In spiritual circles, thinking typically get’s a bad rap as being a lower form of function, something to be controlled, reduced or suppressed. But it actually seems more that the intellect and selfless awareness are intimately related, and that the intellect is a critical aspect of the dance of awakening. This article is aimed at exploring that connection.
It’s possible to see the truth of your being in a moment, without preparation. This is really not that surprising a claim because the truth of being is there as you, now and always. On the other hand, “understanding” the nature of being, of what you truly and actually are, comes from a change in thinking about yourself. A change in assumptions and beliefs. While some sources suggest this can happen instantly and permanently, I don’t see how ingrained beliefs about yourself as an objective being can be transformed in a moment. Continuous seeing seems to take time for a shifting in the focus of attention to occur: A shift of attention from thought and imagination of one’s self, to what is aware of these mental constructs. This is the process of “waking up”.
I would like to describe this process of waking up from the perspective of stages of change in the beliefs, along side increasing recognition of the foundation of experience: awareness. (There aren’t any actual discrete stages, more like fuzzy overlapping phases, but it’s a fairly easy model to wrap your brain around.) So in any case, what I propose is that as beliefs change to a more accurate representation of reality, they free attention for more continuous contact with your true being. (I might add that I don’t see identification with being a separate person as a problem. It is as natural a manifestation in existence as any other. How could it be wrong?).
1. Simple Intellectual Understanding
For some mysterious reason there can arise in someone a desire to question who you are. Why this happens out of all the other things that can occupy your attention is truly mysterious. (At least from the illusional belief that you control your thoughts and experience).
In any case, this intellectual questioning can lead to a gradual realization that you are not what you think you are. At this early stage of exploration there is a simple intellectual understanding, and a skepticism about the assumption that our skin or personality make up our personal boundaries. You most likely do not have a sense yet about what you actually are, have not noticed anything else you could be, but you are suspicious that the conventional view of being a personality in a body (body/mind) is not accurate. You may have begun to compare what you “know”, ideas collected over time, with what you experience directly: your present evidence of what you are. And you might be finding that the latter is a more accurate source of information.
This level of intellectual investigation may continue on for many years, or it may only last a few weeks, before there are glimpses of an empty, aware center at the core of your sense of personal existence. Sometimes these recognitions come as a thrilling, amazing revelation. Self structure can seem to collapse on it’s self, or disappear. The strength of conventional beliefs is still very strong at this stage, and so attention is easily distracted by thought and away from this “pre awareness recognition”. But the periodic glimpses of being without body/mind structures begins to deeply inform one’s intellect and old beliefs change as new beliefs begin to form. This can eventually lead to deeper intellectual understanding.
2. Deep Intellectual Understanding
In time the intellectual understanding, core beliefs, can begin to break down around the conventional view of self as a body/mind. And with glimpses of the awake, aware center of your being, new beliefs form. Attention still moves heavily among and around thought and beliefs. But periods of awareness of awareness at the center of your self experience begin to “inform” thought and in turn, understanding. You come to know that the conventional view of being a personality in a body (body/mind) is not accurate. And if at any time you find your self in conversation about it, there is a confidence in the understanding that you are not a person in a body, or even a fuzzy combination of body-mind elements, or a psychological self image. There may not yet be perfect clarity as to what you actually are, and the courage to state in confidently, but there is an increasing recognition of what you are not.
You can still get confused, feel like you see clearly and then lose it, or have a sense that you were free and boundary-less, and then “become a person again”. (At the next stage you will laugh at how impossible this is).
3. Final Intellectual Understanding
As attention repeatedly contacts the impersonal structures of the sense of separate self, and contacts existence as Living Awareness, there comes a turning point in our understanding. Beliefs about being a separate person fade in the light of what is known directly: that there is no separate self, and that what you are is Awareness. Unlike the analysis that occurs at early stages of self investigation, direct contact with what is true resolves identity confusion.
You come to have a clear view of what you are at any time. Like a wrist watch on your wrist, even though you may not know the time at the moment, you know the time is represented there and you can see it any time you like. So you are always “in touch with the time”. At this stage of self understanding, intellect is always in touch with awareness.
Additionally, you may also find your attention drawn more and more to awareness, and less and less to conventional life situations, relationships, or even “spiritual matters”. Wordly life begins to have a transparency to it as it’s substantiality and importance fades. Living, thought-free awareness is what you love to gaze upon. It may seem meaningless or pointless to think about before you arrive here, but nothing seems more important than seeing continuously or repeatedly your being as awareness. It is this wonderful, continually amazing gift, and you just can’t help but be grateful and appreciative of it.
In spite of what many spiritual books suggest, when you know your true identity, the intellect does not go away, thoughts and feelings do not cease to occur. Spiritual teachers like Ramana Maharshi or Nisargatta Maharaj, considered by many to be the most advanced, were observed to read the news paper, participate in mundane conversation, get angry, or go to work every day. What does seem to occur is, there is less and less attention focused on thinking, projected boundaries, imagined structures or personal pathways. And so from a direct perspective, there comes less thought occurring over time. There also comes a change in the content of that thought as it reflects the reality of life beyond concepts, (Which is surprisingly much more than life ‘within” concepts). But from an external sensory perspective, life appears to go on and the body and mind look pretty much as they usually do.
There may be more stages beyond those mentioned here. Of the accounts and teachings I’ve read there are described other, more “pure” stages or levels. The truth is that most of these accounts are either suspect, sounding like idealistic imaginings of perfected states, or so woven into unfamiliar languages or cultures that it’s difficult to grasp or integrate into my recognition of life as it is now. But frankly, I’m not particularly concerned with these accounts, it’s more enjoyable exploring the nature of being as it appears.