Thirty years ago, in my bachelor days in Washington, D.C., I became interested in wine. My buddy Bob insisted my motive was purely to impress the women. He was wrong. Mostly.
My first move was reading wine books. What did I expect to find? I figured in a 200-page book, about 150 of them would be about how to taste wine and the rest would be about the varietals (cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, syrah, et al) and where they’re grown (France, Napa, et al).
That wasn’t the case. In every single book I perused, they spent no more than 5–10 pages on tasting and the rest on the varietals and wine regions of the world.
Wine is about tasting, right?
I was flummoxed. Shouldn’t the how-to of tasting be everything? No. Turns out that wine education is mostly about learning the characteristics of the various varietals and where they’re produced.
What the hell does any of this have to do with my usual area of trekking the spiritual path? Well, the same thing happened when I first dove into that arena.
As I waded deeper and deeper and read and listened to the greatest of the spiritual greats, a surprising topic kept coming up front and center. It was the equivalent of learning about the varietals and the regions.
Who are we?
What was that topic? Who we identify as. Specifically, do we identify as the personal/egoic self or as our conscious awareness. That’s it. Huh?
I’ll explain by using an example many of you know, Eckhart Tolle’s groundbreaking book The Power of Now. The main point of that book is that we are not our thoughts. We are the consciousness that is aware of those thoughts. Our thoughts are mostly just products of our egos and our egos are not who we are.
That’s the whole ballgame
Those last few sentences sum up most of the spiritual path. It’s about identifying as the consciousness within us rather than the kooky creations of our egos.
Absorbing that concept is difficult for many people. So the job of someone like me, who tries to express this stuff in ways that make sense to people, is to express this particular concept in a way that makes sense to people!
The way that best illuminates this identifying-as-consciousness idea for me is the following simple, boring sentence:
“You are the subject, not the object.”
Think of it in terms of basic grammar. In the sentence “I watched the elephant,” I is the subject, watched is the verb and elephant is the object. That I is our consciousness. It’s who we are. Everything we experience in life is experienced by that I/consciousness.
People get this part of it. In the example above, you wouldn’t consider yourself the elephant just because you’re watching it, would you? No. You’re the subject watching that object.
Similarly, if you are listening to an eagle screeching in the sky above, you are not the screeching sound. You’re the consciousness listening to that sound.
When you eat a roasted brussels sprout, you’re not the brussels sprout. You’re the consciousness that tastes the brussels sprout. And on and on, ad infinitum.
Identifying as our thoughts and feelings
Where people get into trouble, and I mean virtually all of humankind, is when it comes to our thoughts and emotions. We get so wrapped up in what we’re thinking and feeling that we conclude, falsely, that we are those thoughts and emotions.
But those thoughts and emotions are no different than elephants, screeching eagles and brussels sprouts. They’re just objects of our consciousness.
Eckhart Tolle’s dark night of the soul
The most poignant and significant example I know of that illustrates this is something I wrote an entire article about (link here). It’s about the life-altering thought Eckhart Tolle had one night in 1977 when he was depressed and suicidal. That thought was:
“I don’t think I can live with myself any longer.”
It him like a ton of bricks: Who is this ‘I’ that can’t live with ‘myself?’ In that moment, he realized that he was the I/consciousness/subject and the ‘myself’ he couldn’t live with any longer was just an object of that consciousness.
That ‘myself’ was his ego, in the form of painful and omnipresent thoughts and feelings that he couldn’t live with any longer. And in those moments his ego dissolved, ushering in a multiyear period of near-total bliss. It was as if a lightbulb went off in his head that said,
“This ‘myself’ that I can’t live with anymore is no more me than the plant I’m looking at or the Debussy symphony I’m listening to on the radio.”
So that, my friends, is what we’re shooting for. The internalization of the fact that we are the subject/consciousness and not ANY of the objects that our consciousness focuses on.
Most of the great Indian saints called it realization of the self. In fact, Yogananda’s extant organization is called the Self-Realization Fellowship.
And the wonderful yogi Ramana Maharshi’s main teaching was simply to get quiet inside, for however many years it takes, until you realize that the essence of who you are is that deep ‘I’ consciousness within you.
Who we are, our identity, is always the subject, in the form of our consciousness; 24/7, for the entirety of our lives. Anything and everything we experience is merely an object that our consciousness has seen, tasted, smelled, heard, touched, thought or felt.
Give this subject/object thing a test drive. See if it can make it through to your core.