The other day I was reflecting back on the past 50 years and seeing if my journey in consciousness had any markers or stages that might be identifiable and useful to others. My reflection led to the observation that my path has had three distinct waypoints. These waypoints each involved a focus of attention that seems to map out spiritual development in broad strokes.
The personality is simply the sense of ME. Most of us have a very clear sense of ME: the one who is reading these words, drinking this cup of coffee, playing with the children, coding, eating, and making love. The one who was born on a certain date, in a particular place, to his/her/their parents. The one who is tall, short, male, female, non-binary. You know, that ME that you know you are.
The first stage of the journey for me was improving the ME; making myself better, happier, smarter, more talented, less neurotic. It was about becoming a better basketball player, musician, Christian, husband, parent, teacher.
Improvement often includes developing a better understanding of ME; who I was, where I came from, what I wanted. Then there was a long period of exploring why I did what I did and why others did what they did. This period involved both individual and group therapy. I read lots of books, took classes, listened to philosophical, psychological, and spiritual talks, and read lots of self-help books. The whole notion of self-help really gets at this first phase; I am a self, I have a self and this self can be and needs to be improved, to be happier, more peaceful, purposeful, and relationally skillful…ultimately a better version of itself.
People in this phase often pick a place to be trained or a person to be trained by; a college, graduate school, a career, a mentor or guru. During this phase they might and likely will change some or all of these and all with the intention to improve. This Me that we’re improving needs to find paths, mentors, and guides, other selves who have figured it out, who have gone before ME. This improvement stage often requires systems and even orthodoxies, whether it be the medical system, legal system, acting system, entrepreneurial or investment system. And for most selves it involves finding a community, other selves who are on a similar path, see the world similarly, and can support us in our self-improvement project. It is all rooted in the belief, what feels like a reality, that the self could grow, improve, get better and maybe even one day, arrive.
I look back with loving fondness on this period of my life. It was fun to have hope that I could grow and improve, that I could know why I did what I did. Figuring out the why gave me a sense of hope and control.
For example, I learned that I had attachment issues, I was raised in a family with addiction, I was trying to bridge my separation from God, I was an INFJ (Myers Briggs), an Enneagram type 2, a post-modern, white privileged American cis man. The list of why I was the ME that I was and what I needed to do to become a better version of that ME went on and on.
This stage of improving the personality was my dominant modality well into the fourth decade of my life. In working with others I see that many are like me in that self improvement is what is driving them into and often through mid-life.
Stage 2 for me was about letting go of believing the stories my mind generated about reality or, said another way, it was about becoming an un-believer of the mind.
Now, in some ways, this stage could be seen as the next step in self/personality improvement, the next box to check. But in my experience it was meaningfully different. I entered this stage by beginning to see that there was always a filter between me and reality. I was seeing and perceiving reality through the lens of my mind, specifically my thoughts. In fact, I’ve come to believe that most of us never experience reality directly but rather are simply experiencing our mind and our mind’s interpretation of reality. We are trapped in our thinking, and it’s unconscious; we’re not aware that we’re trapped.
For me, Stage 2 was primarily about doing The Work of Byron Katie. It began by first identifying my thoughts as thoughts, making them objects that could be questioned as opposed to a priori assumptions. It included seeing how attached my mind was to believing my thoughts. Seeing that I believed I saw reality clearly and that my interpretations were true and right.
I began to question all of my shoulds and shouldn’ts. I saw that my mind had an endless list of I should, he should, she should, it should. And an equally long list of shouldn’ts. Basically I came to see that my mind had a very strong view of how the world should be and shouldn’t be and that my mind was always trying to get reality to be the way it should be.
This stage was meaningfully different from Stage 1. In Stage 2 I wasn’t trying to improve anything or anyone. Rather, I was committed to seeing, facing, and exposing my thoughts and beliefs. The beginning of Stage 2 was more of a deconstruction (of belief structures) than a construction (of the self).
I spent a long period of time identifying my beliefs and questioning them. I began with beliefs that were causing me suffering or upset, and then moved on to beliefs about the nature of who I was and of reality. This process was often terrifying. As I let go of believing the mind, I didn’t know what to grasp or how to anchor myself. I often felt untethered. Certainty was replaced with uncertainty.
But then, slowly at first and then quite rapidly, I began to experience that there was something that was far more solid, stable and trustworthy than my beliefs, and my interpretation of reality and that was reality itself.
As I questioned my beliefs and turned them around I found that what was left wasn’t uncertainty but rather a certainty rooted in experience that this moment is really OK. And actually far more than OK; It’s really quite wonderful.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t pain or loss or fear, anger or sadness. All those things are present—and with even more vivid textures and dimensions—and it’s OK. I began to experience a peace that was steady, something I hungered for all of my life. Along with that came a sense of freedom, not freedom from something but rather freedom to be with life as it is.
Stage 1 is about improving the self and Stage 2 is about freeing oneself from the believing, story-telling mind. Both take meaningful devotion, discipline and dedication, but in my experience the first doesn’t deliver on its promise and the second does. Improving the self offers the hope that I will one day get what I believe it is I most want, a completed self, which is a false promise. What you get in Stage 1 is simply more opportunity to improve. Stage 2 delivers on its promise; on the other side of questioning the mind’s stories lay peace, freedom, love and deep security.
Still when I write those words, “there is no me,” a me with a mind and beliefs says things like:
I’ve written before about the possible value of inquiry, of sitting with questions like, “Who am I?” “What am I?” “And if I’m not that, what am I?”
Loch Kelly calls this sense of me a “mini-me”, “a small self.” When people are asked to look for this self they often begin by thinking it lives somewhere in the head. But through direct examination what many people discover is that this sense of self can’t be found. For me, this is not to say that there isn’t a Jim Dethmer, who lives in Chicago, is married to Debbie, is typing these words, has a personality, a body and a biography. Rather it is to say that this sense of a solid me can’t be found. It actually exists only as thoughts and memories.
Again, I’ve referred many of you to Sam Harris’ Waking Up App and to Loch Kelly’s website. I think both are really good at helping people discover the truth about who and what they are. They, and others, have taken ancient and often inaccessible teachings and practices and put them on an app that you can use daily for 10 minutes and reliably discover the deepest reality of what you are. To me, that never ceases to be mind-blowing.
The less I experience myself as a personality to be improved, or that my beliefs and stories need to be defended, or as a small mini-me located behind my eyes, above my neck, someplace in the center of my head— the more there is less of a me—the more of life there is to be experienced in all of its messy, beautiful, fulness.
This is my sense of what my journey has been like. I share it here because I see so many others on a similar path. For some, Stage 1, self-improvement is a lifetime’s work. Others seek to go beyond and look to question their mind by examining their beliefs. The later is not a large group, but it seems to be a growing one. And an even smaller subset go after the big question, “Who am I?”
So, as you look at your life do you see yourself spending more time improving, questioning or discovering.