One of the first things that people notice when they embark on the spiritual journey is that there are many seekers and only a few “enlightened” beings. To me, the only possible explanation for this mismatch, is not that “enlightenment” is so hard to find but that we tend to look in the wrong places for it. And I think the reason for this is that the Eastern cultural context makes it sound much more exotic than it actually is. In this post I would like to look at the question of enlightenment from a more Western perspective and thereby de-mystify and clarify it a bit.
Let’s start very basic.
The French philosopher Albert Camus once said that the most important philosophical question is to whether to commit suicide or not. Or in other words: what is it that keeps us going? Why not just quit life? I would posit that the answer to this question is “meaning”. The surest way to get a suicidal depression is by convincing ourselves that life is meaningless. An the best way to spark enthusiasm is to find a reason to live for.
The question that now arises is: what is “meaning”? Meaning is where our bliss is, and bliss is when we feel most genuinely alive. To feel alive our senses need to be attuned to the immediacy of what is going on (“now”), they need to be receptive. The more we are stimulated sensually, the more our being is enlivened and the more gratitude we feel for being alive. When the “doors of perception” open, life reveals itself as the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” that it is. The senses are the gates to the kingdom of heaven.
What competes with the immediate reality of “now”, is the symbolic, representational reality of the mind. The mind is where we abstract the world, where we leave what actually “is” and enter what we think about what “is”. This ability is of vital importance for the survival of our species but it does not provide “meaning”. A reality of ideas has no “juice” in it. It is an empty shell that cannot touch our being.
So, then, how do we “get out” of our minds? The short answer is: by not getting “into” it. We get into our minds whenever we do not accept what “is”, that is, when we try to exercise (conscious) control, when we judge or when we think about the past or the future. All “enlightening” practices, therefore, in some way or other have something to do with the relinquishing of control, the suspension of judgement or discrediting the belief in a better past or future.
As I have written in this blog a few times before, we cannot accept what “is”. We cannot enlighten ourselves. Trying to accept is like trying to let go by grasping. The only way to accept what “is” is to trust and to fall in love with what “is”. So, the only reason we cannot be “here, now”, cannot find “meaning” in life, is because we don’t trust and love it unconditionally. Solitude, silence, meditation, chanting, rituals, psychedelics, etc. have been used for millennia to develop this trust and fall more and more in love with what “is”.
So, to be enlightened is to be a lover of life (or to be “intimate with all things”, as the great Zen Master Dogen put it). Such a person lives for life’s sake and not for any particular purpose. Life becomes its own purpose, just as the lover’s sole purpose of life is to be in the presence of the Beloved. When life is loved unconditionally there is no point in changing it, and so, all striving ceases. This marks a new beginning.
In the same spirit, Albert Camus’ answer to his own philosophical question was: “live to the point of tears”.
“The on-going WOW is happening, right now.”
Transcript of a fantastic video clip (click here) from the movie “Waking Life” featuring Speed Levitch:
On this bridge, Lorca warns: life is not a dream. Beware, and beware, and beware!
And so many think because then happened, now isn’t. But didn’t I mention, the on-going WOW is happening, right now!
We are all co-authors of this dancing exuberance, where even our inabilities are having a roast! We are the authors of ourselves, co-authoring a gigantic Dostoevsky novel starring clowns!
This entire thing we’re involved with called the world, is an opportunity to exhibit how exciting alienation can be.
Life is a matter of a miracle, that is collected over time by moments flabbergasted to be in each others’ presence.
The world is an exam, to see if we can rise into the direct experiences. Our eyesight is here as a test to see if we can see beyond it, matter is here as a test for our curiosity, doubt is here as an exam for our vitality.
Thomas Mann wrote that he would rather participate in life than write a hundred stories. Giacometti was once run down by a car, and he recalled falling in to a lucid faint, a sudden exhilaration, as he realized at last, something was happening to him.
An assumption develops that you can not understand life and live life simultaneously. I do not agree entirely, which is to say I do not exactly disagree. I would say, that life understood is life lived. But the paradoxes bug me. And I can learn to love, and make love to the paradoxes that bug me. And on really romantic evenings of Self, I go salsa dancing with my confusion.
Before you drift off, don’t forget, which is to say remember. Because remembering is so much more a psychotic activity than forgetting. Lorca, in that same poem, said that the iguana will bite those who do not dream. And, as one realizes, that one is a dream-figure in another person’s dream: that is self-awareness!
I have written on this blog much about (self-)acceptance, letting go and surrender to “what is” as the key tenets of spirituality. At the same time I have tried to convey the point that acceptance, letting go and surrender is not something we can do, force or bring about. There is no way we can help ourselves on the path to enlightenment. In fact, the very trying is what makes it completely unfeasible. We have to trick ourselves into it somehow.
Because that is so, any spiritual method, in one way or another, tries to undermine the “ego”, that is, our reflex to control and manipulate our experiencing of “what is”. Therefore, I have tried to show you either that there is no separate “you” (wisdom about life) or that the world exactly as it “is”, the full catastrophe, is perfect (love for life).
This time I will try to synthesize these two positions, the position of (non-dual) wisdom and (dual) devotion. I will do so by trying to prove that the “we” (the “ego”) has no control whatsoever over our experiences and that this is no problem at all. To me, this is the ultimate trick of the spiritual trade.
Let’s start with our five senses. Do we have control over the experience of seeing, touching, hearing, smelling or tasting? No, we don’t. Our senses can’t be shut down (only blocked). Even if we are not conscious of hearing, touching, seeing, smelling or tasting (because we may not pay particular attention), unconsciously the gates of perception are always wide open.
Let’s now consider thoughts. Can we not think of a pink elephant while we are reading this line? No, we can’t. Thoughts constantly arise from the depths of the unconscious. We have no control as to what thoughts arise at what time. Can we stop thoughts? No. Since the “we” is itself a thought, “we” trying not to think thoughts just creates more “we” thoughts (thickening the illusion of a solid “we”). Stopping thoughts is as impossible as licking our own tongue. Try and you’ll notice it will just create motion in your mouth. A thought (the “we”) can never control another thought (it can only replace it).
What about feelings? Feelings are regulated by thoughts which are the mental precursors to physical sensations: when we have “good” thoughts we feel good and when we have “bad” thoughts we feel bad. As stated above, thoughts arise from the unconscious and are uncontrollable. Hence, we have no control over our feelings either.
What all this proves is that just as we cannot be spontaneous on purpose, we cannot influence our sensory perceptions, thoughts and feelings. We cannot want to be spontaneous because both, spontaneous and unspontaneous acts always happen spontaneously, that is, without our implicit consent! Likewise, we cannot want to change our experiences, because they always happen no matter how we feel about them! Think about it.
And it gets even more interesting as we delve deeper into the subject. As we understand that thoughts determine how we feel and that we have no control over our thoughts, the “we” is naturally inclined to try to change how we were conditioned by our parents and society (our “judges”) to interpret our experiences. We know, that if we reject our experiences, we suffer. So, we may think: “Let’s accept it all, “good” or “bad”! Let’s surrender to everything! Let’s go with the flow!” Of course, though, not controlling is as much an “ego”-trip as controlling since any intent to do something about our experience is a total denial of “what is”. Trying to accept and surrender logically implies a stance of non-acceptance and non-surrender. No matter where we turn, there is no way out of this “double bind”. Whatever option we chose, controlling or not controlling, we can only go wrong. “We” are trapped.
At some point (for some after many, many years of struggling!) it will hopefully dawn on us that there is nothing “we” can do: no controlling thoughts and feelings, no “be here now”, no “going with the flow”, no letting go, no surrendering, no (self-)accepting, no (self-)improving, no spiritual method, no absolutely nothing at all that will work to “advance” on the spiritual path and find peace of mind! Of course, having truly realized this IS the ultimate disillusionment, the death of the (imaginary) “ego” that the spiritual path is all about!
To know that nothing can be done to change one’s experiences coupled with the wisdom that the universe, with its interplay of light and dark, is perfect in design leads one directly into the hands of (self-)acceptance and surrender. There is no more grounds for objecting to anything! All is, and has always been, as it was supposed to be! And even if we wanted, it couldn’t be changed anyhow because the “we” is (just another experience and therefore) absolutely powerless. There is no need and no capacity for change, ever.
In reality, all that “is” is this divine “No-thing” experiencing itself through itself. We are the container and the contained. We, the universe, move(s) through ourself. With this realization, the dis-ease with “what is” in this present moment ceases and we leave our futile struggles to find salvation in the future behind. And this is non other than the most natural human condition. Or nothing special, as they would say in Zen.
“Unless you make tremendous efforts, you will not be convinced that effort will take you nowhere. The self is so self-confident that unless it is totally discouraged it will not give up. Mere verbal conviction is not enough. Hard facts alone can show the absolute nothingness of the self-image.”
I am back from a very long walk with lots of interesting observations. Here’s one of them. Many people these days are very impatient because they constantly seem to be “losing” or “wasting” time everywhere. Steering one’s ship around the whirlpools of time drainers like traffic jams, conference calls, tax filings, etc. and to “save” time has become a fetish of our age.
If we look at it more closely, the very idea of “wasting” time hinges on two premises:
a) the notion that there is a limited amount of time, and
b) the notion that there is somewhere to get to, or something to achieve within this limited time-frame.
I’ve written about the illusion of time before (here), so in this post I want to focus on the second aspect.
We all know too well that the game our Western societies are founded upon is based on the importance of “doing” and “becoming”. Before we pursue something we are conditioned to ask ourselves: “what do I get out of it?”, and make sure it serves a purpose. Implicit in this way of evaluating our actions is the belief that there is always something to improve, that it is never good enough as it is. In that logic, doing something that serves no purpose means missing out on the opportunity to create a better future and so sustaining the status quo is considered a waste of time. Not making progress is often stigmatized as failure, laziness or anti-social behavior. Thus, when we “waste” time, we usually feel frustrated or guilty.
The way we are taught to think about life in Western societies is that the future always promises something that the present does not yet provide. Things could always be better. Constantly living for the future, though, means never truly living in the present. And that way, we trade our whole lives for a future that never arrives because it can never be settled into.
How to be more present in the present has been a topic of philosophical discussion and debate for millennia. One of the highest attainments in Hindu philosophy is non-attachment or renunciation of the fruits of one’s actions, that is, acting without a particular notion of purpose to gain merit in the future. All spiritual methods of the East ultimate aim at entering this “state”. For example, Zen can be understood as the art of acting just for the sake of acting. Accordingly, the Zen method is meditation which, in its strictest sense, is the one single activity serving no purpose whatsoever. In Zen meditation one just sits: not to get anywhere or achieve anything but just to sit. Because of our “doing-to-get” mentality, though, it is one of the most challenging tasks we could ever take up. Boredom, guilt, restlessness, meaninglessness are some of the symptoms of our conditioning that will come up and which need to be overcome to make friends with what is and to live in the present.
Other methods, like Rinzai Zen or Advaita Vedanta, try to induce experiential realizations of the infinite and endless ground of existence. Such insight not only undermines the notion of time, collapsing the future with the “Now”, but it also leads one to conclude that there is nothing to get or nowhere to get to in the future that would not always be here now already.
To live truly it is important to realize that any possible future point in time will be the same “Now” when it finally arrives. Our cultural assumption of creating a better future is fundamentally flawed. To make our days brighter we don’t need to change the world or ourselves but our internal relationship with the world and ourselves, that is, we need to change the way we “see” things. This is the meaning of “true happiness comes from within”.
In that sense, the royal road to a fulfilling life is paved with unconditional acceptance, of ourselves and of the world as it is. When we say yes unconditionally the rat race of seeking happiness elsewhere stops instantaneously and we settle into the present. Then we will realize the “dirty” little secret of our social game that the only way to waste time in life is to think that we could ever waste time.
“The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you are still a rat.”
The topic of this post is something I have been wanting to put down in writing for a long time. It’s probably the most classic case of mistaking a description (and all spiritual teachings are descriptions!) for a prescription. What I want to discuss is the idea of the detached witness.
First of all, detached witnessing is not a state we can put ourselves into. Any willing change of state is something that we would have to do. Any doing involves effort and any effort to change how we perceive the world implies a rejecting of what already is. Trying to get into a state of detached witnessing exposes our belief in the insufficiency of our current state of consciousness and reflects our wish to transcend what we would call the ‘existential problems’ of life. This, of course, is exactly the stuff Samsara is made out of: trying to cling to bliss and reject piss. In Zen, meditators who are aspiring to put themselves in a detached witnessing state are called ‘stone Buddhas’. When life touches them, they wouldn’t react. As a consequence, they would not only be just as juicy and energized as zombies but also hopelessly trapped in an utterly dualistic point of view.
The fundamental misconception that leads to such misguided pursuits is the notion that life is painful and therefore to be avoided and decoupled of. Misunderstood meditation instructions seem to give ‘stone Buddhas’ permission to bless their suspicious stance against life with spiritual credentials.
Sooner or later, though, ‘stone Buddhas’ will end up severely frustrated and miserable. It is then that they hopefully realize that rejecting life, in the form of perceptions, feelings and emotions is not the solution to the existential ‘problem’ but the very cause of it.
When the mind neither clings nor rejects and does not ‘move out’ into the world, we enter a space of vivid ‘Now-ness’ and remain serenely unentangled with ‘what is’. This feels like being an uninvolved and benevolent witness (a.k.a. the Godhead). Hence, the detachment or ‘witnessing’ the sages talk about is really non other than a state of surrender.
Again, surrendering is not something we can do and therefore it is impossible to teach. Any attempt to surrender precludes it, since surrendering is the non-disalignment with what already is. In that sense, it is the natural state that we abandon when we want our experience to be different than it actually is. It is not something we can get, it gets us when we sincerely allow it.
There are, thus, tools and methods which can gently but surely trick our minds into submission to the ‘Now’. The way they work is by leading us to the realization that what causes our suffering is the inability to let things go their natural way and this message will become more and more obvious as we ‘progress’. Finally, all objection to ‘what is’ has to let go of.
One of the most powerful ‘tricks’ is to invoke a realization of the innate divinity of all things (called Satori in Zen). It breaks our resistance to ‘what is’ as we realize that all we ever resist is non other than ourselves in disguise. A sage knows that everything from our darkest thoughts and most painful feelings to our most lofty ideals and ecstasies are manifestations of this ‘One’ divinity. There are no wrong feelings, sensations, thoughts or states of consciousness. Acknowledging it all and embracing it all as divine bestows the sages their inner freedom which enables them to truly live from the heart beyond rejecting or grasping.
If we look deeply at life we see that it is neither so nor so. It is blissful and violent, good and evil. Since we are manifestations of life, how could we not also contain bliss and violence, good and bad within us? “I am large, I contain multitudes”, famously sang Walt Whitman to himself. He speaks about the wholeness that arises from the realization that we are part of life as much as all aspects of life are part of us: the light as much as the darkness. That way we don’t have to escape from life anymore by detaching from it but we will relax and serenely surrender into our ‘Oneness’ with it.
“He who knows not that the Prince of Darkness is the other face of the King of Light knows not me.”
~G. Manly Hall
When the great American mythologist Joseph Campbell in 1955 visited living Advaita sage Sri Atmananda Krishna Menon in India, he had one burning question for the master in mind. Having studied Indian mythology thoroughly for years, he struggled to reconcile the messages of God’s glory in the vedic hymns with the apparent horrors of the ordinary world. How could we say “no” to brutality, stupidity, vulgarity and thoughtlessness if, according to the Vedas, all was a manifestation of the divine? The master’s answer blew Campbell’s mind. “For you and me”, Krishna Menon replied, “the way is to say yes”.
For most people such an answer would be plain stupid or, at best, naive. They would argue that this supposedly Indian sage was telling them to become cowards by avoiding friction and conflict, or, they would expect to be thrown around and crushed by life if they ceased to defend themselves.
What Sri Atmananda was pointing to is, of course, exactly the opposite to cowardice. It takes a truly heroic stance to say “yes”, for every “no” reflects our unacknowledged fears that trigger conditioned, reactive patterns, collectively known as our ego. At the root of our ego and all our psychological suffering is an array of “no’s” that are heavily encased by unconscious fears. For the sages and masters of all times, thus, spirit-uality was about cultivating a warrior spirit towards our fears, turning our “no’s” into “yes'”, thereby transcending our ego (obviously, from the point of view of our ego, developing such a spirit feels like a terrible mistake which is exactly why spiritual training is so darn challenging).
When we say “no” we act and react from an unconscious place of fear. Fear is what drives the brutality, stupidity, vulgarity and thoughtlessness that Joseph Campbell saw manifested in the world. When we transcend fear and say “yes”, however, the range of possible actions and reactions broaden immensely. After saying “yes” we can still say “no”, but we will be able do so from our “Buddha-Nature”, that is, in a more open, creative and compassionate manner because our being is not gripped and bound by fear. A spiritually mature person can, thus, utter paradoxical statements like Ram Dass when he said that “suffering is part of the plan of it all, and suffering stinks”.
To reach such maturity in (warrior) spirit, non-dual teachings are great tools. When we realize that all is this ‘One’ (or ‘God’) we lose all objection to the various facets of life, whether they ‘stink’ or not. It helps us realize that not only joy and peace is what characterizes life, but also the suffering that comes with it. “All life is sorrowful”, is the first Noble Truth of the teaching of the Buddha and when he is depicted as sitting in the immovable spot in the hub of the wheel of life, he is not immune to life’s pains and sorrows since the hub is still a part of the world. He accepts the seemingly contradictory polarities of life as an integral part of life, as a manifestation of this ‘One’ Absolute reality that includes every single thing. He knew that when we can unconditionally say “yes” to all existence, we indirectly also say “yes” to this moment, this eternal “Now”. And it is in this “Now” that all the Buddhas before and after him have found their liberation from pain and sorrow.
What the enlightened masters ultimately teach us is that if we don’t know how to wisely relate to the “dark side” of existence, we are not fit for the full experience of life, since whenever we keep aspects of the world out we keep ourselves out of the world.
“My formula for greatness is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different. Not merely bear what is necessary but love it.”
I remember it as vividly as if it had happened just recently. One fine day I was walking in the streets unperturbed and without haste when suddenly time ‘stopped’. In a flash of graceful insight, I realized that time was a mere concept, an illusion fed by our social and biological conditioning.
In this post I will try to explain in words what exactly had become clear to me in that instant and the impact such an insight can have.
First of all let’s define time. Time measures a sequence of causes and effects in the interval between two ‘events’. For example, a year is defined as a sequence of occurrences within one interval of the earth leaving and returning to the same position in reference to the sun.
Now, I want you to consider the possibility that the universe is timeless, that is, eternal. What if there was neither a beginning nor an end to it? Yes, there may have been a ‘Big Bang’ that created this particular manifestation of the universe but there must be something that caused it. According to reputable modern-day scientists and ancient Eastern cosmology the universe has expanded and collapsed infinite times before and will go on doing so endlessly. Because there never was a first ‘Bang’, we can’t tell in which ‘Bang-and-Bust’ cycle we are currently in. Since there is no reference ‘Bang’ we could use to tell cycles apart, every cycle is the same cycle in different shape and form. Each cycle is just the furthermost in an endless series of cycles. If we assume an eternal universe, the time must always be the same: ‘now’. Far out, isn’t it? Eternity kills time.
Since there is no time (in eternity), none of this, not your life nor anything else, is actually ever ‘happening’. All that is ‘happening’, is change in this one, endless moment. Again, a ‘happening’/ ‘event’ is something which could be marked on a linear timescale. But without a beginning nor an end, such a scale couldn’t exist. All that has ever ‘happened’ and ever will ‘happen’, is ‘happening’ in this same endless instant. This moment is not a passing phase. There is no progression from one moment to the next. Yesterday, today and tomorrow ‘happen’ in this very same moment, this ‘now’.
Let’s make an example: raise your arm. We could say that time elapsed between these two distinct states of your arm. First the arm was down then there was a smooth sequence of movements of the arm going up and finally the arm was up. Between ‘arm down’ and ‘arm up’ a few measures of time (e.g. seconds) passed. However, from the perspective of eternity all that ‘happened’ was that the timeless, static ‘Now’ (aka Brahman, Tao, Godhead, Void, etc.) simply changed its appearance from one state or ‘configuration’ to another. That’s it. Forms, time and space are all superimposed on an infinite, static context of potentiality. Just like a movie screen can endlessly display things in all imaginable variations, the ‘Now’ can forever assume any imaginable sequence of forms. The famous 3rd Patriarch of Zen, Seng Ts’an, was pointing to this realization when he wrote: “Consider motion in stillness and stillness in motion [then] both movement and stillness disappear”. Motion is in fact embedded in the static stillness of the eternal ‘Now’. As much as the static moves, motion is static. Or in Taoist terms: there is inaction underlying every action (wei wu wei).
Why is the illusion of time an important insight?
Time is the cause of all kinds of suffering. Which is why I like to call it the ‘King of Delusions’. Time creates the notion of finiteness, coming and going, past and future. Such ideas give rise to regret and anxiety, striving and struggle, fear and desire. Realizing that all that ever ‘happened’ and will ever ‘happen’, births, deaths, achievements, successes, failures, etc., are but different ‘modes’ of the very same eternal and infinite primordial ground, stops the minds tendencies to dwell in the murky bondage of the ‘not-HereNow’ of time and space.
When (the illusion of) time is completely seen through we fully realize our essential, eternal nature. We know that ‘we’ never move nor age. ‘We’ are never affected by anything. ‘We’ are never not here. The manifestations ‘we’ can give rise to appear and disappear, but, in the end, they are just actualizations of ‘our’ potential. Because, in essence, ‘we’ are the infinite, all penetrating and everlasting sea of pixels manifesting as the images ‘we’ create. All ‘we’ ever ultimately do is playing an endless game with ourselves without any particular purpose or meaning, just for the sake of playing it.
Once the mind realizes beyond doubt that the eternal ‘Now’ is all there ever is, it strays no more but stays right here, and our very own kingdom of heaven becomes finally fully ours to enjoy.
“The Way is beyond language, for in it there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today.”
The Chromatics – Tick of the Clock