By Adam J. Pearson
Questioner: How do I become free from anger?
Adam: This is a great question and the answer may not be what you expect.1 Turn your attention to the feeling of being the “me” who seems to have anger one moment and lose it the next. The feeling of being bound to anger stems, not from the anger itself, but from the sense of being the have-er of it. Both the sense of having and the sense of losing refer to the “me,” the sense of being a separate self that is bound by time and the changing conditions of the world. If you look into the matter directly, you can come to discover that the sense of “me” is simply a pattern of thoughts about “I,” “me” and “mine,” the product of a mental process in the brain.
The mental process creates the illusion that we are a thought-bound and feeling-bound self that is assumed to exist behind the thoughts and feelings. When we try to find this imaginary self, however, we find that it cannot be found; there’s no thinker beyond the thoughts of “me,” only the thoughts; no feeler, only the feelings. This sense of “me” is fleeting, impermanent, contingent, and empty of any solidity or independent existence altogether; in fact, it is an expression of emptiness itself. There’s no lasting freedom for the “me” because it identifies itself as being caught in the dualistic pendulum swings between having and losing, becoming this and ceasing to be that.
However, there is a deeper sense of freedom that is not the result of any process or change. This is the Open Secret, that’s so obvious that we miss it; lasting–in fact timeless!–freedom is prior to the sense of “becoming bound” and “becoming free” from anger or anything else, not after it. This is an essential point.
In the genesis of the feeling of being bound, the freedom that you are comes first and then the mind’s stories of “I am bound” and “I have been freed” arise. Freedom is primary, not subsequent, to bondage. And in fact, even when the sense of being bound arises due to the feeling of being identified as a separate self, that bondage is itself seen from the freedom of what you really are, which could never fall into bondage. The feeling of being bound unfolds and is witnessed in the boundlessness that you are.
The mind concocts a story that it can “do, have, and become” its way into freedom. In truth, though, the freedom that we are cannot be obtained or produced for or through or by means of becoming. In contrast, it’s freedom from and beyond becoming. Freedom from becoming is realizing that you have never been in the pendulum swings of becoming in the first place; you’ve only ever watched its swings from prior to and beyond them.
Find out what you are beyond the swings of becoming by attending to the aware spaciousness that you are seeing the becomings from, the luminous emptiness that is awake to this moment. Freedom is neither something you have, nor something you become, but something you are.
To return to the case of anger, anger can seem like a serious problem when we see it as “my” anger that “I need to get rid of.” What you can come to discover through discernment is that the heaviness that the anger seems to have isn’t in the anger itself; it’s in the “my.” See what happens if you shift attention from the anger back to the “my.” Investigate that “my” very carefully and you may find there is no “me” beyond the thoughts of “me,” no “my anger,” only anger. Anger is empty of a “me” to which it can belong and itself an expression of emptiness. Anger unclaimed simply flows through; “my” is the sticking point and there is no “me,” no long-lasting, separate “self” that it can stick to. Look and see.
Questioner: Does our true nature go through stages?
Adam: The body-mind can indeed pass through all kinds of stages of development: cognitive, physical, maturational, values-based (ie. Spiral Dynamics), moral, emotional, meditative, social, and so on. When we inquire into the nature of the body-mind, however, we find that all of the components that make it up are impermanent, fleeting, depend on other things beyond themselves for their existence, and are empty of any lasting sense of a separate ‘self.’
They are expressions of the emptiness from which they arise and to which they return; even when they appear, they are emptiness. No solid “me” can be found in any of them; what you truly are is free from even the need to become freed. You cannot become either bound or freed; you can only believe you can. Your nature is freedom itself, freedom beyond becoming this or that.
There is a deeper ‘dimension’ to what we are that lies beyond all of the polarities of apparent opposites, all of the swingings of becoming from one state to another, and beyond all that can be perceived, thought, felt, conceived, sensed, and experienced as an object of experience. That is what we mean when we point to the freedom beyond becoming, the freedom that we are; everything in the body-mind is subject to change, but this deeper ‘dimensionless dimension’ is not. Zen Master Bankei called it the Unborn. Nisargadatta Maharaj called it the Absolute. Yang-shan Hui-chi called it the Source. St. John of the Cross called it the Center. Rumi sometimes called it the Boundless and Ramana Maharshi, the Limitless.
The names are not important. Let’s drop them all and point this vibrant No-thing directly in ordinary language. It’s nothing esoteric. It does not need to be produced, obtained, achieved, or uncovered; every single experience we have ever had has unfolded within it and arisen out of the emptiness of its infinite potentiality. It is your own nature, so it can’t be hard to find; indeed, it’s right here where we’re seeing from, luminously awake to this moment. Nothing that arises in feeling, thought, sensation, perception, remembrance, or imagining is separate from it.
As Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his translation of the classic Buddhist Heart Sutra,
this Body itself is Emptiness
and Emptiness itself is this Body.
This Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.
The same is true of Feelings,
Perceptions, Mental Formations,
all phenomena bear the mark of Emptiness;
their true nature is the nature of
no Birth, no Death,
no Being, no Non-being,
no Defilement, no Purity,
no Increasing no Decreasing.
What you are is just like this, beyond birth and death, becoming and stagnation, form and formlessness, being and non-being, increasing and decreasing. What in you cannot be seen, conceived, felt, tasted, touched, heard, imagined, or remembered? Find that out. That’s where the freedom of your Emptiness lies.
Questioner: How do I become more peaceful?
Adam: Haha! You can’t become anything. Period. Of course, all of the contents of the body, the mind, and the world of perception, thought, feeling, and sensation that you experience are constantly changing and becoming. Because their nature is emptiness, they have infinite potential to become and change form into new things. What we are pointing to here, however, what you are beyond being and non-being, is prior to that realm of becoming, not bound up in it.
This freedom that you are never becomes anything else; it never changes from one state to another. It’s the sole underlying constant amidst all of the body-mind’s shifting states and experiences. Without changing or becoming, what you are illuminates all of the seeming changes and becomings; the light of your awareness never fades, dims, diminishes, or increases. It truly is, as Jesus said, “the Light of the World.” As Paul Hedderman Points out, it is not the product of a path of illumination; it illuminates all paths.
Moreover, only what you’re not defined by can change states and become different: thoughts, feelings, sensations, perceptions, appearances, and fleeting states of every kind. What you are is not distant; it is always present and accessible at all times with no effort necessary to reach it. It’s simpler than it seems because what you’re not is seen from what you are.
Know that everything that becomes, changes, or appears only to disappear cannot bind or define you; all of the forms that arise, abide, and subside appear to and within you; what we are pointing to here never arises or subsides, has no boundaries, and is prior to all states of becoming and qualities of every kind.
Your true nature never appears. Period. If you can point to something, name it, or define its qualities, that’s not it. It is beyond form, name, and all conceptualization. None of these or any other words can encompass what you are; they can only gesture towards it like a child pointing at the Sun.
So, let’s return to your question about how you can become peaceful. The question presupposes that you can become unpeaceful now, but anything that changes states can’t define you. All of the changing, impermanent states are empty of you and your emptiness contains them all. In reality, what you fundamentally are has never been ‘unpeaceful;’ all seeming conflicts and disturbances are phenomena that arise, change, and appear only to disappear. They come and go, so they have no lasting reality; what you are is beyond coming and going, arising and subsiding, becoming and stagnation. A temporary state of peace that can be gained and, therefore, lost is not worth having and indeeed, you are beyond both having and becoming. The mind will try to convince you that you are defined by both, but it’s simply not true.
You can discover the truth of what you are for yourself by investigating all you seem to be and think you are. True peace is prior to the shifting states and pendulum swings. You don’t get it or become it; you are it. Discern everything that you are not, negate everything that can be negated, drop everything that can be dropped, empty everything that can be emptied, even your concept of emptiness itself. Find out what alone cannot be dropped, negated, or rejected. That alone is worthy of you.
If it can be perceived, felt, thought, remembered, imagined, or conceived, it’s not what you fundamentally are. See the nature of each such thing as being empty of you, impermanent, fleeting, and contingent. Ask yourself “to whom do these thoughts arise? What sees this sight? What hears this sound? What’s awake to this moment?” And then instead of answering with a thought, look directly. Turn your attention back to the source of your seeing, to where you are seeing from. Again and again. As often as it occurs to you to do so.
Beyond becoming, you are. Get clear on what is beyond becoming, being and non-being, prior even to consciousness and the sense that “I am.” You can’t know what you are in this most fundamental of senses; you can only intimate what you are from what you’re not. Focus on clarifying what you’re not, and gradually the peace that you are beyond change, time, and transitory states will be intimated to you. What you are cannot be gained, and so it can also never be lost; that’s true freedom. Seeing it is being it; and that is the peace beyond gaining and losing.
- Of course, if a serious anger management issue is wreaking havoc in your life, that can be addressed through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), anger management training, and other therapeutic approaches. Those possibilities should definitely be explored if chronic, destructive anger is a serious and long-lasting issue in your experience. The truth has many levels to it and discernment invites us to realize which is best for a given situation. Spiritual inquiry has its place, but so does psychology. It’s hard to inquire into the nature of the self when you feel like you’re on fire. First, tend to the flames. Then inquire.
Part of a series on Nonduality:
For a fantastic explanation of the meaning of Emptiness in this context, see this wonderful video by the lucid Dzogchen teacher and translator of Tibetan Buddhist texts, James Low: