable behavior. What is overlooked in such arguments is that all activity is of the one Self, appearing as the multiplicity of characters that apparently do the thinking, acting, and choosing. To excuse our undesirable behavior on these grounds does not work, for there will still be consequences. You may protest that the thought that led you to steal from your employer simply arose, and you are not responsible; but then neither is your employer responsible for the thought that led him to fire you and press charges.
Ultimately, since the ego is an illusion, it cannot be deprived of free will nor can it be the victim of predestination. The ego is neither the doer nor the non-doer; it simply does not have an existence independent of the Self, any more than a character in a novel exists independently of the author who portrays him. He and all other characters in the story arise from the imagination of the writer. When it is realized that we all arise from Pure Awareness in much the same way, it is instantly clear that there is no one from whom free will could have been taken. The moment the ego’s point of view gets dropped, there is the liberating realization of a divine energy spontaneously manifesting as us. There’s then no one left to experience a sense of helplessness, and it is clearly seen that the helplessness is just another thought.
Like St. Paul said:
"I live, yet not I, but Christ - the eternal Logos - liveth in me. " (Gal 2:20).
The paradox in the suggestion that the ego should be dropped is that when one is not the doer, one cannot do the dropping. What happens is more like a falling away, which comes in its own time and which is nothing other than the impersonal recognition of the ego’s illusory nature. Although this realization comes by itself—it is often referred to as grace—it is not something one has to wait for. Waiting is just another way of trying to get it, which only perpetuates the illusion that there really is someone who should get something.
Intellectually accepting the idea that we should not try often results in trying not to try. This is what in psychology is called the double bind or in everyday language, “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
This double bind is acutely felt when you try to will yourself to forget something unpleasant. It also features prominently in so-called self-improvement projects and can lead to bizarre thought patterns such as:
I will correct my habit of correcting myself and others;
I will no longer put up with intolerance;
I’ll put a real effort into becoming more relaxed; and
I can hardly wait to become more patient.
I will really try to be more spontaneous;
I will seriously work on my sense of humor; and
In the very near future, I resolve to become more accepting of what is right now.
Okay, this might be a slight exaggeration, but it shows the principle at work through the contradictions that pop up when the ego embarks on a project of becoming better adjusted, more accepting, or more relaxed. As long as we believe that there is an ego to either improve or remove, and as long as we work toward the betterment or elimination of that ego, the more the illusion is perpetuated. It’s like looking in the mirror and seeing your face. Trying to remove your face by cleaning the mirror is useless. If you simply walk away, it’s not there anymore; but you don’t see that. All you know is that every time you look it’s still there, and you may decide that more cleaning is needed. During the course of the day we often “forget” to look and, in such moments, we are totally without a sense of ego. We don’t realize this since during these moments there is no “I” to notice its absence.
The deceptive sense of a personal self is a complex system of thoughts, memories (a special kind of thoughts), emotions and conditioning. This mental structure may even cause certain sensations in the body-mind, through, for example, habitual muscular contractions and nerve firings, further supporting the perception of the illusion as reality. We may argue that when it is felt and perceived it also must exist. It’s fine to take that position, but then realize that the ego illusion is not so much in what we label as the ego, as in our identification with it. In the same way, we could say that a mirage of an oasis in the desert exists when it is observed; or we could say that it does not. It only becomes a problem when it is not recognized for what it truly is and one expects to find water there.
See that you are not limited to this mirage known as the ego. You are that which appears as and—at the same time—is aware of the ego. The ego concept is built into the very syntax we use for thinking and talking. Thinking “I have an ego” is just a thought; but so is thinking “I don’t have an ego.” Both thoughts include “I” along with “ego,” and both appear and disappear again without leaving a trace on the mirror of Pure Awareness. Stop looking, and it’s gone.
When a student asked Shri Atmananda, “When will I get it?” he answered, “When the when stops.” Normally the mind then asks “And when will that be?” The answer can only be “Right here and right now!” This literally means that you do not have to wait for grace to set you free. You already are free. Saying that you do not have to wait for this freedom is not meant to put you again into a double bind, in which you might try to give up trying or find yourself waiting for the waiting to stop. It’s just a reminder that the silent space of Pure Awareness already is. It sees and contains the reading of these words and the arising of thoughts, which then are identified as “your” thoughts. It is in and prior to the energizing of your senses and available as everything that’s presenting itself at this very instant. The acceptance of this reveals what you truly are. Behind the veil of ignorance (ignore-ance), you are the Awakened One, aware of—as well as appearing in and as—this marvelous show of manifestation. You are, at once, Awareness and the totality of its content.
Again, let me stress that, due to the limitations of language, I seem to suggest that there is Awareness on one hand and its content on the other. In truth, there is nothing but Oneness here, preceding and including the duality of duality and non-duality. There is no individual entity to either get it or not get it; there is only this. There is not now, nor was there ever, an ego either to be burdened by guilt or to bask in individual glory. No claim, no blame, no shame, and no fame—it all goes out of the window when thoughts, feelings, decisions, and actions are known as arising spontaneously from the welter of life.
If you cannot believe this and are still convinced that you are a separate individual in charge of your life, try this small experiment. Right now in this moment decide to feel elation and feel it. Then think of your least favorite food and for the next five minutes really crave it. Consider your opinion on capital punishment and change it. Finally, ask yourself what your next thought will be and see if you can know it in advance. While you’re busy doing this or perhaps hosting a thought stream that rejects it as nonsense, the divine play of life magically unfolds by itself.
You will find that when your claim on thoughts, feelings, and actions dissolves, your ability to deal with the day-to-day business of living doesn’t get impaired. On the contrary, it becomes less stressful. When the person you thought you were continues as a dreamed character—as one of the many guises of the universal actor—there is no longer any effort dedicated to keeping up appearances, no need to carry resentment, no point in worrying about an imaginary future.
To sum it up, thinking that you’re no more than your limited role is buying into the illusion; realizing that you’re the one actor playing all the roles is liberation.
In this context, it is interesting to note that the word person comes from the masks that were used in ancient Greek-Roman theatre. Per-sona: Through (per) which the sound (sona) is coming.
Read the review of his book in the Recomended Reading section.
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