When Ideas Get in the Way

One of the worst things that ever happened to my spiritual life was that I started reading about spirituality, especially “spiritual awakening.” This started happening only recently. Before I started reading about it, I only had my own experience to contend with.

The problem with reading about spirituality is that a fresh, lived experience has a layer of ideas, concepts and language added to it. With concepts in hand, it is then very easy to think that understanding the concept is the same as understanding the thing itself. The really destructive aspect of this is that the concept then becomes a filter that prevents any real surprise. Life becomes dull. The essence of spirituality, at least as I understand it in my own life, is to be oriented toward the real, toward what actually is. The real is constantly changing, constantly surprising. To have spiritual ideas or beliefs is to kill the real. When one has a box full of spiritual ideas, it becomes very difficult to be surprised anymore, and that is the death of the spiritual life.

It would be better, I think, to throw out all the spiritual self-help books, and stop listening to spiritual teachers who are peddling their particular experience or method of “waking up.”

I am throwing away all the spiritual ideas that I have acquired from reading and listening to spiritual teachers. I am even throwing away my own “spiritual” and “mystical” experiences, and going back to direct engagement with life as it is right now.

So, here is the question: what remains when we throw away all our ideas about “awakening” “enlightenment” “heaven” “eternity” “spirituality” “God” “higher self” “bliss” and all the rest of it? What if we set aside, at least as an experiment, everything we think we “know” about ourselves and the world and the spirit? Everything. What if, at least for a moment, we set aside every idea that there is some future place or experience that will fulfill all of our longings, and return all we have lost?

What if this, right here, right now, is all we have and all we are? What if, without any reference to the past or the future, with no past knowledge through which to filter the present, no imagined future through which to postpone the direct engagement with now, with no program through which we will achieve anything at all, we simply dwell in this, right here, right now?

What is that like? How many people even know what this is like, without the overlay of past and future? Without the burden of all our concepts layered onto what actually is?

I can tell you, this is not what most “spiritual seekers” are looking for. Not this moment, exactly as it is. We want something higher, something better, something eternal, something exciting and perfect and purely blissful.

The saddest thing in the world to me is that most of us go through our lives without ever experiencing life as it actually is. We are caught in the net of how we want things to be, and how we think they are. Our ideas about it dominate, and create a screen through which we are incapable of experiencing things as they are. We live in our ideas of the past and the future almost exclusively.

Meanwhile there is this beautiful thing called Life that only exists here and now. By dwelling in the mind’s idea of past and future, we miss most of what is going on right here and now. This. Exactly as it is. Beautiful, painful, inexplicable. Absolutely real. Absolutely free of our ideas about it.

This is all there is. And all the books and all the teachers only serve, in my limited experience, to give us more ideas about what it all means. And those ideas add to the filter that blocks our direct engagement in the real.

Now and then you might meet some one who embodies this reality, and has nothing at all to sell you. And you meet that person, or that animal, or that tree or that blade of grass. And you get it too. You see how you have been imposing your world view onto the world. And for a moment you drop your world view, all the accumulation of your ideas about the world. How it should be. How you want it to be. How it should have been. How you hope it will be. And for a moment you come into direct, unmediated engagement with what actually is, right now.

You will, never, ever forget such a moment. You may fall back into the trance of the mind. Maybe for days or weeks or years. But you will never forget what is real and what is false, and how we spend our days mostly in devotion to what is false.

You will never forget the vitality of that moment. And maybe the mind will realize its gigantic mistake and will become quiet at last, and allow the real to live and breathe again, without any idea about it whatsoever. That moment is still here, waiting to be heard, touched, seen, felt, and lived.

Watching Whales, Watching Ourselves

Watching whales is like the best kind of meditation. It is completely baffling.

Meditation isn’t really worth anything unless it exhausts all of our strategies and concepts and opinions and plans and ideas about who we are and what the world is, and leaves us with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Leaves us with nothing at all to grab onto, no safety net, no life raft, no “self.” Nothing but this moment in its marvelous, incomprehensible actuality.

Well, maybe watching whales doesn’t do that for most people, but it does for me. Whales are extremely hard to observe. They are completely at home in a medium we can barely approach. They appear but briefly in our view, and from those brief glimpses we construct an idea of who they are and what they are doing. We can attach cameras and time-depth recorders to their backs with suction cups, and those stay on for a few minutes or hours, expanding our glimpse a little bit.

But all we ever get is a glimpse. And from that glimpse we concoct an entire world: our idea of what a whale is.

Most of us don’t realize it, but this is exactly what we do with our own lives as well. All we ever get is the tiniest glimpse of the world. Even our own life is largely unknown to us. The brain has functions and purposes and motivations and decision-making processes that remain forever unconscious. Like the whales, we are largely mysteries, even to ourselves. Other people, other animals, other life forms, are entirely mysterious. A tiny glimpse is all we ever get.

And from those fleeting glimpses, we construct a world view. We patch all the gaps and cracks with our ideas, with a creative surmise about what it all means. We walk around pretending we know exactly who we are and exactly what the world is, imposing our world view onto the world, all the while not really having a clue. And we don’t even know we are doing this. We think the world we know is the actual world. We pretend we have it all figured out, and all under control. We happily ignore the fact that all we get is fleeting glimpses.

Meanwhile the world lives beyond any ability of ours to grasp it and understand it.

The thing about watching whales is that even if you are very observant and keep careful notes and spend years following them around, they keep surprising you. They keep inventing new behaviors. The keep baffling your expectations. You can not possibly figure them out. All you can do is enjoy them in their actuality, and play the game of trying to understand them, and stay open to the truth as it reveals itself, always new.

This is a simple and obvious fact about observing whales. It is also a simple and obvious fact about observing our own lives. But it is hard to see this in ourselves. We want very much to believe that we know who we are. We do not like the feeling that we are driven by powers and processes hidden from our own view. We do not like admitting that the “me” of conscious understanding and experience is not the truth.

But this remains true, whatever we think or feel about it: Like whales, we are a mystery, even to ourselves. Our lives go on largely out of view. We often do not know why we do what we do. We are more unconscious than conscious. We pretend we know. We invent stories to explain ourselves to ourselves. But we do not really know. What we know is but the exhalation as the whale comes up to breathe. We ignore the disappearance back out of sight. We stitch together the conscious experiences, and pretend that the patchwork result is “true to life.”

The thing about watching our lives is that even if we are very observant and keep careful notes and spend years in meditation or therapy, we keep surprising ourselves, and each other. We invent new behaviors. We baffle our expectations. We can not possibly figure each other or ourselves out. All we can do is enjoy each other and ourselves in our actuality, and stay open to the truth as it reveals itself, always new, always surprising, always deeply mysterious. Just like watching whales.