In the opposite seat sat a man of position and authority. He was well aware of this, for his looks, his gestures, his attitude proclaimed his importance. He was very high up in the Government, and the people about him were very obsequious. He was saying in a loud voice to somebody that it was outrageous to disturb him about some minor official task. He was rumbling about the doings of his workers, and the listeners looked nervous and apprehensive. We were flying far above the clouds, eighteen thousand feet, and through the gaps in the clouds was the blue sea. When the clouds somewhat opened up, there were the mountains covered with snow, the islands and the wide, open bays. How far away and how beautiful were the solitary houses and the small villages! A river came down to the sea from the mountains. It flowed past a very large town, smoky and dull, where its waters became polluted, but a little farther on they were again clean and sparkling. A few seats away was an officer in uniform, his chest covered with ribbons, confident and aloof. He belonged to a separate class that exists all over the world.
Why is it that we crave to be recognized, to be made much of, to be encouraged? Why is it that we are such snobs? Why is it that we cling to our exclusiveness of name, position, acquisition? Is anonymity degrading, and to be unknown despicable? Why do we pursue the famous, the popular? Why is it that we are not content to be ourselves? Are we frightened and ashamed of what we are, that name, position and acquisition become so all-important? It is curious how strong is the desire to be recognized, to be applauded. In the excitement of a battle, one does incredible things for which one is honoured; one becomes a hero for killing a fellow man. Through privilege, cleverness, or capacity and efficiency, one arrives somewhere near the top – though the top is never the top, for there is always more and more in the intoxication of success. The country or the business is yourself; on you depend the issues, you are the power. Organized religion offers position, prestige and honour; there too you are somebody, apart and important. Or again you become the disciple of a teacher, of a guru or Master, or you co-operate with them in their work. You are still important, you represent them, you share their responsibility, you have and others receive. Though in their name, you are still the means. You may put on a loincloth or the monk’s robe, but it is you who are making the gesture, it is you who are renouncing.
In one way or another, subtly or grossly, the self is nourished and sustained. Apart from its antisocial and harmful activities, why has the self to maintain itself? Though we are in turmoil and sorrow, with passing pleasures, why does the self cling to outer and inner gratifications, to pursuits that inevitably bring pain and misery? The thirst for positive activity as opposed to negation makes us strive to be; our striving makes us feel that we are alive, that there is a purpose to our life, that we shall progressively throw off the causes of conflict and sorrow. We feel that if our activity stopped, we would be nothing, we would be lost, life would have no meaning at all; so we keep going in conflict, in confusion, in antagonism. But we are also aware that there is something more, that there is an otherness which is above and beyond all this misery. Thus we are in constant battle within ourselves.
The greater the outward show, the greater the inward poverty; but freedom from this poverty is not the loincloth. The cause of this inward emptiness is the desire to become; and, do what you will, this emptiness can never be filled. You may escape from it in a crude way, or with refinement; but it is as near to you as your shadow. You may not want to look into this emptiness, but nevertheless it is there. The adornments and the renunciations that the self assumes can never cover this inward poverty. By its activities, inner and outer, the self tries to find enrichment, calling it experience or giving it a different name according to its convenience and gratification. The self can never be anonymous; it may take on a new robe, assume a different name, but identity is its very substance. This identifying process prevents the awareness of its own nature. The cumulative process of identification builds up the self, positively or negatively; and its activity is always self-enclosing, however wide the enclosure. Every effort of the self to be or not to be is a movement away from what it is. Apart from its name, attributes, idiosyncrasies, possessions, what is the self? Is there the “I,” the self, when its qualities are taken away? It is this fear of being nothing that drives the self into activity; but it is nothing, it is an emptiness.
If we are able to face that emptiness, to be with that aching loneliness, then fear altogether disappears and a fundamental transformation takes place. For this to happen, there must be the experiencing of that nothingness – which is prevented if there is an experiencer. If there is a desire for the experiencing of that emptiness in order to overcome it, to go above and beyond it, then there is no experiencing; for the self, as an identity, continues. If the experiencer has an experience, there is no longer the state of experiencing. It is the experiencing of what is without naming it that brings about freedom from what is.