We are very ambitious, we humans, but our ambition is focused on things childish. We do not aspire to serious pursuits; we find it difficult to put aside our fears and consider what is really happening around us. To do so will require that we transcend self-delusion, to admit that we have been clinging to beliefs that, when closely examined, do not make sense. How long have we been fleeing Simple Reality, how long have we persisted in our self-destructive behaviors, and how long have we known that we have been doing this? For a very long time!
Among the most toxic human beliefs is the illusion that we exist as separate individuals, as separate selves or egos. Will Durant in his book Our Oriental Heritage helps us delve deeper into these beliefs.
The American philosopher Emerson after studying the “Upanishad would give perfect expression to the Hindu conviction that individuality is a delusion.”[i]
They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahman sings.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
“The (non-individual) soul or force within us is identical with the impersonal Soul of the World. Atman, the individual soul and Brahman are one will be repeated by Jesus as ‘The Father and I are one.’ The Upanishads burn this doctrine into the pupil’s mind with untiring, tiring repetition.”[ii]
However, to lay aside the false self so addicted to the pursuit of pleasure, power and material possessions, and which lies at the heart of P-B, will require a story and a strategy little known in the West. The Judeo-Christian half of the globe “whose religion is as permeated with individualism as are his political and economic institutions contrasts markedly with the mystic and impersonal immortality—dominating Hindu thought from Buddha to Gandhi, from Yajnavalkya to Tagore.”[iii]
Perhaps we should further qualify the source of our “ultimate truths” if we are going to dance with the mystics to the music of the ancient sacred insights. We will let the masterful historian, Will Durant, and the brilliant philosopher Schopenhauer give testimony. “‘In the whole world,” said Schopenhauer, “there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads. It has been the solace of my life—it will be the solace of my death. Here … are the oldest extant philosophy and psychology of our race; the surprisingly subtle and patient effort of man to understand the mind and the world, and their relation. The Upanishads are as old as Homer, and as modern as Kant.’”[iv]
What is the strategy by which we can lay aside the craving and aversion of the false self and enter into Nirvana in which there is no individual consciousness? We must first consider the ultimate nature of our context: The First Great Question: Where are we? Are we in a paradigm of many discrete parts, people separate from other people, people separate from nature, communities separate from other communities? Maybe a truer story is just the opposite. Maybe the narrative is characterized by the “good news” of Oneness in which all of the creation that we see around us is bound together, interrelated and mutually supportive when profoundly understood. Maybe what our deeper innate wisdom will tell us when we take time to listen is that we actually live immersed in the embrace of a natural, harmonious and peaceful narrative where we don’t have to live in anxiety or compete with and destroy our neighbors and our environment.
We have looked at our first two “ultimate” realities, namely, no separate, isolated “me” and Oneness, rather than a “shattered” and threatening environment paralyzing us with fear. Next, we turn to Buddha and the First Noble Truth. In Buddha we have the researcher who is without peer among the great teacher/mystics, using himself as his own lab rat. He sat in deep meditation and ran the maze of his own mind that revealed the most fundamental patterns of the human agony that most of us deny exist, even today 2,500 years later.
What we are loath to admit is that much of our survival strategy, which we use to distract ourselves from our existential suffering, is delusional. Our desperate seeking of power and control does not make us feel safer, our frantic accumulation of “stuff” does not deliver security, and the grasping of pleasures galore leaves us feeling that we are at the end of our rope. And indeed, we are at the end of the rope of craving and aversion choking for air. The very life-giving air that we seek is contained in our own breath which will lead us “within” and restore the ancient connection to the guidance system that will gently lead us out of our current dilemma. We know where we should go and how to get there, that knowledge is intuitive. Buddha was not “special.” He was in every respect just like you and me.
We must sever the illusory connection that we have to the body and its sensations, the machinations of the mind and our over-reactive afflictive emotions. Nothing so short-lived, nothing so ephemeral, should be taken as the substance of Reality. The world of form, the sensations that exist “out there” reveal nothing about the world of Reality except what it is not. When we realize our human tendency to identify with our mind, body and emotions, we have discovered the origin of our dissatisfaction with our experience of life, we have revealed the causes of our personal suffering and the energy being used to create our unsustainable human condition.
Next, we humans pride ourselves on our capacity for reason. Durant continues his process of extracting the essence of the Upanishad’s wisdom. “The first lesson that the sages of the Upanishads teach their selected pupils is the inadequacy of the intellect. How can this feeble brain, that aches at a little calculus, ever hope to understand the complex immensity of which it is so transitory a fragment? Not that the intellect is useless; it has its modest place and serves us well when it deals with relations and things [P-B]; but how it falters before the eternal, the infinite, or the elementally real! In the presence of that silent reality which supports all appearances, and wells up in all consciousness, we need some other organ of perception and understanding than these senses and this reason.”
What is this other organ of perception? “The highest understanding, as Spinoza was to say, is direct perception, immediate insight; it is, as Bergson would say, intuition, the inward seeing of the mind that has deliberately closed as far as it can, the portals of external sense.”[v]
It is in the process of meditation and becoming the observer of the illusion of the false self that we attain the insight of Oneness and experience the “feeling” of our connection with Truth, with Simple Reality. When we abandon the story dominated by the “head” and enter the narrative nurtured by the “heart” then we will find our way out of the maze that currently entraps us. Then we will experience the exhilaration of liberation, we will be free at last.
[i] Durant, Will. Our Oriental Heritage. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1954, pages 410-415.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.