When reflecting on some life development, do you ever turn toward karma or divine will, or perhaps the configuration of the stars, as a way of accounting for things? Does the prospect of an afterlife hold significance in your orientation to existence? Do you tend to examine life developments via the framework of some spiritual or religious tradition?
Given our enduring desire to be able to account for all that occurs in life, it is natural to take refuge in such things. We can sometimes find comfort there, perhaps wisdom or guidance. It’s natural, too, to have a sense of a vast intelligence beyond the bounds of ordinary experience, perhaps a loving presence. What we have come to refer to as God, as the divine.
A person may imagine that life — perhaps a given life — has a particular purpose. At any rate, may want it to be so.
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It’s helpful to look at the role played by such constructs as they come up in day-to-day reflections on unfolding reality. To be curious about why they come into awareness when they do. To notice how we apply them in our perspective on life events, how they inform the way we occupy our skin. These interpretations provide labels, lenses to look through. Applying the vocabulary of a given tradition gives us ways to explain ourselves (to ourselves, perhaps others), to account for why life goes the way it goes, in an effort to manage the influence of some perceived force. It might enable us subtly to let ourselves (or others) off the hook. This can soothe the mind, settle some underlying discomfort.
The question is not whether these perceived background forces, these ways of interpreting reality, are valid, whether any of them actually account for things that happen. What’s of value, as regards consciousness and awakening, is to be aware of what we do with them (if they do feel real). What is the use, the underlying motivation, of explaining something by looking at it through the lens of karma or the horoscope, of processing it via a spiritual or religious frame of reference?
Is it possible to notice the difference between a thing itself and what it looks (perhaps feels) like once it’s given a mind-based way of accounting for it?
Hold yourself in a tender regard. For you contain an unfathomable vastness and ease.
Are you able to see that this application of an interpretive framework is the work of the mind? Perhaps there’s some emotional stirring, such as a discomfort with life-as-it-is, a reaching for the perceived comfort enabled by understanding. Maybe the impulse comes from the desire to settle a subtle ill-at-easeness — the discomfort, say, of feeling at-the-mercy-of. Or the at-sea sensation of a radical not-knowing.
We want to know the why of a significant life moment. The what-now of it.
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Pure consciousness is not troubled by the absence of a lens to look through; it needs no mental framework. It knows only direct encounter, unmediated. It does not stand at a scrutinizing distance from what-is. Conscious awareness is simply one with the moment.
It is only the mind (with emotion likely stirring beneath) that’s moved to reflect on the role of some force or other, at a given moment. To declare something to be the will of God. For the egoic mind is perennially uncomfortable with not-knowing, with the absence of the “control” that understanding can seem to inject into a life development.
Consciousness knows better than to take refuge in contextualizing ideas. Anyhow, all consciousness “knows” is this moment. Nor is it troubled by whatever is happening.
There may be wonderings about free will. Is there such a thing as choice? A person may want to know whether we’re simply at the mercy of our conditioning. Even if there could be some kind of definitive answer to that, so what? It’s another one of those things for the mind to busy itself with. What can be helpful is to wonder How would it affect me if I could know the answer? How would it inform the way life is lived? Would it be somehow soothing inside the head, the psyche?
Would it set in motion yet another way to distance self from life-as-it-is?
Then there’s the “nobody’s here” of nondual teachings, the idea that “all of this is a dream.” (Does the exquisite discomfort of a thorn abruptly entering the flesh of your fingertip feel like a dream? How about exquisite grief?) Along with the strained avoidance of the use of “I,” referring to oneself as “this body-mind,” as if that expression might dilute the otherwise lively sense of ego-saturated self. There’s the perceived value of reminding oneself of such ideas, during intervals of inquiry. It all becomes yet another mental framework of limited value (whether or not any of it happens to be true).
If in your travels you come upon one of these ideas — or some other that means to account for reality — and it rings true, deep in you, of course you will make note of that recognition. But to then take hold of it, to cling to it, to make a strained effort to remember it, to apply it to life as it carries on . . . You do not need to do this.
Remember: this is without regard for whether any of these applied systems of interpretation are in fact operating. (You might notice how the mind keeps wanting to insist they surely are relevant. Why is that so important? What subtle comfort might it introduce into the living of life that could otherwise appear random, without “purpose”?)
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What is the point here? It is not to urge you to try to stop reaching toward some familiar soothing context. That would be in the category of Fruitless Attempts to Improve Yourself. (What seeker needs more of those?) No, this is simply a gentle invitation for you to — gently — notice when one of those familiar tendencies tugs at you. To consider the dynamic in the light of a kindly curiosity and see whether you might be able to notice anything about the why of such patterns. To see if maybe a habitual orientation to life might contain a window into some discomfort underlying the pattern.
No, it is not soothing to the mind, to the ego, to be without an interpretive framework, some familiar naming vocabulary. It can feel wildly undermining. Threatening, even. But it looks that way only to the exotic structure of who-you-seem-to-be (the very you — so poignant — that strains to remind itself that there is “nobody here”). Seeing that, observing the sensation of being without moorings, of sitting in the feel of unknowing, may gently locate you outside the dynamic. In a moment when that spacious observing is occurring, you may notice the absence of angst, of the desire for things to be different from what they are. A blessed (if fleeting) peace.
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Perhaps you can revisit a moment in your life (courtesy of the handy recollecting mind) in which you felt all mental activity at rest. There might have been the dawning of stunning clarity about something, along with a palpable aliveness. Such inner stillness then. You were simply really here. Could feel aliveness. Immediacy. It may or may not have been conspicuously blissful, just absent torment. At such a moment were you feeling the need to “frame” what was happening? Or were you just purely alive, seeing something clearly, feeling the truth of it? Wasn’t your mind altogether quiet, not itchy to understand? (Or — as you may poignantly recall — if ideas did insist themselves into the moment, did the equanimity collapse?)
Can we account for how we know what we know, on that visceral level? We cannot. We know only that we know. The sensation is unmistakable. It isn’t necessary to mentally process such a moment. To cling to it or try to replicate it, to give it a context. The mind may want to do these things; consciousness is content to let life be, sans reflection.
What if there is something deeply wise in you, something you neither caused nor can seize hold of, that simply recognizes the truth of a thing? This capacity is real, dear heart. It is already within you. It needs no “cultivation,” no processing, no practice or discipline or understanding. You doubtless know the feel of such a moment: it is absolutely trustworthy.
That knowing “presence” within you will make you aware of itself, when life calls for it, when you’ve gotten out of your own way. Nor is any cultivation needed. (Talk about restful.) It’s a matter of recognizing it, the heart welcoming such a moment when it comes into awareness. Nor can it be summoned. It’s a spontaneous and bodied recognition. Mary Oliver’s poem says,
“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
With due respect to the beloved poet, she might just as well have said Let the soft animal of your body know what it knows. When you simply allow your embodied self to recognize the truth of something within, there’s no mental framework holding it.
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It is not inevitable (let alone necessary) that we process experience via any interpretive mechanism. The Buddha said of this . . . It must be God’s will that I . . . Of course this is happening, given where Saturn is . . . I am getting a sense of my life’s purpose . . .
As often as necessary, remind yourself: this is not about whether such perspectives are possibly reflective of some truth. It’s got to do with what underlies our desire, our need, to apply them. It’s about seeing how we might use them to protect ourselves from radical unknowing, from the perennial absence of the ability to control. To protect ourselves from (how poignant this is!) truly living. Spontaneously, unafraid of what-is. Of what may be yet to come.
What about a possible afterlife? Isn’t that somehow relevant to how we live, to how we orient to life?
If the prospect of some form of life continuing after death has appeal to you (or feels true), gently put this question to yourself. What if you could somehow learn that there is no after? How would that sit in you? How might it alter your orientation to unfolding life-as-it-is? Do you take refuge in the idea of an afterlife? Perhaps it promises ultimate wisdom or clarity. Radical relief from suffering. Reunion with loved ones who’ve preceded you.
What would it feel like if that consoling framework were not there, in your daily awareness? Of what possible function is the assumption of immortal endurance?
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I do not know whether there is an after. If there turns out to be one, I suppose that will become clear when the time comes. If nothing more seems to be happening, presumably no one will be “there” — aware — to notice the absence. Meanwhile, nothing about how I live today is informed, one way or the other, by the prospect of either possibility.
I surely do have the sense that a good deal more is going on than my mind is able to get hold of. Let alone has even my most ardent curiosity been able to account for that sense of a larger something. I have learned better than to try. Increasingly what happens is the head bows under the sweet weight of profound unknowing, of something like awe. In the face of the enduring mystery, gratitude to explode the heart. No need to struggle to account for anything.
It’s rather like the impossibility of fathoming the infinitude of interstellar space, the condition of the universe prior to the Big Bang, before the starting up of time. When even eminent scientists acknowledge the limits of their ability to understand quantum physics, to reconcile its apparent contradictions, why would we ask our spiritual minds to attempt to account for something that’s altogether beyond the constraints of the physical? Let alone to ponder the why of any of it, physical or spiritual reality.
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Does it ever come to me to think God? To say to myself, What could this be, if not divinity? The sense of a vast tenderness, of all-knowing, all-loving, being palpable in my oh-so-physical human body? What else could account for such sensation, my curious mind wants to whisper? (And is there any difference between “me” and “it”?)
Oh, but in such a moment, a little smile plays around the edges of things. The recognition of the human ache to understand, to account for. I know better than to take these wonderings seriously. To suppose that any concept of the divine could contain the uncontainable.
There is nothing to do but grant the aching-open heart all the space it asks, even as I sense it cannot get big enough. At least, not in this embodied mode.
Am I asking you to “take my word” for any of what I so vividly sense about that larger-something? Can you imagine how I’ve hesitated to attempt to put words to it, knowing the possible risk? Let this be yet another invitation to gently set down any such temptation. None of us knowing anything, ever.
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The bottom line (ever and always) is this: in a given moment, something spontaneously happens, regardless of what may have set it in motion. Things go the way they go.
Doubtless we are subject to countless forces beyond our fathoming. Perhaps God’s will or karma or free will (or determinism) is in the picture somewhere. Given that there’s so much beyond what our earnest and curious minds can fathom, isn’t it just so much more restful to give up on all of it?
In light of the vast gulf between present-moment experience and any understanding of it, what a surprise it is to discover that a profound peace comes from resting comfortably in that gulf, when the mind isn’t hellbent on self-protection, on distancing from reality.
The peace that passeth understanding is, after all, within you. Even now, while you’re undergoing a dogged search, fruitlessly searching “out there,” looking through one lens after another. The human mind cannot bear that it could be this simple, this profoundly absent effort. But then, the earnest mind, a greatly overrated organ, is only doing the best it can.
Hold yourself in a tender regard. For you — your embodied self — contain an unfathomable vastness and ease. It’s you, as you are, not some woefully inadequate mental construct. However profoundly you may have suffered, something in you was not ruined. Nor could be.