We have a great hunger. I don't mean obvious hunger—hunger for love, food, nourishment, a warm bed, a partner, a creative happy life. All these are valid hungers, and it is hard to be a human being without experiencing them. But, the hunger to which I am referring is not only greater, but also deeper than any of these. It is the hunger for what is real, for what is true—a hunger for the essence of life.
When you think about it, reality is the only feasible foundation for your life; it underpins absolutely everything. Take the hungers above—just a cursory list—you could have any one of them, but if it is not real, then what good is it?
Real or Not?
Take love. You meet someone who you like. You stay together for a while and the relationship deepens into love. But, a little way down the line, you or your partner becomes attracted to someone else. What has happened to the love? Is it real? Was it ever real? When you are cheated on, betrayed, or jilted, was the love real or not?
Then take food and nourishment. The reality of this today is surely without doubt. Only the most credulous of us are ignorant of real, organic, unprocessed, natural foods and their superiority in all ways over junk food, confectionery, candy, and convenience foods. Real nourishment is healthy, tastes good, and strengthens our immune system.
The Inner Experience of Reality
"Real" is what we want and what we need; instinctively and intuitively we know it. Now, would it surprise you if I said that reality as you experience it (mainly outer reality) relies on your inner experience of reality? When you are real within, the rest will follow. Stay with me if you are not sure.
You and I are born into a world that is not of our own making. It is a challenging world, possibly a hostile one, and one where our needs are almost certain to be ignored or sidelined. There may be many individual reasons for this: incompetence, ignorance, insensitivity, selfishness, busy-ness, but one universal reason is that all children have unrealistic expectations. From the cradle to puberty you expect all sorts of incredible things, perfect things, ideals of perfection. And naturally you are disappointed. How could you not be? You are disappointed, and according to your reaction to this disappointment you begin a lengthy and complex process of building defenses, ways to resist the pain of disappointment, the sadness and cruelty of a world that does not respond to what you need.
Your Essence is Spiritual
You could say that as children we are too close to heaven. Yet, the first seven years of life, at least, are characterized by the ordeal of corporal identity or incarnation.
You are in essence a spiritual being. I know that for some of you this will not be a surprise. But whether it is or not, take it in for a moment. You are a spiritual being in essence. You were born, and you found yourself with this appendage, this gross dependent: a body. You are spirit walking around in a temple that is attached to you, as surely as a crab is joined to its shell. This body defines you and your relationship to the physical, just as your spirit defines and occupies your body. Hence, we say that the eyes are the windows of the soul or we detect physical grace, ease, and flowing movement in the aware or awakened human being.
But before that is possible, we have to grapple with a truth: we have been hindered with a gross duty and responsibility to a body that, far sooner than we think or desire, is in an inevitable process of deterioration that ends in physical death. A human being has every reason to fear, worry, plan, and seek security in such a predicament! One thing is for sure: we are bound to die.
But wait! This physical death is only your own death if you are absolutely sure that you and the physical body are one and the same; that is, if you identify yourself with your physical body. Identifying with the physical body is very close to defining yourself as a separate self, a defended character, a mass of stories, experiences, judgments, and prejudices that comprise your character, what you are like, both hidden and apparent.
Fear of Death/Fear of Life
Now, fear of death is projected into your present existence as fear of life. In fact, the fear of death comprises all your fears, so it is the only one you really need to focus on and heal. Healing your fear of death is not as difficult as you may think; the key is to locate your identification. What are you? Who are you? Don't falter over this question or deal with it too hastily. Plenty of spiritual adepts in the East have spent their entire lives working with the discipline that's inherent in this question: Who am I? It is, in fact, the question—without some semblance of an answer what are you going to do, think, or feel that's of any consequence? What is the foundation of your life? What are you building on?
You may answer, "I am me" (fill in the gaps with experiences, stories, prejudices, thoughts, opinions, and so on) "in a world of others" (things, people, the earth, and so on; fill in the gap with everything that is not me). This may be how it looks, but it is patently untrue! You cannot possibly exist in a world separate from everything else, divided from the others. You are like everyone else—continually in context. Look at any photograph of yourself and what do you see? Other people, trees, a dog, sidewalk, beach, sky, clouds, sunlight, nature, a street. See what I mean? In fact, you do not exist without these things (and arguably they may not exist without you).
Identity, Separation, and Division
Yet, by means of a threefold process of identifying yourself, separating yourself, and dividing yourself, you have created the basis for a consensus reality that everyone more or less subscribes to. In other words, you are not alone; you have supporters—in your delusion.
Having supporters is a comfort and a consolation, and it tends to be fine until one of two things happen: dissatisfaction or crisis.
Some dissatisfaction or crisis is necessary to propel you into inner work. Something provokes the conviction that this is not enough and you want more! (And this "more" will lead you to reality.) Inner reality demands an archaeological dig to skillfully clear the layers of emotional-behavioral patterns, restrictive life-statements, repressed emotions, and deeply-held protective beliefs that cover your essence. Your essence is intact beneath these many veils and waiting for you. It is as I have written in my book Your Essential Self: you awaken to a most welcome stranger, your true self.
The Gifts of Life
What people most want today falls into four broad categories:
- Love and partnership
- Money and pleasure
- Attractiveness and popularity
- Health and long life
Once you are living from your essence, these and other treasures come to you and you are showered with the gifts of life—attractiveness, confidence, authenticity, genuine heartfelt-ness, compassion, feeling, kindness, soulfulness, charisma, creativity, and purpose.
This journey of self-discovery is enormously challenging, but the curious thing is you get everything you want. When you survey the desires of people today, the way they go about getting what they want seems transparently misguided. It is there within you for the taking!
Connect with Your Essence
But, if you don't have yourself in reality, then you don't have anything, because no one is here to possess it. Thus, when you are rejected in a love relationship, for example, doesn't it really hurt because it re-stimulates your inner rejection of yourself? When you are ambitious for more money, could it be because you don't have access to your inner treasures? When you are seeking to improve your outward appearance at the gym or through dieting, what difference could it make if you learned instead to love yourself?
So, look inside first and then look outside. Connect with your core, your essential self inside, before you start superficial manipulations, alterations, and interferences that don't actually work in the long run.
Gillian was a young woman in her late twenties who came to see me for psychotherapy. Her problem was her grief at the end of her relationship of some two years. As we explored her sadness, her regrets, and her resentments, we stumbled on an entirely new subject. It was her relationship with her father. For some weeks she had maintained that her daughter-father relationship was positive, close to ideal. This made me suspicious. As her trust in therapy and me deepened, she revealed that her father had loved her as a small child but around the age of ten he had taken her off his knee, where she remembered she used to sit and chat with him, announcing that she was now, "too old to cuddle." This hurt the child Gillian enormously. She was bereft, and although she couldn't share it with anyone she expressed her grief alone in her bedroom at night. Through her soul-searching she tried to make sense of her father's rejection. Eventually she arrived at one inescapable conclusion, the only one that made any sense and which of course exonerated her beloved and later idealized father from blame: she was unlovable.
When we make discoveries like this in early life they form guiding dictums for our lives. They become inner law. We unconsciously become guided by these formative experiences and seminal beliefs. Thus, Gillian believed she was unlovable simply because her father rejected her.
Unconsciously, for the next almost twenty years, she had followed the implications of this life-statement (that she was unlovable), which brought us to the present and the demise of her latest relationship.
Looking back, she realized that sometimes she had been rejected and at other times she had rejected her partners, since she had absorbed the full experience from both sides of the relationship dynamic between herself and her father. We had to return more than once to this poignant memory of her father taking her off of his knee. But, eventually she understood clearly that she didn't have to live according to the emotional conclusions she had drawn from this early experience.
A Return to Reality
Gillian returned to reality—or really arrived in it for the first time. Without this archaeological dig she may never have realized that she harbored a deep belief in her own unlovableness, and her relationships would have failed as a result.
Setting Up an Inner Practice to Discover your Essence
To set up an inner practice through which you can develop your essence by feeding your hunger for reality, follow these steps:
- First, out of respect for your decision to delve deeply into your inner world, allot a certain amount of time each week to inner work. But please don't overreach! If fifteen minutes is possible for you, that's good. If thirty minutes, that's good, too. Don't aim for some length of time you will find difficult to stick to.
- Second, create a special place or a corner of your room where you can have a notebook and some thoughtful, precious, meaningful objects. Now you can begin.
- Third, recall important episodes from your early life. Write them down if it helps you to connect with them. Draw pictures, too. You should have an inner work notebook specifically for this purpose, and it is your private workbook.
- Examine your work for what life-statements can you glean from these episodes. You read how Gillian made sense of her father's rejection by taking the responsibility on herself and exonerating him. What did you learn from your early memories about life, relationships, time, money, love, sharing emotions, men and women, giving and taking, teaching and learning, self worth, and values?
- Finally, progress your contemplations throughout your life right up to now. Ask yourself where and how these life-statements have acted on your journey through life and affected you.