Only by deconstructing the reality that we think we live in can we free ourselves from the claustrophobic oppression of identity. Here we look at some of the assumptions of reality and some of the methods used to break it open to reveal oneness.
WHO AM I? This is a question that has a powerful effect on us because identity is the foundation of who or what we think we are. The concept of identity is so fundamental to our being that very few of us bother or even think to examine it.
The word "identity" comes from the Latin idem meaning "the same". In other words, our identity is "the same" as who or what we are. But what is identity? When we ask ourselves who or what we are, what usually happens is that our minds throw up a series of memories of the person (a fictional entity existing in time and space) we think we are, one to whom a name has been assigned. These memories, which include a certain feeling of "me-ness", are used as evidence of a story called "being me", in which we are a "material" body and go through "time" having various experiences, some which we choose and some which we do not. We believe these experiences are real because other people share in our memory of them, and so we believe they have an objective footing — that they are "real".
The problem with identity is that it is based on memory, and memory is notoriously plastic and unreliable. Lose your memory and you lose your sense of self, as anyone who has been around dementia sufferers sadly knows. So who we think we are alters over our lifetime as our memories morph, but because we live under the assumption of continuity, unlike bodily changes which are more apparent, the changes in our conceptual self are not noticed, either by us or by those close to us because we assume we are the same person — after all, our name does not change. Indeed, it usually takes someone who has not seen us for many years to really notice how we have changed as a person.
The plasticity and contrived nature of memory has both and advantages and disadvantages. The big advantage of it is that it allows us to change. Organic memory recall is not the same as computer or DVD memory: each time we recall an event we are reconstructing it with our body-mind system rather like a hologram reconstruction, and this alters neural connections throughout the body (not just the brain), modifying the "same" memory with each recall. This is how most therapies work: they invite us to recall specific events in different therapeutic contexts (depending on the type of therapy), and this is used to take the sting out of traumatic or negative life events, and to become a more positive and functional person.
The disadvantage of the plasticity of memory is that we cannot rely on memory to accurately recall the past or, indeed, to tell us who we are. All memories, including those recovered using hypnosis, are actually false or contrived memories. This is why multiple witnesses to the same crime usually come up with different versions of events and descriptions of those involved. Our minds morph memory to conform with our belief systems, and so for example, if a witness to a stabbing has a racial prejudice, there is a strong propensity for that witness to remember, even under hypnosis, the knife being in the hands of an innocent bystander with the wrong colour of skin. Memory is notoriously creative!
The other big disadvantage of the unreliability of memory is that, if we base our identity on it, then we are building our sense of self on shifting sands. This puts us at the mercy of life's ocean currents, migrating our identity this way and that. And as we change, this can put great strain on the intimate relationships we have, especially exclusive ones like marriage in which we expect our partner to forever fit our needs and desires. This is why divorce rates are so high — people's identities move in different directions, so that the relationship that worked five years ago or even one year ago, no longer works today. Indeed, the pace of modern life and our media exposure to enormous amounts of new ideas and human behaviours means that the speed of this identity drift is rapidly rising, which is why intimate relationships are increasingly feeling strained over time. In fact, it is a miracle that any marriages these days last at all! (Marriages tend to last when two people share strong belief systems that anchor their senses of self, by chance when life blows them in the same direction, or when couples give each other enough space so that change is not divisive.)
Memory and belief systems form a self-reinforcing loop, so that our memories morph to conform with our belief systems, and belief systems are forged from our memories. This self-reinforcing feedback loop is what closes our minds, separating us into our own little worlds.
"The waking have one world in common; sleepers have each a private world of his own." Heraclitus
This is why it is so difficult to open minds: we are challenging both belief systems and memory — both combining to lock the host into one particular world. When one fails, we tend to fall back on the other: so that when our belief systems are challenged, we tend to reach into our memories to protect our belief systems; and when our memories are challenged, we tend to use our belief systems to fabricate congruent memories.
So where does "reality" come into all this? "Reality" is the term we usually give to the conceptual world that consciousness illuminates for us, a world that itself is separate from consciousness. This world has to be "conceptual" because nothing can actually exist independently of consciousness — except by way of supposition. We call this conceptual world the "objective" world because it is the world of objects, and the experience of objects can be shared, which makes it appear that the objects are somehow outside of consciousness and existing independently in time and space. But, again, this can only be an assumption.
The ability to share experience is not exclusive to an objective world, and therefore cannot be used to define it. Subjective experiences can be shared as well, although we are less aware of this possibility as we do not expect the shared experiences in the same way that we do in the "objective" world. So shared subjective experiences have to be powerful ones for us to notice them, like experiences under the influence of DMT or during NDEs. Otherwise they are too easy to dismiss as coincidences.
Our memory and belief systems are structured along the lines of a subjective-object separation in space exhibiting itself in time. And the synergy of these two creates what we define as reality. Most of us are so obsessed with reality that we do not question this subject-object split: we have heavy investments in the idea that consciousness is only a small part of reality to do with our heads. If we are scientifically minded, consciousness is generally regarded as an illusory addition to a complex objective world that is separate from us (creating the so called "hard problem" of orthodox science to explain consciousness); whereas if we are less orthodox, we are more open to the fact that consciousness has a more central role. Of course, if we are entirely honest, and not trying to be intellectual at all, we would have to admit that consciousness is central to every experience — in fact, consciousness is all of experience — there is nothing we can experience that is outside of consciousness. (This obvious fact gets rid of the "hard problem" altogether.)
When we realize that reality is just a synergy of belief systems and memory, both of which actually belong to what we would define as the subjective world, we start to see how reality can be fundamentally changed. We are not stuck in some empty objective world coursing blindly through time, or in some theological teleology. This frees us from control because reality — the synergy of our belief systems and memories — is actually our prison. And those who control the definitions of reality, control us.
Assumptions about reality that limit us are the following, which are hierarchical, building up from a foundation of space, subject-object split and time:
- Space: This allows experience and conceptualization to be expanded and separated out. It is an assumption that allows us to see things separately and discretely, and to break down complex experiences into an interaction of parts or "objects".
- Subject-object split: This separates us from the rest of the world, creating an "us" that is identified as our "body-mind" and the rest of the world which is made up of objects, other body-minds and space. This separation localizes us in space, and places limitations on which parts of reality we can affect.
- Time: This adds another dimension to space that allows for movement and change. The time dimension creates a conceptual continuity between the past and the future, even though our actual experience is always localized at one point along this hypothetical time dimension called "the present moment".
- Causality: This is the idea that everything happening is just the outcome or effect of something that happened earlier in time. Causality gives body-minds and objects the power to affect other body-minds and objects. Causality builds on the above three reality assumptions.
- Rationality: This brings reasonableness into the equation, and very much builds on causality and logic. Rationality allows us to make models of reality in our heads — indeed, a certain degree of rationality is built into our nervous system. (Some realitymaps can appear irrational, especially against other realitymaps, but all realitymaps have a certain logic about them, otherwise we would not be able to understand them.)
- Consistency: This assumes that separations and rational interactions between objects and body-minds have consist aspects to them, allowing for rules, laws and recipes to be formulated that predict behaviour, and also giving the categorizations we call objects and body-minds some degree of permanence. Consistency is based on the assumption of time and rationality.
- Reductionism: This is the idea that the behaviour of complex things can be broken down into the collective behaviour of component parts. The complexity of modern life — computers, digital games, modern electronics, mobile phones and cars etc. — ensure that practically all of us assume some level of reductionism. Reductionism builds on rationality and consistency.
- Judgment: To make decisions we need to have some idea of outcomes we want and outcomes that we do not want. This introduces judgment which is important for exercising free will. Judgment requires the mental simulation and assessment of alternative realities and scenarios, which builds on rationality, and the ability to categorize salient features using reductionism.
- Free will: This is the idea that body-minds are self-determining and can make free decisions independent to the rest of reality both in time and space. This builds on the subject-object split, but contradicts reductionism because reductionism reduces causality to the mindless behaviour of atoms and subatomic particles. Free will and reductionism is the first major reality bifurcation.
- Responsibility: If we have free will, then we are responsible for the consequences of our decisions. If the outcome of our decisions is negative (which requires judgment), we feel bad and can decide to make different future decisions. If the outcome is positive, we feel happy and can decide to make similar decisions in the future.
- Ethics: This is a value-categorization built on responsibility, judgement and free will, which categorizes human decisions and behaviour as acceptable or unacceptable. This provides a future roadmap for the most favourable moral decisions.
- Belief systems: including religious and scientific ones. These build on all of the above, and are basically different flavours of reality blueprints or realitymaps that select a specific set of salient features of reality and weave them into a narrative and/or a conceptual configuration. Belief systems are hierarchical and specific to different situations.
- Paradigms or Worldviews: These are master belief systems that give give meaning and context to our whole existence.
This is just a general list of assumptions and suppositions that we make about reality: there are a million philosophies and points of view that could be added, but practically all the diversity happens high up in the hierarchy — 10 to 13.
This is interesting because it means that just about all the realitymaps modern humans have are fundamentally similar: they all rest on the assumption of space and time, on a division between subject and object, on the assumption of consistency and rationality. And this is reinforced by the modern media, irrespective of the belief systems being promoted. So a fundamentalist Christian living today and a scientist actually have a lot in common in the way they build realities. Sure, the Christian believes a God whilst the scientist falls back on reductionism, but they actually share all the more fundamental reality assumptions, certainly 1 to 8.
There are exceptions to this. Quantum physics, for example, reaches back to the top of the list and presents a reality that is fundamentally different — one that does not conform to the standard reality that almost all of us manufacture. But how many of us can live in such an alternative reality? Even quantum physicists do not live in a quantum reality because it is just too weird, but just use quantum theory for predicting the behaviour of things at small scales, and leave it at that.
The only people who claim to live in a quantum reality are those in the New Age / New Consciousness movement, people who have been inspired by documentaries like What the Bleep Do we Know!? which make the case for reality being manufactured by consciousness and therefore promising the "I" ultimate fulfillment with its newly realized powers. Whilst this is a welcome antidote to the prevailing dead-end scientific paradigm with its meaningless outlook, it is really the same old space-time paradigm above with a different higher level realitymap which puts the ego in absolute control of its fate. So rather than feeling a meaningless cog in a machine, we go to the other extreme and become Gods who laud it over all with our consciousness.
This is certainly a powerful antidote, but it is not consistent with quantum theory because the subject-object split is maintained, and this allows us to own, control and enjoy this power to create worlds. But real quantum theory strongly hints at a breakdown in the subject-object split, so that an authentic quantum view of reality could probably not be enjoyed by the ego.
Another exception that does not share fundamental reality assumptions is non-dual spirituality or Advaita. The application of this philosophy, which often involves something called self-enquiry, challenges our assumptions of reality right back to the subject-object split, thus presenting a very different experience of reality. More on this a little later.
So what most people call a change of reality is just a change of higher level belief systems. On the fundamentals of reality, it is just business as usual. The more basic layers of reality are like a theatre which provides the stage for many different alternative plays. The plays look very different, but they are actually being acted on the same stage. The largest change most of us are aware of is a change in the production; very few of us have experienced a change in theatre.
If we really want to break free of reality, if we want to change theatre or have no theatre at all, we need to look further up on our list (especially 1-3) and break some of those assumptions. This is where the real change takes place — where the real freedom is gained. But most people do not have the courage or the knowledge to break more fundamental reality assumptions. In fact, few even realize that these are assumptions in the first place, instead confusing them with reality itself and therefore making them a permanent fixture.
The construction of reality, as mentioned above, is hierarchical, so that when any of the main support posts are invalidated, and the first three are the primary ones, the upper structure collapses as well. So breaking free from the beliefs in space, time and/or the division of subject and object will destroy "normal" reality. And methods to break free from these base assumptions include the following:
- Meditation: by withdrawing from the world and resting in unconditional being we start to erode the support structures of normal reality. (The type of meditation most effective for this is not object-oriented, but subject-oriented.)
- Self-Enquiry: this is an advaita technique that directly questions the subject-object duality by trying to pin down identity by repeatedly asking ourselves "Who am I?" or "What am I?" This process, if done to logical and perceptive exhaustion will irrevocably demonstrate to us that identity is a phantom — that the "I" we take for granted is an illusion, albeit a persistent one.
- Psychosomatic drugs: such as DMT, ayahuasca, ibogaine and peyote. These restructure our experience allowing us to experience other realities, and dissolving the boundary between subject and object. However, these teacher-plants need to be taken in a profound spiritual context, otherwise they will only traumatise and confuse the psyche as it tries to hang on to normal reality.
- Body-Mind disidentification: this requires much practice and focus, as well as isolation from a mainstream media that is constantly promoting body-mind identification. Some of the primary interests that can tie us to body-mind identification are sexuality (relationship), celebrity (status), chronic illness/injury, and addiction. So body-mind disidentification often involves some sort of isolation (physical, mental and/or emotional) and spartan healthy habits to stop the body clamouring for attention.
The trouble with all these techniques is that if they are undertaken at the level of belief system — if they are conceptualized — then they will have a counter effect, strengthening normal reality whilst presenting it in a different manner. So, for example, we might become an enlightened ego in a 3d space-time world, which is not actually that much different from being an unenlightened ego in a 3d space-time world. So conceptualization of anything does not change us because it leaves the deeper levels of reality untouched.
Another example might be meditation: if we allow meditation to become a belief system — one in which we know all the theory of why we are doing it and the mechanism of the different mantras, mudras, chakras and energy flows — then that meditation will not fundamentally change us because it is just a new production in the same old theatre. For something to change us radically we need to go much deeper, and that necessitates getting out of our higher functioning mind — the mind that is conditioned to think in a 3d space-time, object-subject perspective. This requires touching what may feel, at first, like emptiness because there is nothing familiar about it, but it is an emptiness we must become comfortable with if we are to break free from "normal" reality.
Memory is very much a key player in holding us to a 3d space-time, object-subject reality perspective. This is because most of the memories we are consciously aware of are structured to this perspective. In fact, memory is constantly being "recompiled" as we go through life to make it consistent with our belief systems and general worldview. It is recompiled because the ego uses memory as its primary foundation to give it a sense of existence and continuity.
To stop this recompiling of memory, we need to realize that all memory is false memory. Only when we stop putting memories on the truth pedestal can they no longer be used by the ego to maintain its fictitious existence. Easier said than done though because we are so habituated to stories that the present moment is usually seen in the context of a point on manufactured storyline, a storyline that is told by memory and congruent with our beliefs about ourselves.
But that storyline is actually quite changeable, and that changeability forms the basis of many therapies. Therapies usually emphasize the importance of acknowledging the reality of those memories, but it is not actually for the memory itself but for its "feel". It is important for us to get in touch with the feelings associated with memory as we let the memories go, otherwise unexpressed or unacknowledged feelings scupper the process of storyline healing. So even though memories are false, the feelings and emotions associated with them are real in the moment we are reforming those memories, and it is these that we must accept fully. The story, on the other hand, can be discarded.
Because our concept of self is focused on whatever storyline is going on, it can be very easy not to notice changes in our story. Perhaps a small event in our past has grown to become a major trauma, or maybe a tragedy becomes barely rememberable. Our mind is quite fluid, but within that fluidity is a very ridged and intransigent concept of self, one that is blind to its own fluidity. The past which we think is set in stone is always changing, as is of course the future. It is this flux that causes insecurity to the ego, which is always trying to establish a solid anchor in space and time.
So the whole focus of the ego is to give a static and stable sense of self in a milieu of constant change and movement. This stability is very much needed in our development to adulthood. (Children unable to develop a stable and secure ego by having traumatic events that serve as a constant reminder of no control, often end up playing out lives that re-enact that trauma in some way, as that trauma itself becomes the point of stability.)
But there comes a point, usually around mid-life (earlier for those who are spiritually inclined) when that static sense of self restricts our natural growth, so that the ego in its efforts to deny changeability becomes pathological. It loses its youthful flexibility and becomes brittle. You see it in people who cannot let go — who are stuck in who and what they think they are. This is actually the condition of most people today: we are stuck in identity; it has become our prison. And so is it any wonder that modern society is so fixated on getting high (usually by way of a combination of alcohol, drugs, sex, music and adrenalin rushes)? For it is only when we are high that we feel we can escape from the burden of identity. The more egotistical society becomes, the more our hunger for peak experiences to let of the steam of "me-oppression".
The problem with getting high as a solution is that it is a state of mind, and states of mind are temporary. Not only that, but the way we come to peak states of mind are often destructive and addictive. Intense states of mind may well blot out normal reality just by their intensity, but as soon as we come down from the high, we find ourselves disappointingly back where we started, usually worse for wear. So getting high is not a solution for changing reality, although it can certainly give welcome temporary relief from the claustrophobia of normal reality.
To change reality permanently and safely we need to question the assumptions we have about reality. Reality needs to be deconstructed, not wrecked. And this takes awareness, gentleness, patience, stillness, silence and persistence, something that will be anathema to most of us conditioned to use more active "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" means to escape normal reality. Few unfortunately realize that the most powerful changes paradoxically take place in the stillness of being.
When we learn to loosen and eventually discard identity, what we find underneath is shining awareness. This is who and what we really are, but we need to find it for ourselves outside of the concepts of space and time. If we find it in a space and time framework, which would mean it is an awareness of something, then we have only discovered a false simulation of this basic awareness.
The true awareness of being is an awareness of awareness itself — there is no object for any subject to be aware of — there is no separation — all is the proverbial one. This is why all memory is false memory, because prime awareness illuminates nothing — it gives reality to nothing. It is only the tyranny of 3d space-time, objective reality that tricks us into thinking that awareness is individual — separated out into discrete "beings" and illuminating an environment for those beings. This is the big lie that blocks us from freedom.
Awareness is what is, period.