People longing to awaken sometimes hold mistaken impressions about what radical freedom would be like. Some suppose that the quieting of the mischief-causing mind, long in the thrall of ego-maintenance, leaves a person in a kind of clueless la-la land. This is far off the mark. What actually happens, for most, is that the mind simply no longer inflicts suffering. Instead, it is blessedly freed up to be of actual use. It can learn; it can remember. No longer does it squander its considerable resources on inventing (and attempting to solve) problems related to the self. The liberated mind becomes a practical device, a handy tool to be implemented when a life situation warrants its engagement.
One thing needing to be sorted out, after awakening, is the matter of finding a comfortable balance between the purity of present-moment awareness (the default mode of being) and mental engagement, when life calls for that. Surely being altogether in the now is life’s most delicious experience. Yet there are times when inviting awareness to reach beyond immediacy is in order. Indeed, there are occasions when being too much in the heartfelt now is actually ill-advised.
We’re used to orienting to the mind as a bad guy. It’s truly a blessing to make friends with the mind.
Given the profound inner change over the years since my cat’s death, where the spacious heart longs to be primary, discovering how to incorporate this wisdom about the mind’s usefulness has not been the most automatic of adaptations. It has asked a good deal of me. The learning is ongoing.
The woods have been my great teachers in this regard. Given how much I love spending time (life!) among the trees and my fellow creatures, the necessary expenditure has been gladly made.
Looking ahead is something that applies to both the temporal future and the visual/spatial one. Whether anticipating something not yet here in time or a physical location not yet reached, looking beyond this now, this here, asks that we engage the mind and revisit its storehouse of acquired knowledge.
* * *
While I need to take care, in non-snow seasons, not to wander too far from the familiar path, lest I become disoriented and lost, in a snowy winter it’s another matter altogether. Snowshoes are wondrous devices, making it possible to traverse terrain unwelcoming in snowless seasons. I can explore to my heart’s content, knowing that the trail laid by the biting impressions of my meandering snowshoes will be retraceable, followable all the way home, when I decide to turn and head back. It means I need pay no attention at all to where I’ve made random turns, dictated by the moment’s whim.
But on one occasion — most memorably — I became profoundly disoriented in the snow-blanketed woods. This time, atypically, I had ventured out in the middle of a heavy snowstorm, the fast-falling snow having erased the path marked by my toothy snowshoes. Although while the ongoing erasure was under way, so focused was I on the immediate delight of where I was and what I was seeing and feeling, I was unaware of what was steadily taking place right behind me. Meanwhile, having no sense of the gathering risk, I was continuing obliviously into territory altogether unfamiliar to me, with no idea how far from home I was, nor what direction my house might be in.
Once there’s plenty of snow on the ground, even on a sunny day, it’s challenging to recognize even the most familiar defined walking trails. Snow makes disappear trails that are otherwise readily apparent. Never mind how “familiar” the terrain. Because the trees are mostly bare of their greenery, the spaces between them are more substantial in winter than in the growing seasons, when a more readily visible broad “line” is drawn among the trees by the spacious winding trail, where nothing much grows. But in snow-covered woods, when the leaves are down, the familiar pathways through the woods are not so obviously detectable. It is surprisingly easy to become disoriented. Lost.
This oh-so-memorable occasion happened late enough in that winter afternoon, with dark fast approaching, that I could well have been stranded overnight in the forbidding conditions. Nor was the lowering sun of any help in the matter of determining direction, concealed as it was by the curtain of heavy snow. And there is no cell service out there.
Mercifully I managed to find my way to the welcome sight of my landlord’s cleared field coming into view. By chance I’d come upon a familiar tree, one I knew well from the foot trail. It resembles no other tree in those woods, thanks to a defining feature of its bark-stripped trunk: the encircling impression made by the teeth of a long-ago chain saw. When the tree came into view, I held very still. My humorous backward-looking self pictures enfolding angelic light transforming the signpost into a “vision” (like a cheesy moment in a movie). I can laugh now, but that is precisely how that sighting landed in me. I used the tree as a way to orient myself. In short order I was able to get my bearings. Courtesy of that tree (which I wanted to wrap my arms around and kiss), I was able to detect the shape of the snow-blanketed trail I have traveled ten thousand times, to see which way I must now turn and proceed, to find my way out of the woods before dark.
A good deal of learning surely did occur on that occasion.
If I hadn’t had a working mind that day I got lost in the stormy woods, things may not have turned out so well. But here’s the real miracle: not once did I feel fear, even as I was looking square in the face of the reality that I may indeed not find my way home before dark. I had no mental space to spare — to squander! — on being afraid. What was in order was to think: to see if I could sort out, in a logical way, where I was, what direction to go.
* * *
Fear ran my life for 50 years. Once upon a time, after such an experience, the story of that snowy afternoon would have become a “thing” in my head, an endlessly repeating nightmare shimmering with anxiety. I’d have carried it like a burden I could not put down, along with the countless other difficult experiences I never got over. Instead, the lessons I learned that day — what to do, what not to do — rest quietly tucked away in the back of my head, retrievable at a moment’s notice, should they ever be needed. Thus is the gift of a liberated mind, one no longer capable of inflicting suffering on self.
We’re used to orienting to the mind as a bad guy: it is, after all, the source of a great deal of unnecessary pain. But to generalize from this recognition to supposing that the mind is all bad is to fail to acknowledge one of the great illuminers of the inner world. Make it your business to learn about your own mind. Become aware of the assumptions you may carry about thought — such as the belief that all mental activity is suspect, a problem, and worthy only of dismissal. Many a seeker participates (with every best intention) in this error.
It’s truly a blessing to make friends with the mind. To explore, with open eyes and heart, the terrain of what it is to think consciously — usefully! Learn to tell the difference, inside your own daily awareness, between mischief-making thoughts and those that actually help usefully navigate life’s practical terrain. One of them generates discomfort; the other does not. One is animated by a ceaseless circular momentum, while the other is quiet, even restful. These are the distinguishing features of the two. Learn to notice which is under way, any time you notice yourself engaging the mind.
What you are more deeply able to discover, by this self-exploration, is the profound difference between ego-maintenance and beneficial intelligence.
[From a forthcoming book by Jan Frazier]