According to the mystics, the ‘reified’ story of “I” unfolds moment by moment through a chain of conditioning within eternal Consciousness. This imagined ‘self’ seems to experience itself as absolutely real, while its seemingly concealed undivided and infinite nature remains seamlessly whole and unaffected. In the beginning of this delusion (which is just now), a cognitive error results in a reified distinction between subject and object arising as an imagined perception of space, time and otherness. This error, if not recognized, commences a cascade of conditioned impressions and reactions we call ‘self’. And although this conditioning describes a chain of delusion that seems to be occurring in time, it can be seen to be arising ‘fully formed’ in the microcosm of ‘just now.’
In the absence of this instigating cognitive error, the nature of consciousness is eternally aware of itself within itself, and is described in the ancient Hindu Upanishads as inherently blissful. But once an imagined distinction between ‘self’ and other is reified, the bliss or happiness of eternal Consciousness suddenly seems to be eclipsed. In that instant, an energized sense of autonomous self suddenly looms as ‘my’ identity, while the bliss, wholeness and contentedness of primordial nature appears to be far away. The paradox here is that this bliss of original nature is never absent at all, but is driving all self-centered activity — the striving for a happiness it knows intuitively to be real. The fundamental excitement of self-autonomy is driven by this sense of isolation, restlessness, and longing as it surges forth within cascading distinctions. All of this derives from a longing for the bliss and wholeness, which only appear to be lacking.
In spite of its ongoing cascade of imaginary distinctions, the false self nevertheless continues to feel isolated, thus perpetuating the underlying struggle for happiness. The distraction of continued distinctions maintains a continuous veil to recognizing itself as it truly is. If ‘self’ could return to its original state, it would do so, but it can’t because this would seem to be an act of self-annihilation. And so, the ‘self’ unknowingly reaches for the impossible: seeking the happiness of an invincible, secure, solid and permanent experience of ‘self’. It does this by attempting to fill itself with anything that supports self-existence (grasping) and ridding itself of anything that does not (resisting).
Thus, through a cascading multiplicity of imaginary distinctions, ‘self’ grasps and resists in order to reify and enhance itself through feelings, perceptions, beliefs, likes, dislikes, grasping, resisting and so forth. In this way, an ever deepening and layered sense of separate self veils its fundamental nature, which remains eternally whole and blissful. One irony in this, of course, is that for the imagined ‘self’, the very efforts to find abiding happiness represent the veil to its discovery. And because all worldly objects of attainment are transient, they fail to confer ultimate happiness anyway. The deeper irony, however, is that it is in discovering the futility of worldly striving and its suffering that the imagined self is more likely to discover a spiritual path of inquiry and devotion. In fact, we can see how the worldly path itself tends to be a necessary and integral part of such a path.
Once initiated, spiritual practices bring attention into the direct experience of suffering since, as the Buddha taught "...the cessation of suffering is only to be found within the suffering itself." When we allow suffering to be seen clearly (through committed attention and detachment, and through repeated investigation), its actual causes do become clear. And when we see the cause of our suffering is actually something we are doing, detachment from it naturally arises. One simple analogy likens our suffering of self-grasping to a red hot coal unknowingly held in the palm of our hand. As long as we don’t realize the cause of the pain, we may take an aspirin or do other things to no avail, but once we discover the true cause of the pain, the coal is dropped instantaneously. Much of our suffering arises out of denying what we feel, or turning away from it in some way. Through ongoing practice, as we allow ourselves to be aware of the motivation within grasping and resisting, our attachments and aversions tend to subside and our suffering diminished.
Ultimately, this is why the mystics tell us that if we could bring attention directly into all our boundaries, distinctions, likes and dislikes, we would discover they are all imaginary. This is how precise practices of attention help us to awaken from the dream of separation. Just as in a nightmare, we may be terrified and struggle to devise strategies to escape a terrible situation, but the real solution arises when we simply awaken from that dream and see into the nature of dreaming. On the path, we do this by bringing attention into direct experience through ongoing committed mindfulness and precept practices. In this way we quietly discover the source and nature of delusion, allowing its inherent suffering to be our guide.
At some point we may discover that although grasping or resistance may confer a momentary (or sometimes longer) surge of happiness, it also becomes very clear that our experience of this happiness does not last, nor does it actually derive from getting what we want! It is possible to directly recognize the true source of happiness in such a moment. We can see that getting what we want brings happiness only because, for a brief time, grasping has momentarily ceased, and consequently, the sense of self has temporarily abated. In this brief absence of self-grasping, the actual Source of happiness naturally shines through. In delusion, the ‘self’ usually attributes this happiness to the thing attained, which conditions continued addiction to grasping based upon this false attribution. But, with clarity of attention, becoming more and more mindful of grasping and resisting, we are beginning to discover the abiding happiness that has been indirectly driving all of our seeking, which is already present beneath our veils of grasping and resisting. Such insights tend to energize our practices as they sow seeds of awakening.
For a more precise discussion of conditioning in terms of a nine-linked chain, as well as a few practice guidelines, see Chapter 10 in Joel’s book The Way of Selflessness.
-Todd, Nov. 2015, revised Feb. 2017