Updated: May 8
As a child, I was pretty sure adults had it figured out. I was surprised when, in my twenties, the all-knowing confidence I’d projected onto big people continued to elude me. Maybe the spiritual path would provide some answers! As it turns out, the further I go, the less I seem to know. I can’t see the path ahead. All I can ever see is this step- what’s underfoot. The next step, six steps down the line- they are ideas made up in my head. I cannot know them. Five steps ago is just a thought. I can only know the ground most immediately crumbling under my feet. So, to begin, I’ll touch my brow to the hem of the mystery. That relentless unfolding that has surprised me continually, humbled me over and over and over, and hurt me so completely in ways that, in retrospect, are maddeningly merciful.
Adyashanti often refers to the whole shebang- all that is- as the infinite mystery. It’s a good preview, those words, because you get the sense you are dealing with a question so vast, the only real response is surrender, wonder and appreciation. You may give your weary mind a respite. It is not going to tie up the universe in a bow or fit it neatly in box.
The infinite mystery. I picture myself minuscule in the vacuum of space, noting that the constellations I perceive, the shapes I interpret as symbols, the stories I tell- connect dots that are not particularly connected. I’m looking at a smattering of unrelated stars hundreds of light years apart moving in different directions. It is only my location, my lens, that happens to see a dragon here, an angel there. Change the perspective, change the observed pattern.
Our brains are wired to seek patterns, so we can have a sense of control over ourselves, our lives, the world and let’s admit it, others. All to get pleasure and avoid pain. We are programmed to generalize, to judge, to draw conclusions about causality. It works to a point- you learn to check the pockets of your laundry, and to tip-toe around the hot trigger of your lover’s wound. But in the end, the uncertainty, the constant change, and unreal nature of the self eat through any stability, and your feet dangle over the abyss.
The abyss isn’t dark as in painful or twisted, it’s dark as in your mind can’t see in. Dualistic thought cannot penetrate it. The truth of who you are, your Buddha Nature, can only be directly experienced. It is beyond and before thought. This is why so many Zen Koans (like the sound of one hand clapping) are designed to reveal the limited nature of the mind- to give it an impossible contemplation with which to wrestle. While your mind tussles with itself and begins to unravel, your awareness has a chance to glimpse itself.
“Before notions and creations, you exist,
so there are no words
for That beyond words and language.
Self doesn’t need to understand Itself,
Freedom is before the concept of freedom.
You are what remains
when the concepts of “I,” mind and past disappear.” - Sri H.W.L. Poonja
When you are lost, when your familiar reference points crumble and you don’t know what to believe anymore- in that humility, in that not knowing, in that tenderness- there is tremendous potential to open to things as they really are. Pema Chödrön says, “to be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.”
Looking back, my biggest breakthroughs have been generally preceded by a wearing away of my belief that I know what I am doing. Despite the deep realizations I’ve had, the sublime states of peace and love, I find myself back at square one over and over, getting hooked on that same wound, reacting to my own projections. After all of my strategies are exhausted, a kind of desperation begins to take hold, a disillusionment with the mind and a giving up.
I realize again and again, I don’t know and I’m not in charge. I’m not running the world- not with concentration or affirmations or recalling that amazing insight, or really, really wishing, not with the most ingenious planning. I’m not in control, I don’t have the map, the key or even a clue. Practice becomes like a bow that is almost an involuntary collapse, a throwing my hands up in the air, getting ground down into dirt, dust, space. I picture my head landing at Ananda Mayi Ma’s feet as I bow, and I say, “Oh Mother, I do not know what is best for me.” My view of the world, of myself, reveals itself as tattered, ragged, flimsy. I can see the mind compulsively contracting, creating suffering, creating stories, an illusion of self. All experiences begin to look more like motion, than real things, phenomena that must be continually created, more flickering than solid.
This disorientation, this disillusionment, is a key part of the path. What is the ultimate reference point by which we orient ourselves but the false sense of a separate self? And waking up from that dream of the small self can be very confusing. Without self-concern as a constant point of reference, by what then do you navigate?* I like how the teacher Ash Ruiz describes his transition- as a shift from having the self in the foreground and the world in the background; to seeing the everythingness in the foreground and the self in the background. The mind must empty itself of self to see things as they really are.
“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few. ”
We learn best, we grow, when we have that sense of wonder, innocence and curiosity. Imagine the small self twinkling in and out of existence in the context of star soup- it could be scary, or thrilling. What a delight to feel yourself part of the dance of life, part of something without edges, without separation.
After all, being the center of the universe is not all it’s cracked up to be (take it from an only child). Keeping the planets spinning and in their orbits is a pain in the ass. Knowing what’s best, knowing how things should be, believing in self and other, is a state of war.
The small mind bravely volunteers to solve all of the problems it created in the first place. It makes more complications in the process, much like layering medication on medication, each one addressing the side effects of its predecessors. Michael Singer (must read: The Untethered Soul) has a sweet take on it: we’ve given our minds an impossible task. We’ve asked the poor, limited mind to control the universe, to make things always go our way, to make everyone love and praise us, to create a life of ever-expanding pleasure and zero pain. The mind does it’s very best around the clock to be master of the universe, trying to understand how this all works, and divine the formula for happiness. It is, of course, doomed to repeated and complete failure. No wonder it is so stressed out!
Really getting what Thomas Merton said, that "life is not a puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be lived,” lets the slaving mind off the hook. In the absence of the struggle to figure it out, the mind can relax for a moment and take in the miracle of the world, admire the ordinary magic of everyday life. The mystery of oatmeal. A round river stone. The wind, the breath. Everything is just as it is. There is no should be or shouldn’t be. There is no plan, no goal, no other place to be, no arrival, no necessary improvements, no trying.
Nirvana isn’t a heaven where you get all the things you think you want, where there are mangos and rainbows, passionate love and unending spiritual highs. Nirvana is the end of war, of searching, of lies and delusion. It literally means “blown out,” as to a candle flame. That unquenchable thirst that always needs more, needs to correct and fix, ceases to be.** Here’s to the empty cup.
A Cup of Tea
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!"
"Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"
*Adyashanti in particular addresses the challenges of this stage of falling away.
**I like the word “cease” better than “stop” because stopping sounds like an action, a effortful squelching, screeching to a halt. Ceasing sounds like it simply ends, or dies out- a natural unwinding back to nothingness. Krishnamurti said, “it is truth that liberates, not your effort to be free.”