Nothing Personal

Michael McAlister Blog, Book: Awake in This Life Leave a Comment

As we come off the Mountain of Spirit, we recognize how little about us needs to be defended. This is because we have begun to build lives out of our realization of Emptiness. This Emptiness is the Source of everything. This Source, once again, is totally still and gives birth to all that moves. It is an eternal, unmoving Awareness that generates everything that evolves. It has no opinion about anything, no judgments, no beliefs, and no convictions. It is neither happy nor sad and is concerned with neither gain nor loss, neither praise nor blame, neither pleasure nor pain. These, after all, are personal concerns, and Emptiness has nothing to do with any of these things that we recognize as being personal. There is no I, you, we, or they associated with any part of Emptiness—and no mine, yours, ours, or theirs. Nor is there, oddly enough, anything missing from it. This Empty Source, this Spirit, is exactly beyond all form, and as such, it is beyond anything that can be confined.

This formlessness and boundlessness means that Emptiness is forever untouched by the constraints of everything that we could ever know as personal. How then, if we were truly grounded in the radically open Source of all things, would we ever interpret any comment or action as a personal affront? If we realize that the self isn’t a fixed entity but just an open expression of this Source, what would there be to defend? Imagine the freedom of knowing that there was never a need to take anything personally. Imagine the implications of Knowing that ultimately there is nothing to own, control, or possess; that everything is totally out of your hands.

Yet this realization also shows us that while everything is out of our hands, all we might ever need is within us. This may sound puzzling to the mind, but those returning from the Mountain forever Know its Truth. The realization of impersonal awareness arises spontaneously once we begin to study everything about our experience that is personal: our motives, our desires, our memories, our dreams, and our resistances, as expressed on the Stage of Mind. As we practice paying attention, all of these personal things are brought under an intense scrutiny, and the stillness uncovered by meditation integrates itself into our lives. Rather than our habitual place of reference being our personal unconsciousness acting on our mind-made stage, we can start with a stillness practice in order to orient each experience around our ability to watch things impersonally, especially our unconsciousness and fear. The same impersonal opening in us can be helpful as we meet our pain and suffering. Instead of allowing negativity to kick us around, the practice of stillness offers us a chance to become grounded in the conscious presence that can observe the negativity and yet remain forever free from it. The more we practice watching from the audience of our experience, the more this profound awareness shows up as an entirely new option for us, regardless of our state or situation.

But simply being able to recognize negativity does not mean that a person is enlightened. Although seeing one’s past and future creates a space for an open awareness to reveal itself, recognizing this isn’t the end of the journey. Rather, it’s the beginning. The clarity brought on by the continual study of all things personal, however, inevitably brings up questions surrounding the core of all to which we could ever cling. This is a natural process that each of us goes through as we mature over the developmental stages of life: we go past our childhood, for example, yet bring it along as we mature. In spiritual work, we go past the unconscious tendencies of the small self, yet we can bring the small self along in a supporting role as we evolve into a conscious expression of the Big Self.

Clarity points out that our attachment to the ego and everything it generates becomes increasingly unimportant. Clarity also shows us that our old ways of living begin to lack the seductive pull they once had. The old concepts and habitual pieces of psychological inertia can’t handle the Big Self that dutifully saps the small self’s attachments of their energy.

The great Zen master Eihei Dogen commented on this process of Awakening by saying, “[T]o study the self is to forget the self; and to forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.” Or, to use our earlier metaphor: the observation of the Stage of Mind offers an awareness from the perspective of the audience; and this observing awareness allows for us to be free from our attachments. Deep spiritual work is simply our study of the source of our awareness in order to let go of the concepts our ego has authored that prevent us from opening to the Truth beyond its grasp. So we might better describe the process by saying that the subjective or personal nature of our experience is released, or even forgotten.

None of this means that any of us has to disappear and fade away from participating in life. The dishes can still get washed, the lawn mowed, the party attended. We just do it without our deeply held habits of self-concern. Instead of our typical mode of operation dominating our experience, we open to something bigger that frees us. We notice that where the “I” is the subject, and the “me” is the object of our activity, an opening shows up that offers a place where nothing is bound by any habits of “my” sense of either time or the ego’s performance. With this release of identification with your past, your future, and your mental activity, there is a profound recognition that all things are simply one undivided whole and that you are nothing other than this infinite unity. What’s more, our meditation continually reminds us that the free expression of this deep singularity is only ever blocked by our unconscious attachments to the things that we think define us.

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