What is it to live authentically, to be at no distance from the life you’re in? It’s to know what matters to you, to have a background awareness of where you’ve come from, the experiences that have shaped you (for good or ill). How does a person see and feel these particulars while not forging them into an identity? Is it possible to acknowledge your humanity without shouldering the burden of what’s been painful (or hauling around the equal weight of attainment)?
What is it to be in relationship — to care, really listen, engage — but not to define yourself by the connection with someone important to you?
These questions can come up when a person is exploring what it is to live consciously, to tune in to this felt moment of life. What happens to all that other “material” having to do with who you seem to be — your history and values and real-world commitments? Does it all need to fall away somehow?
What is it to live without life causing you to take yourself seriously?
Is a person “supposed” to not care what goes on in the world? Is a conscious life one that must “rise above” the ordinary things of human existence? Are practical realities in conflict somehow with coming viscerally to know what you are, on the most elemental level?
Perhaps it’s possible to have political views, to care about your work, to love particular people, without any of it creating an artificial sense of self.
Imagine fully engaging in life without anger or fear animating what you do.
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So much rich exploration comes alive, as conscious awareness enters more into the picture. The discovery of how a person might have values and preferences, experience pleasure, be with people, and yet none of it generates racket in the head or turmoil in the gut. Little of ordinary experience is seen to obscure the clean, still space that is the source of life, of tenderness, energy, and creativity. The miracle of such an opening!
There’s the joy of discovering what it is to act without attachment to the outcome. To live without assuming any stability. To be in relationship absent the means-to-an-end orientation. It’s not to solve loneliness, to be adored. Nor is it out of mere habit. It’s simply that you love the person.
And what if you get sick, or are in decline, or significant life circumstances fall apart? Does that need to become who you are, to make it more challenging to really feel yourself being here, in this moment?
What is it to live without life causing you to take yourself seriously (or insisting that others do so)?
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We still get to be people. To care, to laugh and celebrate, to address difficulties. To stand up in the face of injustice. But standing up needn’t be infused with anger. Intolerance and indignation never generated anything but more of themselves. It’s the same with fear. Anger and fear are a waste of precious life.
Again and again there is the invitation — the challenge — to ask self, How shall I be, in this life today? What am I, most deeply? What does it mean, what does it look like, to do my work, to have the life experience I’ve had, without any of it shutting down the heart? How does it feel to care about what goes on in the world, without dismissal and judgment darkening the efforts to make some kind of difference?
Of course it’s possible: to live a fully engaged human life, to be here, do things, and yet to feel entirely empty and light. To not allow what I do, or who I am in the world, to define me. To feel, always, the difference between awareness and whatever occurs “in” it. A human being is in no way doomed to carry around a sense of self like a bag of bricks. It’s much easier to move through life (to dance, even!) without that terrible weight.
Relieved of such burdens, a person gets a lot more done, and with much less dogged effort and frustration. And when it comes time to rest, it’s welcomed and is felt to be deeply restorative.
Life is sweet, just being itself.
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Why would a person do anything at all, if not to create a sense of self? If that enduring compulsion for self-definition is felt to soften, what stirs a person to a given action?
A light turns on when we tune in to the motivation beneath an activity, illumining the terrain of why we do what we do. Is it habit, the expectation or wishes of others? Is it to fulfill some idea or belief about life’s alleged “purpose”? Does it have to do with a perceived means to an end?
If it’s an activity you’re considering forgoing, either something new being contemplated or a thing you’re used to doing, feel your way into the prospect of letting it go. Notice whether there’s relief. Or maybe there’s a subtle sense of loss. Perhaps it seems as if forgoing the thing would create some kind of “problem.” Linger there: it’s rich terrain. Don’t be afraid to feel what comes up. Much habit is driven by a discomfort with change and uncertainty. These inner forces are seldom consciously recognized — but oh, can acknowledging their presence be a door-opener!
What drives a given activity often is the desire for appearing to be a certain kind of person (reliable, loyal, principled), perhaps in the eyes of others, or maybe in one’s own. Notice if righteous indignation or anger is in the mix of what motivates.
But what if it’s love that moves a person to action or engagement of some kind, plain caring that’s uncomplicated by identity or belief, by fear or loathing? What if it’s the prospect of pure delight, maybe even of fun? Perhaps it’s simply that the thing clearly needs doing, of benefit to another.
When love takes outward expression — without attachment to outcome, absent a defining sense of self — whatever is engaged in carries a quality of pronounced aliveness, holding little or no torment. There is felt to be a good deal of available energy. When a person is relieved of the habitual, awful weight of the self, creativity and devotion are in abundant supply.
It’s not hard work that has worn us out, not nearly as much as all the inner burdens. No wonder we become exhausted so readily! It’s heartbreaking to realize this: and yet when the relief begins to enter the picture, there is exhilaration (maybe even celebration).
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As the mind-generated sense of self comes gently apart, a person may notice how things that once carried meaning of some kind no longer have that familiar quality. What a radical undoing this is. It may be unnerving. For most of us have been taught, in ways explicit and (more potently) unarticulated, that “a life without meaning” is a sad thing.
The habit of the mind automatically assigning meaning to each thing (good/bad, progress, problem) is felt to soften, as a person is more readily able to simply accept whatever occurs, without resistance or the need to interpret it. When a thing is able, at long and blessed last, to simply be itself, peace can be felt in the body.
So it is when an action is undertaken simply because it “wants” doing, or because there’s a need to be addressed. There’s a gentle softening of the driving urge to do a thing because it carries some perceived meaning, to justify the effort because it carries symbolic significance, enhancing the sense of self (in your own eyes or in others’). Also easing is the attachment-to-outcome dynamic: you do a thing in full awareness that it may not have the wished-for result. There’s less resistance if things turn out otherwise.
The matter of what-motivates-action becomes increasingly available to the light of consciousness . . . and life gradually simplifies.
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It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the nature of relationships would be subject to change. The constraining need that’s defined so much human connection becomes more conscious than before. The perceived self-lack animating a given relationship may gently ease as the light of awareness penetrates the bottomless longing to be understood, to be admired, agreed with — to be needed. Acceptance of the other person can be felt to blossom.
These discoveries and changes in a relationship can also bring discomfort, potentially being experienced as undermining of the connection.
Sorrow naturally may enter the picture, in such situations. It asks a certain courage to be with the changes these realizations set in motion, to grant the feelings all the space they ask. It’s also helpful to realize the other person won’t inevitably see things the same way; we’re not in charge of infusing insight or clarity into another, the timing of such openings being particular to each of us. The felt “discrepancy” provides yet another invitation to accept what-is.
From the point of view of the self, there’s a compelling reason most of this has been held below the level of conscious knowing, until now. Yet what ultimately can be seen is this: it’s been imprisoning to live at the mercy of such forces, putting constraints on the nature of love.
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Would the holy ones have us altogether disengage from those dear to us, from “regular life”? Perhaps they’d say to grant our innate love and wisdom their vast spaciousness. To allow these inner forces — more potent than any external guidance (including this essay) — to inform how to proceed in the orientation to outer life.
Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water, counsels the Zen koan. There is the “wood and water” each of us needs to sustain life, yes, so the familiar practical maintenance continues. But wood and water are needed far and wide.
It’s also said that work is love made visible. When anger and fear cease to be the primary motivators, innate human goodness is able to take outward expression. Things often change for the better, both practically and interpersonally, with generosity and good will enlivening all we do.