We have been programmed since birth to perceive reality in a certain way. This was the purpose of education and the years of schooling most of us undergo. We were being trained to think and see the world as our culture does. We have been, and are being, culturally conditioned. We have been conditioned through school, through culture, through family upbringing, through social relationships, through television, music, books, and other media, through advertisements, through politics, and through nearly every experience we have. Everything from the language we speak, to the things that we like and dislike, to what we accept as normal, to the beliefs that we have, and the things we identify with, are all a product of our conditioning.
It is not just that there is a group of controlling and influential people who wish for humanity to remain ignorant (though that is a reality), it is the fact that every experience we have makes an impression on us, and from that impression we develop memory, learn information, attribute meaning, and form patterns of behavior. What we experience shapes our perception and understanding of reality.
In our society, we are exposed to many negative things, such as: violence, oppression, injustice, racial, financial, and social inequality, famine, political corruption, environmental destruction, mass human ignorance, and a range of other atrocities. Even worse, we are taught to ignore most of these realities, or accept them as though they are normal. We are instead lead to shift our focus on what might improve our self-image, and make us more accepted, more happy, and more satisfied. We focus on material items as though they will give us emotional satisfaction and mental peace. We search for love in pleasure and romance because we misunderstand love and are unaware of the love within us. We are constantly searching for personal fulfillment, neglecting the realities of the world and our participation in it. All of these motives, these desires, these drives—are a result of our cultural conditioning.
Most people never recognize the fact that they have been conditioned, but if we never acknowledge our conditioning, we can never be free of it. Below is an excerpt from the book, "The Answer Is YOU," in which the topics of our conditioning, our ego, and our freedom are thoroughly investigated:
"If we are to understand and fully realize who we are, we must look into the reason why we have become ignorant of our true nature. I think the best way to understand this is through the analogy of comparing our minds to a garden. When we were born, our minds were pure, open, and aware. Our minds were nothing but rich and fertile soil. hen, as we were exposed to our environment, we were conditioned by the beliefs, concepts, and worldviews of the culture in which we were born. People began planting seeds in the fertile soil of our minds. Whether our mental gardens were planted with seeds of love or fear, peace or violence, knowledge or ignorance, depended on the influence of the people around us.
We adopted our beliefs about what reality is, according to how the other beings in our life perceived reality—according to the beliefs that they have adopted from their own conditioning. These beliefs shape the way in which we perceive our world. They define what we think of ourselves, what we think of reality, and what we think is possible in our reality.
When we were born, we went into what Ram Dass calls “somebody training.” We were taught that we are our name, and that we are an individual personality living amongst a world of other individual personalities. Of course we didn’t really think much of this when we were children, as our only concern was playing and being. Nonetheless, the seed of individuality and separation was planted in the fertile soil of our minds, and as we grew, this seed was watered with repetition, blossoming into the way that we perceive reality.
s we developed, our senses were flooded with information from our family and our culture, each bit of information planting a seed in our mind’s garden. Each time we curiously asked our parents about the nature of something, they answered to the best of their ability, and whatever answer they gave us, planted a seed in the soil of our minds. e asked the adults around us what “this” was, and what “that” was and so we began defining things and separating them into their own mental labels and boxes: “mom, dad, dog, cat, book, table, chair, etc.” and this is the very same language that we continue to use when defining our reality, but we did not create this language, we merely adopted it from our culture.
As children, especially in our modern society, we were also exposed to a vast range of different forms of media—books, music, television, video games—each of which planted their own seeds in our minds, shaping our ideas about reality accordingly. hen we went to school, we began learning about the world from the common perspective of our culture, and this also played a major role in shaping our beliefs about reality.
School is perhaps the most detrimental to our freedom, as we are all taught to understand and perceive things in exactly the same way, and if we do not learn what we are taught, we are ridiculed, judged, and even punished. hen we were punished as children, whether it was from our parents, from our siblings, from our teachers, or from anyone, this act of violence causes us to be traumatized. We learn not to do what caused us to receive punishment so that we will no longer have to experience the trauma.
Children are very straightforward with what they see, and often what they see is not what the other members in society see. The child is then punished to the point where they don’t want to see things in a certain way anymore because it is just too painful. So then they begin seeing things from the view of the social program that everyone wants them to see, so that they will no longer have to experience the pain of being punished.
Aside from the many concepts, ideas, opinions, and beliefs that we adopted throughout our schooling, we also underwent a range of different traumatic experiences. Not only did we receive punishment or pain from adults and authority figures, we received it from the other traumatized children that we were surrounded by on a daily basis. hildren judge and make fun of other children for being different than they are, and it is likely that even you have judged or criticized other children in this way.
When a child receives this judgment from one of their peers, they begin to judge themselves, and they change who they are in order to fit in with others, to avoid the pain and trauma of being judged, made fun of, or abused. n high school, this same social structure leads to one being afraid of being embarrassed. People do not do what they love to do, and are not being who they want to be, because they are afraid that they will be judged by the people around them.
This stems from the many traumatic experiences one has been through in their past. They experienced something so personally traumatizing that they would rather be someone who they are not, than be judged, made fun of, or abused for being who they are. hese experiences, no matter how subtle or severe they may be, slowly harden our spirit, and prevent us from being our natural selves.
Little by little we are taught to conform to a way of being that is the least offensive, the least different, the least extraordinary, and the least subject to judgment or ridicule. his process of traumatic experiences and social conditioning often transforms the courageous dreamer one was as a child into a fearful realist that so many people behave as today.
Once out of high school, this fear of embarrassment has become so strong, that one often takes a path of following along with the crowd, doing what is expected of them, doing what will involve the least amount of opposition from others, and what will look good in the eyes of society, rather than following their dreams, doing what they love to do, and being who they want to be.
ur social conditioning and cultural programming creates a type of prison for us, where we are bound to stay confined to what society has deemed “normal”—a word that refers to no more than a social class that people must live in or else suffer judgment, ridicule, and punishment for being themselves. rom the moment of birth we are conditioned to fit in with what society views as normal—to share the worldviews and beliefs of our culture. Unfortunately, our culture is operating on the momentum of an ignorant past, and so, perceives things in a way that is not at all in harmony with the truth of reality, but rather conforms to a set of made up beliefs, concepts, and opinions about reality.
This has caused us to develop a false understanding of the world, and consequently a false understanding of who we are. e do not realize our true nature as consciousness, but rather, we have confused our identity with an idea of ourselves—a mental image projected by consciousness. This illusory identity is what many refer to as, “the ego.” The ego is not who we are, it is who we think we are. It is the identity that we have adopted from our culture—the idea of being a personality that exists separately from the universe as a whole.
hy is it that we feel so separate from our environment? Why do we have the strong sensation that the being inside of our skin is somehow separate from the world outside of our skin? We feel that there is intelligence within us, and we can acknowledge the intelligence in others, but we do not look to the universe at large as if it also possessed this intelligence. Instead, we perceive the universe as if it were a dull and mechanical thing that somehow gave rise to intelligent life. But as Alan Watts says, “we did not come into this world, we came out of it, in the same way as a flower comes out of a plant, or a fruit comes out of a tree. And as an apple tree ‘apples,’ the solar system in which we live, and therefore the galaxy in which we live, and therefore the system of galaxies in which we live—that system ‘peoples,’ and therefore people are an expression of its energy and of its nature.” Therefore, if there is intelligence within human beings, then the energy that human beings express must also be intelligent.
But the average person does not consider themselves to be an expression of the energy of the total universe, even though a human being cannot exist except in an environment of earth, water, heat, air, and space. The elements outside of our skin are just as important to us as the elements inside of our skin. We cannot describe ourselves apart from our natural environment, and so, we should realize that our natural environment is an essential part of who we are. However, this is not how most people feel. Most people feel rather separate from their environment, and according to the common perception of our culture, nature is even seen as a destructive force that we must battle with, conquer, and control if we are to survive.
This attitude toward nature has caused a huge amount of destruction to the natural environment, and consequently, is leading to the destruction of human beings as well. There is no force in nature more destructive than a society of human beings who have forgotten their connection to the natural world. ut this idea of being separate from nature is an illusion—we are as much a part of nature as a wave is a part of the ocean.
Our ignorance of our connection to nature arises from the limitation that we human beings have in perceiving nature. The conscious awareness of a human being is a kind of linear scanning system, it examines the world bit by bit, just as one can only look upon a dark room with a flashlight by illuminating it one piece at a time. his is why school takes so many years to complete, because we obtain information about the world by scanning through countless lines of print.
But the world does not come at us in lines; it is a multidimensional continuum in which everything everywhere is happening all together at once. We are exposed to far too much information at any given moment to translate the experience into a limited amount of words, symbols, or numbers, as symbols for reality are not reality itself. You cannot eat the word “food,” or drink the word “water.” In exactly the same way, you cannot define who you are by labeling yourself as “I” or “me.”
While using manmade symbols, words, and concepts has proven to be very useful in our society, we have become so fascinated by these measurements of reality, that we have confused the world as it is with the world as it is measured, described, and conceptualized. And when we are not aware of ourselves except for in a symbolic way, we are not really aware of ourselves at all. We are, as Alan Watts says, “like people eating menus instead of dinners, and that is why we are all psychologically frustrated.”
So what is it that we mean by the word “I”? Well, obviously “I” is simply our symbol of ourselves—a symbol that represents the entire organism of the universe as it is centered on our individual consciousness—and the symbol is not the real thing. ur entire culture has become so psychologically obsessed with the world of symbols, of social conventions, of mental divisions and measurements, that we are no longer in touch with the whole of nature—a whole that is so vast, complex, and interconnected that it couldn’t possibly be confined to the social conventions of language and symbols.
Because of our confusion of the true nature of reality with reality as it is conceptualized or measured, we have attached our identity to the ego, something that has no basis in physical reality. The ego is essentially a large collection of thoughts, all connected to one singular thought at the center that we call “I” or “me.” When we are confused with the world of measurement, confused with the world of illusion or maya, we carry within us this “I” thought that we think we are, and we have many different concepts about ourselves and the way we relate to reality that we attach to this thought.
The problem with this is that the “I” thought is really an illusion, and so we feel that we have to constantly protect, defend, and advocate for this illusory identity. So we come up with a wide range of different beliefs, concepts, ideas, and opinions, that are mixed in with our conditioning, our traumas, and our various neuroses, in order to protect and steward this illusory thought that we call “I.” As a result of this collection of thoughts—or ego—we feel as though we have a very heavy burden to carry—some identity that we must always watch out for, live up to, and validate to others to prove that it exists in some way or another. We feel that we must always defend our beliefs, our worldviews, our opinions etc. because these make up our sense of identity, and if any of the aspects that we identify with are threatened, on some level we perceive that as a threat to our survival, an attack on who we are.
So the ego can also be thought of as our attachment to form, whether the forms be physical, mental, or emotional. Whatever we attach to—be it our thoughts, our feelings, our body, our name, our profession, our personality, our beliefs, our memories, our accomplishments, our social roles, etc.—are forms that we cling to for a sense of identity, when our true identity is formless, and consists of all things, not any one or few things in particular.
It is because we identify with the ego that we feel the need to force our beliefs and opinions onto others, as a way to validate our own sense of identity. It is because we identify with the ego that we feel we need to show off or lie about our experience in order to improve our social image. It is because we identify with the ego that we desire for the recognition and approval of others. And it is because we identify with the ego that we live in a state of constant fear and worry as a result of feeling the need to protect our identity.
When someone is heavily ego-identified, their behavior becomes a double-sided coin of self-importance and self-pity. They feel that they are special, and of more worth and importance than anyone else. But because they cling to this identity and this need for importance, they also compare themselves to others, and try to out do everyone and glorify their status and image as an attempt to enforce their need to feel special. Because they feel they are special and more important than others, they also feel that they should receive special treatment, and when they don’t, they perceive themselves as victims of their circumstances, when really they are victims of their minds and their way of thinking. “Why me?” is one of the ego’s favorite pleas to reinforce its belief that the world revolves around it. To the person identified with the ego, everything and everyone are seen only in the light of how they can benefit “me.” Greed, lust, violence, attachment, judgment, criticism, blame—all are qualities of the ego.
You can very easily recognize the ego within yourself. You can feel when you have an urge to protect your image or reputation, or enforce your beliefs onto another and prove that you are right. Our culture, being one profoundly obsessed with the symbolic and conceptual representations of reality, is also a culture profoundly consumed by ego, and almost everyone in our society has their true identity confused with this illusory identity of “I.”
It is not difficult to see how identification with the ego—and especially the feeling as though we need to protect, defend, enforce, and validate, the ego—can cause one to suffer deeply. We worry about things that threaten our reputation and our self-image as though they are actual threats to our health and well-being, simply because we have confused ourselves with our idea of ourselves.
The Buddha taught that the cause of suffering was ignorance—the ignorance of one’s true nature that causes them to identify with the ego. He also noticed that the two most apparent qualities of the ego are craving and aversion. Craving refers to our intense desires, the feeling that nothing is ever enough, and we are always in need of something else to make us feel complete, simply because we are not content with ourselves. Desires, in and of themselves, are not a cause of suffering, but it is our attachment to our desires which leads to our suffering. There is nothing wrong with wanting something, but if you want it so badly that you become miserable, irritated, anxious, impatient, and stressed, then the desire is unhealthy and will only cause you to suffer.
Aversion is also a desire—mainly our desire to feel safe and secure in our comfort zone. Once we have established a comfort zone, anything that causes us to step outside of it makes us suffer. We feel safe within our bubble of habits, beliefs, opinions, and what is known—and what ever is new, challenging, or unknown, is perceived as a threat to our bubble, and our biggest fear is that someday the comfortable bubble that we have created for ourselves will be popped.
A comfort zone is an illusory boundary that prevents us from living life. Instead, we live in fear of the unknown and avoid anything that threatens the habits, beliefs, or concepts that make us feel safe. Life is uncertain, nothing can really be known, and by avoiding the unknown we only avoid life, and we ruin our experience simply by fearing that we will ruin our experience. Avoiding pain causes pain, needing comfort makes us uncomfortable, the need for security produces insecurity.
The ego, being made up of thoughts, concepts, and beliefs, can also be easily thought of, conceptualized, and believed by the thinking mind. In other words, the ego is something that the mind can know, and thus feel as if it has a sense of security with and control over. But Nature, as a whole, cannot be known by any means of conceptual knowledge, because it is far too vast to be understood by our linear way of perceiving, and this frightens the controlling mind which feels as though it needs to understand life in order to feel safe and secure in life.
Thus, one who is identified with ego, feels much safer living in the world of their thoughts, beliefs, and concepts, and feels very frightened of the unknown. But the essence of reality is unknowable, and so the ego fears its source, which is why when we are confused with being the ego, we are afraid to look into our illusions, and afraid to discover our true selves, which cannot be understood by the same means of conceptualization.
When identified with the ego, one spends the majority of their time consumed by the thinking mind. They are rarely present with the reality of here and now, but are instead lost in the realm of their fantasies, ideas, worries, fears, hopes, regrets, and other mental constructs. They are not in touch with reality as it really exists, nor are they in touch with their hearts, their awareness, and the level of bodily feeling. It is not difficult to realize the transparent nature of the ego. If we stop completely, not just outwardly, but inwardly, we will see that there is no truth to our self-image.
Allow yourself to take a few moments to sit and observe the way that your mind behaves. You will notice that it is completely restless, thinking endlessly, jumping from one fantasy to the next, afraid of just relaxing into the peace of being without thinking, always resisting the silence of the unknown. If you continue to observe your mind, you might reach a state where the thoughts begin to subside, and you recognize them as clouds arising and falling in the sky of your pure awareness. You will notice that “I” along with all of the many thoughts attached to this “I” are nothing but illusions of the mind.
Being raised in a society, one must learn how to function in that society by learning to accept the language, laws, ethics, etiquette, codes, measurements, numbers, and above all roles. We have difficulty communicating with one another in society unless we can identify ourselves in terms of social roles—father, mother, son, daughter, boss, employee, teacher, student, artist, gentleman, lady, and so forth. This often causes us to confuse our identity with the many roles that we play, including the many stereotypes that are associated with these roles. It is easy to see that we are not our roles, as a father or mother can just as easily be a teacher, an employee, an author, a church member, as well as a brother or sister. It is equally obvious to see that the sum total of these roles will still not be able to describe the true nature of the person themselves. But the many things that form our sense of identity are vast, and some are more subtle, and less easy to recognize than our identification with our social roles. For example, who we consider to be “myself” is often made up of a history of selected memories and past events, which completely leave out the actual infinitude of events and experiences that actually occurred.
People cling to what has happened to them, or what they have accomplished, as a way to enforce their belief of who they are. Even if someone went through a very traumatic experience, they will refuse to let go of the memory of it because it contributes to their ego identity. As much as they would hate to admit it, many people find comfort in their suffering because it gives them an identity as a victim, and this enforces their belief in who they think they are. Indeed there are many delusional and psychotic things that we do in order to maintain our illusions.
But we are not our illusions, and our desire to cling to and maintain our illusions prevents us from realizing our true nature, and consequently prevents us from being at peace, being happy, and being free. Most people have invested so much time and energy into their illusions that the idea that they are not who they think they are is too frightening to even entertain. They would rather cling to their beliefs about who they are in order to stay in the comfort zone of their conditioning, and maintain their illusory sense of security.
Illusions can never give us an understanding of the Truth of life, and if we want realize our true identity and be free of ego, we have to be willing to let go of our illusions, and understand that life cannot be explained by words, symbols, or social conventions. Ultimately, we must admit that reality cannot be known conceptually, and must be willing to transcend the world of conceptualization and measurement in order to see things as they really are.
The whole aim of Hinduism, Buddhism, and numerous other philosophies is to attain a state of consciousness, which in Sanskrit is called moksha or “liberation.” This state of liberation is the freedom that arises from discovering who we are when we are no longer identified with any role, thought, or conventional definition. It is the freedom that comes from realizing our original identity as consciousness, the substance and source of all that is.
This form of self-knowledge is different from the typical way in which we view knowledge, as information perceivable by our mind and senses. Rather it is a form of knowledge that arises from knowing that one’s true nature is ultimately unknowable, but nonetheless is inescapable, and undeniably who we are at our core. In the words of Shankara, “For He is the Knower, and the Knower can know other things, but cannot make Himself the object of his own knowledge, in the same way that fire can burn other things, but cannot burn itself.”
This liberated state of consciousness is not something that can be an object of knowledge, rather it is a state of pure being that is beyond knowing, beyond duality, and beyond measurement of any kind. It is for this very reason that Indian philosophers speak so frequently of what moksha is not, saying very little, if anything, about what it is.
Indian philosophy leads one to Truth by focusing on liberating the mind from all concepts of Truth, for concepts, no matter how elaborate or detailed they may be, can never amount to the real thing. The practical way to liberation is a disentanglement of one’s consciousness from every form of identification. This is where the process of self-inquiry, of neti, neti (not this, not this) comes in. This process leads one to the realization that I am not this body, not these sensations, not these feelings, not these thoughts, not these roles, not this personality, not the ego, not the idea of God or the Self. The ultimate reality of my life is not any conceivable object.
In the moment when every last identification of Consciousness with some object or concept has ceased, there comes forth from unknown depths a state of awareness which is absolutely free, a state of pure and absolute Being in which reality is experienced as whole, undivided, and inseparable from oneself. This state of nondual and undifferentiated consciousness is the state of liberation, or moksha.
Moksha is liberation from maya, liberation from the world of measurement in which we divide reality, and divide ourselves, into separate bits and pieces. It is not a state in which the sensory world of nature ceases to exist, as many who seek to attain liberation believe it to be. It is a state in which reality is experienced as nondual (advaita). God is not one apart from the many, but is both the many and the One.
Moksha is liberation from the world of concepts, conventions, ideologies, opinions, beliefs, conventions, definitions, descriptions, labels, words, numbers, and symbols—all of which are created by the mind’s measurement of reality, and are not reality itself. This world of measurement, or maya, is what so many of us are bound to, spending the majority of our lives in our heads and in our thoughts, rather than in our hearts and in this moment.
The person who is liberated from maya still experiences the world of form, still experiences reality, but he does not separate, measure, or divide reality in the same way that most people do. Rather he sees reality as one—not in the sense that all things have joined together as one, but in the sense that nothing was ever really divided, only thoughts of measurement divide reality, but reality is and has always been one undivided whole.
Measuring and dividing reality has its uses, such as when it comes to communicating an idea or message through language, but we so easily confuse the world as it is with the world as it is measured, described, and talked about—especially when we are taught from such a young age to classify and divide the world into these many names, concepts, and measurements. he mind attempts to grasp the ever-changing reality of nature in its web of beliefs, labels, and concepts, which is why maya is usually equated with nama-rupa or “name and form.”
But it is impossible to actually grasp the world of form with names and concepts, and the forms that we try to grasp are also transitory, empty, and ever-changing. his is why both Hindu and Buddhist philosophy proclaim the importance of realizing the impermanent and elusive nature of reality, and also point out that this realization is only depressing to a mind that tries to grasp at reality. But to the mind that lets go of this desire to grasp, and comfortably flows with change, the sense of impermanence and emptiness becomes a source of profound freedom and joy.
The fact that Consciousness or God is the underlying ground of reality is impossible to grasp as a concept, which is why the total elusiveness of the world is the teaching that lies at the root of Buddhist philosophy. Buddhism points out that one’s true nature is unknowable—that one’s identity, or ego, is merely a concept, and one’s true nature is beyond conceptualization.
It was this realization of being unable to grasp or define oneself that lead the Buddha to a state of perfect clarity and understanding—anuttara samyak sambodhi, or unexcelled, complete awakening—an experience of profound peace, clarity, and joy that is incapable of being described by words. he fundamental difference of Hinduism and Buddhism is that Hinduism proclaims our true nature is the one Self of the universe—while Buddhism proclaims that in reality there is no-self.
The Buddha did not actually imply that there is no real Self at the core of the universe, but rather that there is no Self, or basic reality, which can be grasped. He felt that the doctrine of the Upanishads that taught there was a Self was too easily misinterpreted, and easily became an object of belief, a goal to be reached, and a concept that the ego could cling to as just another sense of identity. ith this understanding, we can see that the true Self is no-self. Our true nature cannot be grasped, cannot be measured, cannot be confined or defined by a set of words, labels, concepts, or scriptures. To attain freedom, one must let go of the mind’s desire to fit reality into mental labels and boxes—a habit that we have adopted from our cultural conditioning, and something we do in an attempt to enforce our ego and our illusory sense of identity.
The Buddha did not spend much time talking about the creation, origin, and meaning of the universe. His focus was on providing people with a practical way to be free of their suffering. Though we can see from his teachings that he had profound wisdom and a deep understanding of the nature of reality. e realized that there is an ultimate reality that is beyond beginning and ending, beyond up and down, beyond coming and going, beyond birth and death, beyond being and non-being—and he called this ultimate reality Nirvana.
Nirvana is the absence of all notions, the absence of all concepts, and the absence of all mental constructions of any kind. It is not something that we run after or strive to attain; it is the very ground of our existence. any of us suffer because we are caught in the notions that we have a beginning and an ending, that we have a birth and a death, that we are the same or that we are different. But when we touch our true nature, the nature of Nirvana, we transcend all of these notions and become free.
These notions and concepts that our minds create are the source of all our fears, and consequently are the source of everything that prevents us from feeling love, freedom, and happiness. When we drop all of our notions and reach the state of Nirvana, we are no longer afraid of birth and death, of being and nonbeing, or of any of the ideas that our minds create.
True freedom is freedom from the known, freedom from concepts, freedom from the idea of being the one Self or of being a separate self. True freedom is the freedom of touching our true nature—the freedom to just be, right here and now, in the unknowable, indefinable, and immeasurable beauty and mystery of the present moment."
—An excerpt from the book "The Answer Is YOU"
“At present your awareness is object knowing awareness. Unless you are mentally free from the objects you will not be free in the present moment. Don’t think objects of you just physical, there are inner objects like ideas, beliefs, dogmas, desires, ambitions, craving to become some thing, fears, etc. If you can see the transiency of these objects your mind will be free from these objects and your awareness then becomes pure. Only pure awareness has the capacity to be present in the present moment because it has no distraction towards objects. The harsh reality is that your awareness is continuously distracted by the objects because you are investing some thing in them and so you will never be able to be present in the present moment. All the time you are projecting something from your past experiences which we call mind into the future thus missing the present. Missing the present means you are missing the life because life is always a new flow in the present moment and unless we are with that flow we will not be able to participate in life. At present what we call life is nothing but perpetuation of dead past and we cling to this past because we feel secure in the past because it is known and we are afraid to live life in the “present” which is always new and unknowable. We are all afraid of leaving the known which is like death and we don’t dare to live the unknowable. To live with the unknowable we must first be free of inner and outer objects.”