We generally ask a question because we hope to get an answer. Sometimes, though, the deepest benefit of asking comes of turning the eyes from a would-be response and looking back at the question itself. Doing this can be life-altering, maybe even more significant than a prospective answer.
How bewildering: why bother asking if an answer isn’t forthcoming?
There’s something radically altering about seeing from the outside a landscape you’re used to inhabiting.
Occasionally you may hear yourself say something inside your head, wondering about a certain thing. Sometimes tuning in to your thoughts can lead somewhere significant. This is what happened to Eckhart Tolle. Deeply depressed, he’d just then said he could no longer live with himself. Then, having noticed that thought, he grew curious: “Are there two of me — an I and a me?”
Could it be that there was a consciousness alive in him that was able to observe what went on in his head? The simple act of stepping back and looking at what he’d just said to himself gave rise to that wondering. It led, in short order, to his waking up.
By his seeing the thought, everything changed — not just the depression. The relevatory moment is recounted in The Power of Now.
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The transformative power of such an inquiry has to do with where the looking occurs from. It’s like stepping back and looking at the terrain one is used to looking from. You’re taking in the familiar landscape. It’s recognizable. But there’s something radically altering about seeing from the outside a landscape you’re used to inhabiting, as if it had been your entire reality.
When we’re imprisoned in our heads, as Eckhart had been, their content is all we know. We are trapped inside the mind’s narrowly-defined world and cannot imagine there is anything “out there.” Typically we look unconsciously through a thought pattern, as if gazing through a lens. Until now we had not seen the lens itself.
The moment this occurs, a light has turned on. It’s a true game-changer.
We do not necessarily “decide” when to have a perspective change. It may occur as it did for Eckhart Tolle, courtesy of curiosity. It may come on its own, when the time is ripe. That’s what happened in my own case, the night something caused me to look at fear, not through its defining, imprisoning lens.
Note: I was not thinking about fear. Conscious awareness — plain seeing, unencumbered by ordinary thought — had just entered the picture.
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From outside of it all, a thing you’ve been unconscious of may become startlingly visible. On the one hand, all you see is weirdly familiar — you do recognize the terrain — but on the other, you seem to be looking at what’s there from a new point of view, perhaps even from a great distance.
The result may be that a long-buried emotion or thought pattern is seen and allowed for the first time. This can be unnerving; there is a reason we hold down these things, averse to acknowledging or feeling something threatening or painful. Something may be at long last viscerally felt (grief, say, or guilt) that was denied space until then.
Perhaps it’s a belief we never realized we had (like the one I had that said An imperfect person like me could never become free). Maybe it’s an unacknowledged desire for a major life change, because to pursue it may be perceived as risky. We’re simply seeing what has been revealed, without judging it, not necessarily with an eye to changing anything. These moments are turning points.
All of us carry unconsciously held assumptions, desires, and beliefs. It’s part of being human. These forces are often what most deeply motivate us, yet typically we are unaware of them. There is a reason they tend to live in the subconscious: it is at significant risk to the ego that we invite them into the light of conscious awareness. Because once that happens, we cannot go back. There’s no pretending not to know what we have seen. Playing with a full deck, knowing and feeling what deeply animates us, is crucial to waking up in a stable way. If the revelation hasn’t occurred in the lead-up to awakening, it surely will in its aftermath.
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When it dawned on me that the fear I’d long been subject to was an actual option, not (as I’d unconsciously believed) something I was inevitably at the mercy of, it changed my life. If anyone had suggested before that I was “choosing” terror, it would have infuriated me.
In that same vein, if someone had told me that being scared would have no bearing whatever on whether a dreaded thing actually happened — that I was entirely without control over the feared future — I’m not sure I would have been able to bear the truth of that.
What I ultimately saw, long after awakening occurred, was that I’d been imprisoned by the unconscious belief that fear might give me a measure of control over the unpredictable, uncontrollable future.
The bottom line was that I’d made the unconscious “choice” to feel perennially fearful. It beat the heck out of confronting the awful truth that I could neither predict nor alter whatever may lie ahead, nor avoid whatever pain it may entail.
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I remember realizing that what I’d called the “need” to do or to have a certain thing was not in fact necessary. I’d always believed I needed the respect of other people. I was bound and determined to ensure the well-being and happiness of my children when they were young.
To be sure, these things were deeply wanted. I was to discover ultimately that the perceived need for others’ admiration had everything to do with what went on in my head. I kept unconscious the supposition that if others thought well of me, that meant I was a good person. As for guaranteeing fulfillment and safety in my kids’ lives . . . well, if you have loved and cared for children, need I say more about the ultimate lack of control over such things?
Asking yourself what motivates something you habitually do — above all if it’s something you tell yourself you “must” do — can turn on a light. Is it done from mere habit? Maybe you’re unconsciously concerned how somebody might judge you if you stopped.
If it’s a spiritual practice such as meditating, it can be fruitful to look at the why of it. Do you sit for meditation because it nourishes you? Is the experience peace-inducing, illumining? Is it more like a task or a habit, a means to the perceived end of waking up? Is there a buried belief that there must be a “method” to deliver you to the land of awakeness?
Maybe, as happened with Eckhart Tolle, all that needs to happen is a moment in which your awareness sees yourself thinking something. Then a question pops up, and everything changes.
Ask yourself this: Why do I do the things I do? Hold still awhile. Just look.
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One of the pronounced features of wakefulness (whether fleeting or stable) is the coming to rest in reality. One with whatever is real, you are entirely transparent to yourself. Nothing is “walled off” from awareness, as it likely was historically, including whatever might have been deeply buried.
At bottom, it’s all about being real with yourself. It might have been hard to imagine such a thing could be, back when you wanted to fix yourself.
Here’s a question worth asking: Could I die this very day? Here’s another: If I knew this day would be my last, would I spend it the way I’m spending it now? Is there another way you’d rather live? Are you keeping that buried?
Do you think you’ve got forever?
Just look. Step outside the landscape you’re accustomed to and look. You don’t have to do anything necessarily. But at least you’ll be playing with a full deck.
Being real with ourselves is pure gold. It just might shake us awake.