Awakening from the Autobiographical Self

awakening(With thanks and acknowledgement to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio for the term, Autobiographical Self)

The Autobiographical Self (AS)  is what you think you are and, for the most part, what you experience reality to be. It is an ongoing story that you are almost always telling yourself in your mind. Almost all of your thinking is an internal dialogue, an on-going commentary oriented around “you,” your Autobiographical Self, and its imagined life. It requires constant embellishment and propping up as it believes itself to be a noun, an actual entity, when in fact it is a verb, a flow of interpretive thought.  You, as your Autobiographical Self, take place within time. It is something you do. It is not what you are.

Your AS did not begin with the birth of your physical body, but appeared within your awareness when you were around the age of two years old. It is very much a social creation, an expression of the zeitgeist, or spirit of your time. Each zeitgeist has particular perceptions, values, goals, beliefs, ideas, and assumptions, and has a language to express them. The AS is birthed by the language and assumptions of the zeitgeist. It is the trance from which the AS lives.

The AS is created within time. Past and future define it. Self-reflective memory is its foundation.

The past is a story the AS tells itself so it knows who it is, who others are, and what its world is about. The story of the past is an embellishment that enhances the AS’s sense of its place in the world, the world within its mind. The more sane a person is, the more the AS is based on actual verifiable events and facts instead of memory, interpretation, projection, and fantasy.

The story of the future is also very important to an AS, as the future defines what the AS wants to be. The AS myth is that in the future, its goals, whatever they may be, will be realized and the AS will then be completely secure, whole, satisfied, loved, and happy. Typical AS stories are, “When ‘I’ get enlightened, married, rich, famous, have a baby, retire, get a PhD, move, then I’ll be secure and happy and not be miserable ‘me’ anymore. And I am on my way there now.” Here and now exist only as a stepping stone on the way to a better future.

Trying to keep the myths of our AS together is a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, exhausting task ultimately doomed to failure. Our language creates the belief in nouns, in things that are solid and do not change. The AS likes to believe it is a noun, an actual thing. But actually it is an ever-changing flow of energy, thought, experience, and emotion. Every “thing” is always changing, moving, shifting, appearing, and disappearing. In actuality, there are no nouns, only verbs. Sooner or later an AS notices that it, and everything else, has no solid or permanent reality. The AS is a very unstable verb in need of constant propping up so it can pretend it is a noun. The AS lives with anxiety because it recognizes its extremely fragile state.

Human culture is full of ways for the AS to distract itself from the awareness of its fragility.  One of the more successful distractions for the AS is the spiritual path. The creation of spirituality is the crowning achievement for the AS, as it seems to offer the ultimate fulfillment of its search for meaning, purpose, and security! There are so many spiritual traditions with so many aspects that only a few of its remedies will be mentioned here.

The AS knows its physical body/brain will get sick, grow old, and die. But with spirituality, the AS discovers it has a transcendental self called atman, soul, spirit, buddha nature, what-have-you. The nature of this transcendental self is that it has eternal life. Instead of dying, it may go to a heavenly realm or be reborn as a more evolved being such as a bodhisattva.What a relief for the AS! Its story continues beyond the apparent death of its physical body. Volume 2!

The AS also discovers it can attain higher states of consciousness and become a wiser, more loving, better or even perfect AS. And there are practices and ways of thinking and believing that will empower the AS to create whatever it wants in its life, whether it is health, wealth, love, or enlightenment. It continually embellishes itself.

It is interesting to note that many spiritual teachers have a well-embellished AS to share with their students. The purpose for this is that the teacher’s story reassures the other ASs that spirituality is truly about the AS, about creating a better, happier and more wonderful story with a positive outcome. After all, the teacher has had one and now is telling you how to attain one!

The truth is that there is no positive outcome for the AS. There is no remedy. It is an ongoing made-up story.

When this truth is heard by the AS, it is called negative, nihilistic, empty, meaningless, defeatist. The AS doesn’t want it to believe or accept any of this.  It wants its story to continue with success, spiritual illumination, or at least the possibility of rebirth in a heavenly realm as an angel of light or reincarnation as a more evolved life form, perhaps as an avatar. It defends itself from this truth through whatever means it has available. It has many.

Any attempt to escape from the AS is just one aspect of the AS struggling with another. Trying to get out of the trap is the trap. Yet the most amazing thing is that when the existential dilemma of the AS is truly seen, understood, and accepted by an innate intelligence existing prior to the AS, the internal writer may suddenly stop writing and let go of its pen. Suddenly, half way through the story, without any effort at all, the AS  with all of its problems just ends with a tremendous sigh of relief.

And now there is simply the presence of this mystery of life being lived in wonder, delight and astonishment, with nothing to grasp.

True Enlightenment Is Not a Reality Tunnel


We live in reality tunnels. We appear to be a reality tunnel.

A reality tunnel is created by the conscious and unconscious selection of perceptions, experiences, concepts and beliefs that create our experience of ourselves, others and reality. Out of billions of possibilities flooding us at every moment, our neurophysiology notices those things that support our beliefs and filters out those that don’t. In psychology, this is known as “confirmation bias.”

A reality tunnel is experienced as true and real by us and therefore is usually mistaken for reality itself. Our life is defined by reality tunnels.

There are countless reality tunnels floating around in the absolute vastness of what is. Thought and language are their major building blocks. We are always participating in a reality tunnel each and every time we communicate with each other. We are putting each other into a trance. Reality tunnels are enfolded by and unfold within each other and are interconnected, multidimensional and constantly creating new and other reality tunnels.

For instance, this paragraph you have just read is a reality tunnel (RT).

I’ll just point out a few Reality Tunnels here (RT) and there (RT) so you get a better (RT) idea (RT) of what they are.

There are functional and dysfunctional reality tunnels, depending on the circumstances, which are also RTs. For instance, if you choose to actually land a human being on the surface of the moon, the RT of the sciences of mathematics and physics may serve you better than the RTs of the Bible stories you learned in a Sunday school class. On the other hand, if you wished to instill certain moral and ethical values (which are RTs) within yourself or others, Sunday school class may seem to do a better job than the RT of mathematics. Maybe.

Let’s look at a way reality tunnels work  and are experienced . Let’s say it is mid-November (RT) and you say to a bunch of your  friends, “Wow! Christmas (RT) will soon be here!” Your reality tunnel about Christmas is a positive (RT) one. It consists of the beautiful (RT) story (RT) of the birth (RT) of Jesus (RT), snow, Christmas lights, Christmas music, warm fires in the fireplace, Christmas presents, time off from work (RT) and spending time with loved ones (RT). You are glad Christmas is almost here. You love the Christmas season.

But for a friend of yours, your words trigger a totally different reality tunnel or trance. S/he  has the same awareness that Christmas (RT) is coming, but a very different reality tunnel. For your friend, Christmas (RT) means noisy music being piped out from every store into the streets (RT), chaotic crowds (RT), traffic jams (RT), greedy consumerism (RT), hypocrisy (RT), people entranced by a mythical story (RT) and children being selfish and spoiled (RT). Your friend also has to spend the holidays with a highly critical (RT), mean (RT), drunk (RT) and dysfunctional (RT) family (RT). Your friend cannot wait until the holidays (RT) are over and everything is back to normal (RT). S/he hates the Christmas season.

The point is that everyone lives in very different reality tunnels, even when the RTs appear to be the same.

“You” – the “you” you conceive, perceive and experience yourself to be – are a complex, multidimensional reality tunnel. You are a product of your genetic heritage, social conditioning  and the innate  capacity  of your multidimensional being  to change, transform, evolve and mutate.

As we become conscious, grow and evolve, the infinite possibilities of infinite reality tunnels unfold within us and all around us. Most of us tend to select just a few of the RTs offered by our culture  and society  and stay secure within them. It is much less confusing and frightening that way. We tend to get born, be male or female (not so much any more,) go to school, grow up, get a job, get married, have children, pay taxes, go to church, retire, play golf, grow old and die (all RTs).

Some of us, for whatever reasons – perhaps because of meditation, psychedelics (it was Dr. Timothy Leary who coined the term “reality tunnel”) or, gee, just by being intelligent and observant – we become aware that there are infinite reality tunnels available to us at any given moment. This is both very exciting and very frightening! As in the film The Matrix, we have Neo’s choice. Do we take the red pill or the blue pill? The blue pill puts us back into the prescribed and limited trance of societal conditioning, with very familiar and secure Reality Tunnels. The red pill opens the doors of perception into the infinite possibilities of infinite reality tunnels. We discover we are always creating new RTs! Instead of being a limited, mortal human being, we begin to feel very God-like . Wow! We can be and create whatever we want! (Actually, a true WOW! is Kensho,  a moment outside of RTs.)

Some of us spend much of our life exploring the infinite possibilities of the infinite RTs. As Alice pointed out, it just gets curiouser and curiouser. Eventually the awareness arises that there are endless relative truths in endless realms of being. Every reality tunnel is a truth enfolded within itself.

Is there an ultimate truth or reality?

This is a very tricky and dangerous question because as soon as we consider it, we are creating more reality tunnels.

And as soon as we ask this question, we begin to discover there many reality tunnels that claim to have the answer. To name a just few, there are science, philosophy, religion, spirituality, linguistics, new age beliefs, etc. There are many teachers available who know these reality tunnels inside and out and are therefore considered enlightened masters within the context of these RTs.

Truth is not a reality tunnel.

It is not perceivable or conceivable. It is the Ultimate Subject, not an object in Consciousness.

“Free, we are not the number One, the first of all our objects, but Zero – their universal and absolute subject.” – Wei Wu Wei

What we are is not defined by any reality tunnel, no matter how sophisticated, interesting or profound it may be. And the moment this is pointed out, it immediately creates a new RT and thus a relative truth.

A truly enlightened teacher knows that the moment they open their mouth they are creating and sustaining reality tunnels and are moving away from truth.

A truly enlightened teacher does not teach a reality tunnel but wakes us up out of all reality tunnels. This seems impossible, as anything a teacher says or does necessarily creates more reality tunnels. And yet the true teacher points certain things out to the students,  awakening true inquiry and natural meditation.

True inquiry is the free intelligence that expresses as an investigation of what we have always assumed to be true. This investigation exposes our reality tunnels for what they are, yet does not judge them. When honestly investigated, reality tunnels are seen just to be reality tunnels.

The natural intelligence of true inquiry ultimately allows true awareness to stand free of all identification with all reality tunnels. This freedom is natural meditation. No abiding anywhere. Nothing to grasp.  And if there is identification with what is realized – Boom! – another reality tunnel is created and we are now students of Reality Tunnel 27-ZEN. Please bow!

Natural meditation is simply allowing everything to be as it is. It is what is. When natural meditation happens, it is the effortless and natural non-identification with reality tunnels. It is the gateless gate of truth and freedom.

Effortless, choiceless, silent awareness.

Be clear. There is nothing wrong with reality tunnels. We need reality tunnels to function in our day to day lives. We are not trying to get rid of them. That would just be another RT. Enlightenment is not the rejection of RTs. It is simply recognizing them for what they are. This recognition is freedom from identification with them. This freedom allows full participation in reality tunnels without the entrapment of believing that any of them – including the reality tunnel we may think we are – is real and true.

If you want to wake up and discover what is actually true, be wary of all teachers teaching systems. It is not that difficult to learn, practice, internalize, actualize and then teach a system and be “enlightened” within the context of that system. I know. I have done it. But this enlightenment is not true enlightenment. It is reality tunnel enlightenment. You simply meet the reality tunnel’s criteria of enlightenment and bingo! You are the guru.

A true teacher is a completely paradoxical event. They have no agenda. They simply are. They say what they say and do what they do and somehow people awaken around them. They may use RTs as pointers and yet they stand completely free of them. It is this freedom that is so contagious to their students. It is easy to catch. There is no cure for it!

When we discuss enlightenment we are discussing a reality tunnel, not enlightenment. True enlightenment is not knowable and is not an experience. It is prior to all experience, all knowledge, all perception and conception. It is what is before anything is. It is not definable. If you do not understand what I am saying, that is good! The mind can’t grasp this.

If “you” do anything to realize enlightenment, you are just creating another reality tunnel. You create a “you” that wants to be enlightened, and this “you” is just creating more reality tunnels. Trying to get out of RTs is just another RT. There is nothing “you” can do. And yet…

And yet awareness has a natural capacity to wake up out of reality tunnels simply because it is always already awake. This, that is prior to the entire matrix of being, is always awake. This is what you are.  You have already arrived. 

Enlightenment only has meaning to the unenlightened because for the enlightened, there are no unenlightened. There is just This. Nothing to grasp.

Silence is the language of truth. Emptiness is the land where it is spoken.

Tom, What Makes Your Bullshit Detector Go Off?

(dedicated to my no bs friend Sabine)

Good question!

Any true spiritual teacher knows that everyone is as much an expression of Truth or God or Buddha-Nature or Whatever as they are. We are all selling water by the side of a river. What is required is that the “student” is really interested in discovering this truth. If they are, the teacher may have a bag of tricks that may help the student realize their true nature.  This bag of tricks may consist of various methods, practices, concepts and pointers, but the purpose of the bag of tricks is to set the student free from their imaginary chains and limitations, including the chains and limitations of the teacher,  teaching and bag of tricks. The simpler the better. It can take no time and nothing has to happen first.

The only impediment to waking up is thinking there are impediments to waking up. (I think Ramana Maharshi said this, but I am not sure.)

And then there is spiritual entertainment. When I first started out as a seeker in the 1960s, I lived a short train ride from New York City. Every week I’d check the Village Voice to see what swami, yogi, human potential teacher, sufi, roshi, lama, or avatar was coming to town this week to sell their wares. And off I’d go to see what they had to offer.

After spending years with some of these teachers and actually doing quite well with the teachings, I came to see something very clearly. Almost all of them were selling reality tunnels – a new, unique, and sometimes fun way of interpreting who one is and what life is about. One could get a new name, belong to an exotic group, and have the best teacher and teaching around.  Or maybe even be a direct disciple of an avatar. Zen, Kundalini Yoga, Shabd Yoga, Arica, Maitreya, est, Sufism, Bubba Free John, MSIA, Tibetan Buddhism, and on and on and on. It was wonderful!

It all depends on what you really want. If you want a spiritual identity, a sense of belonging, something to believe in, a bunch of experiences, something to do, and a parental figure to tell you how to live your life, these reality tunnels will do the trick.

I eventually went out to California and became involved in its spiritual scene. I lived in a spiritual commune. I worked on farms.  I went to a Buddhist temple and had a great Buddhist teacher. I did yoga on the beach. Eventually I had enough of California and returned to the east.

And then something happened that completely sunk my spiritual boat.

One day in the 70s I went to visit a teacher at her home in Tonawanda, NY. She was then affiliated with a local Zen center, but soon to leave. She was very present with me, very kind, and offered me absolutely nothing. I kept trying to have a conversation with her about all of the Buddhist teachings I knew and practices I did, and although she listened carefully, with attention, she did not become engaged in my reality tunnels, nor did she offer me any alternatives.  She had a little zendo in her basement. We did sit quietly together for awhile.

When I left, I continued on my spiritual journey, but what had happened with her was like a powerful koan that would not go away. It stayed with me for years until something suddenly collapsed and all cathexis stopped.

I saw what she was about. Reality is not a reality tunnel. It is not a belief system or set of practices. There is nothing to do or believe. There is nothing to sell or buy. This is it. This is all there is. And she was here. All she was doing was inviting me to be here with her. I wasn’t here. I was in my head playing the tapes of my spiritual reality tunnels and autobiographical self instead. And yet we became quiet together.

And then something collapsed and it all fell away.

Ever since then, I can see what any teacher is up to. They may be using a pretend thorn to remove a thorn that doesn’t exist, and that is OK. It is how to get rid of what you haven’t got. Or they are feeding you and themselves a bunch of bullshit. And if it is bullshit you want, good, get some great bullshit, as bullshit is God too. But if you really want the truth, find a teacher who admits they have nothing to offer you and then shows it to you.  You don’t need anyone or anything, but if you think you do, find a teacher that knows you are always already free. And with one without any bullshit!

It is not so easy to do these days. Consider this. Why would a person free of all false and limiting identification be inclined to change their name from their given one to a Sanskrit, Chinese or Japanese name? It is called branding. It is good marketing. Most teachers are in the on-going spiritual circus circuit and have branded themselves and their teaching and are out on the circuit collecting students and making money.

If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit. ― W.C. Fields

Please don’t be gullible and naive. You already are what you are looking for. Be As You Are.

The woman teacher was Toni Packer, by the way. Many gasshos to you, Toni!