For the rational man to hold steadfastly to his self-image ensures his abysmal ignorance.
Carlos Castaneda, The Power of Silence.
To be fully awake, joyful, and free every day we have to walk, solitary, along the abyss.
But most people will feel uncomfortable walking so close to imminent disaster and most will want to avoid solitude.
The abyss is death, the end of our consciousness, the end of this precious life of ours. We all know the abyss is there at the end, but we see little reason to bring that awareness into our daily lives. Better, we instinctively feel, to play it safe, blending in with humanity’s bustle, mercantilism, and well-scripted roles.
Someone dies every 4 seconds on our planet, but we usually don’t much notice. 57,000,000 of us on the planet will die this year, but we don’t really care in our safe positions far from our own death, we assume. We’re walking far away from the abyss, and much of the time we forget that it’s even there.
If someone close to us dies, we are momentarily shocked into wakefulness, and we may even reflect about our own death for awhile Then we move away from the edge and back into the safety of the crowd, relieved and glad to rejoin the story of ourselves.
But we pay an enormous price for papering over the energetic fact of our death. To live in the illusionary safety of the crowd, we must adopt all kinds of identifications that block our awareness and learning permanently.
The identifications that we have created make up our self-image. As the opening quote says, these self-images guarantee our abysmal ignorance.
The only way to expand our perceptual capacities is to let go of our common identifiers, all the things we like to say we are.
Once we have let go of our self-images, we will be able to walk along the abyss, fully awake, watching, watching, breathlessly as our life unfolds in wonderment and joy before us.
How we get our self-images
As children, we get imprinted with a foreign installation, the socialization taught to us so that we will fit in with our family, schools, customs, and laws. We have little or no say as we receive this download. We are not consulted but instead are subjected to repeated messages and cues about how to think, feel, and act until these patterns take root and become our human cognitive system.
The foreign download cannot be escaped because our elders are convinced that what we tell our children and each other are good explanations for reality, even though much of it is not a good explanation for reality.
Citizens of slave states insisted that slavery was a good thing, that even the Bible supported it. Imagine a farmer saying at the time, “I am a slave owner,” and feeling convinced that this self-identifier described a successful, god-fearing, righteous man. It took hundreds of years for us to question that explanation of reality and to adopt a better explanation.
The foreign download supplies us with a basket of identifiers. Then we adopt over our lifetime a list of additional self identifiers, each one worse than the one before, each one a deeper self-deception, each one another limitation, a more impenetrable prison, a deeper barrier to free perception.
By the end of our lives, many of us are merely an interwoven list of self-identifiers that we call “me.”
We are, we say with deadly seriousness, a Democrat, a Republican, an independent, a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, an atheist, a poor person, a very rich person (Donald Trump’s self-aggrandizement), a “professional,” a welder, a cook, a renter, a patriot, a home owner, a senior citizen, a tax payer, an ex-con, a citizen of the United States, a veteran, a cancer victim.
As we age and adapt, our self-identifiers more and more become self-praise: now we say things like (and, as always, earnestly), “I’m a cynic,” or “I’m a leader,” or “I’m a passionate person,” or “I’m a person who minds her own business.”
Ordinary people are a collage of self-identifiers who spend their lives telling other people and themselves who they are. They are convinced that they are each unique creations, but actually they are simply reflections of what they have been told is true or self-descriptions that elevate their self-importance.
Every self-identifier creates separation
Our identifiers put us in opposition to other people, to the planet, and to our own fabulous potential as human beings.
As soon as a person announces, “I am a Muslim” (Christian, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic), he has separated himself from others who don’t make that identification. There is no limit to how much we want to separate ourselves from others, even people who claim the same general identifier as you: yes, we’re both Christians but I’m Mormon and you’re a Catholic and of course we are very different. The sub-identifiers are ever more refined. “Oh, you believe that Satan has a hold on women who get an abortion? Well, I am pro-choice….”
The daily news tells us that our political self-identifications are so finely defined that we are barely able to agree on a path of communal governance. We constantly say that the country is bitterly divided. We tend not to notice that we are the ones who create the divisions.
How do I know who I am? By letting you know how different I am from you. Our constant and unsolvable arguments separate us profoundly and put us in fierce warring camps.
We might like to claim that we strive to love others as ourselves, but our self-identifiers make that commitment almost impossible to manifest. More likely is our capacity to love others who have a very similar basket of self-identifiers.
We are much more than these learned cartoon figures of ourselves. We are magical creatures, the most evolved form of life in the universe as far as we know. No other life form has the capacities of us human beings to learn, to grow, to transform the universe. But the majority of us have shrunk ourselves into small explanations, less and less likely to discover our remarkable real selves.
We have the big job of bringing consciousness into the universe, but most people have chosen to take on the trivial assignment of ego enhancement.
Self-identifiers tend to block any significant learning
Once we lock on to a self-identifier, our learning parameters shrink. Proselytizers who come to the door present their religious self-identification and then tell you that their truth must be your truth if you are to enter heaven. No amount of talk, scientific evidence, profound knowledge, or logic will alter their view: they would rather die than to reconsider their explanations for reality. Their learning in life ended some time back or, more likely, never began after they received the foreign installation.
We don’t realize that our many self-identifiers are blocking any significant learning. We think that our self-identifiers actually prove how smart, wise, or virtuous we are. Actually, the more self-identifiers we have developed, the dumber we tend to be, the more closed off, rigid, and numb.
How else to explain that most people change very little? Not learning anything significant anymore, we become predictable, a virtue, we think, of responsibility, stability, and reliability. People who question everything seem difficult, annoying, or too unpredictable.
We think that people who question our commitments and perspective to be dangerous. The process of learning, which requires finding fault with currently accepted verities and searching for better explanations, seems too rigorous and impolite for the ordinary person.
Letting go of our self-image
You probably wouldn’t have read this far if you haven’t already discovered to some degree how your self-image has limited your life. Maybe you’ve examined big chunks of your foreign installation and let them fade away, making room for real discovery.
Your explanations for reality are better now, even though you realize that your learning is still incomplete, that you want to come into every moment of life fresh, open, fluid, and free.
Here’ s really the only way we can drop our self-image:
Move closer to the abyss.
Walk along it as much as you can. This means waking up fully to the energetic fact that we are all going to die. Walking along the abyss, the ultimate danger, keeps us fully awake, humble and alert.
Walking along the abyss every day, every hour, means using death as your adviser. Perhaps you hear yourself boosting your self-image in a conversation, as you announce your irritation with the government’s latest stupidity. Now ask death if you have time to boost your ego, to prove how smart or informed you are or to separate yourself again and again from other people.
Death will say no, you have no time to waste, no time for this crap.
The path along the abyss is a path of love. But only our awareness of death can keep us on it. Moving away from the abyss to a delusional safety, acting as if our death is far away, we will fall back to sleep. Then we return to our numbing self-descriptions that will ensure our abysmal ignorance.
The life path that is safely away from the abyss can only be “me, me, me,” the life of the self-image.
But wait a minute, we may feel; aren’t you suggesting that I give up my life as I know it? Isn’t there something wrong with this dumping of everything I know myself to be? Won’t my life collapse? Won’t the people around me feel betrayed by me or worse? How can I live my life with them if I give up everything I identify with? Maybe my life isn’t so hot, but it looks like giving up who I am is crazy.
There are people on this earth today who are poised warriors, fearless seekers of awareness. They are pioneering on the frontiers of human emergence.
They may not seem different from you. They have predilections, just like everyone else, and they pursue joyfully what draws them.
Poised, walking on a path of love along the abyss, they feel no need to announce who they are.
We can imitate them by listening to ourselves. We can stop talking about ourselves in the usual numbing dialogue. We can discover our true selves, which have no description whatsoever.
Unencumbered by a self-image we no longer need, we will experience this wonderful life as we have never seen it.
I believe that conscious people find life easier than the ordinary person does. They don’t have any ego position to defend, the job that takes most of the energy of the ordinary man or woman.
The energy of poised people is available for discovery.
They walk in awe along the abyss, joyful and free.