WHO AM I?
Who Am I? Enlightened Master Ramana Maharshi taught his students to keep on asking this question and it would lead them directly to Enlightenment. As we follow his advice, asking and answering this question throughout our life, things can get worse before they get better. We start out as babies aware of, and not feeling separate from, our surroundings. But as we grow, in an effort to find out who and what we are, we try to create an identity by repeatedly choking off big portions of the Universe, rejecting them as “not me,” to come up with self-descriptions we like, which makes what we call our “self” become smaller and smaller.
This is natural up to a point. But eventually we choke off so much of What Is in an effort to create an ideal identity for ourselves that we start to feel cramped and isolated. We made the mistake of forgetting that the Universe is alive in every part when we thought we could safely ignore parts of it, but the rejected parts can’t help asserting themselves, pressing in and clamoring for attention until we are forced to give up our search for perfection and take back all the parts we rejected, warts and all. In this blog we’ll practice skillful means for taking back these “shadow” parts.
As we reclaim them, our sense of identity enlarges until at last the miracle happens and we realize we are the Universe. That’s what our true identity is. And that is Enlightenment.
Contemporary philosopher Ken Wilber has made an excellent analysis of how we shrink our identity by rejecting parts of the Greater Consciousness(1). Here we explain it less abstractly, relying on memories, observations, and creative imagination, using the metaphor of the the twisted sheet discussed in Blog #1 — and thus departing significantly from Wilber’s scheme.
Keep in mind that the twists we make in consciousness, although shown and described here as separate and sequential, are really overlapping. The steps we take to separate ourseves from aspects of the Universe we want to reject, and the steps we later take to reclaim our rejected parts, can be simultaneous, overlapping, or occur in different order than shown in this diagram.
Also, remember that throughout all the contractions of our sense of who we are, nothing at all in the totality of the Universe has changed. It’s still the one big, undivided whole it always was. Only our awareness changes because of where we put our attention.
THE SEARCH FOR IDENTITY - A STORY
Material Body splits off from Greater Consciousness
Once upon a time a baby girl was born to a normal middle-class family in America. There was light and noise. She moved her arms and legs and felt an airy freedom contrasting with the hemmed-in tightness of the womb. Light followed darkness and darkness followed light. The big ones hugged and tickled to make her laugh. She thrashed around and hurt herself. She could bite her blanket and it wouldn’t hurt, but if she bit her thumb, she felt it. Eventually she learned that her body was different from the rest of the world.
When the big ones covered her face with a blanket and cried, “Where’s baby?,” the whole world disappeared. When the blanket came away and they cried, “Peek-a-boo!,” it came back. She liked to pull the blanket over her head by herself to make the world go away, but one day she heard them say, “She’s trying to hide,” and realized, with surprise, that the world was still out there. That’s when she stopped thinking the rest of the material word beyond her body was part of herself.
It was as though someone had pinched up the undivided Consciousness she was born with like a sheet and twisted it around to form a little chamber containing her bodily feelings, which she now recognized as herself, separating her from the Greater Consciousness outside that she now recognized as “not me.”
Inner Mind Develops and Splits off from Greater Consciousness
As she grew, her powers of thought and imagination began to flower. She loved to play house and pretend to be a princess who could demand and receive a new wrapped present every day. She daydreamed of swinging through the trees like a monkey. She had heard that boys were different “down there,” and one night after her parents tucked her in, she decided to imagine a little boy’s underwear coming off to reveal the secret. But no matter how many times she tried, she couldn’t make it happen. Then the bedroom door opened, and she was embarrassed because Mama could surely see the visions floating in the air above the bed, they were so bright.
Another time, when scary faces appeared above the bed, she knew she hadn’t invited them and cried out for Daddy. He told her there was nothing there.
Lots of things still happened in her mind even though they weren’t real, and she kept them separate and private and learned not to talk about them. Sometimes when Daddy was mad he tried to act like he wasn’t, and got even madder if he thought she knew. People were always trying to hide how they felt, and it wasn’t okay to notice. It was better to push the knowledge completely out of her mind and not even admit to herself what she knew.
She learned to believe, as she was taught, that the things in her mind came from inside her brain — that it was impossible for a thought from outside to come in. And so, with another twist of the sheet of Consciousness, she walled off her mind from any possibility of knowing the thoughts of any outside Consciousness.
Ego Develops and Splits off from Incompetent Body-Mind
It had always been a delight to make things happen. She learned to cry to make Mama appear, hold her bottle by herself, use a spoon, walk to go where she wanted, talk to ask for what she wanted, use the potty by herself, wash her hands, tie her shoes, change her little brother’s diaper, and fix his bottle. Each new competence was a source of praise and produced a heady feeling of mastery.
She compared her newly-competent self with her younger self, that incompetent baby who ran around with a full diaper and sticky hands, who didn’t even know how to tie her shoes. “That isn’t who I am now,” she thought. “I can do things.”
It was another twist in the sheet of Consciousness, walling off her new triumphant ego from the parts of herself she judged unworthy.
Abstract Mind Splits off from Body
She didn’t remember exactly when she heard the news that her body would die. It scared her out of her skin. After that she didn’t want to have a body or even have to live in the stubborn, hostile physical world, where if she kicked a rock it hurt her foot, and if she bumped her plate off the table it broke and made a mess, and Mama scolded. It made her feel so incompetent, she couldn’t even tie her shoes without tangling the laces.
Daddy had explained a long time ago that there was no Easter Bunny or Santa Claus, but Grandma still insisted God was real. Grandma said she had a soul that would rise up out of her body like a mist and go to Heaven when she died. She didn’t know what a soul was, and didn’t really believe there was a God, but still wished for something of herself to survive when her body died. Maybe the surviving part would be the stream of thoughts in her mind.
The kids at school made fun of her for her buck teeth and the way her left foot turned in. She hated her body. One day as she hung upside-down by her knees on a playground bar, a boy ran over, peered down her shorts, and chanted, “I see your wee-wee.” “So what,” she said. She found she didn’t care at all. She’d stopped identifying with her body.
From then on her “real self” was her thoughts. She rejected her body along with access to all its wisdom and aliveness, as nothing but a source of pain and teasing. This was another twist in the sheet of Consciousness. It wouldn’t be until much later, when she grew up and became a mother, that she would reclaim parts of what she gave up that day.
Persona Splits off from Ego
People kept saying God wants us to be good. She still didn’t believe in God, but decided to be good so other people would accept her. There were lots of rules — about not stealing or lying, not being mean to other people and animals, not having sexual feelings, and not thinking bad thoughts. Bad thoughts were when you thought about doing something that was against the rules, even if you didn’t do it. Suppressing the body’s wants and needs was good, and she did that easily.
Suppressing her need for approval and recognition would also be good. She wanted to be self-sacrificing and made it a point to do help with the dishes every night — unlike her little sister who was lazy and disappeared when it was time to do chores. Mama praised her, but her sister mimicked the way she walked around with her nose in the air and called her a “self-satisfied prig.” It was a dart that went home. Pride was a sin, and she was guilty.
It was easy to spot faults in others that she disliked in herself. She knew she was able to see these faults in others only because she knew what they were, and the way she knew was from having them herself. As every kid knows, “It takes one to know one.” She tried hard to control her bad tendencies, but kept falling short. As soon as she thought she
After she grew up and got married, she argued with her husband insisting, “No, I am not angry. You’re the one who’s angry.” She would grit her teeth at the way he slurped his food and belched, all the while making heroic efforts to keep herself from making the slightest eating noise. She called him a hypocrite for pretending to love her when it was obvious he didn’t, not realizing it was she who had become too angry to feel love at all. She railed against politicians for their greed and incompetence that caused the poor to suffer, and though she had a job and enough to eat, counted herself among the poor in order to feel justified in failing to contribute to charity.
With this further twist of the sheet of Consciousness, walling off her “good” persona from her “bad” shadow, her main preoccupation became trying to justify herself as “good” — always in comparison to others on whom she projected her “bad” thoughts and shortcomings. Meanwhile, the poisonous shadow thoughts and feelings kept festering deep within the fertile bed of her body, visible to others in the tones of her voice and stiffness of her posture, but unseen by herself.
Paranoid Solipsist Splits off from the Persona
After the children came, she had to reclaim many aspects of her body. The two boys were little bodies, and it was her body that was needed to mother them. She nursed and held them, comforted them with her warm, breathing presence, and constantly wiped them clean. She felt stuck in a swamp of spilled food and dirty diapers. The boys were jealous of each other, constantly shrieking and fighting. Drastically isolated, sleep-deprived and little adult contact, she began to despair. When they were hurt or sick, she felt a black, tar-like guilt settle down upon her. It was her fault for bringing them into the world to suffer.
Her husband was a very smart man, given to abstract thought, and she admired him for it. She saw him as the one who did all the important head-thinking. Thrust back into her predominantly physical existence caring for the children, her own thoughts were insignificant and never far from bodily sensations. She felt mired in thick confusion. One fateful day, seeking clarity, she looked deep into her husband’s eyes and saw what she had never before let herself see. His eyes were completely empty, their pupils large and void. There was no spark of personality, no life, nobody home behind those eyes.
She was alone.
She knew she was there. She felt herself as real, having inner experiences, but realized there was no way to know for sure that anyone else was real. They all seemed like robots. She suspected she might have somehow created this whole hellish Universe and its charade of life, and then somehow forgotten. She would readily undo it if she only knew how.
Still, the boys needed attention. Whether they were real or not, she’d have to respond to their needs as though they were because she couldn’t stop experiencing their presence. She knew she also had to act as if her husband and all the other people showing up in her experience were real too. It was the only way she knew to to get through this nightmare of life. She felt a heavy taboo against revealing what she now believed: that she was the only real Consciousness in the Universe. If she let out the secret, it was likely to upset the delicate balance of things, and she would lose her last bit of Consciousness, dissolving into the void along with the rest of the illusory world.
This was the last possible twist of the sheet. Her Consciousness cowered within the tiny space now allowed to her, stopping her ears against the snarling and clawing of the denied Universe outside, demanding the secret she must never tell.
The Way Out
After narrowing and refining our sense of identity, forfeiting large areas of the Greater Consciousness available to us by twisting it into increasingly tiny little enclosures where we feel safe and sovereign, we usually feel trapped. By the middle of our lives we’re asking, “Is this all?”
The good news is that we can and do reclaim the rejected parts of ourselves whenever we decide to. Skillful means are available. We can reach Enlightenment, knowing and living our Oneness with the Greater Consciousness, from any twist of the spiral.
Because most people in our Western culture have, by their twenties or thirties, carved out a persona to call “me” by suppressing thoughts, behaviors and feelings they judge to be unacceptable (the “shadow”) and projecting them on others, we’ll start at that level, with skillful means for reclaiming the shadow.
Fortunately not everyone takes it further, to the paranoid/solipsistic level. In later blogs we’ll present skillful means for unwinding Consciousness from that level. If you are reading this and are stuck there, you’re welcome to contact me personally.
THE CAULDRON JOURNEY
Skillful Means for Reclaiming Shadow Parts
What we generally think of as “the world” is actually a personal set of projections from our own minds based on what we want, what we fear, what we hate and can’t let go of, and what we think we love.
Thaddeus Golas, in The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment(2) defines love as “the action of being in the same space with other beings.” We could be living in an expanded state of consciousness, sharing infinite space with our brothers and sisters all the time, if we didn’t have the habit of looking for things we don’t like in our experience and projecting them out onto others. Each time we do this we contract our sense of identity, and this is painful.
We have a bad habit of splitting reality into opposites of good and evil, pure and impure, cowardly and brave, selfish and generous, and so on. Then we identify ourselves as having the good qualities and project the bad qualities on others. In reality the opposites can’t be separated. We only fool ourselves into thinking they can. To know the truth of existence, we have to accept All-That-Is, the bad with the good, the stupid with the smart, the pain with the pleasure.
We’ll be using the idea of a cauldron to speed up the process of coming face to face with the shadow parts we’ve denied and projected outward and letting them back into our world. In doing this, we expand our sense of self. It feels good to be expanded. When we can accept everything into our world, with nothing to deny or fight against, what we experience is bliss.
Cauldrons are potent symbols in European mythological traditions. In Irish legend, Ceridwen’s cauldron was a place where souls could be reincarnated as newborns.
The cauldron is also an alchemical crucible. Medieval alchemists trying to turn lead into gold would seal up the reactants in a closed crucible and subject them to various chemical processes to transform them into gold. This was understood as a metaphor for transformation of the soul.
The Cauldron Journey isn’t about going through various stages of unwinding our sense of identity in a rigid order. In the shamanic tradition I belong to, in contrast to established methods for reaching Enlightenment, such as Buddhism, Alchemy, or Cabala, with their elaborated traditions and rituals, we rely on our own inner guidance and experiences.
The “skillful means” we’ll use here is a journey in imagination to the inside of a sacred cauldron – a cauldron with magical transformative properties. Once anything comes into the cauldron, it can never get out. The sides are slippery, and when you’re inside, you’re stuck there. There’s no way for you or anything else to to get out again. And you can’t throw anything out of the cauldron. You have to stay there with it and deal with it.
At the beginning of the cauldron journey you make a commitment to call back your projections, mingle their energies with yours, and be in the same space with them until the transformation is complete.
Because the cauldron is such a powerful archetype, once you journey into it, it’s easy to keep yourself there. It has its own magnetic power.
This “skillful means” of imagining a situation where you’re trapped in a cauldron into which anything can enter but nothing can leave was inspired by a frightening, near-death experience I had in the hospital having my tonsils out when I was four. I trusted the nice man who was administering the ether and didn’t doubt that he would take care of me.
As I went under, I first noticed a black and white striped pinwheel, droning gently as it whirled. Then everything turned white, followed by a beautiful vision of an athlete poised to throw a discus to a distant planet. He was so big I could see the curvature of the earth beneath him and the sky behind, layered with gorgeous colors fading into the blackness of space.
Then, in a frightening twist, the pinwheel was back, now mean instead of gentle, whirling tighter and tighter and faster and faster, with a nasty buzzing sound. It twisted, becoming an angry vortex that pulled me in and down. I thought the nice man giving me ether would save me, but no sooner did I think of him, than I realized he had been sucked in behind me. No one could save us. It was too late. Not only was the vortex propelling us down to a void of unbeing, it had collapsed the whole world of daylight and things and loving friends and family like a dirty rag, and pulled it in behind us.
I didn’t die, but will never forget the desperate sensation of knowing that everything I was and knew along with anyone who could save me and all we knew of reality were helplessly hurtling toward a nothingness from which there could be no return.
To face the terror of annihilation is to take a giant step in spiritual growth. The cauldron journey is designed to reproduce that terror so you can face it. Your goal in the journey is to experience for yourself the sense being trapped in a black cauldron, a confined space where salvation from outside is impossible and everything in your world comes crashing into the cauldron behind you. You can’t leave because the walls are so steep and slippery no one can climb out. You yourself have set these conditions. You have agreed to invite everyone and everything you fear and hate into the cauldron with you and to stay with it all until transformation happens. Only then will you be allowed to let the experience of the cauldron dissolve around you and return to ordinary consciousness.
You’ll have to suspend belief the way you do when watching a scary movie. You won’t need to take an overdose of ether to put you into an altered state and whirl you down to oblivion. But you will get to face the fear and loathing that naturally goes along with being trapped inside a tight enclosure along with every awful, nasty, disgusting, thing you thought you had already “cleansed” yourself of, knowing you can’t escape until you accept them all, for in reality they are manifestations of your own energies.
These things about yourself you never wanted to accept became ugly only because you separated them from the harmony of the Whole. In the process of transforming them in the cauldron, you’ll come to understand that the Universe has room for everything and you can be in harmony with all of it. You don’t have to narrow your sense of identity down to only the small collection aspects and qualities you’ve judged as “good.”
You’ll feel a sense of relief as you realize you’re not a “bad person” after all when you allow yourself to recognize the existence of Everything-That-Is. You’ll feel the tension, stress, fear and loathing dissolve as you accept more and more of What Is into your awareness and find out it’s not as awful as you thought. At the least you’ll learn to be more compassionate toward yourself. At most, by practicing ways to accept everything that arises in your awareness, you’ll be taking a giant step toward Oneness with All-That-Is and feeling freer, more relieved and relaxed — a taste of Enlightenment itself.
You may remember the movie, “Dark Crystal.” What happens in the cauldron journey is similar to the scene at the end of the movie where the missing shard of the great crystal is restored and the ancient rivals, the cruel Skeksis and the gentle Mystics, merge with each other to become giant light beings. (See a short video “review” of movie here, explaining the symbology of the movie, including the scene where the rival Skeksis and Mystics unite.)
Instructions for the Journey
You may want to read over the following instructions and follow them from memory, or if you’d rather listen to a guided mediation, please listen to this recording:
Guided meditations have the advantage of keeping you focused and supplementing your memory of the steps. On the other hand, doing the Journey from memory allows you more freedom to take exactly the amount of time you need for each step.
Ask someone to drum for you or put on a half-hour recording of shamanic drumming (at a frequency of about 4-7 beats per second to promote an altered state of consciousness). Drumming CDs and MP3 files areavailable from The Foundation for Shamanic Studies.
Your job is to imagine yourself inside a cauldron with slippery sides. Once anything comes into the cauldron, it can't get out. And you're stuck in there with it. This journey can be uncomfortable, but very effective for integrating things we've rejected — our “shadow” parts. The things you’ll invite into the cauldron with you are things you don’t like in yourself and try hard to project onto the outside world, consisting of pretty much everything you’ve ever criticized someone else for.
Find a comfortable position, preferably lying down, and make the room dark or cover your eyes to exclude as much light as possible.
When you’re ready to begin, rattle to the six spatial directions, East, West, North and South, Sky and Earth, and the two directions of time, past and future. Ask for all spirits, deities, animals, angels and light beings, demons and ghosts, souls and soul parts to join you in the cauldron. Ask for the energies of all emotions to be there, and all thought-forms and patterns for all things, embodied or potential. Summon everything that exists in the Universe to the cauldron, especially all beings, things, thoughts, emotions, memories and situations, you fear and hate and have previously rejected and suppressed.
At any time while you’re in the cauldron, you can continue to invite more things and people to join you. You’ll find that any or person you think of, whether you like them and want them with you for comfort, or hate them, are automatically drawn into the cauldron when you think of them.
When something comes into the cauldron that you just can’t stand, that you hate and don’t want to be with, remember that it’s only ugly because it’s partial. Like the Mystics and the Skeksis in the Dark Crystal movie, it’s a fragment of the Whole, and it’s ugly only because it’s a fragment. Once it is united with the rest and takes its rightful place in the Whole, it becomes beautiful.
Even if something ugly in cauldron makes you so uncomfortable you to want to end the journey, stop and ask for an opposite or complementary energy, that can unite with the ugly thing and make it beautiful, to come into the cauldron and join with the ugly thing. Ask, “What does this ugly thing need to make it good?,” and call that energy into the cauldron. It might be in the form of a spirit or angelic being, or it could just as well be formless. Allow yourself to feel it and feel the transformation, which may resemble the scene in the Dark Crystal movie where the Mystics and Skeksis unite into one glorious being of light.
If at any time you find yourself getting bored and wanting to come out of the journey, just make yourself stay in.
If you find yourself outside the cauldron, get back inside and continue the process.
If you get paranoid and think some stranger has come into the room and you’re in danger, don’t believe it. Treat fears like this as projections. Feel the fear, ask for a balancing energy, watch the cause of your fear transform, and continue to BE WITH whatever joins you in the cauldron until the journey ends.
Take a few deep breaths and let them out.
Start the drumming.
Imagine yourself inside a deep, black cauldron. The sides are steep and slippery. Everything that comes into the caudron, including yourself and whatever you invite, is stuck there for good. It will never be able to get out.
Remember that anything you think of is automatically drawn into the cauldron with you. You have no way to keep anything out or put it out of the cauldron once you have thought of it.
This journey is good for dealing with thoughts, energies, emotions, memories, qualities, entities, objects, or situations. I’ll be calling them all “energies” because everything is energy, and energy has the ability to flow, merge with other energies, and transform.
Turn your attention to a particular person you have judged as “bad” and rejected as unworthy of being in the same space with you. Cup both hands, palm up, and imagine that person being small enough to fit into your left hand. Take a good long look at the person, visualizing them and allowing whatever feelings you have for them to arise in your body. The feelings may be fear, disgust, disdain, anger or combinations, or other unpleasant emotions. Whatever they are, just notice they’re there. Don’t try to suppress them.
Now, recognizing that the person you have a problem with is simply incomplete because they have been separated from the Universe as a Whole, ask the Universe, from its Wholeness, to send an energy (or being) into your right hand that can unite with the person on your left hand to supply what they lack and complete and bring them into Wholeness.
With your right hand containing this new energy, and your left hand containing the person you’ve judged and rejected, place your right hand over your left hand to create an enclosure containing both the person and the new energy, and ask that the energy merge into the person to supply whatever lack kept them from harmonizing with your energies.
You may feel heat or tingling, or a sense of movement between your hands as this happens.
When this feels complete, remove your right hand and sense the transformed energy of the person in your left hand. What does it feel like? Calmer? More harmonious? Do you have a visual impression of what’s here? It may not even look like a person any more. Do you feel comfortable releasing it into the space of the cauldron with you? If not, repeat the process, calling in more energy from the Universe to complement and transform the energy of the person in your left hand that you still consider unacceptable, allow the energies to merge into the person so as to supply whatever the person still needs to harmonize and become acceptable to you.
When you are satisfied that you can co-exist and, preferably love, the person in your left hand , let them go with your blessing.
Now turn your attention to another being, energy or situation you have previously suppressed and rejected, and repeat the process. It doesn’t have to be a person this time. It might be a memory of a time when something unpleasant happened. Put it in your left hand and let the situation play out there in your hand as though it were a tiny theater and you were watching from the balcony.
Welcome the unacceptable emotions that arise in your body as the scene plays out. Whatever they are, allow yourself to feel them fully.
Now, recognizing that the energies in your left hand have been ugly and unacceptable to you only because they are incomplete parts of the Whole Universe, ask the Universe, from its Wholeness, to send an energy or being into your right hand that can merge with the energies in your left hand to supply what they lack and complete and bring them into Wholeness.
Place your right hand over your left hand to create an enclosure containing both the unwanted energies in your left hand and the new, healing, energy you’ve called in from the Universe in your right hand, and allow them to flow into each other.
You may feel heat or tingling, or a sense of movement between your hands as the energies merge and transform.
Remove your right hand and sense the qualities of the transformed energies in your left hand. What do they feel like? Calmer? More harmonious? Do you have a visual impression of what’s there? Can you accept these transformed energies fully? Can you feel compassion and love for them? Are you comfortable sharing the space of the cauldron with them? If not ask for more, and more powerful, energies from the Universe to flow into your right hand and repeat the process of placing your hands together and letting the energies merge and transform until you’re willing to accept them.
Then let them go and keep repeating the process with more energies you have previously rejected or suppressed until the drumming stops. Or you may just relax into the presence of Everything in the cauldron, and ask for all those energies to naturally harmonize with each other and your energies, just the way people in an audience or meeting often do naturally. Watch and feel how the overall energy in the cauldron changes.
When it’s time to end the journey, thank all the entities who came to the cauldron to help you reclaim your shadow parts, and remember that you can always repeat this journey any time you like.
Know that you have reclaimed energies into your identity that you can use to improve your health and happiness in ordinary life, and that you are on your way to total Enlightenment, when you will again know yourself — your identity — as All-That-Is.
Take a moment to become aware of your body. Stretch, wiggle your toes and fingers, and breathe. Remember where you are in ordinary reality. Open your eyes.
Congratulate yourself on your courage and determination to experience this cauldron journey.
Take a few notes on what happened and what you learned.
If doing the journey in a group, share your experiences with each other.
If you would like to share your experiences with me, I’d love to hear about them. Feel free to send me an account of what happened at firstname.lastname@example.org.
_________________________________. As we follow his
1. See, e.g., Wilber, Ken, The Spectrum of Consciousness, 20th Anniversary Edition, 1993, Quest Books, Wheaton, Ill.; and A Brief History of Everything, 20th Anniversary Edition, 2017, Shambhala, Boulder, CO.
2. Full text of Thaddeus Golas, in The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment is available online here.
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