A state of unruffled, serene composure is what is left over after all the numerous, naturally-arising distractions of our attention have been gently but thoroughly rebuffed and brought to a stop. For the intellectual, who seems to thrive on the stimulation provided by fresh and provocative ideas, the deliberate cessation of all lines of thought feels almost like a betrayal of his calling. For the moral enthusiast, whose delicious sense of self-worth and personal importance hinges upon his unceasing efforts to ‘do the right thing’ for his fellows, the unplugging from all such thoughts and sentiments can feel like a gross dereliction of duty. For the man of action, whose very sense of identity is bound up with staying busily involved with his absorbing projects, such willed moments of stillness come up against every imaginable form of resistance. In short, numberless are the distractions that eclipse the serene stillness and contentment that are always just within the reach of the quieted mind.
If self-mastery consists largely in learning how to inhabit this ‘still point’ with greater ease and for longer stretches of time, then it depends to a great extent upon our learning how to not do, not think, and not be moved all over the mental chess board or billiard table by our habitual feelings and insistent passions. And yet, for most of us, these are precisely the factors that constitute our ‘humanity’ and our sense of personal identity. Little wonder, then, that they should put up such a fight as soon as our spiritual self (atman) begins to gently announce its presence. It is like the clash or collision between two diametrically opposed worlds, in a sense. The spirit is essentially free. It exists on its own, independently, in a liberated state. But the moment our absorption in that state of spiritual liberation is disturbed by the powerful distractions produced by (our consciousness of) the body, the emotions, and the intellect (i.e., the ego), we cannot help but see and interpret that ego (and its concerns) in completely new way. We begin to understand freedom in a radically new sense. Put simply, we learn that freedom, which is innate to the spirit, is essentially freedom from, while, from the ego’s perspective, it is understood as freedom to. But freedom to do what?
Since the ego is driven by—one might go so far as to say founded upon—desire, fear, and the will to power, freedom is understood to mean the satisfaction of its desires, the continual enhancement and extension of its will to power, and the control (or outright annihilation) of all feared/despised objects. As long as we are identified with the ego, our notion of freedom will naturally conform to these egoic objectives. As soon as there is genuine contact with the spirit, the ego necessarily experiences a profound crisis. Why is this?
From the spirit’s perspective, the ego (as a reified psychological complex) is prone to enslavement by its natural drives, habits, fears, ambitions, and cravings. The more intensely and vehemently the ego pursues its natural (literal, concretistic) aims, the deeper it digs itself into the hole of its imprisonment, which corresponds with its implicit belief in its primacy, its independent reality, and its ‘given’—as opposed to ‘constructed’—nature. Contact with the spirit does two things, then, for the ego. First of all, it presents a vividly experienceable form of freedom and contentment that is utterly new and utterly different from the appetitive forms of freedom and pleasure that it is accustomed to pursuing. Secondly, it subtly—one might almost say insidiously—poisons the ego’s naïve or innocent trust in its goals, its modus operandi, and its general assumptions about itself and the world. The ego gets a glimpse—an unforgettable taste—of the spirit’s radically different form of freedom. This spiritual freedom, as suggested earlier, is not only far more substantial and profound than the fleeting, unstable pleasures and successes won upon the human ego battlefield, but they expose the concretistic, compulsive, and consuming character of the ego’s fundamental tendencies—its dark and smoky engines, if you like.
‘Even if I win, I lose’: thus muses the newly enlightened (and therefore thoroughly humbled) ego. ‘I could be emperor of this world, and I would never really be secure, or contented, or certain of anything—except, that is, certain of my folly for choosing dominion over the whole wide world above humble abidance in the spirit that I have been mysteriously visited by.’