True Self
Words by Bryan Hubbard


Every religion and spiritual practice urges stillness, from the Abrahamic “Be still and know that I Am God” to the sitting meditations of Buddhism and Zen, and Hinduism’s exhortations to curb the chattering monkey mind. Be still, stop thinking, kill the ego. The ultimate prize awaits the disciplined struggler: nirvana, bliss, enlightenment… satori.

While this effort is being made, and for some it can involve years of meditating, the state of bliss must always be present. It cannot just heave into view when we are silent and then go away again when we start thinking about lunch. Nonetheless, it is elusive. It is there when I am not, a paradox but it’s true: enlightenment can happen only to nobody!

Buddhism and Hinduism agree. They liken the state of bliss to the moon’s reflection on a still lake. When the waters become choppy, the image starts to distort. So when we are thinking or angry, for instance, we cannot ‘see’ the blissful state, which is why we are urged to be still, not think.

That’s the theory, and it’s fraught with difficulties. As it stands, it’s a binary system: there’s a ‘me’ that is unhappy and there’s a state that is constant bliss, which presumably isn’t ‘me’, or isn’t ‘me’ right now, or could be if only the other ‘me’ would just shut up or disappear. Mixed up with all of this is a complexity of nuances that includes the nature of thought itself, the sense of a self or selves, feelings of unhappiness or malaise, and the promise of the ultimate reward. It’s enough to keep a guru in business (and it does, it does).

Ultimately, it is all to do with identity, or who I think I am. Certainly, there’s an ‘I’ that is associated with the body: ‘I’ (i.e. this body) need to eat or sleep, for instance. The body’s primary drives are to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. But there’s a second ‘I’ that rises up, too. While it’s also identified with the body, it has needs, fears, ambitions and drives that are beyond the basic, essential drives of the body. This
‘I’ wants to be happy, successful, recognised and acknowledged; it also wants to be loved. It even wants to be enlightened.  

But is there an essential self, one that is immortal or will be enlightened? In fact, is my essential ‘self’ the very state of bliss I strive for? If it is, why am I torturing myself by trying not to think when I’m already that which I seek?  If it isn’t, it never will be, because I can’t be what I’m not. So, the fundamental question is this: assuming the state of bliss is my essential self, my true self perhaps, what is it about me that feels separate from it?

The problem revolves around just that: feeling. Enlightenment can’t be a problem of being, or its corollary, becoming, if you are already that. But I don’t feel enlightened or in a state of unshakeable bliss. I feel miserable, sad or angry, perhaps. Perhaps the feelings are more subtle, less definable; you may just feel bored, uncertain, not in touch with the vitality and wonder of life.

It’s as though we have been disconnected from our natural state, and through effort—being still, suppressing thoughts — I shall eventually realise that ecstatic feeling, and it will be with me forever.

The imagined state of enlightenment is the opposite of the feeling we have: if we are sad, enlightenment must be permanent happiness, if anger, permanent peace, if depression, permanent bliss, and so on. It is a projection from our current feelings; more precisely, it is its continuation.  Similarly, our efforts to be rid of these awful feelings also come from that same place.

Essentially, misery has created its own antidote and its means of escape. Seen that way, meditation, suppressing thought, stillness — they are all a movement of misery.

So what can we do to be rid of our misery? Rather than trying to end it or replace it — as these actions are an extension of the misery itself — it would be more useful to understand what misery actually is, and why it’s over-shadowing your life. As I say, it can be any filter, and not just anger or misery, but it’s something through which you see your world.

Even my asking ‘how can I be rid of this misery?’ is pregnant with subtle meaning. It suggests a method and a desired outcome, and we are immediately back in the energetic flow that is misery itself.

Instead, we need to understand thought and the subtle filter through which we see the world and interpret it. Where does thought come from?  How is it created? What is its purpose? And for thought, you can also read feelings and filters.

Thought is essentially an expression of memory. We have many types of memory, and these create many selves. As the central koan in my book The Untrue Story of You has it, ‘the thought thinks the thinker’. It is thought that thinks a ‘you’ into being while all the while you believe there is an autonomous self that is in control and thinking.

These memories cluster, very roughly, into three types of memory store: the Narrative past, which are memories of where you were born, your religion and upbringing, and so on; the Knowledge past, which are memories of how to do things, like tie your shoelaces; and the Psychological past, which are memories of traumas and upsets that were only partially experienced, that is entirely from your body perspective. It is these latter memories that drive you towards some imagined happiness because they are essentially a glutinous mass of sadness.

When you can see with great clarity that all of your drives for greater happiness — be it a new car, millions in the bank or enlightenment — are all expressions of great, overwhelming sadness, then stillness comes naturally. It isn’t that you’re unhappy, it isn’t that you are not enlightened — you just think you are, or more precisely, thoughts that derive from energies of sadness create a ‘you’ that thinks it is sad or not enlightened!

Seeing is the action; in fact, no other action is possible. And when you see the processes of energy, that are interpreted as feelings, then defined as thoughts by the brain, that create a ‘you’ as a thinker, when that is clearly seen, then the stillness is there, and always present. It isn’t a battlefield or a struggle. Meditation isn’t something you do, it’s a state of being.

Bryan is the author of The Untrue Story of You (Hay).  He also lectures, gives workshops and co-edits the health magazine What Doctors Don’t Tell You. Find our more at bryanhubbard.net.

This feature was first published in Issue One of SATORI. To explore issue one further click here.


Created by Duncan Woods & Seb Camilleri