An essay by Michael Damian
Self-realization is a matter of clarifying the relationship between experience and truth, which in our habitual, conventional view is entirely clouded. In this existence we can speak of three modes of perception or experience. Each of them has a different relationship to the ultimate truth. Let’s begin with the mode where most of humanity lives:
- Somethingness. The first mode is of finite, materialistic perception and identity—remembering that how we perceive determines our identity, and our identity conditions perception. In this mode, “God” or truth is basically seen as Nature, or Life in all its earthly wonder, its pain and pleasure, failure and triumph. In this mode everything and everyone is a “something,” a limited and known entity. A good example of perception in this mode is how children, and even some adults, will personify inanimate objects and project feelings or a soul into them. We might see everything as precious and special, but most importantly, things are regarded in their multiplicity. We see God as a great Something under which we are each another unique something, as in “all God’s children.”Love is therefore perceived as a special connection between separate entities. In egoic, finite consciousness we believe we have to fight and struggle so that “Love can win,” or that good can overcome evil. Hence, the tendency in this mode is to identify and split up into factions and parties, where we imagine we are on the side of good. Here we find all the divisive negative qualities of our limited view of somethingness. Everyone and everything gets sorted into identities and categories. There is no understanding of the unity beyond that, even though one may talk about or seek a limited unity of some kind. One does not understand precisely where and how that unity already exists; it is imagined as something—you see, another “something”—that we have to create.
- Nothingness. In reality, there is no literal nothingness, void, or emptiness. It is only a relative term that I am using to contrast with Somethingness. It is a metaphor that sages have always used, for better or worse. How many seekers of truth have driven themselves crazy trying to become nothing? Reality exists. Nothingness does not. But in the perception of nothingness, we see the no-thing-ness within and beyond all things. We directly realize that all things and identities are ultimately just concepts and perceptions arising in consciousness, and that they therefore do not exist in true separation as solid items.
Pull on one thing and you get the whole universe. Poke at the universe and you get empty, ineffable Consciousness. This is the classical revelation or enlightenment: “Lo, I am nothing! / It is a consummation devoutly to be wished / in this world of mechanical self-assertion,” as D. H. Lawrence writes.
Speaking metaphorically, we can understand that it is only through nothingness or empty space that apparent somethingness and solidity can exist. But as we said, this nothingness is not nothing. It is definitely something—because you cannot deny your own existence—though it is not made of matter, energy, image or thought. So what is it? Ah, it is the observer.
Is the observer a personal somebody? No, it cannot be. The observer is consciousness. Then have I objectified consciousness? No. To say that consciousness is the observer does not mean that it is a limited object, like a person. Consciousness is a noun, but it is not a limited object. Objects are perceived.
Consciousness is the pure, immaterial intelligence that perceives. So should we say that consciousness is really a verb, and not a noun, as some have argued? No. Consciousness is not a process. Sensory perception is a process. Consciousness is intrinsically self-luminous awareness. Being aware is not something consciousness does, it is just a natural quality.
When we recognize the pure nature of consciousness, then we know that our very nature is the empty, aware intelligence in which things and thoughts appear and disappear. Of course, this is why realization creates such a profound revolution of identity and understanding. The contrast is stunning. Prior to gnosis, everything was so solid, heavy and therefore frightening and psychologically painful. We took ourselves for just another object in nature, albeit a freak of nature that somehow thinks and feels and wields awareness. No matter. We were stuck in the mud of Nature, in the thick of things which isn’t always fun. Wandering in the wilderness of creation starts out light and fun but can quickly become very serious—until at last we recognize the unthinkable lightness of it all, the lightness of being.
- Transparency & Totality. The ultimate result of gnosis is to bring us to a condition of transparency and restore cosmic humor. Our identity, rooted in the no-thing-ness of consciousness, is transparent, without clinging or objectification. We can never return to the childhood of imagining ourselves to be the psycho-physical entity.However, if our view is clouded and we have mistaken a partial glimpse of truth for realization, then we might think that “I” am empty awareness while the world and mind remain solid. This is not “the absolute,” or genuine realization. Because of this distortion, many pop-enlightenment teachings misleadingly urge us to “go beyond non-duality” and embrace the ordinary. Although the intent is positive, the framing is absurd. A genuine realization of non-duality must mean that you understand not just self but also the mind and world as nothing other than consciousness. Mind and world—all that we call “my life”—are therefore innocent, fluid appearances within a radiant and benevolent totality. If this insight is lacking, it’s not because you’re stuck in non-duality; it’s because you are still in duality, albeit a more subtle duality where you have empty awareness on one side and a solid world on the other. That is the old duality of spirit and matter, which realization would have erased.
The abiding, inevitable effect of clear understanding is to bestow ease, transparency, and cosmic humor. When “I” know the world as empty, luminous consciousness in which wonderful visions of somethingness appear, then I enjoy unconditional freedom. That freedom is love. It is not that, as pop-enlightenment teachings have it, you find freedom apart from everything but then you have to turn back around and consent to love or embrace the lowly creation. Freedom itself is the love and the embrace, without the former self-conscious attempt to unite something with something, to integrate or embody truth. If the seamless unity of freedom, love, and truth is not obvious to us as our nature, we must go back and work on the fundamental seeing.
That seeing means to fully understand and recognize the pure consciousness that I am, the subject in which all objects appear. The tendency to objectify consciousness can appear in very subtle ways. All objectifications must be canceled until full, ungraspable transparency is the obvious fact of one’s being. Most importantly, we have to appreciate that this understanding is, strictly speaking, a non-experience. It is a direct insight at the root of our ontology and identity.
The consciousness that we are knows itself by itself. It does not need, and cannot possibly depend upon a secondary, objective proof of its nature, even in the form of a subtle, mystical experience. The only thing clarity depends on is the thorough canceling of all the distorted notions and assumptions we harbor about our nature. Just as it only takes a thumbnail to block out the sun, simply removing that thumbnail brings the sun back into full view. It is the same with false beliefs and reality. Remove the false beliefs and reality shines forth. Reality, consciousness, is the light that makes the world transparent to our knowing. Consciousness is totality because its timeless, non-spatial knowing is the ground of all experience in time and space.
When totality has become our natural experience and is recognized to have always been the nature of things, we are not so much “embodied” as we are transparent. We are free, and we express our freedom as wisdom and love, natural joy and equanimity. To imagine this condition as the outcome of having stabilized our nervous system, balanced chakras or steeped consciousness down into our cells is to live, or at least to speak, in the mode of somethingness which conceals the immediacy and lightness of truth that we are.
Michael is a Direct Path teacher. His website is www.michaeldamian.org.