Then the question comes How is it possible to be at peace, given all this?
This is the most profound question you could ever put to yourself, especially if you go to the trouble to explore it more deeply than you’ve been accustomed to. A primary illusion is the belief that if only the situation would be better, then peace could be experienced. Rare is the person who even recognizes this as a belief — and rarer still is the one who questions its legitimacy.
To deeply surrender to whatever is there, simply because it’s real, invites profound peace.
The assumption underlying the belief is that inner peace depends on things being okay “out there” — that the two are irrevocably connected. Why does this appear true? It’s because of the enduring confusion between awareness and thought.
Rare indeed is the devotion to discovering the difference between these distinct human capacities: to learn to recognize each within, to notice the gulf between them. For awareness — conscious attunement to this moment — is subtle. Whereas thinking makes much more noise. Its ability to hold a person’s attention, to appear real and substantial, means the peace of awareness is obliterated by all the mind-produced racket.
Keep at it. It’s the worthiest of explorations.
* * * * *
With all the hard stuff going on around you, imagine the blessing of utter stillness in the midst of it all. A welcome respite, a refuge at the very heart of your existence, a “place” untouched by the outer challenges, by the mental racket within.
Yet this is not an escape. It is not about denial. It doesn’t mean you’ve stopped caring. (Can you hear the whisper of that underlying assumption?) Feeling yourself being in the moment — in this very now — is more “real-feeling” than anything your mind can produce, however earnest its observations, however in line with outer reality its reflections may appear.
Why is this? The capacity in you that can fully be — that can feel right now, in a fully bodied way — has to do with awareness being enlivened. Awareness is what actually experiences — which is more authentic, more real, than anything thought can approach. Because anything mental is at a remove from sense-able experience, from the sensation of aliveness.
What we most deeply want, all our lives, is to feel ourselves being here. In this very moment, regardless of what it holds — whatever the surrounding circumstances may be. Yet we spend our entire lives pursuing an idea of something, some imagined condition that will “make us happy.” All the while poignantly aware that — however well things go “out there” — we’re missing some essential thing.
Only momentary awareness can deliver the longed-for experience. In addition to feeling utterly alive, being in that awareness is profoundly peaceful.
* * * * *
All the while, yes, the world is continuing along in the way it does, in our individual lives and in the larger scene. Sometimes it looks really bad out there.
It has never been otherwise. Did you think we invented terrible situations, in the 21st century? Did you imagine it an original thought that things have never been so bad? Or that you’re the only person to ever suppose “it’s impossible to be at peace, given all this”?
Yet for millennia, there have always been individuals who experienced deep peace in the midst of it all. They were not in denial. It’s just that they recognized something within themselves that felt very alive — that was apart from the mind. By this means they were in touch with a timeless reality untouched by circumstance. The capacity is innately human — innate to you.
* * * * *
Awareness tunes into what’s immediate, without processing it. It senses. It feels. It has everything to do with the physical: with your body (its present-moment inner state, its senses, its momentary activity) and with the immediate scene. This attunement to what’s actually here right now, both within and without, has a tendency to quiet the mind.
It can appear that “taking refuge” in the moment is a way of escaping the pain of the situation — that this is the reason to “go there.” Yet the relief that comes is secondary, a kind of by-product of the essential thing that’s happening, which is this: you’ve become in touch with what’s real, right now. Right here, in this moment. You’re experiencing. You’re feeling alive.
It’s the longed-for thing. The thing you don’t want to have missed — to lament on your death bed. It’s entirely independent of circumstances, whether in your own life or the life of a loved one, or the life of the nation or of the planet or of a people.
* * * * *
Go back to the part about feeling the present-moment inner condition of your body. Here lies the rub — a big part of the reason we tend to avoid “going there,” to present-moment reality. For often, in our travels of being a thinking-and-feeling human creature in this very world, painful feelings come alive in us. Unwelcome things we may be disinclined to allow ourselves to feel, to grant their necessary space. Indeed, they account for a great deal of the mind’s ceaseless activity. For one of its primary functions, following the dictates of the tyrannical ego, is to “protect” us from what is painful. Things like grief, crushing despair, a breaking heart. Things like paralyzing fear, or the daunting recognition that something awful may be beyond our ability to fix, to control.
In the name of self-protection, the mind generates angry thoughts, a plan to “make things better.” Or it produces an escape of some kind, a series of consoling thoughts (often having to do with hope). Or it suggests the idea of a beer, a distracting evening with a friend, a movie.
Anything but feel.
Peace is not (as often supposed) entirely happy and joyful. It may be, here and there. But its primary feature is of deep stillness, due to the quieting of the mind. Sometimes aliveness involves the pain of a human heart in its engagement with life. Being attuned to the real nevertheless feels “good” — because it feels radically alive.
To allow yourself to sink, in a welcoming way, into momentary reality — just as it is, including on the deep interior — sometimes asks enormous courage. Yet to deeply surrender to whatever is there, simply because it’s real, right now, invites profound peace — even as it may open the floodgates to a feeling seldom allowed. For the feeling is there. It’s real! Granting reality its space (courtesy of awareness, of surrender) mysteriously allows peace to pervade us. There’s the relaxing of the strenuous effort involved in habitual resistance. It feels good to let go.
And it may come to pass that when an unwelcome thing is given its due, its necessary space to be felt, a blessed relief comes in the wake of that allowing. Life is able to move on, the next moment its own sweet self, untainted by the lingering background pain. You’ll find that the more you learn to allow the authentic feeling of any given moment, the more the “chronic” background torment will be felt to abate, because you’ve stopped accumulating unallowed feelings.
* * * * *
Allowing yourself to feel whatever is deeply within, just now, is quite different from getting lost anew in the flood of thoughts that may have given rise to the feeling (such as the endless loop about the outer situation). Here is where the difference between awareness and thought is key. Devote yourself to this exploration. Notice how the mind will want to re-assert itself — to “justify” the painful inner reality, or to find a way to escape it. Allow awareness to be vigilant in its noticing of the mind’s relentless attempts to co-opt the moment.
It can be helpful to re-direct your attention from the mind’s efforts to the sensation in your chest, to the outward task your body is undertaking (the stairs you’re walking down, the hair you’re brushing). To the smell and sight of your immediate surroundings. By these means you’re enlivening awareness. Notice how when awareness is attuning to the physical reality, the mind tends to quiet.
Nor does the surrounding condition cease, in a moment of deep peace. Nor does experiencing fleeting momentary peacefulness mean you cannot try to improve things around you. You can do your part. Be engaged in the world and its problems. Just that it can all be undertaken with an inner well-being that wasn’t there before.
A common belief held in the mind — one having enormous power to hold peace at bay — is this: Because the outer situation is real and ongoing, it’s necessary for me to be constantly aware of it. As if to momentarily set aside the focus on a situation is to deny its reality. The ability to experience peace depends upon seeing that the source of this assumption is the mind, that it has no “objective” truth. Of course it will always be possible to bring to mind a troubling circumstance (whether personal or larger in scope), to give careful and caring attention to its particulars. The blessed moments of “simply being here” do not constitute neglect or denial. Yet see how the mind wants to push aside what momentary awareness gives us access to. See that there is latitude in the matter of whether to bring attention to the now or to the mind-recollected picture of a surrounding situation. Enormous freedom is to be found in exploring the distinction between the two.
* * * * *
You may notice yourself wanting the momentary experiences of inner quiet to “last.” Ah, but each moment is just its sweet self. No now has ever lasted. (Notice that the desire for peace to sustain is itself a thought.) Awareness does not perceive or exist “in time.” It happens now. Life is in constant motion. Every now is new, its particular self. And it immediately disappears.
But the awareness that gives you access to peace never leaves you. If only you will remember to pay attention to its presence — to realize, again and again, its distinctness from the thinking mind.