Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of June 1, 2009

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I Think I Am

We know ourselves most intimately through our thoughts. Our memories and concerns shape our thoughts, while current experience calls forth responses in the form of thoughts, often driven by or driving our emotions. Our thoughts mull over and ruminate, comment and plan, consider and choose, rehearse and recall. If we ask ourselves “who am I?” we may not have a sure answer. But our unexamined, operating definition of ourselves probably goes something like this: (1) “I am my thoughts.”

A slightly more accurate definition would be: (2) “I am the one who thinks all the thoughts that flow through my mind.” More accurate still is (3) “I am the one who is aware of thoughts flowing through my mind, some of which I intentionally think, but the vast majority of which arise automatically and conditionally by habit, association, and reaction, and without my intention.”

Yet because we believe the first definition, or in our better moments the second, we give our thoughts a preeminent position in our inner world that allows them to masquerade as who we are, or very close to who we are. That is how we live: as flesh and blood thinking machines, with our true I either entirely absent, or identified with and entrapped by our ever-flowing stream of thoughts. But thoughts, most assuredly, are not us.

The easiest level to tease out of this illusion that we are our thoughts is consciousness. The term “stream of consciousness” usually really means the stream of thoughts as the content of consciousness. Of course consciousness has many other contents as well, such as all the other sensory experiences of our body-sense, vision, hearing, smell, and taste. To see our thoughts for what they are, we need to step outside their stream and stand in awareness itself, in consciousness, in the cognizant stillness that lies between and beneath thoughts, between and beneath all sensory experience.

Seen from the earth, clouds obscure the sky and substitute for it. But the sky can see that passing clouds do not change its own nature.

Meditation, in its quieter moments, opens us to the reality of the cognizant stillness of consciousness. At first it is not so easy to recognize because it seems so empty, like nothing at all, just a lack of content to experience. But pure consciousness, a very fine yet substantial inner energy, is the context, the container of experience. Its very independence of content makes it complete and whole.

In meditating, allow your body and your thoughts to relax. Notice the spaciousness between and beneath thoughts and sensations. Relax your grip on being your body or your thoughts, and move into that spacious awareness, into your body of consciousness. See your thoughts arising on their own and passing through your consciousness. See that you are not your thoughts.

While it is more true to define yourself as consciousness, even this stops short of the reality of your I, your will. There are in us the one who sees, the energy of consciousness that enables the seeing, and that which is seen, in this case our thoughts. We take a significant step toward liberation when we stop confusing the object, thoughts, with the subject, the one, the I that sees. To realize that we are not our thoughts, and that they do not necessarily speak for us, is to free ourselves of a heavy burden.

For this week, step out of your thought stream and into consciousness, and see that your thoughts are not you.


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