The Story of I

— Understanding the Conceptual Self
John Smith—02/2011
Authentic spiritual awakening has nothing to do with gods, spirits, prayers, holy books, mystical experiences and enlightened masters. It is based entirely around the self and the stories that we tell about ourselves — the Story of I.

WE ALL LOVE STORIES because stories fascinate the human mind. We engage in stories because stories are the natural language of the neocortex, the part of our brain that assigns meaning to thoughts, and arranges them analytically into a causal sequence — a story.

We are immersed in stories: every movie, every book and every music video tells a story. And every person we know also has a story by which they define themselves and by which we define them. But the most interesting stories, from the perspective of consciousness, are the ones we tell about ourselves — who we are and and what has made us that way. These are stories we live by, these are the stories that determine most of our actions, thoughts and feelings.

Usually with stories, it is better to start at the beginning. But in this case, it would be more illuminating to start at the end, for the end of the story we tell about ourselves — The Story of I — happens more frequently than we imagine, and it gives us an understanding of how the story begins. The end happens spontaneously when we drift off to sleep at night, and in waking moments when we 'lose ourselves' in some activity or inactivity. When The Story of I stops, time stands still and we feel a deep inner peace, a peace that even soldiers on the battlefield have described in times of deep trauma, a peace that can be defined as a complete disengagement from all life's stories.

When we disengage from The Story of I, when we stop identifying with it, the deep sense of peace we invariably feel indicates that peace is the ground state of our being. But it is our personal story that gives our lives meaning because it defines us a particular person distinct from everything and everybody else, and meaning needs the particular in order to make sense. After all, things that are not defined cannot be ascribed meaning.

So it would seem we have a choice between meaning and peace, between being a somebody and being a nobody. Identification with our stories make us a somebody, and it is these stories that we carry around with us like an identity card, to show others at every opportunity who we are. But if we look closely at our story, we realize, deep down, that they are fictions of self. For who we are in moments when we are disengaged from The Story of I has little to do with the type of person we think we are and the events of our lives. Outside our stories we are not individuals — we are awareness, pure and simple. This makes most of us extremely uncomfortable, and so we spend our lives trying to validate our stories in order to validate an objective self.

Life looking deeply
Finds in its heart
Only empty awareness,
A foundation of nothing
Upon which to build
Fabricated selves.

The validation of The Story of I involves every aspect of our lives: from our behaviour to our clothes. We play at being a person because that way we have the comfortable illusion that we are something real, something solid. So we enter into a conspiracy of personification — you believe my story and I will believe yours. We spend our lives acting out The Story of I, playing the lead character in our own production.

But we have to concede that when that story ends, consciousness does not end. Consciousness or awareness continues into those moments of empty peace that lie behind the world of illusions. And we are no less-than for having spent some moments in emptiness when we come back into our stories. Indeed, exposing ourselves to emptiness is associated with new life and vitality. Just think how we feel after a good night of deep sleep!

What is your story? What is it that you would like me to know about you? What is your heritage; who are your people? Are you happy person or an unhappy person? Have you made it against all odds, or were you born with a silver spoon in your mouth? What are the struggles you endured to make you who you are today? Are you a spiritual person or a materialist? Do you like heavy rock music or are you into classical? Maybe you just like silence? Are you right-wing, left-wing or down the middle. Or perhaps you are angel-winged? Tell me your story…

If I know your story I know what to expect when I am with you because our stories define our behaviour. At least, we think we know what to expect because there is no guarantee that any of us keep to our own scripts, especially in times when we let go of ourselves! But it should be a good approximation, an insightful blueprint we all at least try to follow in moments of ordinary consciousness. And if we find ourselves acting out of character now and then, our belief in the objectivity of stories is so strong that we will invariably modify the story if we have to rather than conclude that stories themselves cannot be relied upon.

In silent collusion
Between you and me
Two fictitious characters
Meet and greet,
Shadow puppets
Spinning lies of identity.

We spin lies about our identity, because, if truth be told, we have none. But we live in a society where everyone is encouraged to be a somebody. Indeed, to be a somebody is regarded as a prerequisite to having our needs met. Nobody cares about a nobody.

So our identity card — the story we tell about ourselves — becomes the lure we use to manipulate others into fulfilling our needs, even if the need is only for simple recognition. And society trades these identities, one off against another, in a mass collusion to maintain the illusion of objective separate selves. I will believe in the reality of who you think you are, if you believe in the reality of who I think I am. The system perpetuates itself, and society spins itself into a silken straight-jacket of shared illusion.

When we feel stuck in life and want to break free, it is generally the script of their story that we want to break free from. When we feel unhappy and frustrated, we are generally unhappy and frustrated by the story we tell ourselves about our lives and who we think we are, not the experience of living itself. Our pain and the pleasure is in the stories; as is all duality — me vs you, us vs them. But if we want to find real peace and contentment, that is in the foundation of direct experience that our stories cover up. When our stories become our primary reality rather than our experience of reality itself, then we live fictional lives.

 

Fictional Lives

There is nothing wrong with a fictional life. Most people live fictional lives. A fictional life can be fulfilling, and it can be torture. It is only in a fictional life that we can experience yearning for what we do not have; loss for what seems no longer accessible; the excitement of having another want us; and despair of having another reject us. The fictional life is certainly a colourful! But let nobody dismiss a fictional life because it is not real. That would be like dismissing a film at the cinema on the grounds that it was merely a projection. So what? Projections can be illuminating, inspiring and certainly do evoke real physiological responses while we are watching them.

But all films eventually come to an end — sometimes too soon and sometimes not soon enough. If they did not, we would eventually drag ourselves away from them because fiction cannot sustain us indefinitely. To become indefinitely lost in fiction is a definition of insanity, just as a person who becomes stuck in the waking state with out returning to sleep eventually will loose his or her mind. And so it is that we need to spend time outside our story, outside of the fictions we spin, and these moments are the ones where we lose ourselves either in some task or when we close our eyes and sleep.

Sleep has a bad rap. We think of it as unconsciousness, especially the deepest, dreamless sleep. But what this actually is is consciousness and awareness so pure that it leaves no trace in the memory. And so we dismiss it. But at night, each of us becomes a 'no self' so that we can sustain being a 'some self' during the day. Becoming no self is deeply refreshing to the spirit.

Fantasy always looses its allure eventually. There is always a sense of relief when we come to the end of a long novel or movie, even if we were totally engrossed in the story. And so it is that all of us, every single one of us, will eventually grow tired of The Story of I no matter how many times we try to modify it to keep its allure. We will grow tired of it because deep down we naturally move towards pure being. This is because all stories, even the most exciting, are toxic to us because they deny the grace of living presence, the grace that ultimately sustains us. Stories are the antithesis of life itself.

We naturally gravitate away from fictions towards the living flow of unconditional awareness, but this can be a slow process, a process some believe takes place over countless lifetimes. We call it waking up because we are disengaging from the dreams of the conceptual self to the reality of direct experience. But the word awakening may not be entirely appropriate because actual waking up in the morning for most people is a process of getting into character to play The Story of I. That awakening of the spirit, on the other hand, is a different type of awakening — more a natural dropping away of the need to live as a fictional character.

 

The Story of Noself

Noself would look at herself in the mirror each day, congratulating herself that she had no self. For Noself knew that to have some self was not as spiritual as having no self. The only problem was that Noself actually had some self, but because Noself was in denial of some self — because she considered having some self was such a lowly thing — Noself could not acknowledge the self that she had. And because Noself kept telling herself the story that she had no self, the some self she had, played games in her life that Noself could not acknowledge. As a consequence, Noself was stuck in some self because she could not acknowledge some self. It was only years later that Noself realized that she had had some self all along, before life's grace woke her up to the reality of Noself.

When life challenges us, we often rewrite our personal story, we rewrite The Story of I. So we survive a challenging ordeal and suddenly the character in The Story of I becomes a brave one, who can make it against the odds. Or perhaps we are broken by life — our character in The Story of I becomes a loser. So The Story of I is constantly changing, constantly being modified in relation to life's experience.

Of course, just as a part of us in a cinema knows that the story we see in front of us is not real, a part of us knows that The Story of I is not real either. This sets up a fundamental and profound insecurity over who we are, because on some level we know that we are living a lie. The higher the insecurity, the more we will deny or overlook those aspects and behaviours of the self that do not fit with our personal story. After all, overlooking them is less confrontational than realizing that the story itself may need to be rewritten or even thrown out completely.

Those who cling most tightly to the script are those who will be most unaware of those aspects of themselves and their behaviour not described by their story. As a consequence, they will become more acutely aware of these aspects and behaviours in other people. So what they are unable to accept about themselves will be written into the stories of other people and groups of people. For example, if we see ourselves as good and loving we are less likely to acknowledge unkind thoughts and feelings that do not fit this image. So instead, the mind cunningly integrates what we reject in our own stories into the stories we have about others — those bad people over there. This way we can acknowledge the bad qualities, but at a safe distance and in a way in which we can keep wearing the mask of goodness.

Most religious and spiritual people are those who have chosen to play a good and moral characters in their own particular story. So although this is still an illusion — a lie — it is at least a loving, moral and light-filled one. If you are going to play a character, it may as well be a good and upstanding character, for the experience of playing a good person is generally more pleasant than the experience of playing a bad person, especially for others. (Although bad characters can sometimes seem to have more fun in the moment!)

However, lies are lies, and playing a good person in many ways is no different to playing a bad person. In both instances we are lost in identification with The Story of I. Fortunately, there are spiritual teachers and psychological traditions which specifically focus on realizing the illusory nature of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and others, and these help us uncover the nobodies that we really are. But this raises its own challenge, for when we understand the fictitious nature of the self, instead of no longer identifying with the story most people actually integrate this into a new story to identify with — the story of noself.

So our attempt at realizing the illusory nature of The Story of I becomes itself part of the story. We dream we are awake, and nothing can convince us otherwise. In fact, the vast majority of people around the world who think they are 'awake' to the story have merely incorporated no-story into their story, so that no self becomes a new identity.

 

Inauthentic Awakening

Eyes shine brightly,
Hands reaching out,
Lobotomized smiles
Warmly greet those
Who foolishly mistake
Head for heart.

How can we tell if we are dreaming we are awake, or whether we are actually awake? How can we see if another is merely playing out the story of awakening? What clues are there that indicate the presence of a story rather than living presence outside all stories?

Go to a cinema and it is very easy to get lost in a movie; that is the nature of movies. They are designed to fool the brain into accepting the reality of fictional characters. After all, nothing ruins a film more than bad actors! In the same way, the stories we spin about ourselves are so cunningly contrived that in every one of them we are giving an Oscar-winning performance.

However, as a deep part of ourselves always recognizes illusion, just as even the best method actor never completely loses sight that he or she is an actor, insecurity arises in those who dream that they are awake because they know they are ultimately being fake. And so those who adopt the story of awakening will be those who, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, are always trying to convince themselves and those around them that they really are awake. They often obsess with the signs of awakening, with the look of enlightenment, and they will connive with those around them for recognition of awakening.

That connivance can take a few different forms. Within a teacher-student context, teachers tell students that they are waking up as a carrot for to maintain loyal support and continue recognition of the full enlightenment of the teacher. It is so easy to manipulate students with complements about their awakening! And students will collude with other students in mutual awakening recognition, contrasting it with the unawakened states of lower-ranked students and those outside the community. Outside the teacher-student context, individuals write books and articles on awakening as proof that somehow they are awake, marketing themselves with smiling photos and glowing resumes.

As well as insecurity arising in those who dream they are awake, there also arises duality — the perception of division. When a person is authentically awake, that state of being stands absolute unto itself. But when a person is playing the awakened role, that state of being can only exist relative to unawakened states. So another sign of false awakening is that we only see that awakening relative to those around us who are unawake. In this way, awakening becomes something special rather than something universal.

Over time this specialness of awakening became embedded in spiritual cultures (such as those found in India, Tibet, Butan and Japan), with a specific lore that has built up to exploit seekers. The concept of awakening (as opposed to actual awakening itself) became a bargaining chip, the currency used to maintain social control systems based on Master-Disciple lineages and the concept of enlightenment. This has NOTHING to do with authentic awakening.

The Guru's Eye
Nurtures my tiny flame
As He reaches beyond
The very universe
To bring back wisdom
And grace-filled lies.

And today, we have many teachers in the West who have incorporated the same concept of awakening into their personal stories, shamelessly playing the role of the guru to seekers naive enough to see only the fool's gold of conceptual enlightenment. And they are driven by their own inauthenticity, spinning ever more lies to puff themselves as spiritual masters and, at the same time, to push everyone else down to beneath their feet. And you can always tell when you meet one of these phoneys because, by the end of your meeting, you will feel as unenlightened in yourself as you will have fallen for their great enlightenment. In other words, they have sown seeds of duality into your being.

Run!

Otherwise, you will become lost in a hall of mirrors, chasing shadows with your mind. Stay away from those who trade enlightenment. You will only become more and more entangled in the story of awakening, which will block you from real awakening. There are authentic teachers, but they are few and far between. The problem is in the very context of the teacher-pupil and master-disciple relationship, which is built on the lie of separation and difference. This lie that separates the 'haves' from the 'have-nots' is as old as humanity itself, and it keeps most of us in bondage.

 

Giving up Identification with the Story

As long as we insist on an outer representation of awakening in the form of an enlightened or holy teacher, or god, relative to our puny unenlightened selves, we are in duality and awakening can only be conceptual to us. Once we are trapped in conceptual duality regarding awakening, it becomes extremely difficult to authentically awaken. In fact, you could say that concepts of awakening are the biggest block to awakening, because they make it all too easy to write awakening into The Story of I.

So if you want to give up the story of awakening (as opposed to awakening itself), stay away from any situation that creates a demarcation between awakening and unawakening, enlightenment and unenlightenment. As the old saying goes: "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." So if you truly want to awaken, you need to take your teachers off their pedestals and view them merely as other facets of All-That-Is that are no more or less valuable than you are, but which might have some information and experience that could be useful to you. But if you see your teacher as holy and you as not holy, then you have broken oneness. This is a very important point and one that very few people on the spiritual path can understand.

And the irony is that most spiritual teachers seem to be promoting themselves as special people — a breed apart. They give themselves important spiritual titles and names, they boast about their spiritual exploits and knowledge, they allow themselves to become the arbiter between who is awakened and who is not awakened, and they allow their students to bow down to them and honour them like kings and queens. And by behaving in this way, they become a major hindrance to authentic awakening. They have swallowed the lie that an awakened teacher can exist in an unawakened world.

So if we want to give up identifying with The Story of I, if we want to learn to let go of the character we play, then it can only be done by becoming aware of how mind animates our personal story by identifying with it. It is a bit like sitting in a movie theatre watching such a thoroughly engrossing film that we have to remind ourselves that we are watching an illusion by continually asking ourselves if we are the character we are currently engrossed with. By finding out what is real and what is fiction, we realize that the world and our lives have little to do with our personal stories, and that we are free to be simple awareness, outside the context of any story.

We all have glimpses of the awareness free from our story-lines, but by becoming aware of our minds' story telling process, we naturally weaken our susceptibility to become identified and thus trapped in the illusion. Just as a film director — someone with experience in movie making — is the least likely person to get caught up in the story of a movie, we need to become familiar with how our minds manufacture our reality.

This process of letting go of identification with The Story of I can happen in one or more of the following four main ways: firstly through close self-examination; secondly, through authentic universal love; and thirdly through focus on pure awareness; and fourthly, through the ordinary processes of life, so long as life is not resisted.

1) Self-Examination

A golden thread
Of empty awareness
Weaves its way
Through every thought
And every feeling
Of our paint-by-number lives.

The first — self-examination or self-inquiry — is the direct method. It involves finding out, through examining our experience, what is real and what is imaginary. For we can only free ourselves from The Story of I if we can determine which part of our experience is a character being played, and which part is the real self. And as the story is about the self, the process of examination involves questioning our real identity within the different thoughts and states of consciousness that we experience. We ask ourselves who or what we are in each moment. In this way we come to know what is real, and coming to know what is real is the definition of awakening.

It may sound simple to the mind, but there is no mindless formula, mantra or instruction by which this can be achieved. It takes honest, persistent, open and single-minded awareness into the process of consciousness. Nothing less with suffice. If we do not have the ability to examine consciousness in this manner, with clear mindful awareness, then this method will not reveal what it should to us and it will lead to conceptual awakening.

To outline what is found when we do this, however, only feeds conceptualization. It is an entirely experiential method — any conceptualization of what the result of such an examination should be will only generate a simulation of awakening which becomes incorporated into a modified Story of I. And that is a real danger. For when awakening is conceptually simulated, we become lost in that hall of mirrors.

Unfortunately, many teachers and communities that focus on self-examination or self-inquiry will tell their students exactly what to expect when consciousness is examined closely, and so most students have merely incorporated awakening into The Story of I. Students and disciples who constantly talk amongst themselves on experience of living without attachment to stories do not realize the blockages they are creating for themselves by squeezing experience through the reducing valve of language into conceptualising. In this way, many spiritual communities serve only to spread more and more concepts, putting up ever greater blockages to the awakening of their students.

2) The Way of Universal Love

Love is a unique expression because it unifies the person who loves with the person who is loved (or object). If love is universal, then it dispels duality, eroding the foundation of The Story of I. For stories are written in the language of duality.

Universal love must not be confused, however, for love of the guru or teacher. The vast majority of students and disciples who love their teachers either love them conditionally, or love them exclusively. And most teachers and gurus seem quite happy to encourage their pupils/disciples to love them exclusively. But both conditional and exclusive love can not lead to awakening because they harbour duality.

Unless you are born a saint, the big challenge with the path of love is moving from conditional/exclusive love to universal love. It usually takes some major life experiences (see the fourth method below) to reach a point where we love universally. Or maybe it takes major life experiences to identify those who refuse to bow to anger, hatred and judgement. But whatever it takes, the person who is able to carry universal love in his or her heart will be free from the conceptual slavery to identification with our puny personal stories.

3) Focus on Pure Awareness

Another way to rid ourselves of the duality that underpins our personal stories is to increasingly focus on pure awareness, rather than what we are aware of. This comes naturally to some people, and it can be a very powerful direct method to disengaging from The Story of I. But it really depends on how transparent the inner workings of our minds are and usually immersion in the first method above is a prerequisite.

This is the 'empty-mind' method popularized by zen and usually requires high discipline and mindful immersion in physical work. But, once again, it is very easy to conceptualize 'empty-mind' so that our experience is not 'empty-mind' itself, but the concept of 'empty-mind' which we have written into The Story of I.

Focus on pure awareness is a good method once the ball is rolling and identification with our person story is eroding.

4) The Flow of Life

Life's visceral flow
Washes away
Tidy and stagnant
Recesses of mind
To awaken
New Possibilities.

Many people spontaneously wake up from the illusion of their person stories just by living full and complete lives. We saw earlier how we often modify our stories when the experience of life presents us with something that falls outside of our script. But if life throws at us enough contradictions and/or major contradictions to The Story of I, we can start to become aware of the contrived nature of our personal stories, and when that happens we no longer identify so strongly with those stories.

Often this process happens through tragedy, because it is tragedy that shocks us most out of complacent conceptualization. But whatever profound happens to us, it changes our relationship to The Story of I. Maybe a loved one dies; we get a terminal disease; we recover from a terminal disease; we have a mental breakdown or midlife crisis; we have a numinous or paranormal experience; we fail at life, divorce, lose our job, our home and/or our pride. These can bring the contrived nature of The Story of I into awareness because we recognize the weakness of its characterisation — we awaken to its limitations.

Life is one of our greatest teachers if we are open to it. Of course, most people who face experience that falls outside of their personal scripts do just rewrite the story to maintain their sleep of duality, or descent into hatred, victim-hood, blame and despair — strong addictive emotions that overpower awareness of inadequate personal stories.

 

Never Ending Story

We love to think that there comes a time when all stories end — the proverbial enlightenment. But in truth our stories never end. What ends is our identification with The Story of I, and therefore the influence that those personal stories have on us. But the stories themselves do not just go away; as long as we have a mind, we have a story.

Trying to rid ourselves of all stories in a form of lobotomized bliss is the concept many have of awakening. Again, this is just a concept and one that will get incorporated into a Story of I about no story! Trying to rid ourselves of the product of mind by dismissing them as fiction only set up further duality. Rather, the processes above are targeted at removing identification with the product of the mind, for it is the identification with the story that holds us in bondage, not the story itself.

The end of identification with The Story of I will happen in its own time. Some say it happens by 'grace', but that is just a word that means that the 'I' we think we are is not in control of the process.

When we give up The Story of I, we give up trying to live our lives through a script. We give up trying to be this or that type of person, trying to control our behaviour. Life flows, and in the end we realize that there never was anybody in the driving seat. But once again, you need to see that directly for yourself, for 'nobody in the driving seat' can all too easily become part of The Story of I.

If we lead a small and humble life, quietly learning to see The Story of I for the fiction it is, then we have the greatest possibility to awaken from the sleep of the conceptual self. But if we make great fanfare of the whole process, joining buzzing spiritual communities and other organisations headed by high-profile teachers and gurus, then it is far easier for awakening to become conceptual because those in such communities already have a spiritual Story of I which makes conceptual awakening far easier to add to the storyline.

And woe betide anyone thinking of being a teacher of awakening, for that can be the hardest path of all. To be a teacher and resist duality is something that most fail at because, when you are a teacher, everyone around you is treating you as special or different. This is why most, but not all, teachers and gurus are fakes. Many have authentic awakening, but most have allowed the dualistic perception of traditional spiritual community to drag them from awakening to the concept of awakening. Only those with a real calling to become a teacher should even try it… far better to stay clear of the mind-games that people play on the spiritual path.

But even a fake teacher can be useful on the path to awakening because when we come to realize the shortcomings of a teacher who has been written into our personal stories, in our disgust we see the foolishness of identification with The Story of I. In fact, the unmasking of a teacher as a false representation of awakening can be the most valuable lesson that that teacher can give us. For when that happens, we have killed the external Buddha that eclipsed the real awakening in our own hearts.

And finally, it is important for us to avoid too much spiritual and psychological terminology, for it is all too easy to hide behind vocabulary without really being aware of what is truly going on. We use words like ego, shadow, projection, awakening, enlightenment, karma, darma, spirit, soul, inquiry, meditation etc. all too easily. Vocabulary tends to be conceptually rooted in the mind, so that words used without awareness can lead us into conceptualisation, and act as insulators to direct experience.

All writings, including this article, encourage conceptualisation because they use language to try to convey what can only be experienced. So the value of such materials lie merely in the encouragement they might be able to give to us to look for ourselves — through direct experience — at the authentic nature of being. When we start to catch a glimpse of who and what we truly are, and just as importantly, what we are not, then and only then can we see The Story of I. For our blind-spots are always in what we identify with. And when we stop identifying with The Story of I, we awaken to…