Life opens up
I remember the very first time I experienced life opening up a little bit, or I was available to the grace of life, which I shared in my book.
“On a very cold Monday morning in February I was waiting for the treatment to begin, but for one reason or another it was delayed by a few hours. This wasn’t one of those days when I could force myself to smile and walk five feet above the ground. For me, mentally preparing for treatment always involved finding a quiet place in the hospital and clearing my mind in readiness for whatever was to come. Just sitting, breathing in and out slowly, and trying to find some peace and quiet in my mind. I found that paying attention to my breath slowed everything down. Paying attention to it became an anchor – unwittingly, I had found my own way to meditation and an unexpected introduction to mindfulness.
That day, the only place available was on the huge balcony that wrapped around the cancer ward. It was the middle of a very cold eastern European winter and nobody else was willing to be outside. At least there was space to sit. I remember feeling cold at first and the voice in my head yelling “GO BACK INSIDE YOU ARE GOING TO FREEZE”, but I paid no mind to it. My body, while shivering, was genuinely happy to be in the cold. I sat there in peace, my mind getting quieter, and I could feel a strange sense of warmth spreading throughout my body. The outside noise was gone, my mind grew completely silent and for a good while I don’t remember hearing anything at all. It felt like everything around me stopped existing and I was surrounded by a warm, unfamiliar light. I simply sat on the bench, slowly breathing in and out. There was an emergency at the hospital with a lot of commotion, and a medical helicopter landed nearby, but I barely noticed.
An hour must have passed as I sat outside in complete bliss when I was jolted back to consciousness by the shouting of a nurse. “You should come back inside. You shouldn’t be outside in the cold when you have cancer. You’ll freeze to death. You should dress warmer. You should be more careful!” She spoke from a place of love (and probably reasonable health concerns) but I didn’t want to pay much attention to her reprimands. I was reluctant to let this beautiful feeling go and return to the present. I had an inner vision of where I wanted to be and calmly said to myself, “It’s okay, whatever is coming just let it happen.” After the initial delay the treatment went surprisingly well and I recovered fast from the side effects. My mind and body were playing for the same team, that day. It was another moment of grace. No fighting, no ego, only letting go.”
To clearly see and experience, at least for a short while, that I’m beyond this body and mind, to touch something so miraculous, was life changing.
I really had no idea what happened to me but rest assured I’ve been searching for answers under every rock since then. I was just a list of endless questions. Answers came and went, more questions came and went. I’ve looked everywhere, I read everything I could get my hands on, I have tried everything, you name it I did it, but all I got was still just experiences. It felt like I was going in circles. What’s in the way of experiencing the core of my being?
Then one day, some time much later, it clicked.
It was myself.
I was in my own way: my psyche with it’s set of thoughts, feelings and emotions and my body with it’s own set of compulsions. The very first experience that had happened to me, that moment of grace, did so because I got beyond myself. For whatever reason it happened. When I was beyond myself, I was in the lap of grace. When I was staring at myself, well I was in my own lap.
It is not that grace is only available to certain people, at certain times etcetera. Grace is always on, it’s just a question of our availability. Grace is not an event or an experience – some big success or avoidance of a big loss – it’s not a physical thing. Grace is the process of this very life. Life is grace itself.
The fact that a few elements, like oxygen and hydrogen, bond together and form something called as H2O, which you drink and makes your and others’ life can be explained scientifically but we still don’t know why it’s happening. We can explain how the planet we live on spins around the Sun, but why is it happening in the first place? Why did the Big Bang happen? Still no clue after all these years. If you look carefully grace is all around you but the question is are you willing to take your attention off your mind and truly be with life the way it is. Just for a moment. No judgement. If you did, you’d see something so overwhelming that you’d have no chance but to be present to it. That’s what has happened to me in a very small way on that balcony all those years ago.
So, if I’m in my own way, how the hell do I get out?
Taking the first step
First of all, why get out?
I mean, that’s where everyone you and I know seem to live. It seems like a cool place. Like a feel-good conspiracy, no? I won’t tell, if you won’t kinda thing.
And in any case, you probably think this “surrendering to grace” business is total nonsense: how can I pay my bills with grace? Is there a $grace token yet? Does it come in a plant-based version so it’s at least good as a dinner meal? Show me something tangible, man.
Alright, alright. Let me ask you a few questions first.
When you go to bed do you fall asleep with a big smile on your face? When you wake up in the morning do you wake up excited, ready for the day or you can’t wait to smack the alarm clock for having the audacity to disturb your sleep? When people ask you ‘how is it going?’, do you go ‘wow, it’s just joy, bliss and love all the time’ or ‘not too bad, you know hanging in there, surviving, getting by, anyway tomorrow TGIF!’. Or, when you meet those people who seem to be perennially happy, do they just annoy the hell out of you? “What are you so happy about anyway, huh?!” Does what’s happening outside have a lasting effect on how you feel inside? Do events from your past still make you uncomfortable? Are you anxious about the future (once year, once a month, once a day…maybe all the time?)?
If you’re like most people, well then you know what the answers are. But do you know that it need not be that way? Do you know that you need not suffer? Your suffering might be normal to you but it is not normal. Do you know that it can stop?
Do you want to know the tried and tested formula, an ancient mantra, a closely held secret for generations that will eradicate all suffering? Are you ready for it?
Stop doing it!
That’s it. That’s all you need to know. If you’re suffering it’s your making and if it’s your making then you can stop it. There. That’s it. You’re now enlightened and I can stop writing. But first, I’ll touch your feet.
My question is: do you want out? Would you like to feel at least okay inside, no matter what’s happening outside? I can’t take your pain away, the very thing that causes your suffering, but I might be able to offer you another perspective on why you’re suffering. I simply want the best for you. There is a way to live here, which might not be considered normal by our modern societal standards, but one that gives you the freedom to experience life the way it is. You might not know how to do it (don’t worry the vast majority don’t) but that’s a different matter. Your willingness is what matters the most.
This is not a practice you do once on a meditation retreat and be done with it. No. This is the work of a lifetime but you’re going to be doing something anyway, would you not like to do something consciously? The results are so worth it. I’d love it if asked you, ’How you’re feeling inside?’ you’d at least say, ‘You know, actually, I’m feeling peaceful’. Then you can go to any heights you want, there are no limits, but I want you to extricate yourself from this trap you’ve created for yourself.
Clearing up some misconceptions
Lot of things have been said about surrender and in my humble opinion a lot of it misses the mark. It is not about surrendering to someone or something rather it is simply letting go of the preference for how the present moment should be. This very moment in front of you. Not the moment just passed, not the next moment, but the one in front of you. It is simply accepting the present moment just the way it is. It is you responding, consciously, to the present moment the way it is.
Notice, I said preference.
It does not mean abdicating your capability to change the next moment, it does not mean becoming passive and it certainly doesn’t mean giving up. No, no, no! It is not a philosophy and you don’t have to read books on it (or essays like this for that matter). It is a split second, intuitive decision. This is what’s happening in this moment and it’s perfectly fine with me. The next one I can change it any way I like. The future possibilities are unlimited. You might have played a role in the reason why the present moment is the way it is, you might have not, you might think it’s unjust, unfair or incredibly frustrating but the fact is it’s happening. You might not like this ‘problem’ happening on the outside but would you like to create another problem inside as well?
This moment is the way it is. It is the truth. If you can be in communion with truth you can see clearly. If you can see clearly you’ll know what to do next. It’s that simple. This process has also been called letting go. It’s the same thing. You let go of the preference for having this very present moment any differently.
Would you like window or aisle seat?
It would be an important step on this exploration to look at where these preferences come from. As we’ve covered it in the piece on free will, what you call as ‘you’, your body and mind, are really just an accumulation of food and a bunch of impressions you had over the years. These impressions, where you grew up, how was your parents’ marriage, where you went to school, your first job, your (first) marriage, etcetera have all created a bundle of likes, dislikes, preferences, fears and desires in you. To make it a short story, you essentially view the world through these. These events, which formed your personality, have superimposed themselves on the very way you experience your life. It’s as if someone drew a blue butterfly on your binocular lens. Whichever direction you look this damn butterfly is just there overlapping the sights you see. That’s psychology 101. I think even Freud wouldn’t find anything at fault here.
Once you have categorised the world into things you like and don’t like, you have just tainted the very experience of your life because you have brought your personality into the match. Now you’ll inevitably run towards the things you like and avoid the things you don’t like. You will not be able to help living your life unconsciously. You’ll have needs about how things should or shouldn’t be. All in the name of being okay inside. You need life to match this blueprint only so that you can feel okay. I’m not even talking about feeling loving or joyful inside. You either feel terrible (there is a scale) depending on how bad things have gone or feel okay, or just a little bit of love and happiness, if things have gone as you have expected them to be. That is rather limited, would’t you say?
The operating word is expected. Now that you have a way you want things to be you have automatically laid a whole bunch of expectations over how life should be: your spouse should always understand you, your children always obey you, your colleagues always deliver things on time, the weather should always be the way you want it, your favourite team should always win.
The problem with expectations is that they can either be met or unmet. If they’re unmet it’s a full blown crisis in your experience. If they’re met you’ve averted a full blown crisis. If they have been surpassed, perhaps a once-a-year kinda event, you’ll be happy but it won’t last long because the next set of expectations come. Can you see that this never ends? It is impossible to find joy when you have already planned out how things should be. You’ve effectively declared war on life and you’ll not relent until she gives you what you want.
You’re not alone
If it was only one person on the planet having such expectations it wouldn’t be a terrible thing. I mean it’s still a limited life but have it your way. Make believe there were nearly 8bn of us living on this planet. Imagine if all of us had a way on how things ought to be. Can you see what devastation it would bring? Can you see how many wars would be declared? We’re all fighting over the same thing. Can you see that 99% (or more) of the people are living their life the same way? Can you see that it is not sustainable? I’m not talking ESG sustainable. I’m talking life-sustainable.
Living life this way is very hard. You constantly have to be out there, take the bull by the horn, make things happen, you’ve to kick ass and take names, you’ve to blitzscale to the moon. All the buzzwords. It is very exhausting. And you wonder why are there so many people mentally sick. I’m not talking real illnesses, I’m talking minor stuff. And worse yet people identify with their suffering. That’s the worst thing you could do. Look at this pandemic. For a certain segment of the population, who have been fortunate enough to work from home and have all their necessities met by others, this would have been the most wonderful time to spend with their spouses or partners. What did they do instead? They went and got divorced or ended up in therapy.
Life’s advisory board
Everybody is telling life how she should be. I should get married, have a child, get a new job, my wife should love me as I am, my son should go to university, it should not rain tomorrow. It goes on and on. She has an advisory board of almost 8bn people all wanting her to be a particular way. Does doing this make you happy? Does wishing and hoping that one day things might be different fulfil you? I don’t know you but my guess it doesn’t. There is a very good reason the way this moment is the way it is and it has nothing to do with your preferences. It has a very long history behind it.
Imagine you’re in a relationship, your favourite flowers are peonies and you only ever want white peonies. For whatever reason you just can’t get enough of them. You leave subtle hints for your partner about peonies but he is still not buying them for you. Then you go on the attack a bit more and next time you pass by a flower shop you point to the peonies and remark just how beautiful they are. Still no peonies. What’s wrong this guy? Next, you nudge further by telling him how so and so’s husband bought her an entire bouquet of peonies. Yet despite all your efforts there are still no peonies. Now you’re angry and telling him in no gentle words that you next Tuesday you want to have peonies on the vase on the kitchen table or else. Finally, peonies happen. But then you go closer and see something that shocks you to your core. Did he…? No, he didn’t…! How could he…? He got the wrong colours. OMG! Your favourite is white but he got you red ones. Now you’re furious and you think if he really truly loved you he’d have known it. Now imagine the poor sap husband. He finally got her what he thought she wanted and after a moment of joy she is unhappy again.
In effect, that’s what you’re doing to life by telling her your preferences. You’re hounding her day in and day out about what you want to happen. And once again despite all your efforts you’re still not getting what you want. And you wonder why 99% of 8bn of us is not okay?
Let’s pretend you love all kinds of flowers. You might have a preference for peonies because of the way they looked or something else but you couldn’t care less if you had them or not. You don’t hound your husband and you were just joyful by your own nature even if you didn’t get one. When you walk past a flower shop you’re gushing about the flowers. You go out and buy your own flowers. You spread them all over the house. You just love them all. When your husband gets you some flowers, even if they might be something simple he found by the road, you’re just in love with them and him. You take care of them. I guarantee you you’ll be getting flowers for the rest of your life. And you’ll be getting flowers unexpectedly. Then on your tenth anniversary your husband flies you to Holland for the annual flower show as a surprise. You’re now in total ecstasy.
Becoming sensitive to life
Can you see that living life the first way makes you insensitive? You don’t experience life, you experience your opinions about it. To put it differently, you’re mind sensitive. You do and feel whatever it tells you. One minute you’re okay, the next you’re agitated because of what someone told you. One minute you’re happy, the next you’re sad because of what happened last week. Imagine if your arm was doing the same thing, if it was going up and down, up and down all by itself. You’d probably be calling a doctor. But because everyone is so lost in their minds you don’t seek help. You call this…normal.
Don’t try this at home (or try it if you’re brave…). Next time you’re in a conversation with someone, right when they’re in the middle of talking to you, just turn around and walk away. Don’t look back, don’t say anything just walk away. I wish you’d see their eyes and facial reaction. They’ll freak. You’ll soon hear them: “Excuse me, hey, I was talking to you! Why are you walking away in the middle of our conversation?! Hello, I’m talking to you!!” For the next hour they’ll be talking about you behind your back about just how rude you were walking away like that. You’d also freak if someone walked away while you were talking to them. Let’s admit it though, you’re not really interested in the vast majority of what people have to say you’re just being polite by staying there.
To be honest, I’m not even interested in what my mind has to say most of the time.
Now, this might be considered rude socially but do you see how attached we are to our minds (thoughts, emotions and feelings). When we are in the middle of expressing what’s on our mind and the person we were talking to walks away it’s like an explosion inside, right? How dare they do that? I was talking to them. Most of the things we say have very little existential consequence, it just the game of the psyche. Nothing wrong with it. I’m not suggesting you do this all the time, you’ll soon be without friends, I’m just simply citing it as an example of how much importance we dedicate to our psyche generally.
But I don’t fault you. Heck, I had no clue that this is what’s going on. There are no classes on this in school, most grandparents, parents and people in general have no idea either. Perhaps if you had a wayward uncle who was into some illicit “esoteric” stuff in the 1970s you might have some sense of reality but otherwise very unlikely. For me, I needed an experience with cancer to experience something open up. For some, it was what they call a near-death experience. It took them almost permanently to leave their body to wake up! Isn’t that extreme? For some others, perhaps a divorce or some other difficult periods in their life. The truth is very few people stumble into this joyfully. Normally something has to go wrong for us to wake up. Normally something has to jolt us out of our current way of living, really the current states of our minds, to make a shift. I don’t want that to happen to you.
Truth is ‘difficult times’ are inevitable, you know, someone or something will eventually crash your party one day. If it hasn’t happened yet just wait for it. Something will go wrong when you least expect it. The point is not to avoid the gatecrash but to be ready for it and to handle it to the best of your abilities. You want to become an expert-partycrash-handler so that whatever situation life presents you with you’ll always do your best. When you can handle difficult situations in an expert way you can go deeper and deeper into more difficult situations and bring solutions. You don’t have a way things should be you’re just doing the most appropriate thing in a given situation. You can be a light in dark places.
Jumping in with two feet
So, I hope it’s clear how easy it is to get lost in the mind and to miss life in it’s entirety. But the question is how do you get out?
First, you’ve to see that you’re in it. If you cannot see you’ll just do more mind stuff (this is unfortunately what’s happening to a large extent in the name of “spirituality”).
Second, you have to want to get out. Your intention has to be on ‘out’.
Third, you’ve to work on it (I know, I know…). But, the good news is if you’re sincere about 1 and 2, 3 will take care of itself. It’ll pull you. It’s like you’re threading water in a well and somehow a rope appears. That rope is grace. That’s my experience anyway.
Now, the work is really fun because you’ve a goal you have created for yourself that you want to reach: ‘out’. You don’t yet know which way it is but you want to go. You’ll eventually see there are obstacles in your way blocking the light. The more obstacles you remove the more light enters. These obstacles are your preferences for how life should be. This is your advice for how life should conduct herself, “You know, if you really saw it from my perspective, you’d agree that I’m entitled to have xyz”. Have you noticed she doesn’t care? She is just moving forward. You can either be along for the ride and arrange your life in harmony with this, or be miserable. These are your two options.
There are a million ways to get past these obstacles. The most common one that people recommend is meditation. Have you noticed, though, that you cannot meditate? These damn thoughts and emotions are bothering you, they’re just popping up uninvited. You’re doing your mantra, AUM, AUM and then bam your ex-girlfriend pops up. More AUM and then your colleague is there arguing with you about the argument you had yesterday. Wait a minute, I thought you were meditating?!
The very reason you cannot meditate is because these thoughts and emotions are bothering you. These are experiences that were making their way through this vast universe, much like the wind blows through the forest, but they didn’t make their way past you. No, you’re pushing the wind back because you don’t want it to blow your way. It’s a full time job on top of the full time job you’ve already. You had issues with these experiences and now you’re holding onto them. The more you hold onto them the more they’ll bother you. Things you liked, things you didn’t like…it’s the same thing.
People in the spiritual scene are really big on “energy”, so am vary of using this word, but all of this essentially just energy that hasn’t made it past you. When these old memories or future anxieties bubble up inside of you can you feel that it creates a certain kind of sensation? If something is making you anxious your body tightens up, your abdomen get’s tight, your jaws clench, your palms sweat and so on. If it’s a pleasant experience you might feel some tingling around your heart or your spine. It really is just energy moving and there is a palpable sensation within you.
As long as these are doing their dance in you, you’ll not be meditating, you’ll be watching your mind. The idea is to get behind them. You’ve the power to get beyond them. You’re the one that’s holding on to them, you can willingly let them go. Existentially you’re sitting on your chair with eyes closed, that’s all that’s happening, but to this experience of sitting you’re adding the noise of your mind. You could very easily meditate if your mind wasn’t bothering you. But your mind is bothering you because you’re getting involved with it’s drama.
When you meditate you’re told to keep your focus, awareness, consciousness (all the same thing) on a mantra or a breath or a candle light or something that’s relatively unchanging. Why? There is nothing particularly special about a candle or the breath but the idea is to not watch your mind and let whatever is bubbling up there pass. Otherwise your consciousness gets distracted by what happened with your colleague yesterday. But is the event happening as you’re meditating? No, you’re sitting alone on the chair, your colleague is somewhere else yet you’re still arguing. Do you see that you’re adding to reality? In reality there is no argument yet in your mind, in your beautiful mind, there is. You are adding to truth. If you stopped doing that you’d be meditating. It’s that simple.
The work itself is simple.
Stop telling life how it should be, stop telling her how she should be in this very present moment. You’re denying truth. The next one you can change but this one you can’t. And your problem is with the experience of this very present moment, not the next one, anyway. You might be anxious about something in the future, but you’re still anxious in the present.
I keep referring back to this beautiful quote from Viktor Frankl because he has captured the essence so perfectly. “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
The space he is referring to IS surrender.
Between the event that creates a trigger in you and you going with that trigger there is a split second where something in you goes, “I shouldn’t do this”, but as soon as you’ve had this thought you’re going with the trigger. The more you can increase this space the more free you are to choose your response. The more conscious your response the more in harmony your actions are with life.
How do you increase this space?
Meditation helps, yoga helps, pranayama helps, journalling helps, martial arts etcetera help. Any work you’re doing consciously whereby you’re dismantling your boundaries will help you live in truth and not in reaction.
When you encounter a situation, which creates discomfort within, you don’t give into the discomfort but go beyond it. You move you awareness off the discomfort, it’ll pass by itself, and onto your next step to craft your response. It won’t be easy at first but just breathe and stay present.
Let’s say you’re in a bakery and someone takes the last piece of hazelnut croissant you had your eyes on. Just watch your mind, “Hey, that’s my croissant. That’s unfair. How dare she take it.” But you relax in the face of this discomfort, let someone else take “your” croissant and you pick something else. Next time maybe you go earlier to the bakery or pre-order one. Start with the small stuff, don’t try to process your past wounds, you’ll end up in tatters.
Now, you’ll not be able to stay present moment to moment on a daily basis at first. It’s hard. I know, I’ve been trying (failing) for a long time. We’ve so many ingrained patterns that it takes time to work them out. But the more you do it, especially with the easier stuff like the croissant, the easier it’ll become.
The more you pay attention the more you’ll see that the outside world stimulates your inner experience and normally it’s not pleasant. For most people whatever happens on the outside is how they feel inside. I’m not talking about difficult life events like a sudden death of a loved one or a divorce. You’re not asked to fake your happiness. But feel what is happening, don’t try to push it away, don’t try to rationalise it, just feel what is happening. Just be with it. Don’t react, just watch it.
The inner discomfort is not happening because life is punishing you, life is trying to liberate you from your bondage. Whatever is the discomfort it will pass. Nothing lasts forever. In the wake of that passing lies your liberation, freedom and peace.
All of those energies that you used to keep and hold down are now free to move up. You’ll all of a sudden feel lighter inside, more joyful and loving. Eventually you’ll get to a place where the things that used to bother you don’t do so anymore. You’ll reach inner peace. Sounds nice, no?
People make a big deal about inner peace. It is a beautiful state but inner peace is not the goal. Far from it. It is just a marker that you’ve done some of the heavy lifting and your mind is not bothering you so much. There are many more higher states to go, infinitely higher, but don’t worry about these. If you do your work sincerely it’ll happen to you over time.
In a follow up piece we’ll look at what’s on the “other side”.