The spiritual journey is a movement away from over-identification with the body and mind to the rediscovery of our true identity as infinite Being, and this can be two different movements.
The first is dis-identification with the body and mind. Since identification is simply a movement of thought, dis-identification is simply a movement away from thought. The ego identification that we experience most of the time is the result of repeated thoughts about “I”, “me,” and “mine.” That is all there is to it, but while we are thinking these thoughts the sense of self is contained in them. And since most of our self-referencing thoughts are about our body, our thoughts, our feelings, and our desires, the sense of self is usually contained in the body and mind.
Dis-identification from the thought form of the ego can occur whenever there is a deep questioning of the assumption in most of our thoughts that we are this body and this mind. Inquiry using the question, Who am I? can naturally weaken the assumption that I am the body and the mind. In fact, any deep questioning of our thoughts and assumptions can loosen our over-identification with thought, since so many of them are not very true. Experiences of no thought can also weaken the identification because in the absence of thought, there is an absence of identification. We all experience this when we get so caught up in what we are doing that we completely “forget ourselves.”
Alternatively, directly sensing the presence that is aware of the thoughts can also dis-entangle the tendency to identify with the thoughts. The second movement of the spiritual journey is this recognition, or realization, of your true nature as presence or limitless empty awareness. It is a wonderful surprise to discover that everything that really matters in life, including peace, joy, and love, is found in this empty awareness. This emptiness is incredibly full and rich. It has intelligence and strength and compassion. Whenever we experience a deeper quality of Being such as clarity, peace, insight, value, happiness or love, it is coming from this spacious presence…
The surprising thing is that while these two movements can occur simultaneously, they can also happen apart from each other. When this happens, the movement from ego identification to our essential nature is not complete. For example, you can question deeply your own thoughts until the false assumptions in them are seen through. The over-identification that results from constantly thinking about me and mine and my body and my problems can’t survive closer examination. It can be a shock to see how completely we assume that I am this body and I am this mind, and an even bigger shock and relief to discover that it is just a thought, and it is not true. The identification is really just a thought. There is no actual equivalence between you and your body or your mind. You are that which experiences the body and the mind, but you are not contained in them.
Even though this is a profound insight and a huge relief (after all if I am not my body, then these are not my aches and pains; and if I am not my mind, then these are not my problems), by itself this insight only reveals the false assumptions. It does not reveal the underlying truth. And since the underlying truth of your nature is more of a heart-centered experience, it is possible to dissolve the ego without touching your true nature. In a sense, you can wake up in your mind, but not in your heart.
When this happens, there is both the sense of relief from all of the grief caused by the over-identification with the body and mind, and often a deep sense of meaninglessness. If “I” don’t exist, then what is the point? It doesn’t matter anymore what the fictional “I” does or what happens to it. In fact, nothing matters at all because it is so clearly all an illusion.
When seekers are led or just find their own way to a deep experience of no-self, they can then form a new more subtle belief that this absence of self is all there is. “I am not my body, I am not my mind, I do not exist” are seen as the final conclusions. From a purely logical perspective, what more is there to say, since there is no one here to say it or hear it! And while these conclusions are true, they are not the whole truth.
Underlying all of the activity of the mind is the non-conceptual reality of Being, or our true nature. Underlying the concept of apple, one can experience the reality of a sweet, red piece of fruit. However it is more subtle when it comes to our true nature, because the reality underlying our false identification with the ego is not physical. It is a pure empty aware space that is full of the subtle substance of presence in all of its essential forms: peace, joy, love, clarity, strength, value, and much more.
How can that be-empty space that is full of everything that matters? The mind cannot grasp it fully, as presence exists beyond concepts and even beyond its own forms; and yet, that is what you are. You can experience it with more subtle senses than the physical senses and the mind. Ultimately, you “sense” it by being it. You just are this full empty presence.
It is this second movement of realization of essence, presence, and fullness of Being that counteracts the belief that since I (as ego) do not exist, therefore nothing exists and all is illusion. It gives a heartfelt sense of meaning and purpose back to this relative life of the body and mind, not as a means of gratification to your idea of yourself, but as a pure expression of the wonder and beauty of this deeper reality. Instead of living a life in service to the ego’s wants and needs, you can find yourself fulfilling the deepest purposes of a human life: to serve and express freedom, joy, beauty, peace and love. By itself the realization of no-self can end up dry and lifeless, but when the heart opens wide to the bigger truth of the true Self, life is anything but dry and lifeless.