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“We may ask ourselves: “What am I?” Notice that thoughts of what we are immediately arise. Yet we could never be any of those thoughts. Why? Because a thought can’t think.” –Galen Sharp
In What Am I?, Galen Sharp (who had a unique pen-pal relationship during the 1970s with non-duality sage Terrence Gray, who wrote eight profound books under the name Wei Wu Wei), explains with potent clarity exactly why most spiritual seekers fail to find enlightenment: because they do not realize that the one seeking it does not exist! If something doesn’t actually exist, it obviously can’t be enlightened much less the cause of our actions.
Upon direct examination, it is possible to see that the “self” we believe ourselves to be exists solely by inference, and is not a tangible thing. The analogy Galen uses in the book is that of a “fist.” A fist does not actually exist; what exists is a hand that is curled into a ball. So the label “fist” exists in language to describe something this is never actually there! A balled up hand, yes, a fist, no.
Can you find any “me” who is doing the thinking, or only the process of thinking? (In which “me” is just one of those thoughts.) –Galen Sharp
Why is this illusion of being a “me” so hard to see through? In a word, conditioning. Just about everyone is under this hypnotic spell of being a separate person with free will, and so it is simply a given, and thus rarely investigated. Once the mind believes it knows what something is, it slaps a label on it—a shortcut, so it doesn’t have to figure out what it is every time it encounters it—and moves on to something else. Therefore, the question of “What am I?” rarely occurs to most people simply because they already think they know the answer: I am “me,” and everything else is “not me.”
This sense of being a separate “self” does not come empty handed; it comes loaded down with a whole raft of beliefs, opinions, and judgments about itself, others, and the world. In fact, it doesn’t think of its own beliefs as beliefs at all, but facts or the way it really is! Galen calls this “mindset”:
“Once the mind has constructed a world-view, it does everything it can to maintain it, even going so far as to distort the facts to protect the belief system from being wrong. Politics and religion are prime examples of this. We assume we have excellent judgment and find it hard to understand how others could be so blind, even stupid, not to see what is obvious to us. This is mindset and it is very powerful.”
This sense of “self,” with all its beliefs, prejudices, and neuroses, is a tremendous burden to maintain and is energetically exhausting. But because we are all operating from this illusion, it passes for normalcy. And yet, it’s the root cause of all our suffering:
But this illusion, this perceptual mistake, does affect the thought process simply by being a basic concept in the belief system and world-view. Because the “volitional me” is such a basic concept it causes the development of a host of mental conditioned reflexes and actions required to save, protect and fulfill that “me.” –Galen Sharp
Another aspect of believing we are a separate “self” is that we are constantly looking for ways to improve this “self.” But alas, nothing seems to work… at least not for long:
All the systems of self-improvement we will find, whether philosophical or religious, assume we must add to, fix up, save and improve this individual, volitional self. You’ve tried them and they don’t work or you wouldn’t be reading this book. –Galen Sharp
I understand that for some the idea of there not being a “self” that is autonomous is quite scary and can bring up intense feelings of fear and anxiety. And for those they simply may not be ready to do this type of self-inquiry work, and that is completely fine. All is unfolding exactly as it is meant to.
Of course, it’s one thing to say, “There is no self,” and it’s quite another to have it be your actual experience. Because we have identified with this mental image of who we think we are our entire lives, the illusion can be quite persistent. The key is to observe your thoughts. This is different than identifying with them. You are not agreeing or disagreeing with them, but merely observing them like you would a bird flying through the sky.
At some point it can dawn on you that YOU are aware of your thoughts, and NOT the other way around. It sounds strange, but in a way your thoughts are none of your business:
By seeing that the mind is not you or yours and that its thoughts are not your thoughts, the power of identification, and thus belief, is removed from negative fearful thoughts and emotions and they can be more easily ignored. They don’t have to be denied or suppressed, which just gives them power. Simply recognize that they don’t belong to you and you can remain detached. –Galen Sharp
Another common misconception in self-inquiry is the thought, “Well, if there is no ‘me’ than I will just sit on the couch all day and not do anything.” What is missed with this statement is that there NEVER has been a self! So regardless of what thought says, all is just happening spontaneously and always has been. Thought is always a story about what’s not.
So, rather than attempting to live from the mind’s artificially contrived notion of what should or should not be currently happening (based on what the mind believes is best for it!), you find yourself silently living in harmony with the natural flow of Life. It’s as if “you” and Life merge, and the mental “you” dissolves leaving only Life. Like a salt doll in water. Once you start to get the hang of this, you naturally stop believing your thoughts. This lack of attention cuts off their energy supply, and like a fan blade spinning down, they slowly begin to lose their power.
This is why seeking is so painful; because it’s starting from an erroneous assumption: that there is an actual “you” that can awaken! Furthermore, it assumes that what we are looking for is not already here now. And yet, when we really stop and look, it can be seen that the eternal now is all that exists. And so everything that has ever happened, is happening, or will ever happen, only happens NOW.
Remember, any self you think of as an entity can only be an unreal, conceptual self. -Galen Sharp
I really like this book and find it to be one of the clearest and most helpful non-duality books I have ever read. I especially like how Galen takes it the extra-step by pointing out, repeatedly, that if there is no “self,” than there is no one here who can actually choose to do or not do anything.
All is spontaneously happening and you have a front row seat. And as Galen points out, you remain a spectator at all times, despite appearances. When this is seen clearly (which this book helps you do), what is left is an abiding peace that does not come or go, but is the substratum of all appearances
Lastly, I want to mention a unique and welcomed feature of the book, Galen’s 11 “Reality Meditations.” There is one at the beginning of each chapter and they invite you to go beyond mental concepts to a direct experience of reality. They are quite powerful IF they are actually done.
For example, in the first one you are asked to write down what you think are. Once it’s down on paper, it’s easier to see that those words on the paper are not an actual, separate, real thing, but merely dead thoughts/labels/concepts. What is aware of these appearances? That cannot be put into words.