To Seek the Self (Part 2)

We’ve established that it’s our own self that we need to be investigating first if we’re to have a firm footing on the path of wisdom.  Without knowing the truth of ourselves, we don’t have a foothold in the investigation into any of the things of the universe.  It’s also been suggested that, since truth is universal and common to all things, knowing the truth of ourselves will show us the truth of all things.  That remains to be seen.  But the question remains: how exactly do we investigate ourselves?  What does the notion of “self-investigation” entail?  Who exactly are we?

Woden offered himself unto himself on that tree.  Mystical aspects of the myth notwithstanding, there’s a key notion that’s heavily emphasised here: the notion of self-sacrifice.  What does this really mean?  To sacrifice oneself unto oneself means to give oneself fully over to oneself.  To hold nothing back, and to ask nothing in return.  We can think of it in this way: we need to put all of our energy, effort, intention and aim on ourselves, at the expense of all other things.  Woden, our father, didn’t even have food or drink on his trial.  Depending on how you interpret the idea of “hanging” from the world tree, he didn’t even have air to breathe.  Everything, all of his physical, mental, and spiritual energies, was directed towards one goal: his own self.  This is what it means to make a sacrifice of yourself unto yourself.

Defining “Self”

But what exactly do we mean when we use the word “ourselves?”  What is a “self?”  Clearly it’s not the body we’re housed in, since Woden flat out ignored his body for nine days straight.  Pierced with a spear, denied food and wine, potentially without even breath, it seems more like he was trying to kill his body than that he was putting any attention on it!

How can it be said that the body isn’t a part of ourselves?  Simple: we’re the ones who are experiencing the body.  The body isn’t experiencing us.  The body is an object unto us; we are the subject to whom the body appears.  The body is something that arises in our experience: as such, it’s not ourselves, but something at a distance from us, of which we can be aware in a subject-object relationship.

You could say, at a push, that we experience ourselves “as a body,” but the key thing to understand here is that we experience ourselves as a body: “ourselves” and “a body” are different things in this sentence.  It’s a bit like experiencing ice cold water as being burning hot: the fact of the matter is that it’s extremely cold, but our experience of it seems closer to fire than ice.  We might experience ourselves “as a body,” but this isn’t necessarily the truth of the situation.  It just goes to show that we can’t take things at face value here.  We have to be smart: we have to look beyond appearances.  No matter how much it might appear to me that I’m a body, I can’t be a body for the simple reason that the body appears to me.

What appears to me can’t be what I am, else I’d be everything I see, everything I touch, everything I taste, everything I hear and so on.  It’s a “one or the other” kind of scenario: either we’re the entire universe of sense and sensation, or we’re none of it at all.  No half-way deal here: you can’t be one part of the sensory world and not another.  You’re either everything or nothing.  Maybe even both, actually – but certainly not somewhere in between.

Who Am I?

So I’m not this body that I’ve been lugging around for however long.  It’s an object, a vessel, a vehicle.  It’s something that I’m aware of; it’s not what I am.  What am I then?  Am I the mind inside the body?  Am I the thinker, the feeler, the experiencer of events?  Again, this is an important thing to look at.  Luckily, we can treat it in almost exactly the same way we did the body in the preceding paragraph: am I the things I think?  Am I the things I feel?  On the face of it, it can seem that way.  Our thoughts and feelings naturally come to us with the sense “I think that…” and “I feel that…”  But let’s look more closely at the matter.

Even the language we use to describe these events is telling: “I think this; I feel that…”  The “I” is held to be separate from both the “think” and the “this” – so too from both “feel” and the “that.”  We’re clearly not what we think and feel, primarily because we’re the ones that think and feel it!  While our thoughts and feelings certainly make up part of our experience – just like the body – they can’t ultimately be the truth of who we are.  Again, it’s a matter of distinguishing between the subject and the object: my thoughts and feelings are objects that appear unto me; I am the subject to whom they appear.  The distinction is clear even in our language.

We looked at the notion of “truth” earlier on – we recognised that, in order for something to be true, it has to be true all the time, not just temporarily.  How could our thoughts and feelings be true representations of who we are, then?  They change constantly.  One day we think one thing, the next day we think the opposite.  What we believed in and followed as children is not what we believed in and followed as teenagers.  Many of us have changed even more as we’ve gotten older.  As we grow, our feelings about things, the way we interpret and work with the world, even our sense of who we are, all of it changes.  The mental and emotional content of our lives simply can’t define us, for an obvious reason: it’s never constant!

Am I Somebody?

Many people are carrying around this thing called a “personality,” which is a by-word for “the way I think I am.”  It’s always based on what we think and what we feel, and often related to how we perceive our bodies.  We tend to believe that these things are what define us: our evolving ideas as to who we are and how we fit in.  As we age, our personalities change in accordance with our changing beliefs and attitudes, and so we say that “we’ve changed” – we’ve changed as persons.

But how can we have really changed, when we’re the same beings now as we were when we were in our mothers’ wombs – when we had no thoughts at all, and no feelings other than (presumably) the feeling of prenatal bliss?  How can it be, when we’re the same being now that we were as a child, as a teenager, as a young adult, as a fully grown human being, and as we’ll continue to be throughout our lives?  How can we simultaneously be the same as we were from the get go while being completely different at each and every stage of our lives?  It doesn’t add up.  Something about this picture is wrong.

In the end, we have to accept that we’re not our thoughts and our feelings.  We’re not our personality.  We’re not this thing we’ve been calling a “mind.”  And indeed, we can prove it very easily just by recognising something important.  Put briefly, this “mind,” this “personality,” is something that’s characterised by thoughts and feelings.  In the absence of thoughts and feelings, there’s no such thing as a “mind;” there’s no such thing as “personality.”

What we call “mind” or “personality” is really just a bunch of loosely related mental movements.  But these mental movements are things that appear to us.  Just like the body, they’re things that we experience.  They aren’t physical objects like the body we inhabit, but they’re still external entities as far as we’re concerned.  They appear to us: we have to be there in the first place for them to show up.  When they’re gone, we’re the same as we always were.  There’s a way we can prove this, in fact.

The Experience of Deep Sleep

Are you the same you while you’re deeply asleep?  In the state of deep sleep, there’s no thought or feeling.  There’s no sense of personality, no idea of “who I am.”  There’s not even time.  There’s nothing at all, actually.  And yet you wake up saying “man, I slept really well last night.”  The key word here, of course, is “I” –  I slept really well last night.  My thoughts and feelings didn’t sleep – I slept.  That we can even say this shows that, in the state of deep sleep – where there’s no world, no body, no thoughts, and no feelings – we’re still there.  We’re still there in order to know that we’re asleep.  There’s no time, so we have no idea “how long” we were asleep for, but we’re aware enough of ourselves to know that we were in deep sleep.  If we weren’t, we’d get a shock every time we woke up – “what the hell happened?  I lay down and then it was morning.  This keeps happening to me…”

But we don’t wake up like this.  Something in us knows that we were asleep.  Something in us knows that we went to a place where nothing exists.  Something knows that we willingly and peacefully gave up the whole world and all our interest in it in order to be in complete darkness and nescience for a little while.  In fact, the only thing that was with us was us.  I’ll repeat: the only thing we were aware of was our own existence.  This is telling.  Really, we love to be in our own company.  Most of the people who say they don’t like sleep say so because they’re afraid of bad dreams.  It’s not really the sleep they’re afraid of, but the bad dreams, which aren’t “sleep” so much as they’re a different kind of waking experience.

Am I Dreaming?

I mean, the only difference between a dream and your waking experience is that in your waking experience you think the dream wasn’t real and in your dream you think the waking experience isn’t real.  Other than that, they’re the same kind of thing – objects, senses, thoughts and feelings, events, occurrences, time, change.  Same shit, different universe.

Even your sense of self can change from one dream to the next.  The personality you have, the idea of who you are, can be completely different from one dream to the next, but all the while it’s the same you.  You know when you wake up that you were the one who was dreaming.  You dreamed you were a cat, an old man, a privateer on a ship, maybe a younger or older version of your waking self, but it was still you, the one behind it all.  That “you” doesn’t change.

Now imagine: what if you woke up from your current waking experience into an even more wakeful experience?  What if you woke up from this waking dream into yet another dream?  You’d still be the same you.  Your personality might be different, including your history, the world around you and so on, but you’d be the same you.  No matter who you think you are, you’re always the same.  Young, old, waking, dreaming – these things don’t matter in the end.  It stands to reason that the truth of who we are is the truth of who we are.  That doesn’t change.

Seriously, Who Am I?

Clearly none of the things of the outer world(s) can define us.  None of the things in our mind can define us.  The only thing that really defines us is ourselves.  This is the point of this current post: we’re ruling out all of the things which we simply can’t be so that we’ve got the best possible chance of finding out what we really are.  When we know what we really are, we’ll be able to follow Woden in his quest for wisdom: for we’ll know the self to which our sacrifice should be made, and we’ll know the self we need to sacrifice.  Everything that’s written here is for the purpose of following Woden on that quest, since that is the clear way to discovering wisdom in this world.

When it’s been understood that everything else we could get – material wealth, great power or skill, loving relationships or amazing experiences – is ultimately meaningless in the face of universal death and eternal changefulness, then we’ll turn our attention and our energy towards discovering that which is not subject to death or change.  This is the unchanging thing.  This is the truth of all things.  Ultimately, this is our own truth.  That’s why Woden made a sacrifice of himself to himself.  Having wandered through all the worlds, adopted all the guises, learned all the lessons of life from all perspectives, he realised that the one thing he hadn’t had was the experience of the truth.  So he killed his mind in order to discover his reality.

This is the way it’s been done all through the world.  It’s no different for a European than it is for an Indian or an African.  All that changes is the cultural baggage, the ingrained assumptions, the basic illusions which obscure our natural understanding of our true being, the reality of this universe.  I’m a Northern European: Woden is the accepted founder of my people’s wisdom tradition, so I walk in his footsteps.  I take him as my guide.  Through many dreams, including this current life, he’s led me to the place where the sacrifice is made.  I hang upon that tree all my days.  I follow my father because it’s the right thing to do.  Now I seem to be spreading this same message that he led me to with such great skill and cunning.

It’s not easy, this quest; but nothing worthwhile is.  We have to die to be born into the truth.  The sacrifice upon the tree is not a mere visualisation, nor is it something that someone else can do for you – there are no universal saviours in our mythology.  If you’re serious about wisdom, you have to make the sacrifice.  You have to die to all that’s false about yourself in order to allow the truth to come to the surface.  Then those runes will pull you in, and you’ll be taking them up screaming into this world of form.  Your life will be changed for the better – not because you gained anything important, but because you lost everything pointless.  That’s wisdom.

-> Part 3

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