The Ghost of the Character
Updated: May 8, 2020
An early version of this post was written on March 6, 2017.
Updated again to fix formatting issues: May 8, 2020
This post focuses on how inquiry can shift from pre-awakening to post-awakening; from questioning “Who (or what) am I” (and similar questions, such as “Who is asking the question?”) to “What conditioned patterns remain of the character that has yet been seen through?” (Jim Dreaver calls these residues.)
The first line of inquiry comes from the perspective of a seeker and is associated with the pre-awakening phase of spiritual awakening. It is during this phase that a person is driven to wake up, but has not yet seen that awakening does not involve the character waking up, but instead seeing that the character is an illusion. For many people, this phase can be a long and somewhat arduous journey. However, it doesn’t have to be. It is actually very easy to wake up. But that’s for another post at another time.
When awakening occurs, what is realized is that we are not who we think we are. We are not the character we have been identified with for so long; and that includes the character’s name, the various roles the character has and currently plays, the stories that surround and give credence to the reality of the character, and the memories that provide the substrate that the character has existed for as long as we can remember.
However, after waking up, and perhaps like many others, I thought the game was over. Boy was I wrong. Soon after, the real work began. This is often referred to as clearing up or growing up.
What is it that needs to be cleared up? We can speak of this process as identifying the conditioned patterns that seem to point to the existence of the character itself, including the continued belief in a ‘me’ or continued identification with the “I thought”. These conditioned patterns are so deeply embedded in our biological and personal DNA that we are often blind to them, which is why it often takes a long time, perhaps a life time, to see through them to the point that very few, if any, conditioned patterns remain of the character.
As I wrote, when awakening occurs, there is the realization that the character (our ‘me’) is not real. After awakening, however, what remains is what I call the ghost of the character. Sometimes, the ghost can be perceived so strongly that we re-identify as the character. We might even find ourselves lamenting “I had it; but I lost it!”
If this has occurred or is occurring with you, I sympathize. It happened to me and many people in post-awakening. Adyashanti wrote a whole book in it, called The End of Your World, a book I highly recommend.
Clearing is actually a process of thinning out the patterns thought to be the character. One way to work with this is to adopt a playful attitude and think of the conditioned patterns as just a ghost of your character. Think about the post awakening process as though you had a new career: you are now a Ghostbuster (with apologies to Columbia Films).
By standing as awareness and owning that as your true nature and by accepting your new job as your own personal Ghostbuster, you no longer have to suffer when the ghost appears or when you find yourself thinking that you are the ghost. Instead, encourage any apparitions of the ghost. In doing so, you further strengthen your ability to stand as awareness. (For those of you with training in various forms of mindfulness meditation, you will notice their similarly with standing as awareness and vigilantly watching for signs of the ghost. Add in inquiry and you have a very powerful set of tools to ‘fight’ the ghost of your character.)
If you welcome those ghostly apparitions, you will see them for what they are not: you! And as you continue, you will find yourself stabilizing as awareness. Yes, the ghostly apparitions of your former self will always be there, but you will no longer be disturbed by them. At this point, the ghost becomes a humorous friend. In fact, you realize that the ghost is none other than the mechanism by which you interact with the world and others. It is you; but you are more than it! Over time, the conditioned patterns will dissolve; but certain patterns, such as various personality traits, will remain. Only now, you see them for what they are and can freely choose to continue to adopt them or be free to alter them moment by moment depending on circumstances. And then one day, there won’t be any recognition of any differences between you as awareness or the character or characters you chose to adopt at any moment!
So, how will you approach the clearing up process: as a victim who suffers when the ghost appears or as your own personal Ghostbuster who approaches the job with humor, humility, and joy?
Here, I close with a Zen story.
Every morning before the day’s activities, Zen Master Zuigan Shigan would climb the mountain behind his monastery and then call out to himself, “Oh Master!”
He would answer himself, “Yes?”
“Are you awake?” he would ask.
Again, he would answer, “Yes, I am.” (Another translation of this exchange is “Be wide awake!” “Yes, sir!”) Master Shigan would then shout, “Never be deceived by others: any day, any time, and under any circumstances!” And he would reply “No, I will not.”
Master Shigan was a 9th century Ghostbuster!