What is life like after awakening? Simply, it’s quite peaceful. With no sense of self our drive to be more, have more, get more, be seen to be more have no meaning. There is no quest for that better job, better car, better neighbourhood, better partner. It’s not stagnant either, any of the things on that list plus a whole lot more can and will happen as life unfolds. But life is no longer driven by a personal agenda or striving for it to be so. If it happens, it happens, if it doesn’t it doesn’t.
And that sounds a little bit wrong too, it sounds like giving up on trying anything but it’s not like that. We can still put our energy into things we simply don’t do it for such personal reasons. Nor are we attached to the outcome, to the results of our efforts. Some seeds grow, some don’t, that’s just how life works.
The really unusual aspect of how and where our efforts go is what some have called the flow. This is an intuitive tuning in to life’s movement. So at certain times we might feel an inclination: it’s time to do this now, or it’s time to stop this now. In my experience it never comes with an explanation let alone an instruction manual. Ignoring it feels wrong in a way that saps any initiative to do so. Is it a guiding hand? No, it’s part of us, part of this experience of living. There is no separation so it’s not accurate to equate this with an external authority or agency.
But within this flow, this mostly peaceful existence, we don’t forget. I still remember all too clearly the pain I went through, the frustration, the prayers uttered from deep inside an anguished soul. Remembering this, when awakening happens we often try to share it. When we see it, when the shift happens it’s so clear, so revelatory and so obvious that we must be able to give this gift to others. Or so we think. In reality, we simply can’t. If they’re not ready to hear, if it’s not time for them to see, they won’t listen and they won’t look.
So what can we do? Well, we make ourselves available. We say what we see as clearly as we can, we put it out there and we wait. If no one comes to listen then no one comes, it’s that simple. But if even one or two come then we can engage, we can point, we can encourage.
And I think there is an encouragement in this. With no sense of false modesty let me say that in most aspects of my life I am and always have been average or perhaps a little above. I was never the smartest person in the class, never the most talented student. In fact for most people I’ve come across in life, it’s apparent on future meeting that I’m fairly instantly forgettable. To the best of my knowledge (not that I’ve ever been regressed) I’m not the reincarnation of Julius Caesar, nor have I sat at the feet of the most renowned masters. In fact I’ve not sat at the feet of any masters, though I have a heard a few Buddhist desanas.
And yet awakening happened. Or if you prefer, abiding non-dual awareness. Life is lived in the moment with presence and with all the experiences that entails, some pleasant, some not so. Is there suffering in this state? Well not really. The way it is is the way it is and once we grasp that it is both the end of suffering and the end of desire. Whatever arises, in this moment it is this way and no other way.
But we don’t forget. We know what it is to suffer, to feel real pain as if your heart is breaking and to want to offer anything for that pain to cease.
So when a friend called me who was in a place of suffering I listened. I have to say he has been through some stuff, the sort of thing we would all dearly wish to avoid. As I’ve done in the past he sought some reprieve in alcohol. Not much of a help but we often have a tendency to self-medicate. And I wondered, what can I do? What can I offer to help him in this hour? There were words that came out of our conversation and they seemed to be the right words for he heard them and he thanked me. But perhaps there is more that can be done. So I thought I might write something; a few simple observations that may or may not help.
When we feel emotional pain, it’s not something that is happening to us. There is no separate self that is experiencing it; we are it. As awareness arises as pain, that is us, with an ‘I’ thought tagged onto it. So we can’t dismiss or get rid of the pain, the pain is what is happening right now, it is this human experience, and with or without an ‘I’ thought, it is part of this.
So if we can’t get rid of it, and we probably already know we can’t, then what?
What we do is look at the aversion. Look at the ‘wanting to get rid of’ bit. That’s actually where the problem lies; that’s where suffering resides. Because pain is a natural part of this. To take an example, if you cut your leg, over time it scabs over. So then you pick at the scab. You pick at the scab because you want it to go, you want your leg back the way it was. But how can it heal when you keep picking it? You need to accept it, stop picking it, keep it clean, and let it heal by itself, because it will.
Emotionally it is no different. This emotional experience will settle and the pain will fade. But if we keep revisiting it, replaying the thoughts, retelling the stories, we’re picking the scab. We have to learn to let it go, accept it and let it heal. This acceptance comes when we allow the pain. When we let it be, when we stop fighting it, when we surrender to it. It’s a surrender that sees through the thought that says, ‘It isn’t meant to be this way.’ Because actually, in this moment, it is this way. Reality check: it is this way.
But still we might wonder, can we get an anesthetic if we can’t stand the pain? Well, there are things out there, aren’t there? There’s no judgment around this, it’s a natural response but it’s also worth bearing in mind that pain is a warning sign. If we ignore it we can run the risk of making it worse or repeating the action that led to it in the first place.
But if we take this on board, if we decide not to ignore it or suppress it, how can we bear it?
The main thing about bearing with pain is not adding to it. Physical pain is no different, if we take away the fear, the anger and worry, the physical sensation is bearable. But if we add to the experience with any of these it quickly becomes intolerable. Emotional pain has a whole set of stories attached to it. Stories of judgment and self-judgment. If we can notice these, see them simply as thoughts, see them without belief and identification, then the emotional pain is just pain and it becomes bearable.
Now that last bit takes practice. Belief and identification are the very cornerstones of self view or the sense of self. So to see through them requires a practice of mindfulness or presence that allows us to notice thoughts and feelings as they arise without the automatic, conditioned movement to identify and become that make them my thoughts or my feelings. In other words, the movement that imbues these stories with a sense of reality that they don’t have.
It takes practice bit it’s worth the effort because this life does involve pain. We aren’t going to avoid it and no strategy, from indifference to positive thinking, is going to make life a pain free experience. But if we can understand and see the nature of avoidance; if we instead have acceptance, then we’re not constantly pushing against this moment and wanting it to be some other way. It isn’t, it can’t be, it is this way.
Lastly, on the subject of mindfulness, it’s good to remember there is a lot more to this human experience than what’s going on in our heads. Taking the time to be present with that, bringing attention to the fullness of this moment is perhaps the single most important tool we have. It’s so simple it almost always gets overlooked. But isn’t that the nature of truth? We only see it when we realise it was here all along.