We’ve all felt it: that inner sense that something is missing. It gnaws at us even when on a physical level things are going pretty well. We might have a good job, relationships, health, and hobbies, but still something is amiss. We might then seek ways to fill the void. Religion. Therapy. Money. Television. Sex. Possessions. Travel. A new relationship. A new job. A new hobby.
What we experience is a lack not of anything external, but of our true self. We keep up a false self, all the while losing touch with who we really are.
If you ask people, “Who are you?”, most will reply, “I am Michael/Jennifer, man/woman, husband/wife/single, father/mother/childless, American/Chinese/Irish, Christian/Muslim/Jew/Buddhist, Republican/Democrat/Libertarian, 20/40/70 years old, a teacher/doctor/lawyer/engineer.” They think that they know who they are, but they don’t. All those attributes that they ascribe to themselves are just features of their temporary life situation. All of them can change or could have been different. Anyone could be born in any country, at any time in history, with any skin color, with any particular religious upbringing. Anyone can lose their job, get married/divorced, procreate, become ill, or change religion or political party. We all gain and lose objects, wealth, relationships, and abilities. Our bodies age.
Our viewing these arbitrary, temporary, vulnerable things as “us” causes a gnawing sense of insecurity, because we’ve built a mental house of cards that we know deep down could crumble at any time. This is the source of the emotional void, the inner sense of lack that pushes us to pursue things such as wealth, social status, and accomplishment in a futile attempt to add security to the insecure state we are in, to add stability to the inherently unstable mental construct we uphold.
This mental construct – the ego – is a façade that we present to the world. It is a grand image-maintenance project that we spend lots of time and effort on in order to “prove” to others and ourselves that we have value. We define ourselves by a respectable career, a devout religious/political belief, parenthood, athleticism, humor, physical attractiveness, or whatever, all the while ignoring who we really are. We have done nothing more than blow up a balloon, which has a flimsy outer shell, with nothing inside it, so if it pops, nothing will be left. As long as we continue to believe that we are nothing more than this balloon, we will remain terrified that it will pop, thereby annihilating us.
The fear of annihilation causes a very predictable knee-jerk reaction of self-defense. People defend their balloon with competition, criticism, deception, arguments, and even violence. Whenever someone demonstrates an irrational need to acquire, to win, to be praised, to be right, to feel superior, or to oppose anyone who doesn’t agree with them, it is nothing more than a fear-driven effort to protect the mental construct that they mistakenly believe they are.
What causes people to believe so strongly that they are their ego? Conditioning. The belief has been ingrained for so long that it has become unquestionable. Further, since they have invested so much time and energy in it, they don’t like the prospect that they have been wrong (the ego hates to be wrong) or that they have wasted a lot of their resources. Actually the resources spent on the ego have not been wasted. They have been used in the vital process of learning what the ego is and how much pain it causes. This can wake us up and therefore be an extremely important part of finding who we really are.
If we would only let go of the image that we so desperately clutch, we would see that all this time we have foolishly clung to nothing. We would realize that the ideas we’ve desperately maintained for so long are not us. This would open the door to finding our true self: the unchangeable awareness that perceives but is independent of any name, race, gender, age, nationality, career, accomplishments, or belief system.
The true self is the one and only thing that we cannot lose, because it is us. Only things that are not us (objects and ideas) are subject to loss. Our true self is, by definition, always secure. Therefore when we discover who we really are, we find the security we have so desperately been seeking. There will never again be any reason for fear, insecurity, or the void.