One day a six-year-old friend said to me, “Pretend you are surrounded by a thousand hungry tigers. What would you do?” I visualized the situation as he had suggested and, coming up with no viable plan of action, said, “Wow, I don’t know. What would you do?” And he replied, “I’d stop pretending.”
In many ways, our usual pretending to be somebody, to prove something, to aggrandize some notion of ourselves is similar to imagining being surrounded by a thousand hungry tigers. It is a condition of fright based on an illusion of our own creation. As soon as we take ourselves to be a separate agent—a somebody—we are more or less in competition with or trying to be protected from—otherbodies. With the beliefs in “I,” “me,” and “mine” come fear and craving. It’s a package deal. Waking up is the refusal to indulge this nightmare any longer, the simple decision to stop pretending. Beyond that, nothing further is required. In other words, you need not add anything. You need only to no longer entertain thoughts and beliefs that are not true. Then this beauty that you are, your true nature, shines through effortlessly and brilliantly.
A classic metaphor suggests that we observe clouds covering the view of the sun. Eventually the clouds pass. The intelligent observer would not assume that anything inherent in the passing of the clouds actually created the sun. There would be recognition that the sun had merely been temporarily obscured by clouds, but had been there all along. In this same way, our true nature of clear presence is, at times, obscured but always shining.
Yet, if this is so simple, so available, so obvious, how have people consistently missed its ongoing realization? Why have people gone to such lengths ardently practicing techniques, programs, and religions only to become further entrenched in ideology and sometimes even fighting wars to defend their “faith”?
The answer lies in the investment in beliefs. I once interviewed J. Krishnamurti, and as I was about to ask him a question beginning with the words, “Do you believe…?” he stopped me and said, “I don’t believe in anything.” Most people believe their thoughts, and if they have had a lot of thoughts on a given subject over time, there is a long-term investment in the belief of those thoughts. The good news is first, that one need not believe one’s thoughts, and secondly, that there is no loss whatsoever in abandoning the long-term investment in what had been believed. On the contrary, without belief in habitual thought, there is clear seeing and open potentiality. It is what Suzuki Roshi meant when he said, “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.”
Beliefs lock us into a set way of perceiving which filters reality through these beliefs—like a screen-and conditions our actual experience of life. As one believes, so one experiences. If one holds a belief that the world is a dangerous place, one experiences danger all around. If one believes oneself to have been damaged in childhood, then one experiences life as a victim and feels abused at every turn. If one believes that something more is needed for happiness-more money, more sex, more power, more notoriety—then that person experiences hunger and a sense of lack, no matter what divine showers occur.
These thoughts and concepts all cluster around one central belief—the belief in “me.” This is the ridgepole for the entire illusory house of pain. With it comes an obsession with the related topics of my life, my past, my future, my likes and dislikes, my opinions, my needs, my feelings, my worth.
With this one central belief comes also an enormous and miserable workload—the me project, which requires continual feeding and entertainment. Because there is an inherent feeling of separation that comes with the belief in “me,” there is also a perceived need for protection, so there is wariness and suspicion of possible threats. Its appetite for experience is driven by an unrelenting sense of discomfort and a desire to be at least temporarily distracted from the project. To that end there is abuse of all kinds of substances, sex, material consumption, and power.
After working many years on the me project, and finding no lasting satisfaction in any of its pursuits of “happiness,” some people decide to try a different approach, and they direct the project in a search for enlightenment. They become spiritual seekers. But, often it is just the same old me project, only now with a new spin: “I will become enlightened, and then I will be respected, feel better about myself, spend time with spiritual people, get out of this pitiful condition I’ve been living in, and someday maybe have lots of followers, sex, and money, to boot.”
I know this well from experience. By the time I was twenty years old, I had realized that all the worldly promise for happiness paled in time or worse, grew bitter to the taste. For the next two decades I lived a life of spiritual pursuit, mostly focusing on Buddhist meditation practice. But, I did so with the hope of attaining something someday. I wanted to feel better, to have a sense of belonging, to be visionary and wise. Yet, as long as this feeling of “I” is around, there is almost no hope of feeling better. Even when I was getting what I wanted, there was always the nagging sense that it would soon be gone. Anything gained in time may also be lost in time.
Looking back on the twists and eddies of this life journey, I see that so much of what I attempted in my longing for happiness was a way of exhausting all possibilities that the world offered, including spiritual pursuit. Neti neti as they say in India. Not this, not that. Many years of spiritual endeavor eventually ended in disappointment, and spiritual disappointment is a most troubling kind of despair as there is a sense that there is nowhere else to turn. Of course, this is also a potential dawn of realization, for when there is nowhere else to turn, one may be forced to recognize that mysterious essence which silently permeates one’s discontent all along, that supreme peace which is never shaken or diminished in all those long wanderings in sorrow or joy.
A friend of mine recently remarked (as a play on the old Janis Joplin song), “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to choose.” If one is fortunate, there comes an eventual giving up of the me project altogether—when you’ve played out all your dreams and schemes and found no consolation in any of them, when the tired stories about “me,” or spiritual attainment, or needing to have some particular life experience have no lure and cannot seduce you for one moment from your mountain seat of freedom.
And there you rest effortlessly, no longer looking for love but being love, no longer yearning for vision but continually baptized in a mystical vision of perfection, no longer trying to live in the present, but knowing that is it is impossible to live other than in the eternal stream of now, no longer trying to clear your mind but knowing without doubt that nothing—no thought, worry, fear, or idea about yourself—has ever stuck to you or ever could.
Catherine Ingram currently leads Dharma Dialogues and retreats in the U.S. and Europe. She is the author of In the Footsteps of Gandhi and has written on consciousness and activism for magazines and journals for over 15 years.