Anyone inquiring into the meaning and process of spiritual awakening undoubtedly encounters conflicting ideas about consciousness. Where does “I” come from and where does “I” reside? Western psychology and religion are deeply concerned with defining and preserving the Self as a separate and fixed entity with (or in) an eternal soul, while eastern religions deny any absolute reality of a separate identity. What’s a seeker to do?
When sitting to meditate, one of the first instructions we receive is to become aware of the living process. In some traditions, we are guided to bring attention to the breath and gradually to the physical sensations that come and go from moment to moment. We can dwell on these sensations for extended periods, but an essential practice of meditation is to focus on one thing while developing the capacity to notice everything else that arises in the background.
A second level of this process is to notice how—and how easily–our attention is distracted from the singular focus we started with. This noticing and the repeated return to the original point of attention is the development of presence. A third iteration of attention is to notice the different feelings that arise in the course of being distracted and returning to our original intention. Do we have judgments about ourselves for leaving? Do we have expectations about how we return and how long we ‘should’ be able to maintain the original state? Are we trying to achieve something?
A fourth iteration might be to ask who (or what) is the one meditating and who is the one presumably not meditating while being distracted. In asking these questions, one enters the territory of distinguishing between Self and Not-self, the psychological (ego) self and the (super-ego) witness. From here it’s a short linguistic shift in attention to a witness that is itself a non-entity. In fact, unwinding this thread of consciousness to its logical conclusion would require we investigate who is witnessing the witness, realizing that a further iteration of witness arises as soon as we establish an awareness of the immediate one. Tracing the witness all the way back to its origins is what, according to Robert Thurman, Buddha himself did on the way to his own awakening.
What is found when we go ever deeper into the layered constructs of cognitive awareness? Nothing? No self? In Buddhism, what is found at the root of the ever-elusive identification of the witness, is emptiness. Emptiness completely undermines any notion that there’s objective existence of anything. The appearance of everything is dependent on something else, a precedent. When investigating the existence of the precedent, one inevitably realizes there is no single independent source of anything.
We also create otherness internally in relation to “self” when we identify with unworthiness. We are also confused about who or what is the Self—is it a container of all the internal voices we may hear at any given moment? Is it a core truth, an identity around which all these voices orbit incessantly? If the former, then who is the witness, the part to whom critics address their assessment, their directives and imperatives? If the latter, then what is their true role and value?
God is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.
—The Book of the Twenty-four Philosophers (12thC)
Reducing the complexity of the human psyche to a bit of spiritual geometry casts some light on the concept of Self, defined by behavioral therapy, which, unlike an entity with no fixed center and no boundary, implies a more actively engaged and focused energy. Self has been described as the equivalent of ‘flow,’ a ‘sense of deep concentration without distracting thought, a lack of concern with reward; confidence, mastery and well-being.’ Sounds just like being embodied in the moment.
The term “self-leadership,” carries connotations of action, forethought and calculation. But wait. Wasn’t self just described as being completely in the moment, merging with phenomena without analytical preconception–or planning? What does the term “leadership” mean? Is the self still? Is it in motion? Is it an expansive boundary-less playful state of mindfulness? Or is it a kind of executive identifying and bringing various voices and intentions to heel, establishing and re-drawing its boundaries to expand its domain of influence, micro-surgically distinguishing itself from the masks of persistent sub-personalities?
What is the source of its energies? Is it a still point distinct from the surrounding disharmony? Or is it a primary organizing principle–a magnetic north, for a being negotiating its way through Being? Is it even distinct from “I” at all? These questions are addressed by suggesting it is not a matter of determining whether self is an active center or an expansive, more passive presence. Like light, self is neither wave nor particle, but both, or either one, like the famous double-slit experiment of 1801, depending on who is looking and when, constantly transmuting from one to the other depending on the conditions of the moment.
According to Coleman Barks, the Arabic words fanaa and baqaa are used by Sufis to describe the intersection of the human with the divine, a ‘constant and profound interplay full of paradox and movement, breathing in and out of every soul.’ These are seemingly opposing forces; or perhaps more accurately, the yin and yang of consciousness, the particle and wave of light; forces influencing our sense of connection to ourselves, to each other and all that is.
Fanaa is the impulse to surrender, allowing oneself to become ‘annihilated, as if disintegrating into a vast magnificent sky, dying in order to become one with the infinite.’ Not unlike non-dual presence, the extinction of self, fanaa is the ultimate expansion, the dissolution of every boundary, every circumference. Mind-lessness. Paradoxically, this is also the highest form of concentration at the pinnacle of Buddhist ati-yoga, The Great Perfection itself. This is the ultimate devotion, realizing the truth of emptiness.
Baqaa, on the other hand, literally means permanency or embodiment. Perhaps the word discipline more precisely approaches its practical expression; the intention to be here, as opposed to being everywhere else but here. Not dissolving or shrinking from the mundane, but exploring its deepest nature, focusing one’s energies completely in the service of being exactly what we are. ‘Baqaa is the relative truth of appearance, the undeniable materiality of existence. Instead of melting into that whole sky, one aspires to nothing more than becoming one of the stars in it, experiencing the nature of one’s unique place in the sky’ or one’s place here on earth.
True baqaa is also the fruit of a lifetime of devotion. This is where the attributes of self fully rise in dignity and durability. This is the self of Richard Schwartz’s familiar C-words of Internal Family Systems (confidence, creativity, calm, curiosity, compassion, clarity, confidence, courage) the self that becomes a mirror of clarity and purpose in every act, connected to and relating from its own ever evolving essence. Baqaa is the realization and containment of a refined skill. The pinnacle of progress on the incremental spiritual path.
The more discipline we exercise in discovering self and the more time we spend there, the closer we come to the invitations of fanaa, the ability to rest in our own essence, and increasingly to connect to the essence in others as well. And even beyond that, to the essence of all that is. Full realization.
We become, as Barks says, “the dreamer streaming into the loving nowhere of night.” This Self, the one that can live simultaneously in both fanaa and baqaa, is the self that is both particle and wave, both completely here and simultaneously nowhere, constantly transmuting appearance and emptiness into a continuously shifting torus of space. At the pinnacle of Tibetan ati-yoga practice, this is The Great Perfection, living beyond both samsara and nirvana, dissolving the Two Truths into One. This is not a Self that cannot be found, merely one which is not fixed, which cannot be pinned to either the relative or absolute. More by choice than by accident, one flows back and forth, as Barks puts it, between “visionary radiance” and the “level calm of ordinary sight.”
These are the terms of awakening arising from the Sufi mystical tradition of Islam. This is the imperative of evolving spirituality, to realize the unity of Buddhism’s Two Truths, to be here and everywhere at all times, to simultaneously be emptiness and embodiment, to live in single-pointed awareness/aliveness within vast and timeless space, or at least available to transmute one’s capacities to the requirements of the moment, to seek both refuge in the specific and in the general, to slip the bondage, delusion and suffering of dualistic mind…and to live from a bottomless and source-less joy at any moment.