Who and what we believe we are is in fact not who or what we really are. To a large degree we organize our thoughts, ideas, feelings, and all of our past experiences into some type of self image through tribal associations. We consider ourselves to be democrats, republicans, Christians, Buddhist, or even atheist (I just find it to be rather curious how someone can associate them self with the belief in nothing). Our identity becomes some inheritance, some hand-me down persona from someone, who in a similar fashion derived his or her own identification through a process of conformation. Through this sort of social & psychological assimilation we become what we are told to be. We are told what role to play, and we act it out on the stage of life. We use religion or politics as a superficial costume that projects our own self-image. If we are Buddhist then we do not eat meat and go around campaigning for non-violence, or something like that. If we are atheist we have to brush up on our reading so that we can play the role of a rigid intellectual. If we identify ourselves through some political party we have to back “our” candidate regardless of whether or not this person represents our true convictions. We become die-hard members of a team that cares only about winning because, our own self-confirmation depends upon our teams victory.
I do not think there is a problem per se with politics or religion. In fact, I believe that religion, in it’s truest form, is the saving grace of humanity. The contemplative traditions of the various religions around the world offer us incredible insight into what it means to fully be human. People such as St. Augustine, Chuang Tzu, Rumi, The Bal Shem Tov, Ramakrishna, and Patrul Rinpoche offer not only vast stores of inspiration, but they clearly elucidate practices which can lead us to similar insights. The problem is not with religion, politics, or whatever; the problem is internal. Confusion and suffering is introduced when the ego hijacks these systems in order to finance it’s own enterprise of self-validation.
Our self-image is little more than a collection of events & opinions, that with our last breath of creativity we spin using rationalization or self-deception. We do this so that we may apply this theme to our person; it is our personality. The totality of our opinions collected over time creates a sort of attitude or outlook upon life, which we then personify by attributing some sense of ownership to it, it becomes who we are. Once “I” has been imputed onto these otherwise random experiences & opinions everything else by default becomes “other”. Similarly, the groups which we associate with, the ones that validate our self-image, become “us”, and everyone else becomes “them”. Unfortunately, on the basis of self/other or us/them conflict is the inevitable result. This is so because, as “us” is seen to co-sign on our self-image or validate our position, “them” is seen to threaten our very identity. At this point “them” becomes a group of terrorist that strikes fear in our very hearts. If we truly identify with one particular religion or political party then open & honest discussion with “them” will be experienced as threatening because, it challenges our very ideas about who and what we really are. When we perceive something as threatening we immediately become the victim of fear, and fear unchecked always leads to aggression.
In order to overcome this agonizing fear we tend to succumb to varying degrees of hostility. We perceive this fear as being something installed in us by an external force, “them”. We demonize other so to speak. So instead of working with this fear from within, we try to exorcize “them”! That is to say we seek an external solution by means of force or aggression. “Self” tries to run “other” off, instead of engaging “other” openly and honestly. This conflict provokes a response from “them”, a retaliatory measure against “us”. This exchange of tit-for-tat does little more than reaffirm our initial paranoia that “they” were out to get “us”. The grounds for conflict become more & more solidified and fighting seems more and more justified, so the war wages on.
This ongoing conflict, which is the inevitable result of a group mentality, has been present since the beginning of recorded history. There has always been war, there has always been strife, there has always been conflict right up until the present day. That is not to say that it is natural, but it is to say that it is the typical outcome of an “us” and “them” approach, which is the inevitable result of a self-centered worldview. A conceptual self, which is to say a created & false self, is dependent upon confirmation. We need something other than “I” to vouch for “I”. In the same way that you can not define left without right or hot without cold, you can not define self without other. So we have to create and villainize other in order to determine and justify our own position. So a ego-centric worldview is actually dependent upon continuation of this conflict.
Furthermore, this conflict is perpetuated through social conditioning or education as we have come to call it. It is not that education is a bad thing, it is in fact absolutely necessary to ensure the evolution of a society. Without education we would sit around reinventing the wheel for time without end. However, I would question whether our version of education fosters growth & social evolution, or (to a large degree) renders society and therefore, the individual, stagnant and impotent. We have passed this outdated tribal mentality on from one generation to the next for long enough. Initially, it was very primitive, “I man-you woman”. Over time it reached higher levels of sophistication. We began to call this same tribal outlook by new names; religious devotion, patriotism, carrying the party line, etc. All of this in the interest of validating a synthetic self. We had to have some ideology to supply us with a role to play, and some group to applaud our performance. This however was dependent upon having some-one else, some other group that vindicated our position by being in opposition to it.
It is unfortunate that few people ever appreciate the utter complexity of this debacle. If they ever came to know the enormous amount of intelligence that was wasted in this ridiculous project of self-confirmation they would be absolutely convinced that they had a far greater purpose & capacity. However, most people never even question the situation, they simply go along with what they are told to be or not to be. Out of the few that actually question the system only a handful see the whole picture, and it is this handful that I truly admire: Chogyam Trungpa, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, H.H. The Dalai Lama, Jiddu Krishnamurti, just to name a few modern examples. Most of us either never look into such questions, or when we do, we only go half way before we are carried off in an even more subtle and elusive portrayal of the same ole drama. We become self-righteous, as if “we” are the ones who have discovered the truth, and then believe it to be our duty to set the world straight in their mistaken opinions. We simply create another group, the group of truth seers that have the one unmistakable path to true liberation. Then we take our message of peace and love to the streets in pseudo-pacifist protest of aggression, demanding change, truth, and justice. We burn flags, shout obscene & demeaning comments, and undermine others opinions all in the name of love, peace, and freedom. We have simply created another conflict; the war between those who stand for truth & peace, and the ones who perpetuate deception & violence. The “truth seers” begin to see the “deceivers” as someone who is trying to rob them of their inalienable rights. We fall victim to fear and therefore aggression, in the same way because, we are living in a half-truth. We get caught up in trying to protect our rights, as if they could be taken from us. There are blind spots in our logic. We still think that the origin of this unending conflict is external, something created and maintained by some-thing or some-one other than ourselves.
In order to truly transcend this conflict with life we have to identify the causes and conditions which give rise to this conflict within ourselves. We have to see that it is true that we have been held captive, made a prisoner in our own skin. However, we have to go further than this. It is essential to realize that we are not only the captives, we are also the jailers! We have to accept the situation as it is, and see how it is “us” not “them” that creates this conflict. We have to realize that the conflict that we witness in the world around us is nothing more than the manifestation of the conflict within us; the ongoing struggle of ego to establish and maintain supremacy. The ego is a phantom, an apparition, so it has to constantly fight tooth and nail in order to assert and maintain it’s position in the world. The struggle is not with other people, opposing groups, or warring ideologies; it is with ourselves! A moments hesitation, a mere pause or gap in this continuous struggle will reveal ego to be a fake, a facade.
Ultimately the answer to this schizophrenic skirmish is trust. Not trust in some doctrine, guru, or trust in some particular group of people, rather trust in our true-self. This is relatively difficult for a couple of reasons. First, we have been told since a young age that trusting ourselves is a bad idea. It has been made clear that we are unfit to guide ourselves, so we might had better relinquish that responsibility to someone else, perhaps an external god, some guru, moral code, religion, or political scheme. We were told, “not to speak unless we were spoken to” and “be seen but not heard”. After a grueling process of education and proper submission to the right socio-economic scheme we inherit a degree of authority, we became a real human being, an adult. It was at this point that we have fully identified with some life strategy and devoted ourselves to carrying out that party or doctrines interpreted agenda. To compliment the sense of insufficiency we inherited from the collective knowledge of society, we developed our own feeling of inferiority over time. The ego’s attempt to produce & maintain security is an up hill battle that can never be won. As I have already said the ego is a phantom self, an illusion, and no amount of effort can make an illusion reality. Our attempts to prove we are what we are not has ended in repetitive failure, which serves only to reinforce our sense of insufficiency. We seem to feel defective or insufficient on a very fundamental level, and believe that we need some group or dogma to repair or complete our tattered self-image. Therefore, we are rather hesitant to let go of this crutch and really trust ourselves, or for that matter to even inquire into who we really & truly are.
Fortunately, if we ever get to a place where we are interested in retiring from the fight there are practices that can introduce us to who we truly are. These practice have been clearly illuminated by those, who in the past retired from the struggle of self-confirmation only to come to rest in their true nature, human nature. They discovered the very essence of what it means to be fully human; not fully Buddhist, Christian, Liberal, or Conservative. The insights of the mystics transcended these simple conceptual identification cards or ego-centric herding tactics. They did not use religion as a means of self-identification or ego-centric confirmation, they used it for it’s true purpose; to discover the inherent intelligence of human nature present within everyone. This intelligence is not reasoning or logic, it is not our ability to think or formulate opinions about things. Clinging to logic and reason has stifled human development. There is an intelligence which goes far beyond the cognitive processes of reason and logic, it is the natural capacity to reflect or immediately know truth as it is. The great message of the saints and sages throughout the ages has been that there is a much more essential or uncreated form of intelligence present in all of us without exception, wisdom.
Wisdom which is a type of intimate knowing revealed in love or openness is not the product of our efforts or processes. It is uncreated or self-existing, and only discovered by unknowing all of these contrived & futile efforts to be some-one or some-thing. When we cease trying to produce or create some kind of self-image we discover our true identity, selflessness. The discovery of selflessness is the death of ego, which may seem bleak or dismal, but it is not. The realization of selflessness is nothing more than to be overcome by love. This love is simply the pure energy which has always been present, but was distorted by our fragmented dualistic consciousness. Once such concepts as self & other dissolve a type of open-mindedness or spaciousness emerges that allows others to be as they truly are. This open-mindedness or love can then be communicated with precision & honesty, and this sort of communication is called compassion. We no longer see life as threatening, and therefore we are capable of working with the situation as it is, as opposed to how we think it should be. All struggle and conflict ceases, because we have discovered that the origin of this conflict was an internal hallucination.
As I stated earlier such a discovery begins with trust, genuine trust in the basic intelligence of our true self. Such a trust can only be discovered by unknowing all of the factors that give rise to distrust. We have to genuinely befriend ourselves by letting go of all the things that we are not. Such a practice of unknowing is called meditation or contemplation. It is through the practice of meditation that we can move beyond the cold & rigid cerebral existence of ego, and come to rest in our true nature, the very essence of humanity.