Sitting quietly, doing nothing, the Spring comes and the grass grows all by itself.
– Zen Saying
One of the reasons I was originally drawn to meditation was the deep sense of meaninglessness I felt as a young boy. Life seemed to be full of pointless objects, trivial and garish “things” which seemed to serve no deeper purpose other than to stubbornly exist. Much later when I read the Existentialists I realised that this was the infamous nauseaJean-Paul Sartre wrote about.
Like so many of us who feel adrift in a pointless world, I just wanted to be in control of my life. And perhaps this is why we turn towards self-help and meditation, yoga and exercise, diet and positive thinking, spirituality and religion. It’s not so much that we’re seeking truth, as seeking control.
It took me a long time to realise that there really is a way to be in control of our lives – but it’s not easy;
First we must learn to command our thoughts, emotions and reactions, but because these are always effected by those around us, we must exert command over them too. Successfully controlling others also means controlling their ideas, society and culture. This in turn means controlling their environment, including the planet itself, and because the planet is directly effected by the sun, moon and solar system, we must be able to control these too.
I discovered that to really be in charge of my life, I had to be in charge of the universe, because the two are not separate.
It may seem shocking to suggest that we are not the managing directors of our lives, but just reflect: Do we know what our next thought will be? Or what the next ten seconds will bring? Can we even be sure that this is not our final breath?
We don’t know because we have never known. We have lived our entire lives in a constant state of not-knowing. Yes, we have our guesses and our stories and our past experience, but as far as the present moment is concerned, these are nothing more than comfort blankets in the naked wilderness.
The reason we want to be fully in control of our experience is because we take ourselves personally. We have come to identify with our thoughts, emotions and behaviour as who and what we are. By identifying with them and often contracting against them, we solidify experiences into seemingly concrete things: genuine problems and obstacles to be managed, suppressed or exterminated.
This habit of identifying with experiences produces tunnel-vision. When we fixate on a thought or emotion it seems bigger and more threatening than it actually is. We lose our natural perspective which holds each moment as part of a vast and shifting universal moment.
We miss the shifting wave-like nature of each experience, unable to see that every moment arises and passes within an ocean of infinite arisings and passings.
This tunnel-vision can manifest in our Mindfulness practice too.
Many meditators firmly believe that the goal of their practice is to kill off their all-too-human feelings. This is a common misconception which actually lays the ground for much frustration when – after decades of mindfulness and compassion – we suddenly catch ourselves feeling angry, lustful or petty.
And the reason we try to get rid of these emotions is because we have learnt to fixate upon them as separate things.
But the real goal is not to extinguish the endless flavours of our humanity, but to become aware of them. Not to remove anger, lust or selfishness, but to know them which means to feel these experiences fully and intimately, without judgement, repression or reaction.
A famous Zen story illustrates this well;
A monk asks his master how he can be cured of his temper, and so the master asks if he can see it. Feeling confused, the monk explains that he cannot show his anger as he’s not currently angry. “Forget about it then!” instructs the master, “It’s not part of your true nature. If it was then you could summon it at any time.”
The monk could not summon his anger, because it was not really his to command.
Like all emotions, anger arises dependent upon specific internal and external circumstances. When those circumstances do not arise, anger does not arise. When those circumstances do arise, anger also arises, and when those circumstances pass, anger also passes.
Our lives are the same: we do not control our thoughts, emotions or reactions. Rather, all of this content arises and passes as part of a vast network of momentary causes and effects, spanning the length and breadth of the cosmos.
Years ago, in Mumbai, I spent three weeks attending the daily satsangs of Ramesh Balsekar, the former translator of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, and a spiritual teacher in his own right.
He would ask us to choose an event during the day that we felt fully responsible for, like choosing a dish from a menu in a cafe, or crossing the busy street. He would then begin to expand on the context around our momentary action, highlighting all of the internal and external causes and effects, universal and personal, cultural and physical, which had led to our exact decision.
Rather than feeling robbed of my free will, I always felt like I was suddenly part of a larger unfolding movement, whether it was life, the universe, consciousness or God. I had the sense that the whole of the cosmos was present in every thought, action and event.
This was a long way from the meaningless things which seemed to surround me as child, and to this day I experience every moment as auniverse-in-itself, total, complete and soaked in a sacredness which appears absolutely ordinary.
As soon as we can relax our fixation on things and see every moment as a universal moment, our need for control can begin to wane as we let go into the flow of life as it unfolds, always fresh and always new.
It’s always the ego which craves dominance and this is always rooted in the fearful experience of being a solid, separate person, in a world of solid, separate things.
But in reality there are no things, only waves, and waves are not self-caused. Their fleeting, dancing nature is dependent upon the movement and depth of the ocean and the ocean is not separate from its dancing waves.
So, are we really the managing directors of our lives? Can we command the endless waves? Are we really in control of the ocean?
No, it’s much better than that, we are the ocean.