This article is second in a series of articles on Spirituality. Read other two parts here.
Understanding Spirituality I – Knowing your Conditioning
Understanding Spirituality III – Living in the Now
Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them – Eckhart Tolle
In the previous article, I discussed the problem of human conditioning that hides our true nature from our own eyes. In this article I shall try to elaborate it further from another angle.
We are often in constant conversation with ourselves. If we had a heated argument with someone, we continue to think about it for long after the argument was over. If we were outraged, we may want to inflict some serious harm to that person, at least in our thoughts. To whom do we talk to during that thinking process? There is a ‘voice in our head’ that constantly keeps talking to us. Sometimes we keep thinking about our past actions with regret and might say to ourselves: I should not have done or said that. Sometimes we create a future for us in our thoughts. And so on…
Who is this voice in our heads? Most of us take it for our true identity; our true self.
Key to spiritual enlightenment is to realize that this ‘voice in the head’ is not me but it has its own separate identity. It is not my true self rather it is the conditioning talking to me in the disguise of my own self. My true self is not the thinker but the one who is watching the thinker. I have the ability to shut down this voice if I become ‘aware of it’. If I try I could stop this ongoing constant chatter in my head and live without it in silence. Let’s try to do that with a simple exercise.
Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Try to feel the air coming and leaving your body. Notice the contraction and expansion of your chest and abdomen. If you pay attention, during this activity, you will find there is no voice in your head because your focus is on your breath. Your mind is totally silent. Now with your eyes still closed, try to watch any thoughts that will start to appear into your head. This witnessing presence that is watchful of thoughts is real you. The voice that is trying to disturb the silence in your head is not you. Conscious breathing like this can create the space between the watcher and the thinker.
In the spiritual circles this voice in the head is called ‘ego’ which is the core of all of our mind activity. It consists of repetitive and persistent thoughts, emotions and reactive patterns. This is our ego who identifies with form external to us like possessions, opinions and resentments etc. When someone abuses us, it is not our true self but our ego that gets outraged. When we react in the outrage, we let our ego dictate our actions. When we cheat, when we deceive, when we hate, we act under the influence of our ego. It is our ego that keeps us feeding negative thoughts. The moment we become aware of this, we start our journey towards spiritual enlightenment.
This awareness is our true self. Spiritual awakening is nothing but this awareness.
What a liberation to realize that the “voice in my head” is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that. — Eckhart Tolle
Our ego doesn’t have a real existence. It is just an illusion. Its role is to hide us from ourselves; from our true nature. The moment we become aware of our ego, it ceases to exist. It is no more an illusion if we can recognize it as illusion. Its recognition is also its ending. When we start to see who we are not, we begin to know who we truly are. The more we grow in our awareness, the more we get separated from our ego. Famous Pakistani poet, Muhammad Iqbal, describes it in these words
خودی کو کر بلند اتنا کہ ہر تقدیر سے پہلے
خدا بندے سے خود پوچھے بتا تیری رضا کیا ہے
Translation: Raise your self-awareness so high that before each dispensation, God Himself may ask you what your wishes are.
The khudi of Iqbal is actually this awareness or consciousness. When we raise the level of our awareness, at the certain height (bulandi) we start to observe our ego from a distance. When we create this distance between us and our ego, it can no more dictate our actions; rather we can clearly see its trickery and stay clear of its deception. And that is the point when our nature becomes in line with the Will of God (Allah ki raza) and hence the verse of Iqbal: Khuda bande se khud pooche bata teri raza kya hai (God Himself may ask you what your wishes are).
I personally think this is perhaps the most important lesson that I have learned in the recent past; not to confuse my thoughts and emotions with my true self.
Separating egoic thinking from awareness is true awakening. When you stop identifying yourself with your ego, you begin to realize that when you do an insane act – like reacting in anger – it is not you but your ego which makes you commits such acts. This is also true for all other people because, like you, everyone has been created with same godly nature or soul. Everyone is inherently good and just. The wrongs they commit, they do it under the influence of the ego. In the words of Tolle:
Recognize the ego for what it is: a collective dysfunction, the insanity of the human mind. When you recognize it for what it is, you no longer misperceive it as somebody’s identity. Once you see the ego for what it is, it becomes much easier to remain nonreactive toward it. You don’t take it personally anymore. There is no complaining, blaming, accusing, or making wrong. Nobody is wrong. It is the ego in someone, that’s all. Compassion arises when you recognize that all are suffering from the same sickness of the mind, some more acutely than others. You do not fuel the drama anymore that is part of all egoic relationships. What is its fuel? Reactivity. The ego thrives on it.
Now an important question is how to stop identifying with the ego or, put in other words, how can we stop talking to the voice in the head? One way to do that is by keeping our focus in the now – the present moment – like conscious breathing exercise. Ego wants our attention; it wants us to talk to it all the time. We can get rid of it if we learn to live in a state of full conscious alertness, which means being fully present mentally. I would leave you with this pointer as ‘living in the now’ will be the topic of my the next article Insha’Allah.
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