Attention To The Formless

“In fact, at the heart of the new consciousness lies the transcendence of thought, the newfound ability of rising above thought, of realizing a dimension within yourself that is infinitely more vast than thought.“ 
Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth

This nice shirt was on sale. It came with a tie. There was no real need for the tie, but it looked nice with the shirt. The price was good. The brand was reliable, so the shirt went home. The shirt came in a transparent box sealed with strong transparent wrapping tape and a little string that had to be unwound to get the box open. The shirt was nicely folded for presentation, but unwearable right out of the box. It was full of pins, some of them hidden, and cardboard, paper, pieces of plastic to give it form and hold it just so. All that stuff went in the garbage, because though it was sold with the shirt, it was not the shirt.

We are like the shirt. We come with a lot of stuff that is not really us. It makes us safe and it makes us seem nice. Some of it is nonessential, but pleasant. Some of it is difficult, annoying and ultimately garbage. We are what we are, and we have this ego that is helpful in some ways. We need an ego to operate in the world. Our problem is that we identify with the ego stuff that gives us form and that we use to present ourselves to the world.

In Eckhart Tolle’s book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, he describes how we identify with our ego, which is “a conglomeration of recurring thought forms and conditioned mental-emotional patterns that are invested with a sense of I, a sense of self.” We think we are our thoughts, but we are not that anymore than the shirt is the pins, plastic and cardboard that give it form.  This confusion causes suffering. The shirt could be sad that the pretty tie is going to be hung in the back of the closet and the nice plastic thing that made the tie lie straight and potent is going to become trash. “Alas,” it might say, “all that kept me beautiful and wrinkle free is going to be cast aside and wasted.”

We may be that way with our selves. We mourn the loss of our looks, our health, our career, our relationships, or our beliefs about who we are. What if we learn that we aren’t the special person that we thought we were? That can be a scary thought. But our looks aren’t us. We would still be somebody if we were deformed. We would still be somebody if we were sick, or if we had a different job, or no job. We might be confused about who we were though, and that  could be frightening. So we grab onto these beliefs of who we are and we strive to distinguish ourselves from others who are not us.

Ultimately, when we identify with the ego, we feel separate and alone. Since everyone’s ego is fallible, we may come to feel defective. We attach to the idea that is our ego and we suffer.

Mystics eventually understand how this works and some let go of clinging to the ego. When they do, we call them enlightened or sainted. Some of us have moments of transcendence when we can look past the form that we identify as ego to experience the truth that we are one with all that is, and then we slip back into the clinging and aversion that creates separation and engenders suffering.

Meditation is a tool for dropping the illusory forms that are ego, for looking directly at consciousness to see what’s really there and whom we really are.


A meditation session can have stages. One stage might be just sitting and practicing concentration, such as by observing the breath or counting breaths.

Another stage can be observing thoughts as they arise. While it is not your intention to have a thought, one arises and then another. Just notice the thought and let it go.

Then, you might attend to the space between thoughts. When there are no thoughts and yet you are awake and alert. What is that? If thoughts are form and mental structure, what is the formless? You don’t need to answer these questions in a formal way. You can just observe and observe the observing. Notice that observing is happening independent of specific thoughts. Who is doing that? What is that observer? Again, the answer is not analytical or logical. The answer is just awareness of awareness. The answer is beyond words.

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© 2008 Tom Barrett