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Diamond Approach

Glossary of Spiritual Wisdom

From the teachings of A.H. Almaas

What is Terror?

Diamond Approach Teachings About: Terror

Abandoning Her Old Supports Brings Up Deep Fears and Sorrows

To support the soul’s inner journey, we need to live a life that holds our realization and our work adequately and objectively; we need to structure our life such that it recognizes, appreciates, and supports our ongoing realization. This life structure can involve participation in an inner work school, but such participation is not enough. We need to structure and develop the totality of our lives in a way that is sensitive to and supportive of our realization and our deepening development. Otherwise, our lives will support the ego-self, for the structures and habits and relationships of our lives have developed as extensions and expressions of the conventional self, the self we were before the deepening of our experience and understanding. The soul discovers that to truly move toward the inner essential truth and to live the life of essence means abandoning her normal identity and its various external and internal supports. The soul’s experience actually shifts to another experiential universe, where she will need to find different supports for her new identity and its life. Abandoning her old supports brings up deep fears and terrors, while discovering and implementing the new supports is usually counter to her habitual stances. Allowing the fear that arises from this and other issues connected with the citadel, particularly issues related to ego deficiency and the need to accommodate the desires and needs of other people, the soul can enter into a clear black space devoid of defensive functioning. The soul’s allowing this space brings the possibility of the emergence of the true support for the path, the citadel.

An Adventure Full of Thrill and Terror

The unfoldment of the soul is an adventure full of thrill and terror. It magnifies various life conflicts, as it discloses the essential manifestations that resolve them. This process exposes character deficiencies, ignorance, and wrong beliefs and positions. It involves intense pain, rage, terror and uncertainty. For one who truly pursues truth, however, these difficulties are not obstacles but occasions for further revelations of truth. Inner conflicts and difficulties always turn out to be caused by ignorance.

Feeling Terror Means You are Losing Your Fake Support

Student: It seems like the terror is so real that I cannot disidentify.

Almaas: Do not disidentify. Let it run its course. You cannot disidentify because you are not separate from it, in a sense. There is no you without the terror. If you do not take yourself to be that way, there will be no terror anyway because the terror is a result of that self-image. Feeling terror means you are losing your fake support. You are beginning to see that the reality you’ve been taking to be real is not real. The moment you see that it is not real, the ground starts shaking. In one minute it might disappear, and you might feel that you are falling. Or you might realize that there is nothing there to fall. If you take yourself to be the personality, you will experience it as falling. If you realize it is not you, you become the emptiness itself. But all these events are in the realm of the mind.

Identified Deeply with the State of Deficiency

The defensive function of ego is at its height, against both the inadequacy and its feared consequences. These fears are reasonable in two ways. The first is that ego inadequacy is a reliving of an earlier experience in very early childhood, when one was actually vulnerable, helpless and dependent. Although we discussed the state of inadequacy in terms of the beginning of the phase of rapprochement, its emergence or development is a gradual process that starts much earlier, in the first months of life, because the process of cathecting physical reality starts so early. Many students actually remember themselves as infants, alone, helpless and scared. This kind of memory might be a composite of many experiences at different early times, but it does reflect some experiences in the earliest months of life. Since the individual normally identifies deeply with the state of deficiency it becomes understandable why, when this state becomes conscious, it generates so much terror and fear of death. This reflects the actual helplessness of the psychophysical organism at such early times. The other reason for the terror is that at such early times, at the beginning of ego development, ego structures are still unstable, shaky and not unified. Since one identifies with such structures, in these experiences there is a natural fear of disappearing, for one is aware of one’s sense of self as shaky, unstable, weak and vulnerable. In fact the experience can lead to a kind of death, which is the disappearance of these unstable and early-formed structures.

Reactions To and Associations with Deficient Emptiness

The recognition of the need for support, specifically, the need to support our sense of self, will naturally precipitate the feeling of no support, as we saw in the cases above. If this feeling is not defended against, it will reveal an underlying emptiness characterized by a sense of deficiency of support. The emptiness may provoke many associated feelings and self-images, as we have seen, like feelings of helplessness and weakness, and images of smallness and lack of structure. This usually brings up from the unconscious deeply repressed, painful object relations and their associated emotional states of abandonment, betrayal, depression, terror, even fear of death and disintegration. These are reactions to and associations with the deficient emptiness. We must then clarify these reactions and associations in order to understand the genesis of the emptiness. This process requires awareness of, and disengagement from, judgments and superego attitudes about the deficiency.

Recognizing Our Lostness

When we recognize that we are lost and that we cannot move out of our lostness with the conventional knowledge we have, we become aware of the terror of our situation. We recognize just how lost we are and how scary that is. We realize that whatever we try to do—read books, practice this or that technique, attend this or that workshop, try to figure out things ourselves—we do not feel any less lost. Our situation really is much more difficult, much more profound, than we allow ourselves to see for a long time. That’s why we speak of the terror of the situation—because it is so frightening to finally realize and admit how lost we are, and how at the mercy we are of so many elements that we have no handle on. The terror of the situation has a lot to do with how much we believe what we think we know, with how much we are caught in the gravity of our planet of conventional reality, believing it to be the center of the universe—and sometimes all that exists. We usually do not realize that our experience of reality has to shift only a little bit and all will disappear, leaving us totally terrified. Our only hope is a guidance, a discernment, an indication that comes from a realm beyond. There is no other way, there has never been any other way. What you know can only take you further into what you know. Your mind can only take you to another component of itself, it can never take you beyond itself. If we don’t open ourselves up to guidance—whether it is coming from the outside or the inside—we are bound to remain stuck. We are doomed to go in circles, orbiting the same planet over and over and over again, gravity-bound.

Sequential Loss of the Sense of Self

Terror usually has to do with survival, so it is not just a matter of unconscious material. When people have terror, they are afraid that they are going to die, or that they are going to disappear. The loss of the sense of self comes after that. The self in the beginning is an ego self, what is called the personality, with its identity. If you follow it, you realize that it can go, disappear, and there is a terror about letting go of that. That is when you shake in your boots. When that goes, there is peace. Then there is the discovery of the essential or true self. The real self is made out of pure Essence and consciousness. It is luminous and pure and the source of love, compassion and goodness, with a sense of timelessness and spacelessness. That identity can go to. When that goes, there is another experience of peace, which has to do with nonexistence. When that happens, there is the possibility of the arising of another identity, which we call the Supreme Identity, for this identity is the self of the whole universe. The true identity is a reflection of a more universal, boundless identity, which is the nature of all that there is. You see yourself as everything, as the source of everything not merely the source of your own body and thoughts. Then there is the possibility of losing even this cosmic self. This results in a new experience of peace, which is the experience of selflessness. Then there is no self to see you or anything: all that exists is ultimately empty and selfless. Then even that can go. The selflessness can go, which means going through fear and terror again. The selflessness goes because even selflessness is a concept. What is left then is absence, which is not anything left.

Soul Beginning to Experience an Inner Emptiness, a Meaninglessness

Existential issues are related to the normal limitations of being a human being living in a world with others. These issues include questions, conflicts, and suffering in relation to desire and desirelessness, gratification and frustration, intimacy and isolation, relatedness and aloneness, love and aggression, instinct and morality, limitation and finitude, transitoriness and mortality, choice and accident, meaning and emptiness, being and nothingness, fear and dread, and so on. These issues reflect the fact that the soul has both animal and essential potential, that she is unrealized without knowing it or knowing that there is any alternative. The soul lives an embodied life with its normal limitations and frustrations, which are compounded by her ignorance of her true nature. These issues tend to arise naturally in life, especially during transitions and intense events, but they also are brought forth intensely due to the inner work. They arise especially as the soul learns to penetrate and transcend her ego structure. To follow our example, when the soul begins to see the limitation of structure and experiences herself as presence, the structure begins to reveal its nature as a mental construct characterized by past conditioning, ideas, memories, etc. The soul begins to experience an inner emptiness, a meaninglessness, a dread of falling apart, and terror of death and annihilation. These experiences of falling apart or being annihilated actually come to pass as the structures dissolve. The soul experiences disintegration and dissolution, disorientation, and a loss of identity; she feels lost and despondent. These existential crises are actually elements of some stages of working through ego structures that then lead to deeper realizations of true nature, moving to timelessness and formlessness.

The Narcissistic Wound Evokes Terror Which Sometimes We Feel as the Fear of Death

Experiencing the narcissistic wound completely, without defending against it, will lead to the dissolution of the shell, which is actually the awareness of the emptiness within it. We sometimes refer to the narcissistic wound as the “emptiness wound.” This wound opens us up to emptiness, to nothingness. It opens us to the nothingness of the dissolution of the self. No wonder it evokes such terror, which sometimes we feel as the fear of death. It is the ultimate fear of disintegration and disappearing. The vague sense of dread that we felt before we were directly aware of the wound becomes an immense terror, as the wound opens up to emptiness. It is here that we understand the existential dread and terror unique to narcissism. However, when we understand the situation accurately, appreciating that we are opening up to a deeper experience of ourselves, and have the empathic support of the teacher, it becomes easier to surrender to the process. The dissolution of the shell is actually a surrender of the self, letting go of our concept of self. The opening can then become an entrance into vastness, and into the fundamental presence and truth of the self.

The Presence of Divine Love Holds the Soul and Assuages Her Terror

Since divine love inspires trust and surrender, it functions as the melting elixir in the various difficult stages of the soul’s development. The ego-structured soul is too scared and distrustful to let go of her major defining structures, which makes surrendering difficult. The distrust causes her to identify with these structures even more rigidly, for they are the building blocks of her autonomous existence and functioning. However, when divine love appears in her experience it makes the letting go of this identification and the surrender of these structures much more possible, certainly easier. The presence of divine love, with both its love and light that transcends words and promises, holds the soul and assuages her fear and terror. The most fundamental structures are those of separating boundaries and self-identity, and their underlying ego activity. The loving light of the divine dimension appears when these structures are released. It appears with the integration of the diamond dome, which brings understanding of inner seeking and its ego activity, as well as cessation of this activity at the center of the ego. It arises again with the integration of the stupa, for this is the stage of understanding and transcending ego boundaries and their sense of separateness. The loving light appears as well at the dimension of the diamond will, at which stage the dissociating representations of the ego-self and its identity are transcended. Such deepening levels of surrender finally invoke the full presence of divine love, as a boundless dimension of Being.

The Source of Terror

When you see how fundamental, how pervasive, how deep and entrenched your physical orientation is, you will notice that you don’t look at even your deep experiences from a total perspective. You look at them from the perspective of the body, from the physical perspective. Most of your issues arise from that perspective. When you feel that you are disappearing, what is it that is disappearing? Usually, it’s the image of your body You are terrified because you believe your physical body is the most important, fundamental, lasting real, fundamental, solid you. If that goes, you go. You don’t think, “I’m just seeing myself from a different place. My perception is detaching from the physical senses, and as a result, I am seeing something deeper than the physical.” If you do see it that way, you won’t feel that you are disappearing. You will be aware that you are not just seeing through your physical senses. Then there will be no fear, and no reason for the terror. So the source of the terror is our belief that the physical body is who we are—fundamentally and ultimately.

There is Terror in Having No Supporting Mirrors to Give Us Meaning

It is not easy to look clearly and sincerely at ourselves. Most of us don’t even know what is difficult about it. We just find our minds dodging in all directions to avoid it. I break up with my boyfriend, and suddenly I’m eating. If I’m not eating, I’m doing my paintings that I haven’t touched in ten years. Or I am just divorced or retired, so I’m going to travel for a year or so to see what’s there in life. Now this may be a great idea, but what is motivating you? Our minds are clever at avoiding the feeling that arises at the end of anything, because there is a terror of having no supporting mirrors to give us meaning. Just to exist as we are brings up a big fear of the emptiness. There is usually a fear that we don’t really have any Essence, and that we don’t have an identity. We may believe that the emptiness is all there is. This might be reinforced by early childhood experiences involving a panic about being different from others, about being different from our parents, for example, which creates a kind of self-consciousness.

To Have a Free Mind is to be a Universal Heretic

To have a free mind is to be a universal heretic. You don’t believe in the ultimate reality of any concept. You can assume any belief you find useful and attractive, but you don’t need to hold on to any of it. Without being captured by your beliefs, you are strong enough and confident enough to throw away any and all beliefs and perspectives, each and every philosophy and story. You can stand totally alone, completely independent of all that comes through the mind, through time and space. This station of realization is difficult and rare. Most of us don’t have the nerve to lose our minds. Although terrifying, it is necessary for true freedom. We have to risk that we may be wrong. We have to risk the aloneness and the terror of being totally on our own. We have to risk cutting all of our supports, burning all of our bridges, destroying all of our boats. They are all ultimately and fundamentally concepts that come from hearsay or, at best, from our own past experiences. Even the concepts and knowledge that have come from our own immediate experiences cannot be relied on. That knowledge is like Buddha’s words—old, unless corroborated in this moment. Maybe a week ago you had an experience of realization, but how do you know that will be the same today? Who said that God won’t change or that self-realization should continue being the same today? In other words, we cannot hold on to any concept past our direct experience of it; otherwise, what we’re doing is believing a story. Whether someone else’s or our own, a story is a story, not true reality here and now. To be truly independent and autonomous, we need to be free from the concepts acquired from others as well as our own past experiences. Our minds hold on to concepts, memories, and stories. When we truly are ourselves and live in reality, we do not need concepts for support, we do not need memories to know who we are, and we do not need stories to be naturally at ease. We are who we are not because of what we believe, not because of what we remember, but because of what we are now and, ultimately, because of what we are truly.

We Might Feel Fear, or Even Terror, that Any Crack in Our Sense of Ourselves Will Threaten Our Self-Identity

It is not, however, this particular feature which actually brings about the experience of Being. Rather, it is a feature of the process of identifying itself, namely, the possibility of disidentification, that allows us to experience Being. The identity can be more or less rigidly identified with a particular content of the self. Some aspects of the identity, typically the more false ones, are felt as shaky and easily challenged. This leads to a certain grasping or tightness of identification, creating rigidity rather than flexibility in the sense of who one is. Psychodynamic theory and practice have explored extensively the defense mechanisms employed to maintain our rigidly fixed identities. When a person’s sense of identity is particularly weak, he can become desperate to identify with any content that will give his identity structure. In this situation, the function of identifying becomes extremely rigid, and we cannot easily allow any distance from a particular notion of ourselves. We might feel fear, or even terror, that any crack in our sense of ourselves will threaten the structure, cohesion, and stability of our self-identity. What we would normally call a stronger identity is somewhat secure, cohesive and stable. This stability allows the identity more freedom to be flexible, so that the self is more relaxed with respect to particular contents or patterns of experience. A person who insists to himself, “I am never angry,” is less free and flexible than one who is sensitive to the bodily and emotional affect of anger, and can say, “I am sometimes angry and sometimes not.” An even greater freedom, clearly, belongs to those who can say, “I’m angry; I wonder why this situation is making me angry.” Here, the self does not feel threatened by some distance from the particular content of identification. This capacity is termed “disidentification.” When we are disidentified from a particular content and do not move to another identification, we disidentify to some extent from the self-representation itself, and we are then much more likely to directly experience our essential Being.

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