(First given as a talk to 200 people at the Whole Life Expo in San Francisco and then later edited and published in The Empty Vessel: A Journal of Contemporary Taoism.)
We are faced with a profound mystery: the mystery of ourselves here and now, on this earth. Whatever scientific or religious beliefs we may have about this mystery, about how and why we have come to be, most of us are “asleep” to its unfathomable immediacy, its “now-ness.” We move through our lives in a state of waking sleep, a state of psychological, cultural, and spiritual hypnosis. Instead of experiencing ourselves consciously from moment to moment as living, breathing beings, we lose ourselves unconsciously in the various impulses and fragments of our self-images—our likes and dislikes, our pleasures and pains, our theories, our expectations, our dreams, our fears, and our beliefs. Instead of asking and reflecting on the hard, deep questions about the meaning of our lives, about who we are and where we are going, we look for easy answers to questions that don’t matter. We are often more interested in what happened last week at the event that we missed or what’s going to happen tonight on our favorite TV show than what is happening right here and now in our own minds and bodies. If we aren’t living in our memories, we’re off somewhere in the future, worrying, planning, imagining, and so on. We take the present moment for granted, forgetting that our time on this earth is limited and that we and everyone we know is going to die.
A New Way of Living
We need to discover a new way of living. We need to learn how to engage with our lives in such a way that we begin to wake up from our sleep, from our dreams and illusions, from our narrow attitudes and prejudices. In discovering this new way of living, I think it must be clear to all of us that the first, most important, and last step is to remember that we’re here and that the experience of this “hereness” is a gift from the unknown. Can you try this as you continue reading?
To support this effort, sit in a way you’ve never sat before. Those of us who have studied ourselves, who have observed ourselves over a period of years, have certainly noticed that our postures are intimately related to our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions. Through years of conditioning and repetition each of us has developed a repertoire of postures that is closely linked with our repertoire of thoughts and feelings. By taking a new posture, we throw a monkey wrench into this entire mechanism. This allows the brain and nervous system to become more sensitive, to utilize more of its capacity, and thus to take in more-complete impressions of our inner and outer lives. So experiment for a moment. Take a new sitting position. As you sit, pay attention to your sensation. If your sensation of yourself feels “normal,” then you probably haven’t found a new position.
Now that you’ve more or less taken a new sitting posture, you’re going to experiment with your “attention,” that magical gateway into consciousness, to see if it’s possible to be in touch simultaneously with your inner and outer worlds. I hope as you read these words that you will also listen inwardly to your own heartbeat and breath, and to the subtle physical and emotional changes that are taking place at every moment. Can you experience yourself at this moment as a “breathing being”? Can you sense all the extraordinary movements that are taking place with each inhalation and exhalation? I hope that you understand that the real point of your being here reading these words is the same as the real point of your being anywhere doing anything at all. It is to be completely open to yourself, and to the miracle of your life as it is.
As human beings, we have many things in common. We breathe, we eat. We talk. We move. We sense. We feel. We laugh. We think. We imagine. We worry. We suffer. We hope. We work. We love. Above all, we experience. But what do we experience? And how? Do we experience the miraculous nature of “be-ing” itself? Or do we experience an impoverished, mostly imaginary life based on inner lying and fashioned out of the conditions and pressures of our upbringing, education, and culture? What would it mean to let go of everything we think we know about ourselves—whether positive or negative—and look at ourselves impartially, from an entirely new perspective? What would it mean to stop lying to ourselves about our powers, our motives, our identities? For we all know, in our heart of hearts, that we understand almost nothing about ourselves and our lives on this earth. To be sure, we have amassed a lot of so-called knowledge about ourselves, but this knowledge is based more on conjecture and imagination than on direct impressions, and it is shaped by our deep resistance to seeing ourselves as we are. We all know, in our heart of hearts, that the stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are and why we act the way we do are interwoven with lies and half-truths to cover up our own inner confusion and contradictions. It doesn’t matter whether these lies are conscious or unconscious. What does matter is that they keep us from experiencing the question that needs to live in all of us, the question that can call us homeward toward our own fundamental being: “Who am I”? As the great Sufi poet Rumi once wrote: “I honor those who try to rid themselves of any lying, who empty the self and have only clear being there.”
Many of us have had experiences of this emptying of the self, of “clear being,” in moments of great shock—of intense suffering, creativity, or joy. In such moments, or sometimes during deep meditation, we suddenly awaken to the underlying miracle of life and see through the “self” that we have manufactured over the years. For a moment we are able to give up our inner explanations and lies; we are free from the tyranny of our self-image and the beliefs that support it, however narrow or grandiose they may be. Thankfully, we find ourselves in the world of the unknown. We experience, with the great Taoist sage Lao Tzu, the real meaning of the statement that “the Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”
Most of us have had this experience—what could be called an experience of “inner freedom.” And most of us have seen how for a time this experience energizes us and gives us a new, more-vital sense of meaning. But then we return to the demands and momentums of our everyday life. And these, in turn, bring into play the habitual structure of mental, emotional, and physical attitudes that we have built up over the years to give us the illusion of unity and shield us from the confusions and contradictions of living on this earth. Many of these attitudes, however, have no in-born connection with us. Rather they are “suggested” to us throughout our lives both from the outside and the inside. From the outside by parents, books, teachers, television, newspapers, and our friends and associates; from the inside by the unconscious, undigested material of our own psyches. No matter where these attitudes—these stances toward ourselves and the world—originate, however, they most often function as a psycho-physical prison that inhibits the free movement of our energy and cuts us off from our own being.
It is clear that we cannot rely solely on the big shocks of life to open the prison door and allow us to escape into the so-called real world. For as long as we continue to comfort ourselves with beliefs, expectations, and habits of living based on inner lying, no transformation, no miracle, will be possible. What we need is to undertake an “inner work” that can help us cut through these attitudes, these limits to our perception, to see what is actually in front of us, no matter how “ordinary” it might seem to be. For the true mystery of the universe is not someplace other than where we are; it is not to be found in UFOs, or angels, or our teacher’s words; it is not to be found in our imagination or speculations. No. It is to be found right here and now in the living temple of our own awakened minds, bodies, and senses. It is to be found right here and now in the field of our consciousness. It is through an exploration of consciousness, of the “witness” that can stand behind and embrace every perception and impression of our lives, that we can intentionally discover the miracle of the ordinary. But this is not so easy. As George Orwell once wrote: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
The struggle that we need to undertake is the struggle to see the way in which I constantly lie to myself. It is the struggle to be inwardly sincere. It is this seeing, a process that also requires the support of my body and feelings (for my sensations and feelings can also lie), that can free me from my habitual preoccupations, expectations, and beliefs—those powerful psychological states that keep me from experiencing myself and the world in the fullness of the present moment. But as anyone who has tried knows, the effort to be inwardly sincere brings with it suffering, real suffering, the immediate, painful experience of the many ways in which I cut myself off from the truth. This experience, as difficult as it is, also brings with it a great sense of freedom and joy, a sense of returning home from exile.
The ordinary events of our everyday lives, whether they are personal or professional, give us extraordinary opportunities to awaken from our psychological and cultural sleep. As mundane as these events often seem to be, they are, when we look closer, filled with the unexpected, with surprises, contradictions, and other small shocks that can put us into question. If we can receive these shocks without trying to smooth them over, without lying to ourselves or others about them, they can help generate the energy to search not for new solutions to the problems of living but rather for a new, more global quality of consciousness, a consciousness that can embrace the whole of life. It is this consciousness that will not only help us live more intelligently, but, more importantly, will also help us, as Gurdjieff puts it, “to revalue our values,” to come to a deeper perception of what is truly important in our lives.
To revalue our values is not an easy thing to do. We need the help of other serious seekers. As our field of consciousness begins to expand we will see much that we do not like in ourselves. If we’re going to grow, however, if we’re going to experience the miraculous nature of being alive, we have to welcome whatever we see—pain, pleasure, boredom, wonder, joy, depression, shame, meanness, and so on—whether it’s something we like or don’t like.
There is a story that touches on this truth, a story involving the incomparable Mulla Nasrudin. The Mulla had put a lot of effort into starting a beautiful flower garden and was eagerly awaiting the results. One morning he woke up and the garden was in full bloom. But it was filled not just with the flowers he had planted but also with a yellow blanket of dandelions, which he didn’t like. After pondering his problem, he sought out the advice of famous gardeners everywhere about how to get rid of these dandelions, which were overrunning his garden. Try as he might, none of the advice worked; in fact the dandelions seemed to feed on these efforts to get rid of them. Finally, in apparent desperation, he sought out the advice of the royal gardener at the sheik’s palace, a man reputed to be very wise. The royal gardener made many suggestions, but the Mulla had already tried them all. Finally, after sitting in silence for many hours, the gardener looked at the Mulla and said, “Well, since you can’t get rid of the dandelions, perhaps you’d better learn to love them.” “That’s just it,” said the Mulla, “I already do.”
(Copyright 1996-2010 by Dennis Lewis. First given as a talk to 200 people at the Whole Life Expo in San Francisco and then later edited and published in The Empty Vessel: A Journal of Contemporary Taoism.)