If you have ever formally studied ancient Greek philosophy or picked up a copy of Plato’s Republic, you might be familiar with what is perhaps one of the most perceptive and influential concepts introduced to humanity to date.
In this narrative, Plato used the metaphor of a subterranean cave to describe a horde of prisoners.
These unfortunate beings were, from birth, cloistered from the outside world and tethered to chains, which greatly restricted their movements. Forced indefinitely to face a blank wall, the only bit of illumination they had was a dimly lit fire behind them. On occasion, people would walk behind the prisoners carrying objects that cast a display of shadows on the cave wall.
Having had no former contact with society and therefore no point of reference, the men assumed the shadowy figures to be tangible entities, and out of sheer ignorance, assigned them names.
Miraculously, one of these prisoners managed to unbind himself and venture into what was, to him, a queer and unfamiliar metropolis. As he pried his way out of the darkness and veered into the sunlight, something dawned on him. He realized that the shadows he had seen in the cave were merely an illusion.
As he began to explore the external world, little by little, he adjusted to this new manifested reality before and all around him, and after some time, made his way back to enlighten his former inmates.
Upon doing so, however, they sharply accused him of being delusional and uncompromisingly disregarded his accounts, preferring instead to cling to their own archaic beliefs, however ill-founded or short-sighted.
What Plato illustrated has far-reaching and profound philosophical implications. It suggests that as a species, for most if not all of our life, we are just like those prisoners chained and shackled to a wall, transfixed by our own erroneous albeit persistent belief systems, which we mistake for reality. We neither venture out to see the life from a different perspective nor even stop to consider that we could be distorting the fundamental nature of things.
Well, folks, as lofty or jagged as this may seem to you, my reader, I must make a bold confession.
Are you ready for it?
I am that prisoner who has unleashed herself from those metaphorical shackles and is finally making her way out of that subterranean cave.
This by no means implies that I am in any way special, and truthfully, this is not an intellectual endeavour aided by hours upon hours of intense study and contemplation, however worthy, noble, and fascinating those things are.
On the contrary, the kind of wisdom I am speaking of cannot be found in the realm of thought, for thought is what masks and distorts the truth as we know it, just like the shadows the prisoners assumed to represent objective reality.
For the past year and a half, I have been undergoing a profound metamorphosis, if you will. While on the periphery, little to nothing has changed, my inner lens has broadened and become more clear. A great shift from identifying as the limited, finite self to the perspective of unity-consciousness and, quite paradoxically, to no-self as we know it, has taken place.
In short, the personal self as I once knew her is being dragged face down, kicking and screaming, across the ward as the light of awareness slowly dissolves what is left of her feeble figure. This is traditionally known in ancient Zen traditions as “ego-death,” or as I prefer to call it—and perhaps more realistically-speaking—ego-integration.
But what exactly is ego-death and what is the ego itself, in the way you mention it, you may ask? Well, dear reader, the ego, although really nothing more than the dream inside of the mind of the one who sleeps, is somewhat like what Sigmund Freud referred to as the “id,” or what could more accurately be called the “entity-of-identity.” It is that sense of a “me” or “I am (this or that)” that gives rise to the illusion of a separate and deeply personal self that is created by none other than thought alone. It allows one to declare, with assurance, “I am white or Black, American or European,” and so on, and thus divides the world and its inhabitants into sheep and goats.
More insidiously, perhaps, it creates a myriad of perceived barriers and divisions on a collective scale of mass proportions and innumerable consequences, whilst on an individual scale, makes one feel either superior or inferior, empty or fulfilled, and therefore act in the world according to that programming.
It is, for better or worse, what drives the human machine from the cradle to the grave.
In fact, anything you strongly identify with, which includes physical appearance, mental abilities, personal preferences, history, or background, and so on, is part of your ego-identity, and is therefore who and what you think you are.
From there, the sense of “me” or “us” versus “them” or of “man” versus “nature” is born and duality becomes not only possible but irrefutable from a seemingly individual perspective.
In Lao Tzu’s classic manual for living, the Tao Te Ching, it is stated:
“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery” (Ch. 1, page 3, Tao Te Ching, as translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English)
Similarly, in the Shvetashvatera Upanishad, which is a part of one of the oldest texts of India, it is said:
“God (Brahman) who is one only, is hidden in all beings. He is all-pervading, and is the inner self of all creatures. He presides over all actions, and all beings reside in Him.”
The ancient mystics, saints, and sages, I firmly believe, were much closer to understanding the ultimate truth of all of existence than we are today, especially here in the Western world, where profit, productivity, industry, comfort, security, and gain are prized and prioritized over the wisdom of the ages.
In my humble perspective, all faiths are merely a pointing to what the famous British author and novelist Aldous Huxley terms “the perennial philosophy,” which suggests that all religions are united by a human yearning to know what the ancient Sufi mystics referred to as “the Beloved” or “the Divine.”
However, as much as we may wish to understand Source, it is ultimately unknowable to the human mind: it is, after all, the great mystery, and is indeed, the origin of all seemingly distinct things.
So, given this perspective, can we rightfully and with any real clarity conclude that duality does not exist anywhere but in the human mind?
I will tell you this: before you attempt to answer this question using the mind, look somewhere even deeper: look inside yourself.
Then, step outside and gaze at the vast sky, whilst ignoring the incessant mental commentary and chatter. I ask you this: who is looking? The answer is not “I, me, the person, is looking.” No. Consciousness, which is inherently non-dualistic, is peering through the telescope you call your eyes.
Without consciousness, as Eckhart Tolle states in his book, Stillness Speaks, “there would be no thoughts, no perception, no world. You are that awareness disguised as a person.” (Stillness Speaks, Ch.1, page 4)
Indeed, consciousness is the force within all beings and behind all apparently separate phenomena. It is the breath within the breath, the life within the life. We need only be still enough to recognize that which we are. As in the words of Jesus, “Be still and know (that I am God).”
Coming to this realization has not been easy for the personal self I call “me,” who believes that she has been the mover and shaker all her life, who in fact believes she (the mind, or ego) is life itself.
In fact, ego-death while ultimately liberating has felt to the “me” like a jarring experience in some respects.
From the age of 13 or 14 onward, my mind has grappled, consciously and acutely, with a fear of death.
I can remember, for instance, walking out of my science class in ninth grade wondering if anything we perceived was even ultimately real, or whether we were all just dreaming whilst claiming to be alive and wide awake. Unfortunately, at the time, instead of liberating me, this thought frightened me, and I began to experience a regular series of anxiety attacks, which resulted in me not wanting to go to school from anywhere to a few weeks or a couple of months.
Each time I had a panic episode, which manifested as heart palpitations, shallow breath, and an impending sense of doom, I became scared that I would collapse or die, and that the world as I knew it from my own limited perspective would also turn upside down.
I questioned whether or not an “afterlife” even existed, and even if it did, I insisted, why would I want to stop thinking or being in a physical body? Why, in other words, would I want to just as suddenly cease to exist?
Those were the concerns that plagued my young mind and would sometimes persist off and on into early adulthood.
Now, several years later, here I am on a forced awakening path, confronting death in a multitude of ways and forms.
Everything I’ve come to understand up to this point in my journey has clearly been seen for what it is: a figment of thought in the mind of the dream character I call “me.” Everything I’ve been striving for that was not imbued with truth or love has been receding, slowly, into the background, or downright numbed out.
People and situations have subtly or not-so-gently resonated out of my life situation—sometimes painfully so—and the person I believed myself to be has been acknowledged as a byproduct and result of memories, familial and cultural conditioning, assumptions, erroneous or limited perceptions, and so on.
Essentially, I am climbing out of the matrix, undoing and leaving behind all of the various habits and belief systems I’ve accumulated over decades alongside coming closer and closer to the unshakable yet paradoxical realization that there is, in fact, no one there to undo or leave behind anything at all.
Talk about daunting to the finite self, the ego-mind.
However, despite all the seeming trials and tribulations on this so-called path, the dawn of awakening remains too bright for the clouds of limited perception to cover up, and like the birds, the truth sings to me, rousing me out of my dead sleep, day after day, to join the living in a joyous and spontaneous dance.
This is the truth that sets me free from the prison I call “me,” and through it, liberation is seen in the only time there ever is: right here, and right now.