A Way of Freedom

We have a choice between two very different ways to meet what arises in experience.

The first is to rely on explanation. We interpret our experiences in life according to a set of deeply held assumptions. We may or may not be conscious of the assumptions, but they are there. Even when we explore our experience, we are usually looking for evidence that supports or confirms them. These assumptions are never questioned. They are taken as fundamental. A self-reinforcing dynamic develops that results in a closed system in which everything is explained, the mystery of life is dismissed, new ideas, perspectives, or approaches to life cannot enter and certain questions can never be asked. This I call belief.

The other way is to open and be willing to receive, not control, whatever arises, that is, not only allow, but embrace every sensation, feeling and thought, everything we experience. In this approach, we allow our experience to challenge our assumptions. Here, there are no fundamental or eternal truths, and some things cannot be explained, they can only be experienced. This willingness to open to whatever arises internally or externally I call faith.

This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
~ Rumi

Early in the retreat, when difficult experiences arose, I would analyze them, trying to understand what had happened and why. I thought this would help to resolve them and then I wouldn’t have to be bothered by them. Sometimes I would be completely swallowed by emotions and sensations and only come to my senses a few minutes, or a few hours, later. Frequently, I just couldn’t face what was arising. I shut it down, or went for a walk. In short, if what arose didn’t fit my picture of what I wanted or needed, I would start doing something.

Gradually, I learned just to stare into space, in any of its dimensions, the sky, the silence, time or the infinite depth in my own body. I recognized that the only way I could do nothing was, well, do nothing. I had to receive whatever arose, experience it, and not do anything with it. I needed faith to experience powerful feelings of loneliness, worthlessness, despair, or shame, because I often felt I would die in the process. I recalled how many times my teacher had said this, albeit in different words, “Rest in just recognizing.” But no one had said that “just recognizing” might lead to pain so intense that I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. And I came to appreciate that all my efforts in previous practice had built the capacity so that I could now rest and just recognize.

When I did open to everything, there was no opposition — there was no enemy. I didn’t have to struggle with experience. At the same time, there was no truth, no state of perfection, no ideal, no final achievement. Again, years later, in a conversation with another teacher about this experience, he said, “Don’t worry about truth. Just develop devotion so strongly that thinking stops, and rest right there.”

Any concept of higher truth creates hierarchy, and with that, authority, boundaries, dualism and opposition. What various religious traditions, including Buddhism, call truth is better described as a way of experiencing things. Such phrases as “all experience is empty” or “everything is an illusion” are better viewed as descriptions of experiences, stories, in effect, not statements about reality.

What, then, do we make of all the teachings of various spiritual traditions and other forms of human knowledge? For me, God, karma, rebirth, emptiness, Brahma, Atman, heaven, hell, all of these are stories that people use to understand, explain, or give direction to their lives. The same holds for scientific views, astronomy, biology, quantum mechanics, or neurology. If we wish to be free of suffering, to be free of struggle, then the way to look at experience is “there is no enemy” and stop opposing what arises in experience. Is it difficult and challenging, yes, but it’s possible. And the way to learn to do that is to simply do nothing.

“How strange!” I thought, as the retreat came to a close, “Who would have thought youcould find a way of freedom simply by doing nothing?”

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