When awareness is embodied through a small self, it naturally identifies exclusively with the small self – this specific physical body and habitual emotional/mental patterns.
It defines itself through an exclusive self-identity. And this self-identity typically includes specific aspects of the small self acceptable by the culture, subculture and personal preferences, and excludes other aspects of the small self (including the shadow in Jungian terms) and the rest of Existence (others, the Earth, Universe).
Functioning vs. Nature of Mind
In this situation, it is inevitable and naturally for awareness to see only the functioning of mind and not notice or be aware of the inherent nature of mind – the spacious awareness within which all experiences unfold. It is aware of the always changing clouds and weather, but not the space and the always present sun.
This also means that it perceives dropping exclusive identification with the small self as a “death”, it perceives it as dropping the only “ground” it is aware of – even if it is flimsy and always changing. Until it awakens to the other ground – its nature of spacious awareness – it is really impossible to drop exclusive identification with the small self. But when it awakens to its nature, the shift – usually gradual – is gentler and inevitable. There is some softening of exclusive identification, and the more it notices its inherent nature, the more softening there is.
One particular aspect of this transition is how awareness relates to beliefs. When there is exclusive identification with the small self, there is also a rigid identification with certain beliefs – beliefs that make up and correspond with its sense of self-identity.
These beliefs are inherently limited. They include a rough correspondence to some aspects of Existence, and do not correspond with other aspects of Existence. When the discrepancy inevitably comes up, there is suffering. This suffering is the gentle and often not so gentle reminder that beliefs are always limited – that they are always ultimately a lie.
Inherent in this suffering is an invitation to eventually discover the nature of mind, free of and independent of any particular manifestations. We can try any number of ways to deal with suffering – such as the rollercoaster of seeking situations that we assume will not trigger suffering (although they always will – as long as awareness is exclusively identified with the small self) and trying to not notice the suffering when it is there (distractions, numbing, spacing out, pushing away).
When awareness is exclusive identified with the small self, it seems impossible to imagine an existence without beliefs. Who would I be? How would I be able to choose or act? Wouldn’t I just be a zombie or a vegetable? I am not letting go of the only guideline there is?
The identification with the small self and the identification with particular beliefs are two sides of the same phenomenon. One is dependent on the other. So how can we find a way out?
There are many answers, although maybe none that are fool-proof.
Awakening to the Nature of Mind
One is to notice the nature of mind, as it manifests here/now. This allows awareness to slowly familiarize itself with its own nature. Another is to engage in a practice such as the Big Mind process. Or the inquiry process outlined by Byron Katie. And there is of course the traditional meditation approach, that allows the always changing experiences to settle down – maybe just enough for awareness to recognize its nature of spacious awareness – beyond and distinct from any manifestations.
The fourth question in the Byron Katie process points directly to the nature of mind. Who or what am I if I don’t believe in the thought? In the beginning, it may be almost impossible to imagine. And there may be considerable fear coming up. How can I navigate the world without beliefs? What is left?
Yet, as we continue the inquiry process – with the beliefs that present themselves in our everyday life – we may discover something quite surprising. We may discover that awareness is still there, as it always has been. That there is still perception, even clearer than before when it was tied to particular beliefs. And that there is still discernment and the ability to put on labels and talk about our experiences, although now free from the need to believe in the labels, thoughts and words. They are just useful tools for communication, but nothing that has any inherent value or reflect any “truth”.
In this process, self-identity softens and becomes more porous and inclusive – until any fixed identity eventually drops away. Our “identity” just fluidly reflects what comes up here/now.
As awareness softens its beliefs in thoughts, there is typically a new sense of spaciousness, clarity, overview, discernment, fluidity and responsiveness, along with a sense of humor.
Although this small self is taken seriously as a vehicle for awareness, there is a softening of the need to present this small self in a certain way. There is a softening of the need to present this small self as special, as different from other small selves in the sense of “better” or “worse”, to hold up or conform it to a particular identity.