"Of what avail is it if we can travel to the moon,
If we cannot cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves.
This is the most important of all journeys
And without it, all the rest are useless."

Thomas Merton

Why is there an abyss that separates us from ourselves? Because we have no time to look and explore? Because we are so busy looking outward all the time? Because we are afraid to look inside?

We lack self-awareness because we are not able to disengage from our habitual and total identification with who we think we are. We are like actors on a stage, who fail to realise that we are mere actors. We have taken our roles so seriously that the drama of life appears totally real and we are fully and helplessly identified with our perceived roles, with our beliefs, with our thoughts and emotions.

And so when we are angry, we are not able to witness our anger. When we are excited, we are not able to see our excitement. When we are jealous, we are not able to see our jealousy. When we are bored, we are not able to see our boredom. When we are hurt, we are not able to see our hurt. We are fully identified with our anger, excitement, jealousy, boredom, hurt, ... When the emotion is agreeable, we cling to it and want it to continue. But when it is disagreeable, we resist it and try to escape from it. All these reactions take place spontaneously without our awareness. At best, it is a dim awareness, not a clear awareness.

And thus life goes on, days go by,... We are dimly aware of a sense of nagging unease within us, a residual tension. But we do not pause in the midst of our activities to explore it, and we do everything possible to evade it, with the mind always engaging in some activity or other. We have trained ourselves to believe that "an empty mind is a devil's workshop". The truth is that we have never allowed ourselves to experience the empty mind. We are compulsively addicted to mental activity, over which we have little or no control. We would rather pay any price for this addiction and suffer, than gain freedom from it.

We are afraid of venturing deep into ourselves, because we may encounter a void that could well destroy our present identity. This is perhaps the root cause of the nagging unease and tension that is always in the background of our lives.

We do not experience deep inner peace, perhaps because we do not want it enough. The ego-self in each of us is afraid of its own extinction, and the only way for it to ensure its continued survival is by constant activity. At the heart of its existence, there is a deep sense of insecurity. There are aspects of the ego-self within each of us that are perpetually on the lookout against possible danger, suspicious of the world around and inside us, fearful of losing control, ever-seeking to preserve and project a presentable image of ourselves to others... So much of our energy is dissipated in these full-time projects that it is no wonder that we are subject to a constant under-current of tension.

Unfortunately, in spite of all our efforts, things rarely happen the way we want them to happen. People do not behave the way we want them to behave. The daily newspapers are filled more with depressing news and horror stories than with stories of hope and promise. The lack of well-being in the world around us mirrors the lack of well-being within us, although we do our best to resist it or ignore it or escape from it through 'entertainment'. When we feel bad, it is always the system around us that we blame. When we fail to take responsibility for our inner world, how can we ever imagine that we are also responsible for whatever is happening in the outer world?

We do our best to uphold a sense of security by striving endlessly for increased possessions, relationships, knowledge, fame, power, etc. In this way, we hope to find happiness in the future. We do not realise that what we seek in the future is missing in the present, and that the present is all that we have. Clearly, is there not something radically wrong in this manner of living?

Our education does little to teach us otherwise. Indeed, is it not true that our education is primarily but a means to earn a livelihood? Our education does achieve this for us. It gives us a livelihood, but does not teach us how to live. It gives us jobs, but not character. It also gives us knowledge of the external world, but it does not give us wisdom and completely neglects our inner world.

Now, read these lines of Thomas Merton once again, and see the profound truth to which they point.

Of what avail is it if we can travel to the moon,
If we cannot cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves.
This is the most important of all journeys
And without it, all the rest are useless.

We are not who we think we are. When we discover this first-hand, a radical transformation takes place. Second-hand knowledge from others and so-called "spiritual" activities may point the way, and give us glimpses, but we need to go all the way, which means transcending the way of life dictated by the ego-self. This is not change; it is a transformation, and that too, an inner one. We discover that instead of spending all our energies in trying to change our external circumstances, we devote an increasing chunk of our energy to simply switching on the inner light of self-awareness.

If we have ever experienced moments of deep inner peace, we would have glimpsed a world in which there is no separation of the individual from the universal. Temporarily, the ego-self has dissolved, and we are one with all that we experience. We are the sky, the clouds, the birds, the trees, the animals, the buildings, the cars, the people, the stars and the blades of grass. In this state of 'no-mind', there is no separation between 'me' and 'not me', and therefore nothing to be afraid of. The habitual nagging sense of unease is replaced by a strange feeling of joy that is hard to describe.

There is a profound feeling of inner peace, a great expansion of awareness, where everything looks vast and feels beautiful. There is harmony, order and perfection all around. There is nothing to do, nothing to seek, nothing to become. We simply rest in a state of being. And yet in that stillness, there is a wonderful aliveness all round. One's senses are fully alive, one sees wonderful colours and forms, one hears wonderful sounds, one smells wondrous scents, one tastes and feels the wonderful ambience around.

When one emerges from that wonderful experience, the ambience returns to the ordinary, but one is never the same again.

We have glimpsed who we are deep within ourselves, and we do not get fooled by the ego-self so easily. We have found some space within ourselves, a sanctuary into which we can retreat and find deep inner peace. Initially, it is difficult to make this retreat, but it becomes easier with practice, with meditation.

It is then possible to look at ourselves with greater objectivity and less fear. We look within with curiosity, without wanting to change anything, because we know deep down that we are much deeper and vaster than the limited ego-self. It is then that we can disengage from any state of mind, in a way that is similar to disengaging the engine from the gear in a car. We have found a 'clutch' to separate the content of consciousness from the vast seamless field of consciousness. It is then that we can look at our anger, our jealousy, our fear, our hurt, our boredom, from the perspective of a witness, and that very act of sustained witnessing brings freedom. The anger and jealousy can survive only in the darkness of non-awareness; it cannot survive the light of self-awareness.

We see that we are an aggregate of many personalities: not just the obvious ones that we project to the outside world (the so-called 'persona'), but the hidden ones that we are secretly ashamed of and seek to repress unconsciously (the so-called 'shadow'). An easy way to discern the shadow self is to observe all that irritates us in other people. We then discover that the horrible things we see in others are but amplified projections of that which lies concealed in ourselves. By acknowledging and accepting all these aspects of ourselves, a great deal of healing takes place. A great reduction in the inner tension takes place. We feel more at home and at ease wherever we may be. We learn to let go of the burden of constantly upholding our sense of self-importance. We do not mind being who we are. We also learn to accept others as they are, and realise that we are all made of the same stuff. We discover compassion for ourselves and for all around us.

More important, by accessing the state of deep inner peace within us, we observe that there is ultimately nothing to fear and nothing to change at this level. Anchored in this state, we find ourselves well equipped to deal with the world of separateness which we access through our ego-selves. We realise that the limited intelligence of the ego-self is but a pale reflection of a vast and mysterious intelligence that lies deep within each of us. The scientist and philosopher, who limit themselves to the realm of reason, cannot access this vast intelligence, except by transcendence and recognising the realms of intuition and insight that lie beyond reason.

Awakening to the universal being that is common to all of us does not liberate us from the individual and separate ego-self; but it teaches us how to "live in the world and yet not be of the world". Access to the background field of 'free-flowing' consciousness enables us to become aware of the ego-self and frees us from its habitual tendency to usurp the full field of our attention. We will still experience moments of fear, unhappiness, sorrow, etc., but we can accept these feelings gracefully. Indeed, it is the non-resistance that brings freedom.

The background field of consciousness is particularly accessible in solitude amidst natural surroundings, revealing its inherent serenity, beauty, joy and aliveness. This background is perceived in the gaps between one's thoughts, when the mental noise of the ego-self subsides.

All this is ancient wisdom, old but forgotten. We need to rediscover this in our own individual ways in our daily lives. Could anything be more important than this?

We cannot and need not escape from the drama of life. But, by discovering freedom from our deluded ego-selves, we end up playing our roles far more effectively, without fear, with detachment and with fulfilment. We are able to do much more, because, mysteriously, we get all kinds of support from various sources in the Universe. The sense of fulfilment gives us a feeling of abundance, and we ask, "What is it that we can do to help?", rather than the usual "What do I get out of this situation?" in our various activities. We make the profound shift from the path of fear and lack to the path of love and abundance.

Each one of us is endowed with special qualities and talents. Creativity is the free-flowing expression of these talents. If only we could devote our energies to doing the things that we love to do, how wonderfully fulfilling life would be! Secure in the wisdom that deep down we are connected to infinity, we ask ourselves a simple question: "Freed from the mundane lifelong pursuits of accumulating more and more wealth, and more and more fame, imagining that I have an abundance of these, what would I do? How would I spend my time?" The answer to this question unfolds life's mission for each of us.

We are no longer fooled into thinking that happiness is something that we can get from outside, or that individual well-being is possible at the cost of the well-being of people and the environment around us. We do not engage in activities with the hope that success in these activities will bring us happiness and freedom from our present condition of stress and non-happiness. Rather, we have found happiness, and from that state of happiness, we engage in activity. We receive guidance from our connectedness with the source of everything, that deep spiritual Essence and Presence, which underlies, empowers and unifies everything.

Through awakened awareness, we embark on an exciting journey of discovering who we are. At some point in this journey, we realise that we are not merely humans discovering divinity within us. Rather, we are Divinity who has consciously chosen the human and other forms we find ourselves in.

We take total responsibility for whatever happens in our inner world. We accept our responsibility in healing ourselves, others and the environment, and in making the world a better place to live in. We desist from complaining and attack.

We radiate the joy, love and peace that we are.