“What is real?” Or, “What am I?” These are two ways into the heart of the matter, the essential thing – the thing a human life is, at bottom, about. The thing all earnest seeking means to uncover, to come to rest in.
Either question – What am I? What is real? – can be a starting place. Each is like a surgical knife, in that it separates what matters (as a focus of inner exploration) from what does not. That is, none of the rest of what may occupy a person in pursuit of radical peace gets to the underlying, the essential. Important not to bother, then, with the rest. Not to make too much of things like trying to stop thought, control negativity, heal, be kinder. Such things are undertaken at a level that is relatively superficial. They neglect the underlying assumption on which all pursuits depend: the operating (unseen) belief about what you are, what is real.
What is real? and What am I? lead to the same thing. Either route arrives at the same place.
En route, having put either question to self, pause to wonder this: What am I using to answer this? Or really, even just to ask it? What faculty in me is being engaged here?
Asking either question, without resorting to the mind, leads a person into a momentary attunement. A “sensation,” a subtle feeling detectable in the body. That is, deeply considering What is real? or What am I? releases a quiet momentary flooding of recognition in the body. Consciousness can sense the feeling occurring – and perhaps in that flood, the answer becomes known.
A human being is both embodied and formless consciousness. This is the miracle: that you are both. Once you know what you really are, you are both engaged in life and not subject to it.
When that occurs, it is not the mind that’s asked the question. When it’s the one doing the asking, the only possible answer will also be mind-generated. The mind does not elicit a flood of anything authentic, anything real. (It encounters only things of its own making – ideas, beliefs, memory – not reality itself.)
If someone asks you, “Can you tell that you’re alive, right now – that you’re here?” you can simply feel that it is so. You can “just tell,” as we say.
What is it that can tell?
But if someone asks you whether you can tell you’re alive right now and you go into your mind to see if you can tell, you’ll be able to come up only with a mental answer (something like “evidence,” learned ideas). It has nothing to do with the direct, palpable knowing that floods the body with a felt recognition of momentary actual hereness. What the mind comes up with is inevitably “processed,” at a distance from felt existence. Even to recognize the difference between bodied and mental knowing, to tell the two apart, is a revelation.
What is real? isn’t something different from What am I? This alone is puzzling to the mind, since the questions appear to be asking two different things, inevitably having different answers. When the two are put side-by-side in the mind, considered as different things possibly having a common answer, the mind can’t entertain them in the presence of one another. Something like static occurs. Or if not static, a forced kind of exploration, a torture of the intellect that students in a philosophy class might undertake. (Not unlike what happens with some nonduality “adepts” who are stuck in the head, mistaking concepts for truth.) There can be a useless heading into the weeds of the meaning of a word (like “real,” like “I”).
But when the peace that passeth understanding floods a person and does not leave, whatever has registered has not taken place in the ordinary processing mind (however brilliant, however curious or determined).
So, what has registered? (Can this possibly be described? Here goes an attempt.)
What the body registers as real, as knowable, is the felt actual experience of this moment. Only. The moment unfiltered, unprocessed, by the mind. It is what’s accessible in sensation, movement, encounter. Then it’s gone, truly gone, replaced by the new fleeting something. Unfiltered. But known, directly known. Felt, registered. Real. Then gone.
Here’s the punch in the gut: this is “what you are.” (As an embodied person, anyhow, it is what you are.) Ever. This is all. “You” are only this now – only this known, felt, about-to-die now.
There is no distance, no separation, between you and the now. They are one. “You” = momentary, unfiltered, directly-experienced life. Period.
This is not a welcome piece of news to the mind-generated idea of a you, with a history, full of fears and desires and a self-image, an elaborate system of values and beliefs about what is true and important. No wonder so few, even among earnest seekers, become truly free. So much that’s seemed substantial and precious – what you’ve believed yourself essentially to be – simply dissolves in the blinding light of reality.
The entire sense of a you (however real it has seemed) has been produced and maintained, cherished and fretted over, by the processing, recalling, story-making mind. This is the you that appears to exist “in time,” to have a recognizable continuity, an independent existence.
It’s the same you that’s been earnestly seeking, practicing, “on a path,” trying to improve, to get somewhere.
When you ask yourself “Can I tell I’m alive, here, right now?” and the immediate emphatic response is Yes!, note that you did not have to (first) remember anything about who you are, what your life has been like, your name or issues or any of the rest of what has defined you. Doesn’t this say something about how a more fundamental thing is going on, ceaselessly, than the story of who you are?
The faculty that can detect aliveness, hereness, is itself unchanging. Always the same, moment to moment, even if we seldom trouble to tune into it – into the pristine, stripped-down knower. It is perennially unaffected by whatever it detects. But what it detects in any given moment – the felt particulars of actual life (the way the knower exists in momentary form) – is in constant flux. The embodied expression changes, but not the one that’s aware of it.
You are both.
The consciousness that registers aliveness, that knows reality – it is what you most essentially are. The momentary expression of you-as-person is felt, in motion, constantly disappearing. Like the incarnation of Christian doctrine, a human being is both embodied (ever changing) and formless consciousness (subject to neither change nor decay). Once you know what you really are, you are both engaged (lightly) in life and not subject to it. This is the miracle: that you are both; that this is not a contradiction.
The reason that ultimate peace passeth understanding is that it cannot be fathomed or accounted for via mental comprehension. And it is the most real thing there is: when a person is attuned constantly, in the unceasing flux of embodied life, to the underlying reality of the omnipresent knower, peace is the primary experience. Always.
Ask yourself the essential thing (in either form) many times every day, as you live your ordinary life. All the rest is re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
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