Q: The teacher in my Heart led me to “turn from the mind of me,” and it was a four-fold process. When I turned from pride, I was totally humble. When I turned from greed, I felt contentment for the first time in my life. When I turned from desire, I was filled to overflowing with gratefulness. And when I turned from fear, I finally found my Heart as a place I could go to rest. Maybe because I had lived such a stressful, fear-filled life, this place blew me away. I turn every morning to my Heart, and it is so wonderful that I started asking how to live from this place, how to stay. It wasn’t long before I found your book Living from the Heart among some books I had bought but put away. I had to laugh at the speed of this answer. Anyway, I loved your book and have a question that maybe you could clarify.
I can totally understand awareness being so small and constricted in the mind and being so full and expansive in the Heart. But I don’t fully understand your explanation of the me—that the me in the mind is still awareness but just limited. I always thought Hindu belief was that the me is the ego, an illusion. In fact, when I am turned to the Heart, I am not aware of me. There is no me. All I feel is healed and whole, not separate like the me in the mind. Is the me awareness, or is it just another thought of the mind?
A: I would always point you back to your own experience first. When you don’t experience the me or the ego, it is either gone or so small as to be completely unnoticed, like the tiny dust motes floating in the air in front of you right now. The dust motes may exist and be real, but you may not be experiencing them at all. And even if you are, they are only of the most passing interest because there’s so much more here that is more substantially real.
It may just be a matter of semantics, but I like to speak about the ego as being included in awareness because I find that allows an open curiosity about the ego and the me. If they are around and kicking, it can be helpful to explore their nature as fully as possible. One thing you may quickly discover is that the ego and the me have a very short existence, even shorter than those little bugs that are born and die within a few hours. The ego and the me only exist when you are thinking about them, and they only exist as thoughts, which is a very limited existence. Since thoughts come and go so quickly, it is more accurate to speak of the hundreds or even thousands of egos that we experience in a single day.
As you mentioned, some Hindus say that everything that comes and goes is illusion and only that which never comes and goes is real. I tend to use this definition in a more gradual and relative way, with shades of gray instead of just black and white ideas of real and unreal. I suggest that you can tell how real something is by how long it lasts, so there are many things that are much more real than thoughts. However, in this way of defining what is real, thoughts are still real but just barely so, and even when thoughts are not happening, we still have the potential to think them again. So something that is even more real than the thoughts that make up the ego is the capacity within awareness to identify. In this view, the ego is a trick that awareness can play—now you see it, and now you don’t!
I point to the reality of thoughts, the mind, and the ego to inspire a full discovery of their nature and to acknowledge that if everything is oneness and Being, then nothing is left out, no matter how insubstantial, short-lived, or illusory.
Another way to see the many thoughts and patterns of identification that make up the ego is as a necessary developmental stage. It’s easier to go beyond identification with the ego when you have developed a healthy, functional ego. The ego may be extremely limited, especially when compared to our essential true nature, but that doesn’t mean the ego never has a function or never serves us in some way. The capacity to identify may be part of what develops through the experience of the ego. Perhaps the ultimate freedom is a completely flexible ability to identify and dis-identify in each moment, as is called for in the moment.
In any case, an important thing to notice about egoic thoughts is how narrow awareness becomes when we think such thoughts. Contracted is the correct way for awareness to feel in those moments, as that is how awareness itself discriminates how small such thoughts are and how little reality they have. When we are experiencing a me, it is appropriate for awareness to feel contracted and tight because that identification isn’t very real or true. Discovering that a limiting thought is not very real can be as liberating as discovering that a profoundly big and real truth is true. In both cases, you have put the experience into perspective and seen how real and how important it is.
What matters most is your own experience. You don’t need to discriminate the nature of the me or the ego when they are not here! Then you can just enjoy the more limitless and spontaneous flow of awareness that naturally occurs when identification with thoughts isn’t occurring. You can trust the contraction that happens when an egoic thought arises, and you can trust the expanded sense of being that happens when you drop into your Heart and there are no thoughts.