Posts Tagged ‘God in 1st-person’

The Theater of Experience

“Did you have a good life when you died? Enough to base a movie on?” -Jim Morrison

While trying to describe the nature of emptiness and form, Ramana Maharshi once used the analogy of a movie theater: your entire life, all your experiences, thoughts, and memories, all your quiet victories and deafening defeats—everything you have ever known is something like an epic movie, being projected upon the empty screen of consciousness. This screen was present before the movie ever began, is present during the entirety of the film, and remains present long after it ends. As vivid and intense as the film ever gets, the images on the screen never affect the screen itself—if an image of fire is projected upon the screen, the screen never gets any warmer; if an image of water is projected upon the screen, the screen never gets any wetter. The screen remains radically untouched by the film, while somehow touching everything in the film.

And yet, when we are so fully engrossed in the dancing images of our lives, it can be very difficult to notice the screen itself, even though it underpins every experience we have ever had. In what might be described as an existential suspension of disbelief, we no longer notice the permanence at the very core of consciousness. Rather than identifying with the eternal presence that we truly are, we tend to identify with the sounds and visions of our relative existence—seeking refuge within the film itself, losing ourselves in the characters and story arcs and special effects. Seldom do we notice the empty screen that lovingly embraces all we have ever seen, heard, tasted, or felt; the empty expanse upon which the living light of reality is cast.

Of course, noticing the ever-present nature of the screen does nothing to enhance or diminish the quality of the film itself. Simply observing the screen does not suddenly make The Godfather interchangeable with Gigli—a good movie is still a good movie, a bad movie is still a bad movie; even more so you might say. All it does is help us to no longer be subject to the film—if we are watching a horror movie, we can experience fear, but not be subject to fear. If it is a love story, we can experience longing and heartbreak, without being subject to either. By transcending our identification with the film, we are able to engage and experience it much more deeply than ever before possible, simply by virtue of being able to bring an awareness to the film that cannot be found anywhere within the film itself.

Continuing to notice the empty screen and the film together, we slowly begin to discern the fact that, in the simplest act of viewing, in that very moment of observation, there is absolutely no difference between the two. That is, the distinction between the film and the screen is understood as the final obstacle of the dualistic mind, a secondary product of the experience in and of itself. They are profoundly not-two—inextricable from and irreducible to each other, yes, but somehow utterly the same nonetheless. To paraphrase the famous Zen koan: “When I hear the bell ring, there is no bell, and there is no I—there is only the ringing.” Empty consciousness and the ornaments of experience become indistinguishable from each other, as the film and the screen are both devoured in the carnal embrace of form and emptiness—at which point you step out of the theater altogether, feeling the crisp night air against your face.


The Unique Self

What do you think of when you hear the words “Unique Self”? Childhood memories of gold stars and “I am special, look at me” nursery rhymes? Stacks of self-help books intended to help bolster and reinforce the ego? The latest New Age The Secret-type fads that place the self at the center of the universe, instead of the universe at the center of the self? A particular constellation of Jungian personality types, Enneagram typologies, astrological signs, and countless “Which Battlestar Galactica character are you” quizzes on Facebook?

The Unique Self is much more than a Myers-Briggs test with a spiritual overlay. It does not refer to any of these ornaments of the self—though it is immanent to the trials and tribulations of the ego, it utterly transcends the ego, remaining forever untouched by the appetites of identity. The Unique Self represents the deepest possible expression of consciousness, a subject that can never be made object, the union of ever-present consciousness and individual perspective at a radically fundamental level.

Imagine four people sitting in a room, each looking at each other. All four of these people are “fully” enlightened; that is, as enlightened as a person can be at this point in history. Gazing upon one another, they see the very same Oneness staring back at them, recognizing the effortless awareness behind each set of eyes. There is an immediate recognition of primordial consciousness, of the radical singularity of being—the singular to which there is no plural. In each other’s eyes, they see their own Original Face, echoes of ubiquity emanating from an unmentionable Source. They can all see the radical and universal sameness of reality, each understanding that there is only one single Witness behind every set of experiences. In each other’s eyes they see only themselves, recognizing the very same effortless awareness that looks out from behind their own.

Now let’s imagine that these four enlightened masters are sitting in a circle, each looking at a globe that sits on a table between them. Although they all share the same direct apprehension of Oneness, they each retain a particular perspective of the globe, and therefore each see the world in a completely different way. There is something markedly unique about each of their experiences, from their physical orientation in time/space to their individual experience of the universal. Within each of them lies a fundamental thread of perspective, stretching all the way to the darkest depths of the Mystery—a bottomless drop of the Heart that is unique to each and every one of us.

There is only one universal “I AMness” in existence, and as many unique experiences of “I AMness” as there are perspectives in the universe. If we allow ourselves to think of consciousness as “a sphere whose center is everywhere, and whose perimeter is nowhere,” we see that, although we all share the same existential center, my center is not your center—my “bottomless drop” is not your “bottomless drop,” even if they are laced together in the Heart of the world. There is a seamless union of the universal and the unique that is completely and inextricably your own. It is the very last inch of you—an inch that can never be duplicated, can never be imitated, and can never be taken away.

In a certain sense, the Unique Self represents an end to the spiritual journey, the final realization of enlightenment.  But here again we begin chasing our own hermeneutic tails, words bouncing off the face of the Mystery like photons off a mirror. This nondual unification of self and no-self—”final” in it’s own right—is as unattainable as it is inescapable. It has no beginning and no end, as it never enters the stream of space/time to begin with—and yet it permeates all space and all time, never separate from the kaleidoscopic carnival of the manifest world.

The Unique Self is the substrate of our 1st-person experience, the subtlest patterns of perspective, flavors of love, and textures of spirit that make you exclusively you in this ecology of souls. With our deepest recognition of our Original and Unique Face, we begin to feel the evolutionary imperative surging though our veins—an insatiable drive to simply be ourselves, as freely and fully as we possibly can.

This is both the Alpha and the Omega of the Integral Spiritual experience, the first and final step toward our own awakening, while guiding our hearts and minds at every point along the way.

Originally published on Defining the Unique Self: A Trans-Lineage Exploration (w/ Lama Surya Das, Marc Gafni, and Sally Kempton)