Once, I went on a walk through a park in my neighborhood. It was a still mid-morning and the sun cast a shadow on the sidewalk from the trees that lined the path. The huge evergreens that bordered it seemed to protect the park from invading forces. In the center, there were many multi-colored deciduous trees with shades of green, brown, and red, and the flowering buds displaying the newness of spring took me by surprise. At one point I stopped and stared at a bee investigating one of the new found treasures. It was darting in and out of a white flower rising from a shrub that was not yet in full bloom, moving from the flower to a closed bud merely promising to bloom and back to the flower once again, as if it was asking, “What are the rest of you waiting for?”
As I took in the beauty all around me, I noticed the shadows from the trees. I considered how they are a visual representation of the tree only, not the tree itself. If we could see only the shadow we would lose the meaning of the true nature of the tree and come to believe that the shadow was the tree. This is what happens to us when we come to believe that our psychological self is our true nature. We get so wrapped up in our thoughts and emotions that we begin to believe these shadows are us.
Socrates’ Allegory of the Cave
I looked at the shadows and tried imagining them as the real thing, and was reminded of Socrates’ Allegory of the Caves, a story I read while preparing for grad school. The story, written by Plato, is based on a dialog between Socrates and Plato’s brother Glaucon. In the conversation, Socrates asked Glaucon to imagine a scenario in which a group of prisoners are chained to a row of chairs facing the wall of a cave. The prisoner’s arms, legs, and necks were bound, beginning from birth, so that they were forced to face the wall day after day, year after year, without being able to move or to turn their head from side to side. Behind the prisoners was a large fire and between the fire and the prisoners was a raised walkway.
Throughout the day people walked on this path holding puppets that form shadows on the wall. In addition, Socrates asked Glaucon to imagine that all the prisoners could hear was an echo bouncing off the walls of the cave. Finally, Socrates suggested that if these prisoners were held captive in this way their entire lives, they would come to believe that the shadows and echoes were real because that is all they would know.
Then Socrates suggested that if someone were to try and tell the prisoners that the shadows and echoes weren’t real, the prisoners would refuse to believe what they were being told and instead hold onto their long held belief of reality. He went on to suggest that if the prisoners were then led outside into daylight to be shown the truth of reality, these prisoners would turn away from the light because it would cause their eyes to burn. Because it would cause both mental and physical pain whenever the prisoners tried to face the truth, they would continue to cling to their false reality.
Allegory of the Cave and the Ego
To me, the Allegory of the Cave is a perfect rendition of what it’s like when we begin to discover the psychological self, or “ego.” It can actually cause us mental and emotional suffering when we attempt to look at it in its entirety. This is so because we begin to uncover all the past hurt that we buried deep inside, throughout our lives, as a means of protecting the psychological self. But the psychological self is merely the illusory self we created throughout the years as we interacted with others and the world around us. It is the thoughts, tagged with past emotions and stored in memory that we begin to believe is the true self. However, it’s a false reality.
The authentic self is the one who witnessed those events occur. And the authentic self is the one who notices when these thoughts and emotions return. When we continue to come from the place of the authentic self and simply witness as life unfolds, then we remain aware that the thoughts and images in our mind are merely echoes and shadows of the past. But much like how the prisoners would want to cling to the belief that the shadows were real, so to would the individual who came to believe that the psychological self was real. After all, it’s his reality. In essence, he has become a prisoner of his own reality.
The Skill of Letting Go
The skill of letting go can be learned. Once this skill is learned we can live life from the place of the authentic self, free from the shackles of the thoughts and emotions of the psychological self. Consequently, we can live life freely and spontaneously and enjoy it as it unfolds naturally.
Consider of the different levels of anger, going from towering rage to controlled rage, to justified anger, to righteous anger, and finally to personal offense. Most of us have experienced many if not all of these levels. However, personal offense, which is often thought of as the mildest form of anger, is where most people reside and is potentially the most dangerous. Of course, any action out of anger is potentially dangerous, but the more extreme the anger the easier it is to notice it and act independent of it. It is the little daily personal offenses that we take with us and unknowingly hold onto that have the potential to cause the greatest problems, precisely because of a lack of awareness of their presence. We hold on to it because we believe that we are justified in doing so. We feel justified because we believe it affects us personally.
Only by becoming unattached to the psychological self can one negate the propensity of taking personal offense. It doesn’t matter where the outside source is coming from or what form it’s in. If we do not allow the ego to be engaged, anger, resentment, fear, and a host of other downward spiraling emotions are diffused before being given the opportunity to grow. When these feelings do begin to surface, we must only recognize them as being associated with the psychological self, acknowledge their existence, and allow them to flow freely and be released.
When we try and repress the feelings by telling ourselves we shouldn’t be having them, or by fueling the rage by confirming that harm has been done to us, we allow these negative feelings to grow. It seems a little like blowing up a balloon. Sooner or later it will pop. Unless of course we release the air as we go. The more accustomed we become to recognizing and allowing the feelings that arise with our emotions, the better we can become at releasing them.
Too Much Air Will Cause a Balloon to Pop
When I first considered this analogy, I realized that is what I had been doing in my own life. It was as if I was a balloon full of air and whenever air was added, through typical life experiences like interacting with others, waiting in line at the store, or waiting in traffic, I simply intentionally let out the air by feeling the feelings before thinking about them. In this way my “balloon” maintained the proper inflation throughout the day.
The act of surrender is a deep and profound aspect of living a life of peace and joy. It means to open ourselves up to what is in front of us. Used in this way, it does not mean to give up. It means to let go of the need to have things different than they are. Right now, please pause and take a long, slow, deep breath, as if you are demonstrating the act of letting go. Now consider that surrender is a deep form of letting go and trusting in the Universe to guide us in the right direction. Without surrender, amazing beauty can go unnoticed. The beauty of life goes unnoticed because we become preoccupied with a false reality, the reality of the psychological self of thought and emotion.
To maintain peace, we must never judge an experience while going into it. We must never force a response because it makes us look a certain way. Instead, we must simply drop the personal history, and all the offenses that were once perceived will fade into nonexistence, as they were never part of reality in the first place. This is what is meant by living in the now. It is the true meaning of Presence. Eckhart Tolle once said,
Thought cannot exist without consciousness, but consciousness does not need thought.
It is helpful to remember that inner dialog is not necessary. It can be downright harmful as oftentimes the story in our head is not based on reality. What we must do is continually remind ourselves that we are not our thoughts or our emotions and soon we will be observing both. Eventually, rather than simply knowing the meaning of being present, we will be Presence. That is when we will know perpetual peace.
The Book of Revelation Reveals the “False Self”
Many believe that the prophets of the past are speaking of the end of the world in Revelations of the New Testament. To me, these prophets are not speaking of the end of the world. They are speaking of the end of the psychological self. They point to the direction or path to live in an entirely new state of consciousness, free of the confining walls of the psychological self.
It helps to ask, what is my relationship with the present moment? If there is an inner disturbance then it’s because we are not at peace with what is. We cannot argue with what is because it already is. When making peace with what is, action comes out of a place of acceptance rather than from a place of resistance. This is living as Presence. And this is the way to become empowered by Life Itself.