5 Steps to Overcoming the Greatest Obstacle to Spiritual Awareness
Charles Bynum, Contributor
The Buddha famously said that the cause of suffering (dukkha) is clinging. In fact, it is the second of his Four Noble Truths. For most people this idea speaks to the things in our lives that we like and want to hold onto, and the things we do not like and we want to make go away.
While there is truth in this view, it is nonetheless one step removed from the deeper truth that most fail to see. The attempt to identify everything that I like or don’t like and what I am holding onto or pushing away is difficult because there are so many. Yet that is how most of us begin our journey toward greater awareness. We attempt to pay attention to everything we are clinging to and try to be better at letting them go, and we pay attention to those things we dislike and try to be better at accepting them.
There is a better way. Rather than looking at the things we are clinging to or attempting to avoid, why not turn that perception around and look at the thing that is clinging or avoiding?
This is the deeper way. It is not the things in themselves that cause clinging and aversion; it is the self that is the cause. It is the self that clings. It is the self that avoids. When we look inward instead of outward, we find that we no longer have hundreds or thousands of things to work on. There is but one. If we solve the problem there, we find that the problem is solved in all areas of our lives.
What are the steps that will help us identify this “self” and overcome its tendency toward clinging and aversion?
1. Identify How the “Self” Came Into Being
What is this thing I think of as “me” that has been experiencing this life through my body? If I look deeply into this question, I find that I started off this life born into a particular time, into a particular family, in a particular region of a particular country. This means that, as a young child first coming into awareness, I was exposed to certain ideas and beliefs that I was told were true about reality. Change any one of these and I find that the ideas and beliefs I was taught would have been different. Change my family, and I may have been taught different religious beliefs. Change the time in which I was born and I would have learned different things about the world around me based on the best evidence available to people at that time. For example, had I been born before Copernicus, I would have believed that the Earth is the center of the universe. Change the country into which I was born and I would have been taught different views of the world. Even changing the region into which I was born can alter what is learned. For example, I was raised in the South in the U.S. I therefore learned to see the world differently than I would have had I been born in the North.
This means that I received a very limited view of the world that, as a young child, I accepted uncritically. I then grew into adolescence and started thinking on my own. At this stage various experiences occurred in my life that validated some of the things I had been taught and contradicted others. This caused an adjustment in my mind in which I accepted some beliefs and altered others accordingly. Yet here I find that had my experiences been different, this process would also have been different. The young child who is molested by a parent or close relative learns different lessons from the one born into a safe and loving home.
2. Recognize That We Have Equated the “Self” Into These Opinions and Beliefs
It is during adolescence that our beliefs begin to harden into the concept of a self. We end up with the idea that we are what we believe. It is difficult to alter our beliefs because we see any challenge to those beliefs as an assault upon our very being. Yet by looking back, we can begin to see that every belief we have is but an idea told to us by another that was in turn either confirmed or contradicted by our experiences. We wove random events into this thing we call the self and then began to see that self as an extant reality—something that exists as an entity in this world. Actually it is nothing more than a set of experiences and thoughts combined through the choices we make into something we think of as the self.
We did this at a time in our lives when we lacked the emotional maturity to make well-informed choices about what to believe. For example, a reprimand by an angry parent may appear to me as a child as confirming that something is wrong with me, whereas as an adult I would be better able to see that the anger may not have anything to do with me. Yet these lessons are learned at an early age, and they are persistent throughout our lives. We may make small adjustments to them here or there, but for the most part, we are bound by them.
3. To Overcome the Effects of the Lessons Learned as a Young Person, We Must Go Back and Look at Them Again as an Adult
When we begin to let go of this set of beliefs that has hardened into an identity, we can revisit them from a more mature point of view. Often this results in seeing that many of the things I learned to believe, were in reality things that I accepted as a child that I would not accept now. This is the process of recreating the self in a new image that is more conducive to who I have become as opposed to being bound by what I once was. It is at this stage that true freedom starts to become a very real possibility. I find that I am fettered by antiquated ideas and beliefs that, though they may have served me well in the past, hinder me today. I find that I am free to let them go anytime I choose.
This is often a frightening part of spiritual development. After all, who am I devoid of everything I once thought of as me? The answer to that question is simple. I am whoever I wish to be. I am no longer bound to any particular definition. There opens up to me a world filled with ideas and beliefs that I never before considered, all of which are there for my choosing. We often hear that we can be anything we want to be, but so often we think in terms of material things. I want to be wealthy, or I want that new job. That is not what is meant by the ability to be whatever we want to be. What matters is the type of human being I will be regardless of external circumstances. I begin to see that with or without wealth, I want to be a kind and compassionate person who is loving and giving to others. I begin to see that being a person who gives to life results in happiness and joy in life, whereas focusing on what I want from life results in pain and suffering.
4. Begin to See the Self as a Fluid Thing That is Forever Changing
The ability to create a new self by revisiting the ideas and beliefs I as a young man wove into an image of the self, affords me the ability to see that the self can be altered at any time. This means that the new self I am creating today is not a permanent creation. It is instead a creation that suits me better at this time, but may be subject to change as my circumstances in life begin to change. This is also the point at which I begin to experience a truly remarkable thing. As I create a new self, I begin to see how my environment changes in response to this new self. This is where the interactive nature of existence is most deeply felt. I see that by infusing my environment with love and joy, that environment it turn responds to me with ever increasing love and joy. The cycle that led to pain and suffering really can be turned around. I no longer know this as a theory in my mind. It becomes instead an experienced reality, and it is this new experience of reality that is the most life altering thing of all.
5. Begin to See That There is no Longer a Need to Identify With Any “Self” I Create
This is the stage of true awakening. The self is seen for the illusion that it always was. It was never a real thing that existed; it was but a pattern of habitual behaviors all created by me. Now I can alter those habits. As those habits change, so too does my environment change in response. Now I have experienced true freedom. It is the freedom from what I once thought I knew. The world was as it was only because I saw it that way. I can now create the world in any way I choose by creating new patterns of behavior that are healthier for me and for those I love. This does not mean that I have changed anything in the material world. I have only changed my relationship to that world. At this point, clinging and aversion begin to dissolve as I see that there is no true “self” to do the clinging or the averting.
These are the stages of spiritual awareness. They lead to an absolute freedom in which my behavior stops being a reaction to life, and instead becomes a conscious response. I am able to choose what I want in my life and what I want to keep out of it. I begin to see that with absolute freedom comes absolute responsibility. Because I choose what is in my life and what is not, nothing is happening to me that I did not cause to happen. This is the true freedom from the tyranny of the self.
About the Author
Charles Bynum is a philosopher, public speaker and author. Understanding the human condition through psychology, sociology and philosophy interests him. The condition of the world that surrounds us inspires and influences his work. He is an author whose work is a blend of fiction and fact that is most often expressed in prose, but he also writes poetry, and has recently published a personal account of an experience in human tragedy. Charles seeks an understanding of the political landscape and each member’s personal responsibility toward the future of our society.
Charles brings his powerful message to others in the community. He volunteers at the local military base helping soldiers who return from deployment with PTSD and substance abuse issues. He also works with the Teen Court helping kids who have lost their way. His unique approach to these issues is healing to those in need. Charles also lectures regularly at colleges where he speaks to psychology and criminal justice students so as to teach his approach to others who will themselves be working with people who are suffering.
His message is inspiring, moving and life-altering. Charles offers insights into the human condition that affect us all. His words reach deeply into the depths of the human psyche—that of existential despair—and from those depths he brings to his audience a path out of the darkness. It is a message of hope, a message of joy, a message that conveys the beauty that is life.
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