4. Thoughts Don’t Hang Me Up
Q: Hi, Robert. I cannot dismiss the possibility of denial and escapism you point out so skillfully. The fires of earnestness and pure curiosity are stoked here often, and I am very grateful.
I imagine it must be frustrating to be asked the same questions over and over again, and I hate to be repetitive. But if the matter were simple or easily solved there would be sages on every street corner, and there just aren’t. It’s bloody hard work. Some points don’t come easy.
It’s a hard lesson, Robert, to work against my own motivations. I tried putting into words exactly what keeps me dwelling on enlightenment and that sort of thing. I ended up in a kind of infinite regress between “I really want to get this, not for any reason, not for any personal benefit, but only because it’s there,” and “Needing to keep saying that to yourself means you still want a pedestal to put it on.”
A: That’s right. Never deny the possibility of self-deception because it is always there unless it isn’t. In a moment when it isn’t, you will perceive the change, just as someone who usually takes coffee with cream and sugar would know if suddenly the liquid in the cup were changed to black. However, it’s not as easy to recognize self-deception in the first place as to notice its absence, which feels like wide-open, unencumbered space.
This is not a matter of working against your own motivations. You would have to be motivated to do that, and no one can choose to be motivated or how. So, this is not about working “against” anything, but about seeing that in each moment whatever motivations exist are what they are, and cannot, in that moment, be different. Those motivations are you. The “you” that feels apart or separate from those motivations so that motivations can somehow be “worked against,” is the fictional protagonist in a story you keep telling yourself about choice and free will. Billions of other human beings are telling themselves the same story. It was injected into our minds as children, and most of us never get over it. But neither pervasiveness nor concordance of opinion makes a story true, only popular.
So it’s not about changing motivations, or even changing behavior. This is a question of seeing and understanding the falsity of the habitual, repetitive idea that one can decide to change and then effect that change through “will power.”
The feeling of “myself” as an independent, deciding presence, located perhaps in the area just behind and between one’s eyes, takes something unitary— the totality of seeing, feeling, and thinking that really is “myself”— and creates a split between the “badly motivated myself” and the “better intentioned myself”— the one who is interested in enlightenment and hopes to attain it by working against the badly motivated one. But that splitting is a fiction, and so is the idea of a separate, detached myself who can observe, judge, and finally choose which motivations to follow and which to ignore. Everything you see, feel, and think is you. Any splitting is only conceptual, without factual existence.
To put this plainly, there is no “little man” sitting in the middle of your skull who can decide anything. That homunculus is a ghost.
No one can choose to understand. Comprehension happens when it happens and in the way it happens. If the words on this page trigger understanding in the mind you call “myself,” then you will recognize the falsity of the split between good and bad, and your striving for enlightenment will come to an end. Not that “you” end it, but when understanding changes, behavior changes naturally along with it.
Without that comprehension, this splitting will keep playing itself out in the style of the top dog versus underdog conversations familiar to us all in one form or another:
Top Dog: “You really shouldn’t be doing (wanting, fearing) that.”
Underdog: “Give me a break. I’m doing the best I can.”
Top Dog: “You are such a weakling.” Underdog: “Yes, but I can’t help myself.”
Etcetera, ad infinitum.
The only “reality” you can ever know is the totality of what you see, feel, and think right now— all of it. No one is making that. No one is doing that. It’s all of a piece and cannot be split. Don’t take my word for this or anything else. Look into it. Ask yourself if that statement is factual.
If you are interested in enlightenment, there is no use denying that interest. There’s no sense in splitting “myself” off from moment-to-moment experience in that way, nor could “myself” ever be split even if there were such a reason. Experience is all of a piece, and it’s all you. Bearing that in mind, without trying to change anything, just allow whatever may arise in each unique instant to be whatever it is, and you may see what now is.
I do not like the word “enlightenment” myself. I prefer to say that I am awake, which, considering the jouissance associated with the consecrated idea of enlightenment (consider the hackneyed image of a blissful, beaming “self-realized being” or “perfect master”), is a much more modest claim.
To me, “awake” means flowing with the suchness of each moment, moment-by-moment, without searching for “meaning,” looking for answers, or demanding that anything be different from the way it is.
If one is not enlightened, then “enlightenment” is only hearsay about which one knows nothing first-hand— a fantasy. And it is a dangerous kind of fantasy, which is where your question began, because it provides endless material for escapism, by which I mean walking around in a trance, pursuing a thought of future attainment. Living that way is like getting a donkey to walk forward by dangling a carrot in front its nose. I have three donkey companions, and that trick works just fine with them. Show them the carrot, and they just keep moving “forward,” which for them means wherever the carrot is. For you, the carrot is the fantasy of “enlightenment”— the promise of a myself who is “better” and better off than you are now.
That is an image— a thought picture— but there is a sense of being this aliveness that is not thought and which promises nothing. All of us have seen and felt that at times, as I am sure you have.
In the light of that, my thoughts don’t mean much to me, so they don’t hang me up.