The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.
Muhammad said, If I describe the enemy that lives inside men, even the most courageous would be paralyzed.
What was I looking for when I started meditating? What did I think Buddhism could offer me?
Amidst the struggle with old habits and my inability to close the Pandora’s Box of questions that self inquiry opened, I’ve often asked myself these questions. I’ve wondered whether it might have been better never to aspire to be free; perhaps I should have focused instead on mitigating the ego-prison’s harsh conditions. But a prison is still a prison, even if its cells are beautifully decorated with gold plated toilets.
When I sat for meditation for the first time, I really felt like I had no other choice. Travelling in Nepal, strung out and desperate after weeks of inebriated adventures, I was empty, anxious, and unhappy. Every road I tried went nowhere; I figured I had nothing to lose by just sitting quietly for a few days.
The problem, as I soon discovered, is that spiritual practice is far more demanding than any jealous girlfriend or overprotective parent could ever be. Busting out of prison was not nearly as easy as I thought it would be; if I would have known just how expensive freedom would be, I would have likely thought it far too high a price to pay. If I would have known that escaping the prison of perpetual discontent would require me to strip down to the raw core of who I am, I wouldn’t have even started.
I stumbled into meditation hoping to find a way out of addiction, dissatisfaction, and always feeling like I needed something more. When I heard about enlightenment- the full release from the prison of self- I was determined to achieve it at any cost. That seemed to be the ultimate prize, and since I considered myself to be a pretty clever guy, I figured it was just a matter of time before I found the freedom the Buddha spoke of.
It sounds naive, I know, to think that I would be one of the ‘lucky ones’ to attain enlightenment. But remember that 22 year old American males are not exactly known for their modesty or humility. Filled with ambition and exuberance, there was no obstacle too large, no challenge too formidable. I was going to achieve the “end and aim of human life,” admonitions that it could take lifetimes be damned!
I didn’t understand that meditation would show me that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, I could hold on to, including any attachment to being the one who has given up everything.
You see, if it’s ego that holds us in bondage, then it seems like all we have to do to be free is just get rid of ego. Sounds easy enough.
What didn’t become clear for me until I was too invested in the movement toward freedom is that anything that reinforces the sense of self -including the thought that “I am on the path of liberation”- is another brick in the prison wall.
Any identification as “the one who has escaped into spaciousness and freedom”, is just playing the same ego game in a more sophisticated and subtle way.
Put another way, any thought that I was breaking out of prison put me right back in there; every effort I made to escape the trap only ensnared me further.
This was a pickle I could not think myself out of.
Teachers would tell me things like “your very desire to escape the prison is what’s keeping you there.” Instead of being grateful that they were trying to show me the way, I raged against these nonsensical riddles. It drove me nuts not knowing how I could stop trying to try, or how my aspiration to live without attachment or desire would not reinforce the very same structure I was trying to renounce.
Actually, that was the whole point. As long as I was trying to get something out of it, there was nothing I could do to surrender myself. But I couldn’t see that until I had thoroughly exhausted myself by trying every possible way to do so.
The moment I just dropped the whole affair of trying live up to my image of enlightenment, of trying so hard to be free from my self, all the pent up pressure from resisting vulnerability, uncertainty, and doubt released in a torrent of tears. I could see the extent to which I created my own prison, how I gave it power moment to moment by remaining caught up in self-centered thoughts and desires, including the desire to be liberated.
I understood that the teachings and the practices were like a bait-and-switch that tempted me to follow them just long enough so I would get out of my own way for the Truth to reveal itself, which was utterly obvious and painfully simple:
This precious gift of conscious awareness is beyond all of us.
And as long as I was trying to make it my own by using it to build up a new sense of identity to distinguish myself from others who haven’t attained my level of awareness, I was still behind bars. Pride is pride, whether it’s the executive bragging about his new boat or the serene meditator feeling superior for living up to the challenge of sitting long periods on a cushion and imposing strict ethical discipline on himself.
In many ways, a person who’s spiritually proud is in an even worse state than someone suffering from worldly pride, since they’ve melted down the keys that could have potentially set them free and turned them into new prison bars.
Wisdom arises on its own accord. That’s just what the universe does. And I, along with everything from the most enlightened sage down to the smallest atomic particles, am a window through which this awareness marvels at itself.
Relax into the understanding that you cannot understand, connect with the vulnerability that all beings share: these are the doors to freedom, which are open at every moment. But to see these exits, it’s necessary to let go of effort and ambition. You have to recognize that you are a tiny ant who has thought himself a God. You have to stop asking what you can get and start asking what you can give.
When you glimpse the freedom that’s available in every moment, you cannot help but want to stay there. But part of the game is learning to enjoy walking through the revolving door between absorption in spaciousness and being caught up in drama.
It’s been a long road to find the honesty to admit I how much I suffer as a result of being trapped in myself. But I’ve found that the more open I am about the perils of imprisonment, the more I connect with others who are struggling to be free. This is what I hope to do with the CYM project, so please, don’t be afraid to share your experience or reactions to these ideas! The more we can step out from behind our masks, the more we give others permission to do so as well
Next week: another angle on the prison, through the lens of bread tattoos (yes, you heard me right, bread tattoos!) and the desire to be right.