When we look at our hands we realize they are a part of us, that they accomplish remarkably deft tasks, but that we are so much more than just our hands. We use our hands, but we are not our hands.
So too when we examine our thoughts, we realize that we use them to accomplish remarkably deft things, but we are so much more than just our thoughts. We use our thoughts, but we are not our thoughts.
Once you realize that you are not your thoughts, you have begun to awaken.
As you witness yourself having a desire, a memory, or an emotion, you also realize that your ability to witness thoughts proves that you are something more than thoughts – you are their witness. This deep and abiding awareness beyond the thought stream goes by many names. In Zen Buddhism it is called your Original Self. In the Bhagavad Gita Krisha calls it the Inner Witness. Revealing and realizing our identity with this primary consciousness is the work of the world’s great spiritual traditions.
The twentieth century Vedanta teacher Ramana Maharshi used to lead his students into meditation around the question, “Who are you?” Contemporary teacher Adyashanti shifts the question slightly – “What are you?” Either way, meditation teachers in every tradition urge us past the surface definitions of self, clouded as they are by empty associations with tribe, ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic class. We all wear many labels. But when you remove all the labels, what remains?
The first century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna refers to the thought realm as “ordinary knowledge.” Ordinary knowledge is comprised of thoughts, concepts, rational sequences, and logical processes. The deeper realm of awareness he calls prajna, or “transcendent knowledge.” Prajna is non-conceptual, intuitive, mystical awareness beyond the reach of conceptual thinking. Ordinary knowledge is of course highly useful and profoundly powerful. The entire realm of human accomplishment has its roots here. But prajna or transcendent knowledge is that vast boundlessness beneath the thought stream. When we consciously practice witnessing our thoughts, we move deeper and deeper into prajna.
This is why meditation is such an essential practice. Meditation is nothing more than allowing yourself to sink beneath the waves of the thought stream and enter the vast field of awareness of your authentic being – your true identity.
And as we move deeper into prajna, we are increasingly liberated from the limited and limiting thoughts, judgments, concepts, and opinions of ordinary knowledge. As the Zen saying goes, “Don’t seek enlightenment. Just get rid of all your opinions.”
The ego is a concept like any other – useful but ultimately limited and provisional. Concepts like I, me, and mine are place holders, sign posts, or directional arrows. Like words on a theater marquis, they are not the movie, just its name. From the perspective of prajna, we are boundless awareness existing in a deep state of interconnectedness with all things. From the perspective of ordinary knowledge, we are a separate entity in conflict with everything else. The problem is this – most of us remain stuck in the realm of ordinary knowledge. We fall under the spell of the conceptual realm. Instead of seeing oneness we see multiplicity. We come to believe that concepts are real things. We forget that they are just shadows cast by cloud-thoughts flying through the sky of our endless awareness.
This is what makes transcending the ego so challenging – the ego fights for its existence with the tenacity of a honey badger. And its favorite weapon is its own perceived woundedness. In his book Grace and Grit philosopher Ken Wilber writes, “The ego…is kept in existence by a collection of emotional insults; it carries its personal bruises as the fabric of its very existence. It actively collects hurts and insults, even while resenting them, because without its bruises, it would be, literally, nothing.”
Notice how we use our perceived woundedness and victim status as glue to hold our fictional ego together. What if we let go our tired grievances? Who would we be without our resentments and self-righteousness? For many people, these questions are simply too frightening to consider. But the answer is simple. We would be free.