25. The Fantasy Of Permanence

Q: Hello doc. I have been a “seeker” for most of my life. I studied Western philosophy, I’ve dabbled in many religions, and attended as many workshops and satsangs as I could. Lately I have wished I could let go of a lot of what I’ve picked up. Conflicting ideas about emptiness, enlightenment, sin, salvation, selflessness, selfishness, chi, tao, and other confusing abstractions are now a source of constant anxiety. I am told to let go and surrender to the present. But even that simplicity fails me, and leaves me jaded. I just seem to be really bad at it.

You have spoken about this surrender as something that can’t be willed. How do I just let it happen? And by “it” I mean life.

A: All of us are filled with countless repressed and otherwise subconscious ideas which, though we are not aware of them, continue to influence thoughts and behaviors. For instance, if a repressed, uncomfortable idea—Is my girlfriend cheating on me? Could this pain be cancer?—threatens to bubble up from unconscious depths into full awareness, I might find myself resorting to drugs, eating when not really hungry, or otherwise trying to cover up the discomfort I feel without knowing why I feel it, or perhaps even that I feel it. The list of possible distractions is endless, and some items on that list may even appear healthy and desirable—perhaps a hard workout at the gym or an hour of yoga stretches.

But whether a particular behavior seems wholesome on a physical level or not, at root, it may still be aimed at repression of unwanted ideas. Just to be clear, I am not saying that every time someone goes jogging repression is at the bottom of it, but often that is the case. If you want to see this in action, next time you feel compelled to do something, try to not do it, and just sit quietly, letting your thoughts go where they will without trying to control anything. You may be surprised at what comes up.

All of that is background. Now let me get to your question: “How do I surrender to life, and just let it happen?”

Short answer: you can’t. Surrendering to life, I say, is neither necessary nor possible. Life is already “just happening,” and will continue to just happen as long as the body is alive. That is what life is: a living, breathing body. Life is just happening right now as you read this.

The body, which is life, knows exactly what to do. You—meaning the endless round of thoughts you call “myself”—have nothing to do with that aliveness, except that myself—the habitual intellection called myself, I mean—needs the body in order to exist, and myself knows it.

There may be thoughts about the body—many of them anxious and fearful— but the body does not need those thoughts. The body needs air, water, food, and shelter, not thoughts. From the standpoint of the body, thoughts are superfluous.

“But,” you might object, “if I don’t care for my body, which involves thought, the body might die.” Yes, that is true, but the body does not care about dying, myself does.

The body has no interest in continuing. The body does not want to continue. You, not the body, want to continue. You don’t want to die. That is the motive for the dabbling and seeking that now troubles you so much. You have dabbled in many religions because those traditions promise that somehow myself will continue—in Heaven if you are a Christian or a Muslim, or in a reincarnated subsequent life if you are a Buddhist or a Hindu.

Such thoughts, which have been implanted in your mind beginning from early childhood, cannot be erased. Those thoughts just keep on bubbling up, like it or not. And those thoughts are you. That’s what “you” is—fears, desires, opinions, beliefs, memories, and all the rest.

You point to the confusing abstractions to which you have been exposed as the source of your anxiety. I don’t buy that. I’d bet that the source of your anxiety is the same as the source of everyone else’s anxiety. You know that anything can happen at any time. You know there are no guarantees. You know that security is a pipe dream. You fear pain and suffering. You fear disability and helplessness.

And, most of all, you know that sooner or later you must die, and you don’t want to die. That is why, just like any other spiritual seeker, you gathered up all those concepts and conjectures in the first place.

Forget that feel-good story for which there is no evidence at all, and try instead to see matters as they are. See that the body bearing your name must live for a time and then die just as any other living organism must die, and that when the body dies, the you that is thoughts, memories, fears, desires, et cetera, cannot, so far as anyone knows, survive. That is nature. That’s how it goes.

Unless that much is clear, don’t bother continuing to read. You would only be wasting your time.

If you get that—if you see that “myself” cannot endure—the next step is quite simple. Just sit quietly and, without trying to control anything, observe the flow of thoughts as they arise. If you do that in earnest, you will see that thoughts flow, just like the current in a river. One thought appears, only to be replaced immediately by another. And you cannot stop that process. That flow is beyond your control.

If you could control it, anxiety would never be a problem, for when an anxious-making thought appeared, you would simply cut it off and replace it with a happy thought. Then you’d hold on to that happy, happy thought for the rest of the day, or the rest of your life. But it doesn’t work that way, does it?

If you see that, you will see that there is no “myself” apart from thought. Even the supposed observer of thought is a thought, an idea. How do I know that? Simple. Try to maintain that observer for the rest of the day, and you will see it shift and change, fade in and fade out, just like the thoughts that it claims to be “observing.”

So, apart from social and legal conventions, myself is not a name, not a body, not a history, but a flow—a flow of thoughts. Those thoughts have no more permanence than ripples in a stream. A “myself-thought” arises and passes away—dies—just like any other thought. Although the subject of those kinds of thoughts is always called “myself,” it is never the same myself as in the previous moment. Nothing is ever the same, and there is no going back.

Thoughts, you can easily observe, have no permanence. When you understand that myself is also just a thought, ephemeral and without permanency, you will see that there is nothing to which one can cling. The “myself” of five seconds ago cannot be recovered, and the “myself” that will arise five seconds hence, if it does, cannot be imagined. Clinging to “myself” is like trying to stop time. It cannot be done.

Each moment is what it is. In each moment, a new myself is born, replacing the old one that just died. Many of us fail to notice this because we have been taught to believe that the name is myself, and the body is myself. A small child is shown his reflection in a mirror and told, “See, Bobby. That’s you!” And right there the trouble begins.

Because the gross structures of the body seem to persist, changing only slowly—orders of magnitude more slowly than thoughts—we might be led to imagine that the “myself” identified with that body also somehow endures and abides, at least as long as the body is alive. But it does not endure.

One may create an apparently stable version of “myself” by stringing together memories of past thoughts and feelings, as if each memory were a pearl, and the body a cord they were strung on. That “myself” is a mirage—a strand of bygone thoughts and feelings called “me.”

Except in fantasies supported by the seeming persistence of memory, myself is an idea, not an object, and that idea is always changing. When the fantasy of permanence ends, right now, or eventually with the death of the body, nothing, I say, is lost. Myself demanding permanence is only a kind of spinning wheel anyway—a mechanical process.

On seeing that, you will lose your taste for escapism and abstraction. This is it.