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Stepping out of self deception

In Insight and Experience by Darren HarrisLeave a Comment

“Quite possibly there is no such thing as spiritual practice except stepping out of self deception, stopping our struggle to get hold of spiritual states. Just give that up. Other than that there is no spirituality.”  Chogyam Trungpa.


One of the spiritual mistakes I have made is to call myself a spiritual person. It took me a long time to uncover this beautifully subtle delusion. To define is to identify limits, and what is without limits cannot be defined, like a white circle on a white wall. So, if the background must be differentiated from the foreground, and I declare that I am spiritual, does this imply that other people or things are not? This would just be egoistic pride that I am different, separate from the rest. Yet any part that is separate from the whole may stand out, but it is still part of the whole.

To see the limits of something I must have a greater perspective than it, in order to be able to observe the edges, where one thing ends and another begins. I can use a microscope to identify an amoeba, but an amoeba in a sea of amoebas could not identify me, the perspective is too great. Likewise, if I could say where God is and where God isn’t, then I would have to be greater than God and conclude that God is limited. However, like most people, I associate spirituality with what is universal, unconditional, all encompassing, and unlimited. So by definition, spirituality cannot be defined. Any attempts to define it end up limiting it, and so it becomes describable but not all encompassing. This is why in the East, any such discussion centres around ‘neti neti’: not this not that. It is also why the spiritual view is called higher, as in perspective, not from the mistaken judgment that the lower is debased.

There is also another complication from viewing my self as a spiritual person. If spirituality is all encompassing, then it is pervasive throughout every thing and every being. It is everywhere. And if it is everywhere, then calling myself spiritual is like saying to myself that I am a human person or that I breathe air; the position is redundant.

All this is understandable, but the problem really sets in when I seek to become more spiritually realised. How can I do this? Listen to others, follow a teaching, practise a method? All of these imply complying with certain conditions as part of a spiritual path. Yet if what is spiritual is everywhere, then any path can and must lead to now and here. Since I am now and here, then I do not need to follow any path. Again, this is a redundant position. Also, I am using conditions to reach the unconditional. I know I know this in my head, but deep in my bones I do not accept it. What can I do? As Trungpa says, step out of self-deception and give up the struggle to get hold of spiritual states. But am I deceiving myself? How can I see this? How do I give up the struggle to get hold of spiritual states?

Many of us who go on a spiritual journey, will, at some point, examine our past. We examine the conditioning of our parents, our upbringing, our society, our pain and look towards our future and come face to face with our existential condition – trying to discover who we really are. We know we are not our conditioning, our parents, our society, and if we are not, who are we without conditions? What is our nature beyond all conditions? We know we are not our false selves. What we are in fact doing here is discarding the false, and by discarding the false, our real nature will hopefully be revealed. Stepping out of self-deception is discarding the false. Illusions are seen through, and confusion is clarified.

So we have seen how spiritual confusion can stem from thinking that we know what spirituality is, and often our spiritual practices are attempts to get hold of spiritually realised states that we have heard about second hand through books and other people. We get a taste of such a state through these avenues. We get a taste of freedom. But as the solution is borrowed and thus temporary, theses states vanish. So we try to get hold of these elusive spiritual states again, and we struggle to do so. Our attempts to get hold of these states give us a sense of being on a spiritual path, yet our attempts are contrary to stepping out of self-deception by discarding the false. What is in us that sets up deception and keeps spinning the false?

Our primary sense of self comes from the mind. The mind is like an operating system that takes in the data of our senses and then helps us determine how to be, act and survive in order to continue our existence. We further organize and classify the external world through combinations of associations of sounds and images, what we call language, communication and thought. A word is a sound, and combined with a visual, we have an agreed association, identification and meaning. The sound “t-r-e-e” is associated with a visual (of a tree) to give us the shared meaning that is a tree. With identification and meaning, we have knowing, the known. These basic associations also form the core of logic. Glowing coal + skin = hot! Yet words are just descriptors of reality. The word ‘hot’ evokes a sense memory, but it cannot burn you. Words, images, language, and thought are thus not reality; they are once removed, secondary.

These basic associations can also be connected to other associations, and so a level of complexity builds up into a wonderfully complex network of associations, right up to the level of abstract thought. Add to this the association of thoughts and the physical body, and we have the emotions. All of these complexities make up ‘the mind’. Thus the mind is inherently logical, rational. Its fundamental nature is to associate, to connect, to ‘make sense’ of sensory data. Once reality is experienced, it is described, defined, limited, classified and related to other descriptions. All this is necessary for our survival of course. Now that we have survived, the downside for our spiritual search is that descriptors are secondary, limited, already known, and thus in the past. What we really have going on in the mind is this: the known when combined with the known allows us to state an association between these two knowns. We build and structure our perceptions of our world, others and ourselves accordingly and mistake our perceptions for reality. We are convinced, however, that this is the way it is. And most of us fear the unknown. It can leave us reeling, because the mind builds on the known, out of its logical foundations.

Now in terms of spirituality, the mind is both the key and the lock to freedom. Spirituality is indefinable. It is a great unknown. It cannot be grasped with the mind. Spiritual practices that seek to place conditions on how to attain spiritual states do nothing but impose conditions and control. This is second-hand spirituality. It turns into false beliefs such as “I am not spiritual”, “I am spiritual” and games such as “I am more spiritual than you” and “How am I doing, teacher?” This question is absurd. It is a comparison, an association to another’s viewpoint, another person’s descriptors of a spiritual state. “Do my descriptors match yours?” This is where spiritual self-deception creeps in. The mind seeks spiritual states through the known (the mind) and seeks to know spiritual states through comparison/association (the mind). That is, the mind seeks through itself and knows itself. The ultimate delusion.

We could conclude from all this that spirituality is bogus, and that there is no higher intelligence, but this is simply elevating reason to undeservedly lofty heights. Alan Watts challenged this fanciful notion by asking: “Do you grow your own hair?” “Do you beat your own heart?” These things happen naturally you might say. Yes, they do, but they are outside the control of the mind and thus outside of reason. Being outside of reason, it is then unreasonable to say that there is no greater intelligence, that the universe is basically ‘dumb’, and that it is all a random, meaningless accident, or that we humans invented God to bring comfort to ourselves. Again, if the universe ends, or is limited, what is outside of it? Why is it then, when you fall in love, reason gets thrown out the window?

So if reason is limited and our attempts at knowing our spirituality and getting hold of spiritual states are limited, where does that leave us? We know we cannot discard the mind, for if we lose it, we lose us as well. No one wants to pay that price. Yet without my mind, who am I?

All the while I sit and contemplate this, the grass grows. I do not see it growing longer as I look at it, but nevertheless it grows, and if I watched for one month I would see it is longer. All this time my mind spins, and getting caught up in this I fail to notice that “who I am” is growing also, whether I notice this or not. Aside from my mind, processes are continually taking place. Cells are being replaced, biochemical reactions occur, a heart beats and pumps blood, and lungs fill and empty air. I am not the conductor of this orchestra. Who is growing me? What am I, then, an echo? A complaint? An afterthought?

I sense that I am a giant web, forever woven. A ceaseless activity of memories, voices, desires, lusts, hurts, comparisons, rejections, wants. No peace, yet I can observe all this spinning. It is me, this spin, it is not someone else. These are my hurts, my wants, my memories. Yet it is not me, because I can observe it.

I let the sounds of life pass through me. I hear them outside, I hear them inside. There is no difference. I am space, empty. No solidity of flesh, of substance. No barrier of thought, of language, of concept. An insight arises in me, as clear as the crisp blue sky: That which flows cannot be possessed That which tries to possess cannot flow That which tries to possess cannot actually possess That which is not real cannot be. That which flows has been released That which has been released is free That which is free rejoices Thus love is not a noun.


Darren Harris is a professional counsellor in the alcohol and drugs field in Brisbane. He has long standing interests in writing, Eastern philosophy, psychotherapy, and how people can change.

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