It’s a rich thing to contemplate: what it’s like to no longer identify with body, history, opinions, thoughts – and yet to still be a person. To live a life, love people, do things. Be in the world, engaged, without being blown about by its inevitable rough weather. It’s instructive to reflect on what it is to be physical, mortal, sensory, experiencing pleasure and pain, without feeling you are your body. Or your work, your relationships, your upbringing, gifts, imperfections.
Rich, too, to consider the “evolution” of the heart, mind, and body, in the environment of awakening. How each “part” of a person seems to open fully, on its own schedule, and not necessarily in sync with the other parts (or the same way it might be for somebody else). How a certain development seems to occur, but it’s particular to the individual.
All the while the opening of the heart, of the mind, of the body (whatever the particular expressions) – while it all feels so alive – does not get identified with. There is no more narrow sense of a self. Just a burgeoning and ever more varied aliveness. Consciousness experiencing embodiment in its varied human expressions. No end of discovery!
Some people seem to come to awakening via their hearts, and some their minds. (Not when their minds are in service to a self, but in moments when they’re operating clear of all that.) That seems to be what happened with Eckhart Tolle: his mind, in a moment of clarity and curiosity, led him to the door of awakening. The philosopher-mathematician Franklin Merrell-Wolff might say it was his mind that occasioned his own vast opening. For some, surely, the turning point has its roots in something physical, an experience of the body being what cracks a person all the way open. Perhaps a devastating accident, being in a war zone or in a terrible fight. Spending time in solitary confinement.
Awakening sets in motion all kinds of things. It is not a landing place, after which there is unending sameness.
Whichever “part” of a person appears to be the entry point, to lead the unfolding way into the new life, it does appear that the other parts tend to come along, with a kind of innate wisdom as to the timing and manner of blossoming.
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As for me, it seemed to be the heart that took me there (though of course I cannot really know). There was great devotion to a teacher, a welling of enormous love. Maybe this was natural, given my “nature”: I had always been one whose life choices tended to be “driven” by the heart. But then, soon after awakening had occurred, the mind too experienced a vivid opening. Now that the mental processor had been liberated from enslavement to the upkeep of a self, it was free to roam over other landscapes, becoming hugely spacious. Clarity and wisdom came, it seemed, from “out of nowhere.” Blessedly unburdened of stories, judgment, identification, and attachment, the mind was wondrously reflective, curious, and insightful. Clear as a pristine lake.
Meanwhile, the heart (having led to the door on the other side of which was utter change) was undergoing its own quiet revolution. No longer associated with fear or the desire to control, love felt conditions fall away from it. The emotional intensity from before was no longer surging through it. Now, in its place, there was a quiet evenness, without boundary or restriction. Nothing was walled off. Granted all the space it could wish for, love was at last unconditional.
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The extent to which a person stays engaged in outer life varies with the individual, and the degree of a person’s engagement can change over time. Sometimes someone will say they’re afraid if they wake up, they won’t be able to function as they have (pay the bills, be a parent, etc.). In fact, most people continue to be entirely able to occupy their familiar lives, with a few adjustments perhaps. (Anyhow, it’s good to realize that the source of such a concern is the mind-driven ego — never a trustworthy source of anything.) There are varying degrees of willingness to continue life exactly as it was previously, and some things may be let go. (As the discovery is made that joy and fulfillment do not, after all, have their sources “out there,” attachments to outer things surely do soften.)
In my own case, nowadays I find that I delight in the embodied life. I enjoy physical labor, walking, running my hands over an animal, the smell of food cooking. I dearly love to sing. I take care of my body, even as I’m aware it is aging and brief. At the same time the sensory is relished, I also must say that increasingly I’m aware of being less tethered to this world. As if there’s a thin bit of film separating this apparent reality from the vastly bigger something. Sometimes there’s a loneliness to be fully there (wherever “there” is), a wistfulness almost. This ache for intimacy with the other can be occasioned by an exquisitely physical or heartfelt moment, by the encounter with a gorgeous piece of music, by a lusty wind. As if the body and heart can’t bear their human limitations.
But all of this musing is just the ever-curious mind trying, after the fact, to fathom the sensation I struggle to describe. In any case, I would never generalize to say “it’s this way for everyone.” (Indeed, it hasn’t always been this way in my own experience.)
A friend who woke up several years ago, at around age 70, spent virtually her entire life not very much in her body (due apparently to physical and emotional abuse in her youth). She would say, I believe, that it was her heart that stepped her over the threshold to freedom.
Now, in the years since awakening, she feels herself coming – for the first time in her life – into her physicality. It isn’t always comfortable. She has a lifetime’s worth of patterns of withholding, recoiling, being at a distance from. Digestive problems. Tentativeness. Balance difficulty. A reluctance to engage closely with the natural world. All kinds of things that now, gently, seem to be unwinding, resettling her into a delicious brand-new embodiment that delights and surprises her no end. In her mid-seventies, she has become, in her newfound physicality, like a little child, full of discovery and rejoicing, expansion and exploration. What a pleasure to witness! To see the flowering of confidence in the body’s way of knowing. Trusting itself. It’s a whole new world.
Which is to say (among other things) that awakening sets in motion all kinds of things. It is not a landing place, after which there is unending sameness. It’s as if the fullness of our human endowment finally gets warm, oxygenated blood flowing to all the parts that previously may have been cool, stunted, coiled in the dark of disuse and timidity. (It’s also to say that awakening doesn’t “depend” upon all of one’s “problems” — physical, emotional, or otherwise — being sorted out first.)
All of this miraculous unfolding occurs even as you don’t cling to (or identify with) any of what’s opening up. And even as there’s a felt distance from “regular life” (at least, as life once was experienced, every scrap of it once carrying the burden of “meaning.”) While you feel yourself coming fully alive, assuming your innate gifts and your imperfection with equanimity, none of it matters all that much. You marvel at the process of all that’s unfolding, not grasping at any of it.
If any of these new delightful developments suddenly dissolved, it just wouldn’t matter. Always, there’s the recognition that you’re not in charge of what’s happening, or how it’s come about, or what’s ahead. And the constant knowing that everything is fleeting.
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In the land of my own heart, I can say the capacity for love has blossomed. I’m no longer afraid my heart will break. I already know it will. The breaking, when it comes, is more painful than ever it was before, when fear walled off both love and pain. I’m well aware that my heart could withdraw from the close encounter with life, that I could live at a greater distance from the familiar human dynamic. I know the feeling of that distancing. (Some people do prefer it as the norm, and perhaps one day I will too.) In certain situations that remoteness is an “allowed” default, such as in an environment of insanity (extreme unconsciousness). This isn’t always about limiting the intensity of pain in the encounter with others’ suffering (which is infinite). It’s something about a preference to linger more on the other side of that veil where the ordinary comes within a breath of the extraordinary, where the realities of embodied human life are felt to be far away.
I’m aware of a certain deliberateness at play here. Something leans more toward the land of the feeling . . . even as there’s a wistfulness for the other, for living more there, where all track of physicality, of heart and mind, of limitation, is abandoned. The larger truth visits here and there. It comes in through the window, between one breath and another. But then the next moment, the close-up world reminds me of itself: the brevity of life, of the morning; the condition of our beloved democracy; the gnawing in the belly that calls me to a bowl of soup. The wind in the trees. My daughter, my son. My cat. The snow piling up. The delicious sensory aliveness of it all.
More and more my mind altogether rests. I’m reluctant to engage it, if I can manage without it. I find ways to manage without it, mostly. It’s why the simple life has great appeal.
Meanwhile, my friend who’s discovering her 74-year-old body, dormant most of her life, is like a little kid, the physical life like a toy that’s just been put into her hands. She can’t get enough of it.