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What is Reality Anyhow? and Learning to Sort Thoughts

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Have you ever been speaking to someone and listened incredulously as they told you something that revealed how seriously they were deluding themselves? Perhaps it is a parent whose child is in a lot of trouble abusing drugs or has severe learning disabilities and you hear them talking glowingly about how their child is going to go to Harvard.

Perhaps it is listening to someone who leans left politically espousing how a certain candidate will revolutionize society and make everything right again or a right leaning person suggesting that global warming is just a myth and that it is all a plot of left leaning liberals to undermine America.  Human beings capacity to fool themselves is legendary from denial of unwelcome news to illusions of grandeur, from idealistic fantasies to paranoid delusions. It seems people have so many ways of escaping reality, whatever that reality actually is. Here we will discuss the tricky territory around what is real and what isn’t and how to navigate the turf of reality testing.

In the world of western psychology, reality testing is a way of measuring whether someone is in agreement with the rest of society about what year it is, who the leader of the country is, and other basic facts about consensual reality. According to this method of checking if someone in the present says that they are Julius Caesar and the year is two thousand years ago then they probably have a problem. But most people have enough basic facts to pass such a test and yet they are clearly off base regarding facing the truth in their life. For some the delusions involve their romantic life and singing the praises of the latest alcoholic love interest and for others it is their endless get rich quick schemes that are totally nutty. Everybody else can see the folly and they simply shake their heads but the delusional person simply doesn’t want to see what everyone else can see so clearly.

To make things more complicated there are certain idealistic and spiritual beliefs that if not correctly understood promote delusional thinking. Some of the worlds biggest business failures followed a delusional boss excoriating everyone to “Think positive” and “Don’t be so negative” while pursuing a disastrous business strategy that others could clearly see would fail miserably. Then there is the common preaching about just trusting in God to save the day while making catastrophic decisions. There is the often-told joke about the minister in the flood waiting for God to save him while boats and helicopters came by to rescue him, which he refused. Upon drowning he was shocked and asked St. Peter why he wasn’t saved? You all know the punch line or can easily figure it out. Everyone laughs at the joke because they can so clearly see the stupidity of the minister but the truth is that everyone is like this in some way about certain areas of their life, so we are really laughing at ourselves in this joke. How often do we think that just applying our efforts a little harder will change the results when the approach has failed every time before? How often do we think that getting the last laugh or getting revenge will set everything right? How often do we cheer when the bad guy meets a horrible death thinking that after he or she dies everyone will live happily ever after?  How often do we think that getting drunk when we hear bad news will magically make everything better instead of adding a miserable hangover to the overall misery? These are just a few examples of absolute insanity that we as humans engage in regularly.

When pointing out these self-deceptions to clients I have been told more than once, “Can’t we have a little fun. You are ruining everything.” Or “You are no fun at all.” Quite often people don’t want their self-deceptions pointed out. They would much rather keep them even when they know they get no good results from them in the end. This is most strange and yet most human.

On the other hand let’s consider the opposite. Let’s consider those who think they are just looking at the facts and therefore think they are facing the bare truth. A major fire is coming over the ridgeline. It is out of control and has been burning furiously already having consumed many homes. A man and a woman look up at the flames from their home about a half-mile away and the man says, ”Let’s face it. It’s all over. We are going to get burned to the ground. We’ve lost everything.” His wife looks up and says, “Well our home is still here and the fire is over there and there is the possibility that it could change course before it gets here. We simply don’t know what will happen but I’m not giving up yet.” The man looks at her furiously and says, “Can’t you see reality? Are you stupid? Why can’t you accept the truth?” Who is right here and who is delusional? Why is the man so furious?  The man is furious because he has made certain assumptions to protect himself from the disappointment of thinking his home could be saved and then seeing it burn. He would rather face “Facts” first and maintain a semblance of control. His wife threatens his control and this terrifies him. He hates her for scaring him even more than he is scared already. Many of us are like that. We tell ourselves the lie that we know something when we really don’t. We want to control life and we want to control our reactions. This is even greater self-deception. Of the two of them, the woman is actually realistic by saying “We don’t know” and the man is self-deceptive by saying there is no hope when there might be. So self-deception can take many sneaky forms, even masquerading as facing the facts.

Why is it that human beings have such a problem about knowing what the truth is?  To put it simply, it is the influence of the false personality and its attempts to create confusion, separation, and suffering that accounts for self-deception. The false personality, in charge of consensual reality, is interested in making consensual reality a bad dream, a nightmare that fosters continued conflict and hopelessness. It is in charge of appearances. When we look around us we see what appears to be so. We conveniently forget that what appears around us is actually the product of brain chemistry produced by impressions of light and sound etc. through our sense organs. If we are to be honest there are a number of ways that distortions can enter this chemical process to alter what we see, hear, and feel. The most obvious distortions are apparent when we have a high fever or are under the influence of some powerful drug like alcohol but the truth is that distortions are entering all the time. So what appears to be reality is quite moldable and dependent on many factors such as what we are believing at the time, deep-seated fears, projections, expectations, and the like. This is illustrated in the ancient Chinese story about a man who thought someone had stolen his shovel. Everyone he looked at looked like a thief. Later, when he found his shovel where he had actually left it, he thought that everyone looked normal again.

To put it simply, as all the great spiritual traditions teach, physical life is just appearances, maya, illusions, or even more bluntly put, it is composed of lies. It is projected fantasy, a collective hallucination, a mass hypnosis that we humans take for reality. This apparently stable reality, that is actually quite flimsy, is manufactured entirely by thoughts dictated by the false personality to maintain the illusion of the world we see. It is as the Buddha so aptly taught, created by the desires of the ego, resulting in endless frustration, irritation, disappointment, and suffering and designed to perpetuate suffering even while selling occasional happy moments that prove the rule. No wonder people can’t tell what the truth is and are so easily self-deceived. Ninety nine and nine tenths percent of all human beings are sound asleep dreaming various scenarios that have nothing to do with what is really so. Not only that but ninety eight percent of human beings have no interest in waking up even though some do say that they are interested. If you are one of the tiny fraction that is actually interested in waking from the dream then the first order of business is that you will actually have to get in the habit of distrusting the appearance of things and be able to do this without becoming psychotic or paranoid. You must get in the habit of saying, “I don’t know. It might be so or it might not be so.” You might ask then how can anyone live with this level of uncertainty. Well the truth is everyone is living with major uncertainty all the time but they are just not admitting it. It is possible to live with uncertainty if you have trust in something other than your own little efforts to control your life.

One of the greatest illusions of all is the belief that we control our lives from our puny personalities. Sometimes when we have a major success in life it seems to us that we made something happen through our own efforts and this reinforces the delusion of rugged individualism and the properness of forging our own destinies. But what if we were to realize that this rugged individualist was actually insane and getting us deeper and deeper into a deluded state?

What happens to us, positive or negative is based on thoughts that we set into motion at some point in our notion of the past. In actual fact there are only two sets of thoughts 1. Those aligned with Spirit coming from Essence 2. Those coming from the false personality that are trash thoughts. There are actually no thoughts in between even though it seems like there are. Thoughts coming from Essence are always true and thoughts coming from false personality are always deluded even if they are so called nice thoughts of success and personal satisfaction. The difference between them is simple. Thoughts coming from essence are always connected to a bigger picture and are associated with real love. Thoughts coming from false personality are always divorced from the whole and concentrated on me and what I think is mine and are basically selfish. If you want to separate the truth from the lie then you will have to learn to sort your thoughts into two categories, one pile for Essence and one pile for false personality. To most people’s horror they discover that when they first begin to do this the pile for false personality is huge while the pile for Essence is teeny. To become free of the clutches of false personality you need to monitor your thoughts almost constantly to see whether they are trash or whether they are worth having, man thoughts or God thoughts.

When most people consider this they throw up their hands and say, “Impossible, this is too much damn work and it is no fun. Besides I like my trash thoughts.” Trash thoughts consist of many things including categories like worry, lust, anger, revenge, jealousy, poor me, greed, and judgment. Here are some examples: you are a jerk, fuck you, you can’t do this to me, life sucks, I like your car, wish it were mine, why can’t I have one like that, I am going to get rich too, nothing ever works for me, damn the government, taxes are too high, I’m hungry, there is nothing good to eat, my shirt is worn out, wow, look at the new dress I got, don’t I look great, wait, what is this zit on my face, shit, I’m behind on that project, I have to hurry, I think I’ll have a drink, she can’t tell me what to do, Oh, he’s hot, I hate this song, and on and on and on. Well, the truth is you are entitled to all the trash thoughts you want to have. You have earned all the results of all the trash thoughts you have had in every lifetime so far. So those trash thoughts you thought when you were a Chinese peasant three thousand years ago may still be in your subconscious now. Maybe you thought, “I’m just a peasant woman and I’ll never rise above my station.” So today you are either resisting that thought or still believing that thought but one way or the other it has you by throat and is still impacting you even though you may be a woman but no longer a peasant and no longer Chinese. So go ahead and add more trash thoughts so you can feel the results in lifetime after lifetime. Keep piling them up. Its Ok, you are free to do so. You are also free to quit and replace them with infinitely more powerful rewarding thoughts. So what are Essence thoughts?

Essence thoughts are ones that are aligned with Spirit. They may be very simple like, “Amazing! I am alive. I am.” Perhaps the thought might be. “Hello there. Sorry if I judged you. What can I do for you?”  Or, “ Well even though everything looks bleak today I can’t trust appearances, so I don’t know. Spirit, I could use some help here today in clearing out this negativity. Keep reminding me what the truth is.”  Or “Fear is never justified, I am Spirit, how would Spirit behave here?” Or, “I forgot and was judging myself. That is a mistake. I don’t have the right to judge myself that way because I am insulting Spirit.” And so on.

And yes, you may be thinking, “Oh right. This is so boring. I’d rather smell farts than do this.” Ok! You don’t have to. But nothing will change and you are guaranteed to suffer. Serious students of enlightenment sort their thoughts and before long they realize that it is so daunting a task that they will never make any headway without help. So they learn to ask for help from Spirit. They realize they will never ever be able to get to every thought they ever had or even all the thoughts they are having today. So they admit that and say something like, “Spirit this is practically impossible for me. I need help here. I need you to remind me to be aware of my thoughts. Help remind me that I can decide which thoughts to have, and then implant Spirit thoughts in me to have in place of all that crap.” And Spirit says, “Done.” And there you have it. You will never succeed by yourself. If you ask for help you will get it massively but only if you agree to persevere. It is not enough to ask for help once or twice or even ten times. This must be a constant in your consciousness. Asking for help is hard because it is an admission of failure, an admission that your so-called brilliance and capability has not been up to the task. In short, asking for help is necessary humility but it does not mean you have to grovel or self-deprecate. It just means, “Oh look, silly me. I thought I could scale this twenty-foot wall without a ladder. Looks like I need one. Would you mind bringing that extension ladder over here.”

And that is exactly what is needed. Spirit extends beingness throughout the universe. There are pockets of resistance to this beingness  because of various games being played like the hide and seek  game  (I can hide from Spirit) that is being played by human beings. Spirit still extends but the ladder is not taken. The ladder can be taken any time and in fact is always there.

Human beings are actually extensions of being, the human part being unimportant and even erroneous. People think it is important to be human but it is not. What is more important is recognizing being an extension of Spirit and allowing that to take place. Nothing is more satisfying, nothing is more ecstatic and nothing is more real. The rest is delusion. Imagine trying to hide from Spirit. It simply can’t be done. What folly.

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José Stevens

José Luis Stevens, PhD is the president and co-founder (with wife Lena) of Power Path Seminars, an international school and consulting firm dedicated to the study and application of shamanism and indigenous wisdom to business and everyday life. José completed a ten-year apprenticeship with a Huichol (Wixarika) Maracame (Huichol shaman) in the Sierras of Central Mexico. In addition, he is studying with Shipibo shamans in the Peruvian Amazon and with Paqos (shamans) in the Andes in Peru. In 1983 he completed his doctoral dissertation at the California Institute of Integral Studies focusing on the interface between shamanism and western psychological counseling. Since then, he has studied cross-cultural shamanism around the world to distill the core elements of shamanic healing and practice. He is the author of twenty books and numerous articles including Encounters With Power, Awaken The Inner Shaman, The Power Path, Secrets of Shamanism, Transforming Your Dragons and How To Pray The Shaman's Way.