The Construction of a Spiritual Self

Cat Lion

 April 2003

The Dharma teaches us about the possibility of freedom, of being free from our conditionings, views and preconceived ideas about reality, of the possibility of seeing things as they are and responding to them in a free way, as appropriate to each moment.
It seems to me that one of the obstacles on the path as spiritual seekers is that while attempting to leave behind and let go of our concepts, we tend to construct yet another concept about what being spiritual is.
So while a letting go is happening and a process of deconstruction is taking place –a new construction is being built at the same time.
Thus we begin to respond to things, situations and events from this new construction, this new concept, and do not respond to life as it presents itself to us – moment by moment – from a place of spontaneity, authenticity and freedom. Rather we respond from the concept we have constructed about the “spiritual” way to respond.
By so doing, we no longer act spontaneously or have the freedom to respond to life as it is – unexpected, mysterious and wondrous. We put ourselves in a well-defined box of outlines and expectations. We encounter each moment with a preconceived notion of how we should react.

Perhaps the reason we do this is we try to protect ourselves from living in the unknown, from living in a way that would have us encounter life unprepared and respond to every moment in a totally unplanned and unexpected way. Living in the unknown would have us not know what we may say or how we may react/respond: we may say preposterous things, we may be ridiculed, we may encounter strong and seemingly inappropriate feelings inside us, we may act fearfully or unskillfully, we may go crazy. It means living out of control.

So, out of our fear, we fabricate yet another concept to help us create a false sense of order, a false sense of control. We create a “spiritual self”: wise, truthful and skillful. Yet, this is still a construction of the self. Perhaps a better one than the ignorant, cunning and unskillful self we had before, yet still a bounded self, trying to protect itself. Even our sincere attempt to be spiritual, to live the dharma way, is a self-made concept.
It seems we have exchanged one set of concepts, patterns and perceptions with yet another set. It seems that before we became spiritual people we reacted to life with attachments and fear; now that we are spiritual veterans we react with… attachments and fear, disguised as wisdom and truth. Perhaps our actions are more skillful and our choices in life seem wiser, but acting wisely is still not being free. We still do not have a choice in the matter.
It makes sense to me that to be free is to have the liberty to act unwisely, to do silly things, and then choose, if we care to, to act wisely. Or are we compelled by our prejudices and concepts to only act in one preconceived way, lest we may feel unspiritual and wrong?

This “spiritual self” has us know in advance how we should respond in every situation: we always try to be wise, compassionate and truthful. This is what we think the way of the Dharma is. Thus we avoid being caught by surprise or unguarded, we avoid the Unknown. And we avoid a whole range of human emotions, experiences and qualities that we shun and cast aside as “bad” and “unspiritual”.
It seems we go through life armed with this “spiritual self” that creates a false sense of safety, of no unknowables. We are deeply seduced by the sense of security, importance and erroneous progress this self provides us with. Without this set of clear, well-defined and rigid boundaries and framework we do not trust ourselves to respond in a manner of which we think is “righteous” or “spiritual”, in a manner which is incongruent with our concept of ourselves as Dharma people. We have created this “spiritual self” to feel protected.
But what do we protect ourselves from?
We protect ourselves from the very thing we practice Dharma for, and the very reason we live the Dharma way: we protect ourselves from the call to be totally authentic, totally spontaneous and totally free. We protect ourselves from encountering life, moment by moment as it presents itself to us, in a fresh, unobstructed, unlimited, unexpected and unbounded way.

In so doing we perpetuate and re-establish the rein of the self, instead of breaking free. We deepen the bind of the self and tighten the grip of the delusional-chains, albeit “spiritual” chains. We are still in the domain of the self. We are still under the clench of the cleverly disguised self, who has us believe we are acting from a self-less place, from a so-called Dharma place. This self uses the words of Dharma, the words of wisdom, yet keeps us imprisoned.

To break free I think we have to be willing to experience living in the unknown, to show up sometimes unconstructed, unprepared, unholy, unwise, or not necessarily compassionate. We may need to be willing to make mistakes, to say and do the “wrong” things, to hurt others and to get hurt. We may need to be willing to even show up as a total mess. This is the price we may need to pay in order to live freely.
To me, to live freely is to be willing to take the risk and live with our hearts completely open; to be willing to love ourselves no matter what, in whatever way we may show up. To be willing to shed the concepts of how we should act or be, and let ourselves be spontaneous, be taken by surprise. To do that we have to trust ourselves.

In the book “Stories of Power” the South American teacher and shaman Don Juan teaches Carlos Castaneda that the world is just our perception of it, and the goal is not to learn a new description of the world, to exchange one description for another, but the goal is to become free of all descriptions. The goal of the shaman teachings is the freedom that lies beyond different views and concepts.

In one of her Dharma talks, the Vipassana teacher Shaila Catherine says, “There’s a beautiful sutra where the Buddha speaks about releasing our entanglements with views, and then not picking up another view. That’s where the mind is free. It’s not a matter of getting a better view, or a better opinion or right answer. It’s abiding at ease, without grasping the next view.”

I think that if we have the courage to hold our views and opinions lightly, to live without the constant need for right answers or external guidance to tell us how to live, not even Dharma answers and guidance, if we have the courage to look inside for that guidance and trust what we find – we may get a glimpse of the freedom she talks about.

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