And I believe all of us know it quite intimately.
I had the sense as a child that what was looking from my eyes was the same thing that looked back at me from others’ eyes, but I couldn’t put my finger on what that was.
At the time, I was being taught the quite contrary idea; that I was a separate, independent, autonomous entity.
If you watch small children, it is plain to see they have a really deep sense of connection with the world, without ever thinking about it or questioning it.Children pick up crayons and draw anywhere, on the floor or the walls. They don’t need paper. They draw for the sake of drawing, without intention. There need be no point or purpose. At least not in the sense of aiming to achieve anything. Only once thought begins to develop does the idea, “I’m not very good at drawing” arise. Before then, it’s just not an issue. It is simply play for play’s sake.As we grow older, we lose that.
In those early days of childhood, we begin to weave ‘our’ story, the story that we begin to identify with. Just as a child loves to pretend, we pretend to be the character in the story. We become so engrossed, playing the role with such perfection, that we forget we are pretending and get stuck in the story. The story seems to define the way we experience life.
When I was around eight years old, my parents broke up. It was a traumatic experience, and I was very much involved in the whole event. My world was shattered. I took refuge in my head, because it seemed a safe place to go. And I got stuck there. Most of us, at some point, do the same. We get stuck in our heads, mistaking it for reality. We believe that the story we tell is absolutely real. We believe that the way we perceive things, from our very specific point of reference, is the way things are. And this brings about a great deal of suffering, a great deal of conflict, an uneasy relationship with life.
One of the themes of my story was that I couldn’t be loved. I sought love, acceptance, a sense of belonging. I yearned to feel connected because I felt so incredibly disconnected in some way. This belief that I couldn’t be loved did a funny thing. I would get into a relationship with a girl and for a short while I would get a respite from my story. After a while, however, I would remember it again, and as soon as I did, things would begin to change. My head would fire up again. “She can’t possibly love you.” “The joke’s on you, she’s playing you for a fool.” I’d believe the thoughts, even though they contradicted my actual experience. As the thoughts snowballed, I would start to act differently, and things would become awkward between us. I’d get paranoid, aloof, or distant in some way. I’d get suspicious, wanting to know where she’d been, who she’d been with. I’d believe the idea that she was bound to leave me – and lo and behold, when my behaviour became too much to handle, and she eventually broke up with me, I’d be left with the feeling, “See! I was RIGHT.”
You see, we all do that with our beliefs. We never stop to investigate our beliefs or the role they play in how we perceive things. We simply assume them to be true. We assume that the voice in our heads that informs us of what’s going on is really what’s going on. It’s insanity! We hold true all our concepts about life and how it should be. Based on what, exactly? Mostly based on old ideas. Old memories. Past experiences. We cling to these ideas and create concepts that seem to just reinforce the walls of separation. We believe our opinions or ideas are more valuable than everyone else’s. Why? Because they are ours! They are part of our story, part of who we take ourselves to be. The image that we hold oh-so-dear.
We feel that we are incredibly unique, that our story is more important than anyone else’s. We feel that nobody can ever really understand us. This sense of separation and uniqueness gave me a very strong sense that I was the centre of the universe. And thus it became Me vs the World. Me and Other. Thoughts continuously orbited planet Michael in an attempt to keep the Michael image alive, much as twirling a cigarette in the dark gives the impression of a solid circle. But what happens when we stop twirling the cigarette? The circle vanishes. Likewise, thoughts need to be persistent in order to maintain a solid sense of self. I certainly felt those thoughts were continuous and never ending, without pause.However, in time I learnt to see that it was nothing more than an illusion. A mirage. A mirage from which I was forever trying to quench my thirst.
So, all those thoughts about this and that? You can imagine my surprise when I recognized that I wasn’t even thinking them! I mean, do you really believe you are thinking your thoughts? I did for quite some time, but let’s have a look.If you were, wouldn’t it be possible to only have good thoughts? What a relief that would have been, to just think happy, positive thoughts. We never question this. We are taught that we are the doer, that we are the thinker.But how much of what’s going on, in your body, your head, is actually being done by you? If I had to remember to beat my own heart every morning, I tell you now, I would not be here. Do I know how I am speaking? Or pumping the blood through my veins? Am I regenerating my cells? You see what I mean, right? There is a claiming of loads of things that are simply happening. This claiming only serves to reinforce the idea that you are the separate, autonomous, independent entity that your mind is constructing and reconstructing constantly.And this gives rise to the feeling that life is happening to you, that you are separate from life. But as far as I can now see, we are life. I mean, how can you be separate from life? It’s an absurd idea that we grasp onto. It is a feeling that we all have. One that only seems to bring about suffering.
When we’re small children, we have no sense of being the doer. Life is simply happening. Unfolding in every moment, quite spontaneously.But remember when you were young and something happened, a glass got knocked over, a drink was spilled? The adult’s response would be, “Why did you do that?” A child is confused by that question, because in their eyes, it simply happened. There was no doing of it. We take on the idea that everything is being done by someone or something. This neuters the spontaneity of life. Children reside in that spontaneity, hence their wonder, awe, and enthusiasm for life. Three aspects we often lose touch with as we grow up. There’s a lovely quote from Jesus that says, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
At some point in a child’s development, usually around three or four, everything becomes ‘mine!’ There is a claiming and protection of everything that it comes into contact with. That mentality remains into adulthood; as we grow up, we claim subtler and subtler things. In doing so, we begin to build mental walls around us that close us off from the world. We retreat into a conceptual realm, building an image of ourselves which becomes our identity. We cherish that which we believe to be ours. When we are kids, it’s toy cars or Star Wars figures. As adults, it is ideas, opinions, beliefs, images. Same logic, applied to different things.
In taking ourselves to be the seeming doer, we begin to claim doer-ship of so many things.
Now ask yourself, what is it that is claiming? Is it not the mind?
The mind performs a wonderful sleight of hand, like a great magician. It uses language to hoodwink us. The image that we hold of ourselves becomes a noun, of sorts. An object. Something that is so. It is no surprise that a child’s sense of self arises at the same time as language is introduced, at around eighteen months old. Until then, it has no sense of being a separate entity.
This is another situation in which our logic fails us. We assume that nouns are responsible for verbs. That doesn’t seem very logical to me. You, as the noun, are the doer of any action. But are there really any nouns here? Do they exist outside of language? Under the influence of certain psychedelic chemicals, it is plain to see that everything is in a constant state of motion. This is affirmed by science. If you take any object and place it under a microscope, you will see that it is moving. Our senses cannot perceive this movement due to the rate of vibration. But all is movement – life is movement. A continuous flow. You can’t catch it in any one location at any one time, though that’s exactly what our minds are persistently trying to do.
When you are able to let go and flow with that movement, without all the claiming and clinging, then life becomes a joyous event. It has a different flavour entirely. Until then, it’s a struggle, at best. Imagine standing in a river trying to stop the flow. You’d become exhausted trying and ultimately fail. The point is that no matter how futile the attempt, the mind desperately wants to capture reality. To grasp it. To contain it. To be a thing and thus hold dearly to all that it defines itself by.
You see, if the mind were to let go, your identity would be washed away. Consumed in the river of life. And then what? Find out. Let go and see. In that flow, time ceases; it is all one seamless movement and the construct of time just dissolves. But the mind needs time in order to construct the story of who you are. What is time? Is there anything beyond right now anyway? Is this not all there is?
I had a wonderful experience with a young boy who I’m very close to. We were discussing time. Being four years old, he had lots of questions. I asked him, “Where is yesterday?” and after pondering for a moment, he pointed to his head. Then I asked him, “Where is tomorrow?” Again, after a brief moment, he pointed to his head. My next question was, “And where is now?” He immediately stamped on my foot! How wonderful! A Zen teaching from a four year old.
As he rightly pointed out, past and future only exist in our heads, as memories or images arising now. Even those memories and images are never quite as they happened. They are always slightly embellished, are they not? We always like to add a little to the story. Improve it slightly. Change it a little to give it some oomph! We are the ultimate story tellers, weaving them out of nothing. In the end, the stories we tell ourselves are a fabrication, and we know it. They are not an actual account of what happened, even when we tell ourselves that they are.
As for the future, have you ever imagined how things will be for it to transpire exactly so? A year ago, I certainly didn’t think that I’d be here now. I had lots of ideas about where I’d be, but this was not one of them!
This all amounts to a sense that something is missing. We are so detached from life that we seek to fill that sensed void with drugs, relationships, money, spirituality, work, take your pick. The list is endless. Anything to make us feel whole, a brief glimpse of home, a taste of something forgotten. Even for a moment. We then become addicted to that taste of peace, because we can only ever get a brief hit. Like any good crackhead, we go back for more, just to ease the wanting, the seeking, the desire. In time, we become miserable, and even more removed from our own lives, haunting them like ghosts. Barely present. Or at least, seemingly so. Our attempts to return home become an attempt to escape life. Two sides of the same coin.
In fact, all our attempts to get home only reinforce the idea that we aren’t there already. We never left home. It’s almost wonderful when you see it, but it hurts like hell when you are stuck in that mental loop. Is it not possible that what you yearn for is right here, right now? Is it not the insane voice in your head that gently whispers otherwise?
When this occurred to me, I couldn’t help but laugh. What else could I do? All my ideas about things had been obscuring what was always there.All my attempts to move towards that ‘something’ my head was entertaining as freedom were leading me further away from the freedom I was actually seeking. The freedom in NOW!
There is no story to be told in this moment. What can we say of the moment? Nothing at all! Before you’ve drawn breath, it has passed. Now is constantly being reborn and dying, just as all appearances here. Everything appearing now – even thought - is in that flow of the timeless instant. We tend to ignore the immediacy of thought as it arises like a bird flying by, and instead focus on its content. And thought can only ever reflect the passing of a moment already gone. Watch and see. You can’t think about now now. You can only remember now when now has passed. We miss the context and get lost in the content. It’s an easy mistake to make. Like reading a book – we focus on the words, while the truth lies in the reading.
In the immediacy of the moment, there can be no separation. Separation only exists in thought, which takes wholeness and divides it against itself , using time to do so. This gives us the appearance of two: this-that, up-down, birth-death, happy-sad. The seeming polarities, all opposites.
When all this is seen, certain things become apparent. For example, this whole appearance is patterned in concentric circles, from the macroscopic level to the microscopic level. All the way up, all the way down. As above, so below. All appearances, including the body and thought, follow an expand/contract lifespan. They arise and dissolve. This pattern is everywhere in nature. One movement, all around us.
What is aware of all this movement? What is animating the whole show? What is present in this very moment that is so intrinsic to the moment that without it the moment could not exist? It is one pure awareness. There is no one that is aware. Just awareness. There is seeing but no seer, hearing but no hearer. The mind makes divisions; seeing becomes seer and seen, and the seeing is forgotten. Hearing becomes hearer and heard, and the hearing is overlooked. There’s a subtle shift of emphasis; you, as the seer, are highlighted and then you frame everything you see very specifically. Instead of simply seeing, everything has a meaning that is being projected outwards. Instead of simply seeing, you experience a translation of reality that you take to be so.
The mind appears to have fallen obsessively in love with an image of itself as a thing. It then wants to find no-thing-ness in a world of appearances.However, you are that no-thing. Not a cold, dead emptiness, but a bubbling ocean of potential from which all things arise and into which they dissolve. That infinite space permeates all things. We are appearing in that space now, as a body; as Michael, or Tracey, or Dan. But the appearances are only ever relative. The absolute is that ineffable, indescribable space called by many names but captured by none. At best, all they can do is point to it, for it can only be described in terms of what it’s not. Negation is the only tool we have at our disposal to speak of it.
This becomes obvious in expressions like music. When you listen to a beautiful piece of music, where does it come from? It arises from silence, from no-thing, and the silence remains in every note. It is what gives the music melody, for the most important piece of any music is the silence between the notes. It’s not where you put the notes, it’s where you don’t. That’s the real magic. That magic is all around us at all times. And yet we seek it, we yearn for it, like it’s somewhere ‘out there’. An object to be found, to be owned or possessed. How could something that is infinite not be here and now? You need not look to find it. Simply see.
When it is seen, it can have a lasting effect in one’s life. The struggle evaporates, the wonder and awe return. The search for an escape from life, in whatever form it takes, comes to an end. I ended up looking for the escape called enlightenment. I thought that enlightenment would give me freedom from life. In fact, when this seeing occurred, all my desire to become enlightened just fell away, in an infinite split second. That ‘thing’ that I was so desperate to find, that ‘thing’ which would free me from life, lost all its importance, and instead I discovered freedom in life. What a blessing.
I was seeking something, and instead, I received nothing. And that was it. For the spirit that drove me to seek the truth was the truth I was seeking.
What does this all amount to, I hear you ask? And that’s a great question.
As the great Alan Watts used to say, “You must first go out of your mind, in order to come to your senses!”
So what of this recognition that you are that infinite no-thing-ness? It certainly would have appeared more than a little abstract had I heard the same message a few short years ago. How does it transpose into daily living?
Imagine you have walked your entire life with a stone in your shoe. You didn’t know it was there because it was just how life was. The discomfort, the attempts to minimise the pain and suffering, the always having to account for it in some way. And then suddenly, in the blink of an eye, it’s gone. Only then can you recognize what it was that was causing such unease. Before, you had this idea that life was suffering, life was hard, life sucked. But now there’s a spring in your step. The terrain you travel remains as it has always been, but you traverse it more easily. You can run, jump, dance, play, all with a freedom that you’ve not experienced in your adult life. Or experienced only fleetingly, leaving you with the feeling that you’ve had it and lost it. A feeling which only brings about more suffering.
I’d thought that when I found what I was looking for, I would be bathed in an ocean of bliss. Free from the emotions of life. Free from the ups and downs, free from all the things that ultimately make life the wondrous joy it is. In truth, all I wanted was relief from that stone. So beautifully simple. Relief from that stone, just so I could travel through life free of that deep discomfort. Free from the narration in my head that was seemingly the cause of all my woes.What’s ‘out there’ hasn’t changed. I am still broke most of the time. I certainly haven’t achieved some of the lofty goals I’d set for myself. But the real beauty is that it’s ok.
Just think about that. How often can you say, it’s all ok? Everything, as it is, is just fine. Not wanting to change things. Not wanting to change where you are at this exact moment in time. No more chasing those ever-receding horizons that simply exhausted you and brought you to your knees. No more hoping for a brighter tomorrow because today’s light is more than enough. No more pondering on what might have been. Just a deep resting in what is happening now.
What we are all so desperately seeking is presently here, right now, in this very moment, if only we could see it. Instead, we are at the beck and call of that little voice that suggests things could be better. The slave driver that tries to persuade you that with enough effort, you too can be perfect.
I wanted, so dearly, to achieve some ideal I called perfection. But that striving has two very profound outcomes. One is that it is entirely futile, an utter waste of time. The other is that it implies that you are not perfect as you are, just as you are, without trying to become something you think you’re not, or un-become something you think you are. You are, to all intents and purposes, attempting to reach a point of peace through agitation.
Maybe you are absolutely perfect by virtue of all your imperfections. Maybe you are that peace you seek already, effortlessly so, in spite of your trying. Maybe what you are, what we all are, is that stillness that gives rise to the movement all around us.That unconditional state of well being, love, empathy, connectedness. You are the beauty in every flower. In every rain storm. You are the clap of thunder that shakes the very ground you walk on. Maybe all that is required is a letting go of all the ideas you hold that have you believe otherwise.It’s as though we are all drowning, clinging to what we believe is a bar of gold, so valuable, so treasured, that we’d rather drown clinging to it than just letting go. In fact, when the shift of mind occurs, you will see, plain as day, that what you cling to is, in fact, the lead weight that will take you down, kicking and screaming, to the ocean’s bed. It has no value here. Be rid of it!
There is no avoiding now. And who wants to avoid it? If it’s here, then it’s here. The sky refuses no cloud, and not one of the clouds that pass leaves a mark on the sky. Don’t mistake the weather of your mind for the sky of your being. You are that vastness, without boundary.
It may not seem that way because you are hooked on the appearances. If I asked you to describe the sky, the best you could do is talk about all that appears in it. For it allows every cloud, every bird, every plane. It refuses nothing. But you can say nothing of the sky itself. In the same way, you can say nothing of this moment.
My difficulty arose from taking appearances to be real. And relatively speaking, they are. I can’t deny any appearance here. It’s like the moment I realised that the sun has shone brightly every moment of my life. Even on the coldest, darkest night, it has shone radiantly, even though it appeared not to be. Even though it seemed dark and cold.
The shift of perception allows you to fly, in a manner of speaking. To soar above the clouds. You can still see all the clouds passing, but you are now bathed in that eternal light, the sun that always shines. The clouds no longer shut the light out. They are seen, but they hold less weight. Your day is no longer defined by the weather. The light shines through.
We can never not be what we truly are. How would that even be possible? It takes no time to realize this. It just takes letting go. Take that step off the edge.
Die now. Die into now. See what it is that dies.
Is it not more than a little ironic that it takes the threat of death to bring us back to life? Live now. See the beauty all around. Rediscover the awe you once had as a child. Embrace life as a mystery. Don’t think about it. Live it.
I could never have imagined the reliability of this seeing. And if I’m entirely honest, this shift occurred in spite of – not because of - all my noble and grand ideas of dedicating lifetimes to become something other than what I am.
Don’t expect bells and whistles. Don’t expect it to come in any particular package. Just open up your heart, see with loving eyes. And be. Just be.