Many ancient cultures throughout the world made three incredible discoveries about humanity and the universe, and used very similar methods to arrive at their conclusions. Many of these cultures gave rise to particular groups of people dedicated to the exploration of reality, and despite the widely differing cultures in question, all used the human psychosomatic organism as the instrument for their research and all used the practice of inner silence as the principal method. Their conclusions about the human condition are astonishingly similar.
The first discovery was what Eastern Orthodox Christianity calls the “consubstantiality” of the human race. In other words, we are not the separate individuals that we think we are. Rather, we are all organically connected, ontologically linked with each other and with the rest of the cosmos at levels much more profound than the physical. The human race is one vast being. Yes, the personal elements really are distinct and will remain so, but we are nevertheless far more connected than our fallen perceptions would lead us to believe.
The second discovery was that everything that is real, permanent and eternal is somehow related to unity and oneness. Unity tends toward wholeness and completeness and the origin of things, whereas multiplicity appears to be linked to the whole process of disintegration and death – to what is temporal and impermanent.
The third discovery, and the one that concerns us in this chapter, is the fact that when most people use the word “I” – “I want , I think, I love, I hate,” etc - the “I” they are referring to is an illusion; this “I” does not really exist. There is an “I” that does, but this isn’t it.
The methodology of using your own body and mind as instruments to explore the nature of reality has been in use for millennia and is the basis of every authentic tradition. The West, though, sees the results as “invalid” and, since there is no “impartial observer”, it is impossible to demonstrate the results to an independent third party. It’s also difficult to reproduce the experiments on demand. Western science has typically labelled these endeavours as “subjective” and derided them as “mysticism”. Authentic traditions, on the other hand, know that this method is perfectly valid, extremely reliable and time-tested, and using it these traditions made astonishing discoveries.
With regard to the third discovery, above, how is it possible that when most people say “I”, the “I” they are referring to has no concrete existence? Most people’s minds are so overlaid with layers of historical and social conditioning from family, friends, the surrounding culture and incidents from the past interpreted in a certain way, that they have lost all spiritual independence. They have become totally “yin”, totally susceptible to energies from the external environment and to the powers of soul and body run amok – the passions. Such people identify themselves totally with their own thoughts, their own opinions, prejudices, preconceived notions, whims, desires, aversions, and are unconsciously manipulated by powerful forces they may be only vaguely aware of and do not control – everything from hormonal shifts to the phase of the moon. So when most people in their fallen condition use the term “I”, they are not referring to something concrete and permanent, but to what Taoism calls “emotional consciousness” and to what Orthodoxy calls the “passions” or the bondage to the “world”. This bondage is the very thing we are trying to overcome.
The best known formulation that the “I” is unreal comes from the Shakyamuni Buddha himself. His analysis of human consciousness into the five aggregates or “skandhas” shows definitively that whatever this “I” is, it is not what most people assume.[i] While we obviously have superficial character traits conditioned by history, we also have a real personal identity or “hypostasis” (to use the Orthodox technical term) which persists within us, although we may have thoroughly obscured it. As one Orthodox theologian put it:
Our temporal characteristics and our history in life depend on many superficial things which vanish with death, but our real personality is not superficial and does not depend on changing and vanishing things. It is our real self. It remains with us when we sleep in the grave and will be our real face in the resurrection. It is eternal.[ii]
So what people are referring to when they use the word “I” is simply an inner state of disintegration. You might say that the real purpose of self-transformation is to rediscover the real “I” – and yes, the real “I” really does exist! The genius of Orthodoxy and of all authentic traditions lies in showing us how to go within and see for ourselves all the layers of conditioning that have been laid on us. And then they show us how to expose and eliminate these layers one by one – how to eliminate our bondage to the energies of this world, our yin state, and to become yang again, the master of creation rather than its slave. All authentic traditions realized that this inner disintegration takes place mainly through the neurotic overuse of the rational mind, and its reduction of reality to conceptual thought. So the first step toward health is to accept the fact, at least on an intellectual level, that our thoughts are not us.
The sheer magnitude of this discovery can hardly be overstated. Think about it. Were you not brought up to believe implicitly that the thoughts you have are your own creations? Is it not assumed in Western culture that the continual production of thoughts is the most important indication of intelligence? Do we not measure intelligence by the infamous “IQ”, by how adept the person is at linear thinking and manipulating concepts? Is not our entire educational system based on teaching endless abstract concepts and how to play with them?
The purpose of meditation is to develop unceasing inner attention (Greek prosoche) and awareness. The use of this attention in the pursuit of inner freedom is called “watchfulness” (Greek nepsis). St. Hesychios tells us that, while this inner attention is, “the heart’s stillness, unbroken by any thought,” watchfulness is, “a continual fixing and halting of thought at the entrance to the heart. In this way predatory and murderous thoughts are marked down as they approach and what they see and do is noted.”[iii] (By “murderous thoughts”, Hesychios means any thoughts that forcefully attempt to take over our inner attention.)
To maintain constant inner attention in the midst of daily occupations may seem like an impossible task. But, like all other skills, it can be learned through practice. When this is accomplished, our noetic attention is stabilized inside the body and becomes the true guardian of our real self. Once refined and clarified, it becomes able to detect the arising of thought-energy from whatever source.
At this point you’ll be able to watch thoughts approach and attempt to gain admittance to the mind, while at the same time separating yourself from them and preserving your inner integrity. Then you’ll see that the thoughts themselves will begin to fade over time and lose their power over you.
Have you ever had a crush on anyone – been romantically obsessed with someone, but it didn’t work out? Well, the dynamic is similar: when we indulge thoughts and identify with them (which is what happens during a crush), they become extraordinarily powerful and take over our whole inner world forcefully. But when we cease to give them attention (as when we have been separated from the object of our affection for months or years), the thoughts are gradually reduced to bare ideas devoid of emotional power. “If not a single thought occurs,” writes the Preserver of the Truth, “then you shed birth and death. Therefore enlightened people cultivate their behaviour, detaching from emotion, breaking down obstinacy and blunting sharpness, working to overcome and eliminate unwholesome states of mind in order to see the original face before birth.”[iv] “Little by little,” writes St. Theophan the Recluse, “you will separate from your thoughts. Then you will find that you have strayed far away from your first created image.”[v]
Uniting Energy and Spirit: This is the most basic, safest and most powerful method for taking back control of your inner world and, not surprisingly, it hinges on your breath. Taoism refers to this practice as “the union of energy (qi) and spirit (shen)”. According to an ancient Taoist source, “When mind and breath stay together and work in unison, this keeps the mind from leaping about and prevents attention from running off.”[vi] To use an Eastern Orthodox example, one contemporary elder has this to say about the cultivation of the breath, albeit in the context of unceasing noetic prayer:
Controlled breathing (along with attentiveness) is necessary to keep the nous (your mental attention) from escaping. In this way we shall be able to cut off distraction, which bleeds the essence out of prayer… By eliminating distraction, we give the nous the ease to pay attention to the heart…
This method of prayer is very effective. First, it will bring undistracted prayer; it will bring joy and peace. Simultaneously it will bring clarity of the nous and tears of joy. The nous will become receptive to theoria (the vision of God). Afterwards, it will create absolute stillness of the heart.[vii]
The method itself is very simple: during daily activities we strive to pay attention to our breathing. This tunes the breathing almost automatically and without effort. We don’t therefore try to impose a breathing pattern, but simply follow the natural rhythm in an unconstrained way. Our attention will be seduced by countless other things, but we patiently bring our attention back and put it on the breath. Over a long period of time our attention stabilizes more or less permanently so that we are no longer even conscious of the breath anymore.
There is no more efficient way to overcome stress than this. Uniting energy and spirit – i.e. paying attention to your breathing – is nature’s built in tranquilizer. But unlike the chemical tranquilizers that numb your mind and kill your ability to focus, this method magnifies your mental powers. And instead of making you drowsy, you’ll get more and more energy for your daily activities. And, as if that weren’t enough, it will even break the downward spiral of neurotic thinking that produces the physical symptoms of stress.
Now that you’ve learned the basic method, here are two more tools to help you put an end to negative emotional states, vanquish the non-stop pesky thoughts of your “internal dialogue” and send you physical health and immunity through the roof…
[ii] Alexander Kalomiros, The River of Fire, p.115.
[iii] “On Watchfulness and Holiness” #5 & 6 in Philokalia, vol.1.
[iv] Practical Taoism, p.25
[v] Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 307.
[vi] Taoist Meditation, p.113.
[vii] Counsels from the Holy Mountain, p.342-344.
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