This week I had an awakening. I have never before felt such a clear understanding of the self. It started on Saturday. I was sitting outside with a group of friends. We were talking about the journey of self-discovery many of us are actively undertaking at the moment. One friend told me that six months ago they had struggled to connect with my ambitious state. They said, they didn’t like my writing back then but had begun to really connect with who I was and how my writing had changed. They weren’t trying to hurt me. They were simply being honest. A quality too rare in the modern world. Still, in the moment, I became transfixed on the past. I felt ashamed of who I was. All I could think of was how naive I’d been to new ideas, and how obsessed I’d been with ambition and materialism.
In the same conversation another friend made comment that, whilst they appreciated the journey I had embarked on, they hoped I wouldn’t become too peaceful and pacified. They explained they valued my passion and hoped I could continue to challenge them by raising my opinions. I knew what they were getting at. They loved me for who I was and they were afraid that too much zen might suppress the “me” they had come to know so dearly.
Still, again I became transfixed. In a moment I switched from the past to the future. I felt fearful of what I might become. After all, I had set out on this journey with the hope of better connecting with people. Not with the hope of losing them.
So, there I sat. Yo-yoing between the two thoughts. Half ashamed of who I had been. Half concerned for who I might become. Caught between the two worlds of the past and the future. I wondered what the cost of this journey was. I wanted to connect with others and yet it appeared that the more I exposed who I was, the more I alienated people. Still, I could hardly return to the person I was. I was stuck in limbo. Afraid to move forward. Afraid to move back.
Over the course of the weekend, I teetered back and forth, trying to construct my identity. Half from memories of the past. Half from projections of the future. I went so deep I became utterly sick of myself. It was in the depths of this sickness on Monday morning that I had a profound breakthrough in identity.
I was sitting there thinking: I’m so tired of myself. I’m so tired of my inner dialogue. My narcissism. My neuroticism. In that moment I realised that if I could be sick of myself I had to recognise that I was at least two people. The person who I was sick of. And the person who was sick of me.
I had never before seen myself with such clarity. In that moment I divided myself. I stepped away from my manic muttering mind and watched on from the side. It was utterly surreal. I observed my mind project a memory from the past. A moment when someone had said kind words. I felt the emotion of joy rise in me. And then in an instant came another memory. A time when someone said something hurtful. I felt anger. Then I pictured the man I might become, and I saw the disappointed look on the face of a loved one. I felt sorrow.
I watched on as my mind constructed memories of the past and the future. And for the very first time I realised these thoughts weren’t me. That they were something else. Like a TV or a radio changing channels in the background. And then something profound happened. As I watched on from the side, my thoughts turned off and my mind was quiet. And in this quietness I felt peace fall over my body. True peace.
I felt the pain lift.I noticed the white noise increase in volume. I felt the weight of my feet and my hands. I saw the colour of the leaves on tree outside intensify. I became one with the universe.
I had felt this feeling before through meditation, psychedelics, dancing, gazing into another’s eyes, listening to the breeze roll through a forest empty of people. Moments where time stood still. However, this was the first time I had witnessed the process in full. In those other moments I had awoken to a place of mindfulness. This time I watched the process unfold, like a tide rolling slowly in and slowly back out.
Then my mind kicked back in. I thought about what I had to do that afternoon. I thought about the shopping, the dishes, the gym, the mechanic. Only instead of engaging with the thoughts I watched them from the sideline. I didn’t tell them to go away or usher them in. I simply acknowledged that they weren’t me and watched. And very soon they quietened and I became myself again.
Over and over again I watched on as my thoughts came and disappeared. Each time the periods of quietness extended in length until I eventually observed the mind like an adult observes a child. I anticipated its movements and smiled at the charming naivety of its fumbles. I watched the projections and felt the emotions but I didn’t pander to them. I smiled on at them. That was the moment I found myself.
Perhaps this is common sense for you. If you’ve done meditation or yoga or spent a lot of time in nature you may have experienced this many times. I have felt the same thing before but never for such a long time. For over three days I have felt utterly present. My partner Bec said she thought I was on drugs the last two days she’s returned from work. My eyes are awake and alive. I’m more patient. I have zero problems and zero stress. Of course, the drama enters from time to time, and I falter, but then I remember that in that slip I have left myself and it doesn’t take long until I return to the place of peace.
This is the most radical moment of my life. For as long as I can remember I have identified myself as my mind. I have held onto my thoughts because I’ve considered myself to be a thinker. I have valued my curiosity, and my ability to ask questions, and over time I have come to define myself as a being who needs to think to exist. Now I see this is an egotistical illusion of the self.
You see for some time I have recognised that I am not my brain. That my brain is physical hardware that sends and receives signals. And that this is what permits my mind to operate. However, in doing so, I have come to believe that I am my mind. That my identity is tied to the thoughts and feelings I have accumulated. That my memories, knowledge, experiences and beliefs make up my identity.
Now I see my identity is the consciousness beyond these thoughts. The thing that remains even when my mind is gone. Take for instance those moments I mentioned. When I meditate or dance or am transfixed by a breeze that rolls through a forest. In these moments I am conscious without thought. I am aware of what I feel without thinking. Without the mind. So consciousness can exist without the mind.
However, I can never have a thought without having consciousness. I can never think without being aware that I am thinking. After all, thought comes from consciousness. This means consciousness can exist without the mind but the mind cannot exist without consciousness. So, I am consciousness. I am the undercurrent beyond the mind. I am something that can’t be described or defined. I am something that can only be felt.
Now I see my mind is nothing more than a complex network of fictional stories fuelled by emotions. In essence my mind is a guidebook of lessons to help me survive and my emotions are a kick to get me moving when I don’t have time to read the book. Hence the Latin meaning of the word emotion is “to move”.
The problem is this guidebook is out-of-date. It has been written by my ancestors over millions of years. From even before I was a monkey, when I was squirrel and fish. To the ancient brain, which is used to quiet plains, everything is a threat in the modern world. The guidebook is still trying to protect me from giant predators and cliff faces and fire. Now I’m surrounded by busy roads and factories and mass moving people. I use technology that I don’t fully understand and I’m bombarded by mass media telling me I need status, wealth and material items. And like most I don’t have a tribe to share the burden of stress. I have close friends but I live alone with my partner and animals. I don’t spend 24 hours a day with my people.
The result is that this guidebook, my mind, has overrun me. The alarm is continually sounding. Once my ancestors used their mind from time to time. It kicked in when they needed to fight or invent or outwit or communicate. It kicked in every now and again to keep them alive but for the most part they existed free of the mind. They wandered the plains in silence. They wandered the plains at peace with themselves and at one with everything. I believe this is why we feel calm in nature because we return to ourselves.
Today we are overstimulated. Our minds never switch off because the alarm never stops sounding. And because it never switches off we come to identify ourselves with this confusion. We come to believe we are our mind. I believe most of us never get past this point. We never meet our true self – the consciousness beyond.
If I was to use the analogy of a computer. My brain is the physical thing I’m using to type out this post. The metal box made up of circuits and wires. This being the case my mind is the internet. A web of connected thoughts and ideas. All the knowledge I have accumulated. A guidebook of learnings.
Only I’m neither the computer nor the internet. I’m the user. The problem is I forget I’m the user. For instance, most Gen-Zs identify themselves as much with their digital persona as their physical persona. I did the same thing except with my mind. I spent so much time using my mind that I came to define myself as this thing. The same way Gen-Zs spend so much time using the internet that they come to define themselves with their digital identity.
Now I see how dangerous this is. After all whilst the internet is phenomenal creation it is a mess of fragmented thoughts and misleading information. Anyone can publish and that is the danger because we come to believe in things that aren’t true. Our mind can damage us in the same way. Ideas and emotions can impress fictional stories upon our our identity. It means I am prone to continual fear and stress because I believe this fear and stress is me. This is seriously dangerous because it can lead to permanent psychosis.
This is such a radical realisation for me. I can’t believe I have identified myself with a thing so prone to error. I now see how powerful the ego is at keeping the illusion of the mind alive. I have feared letting go of my thoughts because I have always cherished them. I believed what made me special was my ability to question and analyse. I tied what I considered to be my greatest qualities to my mind.
Take my creativity. I believed my mind fuelled my creativity. Now I see my creativity comes from a place beyond thought. It comes when I stop thinking and am 100% present. When I tune out and enter a state of flow. Only in this state can I create my best work. Sure, I use my mind to add form to the creativity. I think about my critics when I edit my writing for instance. But I never use it to write my best stuff. If I did, like I used to, I would write what I believed people wanted to hear. I would try to please and the result would be soulless.
Now I see how obstructive the mind can be to making me happy. Take for instance love and connection. My mind conjures up ideas of what these things look like the same way advertising companies do. I picture a person and the scene and the story. Perhaps a vision of a loved one telling me I’m special. By doing this I apply expectations on people and experiences. The result is that I manufacture ideas of what love is and isn’t and I end up disappointed when the moment doesn’t arise. This disappointment can easily go the other way, leading to anger and disconnection. All because I placed expectations on these feelings.
The same is true when someone gives me love. Too often my mind steps in and destroys it. It asks, what is the meaning of this love? What caused it? Was it an action or a specific thing I said? How can I learn to get this on demand? How should I accept it? And in that moment the love is gone.
Now I see love and connection are not specific moments or outcomes. They are ever present forces that can only be accessed when I’m free of the mind.
The difficulty is that we live in a society that places so much value on the mind. We call children with advanced minds “gifted”. It doesn’t matter that this gift is more often a psychotic curse unless we can teach these children to free themselves from their mind at will. We give awards to those who excel. And pay the most to those who become the biggest slaves to thinking.
All of these labels and prizes and back pats are so dangerous. It’s no wonder we have a world full of anxiety and depression and stress. We tell people to be the thing that stands in the way of the self. We tell people to think more. When what we should tell them is to think less.
It’s all so clear to me now. I will no longer be that man we see stumbling around on the streets talking to himself. The one we call psychotic. Crazy. The only difference between him and the rest of us is that he is speaking out loud. We all do the same thing. We all have a continual monologue of thoughts about work, family, friends, chores, plans, memories, regrets, anticipations. Stop.
Stop thinking. Be yourself. Let it be. The moment you notice you aren’t present is the moment you are present. That’s the moment you are you. Something with no problems and no stress. Something free from pain. Something that gives and receives love effortlessly. Something connected to everything.
The funny thing is, somehow I understood this when I was 17, but I got lost along the way.