We are betrayed daily, hourly, by the persisting sense of self. That sense of who I am, and how it tends itself, how it keeps itself seeming real. It’s a betrayal because of how it keeps us from noticing the spaciousness around the self, around everything — the container, you might say. The space around and within all that ordinarily holds our attention. The delicious stillness that cannot be ruined, or in any way altered.
It’s only for the pretty constant absorption in the real-seeming self that we miss the felt experience of the more real thing. It isn’t, of course, a “thing” (there is no good word for it). But we can say with certainty that it’s real. And that it is palpable. Feel-able.
The familiar self (the very one doing the seeking) is not capable of attaining the longed-for stillness.
We can observe that in the moments it’s felt, the usual sense of self is absent.
Which is telling. That the two — the spaciousness and the self — are not experienced simultaneously. Each is a world, you might say, unto itself. More to the point, for anyone seeking the peace that passeth understanding, is this: the familiar self (the very one doing the seeking) is not capable of attaining the longed-for stillness. The reason the stillness is felt, when it is, is that the self has fallen apart. Its maintenance crew has dispersed. Which is to say, thought has stopped.
So the task, for one who wants this, is first to see that the one doing the wanting is incapable of getting. To realize that there is no thought, no succession of thoughts, that can get you to the place beyond thought. And then to omit no opportunity to observe, without judgment or any attempt to change anything, how that real-seeming self keeps itself going. To recognize the maintenance crew every time it shows up. To understand that this — self-maintenance — is what is going on.
Any attempt to improve that self, in the name of attaining the longed-for well-being, is a colossal waste of effort. That self is the very thing that’s in the way. Trying to fix the self — to enlighten it — is like scoring points for the other side. You are already in the end zone, your arms around the precious thing, but then you turn and run the length of the field to the wrong end zone, all the while carrying the impression of “making progress.” This is many people’s idea of the spiritual life, working so hard to bring the terminally limited self to perfection, when perfection was already right where they were, and all they’re doing is distancing themselves from it by continuing to fuss over what might as well be a doll, an action figure.
If only they would have held still and looked around — not with the eyes of the unperfectible self, but with the awareness that is not subject to conditioning, to dissatisfaction, to wishing things were otherwise than they are.
This awareness — the knower of the peace that passeth understanding — has no opinions, no habits, no beliefs, no cherished or lamented history. It does not compare itself with how it wishes it would be. It bears no grudges, is identified with nothing, would not think to object to anything or try to manipulate it to match some image of the desirable. It does not exert effort. It has never felt afraid or proud or ambitious. It does not experience time. Thought does not feel real to it.
So . . . by definition . . . anything in you that DOES do those things is calling attention to itself as being unreal and not worth indulging. Certainly not worth imagining that such a self could attain perfection. Best to give yourself a break from all that. Instead, ask yourself — all day long — What am I? What’s real? See if you can notice how it’s possible, always, when you hold still (even in the middle of the most god-awful fray), to sense awareness itself. To tell that you exist. You can feel yourself being. And you don’t have to resort to thought in order to bring this about.
Meanwhile, each time one of those expressions of the familiar, limited self shows up, instead of entering into it, trying to answer its silly questions, to pursue what it thinks is important, instead of all that, do this: notice how these are the ways it maintains itself, by dignifying all of that wasted effort.
And then step to the side of it and look around you. Notice what your senses are picking up. Feel your bodily sensations (including anything emotional that’s grinding around inside, without getting sucked back into the thought stream). See if you can feel what awareness itself feels like, how free it is of thinking. Notice how it feels different from the way thinking feels.
The awareness capable of this natural observation is the spaciousness. It is incapable of betrayal.
There’s a rivalry between living and thinking. Between time and the now. But it’s a rivalry that’s underground, unseen. Never examined, even as it’s felt to be crazy-making. The strain is palpable. This rivalry is the primary atmosphere of our lives, the background music. The underlying, persistent tension between wanting not to have missed actual life, the sumptuous thing itself — felt experience, with you engaged, really here for it, as it’s delivered into your welcoming hands — between that and the mind’s idea of what life might yet be, or should have been. Could have been.
It’s a tug of war, the two competing for the affections and attention of one person. Live or fret? Savor or process? Relax into reality or feel sorry for yourself, ball up your fists, as if life were the enemy.
Time isn’t precious. Time is a thought about before or later. It’s the moment that’s precious. This one. Not the slew of them on the horizon. What makes you think that when you get there, to the longed-for future, it will suddenly be possible to be in the present — more possible than it is right now?
It’s not what you think about the moment that’s precious, because as soon as the thinking starts up, your attention is no longer here. It’s shifted to the content of the thought, as if that were the now.
The love of the possible future is all about content. As if what you do in, or with, the now is what makes it worth living. Precious.
Alas. The focus on the content means the container is missed. Consciousness being the container. The content, actually, is irrelevant. What a revelation. Just before death, the truth of this becomes vivid. Let it become vivid now. Don’t waste the rest of your life lying to yourself about the transformational value of content.
The rivalry is between living and avoiding living. Are we afraid to live? Afraid, maybe, of getting it wrong? But the moments fly by, and soon enough the curtain falls.
What are you waiting for?Jan Frazier