“A liberated man is extremely law abiding. But his laws are the laws of his real self, not of his society.” — Nisargadatta
The noise you just heard was the sound of Nisargadatta Maharaj hitting a very large nail on the head!
In some ways there’s little need for me to say any more, for that basically sums up everything I’ve been endeavouring to convey in this ‘Living Without Rules’ topic. But I’ve been wrestling with this beast for several weeks and I’m determined not to give up until I’ve found a way to wrap it all up.
I’ve known all along exactly what I wanted to say, but the truth is I’m still much learning to live and embody this in my own life. I’m still exploring, experimenting and learning as I go. But I often find the best way to get really clear on a given topic is to write about it, so that’s part of the reason I’m sitting here tapping away at the keys.
I’ve already argued that we enter this world in a state of perfection and that, as we grow up, we seemingly ‘lose’ that perfection. Well, it’s not so much lost as it is obscured by the arising ego, in much the same way as a shadow obscures the sun during an eclipse. A ‘social self’ is assembled, comprising a mask — or set of masks — that we wear to please others and to meet the demands of various situations. Although it has its function, it’s so overdeveloped in most people that disconnects us from our innate nature as pure, unconditioned consciousness or awareness.
It’s because of this there’s a deep, fundamental conflict at the core of our being: social self versus innate self; or what we choose to be in daily life versus what we truly are and what on a deep level we yearn to be.
The social self is a largely unconscious mechanism. It’s built upon following external rules and hinges upon our deep-seated need to be perceived in a favourable light by others.
The problem is, this mode of functioning is what causes virtually all of our suffering. We end up living deeply inauthentic lives and we suffer greatly for it. We become deadened, lifeless, stifled and robotic. We end up passionless, joyless, depressed, resentful, anxious and perpetually dissatisfied with life. That’s clearly no way to live and yet it’s the way countless human beings do live. It’s really little wonder the world is in such a mess.
A BETTER WAY
Surely a far better way to live is to step out of the prison of the social self, which has kept us fragmented and frustrated for the best part of our lives. We can then retrace the original state of authenticity, unicity, spontaneity and joy that we experienced as a young child. It can be done — and, if we want to experience true and lasting satisfaction and fulfilment in life, it simply must be done!
It’s the difference between living by the outdated, inflexible and often insane rules imposed on us by outside sources and instead living from the heart; being directed by what brings us joy and a sense of aliveness, satisfaction and a true feeling of ‘rightness’.
Instead of living by external rules, we live by an inner compass that will always steer us in the right direction, followings the laws not of society, but as Nisargadatta put it, of our inner self. These laws are adaptive, flexible, fresh and dynamic and rather than turning us into depressed, frustrated zombies, they elicit within us a sense of aliveness, passion, joy and zest for life.
There’s no greater joy than being in touch with what we truly are and living a life of authenticity. It’s as rare and precious as a pearl, but it’s a pearl we’re each capable of creating, with just a little awareness, reorientation and, to begin with at least, a measure of consistent, conscious effort.
If you’re still reading this, it’s perhaps because you’ve already suffered enough in life. You’ve tried it the old way, you’ve been a good little social self and done exactly as you were ‘meant to’ most your life, and all you’ve gotten from it is dissatisfaction and suffering.
I think the majority of people are like that, although most spend all their spare time trying to numb themselves out with the Weapons of Mass Distraction: which include drugs, alcohol, food, obsessive focus on sex, sport, TV reality shows, compulsive internet browsing — the list goes on.
This simply creates a whole new set of problems and until we are able to let go of these compulsive distractions, there’s simply no way they can address the underlying cause of their unease and dissatisfaction. As a society we’re masters at dealing with problems by simply masking the symptoms. But in the long run, this just exacerbates our problems.
So how do we live an authentic, inspired life? How do we live from our innate self as opposed to the constricting overlay of the ego and social self, the mechanism that over the course of our adult lives has choked just about every ounce of joy and aliveness out of us?
First of all, you have to be ready.
You need to be at a point where you have sufficient self-awareness to dispassionately gauge where you’re at in your life, how you got there, what’s truly motivating you and what fears and doubts have kept you from going within and following your heart rather than being directed by externals. You need to see the limitations of following external rules and how this can cut you off from your own wisdom and inspiration, disconnecting you and stifling your spirit.
You have to be willing to look at your pain and suffering, your frustration and perpetual lack of fulfilment, and clearly see how this derives from leading an inauthentic life. This is because your innate sense of wellbeing and joy has been obscured by the sycophantic, calculating social self as it tries to conform to external dictates. Until you’re very clear on this, you’re not going to have sufficient motivation to adopt a radical new approach to living.
When you’ve seen how a life directed entirely by the social self and external rules and expectations has led to nothing but misery, you can then start to experiment with something altogether different. You can live by the laws of your real self, as Nisargadatta put it. Instead of living by the head (social self), you start to live by the heart (innate self).
BEWARE THE VASANAS
It’s easy for misunderstandings to arise here. Some people will immediately take exception to this: “Are you really suggesting we should just do what we want all the time?” “That’s all very well, but it’s hardly practical!” “Wouldn’t we just end up like lazy, spoilt, self-centred brats?” “Our mind is the source of our intelligence, if we followed our hearts we’d get nowhere.” “Sentimental nonsense!”
Following our heart, living by our innate wellbeing and joy is not the same as being driven simply by our surface-level whims, desires and habits. In Vedanta these are known as vasanas — habitual mental tendencies, or grooves in consciousness, and they form the basis of our likes and dislikes, habits and rudimentary personality structure. If you were to simply follow your vasanas unquestioningly you probably WOULD end up lazy, spoilt, fat and useless.
Following your vasanas and being directed only by the superficial surface level of your mind is NOT living from your heart or from your innate being. It’s simply another trap, much like being stuck in the prison of the social self, only this time you’re stuck in the prison of the lazy habits of your own untamed mind.
You have to be aware of these vasanas, which tend to unconsciously drive your behaviour and motivations and into which you so easily ‘lose yourself’. Negative vasanas and personality traits need to be surmounted, otherwise you may find yourself spending all day everyday sitting in your underwear eating junk food and playing computer games or watching trashy TV. That’s not living from your heart, although you might think it is; it’s just what your mind/vasanas/personality may be accustomed to and comfortable doing. It may bring a kind of numbed comfortableness, but it’s highly unlikely to bring the joy, excitement and aliveness that’s characteristic of being aligned with your essential self (what? You don’t believe that it really feels that good? Then you really have to try it!).
Vasanas can be healthy or unhealthy (for example, your vasanas are largely responsible for the kind of food you eat and the lifestyle you lead) and the unhealthy ones need to be recognised and consciously rewritten or weeded out. This frees up the space, time and energy necessary for you to access and follow the deeper impulses of your heart; to do what you truly want to do, what brings you joy and what you really are here to do. This is a topic in itself, but I thought I’d briefly touch upon it here as it has relevance.
Once you’ve recognised the need of shifting your compass from outside to inside, from social self to innate self and have begun to surmount superficial thought habits and vasanas, what you have to next to do is tune into your innate self. Before you can live from it, you first must find a way to access it.
This is where meditation is extremely useful. It is an excellent tool for redirecting your attention from constant focus on external and internal objects (the latter being thoughts, beliefs, emotions, memories, and all such content of consciousness) and bringing your focus to the Self, to the source of your own consciousness. Here you will experience a great sense of stillness, peace, spaciousness and aliveness. You’ll begin to experience a state of presence: consciousness without thought. Some people call this the ‘zen mind’.
In this expanse of wordless awareness lies an intelligence far greater, deeper and more primordial than the superficial mind and its continual inner monologue and regurgitation of past memories, thoughts, concepts, beliefs and future projections. It’s a state of natural wellbeing, of wholeness, lightness and ease. If the mind is especially still, you may even experience it as a feeling of great joy and bliss.
The majority of people aren’t readily familiar with the state I’m describing (I’m calling it a ‘state’ but that’s actually not entirely true, for it’s beyond all states, which are by their nature always fluctuating. It’s more like the ever-present baseline of our experience: a vast, unchanging sky of ever-present awareness in which all is experienced). Although not everyone experiences this on a regular basis, just about everyone has had a taste of it at some time or another. Perhaps at the sight of intense natural beauty the mind was suspended and, if only for a fleeting moment, there was nothing but pure awareness and along with it a sense of peace, stillness, expansiveness and joy. That’s what I’m talking about.
It can be accessed by meditation, or for some people by being alone in nature, by deep concentration, dancing, chanting, painting, yoga or performing a martial art. It’s helpful to find a means that works for you; something that diverts all the mind’s energy and opens up this space of pure being.
We can train ourselves to dip into it at will, simply by learning to ‘drop’ our mind and body and resting in this baseline of pure awareness. For most people, the mind is so active and the vasanas consume so much energy that it’s very difficult to do this, even for a few seconds. The mind has tremendous power and momentum, but the effort put into training the mind and learning to tame it, still it and reach beyond it will in time yield remarkable benefits. It’s an effortless effort, by the way, rather than a rigorous discipline. Sometimes it’s enough to simply, completely and totally LET GO — of everything!
It’s from this state of awareness that we come to experience our innate wellbeing and our inner wisdom. It’s here that our joy and happiness resides, never in external things, people or events (although it might seem that way, but that’s another discussion entirely). It’s from this place of wordless spaciousness that we can make our decisions and ‘feel’ our way into right action. The right answers just spontaneously arise if we allow them to, and if it really is from this baseline of innate being, then they are always far better than anything the surface-level mind could have cooked up. You’ll simply have to take my word for it and experiment for yourself.
To access this inner wisdom, well-directed questions can help. In any moment it’s a good practise to be quite clear on what you want. Not what your mind or vasanas want, but what you, at a deep and fundamental level, really, really want! What do you feel compelled to do? What feels right? You don’t have to think about this or strain to come up with an answer, you simply allow the answer to arise as a spontaneous impulse of ‘rightness’. This is what gets called ‘inspiration’. It’s the source of all genuine creativity, insights, epiphanies and breakthroughs of any kind.
If you have a sense of ease, lightness and quiet excitement, then that’s a sure sign you’ve tapped into the wisdom of your innate self. If there’s any sense of unease, heaviness or tension around the answer, then it’s probable the mind and social self have co-opted the process.
Try putting this into practise. Do it for at least a week. Take some time out — an hour or so, or perhaps even a whole day if you can. Relax into that place of stillness, ease and lightness that’s beneath the surface of your mind, thoughts and intellect. Do whatever you need to access that innate wellbeing — it’s always there, even if it’s obscured much of the time by the denseness of your thoughts and emotions.
Once you feel connected with that, try tuning into whatever spontaneous impulses you feel.
What do you want to do?
Don’t just live by your existing habits and routines — open yourself to what you’d really, REALLY like to do, to what you feel would be fun and joyful. Then do it! Do whatever comes to mind, no matter how random or unusual.
Let these spontaneously arising impulses direct your actions. Look upon it as an experiment. I’m willing to bet you’ll end up feeling infinitely more refreshed, light, joyful, fresh, alive than you ever were when you were living by the rules and habits of your mind and other people.
I suggest starting with little things, minor actions you can take. Then, when you’re comfortable allowing yourself to be directed by this flow of inspiration, move onto the bigger things, and allow it to guide you when it comes to the larger aspects of your life, such as job, relationships, home environment, and so on. But do learn to walk before you try to run.
Again, people might argue that simply following their impulses is what leads killers to murder people and pedophiles to abuse children. Those are NOT and could never be the impulses of the innate self. Those are surface-level vasanas and mental aberrations. They don’t feel good; they are driven by immense pain and they cause immense pain. Dysfunctional behaviour is a clear sign that a person is massively out of alignment with their innate self. No one was born to kill or abuse others; to do so is a distortion of our true nature caused by a deeply damaged psychology.
DHARMA AND PAIN
The concept of dharma is helpful for ensuring our desires and impulses are in fact guided by the Self and not simply by our superficial likes, dislikes and whims.
Dharma is something that is built into us; an instinctual knowledge of what is right and wrong. Nisargadatta was once asked to made a differentiation between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. His answer was that that which brings peace and has a positive affect on self and others is good, and that which brings unnecessary suffering is evil. If you need any rules at all for gauging your action and determining whether they are derived from the innate self or the lower levels of the mind, this is about the only one you’ll ever require. Whatever you’re planning to do, keep in mind that actions arising from the heart will only ever be motivated by peace, harmony and an integral regard for the whole.
Our dharma is not driven by self-interest and self-gratification, but by a deeper sense of harmony with all life. When aligned with the innate self, we find compassion arises spontaneously and we intuitively act in service of others and the totality. We don’t act irresponsibility, but with a clear understanding of the nature of cause and effect. Sometimes we need to question our motivation for doing certain things to ensure it’s based upon our dharma or if the mind, ego or vasanas have taken over the show. If the latter is the case, suffering will always result. We’ll lose the sense of lightness, ease and peace we experience when rooted in the Self and we’ll instead begin to feel tense, desperate, grasping and constricted.
Pain is a signal that lets us know we’re off track somehow. If we’re experiencing psychological pain of any sort, it’s because the mind has obstructed our connection to our innate wellbeing. This is usually a sign that we have to slow down, take some time to rebalance and again dip into the ease and lightness of our innate self. From here we can see what action we are compelled to take. This action will always feel good — although it often might nudge us out of our comfort zone, so we may sometimes feel a little nervous or uncertain at the same time.
When determining the correct choice to make it’s helpful to notice the signals our body is giving us. ‘Right action’ is usually experienced in the body as a sense of expansiveness, a warm glow, a feeling of opening up or a kind of ‘inner click’. ‘Wrong action’ usually creates a tightness and constricting feeling, a subtle sense of unease or tension in the body. Many of us are so disconnected from our bodies that it might take some time and practise to be able to tune into these sensations and to sense what the body is trying to tell us.
Again, our dharma — our sense of right action — is already built into us at a core level. The signals will be there to guide us, and the body is one of the greatest means of reading these signals. When we live our lives directed by our heart (aka our essential nature and innate self), we feel good! When we go against our own nature, we feel bad. It’s as simple as that.
ENDING THE WAR WITHIN
I believe the real reason so many of us are depressed and unhappy is that we’ve become disconnected from who we really are and what we truly want. We’re living inauthentic lives and we’re suffering greatly for it. There’s a kind of civil war raging within most people on a largely unconscious level, the battle between the mind/ego/social self and the expansive, free-flowing, adaptive and limitless intelligence of our innate Self.
It’s essential that we end this battle now, for our own sakes and for the sake of the planet we’re systematically destroying.
People that are happy, at peace and able to freely express their true nature are generally highly functional people. They tend to be compassionate, caring, creative and usually a lot of fun to be around. They have a natural regard for themselves, others and the whole — and, by heck, it’s contagious! On the other hand, people that are deeply disconnected from their true nature are often very dysfunctional and create an enormous amount of needless suffering for themselves and others. If we as a species are to survive and thrive, we need to learn to be embody the characteristics of the former and not the latter. We need to be authentic and to live, embody and express our true integrity, creativity and aliveness. The choice is really up to us.
If the old external rules are no longer working for us — and on both individual and collective levels, I’d say it’s clear that they aren’t — then we need to make a new and radical shift in the way we’re living. We need to start following our own rules, the rules of the heart.
I will conclude with one of my favourite passages from the Tao Te Ching, for it succinctly sums up everything I’ve been endeavouring to say:
“When the greatness of the Tao is present,
right action arises from one’s own heart.
When the greatness of the Tao is absent,
action comes from the rules
of “kindness and justice”.
If you need rules to be kind and just,
this is a sure sign that virtue is absent.”