Questions to various teachers about the “story of self” after enlightenment.
1) In nondual realization, does one’s story drop away completely or does it tend to arise less?
There are no rules, but usually, after it has been clearly seen that the inside self and its counterpart the outside world, are non-existent as such, these old beliefs will continue to arise for some time out of habit.
For how long these old residues of thinking, feeling, acting and relating on behalf of an imaginary inside self arise varies, but no longer fuelled by the belief that these thoughts and feelings represent the reality of our experience, it is natural that in time they die down.
I can only speak from my direct experience. That’s true of all my responses here. The belief that the “story of Scott” is my real identity, is seen through. The self is seen to be illusory or dream-like, yet still there for conventional or “convenient” purposes. For the most part, the story doesn’t arise, except in very practical ways, like when I’m simply conversing with someone and I point to personal experience to relate to the other person’s story or conversation. This is how we engage each other as humans, whether there has been an “awakening” or not. In the story, the difference between how the story is experienced now (when it arises) as opposed to how it used to be experienced is huge. The story no longer causes suffering or seeking when it arises. And even if those movements arise, they vanish so quickly, leaving no emotional trace, like a paintbrush stroke on water. There is no sense of an inherent or separate identity that sticks around as a constant. The story is like a voice that sounds itself or doesn’t sound itself. Either way, there is freedom. No preference for thinking v. not thinking.
I define realization as the ongoing, endless discovery and recognition of our limitless nature. In this sense, every moment of every person’s life is a realization of some sort. Even when as a child we realize our ability to tie our shoes, we are realizing something about our nature.
It is my observation that when it comes to much bigger realizations about our true nature, that there is no formula or pattern that applies to everyone. Sometimes the story drops away a lot and sometimes a little. Every snowflake is unique and so is every unfolding of realization.
“Story” is a rather wide term. The “story” of primary importance for the spiritual seeker is the fairytale that what they are is an individual entity with separate volition outside of the unwinding chain of cause and effect (the chain of cause and effect that everything in the universe is bound within). That “story,” that fairytale, is the lynchpin of human suffering.
To answer your question, “Yes,” it is that “story” that drops away in the sense of primary identification.
But your unique experiencing of this-here-now remains, which is “what” you have ultimately always been. When the illusion of the false self is seen through, its grip is released, but the ebb and flow of human experiencing remains.
To speak of the story is to have already split reality down the middle, first into experience and an experiencer, then eventually into one who has a story. The first split is a story. There is no experience apart from experiencing, which is really to say there is not two things.
The “story” in this case would be the conception of the independent existence of the self. There are layers in the realization of emptiness, from a hope, to an imagination, to inferential realization, to direct realization. Any layer and any degree of realization helps. With any kind of realization, the solid conception of the inherent self becomes lighter and freer. With direct, non-conceptual realization, it is all the way gone.
What is left? Not nothing, but rather a joyful, everyday conventional self, the mere I.
2) What happens when the story arises, is there less or no identification with it?
I don’t like to say ‘never!’ Identification arises less frequently and lasts for less time. At some point, as soon as it arises, it is seen through and dropped instantaneously.
Little to no identification. The future or past may arise, but very little emotional charge behind it. No sense that something about the past feels unfinished or bad. And no sense that something in the future has to happen in order to feel complete. Just present contentment, even in the midst of challenging situations, which do occur now and then.
There is not one kind of realization, and there is no wrong or right kind of realization. And my observation is that the extremes of total identification or no identification are quite rare, and that most people fluctuate a lot in their level of identification, including people who have had profound realizations of their true nature. I am always a little leery when someone makes a blanket statement of always or never about their experience.
How do we identify? What happens when I feel identified that is different than when I am not? It seems identification is just a very particular kind of thought. In the absence of any thought there is no identification. And yet do all thoughts have the same amount of identification in them, or are there simple functional thoughts that only have a functional amount of identification in them?
Perhaps the best question is, What is my experience of identification right now? What is my sense of self right now? Does my current thinking give me an open spacious sense of self, or a contracted narrow sense of self? And what is this sense of self anyways? What if our sense of self is not actually telling us anything about our real self? What if it is just a measure of how much truth there is in our current thought and experience? A truthful perspective gives us a more expanded sense of self, and a less truthful perspective gives us a more contracted sense of self.
What if our sense of identification has never had anything to do with us, and has always been an indicator of how true our perspective is?
Yes. In my experiencing there is far less identification with it when it does arise as the ebb and flow of the experiencing of living continues (at least in my experiencing of living). Honestly, it’s rather interesting when it does, almost fun (even when it’s not!), like briefly bumping into a long-lost friend that you no longer have anything in common with. It’s still usually intriguing.
As my own unique experiencing of this-here-now, which is all any of us always already are, identification with fairytale-self is severely reduced. And thereby, attachment to the story, when it does arise, is substantially minimized.
The story is seen for what it is – duality itself is the root story. In fully seeing this, the story is free to come and go, even identification is free to come and go – there is ultimately no attachment to any of it, as even the coming and going is a story.
This is a pretty good way to say what the emptiness teachings say above. The I-story is a tale of someone who goes to the store, takes walks, pays taxes, peruses the internet, and studies or delights in the sport of emptiness. It can be seriously or playfully told, but it is always like Alex Haley’s Roots: not Truth, not Fiction, but faction.
3) Practical, functional aspects of mind (i.e. how to drive a car, study medicine, raise a family) seem to continue perfectly for most even when there has been a nondual seeing. Yet something has changed. How is it possible to function “normally” in one’s everyday life while having such a change in perception about the notion of objects, people, and identity?
It would be more relevant to ask how is it possible to function normally in life without such a change in perception. Just look around…
Conventional existence continues. Driving a car, studying medicine, raising a family involves conventional existence. What changes, is the belief that things exist separately or ultimately. In seeing through separation, the emotional charge behind thought tends to fall away, leaving only the practical aspect of thought. So the thought of a past lover that once hurt me can arise, and instead of resentment, there is nothing at all or perhaps a smile. The sense that thought contains a separate identity is just not there. And even if the thought arises that says, “I am Scott” or “This is a separate toaster,” or “That was really a lover that hurt me,”…it can’t hang around. It flows through as part of the seamless symphony of life. It’s temporary, leaving no sense that the thought is pointing to a real, separate, permanent thing. It’s just movement.
In some perspectives, the ultimate would be a kind of permanent dissolving into an empty featureless place of pure stillness. To me the ultimate is a complete flexibility of awareness including a complete flexibility of thought and functioning. This includes the complete capacity to dissolve and disappear into pure empty Presence, and it also includes every other capacity of my being. Any perception of the deeper oneness of Being does not need to contradict our ability to perceive the apparent differences and different functions of objects, people, and our own thoughts. Two different perspectives can both be true at the same time, and again I point to a flexibility of perspective that embraces all possibilities.
The lens on your experiencing of living is still your neurology. It still has memories and conditioning, and it will still respond to new conditioning. Before an awakening to enlightenment, when you reached across the table and picked up a pencil you did not consciously think about every single muscle group in your shoulder, arm and hand that needed to flex and release in order to pick up a pencil. The thought just arose for your body to pick up the pencil and your neurology took care of all these details. Now the exact same thing occurs except there is no longer the false presumption that you are consciously willing any of it. You’re the experiencing of it. And our world is still one of actions and consequences, so your neurology doesn’t stick its hand into a fire or steer into oncoming traffic.
It’s the same with your friends and loved ones. Nothing changes other than the fact that you’re probably more compassionate toward them. If you liked their sense of humor, their gentle way of being, their optimistic attitude, their homemade brownies, or anything else, then all of that remains mostly the same. Or like all things, it may change over time as we live and learn and grow and change.
There is no longer a false translation going on. There is no continual propping up of the idea of individual self, no actual belief or juice going into that idea. Life goes on but there is no longer a struggling, no longer a strain or resistance to what IS, no longer an assertion of individual self as the central character in the play. It is simply realized to be only a false belief.
Life is so much easier when you realize that you and worldly phenomena don’t have a fixed, permanent, self-sufficient nature. You become more facile and flexible, and the world becomes more negotiable.
When I was a teenager, I remember thinking that it was somehow impossible for me to learn to drive a car. And indeed I didn’t learn how until I was 22 years old. This perceived inability was a very deeply rooted thought. It took a very long time with an extremely patient driving instructor. Braving my insults and anxieties, he slowly taught me how to drive. At the same time, he revealed that particular image of myself to be false.
Let’s say you think of yourself as essentially a failure. This can be so deep that you think that it is actually your very nature. It can seem impossible to study medicine and succeed. With the false conception of inherent existence of self and things, the activities of life can seem heavy and impenetrable. Happiness and progress can seem impossible.
Realizing the emptiness of things, even in a beginning way, starts to free things up and show how movement, change, and progress are possible.