Don’t we all want to do that sometimes?
And isn’t it true that the thing we most want to escape from is our own self? The constantly blaming voice? The sense of being limited or trapped? The feeling that we are inadequate, not right or unworthy? The fear of the future? The regrets and anger at the past? The comparison to others? The resistance to what is going on around us, to the people who reject, criticise or demean us, to the boredom, frustration, exhaustion of just being who we are?
The suffering contained in that can be brutal.
No wonder we want to escape it.
No wonder that, in their book ‘Stealing Fire’, Kotler and Wheal estimated the industry of ‘shutting off the self’ to be worth $4 trillion a year.
The problem is that escaping and shutting off doesn’t work. Because other than a temporary respite, nothing has changed. There has been no shift in the fundamental (mis)understanding that keeps the activity of mind believed and therefore something that has to be escaped from or shut down.
The escapism takes the form of momentarily numbing the suffering while simultaneously maintaining the belief structure that gives rise to it.
And this temporary escapism with no change in understanding can be what happens when, we stumble across any teachings that involve looking at reality, thought, the self and other.
The mind is given a beautiful escape route… ‘There’s no self’ ‘There is no other’ ‘This isn’t real’. But instead of being transformational. It is just an impenetrable defence mechanism.
The idea that there is ‘no self’ is the ultimate (temporary) escape from the self.
The idea that there is ‘no other’ is the ultimate (temporary) escape from the other.
And because we have some clever words that can’t be argued with, our escapism feels very grand and righteous. Like a chateau. And as in those solidly built castles of old, the drawbridge can be pulled up anytime our identity is challenged or we feel exposed, vulnerable, fearful or shamed in any way.
There we are in our ivory tower, built of perfectly impenetrable spiritual words like oneness and love and infinite and absolute. Robustly preserved and defended in our isolation.
But it doesn’t take long before the castle, designed to keep the outside world at bay, becomes our prison. The drawbridge gets rusty. We have escaped to the ultimate chateau and it is no time at all before the suffering returns – often louder and more insistent than ever.
But luckily there are clear signs when spiritualism, non duality, the three principles or whatever understanding is used to escape and preserve suffering rather than to get closer to the truth. Here are a few:
1. Withdrawal instead of intimacy
Our identity is all about separation. Our sense of individual self is defined by being distinct from what is out there. Escapism is when the idea of ‘no self and no other’ is used as a means to create distance. I don’t have to listen to your criticism of me because you don’t exist. I don’t have to stay present to this feeling of rejection because there is no me.
But this is just withdrawal. It is an escape. It does nothing except preserve what we are trying to escape from. Like the family in the Bear Hunt book, we have to go through it. Reality is only revealed by going deeper in when the inclination is to withdraw. By moving towards what frightens or challenges us. This isn’t so that we can emerge with a more robust sense of self. It is because only intimacy with what is can reveal the actual truth… – that there really is nothing there.
2. Belief instead of learning
The transformation in a conversation about the self comes from the realisation that learning isn’t personal. There is no self orchestrating anything. Learning just occurs, conditioning just happens, beliefs are just embedded, patterns, habits and addictions arise because that behaviour makes sense given what is believed.
When all this is seen as personal, it can hardly even be looked at. The beliefs and their subsequent behaviour seem to be us. It looks like we wouldn’t exist without them.
As the idea that any of this is personal falls away, then, perhaps for the first time behaviour can be viewed without identification and defence. The foundation has shifted. In this fresh transparency, conditioning that no longer makes sense will fall away. Unlearning happens easily when there is no belief underpinning it. Learning happens easily when not driven by the confusion that this will secure the identity.
3. Change out there instead of change in here.
They look absolutely separate – the self and the world in which it exists – but they are made of the same conditioning, the same learning, the same perception, the same beliefs, the same understanding. There is no separation. They arise simultaneously and momentarily together.
This is why the only sane starting point must be, ‘What is true? Who am I? What is reality?’ . This enquiry brings us back here – to the beliefs that create the self and the world in that form. The only way the world can change is when the conditioning here changes. This is ultimate accountability. And ultimate possibility.