Depression And Illusory States Of Mind

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that most of the depression and unhappiness we experience in this world comes from living in an illusory state of mind.   If I could take most depressed people and hit a button on the side of their head which cleared their mind to a state of peace, leaving them in a restful present, without distraction, I’m fairly confident that that alone would solve most of their problems.  It wouldn’t solve physical ailments such as headaches, or bodily sickness, or aches in one’s joints, but it’d solve most other causes of unhappiness.

I say all this from firsthand experience.  Rewind time back ten years ago, and I was a very unhappy person, no matter where I was or what I was doing; I just couldn’t escape this heaviness.  I’d feel bursts of relief, but then it’d come back on me and I had no idea how to get rid of that dark feeling.  You know, the opposite of that light, joyous feeling.  I just felt heavy and burdened, and I didn’t even know what was going on.  What was it?  I didn’t know, and in that confusion I tried to fix it by changing my life circumstances, thinking if I change my environment to some different state, you know, a different job, relationships, etc., then by osmosis or something that new better life would seep into me.  It didn’t.

Then once I hit rock bottom, I began to reexamine spirituality, which got me into meditation.  After a few years of deep self-reflection and looking into the nature of my consciousness, I learned exactly what was going on.  And you know what?  All the misery I was experiencing was self-created.  I was doing it to myself, but was so unaware of who and what I am, and how my consciousness operated, I was beating myself up and blaming the external world.

So how can we describe this state of “presence” without distraction, a state of peace?  I think Tibetian Buddhists have done a wonderful job in their texts on a process they call Dzogchen meditation.   They describe something they call ‘Rigpa’.  This state of peace I’m referring to is basically saying that if you want peace of mind, you must keep your conscious awareness locked into direct Rigpa.  So what is Rigpa?

“When one past thought has ceased and a future thought has not yet risen, in that gap, in between, isn’t there a consciousness of the present moment; fresh, virgin, unaltered by even a hair’s breadth of concept, a luminous, naked awareness?
– Yet it doesn’t stay in that state forever, because another thought suddenly arises, doesn’t it? This is the self-radiance of that Rigpa.
– However, if you do not recognize this thought for what it really is, the very instant it arises, then it will turn into just another ordinary thought, as before. This is called the “chain of delusion,” and is the root of samsara.
– If you are able to recognize the true nature of the thought as soon as it arises, and leave it alone without any follow-up, then whatever thoughts that arise all automatically dissolve back into the vast expanse of Rigpa and are liberated.”

— Sogyal Rinpoche, Tibetan Book Of Living And Dying

Say you’re in your bedroom, just sitting on the side of your bed.  Then all of the sudden your mind wanders off, and you’re worried about all the concerns of the day, angry about something a coworker did, irritated with your screaming child, or whatever it is.  That goes on for a while, but eventually that thought-stream ends and you snap back to reality.  You’re back in the bedroom, aware of just being in the room.  You feel yourself sitting on the bed, you feel a breeze from the window unit air-conditioner, you hear birds chirping outside.  Then, once again, your mind wanders off.  It starts thinking about your wife, or your husband, worrying about finances, thinking about some snide remark made by your stepparent, I don’t know, something.  That all goes on for a while, then you snap back to reality, and you’re once again in the bedroom.

Those moments when you were in your bedroom, not thinking anything, your mind not wandering all over the place, just aware of a present reality, that is Rigpa.  It’s raw awareness of life.  That’s reality, true reality.  Those were your moments of peace and contentment.  You want to learn how to stay there and not wander off.  Why?  Because if you could stay there, without wandering, you’d exist in this pleasant, peaceful state.  You’d feel the bed supporting your rear-end, and it’d feel nice.  You’d run your hand across the covers of your bed, and it’d be pleasant.  You’d look around the room, and it’s just walls, picture frames, and sunlight beaming in from the window.  All quite pleasant, when this is done without judgement or comparison with what others have, or what you think you “should” have.  You’d hear the birds outside, listen to them chirping, and there’s nothing wrong in that moment.  Reality is generally quite pleasant, if you don’t sabotage it with your own mind!

If you could only stay in this direct Rigpa, you’d enjoy your entire day.  But what happens?  You leave reality.  You jump into what the Tibetan Buddhists call “the chain of delusion”.  You go into some depths of your mind, and bring things that are not happening into your present moment, and most of them are negative.  Your wandering mind takes you to places of anger, regret, jealousy and greed for things it wishes it had.  It starts weaving these stories and narrating your entire experience, playing back your life and interpreting it all in some framework that you’re an unfortunate victim and life has given you such a poor hand.  Oh, how unfair it all is!  Look at all the rich, beautiful, happy people!  Why couldn’t you have been them?  You sit there brewing over things you want, and dream up reasons for why you’ve failed to get these things that would supposedly save you from your present suffering.  You look at yourself in the mirror and start projecting all these illusions that you’re ugly, or fat, or undesirable in some way.  You go out in to town and this little voice on your shoulder tells you, “You don’t belong.  People don’t like you.”  You then feel discontent and you want to be someone else, somewhere else.  I could spend all day all talking about these illusions.  They’re not real.  None of it is real.

That world of illusion, diving out of the present and going into some depths of your mind, trying to run from certain experiences, or chase after other experiences, that’s what’s stealing all of your happiness.  It’s what’s leaving you feeling drained.  Oh, and the the mind is so sneaky!  So sneaky!  It does this in a million different ways, but it’s all lies, lies, and more lies.  Thing is, if you believe what this mind is telling you, and let it drag you away all over the place, oh, it’s nothing but misery, misery, and more misery.

How does one overcome this nonsense and learn to stay in the present?  Meditation and self-reflection.  There’s no one particular way this has to be done.  It’s also such a big topic to get into.  I can only give you a rough outline of the process I went through.

The first technique I started utilizing was one I learned from Paramhansa Yogananda called Kriya Yoga.  You just sit in a chair, in this upright posture, breathe in, and breathe out, taking long breaths, and while you do so you direct your conscious attention up and down your spine while inhaling and exhaling.  When you inhale you think the thought, “I am not this body”, and when you exhale, “Neither am I this mind.”  There are many different breathing meditation practices.  You don’t necessarily have to do Kriya.  But anyway, as you practice this, the mind wants to wander, but each time it tries jumping off, you jump back to focusing on your breath, and you go back to doing this repetitive technique.

But why this exercise?  Why breathing?  What’s that all about?  A primary reason this is so effective is due to how your brain is wired.  If you are short on breath, your brain begins to pay special attention to the breath, thinking, “Hey, I need air.  What’s wrong?”  The brain immediately directs its attention to what’s going on with the whole breathing system, so it will help you focus attention all on its own.  This is training wheels for mental silence practice!  You want to exploit this mechanism.  That’s why you take a deep breath in, hold it, and then do a long exhale.  You don’t suffocate yourself, but you do hold it a bit. The more you do it, the better you’ll be able to keep your mind from wandering off.  The only real goal of the technique, at least for a long long time, is simply to be aware of yourself sitting in the chair, and sitting there for longer and longer periods of times without your mind wandering off.

When you first begin, you’ll sit there in the chair, begin, maybe last for one or two breathing repetitions, and your mind will already wander.  You’re not even twenty seconds in.  You come back, and it wanders again.  And again.  And again.  Then you realize, my gosh, my mind is a noisy mess.  And you see all that noise?  Take a good look at it all.  It’ll be like sticking your head over a garbage dumpster and taking in a huge deep breath.  Mmmm.  All these thoughts bouncing around, dragging you off?  There they are!  There’s your problem!  There is the source of your misery.  That’s our next objective.  It’s time to enter self-reflection, analyze these thoughts, figure out what’s causing them, why they’re happening, and shut them off.

But how do you shut them off?  Great question.  What do the Tibetan masters say?  You have to 1) understand the true nature of what that thought is, and 2) don’t entertain it in mind, or chase after it, or try to avoid it.  In other words, don’t go on requesting more of it, or try to mentally resist it.  If you know what the thought is, and just let it come and lovingly go, it’ll calm down on its own and you’ll quickly return to emptiness, peaceful silence.  You don’t fight it.  That’s not how this works.  But if you don’t realize the thought for what it is, and you wander off with it, you leave reality and wander off into illusion; suffering is bound to follow.  This wandering off into misery is samsara.

“So when you are in the state of Rigpa, and when thoughts and emotions arise, you recognize exactly what they are and where they are springing from: then whatever arises becomes the self-radiance of that wisdom. If you lose the presence of that pristine, pure awareness of Rigpa, however, and you fail to recognize whatever arises, then it will become separate from you. It goes on to form what we call “thought,” or an emotion, and this is the creation of duality. To avoid this and its consequences is why Tsele Natsok Rangdrol says: “Not to clinging to the risings, make concepts out of them, accept or reject them: this is the heart of the practice for the bardo of dharmata.”
– Sogyal Rinpoche, Tibetan Book Of Living and Dying, talking about how thought can form from true Rigpa, if not dealt with correctly.

So ok, how do I determine the true nature of the thoughts?  Ah ha!  That’s a big one, eh?  Here’s what I have found.  You have to know who you really are, so that when thoughts come and go, making this claim or that, lies won’t stick to you and trouble you.  Illusions will be immediately seen through.  Which brings us to another important point. Depending on who you think you are, and what you believe in your mind, that will in turn determine how much peace you will experience and how much you will suffer!  Welcome to what can be quite a maze!

The most common is to identify with the body.  I am the body.  Then there are all kinds of thoughts on bodily preservation, fears of death, worries about aging, etc.  If you identify with your thoughts, then you begin to feel alienated when you are in an environment that doesn’t align with those thoughts, or perpetuate those thought patterns.  Religion, political affiliations, and nationalities are examples.  You could even identify with various activities you perform, such as your career or trade.  I am a physicist, a craftsman, a school teacher, a secretary!  Then you become bound to whatever you believe a person of that label should be, and how such a person should behave.  You can identify with pretty much anything, though those are some common things people believe themselves to be.

The problem then arises when this label and what it entails conflicts with some other label and what it entails.  So now a fight has to take place because unfortunately, both labels often cannot co-exist.  For example, you grow up in a Christian nation, with Christian holidays, and Christian festivities.  Then some migrants come in with different holidays, and they’re in your town, in your streets, celebrating things you don’t understand and you’re uncomfortable.  “Are we or aren’t we a Christian nation, gosh-dangit!”  You feel obligated to protect “your” heritage.  BOOOMMM!  The conflict begins.

These limited false egos are the source of all conflict.  This is especially true the more greedy each ego gets.  One person’s false ego has this vision for reality, somebody else’s false ego wants this other vision, and so on, and not everyone can have their way.  The more grand and far-reaching these visions, the greater the conflict.  People get really wrapped up in the labels.  They even come to believe their happiness completely depends on these egoic visions for how reality should be.

I don’t have time to really dive deep into this.  All I’ll say for now is notice how the Tibetan master is talking about duality in that last passage.  What does that have to do with pristine awareness?  EVERYTHING.  It’s the general pattern, “I am this, and I am separate from that.”  Then the false identities are born and conflicts arise.  I am Christian, but not a Hindu!  I am an American, not a Mexican!  I am an educated professor, not some lowly secretary!

That reminds me, just the other day, a secretary at the university told me that she had complained to her boss about health insurance rates rising, making her lose $15 out of each paycheck.  She exclaimed to him, “Well, it’s a tank of gas!  I need that money.”  The professor looked down on her and said, “It doesn’t bother me.  Unlike you, I made better decisions with my life.  I don’t even notice $15.”  THAT is ego.  He identifies one way, and looks at her as separate.  That’s YOUR problem not MINE.  Then he’s filled with pride and she gets filled with anger, and that’s the sort of dynamics duality and false-egos create.

That’s why over this last year all of my meditation has been on concepts of duality!  But why?  When you identify some things as yourself, and other things as not, you then set up the grounds for conflict.  That’s the recipe.  Improper, limited identification with things you are not is what will cause all the suffering.  That’s the formula for creating thought-streams which drag you out of reality.  Instead of identifying as the I AM, a consciousness without properties, ever-present in all, you identify with specific forms and events within your perception, and then get lost in the delusions of thought and ego.  The false you takes over and is very intent on preserving itself, and weaves all kinds of stories around itself.  It steals your attention because that’s the only existence it has!

I’ll give an example.  You see, if I was that secretary, and my boss said something like that to me, I do not identify as a secretary, it’s just something I’d be doing to make some cash.  Therefore when that identity is attacked, it doesn’t bother me.  I don’t associate with this chain of events and life choices as “me”.  The arrogant professor’s comments would just deflect off me, but if you’re caught up in the labels, you’ll sit there in your mind thinking, “Who does the think he is!  I do a great job!  That guy doesn’t appreciate anything.  He doesn’t know his head from his butthole, the jerk.”  That’s you trying to preserve the label when it’s attacked.  And then you suffer.  You can learn a great deal about yourself from these emotional rises.  That’s an indication of some inner label within yourself, just waiting to be explored.  I’d highly recommend dismantling it.

“Of course, there are rough as well as gentle waves in the ocean; strong emotions come, like anger, desire, jealousy. The real practitioner recognizes them not as a disturbance or obstacle, but as a great opportunity. The fact that you react to raisings such as these with habitual tendencies of attachment and aversion is a sign not only that you are distracted, but also that you do not have the recognition and have lost the ground of Rigpa. To react to emotions in this way empowers them and binds us even tighter in the chains of delusion. The great secret of Dzogchen is to see right through them as soon as they arise, to what they really are: vivid and electric manifestation of the energy of Rigpa itself.”

– Sogyal Rinpoche

I know this post is too short to go over all of this, but I hope I’ve at least helped you identify the problem, and introduced you to the gateway to delusion and suffering, how to stay out of it, and shown you at least some steps to come back to reality.

Reflections On The Point Of Surrender

In my post “How It All Works” I described what I called the ‘Point of Surrender’.   I really struggled with describing this state of being.  In one post I spoke of “standing above” the experiences of life.  In other posts I described it as an inward focus of attention.  I think I’ve came across a better description of it while reading Sogyal Rinpoche’s “The Tibetan Book Of Living And Dying”.

“Though different forms are perceived, they are in essence empty; yet in the emptiness one perceives forms. Though different sounds are heard, they are empty; yet in the emptiness one perceives sounds. Also different thoughts arise; they are empty, yet in the emptiness one perceives thoughts.” Whatever you see, whatever you hear, leave it as it is, without grasping. Leave the hearing in the hearing, leave the seeing in the seeing, without letting your attachment enter into the perception.”

– Sogyal Rinpoche, talking about finding peace of mind

That’s the state of mind where where I feel profound peace, and I’ve been working everyday to stay in this state for longer and longer periods.  I still am aware of objects, a flow of time, the world, having thoughts, emotions, etc., but I abide in this changeless, timeless place.   When you’re around “me”, you may think there is this independent existence “Jason” talking to you, but there is no such thing.  My false identity has dissolved into the substratum of existence.  The focus of my awareness is elsewhere.  I exist as some greater awareness just watching it from above.

Here is a passage from Ramana Maharshi, talking about this same ‘Point of Surrender’.

Q: How is realization made possible?
A: There is an absolute Self from which a spark proceeds as from a fire. The spark is called the ego. In the case of an ignorant man it identifies with an object simultaneously with its rise. It cannot remain independent of such association with objects. The association is ajnana or ignorance and its destruction is the object of our efforts. If its objectifying tendency is killed it remains pure, and also merges into the source. […]
Only if that first person, the ego, in the form ‘I am the body’, exists will the second and third persons [you, he they, etc.] exist. If by one’s scrutinizing the truth of the first person the first person is destroyed, the second and third persons will cease to exist and one’s own nature which will then shine as one will truly be the state of the Self.
Q: There must be something that I can do to reach this state [of Self-Realization]…
A: The conception that there is a goal and a path to it is wrong. We are the goal or peace always. To get rid of the notion that we are not peace is all that is required.
– Ramana Maharshi, answering questions asked of him

A Story Of Two Old Men

Recently my grandfather was put in a nursing home.  He’s around 90 years old and very feeble at this point.  He had been somehow managing to stay in his home, but has now hit a point where he needs people to care for him.  Just to give an example, I got a phone call at 3 AM one morning from my grandfather, asking for help.  He was heading to the bathroom, had fallen, and couldn’t get up.  I made my way over there to find him face first in a pile of dirty clothes, unable to move, having soiled himself in a dirty pamper.  Since I’m a weight lifter, I’m the only one available who is strong enough to lift a 150 lb man off the floor.

But that’s not even what I want to talk about.  So my grandfather is in the nursing home and I’m going to visit him.   He’s served three meals a deal, and for dinners they normally wheel him out to a table in the main dining area where he eats dinner with several other old men.   I decided to join my grandpa one evening and we’re all sitting around a big table.  Conversations started up and it turns out that one of the old men is a former university professor.  He really enjoyed talking with me.  Turns out he went to MIT, earned several degrees, has taught as a professor in many different universities, published all these papers, was on top of his field, and even wrote the most highly used textbook in his field.  Impressive guy.

Here’s what baffled me.  Here’s this decorated man, full of knowledge and expertise but nobody visits him.  His wife had entered the nursing home with him but she’s now dead.  His kids live far off and don’t visit. Though he’s not far from the campus, no students ever visit him, even though he’s the author of the very textbook they’re using.  The old faculty he worked with are now all dead and gone, the newly hired faculty have never contacted him, and nobody has ever felt it even worth letting him know what has been going on in the very department that he founded.  My father was at the dinner table as well and called up their department chair.  Even though this old man is listed on their emeritus faculty page, the chairman didn’t even know who the old man was!  You’d think someone would’ve tracked this impressive guy down, asking him about all these papers he’s published, trying to pick his brain for insights, etc.  Nobody ever has.  Think about that a moment.  I wonder if anyone has even read the hundreds of papers he published, outside of just looking for things to put into their own papers for references.  I’m just saying.

Compare this to my grandpa’s room which was full of people at all times of the day.  Whenever he would complain of the food, all of us family members were out on the road and taking things to him, even when he probably wasn’t supposed to be eating it.  Even I was sneaking him strawberry milkshakes.  Why could grandpa call me at 3 AM for help, or request I run all around town to get him food?  Good question.  Probably because for my entire life he’s loved me unconditionally and I could always see he did everything he could to make me happy.  Whether it was when he made me homemade nunchucks and bow staffs in his wood shop because I loved the the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a kid, or when he took me fishing at Meramec springs early in the morning, or when he’d play baseball with me in the backyard.  Maybe it’s when he came and admired my tree fort I built in the woods and showed me how to shoot a BB gun.  Maybe it’s when he’d buy me packs of baseball cards and watch me place them in my trapper keeper, talking about all the different teams and players.  Maybe it’s when he used to print me off business cards which said, “Call me at any time if you’re in trouble, no questions asked, Love, Granny and Papa”, and it left their phone number.  It could be when he gave me the hat he was wearing just because I expressed interest in it.  It could be all the Sunday dinners where he was constantly patting me on the back, telling me how proud he was of me (when I hadn’t ever accomplished much of anything), and how much he loved me.  Could be the holidays where he always bought me gifts and was smiling as I opened them.  Even when I’m visiting him in the nursing home, he wants to know all about me.  He was asking me if I’d bought that truck I was looking into and wanted to see pictures of it.  Asked me how I was liking teaching, whether any of the students gave me trouble, whether it was hard work, etc.  I don’t know, seems to be a whole lot of things.  Even a hermit like me will go visit a guy like my grandpa if he’s stuck in a nursing home alone, and I rarely get out of the house at all.

Those who love unconditionally will be loved unconditionally, even when they have nothing of value left to give.  I don’t think people care much if you went to MIT, or have all kinds of accolades.  I certainly don’t.  People do seem to genuinely care when you care about them.

I can’t help but make an observation.  I wonder if the world has some mysterious mechanism behind it, drawing people of like minds together.  Those who love unconditionally in turn draw unconditional love back to themselves.  Likewise, those who are using the people and environment around them primarily for personal advancement somehow find themselves surrounded by similar people.  These types are so caught up in their own selves, their ambitions, their dreams, etc., there is never any time to care about anyone else, such as visiting an old man in a nursing home.  Could this be what happened to the old professor?  -shrugs-  Who knows.

Later that evening I was spending time with my Dad, and he reflected on this old professor at the nursing home.  Dad quoted Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities.  All is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?”  I agree with him.  The old professor spent a lifetime building up some reputation that nobody cares about anymore.  He made all kinds of money, but when he could no longer care for his mansion, it had to be sold and the money was taken by his children who don’t even visit him.  The rest of his money was taken by the nursing home.  His lovely wife is dead and gone.  Even his mind, which he spent his entire life cultivating, it’s falling apart due to dementia.  Why get caught up in these weird “games” of life?  Outside of enjoying the process, there is little point to it.

My Own Self-Inquiry

I’m going to share my thoughts on a very complicated problem which I’ve been struggling with for the past fifteen years. Say I bump into you in the store. Our eyes meet and then I lift my arm and wave hello. Here’s my question. How was I able to do that? And if it wasn’t “I” who did it, then who lifted the arm?

You may think this problem is common sense — Jason, you used your free will to wave at me! Ok, fair enough. I chose to stand up, I chose to sit down, I chose to say the words coming out of my mouth, and so on. Ok, but let’s dive into this problem and think about everything that claim entails. I want you to think of all the electrical impulses which must happen within my brain, and all the electrical cascades within the nerves connecting my brain to my arm, and the microscopic changes in the countless muscle cells, how they all had to fire and move in the perfect patterns, just right, all so my arm would lift and wave at you. You’re claiming “I” did that? Really? That’s strange because when I examine the conscious contents of my mind, I only barely understand how the brain functions, I don’t know how the brain is wired, I don’t even fully understand how muscles contract in the body, nor do I have any conscious recollection of initating all these electrical firings. But “I” did this you say?

Sure, after the event of my arm being lifted a thought enters my brain which says, “I did that”, but I don’t believe this thought. There’s not enough information or ability in my conscious mind to do such a thing. But it’s all common sense? Ok, I’ll lay on an operating table, give you an electrical probe, and I want you to stick that thing in my brain and activate all the proper neurons and nerves all over my body, and lift my arm. Go on! It’s simple! It’s all common sense. Anyone can do it! What voltages would you need? Which points would you stimulate? How long would you stimulate them? Common sense. Just cut my skull open, stick some probes in that blob of jelly in my head, and lift up my arm. Go on! Do it!

But that’s just the beginning of this problem. You’re going to lift your right arm and wave hello to your friend across the room. Think about everything that needed to happen. According to physics, every Planck time there is a new “frame” of reality. Every 5*10^(-44) seconds a new frame needs to be generated, containing all the new positions of every atomic nucleus, every electron, all the photons creating the electric and magnetic fields, the exact curvatures of space-time due to energy and mass, and all the rest of it. Think of all the frames required to move your arm! It’s a number so large we don’t even have words for it, and within each frame you’re going to have to give positions and velocities to all the particles, which are also so numerous we don’t have words for it either. So who lifted the arm? Me? Ok, then what am I that I can do such things? And how is it that my conscious mind lacks the details of all the atoms and particles it moved. Yet I moved them all?

If you’re not puzzled yet, this only gets more interesting. The standard conception of free will seems to imply that I had a choice to lift my arm and wave. I could have waved or not waved at the store. But wait! How many different ways are there to wave an arm? When I think of quantum physics, and the superposition of all the different ways of atoms and energy to make that arm movement happen, the different combinations are endless, probably infinite! You could lift your arm out sideways, or front ways, straight armed, a bend in the arm, hand partially closed, hand completely open, waving in a circular motion, or left to right, or up down, or whatever you want, apparently. So when you went to wave your arm, did time stop, and were you presented with a catalog of all the practically endless options of arm movements available to you? Then, after browsing them all, you said to yourself, “I’ll go with that one!”, and then your arm waved in just that way? I can’t speak for you guys, but that’s not what I experience. In my case, the arm waving just happens the moment I see you. There may or may not be accompanying thoughts.

Speaking of which, this same argument can be applied to all “internal” states of consciousness as well, such as thought and emotion. At any point you can remember, were you ever presented with a catalog of thought processes and emotional states which you arbitrarily could assign to each and every moment? I never did. My best guess is this doesn’t happen for others either because if they were choosing their thoughts and emotions, moment to moment, there wouldn’t be anywhere near as much misery in the world. Everyone would be choosing happiness and bliss for themselves. Quite a puzzle. Why do we feel these states as “my” thoughts and “my” emotions? Why is there this sense of ownership when there seems to be so little control over what transpired?

Let’s try to solve this problem. First off, there’s no reason to believe that there’s some special universe that begins and ends at your body’s bag of skin. This idea that “you” are controlling your arms, legs, and body, but somehow are not controlling the rest of the environment around you seems highly artificial. The same laws of physics govern your body, other people’s bodies, and the environment around the bodies as well. But if that is true, then you are everything. You’re the walls, the hamburger you’re stuffing into your mouth, your body, other people’s bodies, and everything you perceive through all your senses. So would that mean you’re identical with all that is? You’re somehow the substratum of reality? If so, then the question as to who or what you are becomes a question of, “What is reality?”

So now that we are describing reality, doesn’t that bring in science? Is reality a big machine, following mechanical laws and mathematical equations? If so, you never had any free will to begin with. The universe is a type of algorithm, following some simple ruleset, repeatedly, over and over, and all of our thoughts and actions are just a complex consequence of this ruleset. All claims that you have an independent existence is an illusion, and you’re nothing more than a biological robot, putting around, claiming to do this and that, when really there was never any sort of “choice” available to any of us. The universe does what the universe does. The powers behind this world made all these decisions for you, dictating what you love, what you do, and how you feel about everything. You’re just experiencing some accidental consciousness generated when these deterministic electrical pulses flow through your brain. One great consequence of this big accident is the illusion that some independent and separate “you” exists.

That’s one option I suppose, but when I hear something like that, I immediately have to ask, “What is this subjective consciousness happening, supposedly due to the electrical pulses within the brains? Why would the operation of a mechanical algorithm produce such a subjective feeling?” Also, when one deeply examines the physics of this universe, is it mechanical in nature?

We have two major clues available to us which I feel rule out this way of seeing the world. For one, when you lift your arm, there is a subjective experience that you really did lift your arm. Secondly, quantum physics is our fundamental ruleset for how this reality behaves and it doesn’t point toward this mechanistic machine like view of the universe. In physics jargon, if you’re an illusion, there’s no observer to collapse the wave function. Without a wave-function collapse, Schrodinger’s equation predicts that given enough time, the universe becomes a cloud of probability where any and every possibily becomes equally likely. I’m not even sure what time would mean without a collapsing creating the series of events happening in succession. We’re left with a big “world” filled with infinite potential but nothing actually realized. Many like to explain this problem away, saying it is all taken care of by theories of decoherence. Like all things, take some time and actually investigate it deeply for yourself (I recommned https://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0112095). This idea of quantum decoherence was first introduced by a guy named H. Dieter Zeh. It became a really hot topic throughout the 1980’s, but after it was all completely worked out, Zeh was forced to admit, “…no unitary treatment of the time dependence can explain why only one of these dynamically independent components is experienced.” He wrote this paper with a guy named Joos, who also later concluded, “Does decoherence solve the measurement problem? Clearly not. What decoherence tells us is that certain objects appear classical when observed. But what is an observation? At some stage we still have to apply the usual probability rules of quantum theory.” Decoherence is interesting, but we’re still left with the original problem.

Now that we’ve put some technical objections aside, quantum mechanics seems to indicate that the universe we observe, with this flow of time, doesn’t even exist outside of consciousness observing something. But what does that mean? Who or what observing what? We don’t know who we are (that’s what we’ve been investigating), and we don’t know what reality is either. We’re throwing around blind conceptions of what we are, combined with blind conceptions of what reality is. Well, we have to try I guess! Thinking about all we’ve discussed thus far, the line of reasoning seems to be leading us down a path that there’s no fundamental distinction between what we are and what the world is, whatever the world may be. The founders of quantum theory held similar opinions. Take Erwin Schrodinger. In his book, “My View of the World”, he argues that there is only a single consciousness of which we are all different aspects. Interesting! Not a single mechanical machine, but a single consciousness! So how would that apply to this problem?

What if you are not your thoughts, not your emotions, and not even your body and brain? We’ve argued quite strongly that the “I” bouncing around in your head is an illusion. Its claims of control are unjustified. It lacks the power, the knowledge, or the ability to make the events of your life happen. It doesn’t know how to move your arm, or create your thoughts, or dictate your emotional feelings. It’s not making you move, or making you think, or making you feel. So what is?

What if it is God who makes you move, makes you think, and makes you feel? An interesting proposition, but would it help us explain or understand this problem in any deeper way? It sounds as if we’re just pushing the problem onto God, without explaining or understanding things. Or maybe it is a better explanation? -shrugs- Let’s just entertain the idea for a bit. God could be this “single consciousness” Schrodinger and others speak of. What if we are all characters God is manifesting within His mind? If this were true, there would be a deep connection between all of us and God. Growing up in a Christian household, I would pick up the Bible and read about Jesus saying things like, “I and my Father are one”. Or in another verse of the Bible you read, “In Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible … He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” All things were created by God (including all of us), exist within God, and cannot do anything without God. Other spiritual texts from all over the world make similar claims. So, when you go to lift your arm, God moves through you to move the arm, and you are an aspect of God, made in the image of God, as the scriptures say. Interesting thought, but what does this explanation add over say a mechanistic, mechanical view of the universe? Mainly, the universe becomes a place filled with intention and intelligence, and if things are seemingly following mechanical rules, it’s because something willed that to be so. It would explain why you feel that ownership when you move, even if “you” (the made-up character) don’t understand how you (the real I AM) did it. You really did move the arm, but you are not the made-up character you believe yourself to be within your human mind, but are actually something far greater contained within the Mind of God.

That would also give a method of wave-function collapse. How could a mindless, mechanical universe do something like that? You’re left with some complicated many-worlds interpretation, or some sort of constant universe splitting like in the Everett interpretation. If we apply Occam’s razor, it’s literally an infinitely simpler explanation. It also explains subjective consciousness, such as the taste of sweetness while eating an orange, perceiving the color red, or enjoying a musical symphony. A world of mechanical vibrations doesn’t contain these dynamics and subjective consciousness remains a total mystery. This new explanation says we’re all manifestations within the consciousness of God, so consciousness makes more sense. And if I’m nothing more than an illusion, then why do I feel this sense of ownership of my bodily movements? You could explain it away as an illusion of the brain I suppose, but does it feel that way to you? Dangle your arm now in front of the computer screen. Are you controlling it? I definitely feel this sense of control and response to my willful intentions. You say that’s an illusion? Also, if “you” are an illusion, who doesn’t exist, just a by-product of a mechanical algorithm, who is it who’s worrying about all of this? Something or someone is perceiving this all taking place, right? I certainly experience it. What is that? Why is that happening?

But in the end this is all theoretical. After all, where is God? Look at all the evil around us, and things are far from perfect! Why is that? Why am I suffering like I do if all follows the will of God and this being is supposedly infinite love and goodness! A powerful and difficult point. To that, well, I’m not making any claims as to what God is or isn’t, or even why things are happening as they are. All I’ve reasoned thus far is we’re all contained within a single consciousness, which ultimately we are all manifestations of, and that the individual identities we hold onto are deluded fabrications of our confused minds. I’ve claimed nothing more.

But with all things, I want direct experience. Is there some way to directly experience this God, this I AM, supposedly within all things, even within us? We need proof of some kind, otherwise it’s just spiritual scriptures making all kinds of claims and us philosophizing about it all. I’m someone who wants direct proof, direct experience. But what sort of experience would that even be? Even if Jesus, or Shiva, or Allah appeared before me in my bedroom, that’s just a form. Isn’t God beyond all form? Beyond even thought itself? Beyond even emotional experience? We’d be in search of some root consciousness, somehow underpinning all experience. What would an experience of that even be? Does such a question even make sense? Even visions of the Christ shouldn’t satisfy us. We need something deeper, as sacrilegious as that sounds. Interestingly enough, the more I pursued this question, I eventually came across a great Indian yogi named Ramana Maharshi, and read his book on Self-Enquiry. He claimed that anyone can experience the direct presence of God within their consciousness! I was like, wow, how would I do that? And what should I experience?

His method is extremely simple. Everytime the “I” thought arises in your mind, such as “I am hungry”, or “I need to see a doctor”, or “I don’t want to go to work today”, ask yourself who is speaking? Who is having the thoughts? Who is it that experiences hunger? Who is having the experience of needing to see a doctor? Who is it that has the feeling of not wanting to go to work? Who or what is this “I” who says these things? Put this “I” on the witness stand and ask it, “Show me who you are”. It is extreme Self reflection.

The point of the process is to discover what is real and what is illusion. Maharshi had a very specific definition for what to consider “real”. To him, anything real must be eternal, unchanging, and self-shining. By self-shining he meant that it must experience itself by its own light of self-awareness. It’s a very strict definition, but I accepted it. I’d search for things of this nature within my consciousness, if it’d lead me to this root “source” experience of God.

I spent many many hours meditating, seaching for what’s real (using Maharshi’s conception of reality), and applied this process anytime I heard some “I” bounce around in my conscious mind. If you spend enough time doing this process, tracing your thoughts of “I”, you’ll find that you’ll always come to the same ever present, unchanging root. It never changes. It’s always the same. It’s also aware of itself. This is the root from which all your subjective consciousness stems from. This root can only be described as, “I AM” (just as spiritual scriptures all over the world, such as the Bible, describe God), though it’s not words, nor is it thought, nor is it form, yet it can be experienced firsthand. It seems that everything is coming out of it, since everything traces back to it. And isn’t it strange that this is found directly within you, whenever you trace your own “I” thoughts back to their source? You found the I AM directly within yourself. (or at least you can do so if you desire) God is omnipresent, and lo and behold, you’ll directly find God within you! That to me was the proof I needed, or at the very least, lent extreme weight toward a… spiritual (for lack of a better word)… view of the universe.

Everything in your experience, other than this I AM root perception, will change. Your body will change with time. Your friends will come and go. Careers will come and go. Thoughts come and go. Emotions come and go. But this I AM directly perceived within you never goes anywhere. Ever. When I went through this process, and kept coming back to the I AM, time and time again, tears came to my eyes. In my search for what’s real, it turns out the only thing that is real is God, which is with me, and is me (when I move beyond false identifications of things I am not), and is the source of everything happening. Maharshi calls this Self-realization, when you finally realize who you truly are, an emination of God, moving beyond the false “I” conception you had of yourself before. The great single consciousness is all that’s real. This ultimate substratum of reality. Upon this realisation, you become, as the saints like to say, one with God, and the old (false) self dies, just as Christ died on the cross.

People Can Suffer Anything

The sort of science and engineering I help teach at the university has led to a world with great material comfort. The average person today lives a more comfortable life than royalty did in ages past. I’m definitely all for this, but I’m slowly realizing that if we don’t work on a sort of inner engineering, none of us will be able to enjoy the material benefits. From what I see, every life situation becomes a problem if person has not tamed their mind. If a person is poor, they suffer that. If they’re rich, they worry about all they have to lose. If they’re not educated, they suffer a lack of opportunity. If a person has a chance at a good education, the majority of students do not want to be there. If they lack a job, they suffer unemployment. Give them a job, they don’t want to go in. If they’re not married, they suffer being alone. If married, they murmur about their spouse. If they don’t have children, they’re unhappy. You give them children and they’re unhappy with the sleepless nights and all the work involved. I could go on, but I won’t. Will greater material benefits fix these problems? I can’t see flat-screen televisions, faster computers, or new iPhones fixing any of this. We’re our own problem. The mind is like a super-computer with too many knobs, buttons, and features, and people struggle to pilot the mind. They can’t properly control its energies.

A lot of it comes down to garbage in, garbage out. If you eat bad food, you get diarrhea. Similarly, if you focus the mind’s attention on garbage, you get mental diarrhea. You have to change your mental diet.

As a physicist, I like to look for the most fundamental rules behind anything I observe. When it comes to a mind that has turned on itself, the most fundamental principle is identification with things you are not. As Sadhguru points out in this video, “The mind should not be telling its own stories all of the time.” If you understand and master this principle, the mind will sit still, waiting for you to tell it what to do. It can be a real battle, but if you don’t take the time to learn this, the mind will be a constant nuisance. It won’t matter how blessed your life is, you won’t enjoy it. You’ll always find something that’s not how it should be.  However, when I rid myself of these mental stories, these projections onto the world around me, life has become a quite pleasant experience.