What’s Behind the Curtain
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“The ego’s survival relies on the defeat of [spiritual] truth because it is dependent allegiance to falsity and illusion. For one thing, spiritual truth challenges the ego’s presumption that it is sovereign. “ – David R. Hawkins
In the classic movie “The Wizard of Oz” Dorothy is cowed by the wizard in the hall of the Great and Powerful Oz. But her dog, Toto, is not in the least bit intimidated and pulls back a curtain revealing a little man. Suddenly, the voice of the wizard says “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” But, the secret was out. Everything was controlled by the little man. He created an awe-inspiring illusion of a non-existent all powerful wizard. Everything that was believed was all an actively created illusion by the frightened little con artist. Once the illusion was revealed, then the essence of the Dorothy’s life problem could be directly addressed and rapidly solved, returning her home. But, first the illusion had to be unmasked.
This is a wonderful scene that can be viewed as a metaphor for our existence. There is something behind the curtain that is creating illusions that we believe and organize our lives around. Behind the curtain is the mind. It creates the illusion that there is a wizard; a thing called an “I”, a self that is in control. But, when we look behind the curtain we can see what’s actually there and see the illusion that the mind has created. The illusion is that there really isn’t a thing that was first named by Sigmund Freud, called the ego. The illusion of self is created by the mind by portraying an overriding integrated executive in charge of everything. We then identify with it totally, pledging allegiance and defending it without question. It is so effective that the first reaction people have when its existence is questioned is one of disbelief and incredulity. The concept of no-self is one of the most difficult to accept and understand.
When we look deeply and try to find the thing called self or ego, we are puzzled by the fact that we can’t find it. Meditate deeply, looking inside, and try to find a self. What’s revealed is that it can’t be found because it isn’t there. If there were a thing that was truly the self, then it wouldn’t come and go. It would always be there. But, when we’re not thinking about the self, it disappears. Here one second, gone the next. The key here is that the self only exists when we’re thinking. This suggests that it is a creation of the mind’s thought processes, a fiction and not a thing unto itself.
Reflecting about this thing we call the self and looking at it closely, it can be seen that it is not a singular entity, but a concept composed of multiple cognitive and memory processes. When one is asked to describe their self, they almost universally will recite a list of characteristics, gender, height, weight, eye and hair color, occupation, educational attainment, religious affiliation, ethnicity, place of birth, place in the family, etc. But, it is quickly clear that these are just labels and measures of the body and its history and not really a self. Upon further reflection, it becomes clear that the self is simply a creation of the mind, the thinking part of the being, a concept created from a composite of memories.
Years ago, I decided to try to understand the mind by looking in the dictionary at its definition. I found the mind defined as “that which thinks, feels, wills, perceives, the subject or seat of consciousness.” Upon reflection, I realized that this was simply pointing to set of processes that are carried out by the brain. After a while I had the insight to see that the key to the definition was the first two words, “that which.” It’s not what it does, but who or what carries them out. The next realization was that this didn’t solve the problem of where and what is the “that which.” The definition simply attempts to clarify the concept by renaming it as an entity called “that which.” It never really defined it, it just dodged the issue by calling it something else.
As it turns out the mind does not exist as a singular entity. It is a concept that ties together a number of mental processes, and memories as suggested by the definition. These mental processes are what assemble the memories, creating the illusion of self. Behind the curtain is not a little man after all, but rather simply a concept, called the mind, and it is that assemblage of memories and processes that creates the illusions that we use to guide our lives.
But, why does this all occur. Why do we need to create a self out nothing? First off, it’s adaptive. It helps organize our experiences into an organized whole, providing structure to them. Our minds are limited and require structure to properly process experiences. This also provides for the seeing of others also as selves, providing structure to the social community. This would have been very adaptive in the dangerous and difficult times of early human development. Seeing a unified self, motivates us to defend it. Seeing a group of selves to which we belong motivates us to defend the group and make our and the groups survival more likely.
These defensive functions of the ego, the self, are readily on display in deep meditation. It frequently occurs that as the mind quiets in deep meditation and the meditator begins to glimpse an insight, the self jumps in and changes the subject, eliciting discursive thought and mind wandering. Just when the meditator begins to touch upon the fringe of truth, the self pulls away. This is often accompanied by a little brief emotional fright. All of this suggests that the self is so important that it will be defended even from within the individual. The structure does what it has to do to defend itself and maintain the illusion.
This all raises a very important question, what is experiencing all of this? What is “that which?” What is seeing the illusion created by the mind? What is the “Dorothy” that experiences the illusion and at the appropriate time sees what’s behind the curtain. Many spiritual teachers have suggested that it is something called awareness. They have suggested that it is the essence of our being. It’s been called by many names, soul, Buddha nature, spirit, Atman, etc. But, is simply the unchanging ground of all experiences. All of this simply labels the phenomenon but does not explain it. At least it doesn’t explain it in ways the limited mind can understand. But it can be experienced. In fact, it is experienced all the time everywhere and always has been. It’s the self that has kept us from noticing it. It is the self that keeps the curtain drawn. It’s the self that is the frightened little many behind the curtain struggling to defend itself.
It is the function of meditation to set the stage to allow the curtain to be pulled back. By quieting the mind, meditation quiets the defenses. They are still there and most of the time rise up to prevent any real insight. But, every once in a great while the truth pops through. This can produce a breakthrough where the curtain is pulled back and the truth of existence is revealed. Meditation tricks the mind into letting its guard down.
What are the consequences of drawing back the curtain. For Dorothy, it allowed her to see that she always had the power to go home, to be fulfilled, to be happy, to be liberated. The same goes for when awareness pulls back the curtain on the self and sees that it really doesn’t exist, that everything was just an illusion. When that is fully penetrated, it allows us to see that we always had what we seek, we always were at home, we are already fulfilled, we are already happy, and that we always were liberated. We just had to pull back the curtain on the illusion of self to see the truth.
“This ego, this false pretender, whenever it arises grabs the seat of honor at the core of our being. It purports to speak for the whole of us, even though our various parts lack integration.” – Joseph Naft
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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