The most important relationships that we have are the ones that we have with the thoughts in our heads. Our relationship to thought determines everything that we experience and everything that we are.
Let’s start this inquiry by thinking about our identity – our self-concept. Think of your name. What does that name stand for? It stands for you. It is a word that stands for the person that you are – the person who was born on your birthday, has lived your life, currently experiences him/herself as you and will die on the day that you die.
In the great mystical traditions it has commonly been said that spiritual ignorance is a result of misplaced identity. In other words, we have wrongly identified ourselves with what is often referred to as a small ‘s’ self and not the large ‘S’ Self that we truly are. But what does this mean?
To understand what this means we should start by looking closely into how we identify ourselves in the first place – go ahead, find yourself. The first place you will look might be your body. You will look at your body in the mirror and say this body is me. Of course it is not. It is your body, but you are not the body, you are the one who has that body. You might then look at your history and say this history is me – I am the life that I have lived. Again if you look closely it may be your life and your history, but that life and that history is not you. You are the one that has that life and that history.
If you keep going this way – examining all of the things that you might identify with you will find that in each case what might at first appear to be you, or at least an aspect of you, is not. In the end you will find that they all morph into just another object that you have and you are always the one who has them. If you keep doing this you will discover a sense of frustration as you realize that trying to find yourself is like trying to see the corner of your own eye. Every time you try to look for it, it moves away from your gaze. Your identity – your self – is like a greased pig; every time you seem to have it in hand it slips away.
In some schools of enlightened mysticism exercises of this type are called ‘pointing out’ exercises because by using them you keep pointing out that you are not what you think you are. If done over and over again these exercises can lead to an experience of awakening – you give up trying to find yourself and you realize that you do not exist as an object that can be seen. You recognize that you are pure subject without substance. In certain mystical schools this is called the experience of no-self, or emptiness. Those who are lucky enough to experience this kind of emptiness will discover a profound liberation. They will see that they are not a limited entity bounded by a body, history and a set of behaviors. You are not a thing in the way that a table, a rabbit or even a body is a thing.
The relief experienced in this realization is so dramatic that it will bring you to tears. It will take the world that you have known and flip it upside down and shake it all loose. It is like you have been wearing a heavy metal straight jacket since the day you were born and it finally fell off. You see that you are full of ideas about who you are, about what you can and can not do, who you should and should not be. You discover that you have never made an authentic choice in your life because you had been acting out a script dictated to you by the ideas that you had about yourself. You will realize that you had never achieved true autonomous selfhood because you had simply been a self-concept propagating through time and space. You may in that moment look at your life and see that it looks like someone else’s. As you scan through your history it will be clear that although it had always seemed that you were making choices about what you wanted to do and who you wanted to be, in actuality it was only ideas about yourself acting themselves out.