There is a common thread amongst spiritual teachings of various origins that suggests that we should seek to still our minds in order to see the reality that our incessant thought stream prevents us from seeing.
What would we see if we were able to detach ourselves from our thoughts, our memories, our imagination, our desires?
The usual experience is that it is very hard to just stop thinking, beyond a few seconds at least, and that isn’t normally enough to be able to experience anything much different from our normal state of being. Even in meditation it can take extensive practice to achieve any degree of mental stillness. So how do we know if the effort involved would really be worthwhile?
Fortunately there are some transient things that can give you a taste of this state. One of these happens to us every day – waking up.
When we awaken naturally (as opposed to an abrupt awakening by alarm, for example), there will often be a brief, perhaps just very brief, moment upon awakening when we become conscious and have an awareness of self, but our memory of who we are, where we are, or what our current life circumstances are haven’t yet fully arisen. Unless we are awakening from unpleasant dreams, this is usually experienced as a pleasant, perhaps even blissful state. It is only when the memory of “who we are” or what our circumstances are returns that we resume our normal life attitude, which is usually a mixture in various proportions of anticipation of, and memory of, pleasant and unpleasant experiences.
Another one is a little less common – but many people may experience it once in a while, and in my own case rather often. This is when you nearly lose consciousness due to lack of blood flow to the brain. This occurs to me often, mainly when getting up suddenly after sitting down for long periods. This is know as orthostatic hypotension. The exact nature of the experience varies from occasion to occasion, and although it almost never leads to a full loss of consciousness, it does lead to a partial loss of self-identity, and/or awareness of immediate circumstances, typically for several seconds or so.
I usually find this to be an oddly deeply pleasurable experience, and it seems I am not alone in this as the Wikipedia article mentions “euphoria” as a possible symptom. I certainly don’t try to provoke it happening, and always take preventative measures (bending over, lowering my head) as soon as I feel it starting, as I do not want it to lead to a loss of consciousness, the after effects of which are not very pleasant at all. However, what I am suggesting is that what is at the root of the pleasure in this experience, is the halting of thought and hence forgetting of the self that occurs.
Due to the recent re-invigoration of my meditation regime, I have managed on a few occasions to substantially reduce my thought activity for a time, and the feelings/sensations that came with this were not dissimilar to those that I experience from the other circumstances I’ve just described above – perhaps not quite as intense, but definitely of a similar nature. So there certainly appears to be a pattern in this – and the suggestion that it is our own minds and egos that stand in the way of a blissful existence is looking very plausible, to me.
So while the spiritual teachings beseech us to know ourselves, and we might assume that means to know our own personalities and minds, I would suggest that what it actually means it to know ourselves beyond our personalities and minds.
So who are you when you stop thinking, and stop imagining yourself as a personality?
It may take some courage to let go, but it seems that there is real joy to be had from no longer knowing who you are – or at least who you thought you were, and instead experiencing yourself as pure awareness and being.