Are you searching for the river of your soul?

Then come out of your prison

Leave the stream and join the river

that flows into the ocean

Rumi

 

There are times when I’m playing with my son when I’m having so much fun that the distinction between “me” and “him” evaporates. I feel like a tiny droplet merged into the larger stream of life, living the sheer joy, amusement, and wonder of existence.

Then, a minute later, he begins to fuss, or I begin to think of all the things I have to do today, and feelings of frustration, tension, and anger rush in to fill the spaciousness. All I can see are obstacles, deficiencies, and sacrifices.

Errgh…I’ve only be able to read for 10 minutes a day…I haven’t slept past 8AM or gone out to the movies in a year…I just did the dishes and the sink is already full again…. I’m lucky to find time to do yoga once a week.

The man who had felt so boundless he nearly forgot himself is reduced to a quivering, spoiled, complaining little boy.

Spiritual teachers often describe the “I” (or ego) as a constriction of consciousness. This is a particularly apt description of the inner landscape, since whenever we’re identified with our own personal drama to the exclusion of the larger cosmos around and inside us, our consciousness is indeed constricted down to a very narrow focus.

Lost in the crowd at a great concert, standing with your lover by a still mountain lake, alone with your breath on a meditation cushion: there are experiences where we’re absorbed in present moment, when the petty concerns which normally dominate our internal narrative fade into the background like distant echoes off a canyon wall.

Being late for work in the morning, feeling subsumed under mountains of obligations and commitments, dealing with screaming children in a house that looks like a tornado just blew through: these are times when all the talk of oneness with the cosmos feels like total bullshit, and you just want to find someone who will listen to you complain or go out and blow some steam off with a few beers.

Moments of ‘flow’ are often few and far between; the interval between being caught up in the moment and being caught up in your self can be shockingly short.

With yoga, running, or writing, I try to spend a few hours each day trying to de-constrict the focus on myself. Despite these efforts, most of the time my mind remains circling around the same selfish tracks it has carved out over decades, where patterns of lack, fear, and inadequacy repeat themselves again and again like a broken record.  I need this…I wish I were more [x]… I’m not getting what I need… I hope [x] happens… I hope [x] doesn’t happen….
When I become aware of what’s going on in my head, it feels like a prison. Most people who’ve spent any amount of time holding a mirror up to the mind’s chaos can relate to this.

 

There have been times when I’ve gotten so fed up with this state of affairs that I nearly went mad. My confusion and anxiety became so great that they snapped me into realizing the true extent of my imprisonment. I stopped denying my predicament and began to look for a way out.

 

I began to hear stories of people had stepped out from behind the bars of comparison, jealousy, and deficiency. They attested that it was indeed possible to find liberation and freedom, that I didn’t have to resign myself to living in a madhouse for the rest of my life.  Lucky for me, they left maps of the prison’s locks and walls, and showed how anyone can stage a jailbreak.

 

 

 

The first step busting out of jail, they say, is to realize that you’re there. This sounds simple enough, but the reality was that for the longest while I didn’t really see anything wrong with my ‘normal’ state of consciousness. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with trying to fill the void of perpetual dissatisfaction with drugs, distraction, or the desire to always achieve more and more. After all, that’s what all the other fish in the pond were doing.

I didn’t really understand that just because an illusion is shared by millions of others doesn’t make it any less of an illusion. “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society,” as Krishnamurti said.

So I began to study the instructions on how to become truly healthy and free, and I saw that the masters described the prison in their own ways. They called the state of imprisonment dukkha, suffering, or fallenness, and they said that the device that keeping me locked in my cell was my ego, personality, or self. That was all that stood in my way of being free, all that I needed to bust through to restore the basic sanity of the mind.

It sounded simple enough to my ears, but I soon discovered it was anything but.

If only I had paid closer attention to the warnings that the prison of self contains many trap doors and dead ends, I might not have had to learn the hard way that it’s very easy to trade one shackle for another without even realizing it….