I AM THAT’ as Mental Identity

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Painting: Tsong-kha-pa, Nicholas Roerich

“I am consciousness” or “I am awareness” are often emphasized in the nondual teachings, as nouns. Like a trophy you win, you are considered awakened if you realize that you are THAT. Although the words seem to point to some sort of impersonal recognition of Oneness, they easily have the effect of creating a sense of separation when they become owned by a person in any way.

That kind of stance has at least the possibility of becoming another mental identity, where being freshly aware in each moment, is no longer valued. Instead, taking the stance of “I AM THAT” becomes important, as if there is a person behind the statement that has arrived. Any time we say “I am THAT” are we not speaking of the past, just as someone who called himself a victim would be speaking of the past? You are THAT? What are you? Notice that you can never answer the question without placing a noun there and all nouns are of the past. This is how thought usurps some sort of impersonal recognition and makes it about the person speaking it.

But simply being conscious or aware, like a verb, allows a fresh look in each moment, without needing to identify with past nouns. When we are all looking freshly, we are on equal ground. No one is claiming enlightenment. It is no longer necessary. We are all merely investigating our present experience as it appears anew in the moment. I have met individuals through the years who are very aware moment by moment.  By most accounts, they would be deemed “awakened.” However, far from speaking from a mountaintop or proclaiming anything for themselves, they displayed, instead, a loving, compassionate way of being open to investigating anything they believed, even about their own teachings or their own viewpoints. 

Identifying with these nouns is fraught with several pitfalls. For example, believing that we have attained anything or have somehow taken out insurance against all future suffering comes back to haunt us in the next moment when an old pattern of suffering re-emerges. The newly-arising suffering feels like a regression only because we have tried to conceptualize our experience as “done” or “fully realized.” Taking the mental stance that “you are consciousness” can feel very privileged and divisive to those around us also, as if we speak from a mountaintop or have more value than our friends or neighbors who haven’t realized that they are consciousness. How is this different than valuing ourselves better than other people based on material wealth or social status? It creates division, no matter how we slice it. It creates a culture of haves versus have nots, which is the very antithesis of awakening, which—according to most traditions—is all about not buying into such separation. This kind of religious or spiritual, ego-based superiority is the cause of untold suffering throughout human history, from the random Facebook debate about who is enlightened and who is not, to the planes flown into large buildings based on “superior” religious ideas. I’m not proposing the eradication of differences. Uniqueness can still be celebrated. But this is a question of identity. Are we REALLY these words that we say we are?

Do you want a trophy symbolizing some past recognition, a way of dividing yourself off from other people or do you want to live life aware freshly in each moment?

I ask that question not to judge or pick on anyone or any teaching, but rather to invite a change in the conversation around consciousness. Consider this not a view from a mountaintop but more like a conversation starter. The words “consciousness,” “awareness,” and “Oneness” appear to point to something prior to language or to a nonconceptual realization. They appear to wrap reality up into one final statement. But when we speak these concepts, we find ourselves already caught in the web of language.  And language is something important only to a self.  Selves defend their own language, to the exclusion of other languages.  In our modern era, we now have many languages and world views online for us (for example, science, psychology, various philosophies and spiritual/religious traditions) that were previously unknown or undeveloped on the world’s stage.  In short, the world can be seen to be made of many views. The more we wall ourselves off into our own view and defend it against anything that speaks differently, the more we strengthen and maintain a self around the view. We become defenders of views rather than awake to the many views of the world. We become fixed in our stance rather than open to investigating beyond what we already think we know. The phrase “I am awareness” is not, in and of itself, problematic. It becomes problematic when it is used as a stance taken against everything else. It becomes divisive, even as it proclaims to point beyond separation. It becomes the past, unable to see something freshly in the moment. 

Don’t we owe it to ourselves to redefine these teachings, to turn away from old definitions that no longer work in our modern era?
….To stop having to decide whether we are seekers or finders and just be open in each moment to look again?

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