Being Flat Authentic
by Michael Maciel
One of the criticisms we find most abhorrent is phoniness. Words like "fake", "insincere", "disingenuous", and "shallow" are as painful to the ego as the words "liar" and "coward". Just as a person might overreact to the accusation of cowardice by lashing out in anger, so too do we reach for our most inappropriate emotions when confronted with the label "phony". This is where "being real" means being cynical, dissatisfied, angry, bored, or just plain hard to get along with. It means cutting through the crap, as though crap is all there is. It is Hollywood’s version of the "true self", which lies just beyond the edge of our tolerance, waiting to explode.
It’s true that it can take an annoying amount of effort to keep our best foot forward at all times, to put on the happy face, to be pleasant when we’re not, to be understanding when we don’t. But once we admit to being annoyed, we no longer have to strain the muscles it takes to frown or smile, and we can relax into the quiescence that life silently is. Who says I have to be pissed-off (or even serious) to be in the present moment? And what if I’m not feeling ecstatic—does this mean I haven’t reached enlightenment? What if I am simply being present?
There is a term, axis mundi, which means "center of the world". It is the place where no centrifugal force exists, where there are no ups or downs, and where nothing pulls us into the swirl of circumstances that we normally call our "life". It is the only "real" place we can stand, because it is the only place that never changes. The best descriptive word for it is "flat". It feels like a bottom, the absolute limit of downward movement.
Usually, "hitting bottom" means that we have failed, and sometimes it takes a failure to deflate the ego enough for it to come down to earth. Failure can take many forms. It can be the failure of a divorce, a business failure, or it can simply be the ego realizing that it is not as important as it thought it was. This last instance is the real bottom, but only when it comes as a stark realization and not merely as an idea. The ego has to be overwhelmed by the fact of its own insignificance, the way we are overwhelmed when we see the Grand Canyon for the first time. Then we can actually see the world, whereas before, we were only looking at it through the filters of our interpretations. This is why drastic experiences make such an indelible impression on the mind—there are no similar experiences to which we can relate them, so they abruptly create a new neural pathway, a new "category" in our file drawer labeled "concepts".
Flat is the end of hope. There is nothing to hope for, because this is all there is. If we are a hope junkie, flat is disconcerting. But rarely is it frightening. There is such a solid-ness to flat that it feels supremely secure, even if it is also colorless. Whereas there is nowhere left to go, there are also no more illusions. This is deeply comforting in an existential way, which is to say that it doesn’t necessarily feel good. It is simply what it is, nothing more—and nothing less. It is truth in the sense that it is a direct perception of the real world, not a concept about it.
Truth (with a capital T) is an experience, not an idea. It is what we are, not what we would like to be. Unfortunately, our self-image (ego) is wrapped up in our ego-manufactured dreams and ideals. Who we are is the image of what we want to become. The launching pad for our actions is a false platform composed of the things we do not like, the things we hate, and therefore our actions are not actions at all, but reactions. We are not free as long as our life is a re-action—to anything. Authentic action does not even come as a movement toward the things we love, but only as an expression of what we are. This is real freedom, and it can only operate from the truly solid platform of "flat".
Being authentic means to act authentically, and not from someone else’s recipe for living. It can only be achieved when we have let go of all hope, which is to say our dreams and ideals. It comes when we place a higher value on what is than we do on what we would like to be. We can accomplish this through certain rigorous styles of meditation, by confronting ourselves head-on in a kind of ruthless honestly, or by "selling all that we have and giving to the poor". Only those who are willing to relinquish comfort and "happiness" are qualified to begin this journey. As Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor…the hungry…the meek." There is nothing in the fact of spiritual discipline that appeals to the ego, only in the ego’s idealized version of what it looks like to be "spiritual".
It is from the land of "flat" that we can ever expect to see God. It is here that the bottom becomes the top, as in a mountaintop, because a mountaintop is the absolute limit of upward movement, where personal effort ends and one can say, "Not my will, but Thy will be done."