The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.
— Hsin Hsin Ming
“I don’t want to,” I said aloud recently and received the reflection that “I don’t want to” is always ego. I could feel the frisson of rebellion unfurl within. Is it, always? What about that sensation, deep in the pit of one’s being that is crying out against a particular direction? Is it really perpetuating karma to follow that cry, especially when “the right-good-person thing to do” would signal the opposite choice? How does one know if one’s choice is moving the wheel of karma towards suffering or away from it?
The frustrating answer to that last question is that one doesn’t know. The sub-text teaching in the answer is really that “knowing” is not the point! Knowledge is always in the realm of content and therefore within conditioned mind; transcendence is in “not knowing.” Another way this guidance is offered in practice is that it’s never about the content, it’s always about the process.
Guidance that does not offer clarity of action is always confusing to ego. But when Practice says “It’s not content, it’s process,” we are being told something very specific. The spiritual next step being suggested is “Stop trying to resolve the duality. Drop the conversation. Disidentify from conditioned mind. Get HERE.”
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive that to be.
— Max Ehrmann
When caught in a dualistic debate over a choice, we’re deeply conditioned to believe that once the content is resolved, i.e., the right choice is made, we will be happy. This belief simply perpetuates a conditional notion of happiness—that happiness is bestowed because of the outcome of a choice. This orientation of conditionality obscures the reality that “my” having a choice is really a misconception. In fact, spiritually speaking, not only is having a choice an erroneous belief, the very idea of “me” is a delusion.
Deeply identified with ego-I, it’s hard to accept that my experience of physical sensations, emotional distress, and mental conflict is “made up.” But that acceptance is precisely the opportunity that a crossroad in life presents. A duality then is an opportunity to transcend egocentricity, the illusion of a self separate from life. It’s never about choice x or choice y. It’s always a stepping back into the willingness to accept either outcome and in that process seeing and letting go desire, fear, and attachment. Transcending duality is arriving, however painfully, at the peace of “thy will be done,” or more accurately, arriving at the realization that there is no “my” or “thy” will. There simply is how it is.
Devoted to me,
keep your mind intent on me,
and sacrifice to me.
In this way, you will
truly come to me,
for you are my beloved.
— Bhagavad Gita
Submission to Life’s terms, or self-surrender, is an ancient training modality in spiritual practice. In theistic traditions, the practice is to surrender to something beyond “me” labeled God or Divinity. This presupposes a separation between Divinity and “me,” but the “untruth” of that distinction, at least in all contemplative practices, is simply a convenient device, one that supports the dissolution of itself, the untruth of separation, in the repeated choice for “always other than me.”
The word surrender somehow connotes loss—self-surrender the loss of identity. Intellectually, the spiritual practitioner understands its necessity, is even willing for the process, but the struggle in overcoming the ego can be chalked up by ego as a mark against Divinity. This is perhaps why in some traditions self-surrender is framed within the context of Love. In Hinduism, for example, surrender is referred to by a unique word, bhakti, which roughly translates as devotion. What is promised to the practitioner, the devotee, is a Love beyond human conception in return for faith in Divinity. If submission of the “self” is done with love, in love, for the sake of the Beloved, how can surrender connote loss? The power of love as a motivator of choice has already moved one out of egocentricity, for Love doesn’t exist in the realm of ego. In fact, after repeated acts of worship, adoration, and trust, it begins to dawn in the light of awareness where all that Love springs from!
The equivalent in our practice to self-surrender is the process of getting guidance. Often, getting guidance (asking or receiving) translates into soliciting some input on content that is creating suffering. But in reality it is a practice of submission. Getting guidance is signaling the willingness to cede ego’s control in a particular circumstance and voluntarily submitting to letting go “my” choice, my preference, my desire, to the Practice, the teacher, to that which holds my heart. Ego always bristles against guidance because guidance, at a process level, is meant to thwart ego. To maintain itself, ego will oppose the guidance, often creating an epic crucible of suffering. The price of guidance is the pain of an ego death and the benefit is the increasing equanimity of facing the reality that control, and therefore “I,” is an illusion.
It is enough that one surrenders oneself. Surrender is to give oneself up to the original cause of one’s being. Do not delude yourself by imagining such a source to be some God outside you. One’s source is within oneself. Give yourself up to it.
— Ramana Maharshi
If we practice choosing life, choosing God, surrendering ego with love, we learn that a sense of well-being is not conditional. Something survives the disappointment, resentment, unhappiness of circumstances going against what I want or I do not want. Increasingly it dawns on me that if there is no separation between “me” and Life, then how Life is, is what I am. The real choice lies in attending to what I am, rather than identifying with what I am not. That’s the spiritual gist of the teaching of process over content. Ultimately, WHAT doesn’t matter! HOW is the interrogative that moves us out of content into process, while the supreme interrogative WHO liberates me from the misery of a mistaken identity to the blissful happiness of awakening to my True Nature.
On a side note: “I don’t want to” is always ego because Life doesn’t have preferences. When one receives that reflection, it is meant to be a red flag to the ego bully! Maturity in one’s spiritual practice is to recognize the frisson of rebellion as an ego reaction and be open to an exploration, a dialog of one’s process. That in itself is an aikido move of surrendering ego. Then one is open, disidentified from the ego process and can view the content from a dispassionate perspective.
The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.