“Happy the man who most resembles the animals, for he is effortlessly what the rest of us only are by hard work; for he knows the way home, which the rest of us can only reach through byways of fiction and hazy return routes; for he is rooted like a tree, forming part of landscape and therefore of beauty, while we are but passing myths, animated rag-doll walk-ons that represent futility and oblivion.” — Fernando Pessoa
In the bullfighting arena of life, our role seems clear.
We assume we’re the matador.
We feel like we’re the one in control, directing the play. Moving and sweeping with strong, confident steps. Responding to the bull’s occasional impulsive urges, but otherwise steering the action at our own will.
But this is an illusion. This is the illusion of life. It’s a cloak of deception, the greatest and most mischievous plan ever hatched. It’s an ever-present mirage, a magic trick of the highest order.
The truth is this: We are not the matador.
We are the bull.
The two (or more) selves
The self is a difficult thing to pin down. Who are you, and what are you made of? It’s hard to get a single answer to such a question. Indeed, much of the difficulty arises from trying to reduce the self down to one thing.
Many psychologists and philosophers have proposed distinctions of multiple selves. Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2, Jonathan Haidt’s the rider and the elephant, and Iain McGilchrist’s the master and the emissary…the list goes on. Whatever their labels, it’s clear there’s more than meets the eye.
We contain multitudes. We’re an orchestra of selves. “My soul is a secret orchestra,” wrote Fernando Pessoa, “but I don’t know what instruments – strings, harps, cymbals drums – strum and bang inside me. I only know myself as the symphony.”
Maybe there’s one you. Maybe there’s two. Or maybe your sense of you is just a seductive, emergent illusion.
Whatever the case, it’s clear that if there is a “you”, it’s something deeper and more nuanced than what we think.
Eastern spiritual traditions differ in many ways, but they tend to agree that you are not that constant stream of thoughts that clutter your mind.
You are what lies deeper than reason, underneath your thoughts, deeper than the mind.
So what are you? You are that force of energy that drives you. A gravitational force, a constant push towards. An instinct that moves you and sets you into motion, into life.
For lack of a better word, this force is desire.
It is through desire that it we reach out to life. Life is that stretching, the interaction with the world around us. It’s growth. It’s metabolism, transforming energy into heat and movement. It’s that ability to autonomically and autonomously know.
Desire, in this sense, does not refer to craving. Instead, it’s the desire of intuition, of instinct, of reaching. It’s a motor, a propeller, a force.
Desire is the flower facing south to receive the sun’s rays. Desire is the wolf that stalks its prey for days. Desire is the horse that gallops across the plains toward pastures new.
Life is desire. And if life is desire, then, one would think, it should come entirely natural to us.
But the power of desire lies beneath a heavy cloud for us humans. It’s shrouded by thoughts and cultural conditioning of shoulds and musts, a thick fog shielding the treasures that lie in store beneath.
What we’re all longing for is to dance with our intuition. To be free of our mind and to be one with ourselves.
If only we could learn to to crawl inside of our intuition and become one with it. To just know. To just do. To just be.
Like a tree has a certain treeness, and a mountain goat has a certain goatness, you have a certain youness.
To be that youness—and all its raw power, its vibrant energy, its creative intuition—is not a question of adding or learning anything new. It’s instead about getting the clutter out of the way, and letting that youness loose.
Which brings us back to the matador and the bull.
Becoming the bull
Many of us try to become a better matador. We learn the hacks and the skills. We try to meditate, exercise, and eat the right diet. We do everything we can to become a better controller of reality, a dictator of our own experience. Developing more control, more confidence, more discipline…more.
This sounds enticing. But it’s playing a false game. No matter how controlled you become as a matador, the bull will always be there. And the bull, primitive as it might seem at first glance, is smarter than you think. It will always find a way to catch up with your hacks. It might be one step behind, but it’s always up to speed.
So what if there was another way. What would it mean to play a different game altogether?
That would mean to cease to be the matador at all. And that means becoming the bull.
“Ah, that won’t work—the bull will rage! That’s unsafe! It will destroy everything in its sights!” you hear yourself think as you contemplate dissolving the matador.
The matador is clever. The thoughts you hear are the matador’s well-crafted defense strategy.
Of course the matador would say that, wouldn’t it. Its existence is on the line. Naturally it will try to convince you that it’s needed to survive. And, it seems to have a point. Looking back, there has been a perfect correlation between your survival and the incessant voice of the matador.
But correlation does not imply causation.
To let the bull rage.
The thought strikes fear into our depths. If we let the bull out free, won’t it wreak havoc? Won’t it go around devouring everything in its sights? Can it be trusted at all?
Again: these are the rationalizations and defense mechanisms of the matador.
When the matador disappears from the arena—or at the very least is not deferred to anymore—and you let the bull free into the fields, things change. You’ll see that the bull is a very different beast than you first thought.
The bull isn’t angry. Its fury and rage came from its confinement, the despicable conditions it endured, and the abusive crowds in the arena.
And so when the matador and the crowd dissolve, so does the need for the bull to be angry, scared, and feared. It can just be.
The bull can just be the bull in all its bullness. Just like the tree can be the tree in all its treeness. The sky can be the sky in all its skyness.
And you can be you in all your youness.