For most of my life I’ve carried an impression, an assumption, having to do with a given thought and how it has come about, and what it seems to have set in motion. There has been a sense of agency and of causality, an understanding of the seeming significance of the order of things. All of this, of course, being the fathoming of the mind.
Some years ago, for instance, I was picturing the annual mammogram I was to have the following day and feeling the familiar anxiety gathering momentum. Seeing how weary I was of the repeating torture, I noticed the arrival of a thought I hadn’t had before. Might it be possible to drive across the state to the breast experts and go through the procedure and its aftermath without being a nervous wreck? Whereupon a miracle occurred: I felt the entire thing dissolve. Just like that. Not only did my body and mind come to an utter rest; I also knew, as if the day to come had already been lived, that the entire event — including the nightmare walk down the hall to the radiologist’s office, with my illumined films most ominously on display — would occur sans crippling fear.
And so it was, and was to remain. Nor were mammograms the end of what changed. The blessing spread everywhere in my ordinary life, not a single piece of it untransformed.
* * * * *
It appeared for all the world (as it was to look to those reading my eventual book) as though the transformation had been precipitated — caused — by the thought, just prior, that had come to me: the asking of the question, in the form of a prayer, whether such a thing might be possible.
Where had that thought come from? Had I “caused” it? And why did it come then, and never before? Did the thought, the prayer, actually bring into being the miraculous change? But I posed none of this to myself at the time, assuming my mind’s impression of the sequence and cause of things to be accurate. Not until years after When Fear Falls Away was published would I revisit the moment in a more penetrating, curious light.
Meanwhile, a ceaseless chorus of voices — people understandably aching for a kindred relief — had poured in my direction. Here and there, a frustrated weariness bordering sometimes on anger and despair. Why hasn’t this happened for me? I’ve asked and prayed. Why you and not me? What am I doing wrong? So many having attempted the route I appeared to have taken, longing to be released from the grip of suffering, but to no obvious effect. Wanting to know “how to get there.” What “method” had I used, in the years leading up to that moment? How might they go about finding their way there?
* * * * *
What eventually dawned on me, regarding my own stumbling into the land of peace and well-being, was that I had likely misread what had happened. The more I revisited my life before, the more it began to dawn on me that things on my interior might have been a good bit farther along, by that day before the mammogram, than I’d realized at the time. I noticed one thing and another that had occurred in the years leading up to that turning-point moment — fleeting insights, subtle indicators of something having fallen away (none of which had struck me at the time as hugely significant).
And yet — although my ordinary mind had not fathomed their potential significance at the time of their occurrence — some awareness in me had registered their significance (or else they’d not have been mentally retrievable long after).
Perhaps you have had such moments, dear heart. Things that “just came to you,” without your going looking for them. A subtle shift in orientation, when something looked different from how it had appeared before. Insights perhaps not paid a lot of attention, at the time. Such moments sometimes reminding you of themselves long after, in a context where their significance has a quality of dawning, of Illumining.
Fresh perspectives (can you see this?) that you had not used your regular-thinking, desire-saturated mind to bring into being.
* * * * *
Some years prior to the mammogram turning point, a thought came to me spontaneously. It seemed to arrive from out of some mysterious blue, as I was soaking in a hot bath, colorful Christmas lights strung around the otherwise unlit room.
There is something more important than my emotions.
Huh? The idea that something could matter more to me than my emotional life was . . . bewildering. Not something that had ever occurred to me before, since my habitually heartfelt self had always seemed essential to who-I-was. A kind of bottom line. In the moments before, I hadn’t been thinking about my emotions, or doing any sort of “spiritual” inquiry. Nor had I ever encountered this idea about the relative insignificance of emotion. I had not oriented to my inner life as a “problem” per se (even though I was certainly aware of plenty of suffering). Nor, in those days, was I intent on awakening — a condition I never imagined being available to the likes of me.
I had no idea what that “something more important” might be. That particular dawning was to be a long time in coming. It would occur (as all occurs) in its sweet time of readiness.
However that memorable thought had come, it was clear I had not “thought it up.” I was on the receiving end of it. And although I did not, at the time, register the depth of its implications, clearly it made an impression, or else it would not have stayed with me for so many years.
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A wise man once made a helpful distinction between waking up and becoming enlightened. The two are not synonymous, he said, as they are often supposed to be. Waking up is not the arrival of all wisdom; it’s the beginning of wisdom. Awakening is a brightening of light, in which it becomes possible, gradually, to see more fully what is there to see.
An awful lot remains to be seen and fathomed, and in its own sweet time, as a person is ready to process and incorporate it. One is on the receiving end of the unfolding wisdom. As far as I can tell, there is no end to the process of enlightenment.
* * * * *
Eventually I was led to question the long-ago assumption about the timing (and apparent cause) of the dropping away of fear. Along the way I came to question too the apparent role of thinking in such matters, my enduring impression about how a certain thought might bring a change into being. After some years of pondering it all, of noticing one development and another, I would eventually come to see what had more likely occurred — what had (perhaps) more truly set in motion my awakening.
What if the wondering about not being afraid occurred to me because (and only because) something deep within me, something not yet conscious, already realized the potential was there to stop being afraid? That fear was, in fact, optional. What if all the ducks (unbeknownst to my clunky observing mind) had already been lined up by one thing and another? Patiently waiting for the thought to take form, to shape possibility into a potent-seeming question, allowing the underlying “knowing” to become more conscious?
What if thought was, in effect, the last thing to show up at the party — if it was, in fact, not the actual cause of the longed-for change?
It’s all turned out to be up for grabs, my enduring impression of order and causality very likely unreliable, off the mark. It’s become clear that both before and after awakening, there’s always a lot more going on than we can hope to be mentally conscious of. Nor are any impressions of the mind necessarily a reliable indicator of what’s deeply going on.
* * * * *
When a person feels stuck, spiritually speaking, almost inevitably the stuck-ness has its roots in taking thought too seriously. There tends to be an over-reliance on using the mind as a way to truth, to becoming free of torment.
Oh, how we want to believe we can think our way out of suffering, all the way to ultimate freedom. Anyone having the insight and humility to see how suffering is at least somewhat self-inflicted will naturally long to find a method, a formula: a system of belief, a meditation practice, a clear-eyed teacher who appears to have left the world of suffering. There must surely be a series of steps that can be taken to get to radical relief.
We tend to over-dignify thought by supposing it can have access to what we need to awaken, by imagining a series of thoughts can bring about a desired change. It’s not that thinking is altogether useless. Sometimes it’s the very arising of a thought that enables us to recognize and articulate what’s innate to us, on the level of consciousness. It’s just that we are not in charge of the arrival or timing of such a recognition. Perhaps only when we are ready to incorporate a life-altering insight do we become able to recognize its quiet presence within.
What if the significant realization is already here, within us — if we simply haven’t seen it yet? What if dogged effort is in the way? Who knows why things happen, when they do? Who can ever fathom what makes clarity arrive when it does?
Not the mind, dear heart. Never the mind.
* * * * *
What is the source of these insights that come all on their own? Who’s to say? Not me. But here’s one possibility. It is said that each of us is already “awake,” beneath all of the mental and emotional torment. How vivid this becomes, at awakening: the sense that this is familiar. A homecoming. Nor had it ever been so far away, as it had seemed, during all the time of earnest searching (the vast majority of which had taken place courtesy of the oh-so-useless mind).
If there were a spiritual journey, it would be only a quarter inch long.– John O’Donohue
Eventually the long-awaited insight arrived, having to do with the significance of that bathtub revelation. In the brightening light of awakening, I came to see that reality itself — the now, just as it is, sans any mental or emotional interpretation — is independent of whatever a person might make of it. That life itself, uninterpreted, occurs prior to any “handling” of it on the interior. When the truth of this registers in a person — not just mentally but bodily — it is life-altering.
The something more important than emotions turned out to be life itself, prior to its being given meaning of some sort. All of that inevitable-seeming mental stuff being the source of emotion. And hence of suffering.
When those words about emotion had come to me all those years before, I was simply not ready to “get” their deep significance. That part waited — as all things do — for the time to be right. It did not come because I’d gone looking for it.
I don’t know why I woke up (nor do I imagine I ever will). I did not (consciously, anyhow) bring it about.
* * * * *
How many times, and through what multitude of means, must the lesson be driven home? We are not in control. The correlative (perhaps reassuring) lesson is this: more is going on in us, always, than we are conscious of — much more than we’ve managed to get hold of via thought.
We generally give our thoughts much more credit than is merited. We assume that a mental impression of a moment of life is accurate, mistaking it for life itself. We enjoy believing that some clever thought has the power to precipitate a significant life development (like, say, manifesting wealth, or bringing about authentic compassion, or causing an end to mind-caused suffering, imagining that we can use the tool to fix the tool itself).
What were we thinking? (Humor intended: it’s good to laugh at ourselves.) It’s all very humbling.
There is a difference between thinking and awareness. Awareness is utterly peaceful, alive-feeling. It’s a plain noticing, a receptivity, that occurs without effort any time the mind gets out of the way. All of us have the capacity of conscious awareness, whether or not we are spiritual seekers. Just like the capacity to think is part of our equipment. Only in the case of the latter (by marked contrast with awareness) there is often the absence of peace. Thinking is driven by wanting something. It is deluded into supposing it can get the desired result. While that may be true in parts of “outer” life, its usefulness on the interior dwindles to near nothing.
* * * * *
So . . . what then? Where does that leave a person?
Stop working so hard to wake up. Never delude yourself into supposing you know what you’re doing (or what “needs” doing). Simply pay attention to what comes along, “out there” and within. Be receptive. Let your eyes and your heart be open, not on a mission. Be curious about what you observe. You don’t need to do anything with (or about) any of it.
Remember that there always is more going on, relating to awakening, than the clunky mind can get hold of or fathom (never mind manage). As often as effort starts up, gently remind yourself that you do not know what you’re doing, that anything thought-based is useless. Worse than useless.
Don’t try to change anything. Just see whatever is happening inside yourself. If there is desire, notice it. Don’t try to let it go. (You may have noticed it doesn’t work.) If resistance is happening, just see it, without trying to undo it. (Sometimes simply seeing it will soften it.)
If you genuinely enjoy meditating (or whatever tends to get made into a “practice” or a method), do it. For for its own sake, not as a means to an end. Practices tend to become means to an end (like escaping torment), rather than being done for their own sweet sake.
If you notice yourself gripped by the hideous determination to wake up, just notice it. See that this desire is born in the mind. Don’t try to get rid of it; just gently look and feel. Soon enough something else will happen. Try to remember that there is a much shorter distance between yourself and wakefulness than the mind thinks there is.
If you’re moved to pray, pray not for a particular something (which would assume your mind knows what you need). Instead consider praying to see what needs seeing.
Do not go looking for the magical “place” in you that spawns insights all on its own, where wisdom is tucked away, just waiting to be revealed. Please realize that if you make an effort of that sort, it is your mind making mischief again.
Be curious but not invested or hellbent, on a mission to heal yourself. Awareness is wonderfully equipped for curiosity. For marveling, savoring, insights.
Rather than being driven into despair by the realization that there’s “nothing you can do” to “get there,” notice that the source of all of that misery is your head. Instead, feel how good it is to let go all the dogged effort. Feel how good it is to rest in life itself, to trust yourself — not your mental and emotional self, but the Real You that underlies it all. That’s waiting patiently to allow one delicious thing and another to dawn on you.
Then watch . . . feel . . . what happens. When you get out of your own way.