THE DEATH OF IDENTITY: Does a spiritual awakening make this inevitable?
Mindful awareness has nothing to do with thinking
Mindfulness is available to all. The experience of mindful awareness doesn’t have anything at all to do with thinking. One person isn’t better at it compared to another, nor can another person, however enlightened, experience something that you can’t. Mindfulness isn’t exclusive to some and unavailable to others. The mind can think about awareness by way of responding to or reflecting on a mindful experience, but the thinking mind can’t become mindful.
Mindful awareness is an experience of awareness, but you can’t think your way to it. You can’t get there by thought. Mindful thinking isn’t mindful awareness. Doing the opposite by trying not to think so that you can become mindfully aware doesn’t work, either. That’s just thought thinking about trying not to think and thought trying to be mindful. Mindful awareness isn’t about trying to think or trying not to think. Thinking has nothing whatsoever to do with mindful awareness.
The ultimate thought, which isn’t about mindfulness, is the realization that the “me” thought or “me” identity is just that, an identity created by thought. In effect, it’s the realization that you only exist in thought and outside of thought you don’t exist, not as a thought.
When we experience mindfulness we can connect with, discover, notice or become aware of what we are outside of thought, but thought can’t go to that place.
We’re more than just what we can think of
Is awareness noticed by thought, and if not, what is it that’s actually noticing awareness? If it isn’t thought, then awareness is unknowable. It’s experiential, but unknowable. Whatever you really are isn’t thought and isn’t created by thought. Therefore, it has to be something other than or outside of thought that’s noticing awareness.
The mind can’t think beyond thought because the mind is thought. It can do this no better than your pet dog or cat or the duck on the pond can know what county it’s in, what the year is or what money is. An animal can’t know what’s beyond its capacity for understanding, and it can’t relate to the human-invented concepts of time, location or money. Similarly, we can’t understand what’s beyond the intellectual capacity of a human mind.
You can’t really say that since you’re not thought, you’re not anything (or everything), although there’s truth in the idea that you’re not separate from anything, that you really are everything but at the same time nothing. The mind separates and identifies and you think you are whatever it is the mind thinks you are. Although the mind can identify with having no identity, it can’t fully connect with oneness, which to it can only be a concept.
We can’t think ourselves out of thought because we experience ourselves as thought. That’s what we think we are, but what we actually are is beyond what we think. Whatever we think is just thought thinking about and identifying with thought.
You’re thought and you can’t say that you’re not thought, yet you’re far more than mere thought. You’re what is outside of thought. You’re what you can’t think about. You’re what can’t be understood or comprehended. You are that. Whatever you think about mindful awareness is not fully it.
You’re whatever you were 200 years ago and whatever you’ll be in 200 years’ time. That’s who you are. The mind — your mind, my mind — can’t comprehend that concept, but can you sense it? Your individual identity wasn’t here back then, and sooner or later it’ll die and not be here again, but it isn’t who you are. It’s just who you think you are. The only thing you can do is be who you think you are and play it out. You can’t be with a concept of what you’re not, even if you really are what you think you’re not. However, you can know that whatever it is you think, that’s not completely it. You’re what you can’t imagine or think yourself to be — so give up trying.
Realizing that you’re not a thought-identity or whatever it is you think you are and that you’re something else, something other than that, something that can’t be thought about is rather confusing, I know. The good news is that who or what you really are can’t die. But the bad news is that your concept of yourself, in one way or another, will die. That’s a cast-iron guarantee.
Spiritual awakening and the “me” identity
It’s been said that in the process of spiritual awakening, you have to “die before you die.” That’s the death of the “me” identity, and yet, the story of you will continue to play out. The “die before you die” idea isn’t very helpful because the thinking mind can’t make itself die, as if it’s possible to become pure awareness. Plus, it provides the mind with an unachievable goal, like waiting for the self to fall away, another spiritual idea that in my opinion is impossible.
Rather than trying not to exist as a thinking mind with an identity or waiting for the self to magically fall away, spiritual awakening is about the realization that you’re not who you thought you were and you’re not whatever you think you are now. There’s more to you than a thinking mind with a “me” identity or a thinking mind with a “no-me” identity. To realize that is spiritual awakening.
Who you think you are doesn’t want to be what you really are. The created identity doesn’t want to die, because there’d be nothing in it for you if you were to lose your “me” identity.
Waking up to who we really are is the death of the “me,” but ironically, it’s the “me” identity that wants to wake up — as an enlightened identity, though. I didn’t go on a journey of spiritual awakening because I wanted to lose my “me” identity. “No thanks” to that — I’ll hold on to my idea of “me” and discover spiritual awakening, I tell myself. I’ll have both, which of course is something only a “me” could want and something that a mind can never have.
In another twist of irony, we actually already have both. The “me” identity doesn’t have to transform into awareness (it can’t be done) and awareness doesn’t have to become the “me” identity. Both are already here and they’re not going anywhere. Ultimately, they’re already one, as there’s no real separation of one from the other, even though they tend to be experienced that way. There aren’t actually two of you — the “me” identity and awareness. Really, the “me” identity is awareness, but we experience a separate “me.”
When we practice mindfulness we can experience an awareness that seems to observe the “me” identity, and thus it seems that something other than the thinking mind is experienced, but it’s all you.
It’s possible to experience a merging and a lack of separation in which nothing is observing nothing or everything is observing everything. However, this isn’t something the mind can do, so there’s no point in making it a goal. It happens or it doesn’t happen, and that’s not up to you, as you can’t make awareness and thought merge into one. They’re already one, and your experience of whatever you experience — just thought, just awareness, thought and awareness together but separate, or oneness — is your experience, and one experience isn’t better than another. The best thing to do is just practice noticing your experience without trying to change it into something that it isn’t.
The mind wants to stay with the concept of a separate self because to lose that is to die, to not exist as a separate identity. Oneness is the loss of the separate self and no separate self wants to lose its sense of separation and identity. Your sense of separateness or belief in your identity, even an enlightened one, wants to go on. There’s nothing in permanent mindful awareness for you, apart from the death of the idea of you, and no one wants that.
I don’t mind pretending that I don’t exist or imagining I’ve become spiritually awakened, but I don’t want it if it means I lose “me.” However, spiritual awakening isn’t about loss, but about realization and non-interference. It’s about allowing the “me” character to continue and watching or observing what happens from a place or perspective of unconditional neutrality, which is what you are.
One thing is for sure: The idea of you, the “me” identity, in one way or another will die. The fear of death is an illusion created by thought, but it’s absolutely real to me and you because we see death, we’ve witnessed it and we believe with absolute certainty that death is coming. We believe in our existence and our eventual death.
I’ll die, you’ll die, but who dies? What exactly is dying? You don’t know who you are or what you are and neither do I. So who dies, what dies, exactly?
We live and die in “not-knowing”
We live in not-knowing and will die in not-knowing. It’s all a big mystery, the mystery of life and the mystery of death. We don’t know who we are, why we’re here or even if there is a “why,” and we don’t know what death is. We don’t know anything. We can’t know because our minds don’t have the capacity to understand what’s beyond their capacity for understanding.
It’s OK to not know. It’s possible to find a place of peace and relax and rest in not knowing: not knowing what life is, why life is, who we are or what death is. Not-knowing is the reality of our reality. It’s the truth. It’s life.
We have no idea. We’re all in the dark. We’re together, all alone, as one.
Is there something somewhere in you that has a sense of what you are, outside of thought and outside of time? Whatever it is you sense — that’s what you are. That’s it. That’s awareness and the sensing of it is mindfulness.
The “I don’t exist” thought can be the most scary thought of all. But it can also come with the realization that you’ll never die, as you were never born. This may offer no comfort whatsoever to you, depending on whether you cling to your sense of “you” or let go. Your comfort level will also depend on whether you feel liberated or not. It’ll depend on whether the search for understanding, meaning and spiritual awakening is over or not.
You might think you’ll die when in reality, only your body and brain will die and those don’t make up the totality of you. Your brain and body aren’t you. You just think they are, that’s all.
You almost certainly don’t want your mind to die and that might be your biggest fear. It was mine and I can’t say I’m free of the fear of death yet. But coming to terms with not existing is the same as accepting the phenomenon of not-knowing, which is exactly where we already are. If dying is not existing, and not existing is not-knowing, then we’re already that. We’re already dead. We’re already living in not-knowing. When an infant hasn’t fully developed a sense of self, it has no fear of death. Fear of death comes sometime after the birth of the idea of a separate “me.”
Can we know that thought will die? Will thought live on, when it no longer has your body to identify with? Does the mind die, or does the “thinking machine” that’s in your brain die? Are they the same thing? The thinking machine will die, the thinking machine is afraid and the thinking machine believes it’s more than a thinking machine. The machine is conscious and afraid, but only when it’s thinking such thoughts. No thought equals no fear.
Do we know what a thought is, where it comes from, where it goes or how it’s created? Can we know what our next thought will be? As well as not knowing who we are, we don’t know what life is or what death is and we don’t even know what thought is. We know nothing.
Personal identity: Still a real and valid experience
None of this means that your experience of your personal identity isn’t a real and valid experience, and we certainly don’t have to play the non-duality game of, “I’m not here, I don’t exist and nothing matters.” Spare yourself that nonsense, which incidentally is true but also not true. Let’s not deny our experience of separation, our personalities and our unique individualism. That’s how it is and how things happen on this planet, where the time is always now. This is where we are and that’s how it is.
The mind-identity is real to the mind (unless it believes the opposite and then that’s real). Mindful awareness doesn’t mind what the mind thinks. When we watch a movie, we know it’s not real, but we absorb ourselves in the story as if it’s real. We relate to and care about the characters and want to see what happens to them. We feel emotions, and can be moved, excited, afraid, tearful or happy, just to name a few possibilities. We think about what’s happening, what has happened and what might happen. We have a personal experience while watching the screen, but we don’t constantly tell ourselves, “this is not real.” There’s no need to do that.
We each are in the movie of our own life, with each of us as the central character, and we’re also watching it unfold as the viewer. We’re sitting in the theatre watching the movie of ourselves and we’re also the main character in the movie noticing ourselves watching ourselves.
Spiritual awakening doesn’t occur when the observer notices the character of “you,” nor does it occur when you recognize yourself as the observer. No, it isn’t that. Spiritual awakening occurs when the “you” character in the movie becomes aware of the person in the theatre seat watching. It occurs when the character becomes aware of the observer becoming aware of himself or herself. It occurs when they merge into one, and the “you” character and the “you” observer are discovered to be the same entity. It occurs when the “you” character in the movie becomes aware of his or her observer and then realizes that he or she is both the observer and the character, that they’re not separate from one another.
Spiritual awakening doesn’t involve identification with the observer watching the character, nor does it involve the realization that you’re the character in the story noticing the watcher. It happens when the watcher realizes that they’re watching themselves, while the character realizes that he or she is the watcher. They’re one.
There’s no separation between the watcher and the watched, so who’s watching who and who’s noticing all of that? The character-observer is noticing the character-observer and on it goes, back and forth.
There’s no point in telling ourselves that we have no identity and that nothing matters. We function in the world as separate human beings with unique thoughts and emotions that occur as we relate to ourselves, others and the world.
Go on with the story of you. Even when it becomes a story of spiritual awakening, it’s still just a story. We can’t escape the story of ourselves. You can’t escape the story of you when it’s all about you, all the time.
It’s real and it’s not real. It matters and it doesn’t matter. We’re one and we’re separate. We’re everything and we’re nothing. We understand and we don’t understand. We’re mindful and we’re not mindful. We observe ourselves and we observe ourselves observing ourselves. We think we know who we are and we know we don’t know who or what we are. We’re this and we’re that. We’re not this and we’re not that.
We were born and will die. Who we really are was never born and will never die. We’re alive and one day we won’t be. We’re life. We’re consciousness without beginning or end. We believe in who we are, yet we don’t know who we are.
We don’t know who or what we are and we don’t know why we’re here. We don’t know if there’s a reason why we exist or if there’s meaning to life. We don’t know what will happen next. We fear death but don’t know what it is. We live in not-knowing, yet fear the unknown. We look for meaning and certainty, yet there’s no meaning and no certainty. We’re already in the unknown. It’s all unknown. It always was and will be forever.
If we’re all just dreaming, then dream on
Welcome to reality, the reality of not knowing. You’re back home; you’ve returned from where you started. You never left; you never went anywhere. You’ve awoken from the dream of you, yet you dream on.
In my dream I write this, send it to The Mindful Word and they publish it. I wonder why I’m dreaming that, why that’s happening. Is there ever a reason for anything? I don’t know. In your dream, you read these words. Do you know why?
You’re in this moment and you’re here right now. That’s all you have and there’s nothing else. It’s all there is. It’s everything.
Dream and dream that you notice yourself dreaming; dream that you wake up; dream that you think you’re in a dream; dream that you come out of the dream; dream that you can’t escape the dream; dream that you do escape from the dream; dream that you don’t know if you’re in a dream or not, dream that you don’t know if you escaped or not; dream that you don’t know if you woke up or not. Dream that you don’t know anything.
Are you dreaming? How can you know? Is this a dream, or is it reality? As the lyrics of the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen go, “Is this the real life? / Is this just fantasy? / Caught in a landslide / No escape from reality. / Open your eyes / Look up to the skies and see.”
Is this reality or a dream? Is there a difference? Is reality a dream? We don’t know.
This is the story of you, and the story of you is epic, the greatest story ever told, the only story ever told. There’s only one story, and that’s the story of you, of your life, of your spiritual awakening. This is the only story and it’s all about you. It can’t be any other way. It’s about your realization that you don’t know, that you live in not-knowing, and that you’re always right where you are, right here and right now. You’re always here in the moment, now and now and now.
Everything can stay as it is and nothing needs to change. Mindfulness is all about noticing what is, noticing how it is and noticing change as it’s occurring.
Enjoy the mystery of life and the wonder of you.
If you enjoyed this article, you may be interested in TRANSCENDING CULTURE: From separation to oneness»
by Mike Larcombe
image 1: Hartwig HKD (Creative Commons BY-ND); image 2: Pixabay; image 3: Pexels