In a previous article, I discussed the importance of finding what I called our “essence.”
I described it as vital to our emotional and spiritual well-being to reach beyond the ego to a place of stillness and truth deep within our souls. As we embark on that journey, questions arise.
What is it that we seek within? How do we seek? What will we find there? Is there a road map? Fortunately, there are several such maps. Every world religion and philosophical ideology provides a path for self-inquiry. Let’s look at five points upon which virtually all can agree:
1. First, the path must be universal. Regardless of the religion you choose or which has been chosen for you, the path to the discovery of your essence must not violate or contradict its basic tenets.
2. Second, the path must be experiential. That is, you must be able to find what you seek. We are not interested in blind faith here. We are looking for a method for learning to experience yourself differently, in all your glory, and your learning can’t be based on something that someone else tells you. You must feel that your tools are working. Otherwise, you’ll either stop using them or you’ll collapse into dogmatic reiteration of someone else’s beliefs.
3. Third, the path must be alive. Each day, each moment you should derive sustenance from touching the divine within you. It’s what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the famous Buddhist teacher and author called “fresh baked bread.” Yesterday’s truth isn’t enough to sustain you, any more than last year’s bread will nourish you today.
4. Fourth, the path must be practical. While cloistering yourself in a monastery is certainly an option if that’s what you choose, it’s more likely that you’ll need to find ways of attaining liberation while simultaneously doing homework, holding a job, raising a family, taking vacations, making dinner, and all the other mundane aspects of existence.
5. Finally, the path must be understandable to your conscious mind. This is not because your conscious mind needs to be involved in the final attainment, but because your mind can be a strong and persistent adversary when it is not comfortable with your choices. If your intellect doesn’t view the path as worthy, logical, or practical, you will find it very difficult to get quiet, which is the crux of your work.
We find our essence in the space between our thoughts. It’s what naturally arises when we cease to uphold our previously erroneous view of who we thought we were. It can’t be found in the future, and it can’t be found in the past because neither of these exists right now. It’s found in the relinquishing of all sense of time, all thought, all identification with our minds.
There are many, many ways of reaching this state of mind, some more reliable than others. Understanding that the goal is creating a spacious, quiet mind, you might begin to imagine some possibilities for yourself: perhaps a long walk along a deserted beach or down a wooded trail, or deep absorption in a labor of love like an artistic project, or allowing yourself to get lost in the sound of a rainstorm.
Each of these activities has the quality of demanding that we become present, that we have our attention on what’s happening in that moment, as opposed to being lost in thought or preoccupation with some past or future event. If we’re walking down a path and we find that our mind is engaged in an event not currently happening, we must remind ourselves that we are, in fact, outdoors at that moment. The indoor world we’ve escaped is not present and must not be allowed to steal our focus from what is.
Because our minds are so adept at taking us out of the moment, and since this moment is all there is, and since no true peace, contentment, or liberation can manifest any time but now, we must take advantage of the tools at our disposal for remaining present.
Notice the beauty
One of these tools is noticing the beauty around us. Try to give your surroundings more than a passing glance. Drink them in as if they were your nourishment, as indeed they are. Resist the temptation to jump back into your head, and let your senses revel in the enoughness of the moment.
Many of us suffer from what I call the “Clark Griswold Syndrome.” If you’ve seen National Lampoon’s Vacation, you’ll remember Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold, arriving at the Grand Canyon after a series of unfortunate events. He gets out of the car, looks into the abyss, bobs his head up and down for about three seconds, nods and says, “OK kids, let’s go!” And off they go. They got nothing from the experience, but, at least they could say they “saw the Grand Canyon!”
Another tool which may help you remain vigilant is to spend time outdoors in extreme, inclement weather. This does two things. First, it forces you to remain present, as you have no choice but to be aware of the sensations acting upon you. Second, it helps you discover the truth of your early childhood programming.
When I started hiking onto the frozen lake behind my home at the prompting of a meditation friend, I encountered enormous resistance. A voice in my head kept telling me to go inside or I’d catch my death of cold. It wasn’t long before I realized that it was the voice of my mother disguised as an important rule. As I challenged that rule, I discovered that if I were properly dressed, the cold had no power over me, that I became healthier and hardier rather than sick, and that I was able to develop tremendous equanimity, even joy, in experiencing the cold air on my exercised warm body. Nothing up to that point in my life had ever offered me such a startling, beautiful sense of being absolutely present.
An important component to seeking our essence is meditation. The practice of mindfulness or Vipassana meditation fits all the criteria we’ve discussed. You may, like many people, myself included, have a knee-jerk reaction to the idea of meditation. You may be thinking, “I can’t meditate. I’ve tried it before, and I just didn’t have the patience.” If that’s true for you, you’re probably expecting meditation to be something other than what it really is. Many people start out thinking that the goal of meditation is to enter an altered state. If they don’t enter that state, they feel they’ve failed in their task of meditation. Their impatience is towards the elusive state they imagine they’re supposed to achieve. They get bored and discouraged waiting for it to show up.
But, meditation has nothing to do with altered states. There’s nothing to wait for, so how can you be impatient? Meditation is simply observing the truth of the moment. Whatever you feel is part of your meditation. There are many meditation techniques, and different ones appeal to different people. They all have one thing in common: the goal of a quiet, focused mind with a connection to a deeper part of ourselves.
In a subsequent article, I’ll explore meditation in greater detail. For now, make a commitment to seek a form of meditation or mindfulness practice that suits you, and begin using that tool to bring you closer to your essence.