I’m sure that like I used to, many of us must wonder what the mystery of life is. Is it our sole purpose simply to come to this world, try our best to avoid bad things and enjoy nice things followed by our inevitable demise? Surely there must be more to it than that. Having explored many different ways to find meaning in existence I now feel confident that I have started to uncover the mystery of life and the joy that brings
I was walking on the beach in Lagos earlier this week, watching the waves as they continuously lapped on the shore. As I observed the waves, identifying them as something separate from myself, I felt a kind of tension and dis-ease
This type of feeling isn’t unusual for me nowadays, however it’s much less pronounced than it has been in the past. The discomfort I experience now arises from viewing my self as separate from everything else, when my own experience has shown me this isn’t actually the truth of the way things are (as explained in this article)
The main challenge I’ve found with remaining mindful of this view, the view of my self and all things being of one nature, is the fact that outside of a meditative experience they appear to be separate and distinct. When I close my eyes, allow my awareness to fall to my heart and relax, I feel an expansion and immediately I feel much more peaceful because I start to connect with this truth… the non-duality of all things. However when I walk around going about life, I naturally find my self assenting to the ordinary appearance before me…. and that hurts
Experiencing the peace of non-duality
So as I was observing the waves I noticed this tension within my being, and realising it was arising from this feeling of separation, I relaxed a bit and recalled that my experience that I am equally all things, not confined to this body and mind as my own instincts would have me believe. When I recalled this my mind started to absorb into the waves, and a feeling of unity arose, I felt one with them and immediately at peace and calm. You could even say I experienced what could be described as a feeling of grace. Such is the peace the ultimate view emptiness gives rise to
While all this was going on I remembered a quote I’d heard from Thich Nhat Hanh which I found particularly beautiful and inspiring (nb: for Mahayanists, within which Kadampa Buddhism sits, it would be more appropriate to interpret ‘enlightenment’ to mean ‘liberation’ in this context)
‘Enlightenment is the moment the wave realises it is the water, at that moment all fear of dying ceases.’
Simply allowing this quote to mix with my mind gives rise to a special feeling, because it helped stimulate my own experience of this truth and cause it to emerge and become manifest. It is the truth, that we are a mere wave in the ocean of life. We feel distinct and separate, however just as the wave ceases as it inevitably mixes back into the ocean, so this self that we currently relate to will soon cease as it is absorbed back into the ocean of our deepest level of being
When it comes to our self, for most of us, we’re probably quite confident that we know who we are and what reality is. But how confident are we really? When we reflect on our life’s experience have we not observed many times in the past how we were so sure we knew the truth about something, but later on it became evident that our understanding wasn’t complete and as a result we learned something and it caused us to grow and evolve?
The truth, as taught by many spiritual masters throughout the centuries, is that things are much more intimately connected than we realise. Even at a more simple level we can understand that we are dependent on people and things for our survival. Take away our supermarkets, roads or even oxygen from the air (possibly all things we take for granted), and where would we be?
Simply contemplating this helps to open up our mind. I mean even just take our breakfast as an example, say we eat muesli. How many beings may have been involved in it getting to our table? Where did all the different ingredients come from? Who planted, grew and tended the crops and who taught them to do that? Who picked them, transported them, sorted and distributed them? Where did all the materials come from to do these things and how many animals were killed or injured during all of this?
Thinking in this way our mind becomes more open and expansive and we’re like ‘oh yeah, I never even thought about that. I was just buying my muesli, popping it in my bowl and eating it without even thinking. I guess a lot of different people, and even animals, were involved in it getting here. Actually, that’s quite kind.’
This dependent relationship is beautifully illustrated by this quote from The New Eight Steps to Happiness:
‘Wherever we look, we find only the kindness of others. We are all interconnected in a web of kindness from which it is impossible to separate ourself. Everything we have and everything we enjoy, including our very life, is due to the kindness of others. In fact, every happiness there is in the world arises as a result of others’ kindness.’
The dependent relationship of things highlighted here stretches well beyond a simple reliance on each other and external conditions for our existence, it goes much deeper still to the very fabric of our being. To come to know this truth in our own experience, we simply have to be open to the possibility that the beliefs we’ve formed about the way in which our self and the world around us exist, might not be as accurate as we’d previously concluded
Awaken to the mystery that is life
I can say from my own experience, that any life we are leading where we view our self as separate from everything else is always going to be painful. That doesn’t mean we can’t experience happiness and peace of mind, of course we can. But we should understand that any experiences of happiness we enjoy can only ever be relative to, or measured against our known spectrum of happiness
What this means practically speaking, is that we can only ever benchmark our experience of happiness against the happiest feeling we’ve experienced in our life so far. For someone making progress on a qualified spiritual path, that is to say one which is leading them on the path of inner peace and fulfilment, then their spectrum of happiness is constantly increasing as they learn to free themselves from negativity. And having this experience of non-duality vastly increases this spectrum
Despite being painful, albeit in a very subtle way at times, this experience we have of feeling separate and distinct is totally normal and appears to arise from common sense. In fact most of us probably wouldn’t even call it a view, more likely we’d simply say ‘it’s just the way things are!’
And in once sense, I guess that’s true… at least true for us. If we never question this view, if we never ponder the mystery that is life, then it’s likely we will simply live the rest of our life believing that how things appear is how they exist, after all this is what science tells us isn’t it?
Even briefly reflecting on science (and most of us will probably already know this). But science tells us that all things…. everything is made up of something called atoms (whatever they are). And it also tells us that atoms are made up of 99.9999999999996% empty space – wow! Maybe you’re like ‘yeah so what, I already knew that.’ But what are the implications of this, I mean if everything we see and touch, and I mean everything including ourself, is made up of almost entirely empty space, what does that say about them?
In one sense maybe all we could say about all these phenomena, including ourself, is that they exist as some sort of pure potential or that they only just barely exist, after all would there be much difference, statistically speaking, if everything was 100% empty space? This helps us to understand, quite apparently when you think about it, that things don’t exist in the way they appear to us, because they appear as 100% concrete, when even science is telling us this is absolutely not true.
In fact this is what my own spiritual guide, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, has been saying every since he arrived in ‘the west’ (having come from Asia). He says ‘the things you normally see do not exist.’ And thankfully, due to his amazing and pure example, many people have come to know this truth from their own experience, and as a result received inconceivable benefit
Thinking in these ways helps us to be more open to the wisdom many great beings are trying to impart. We start to see more clearly that life is much more mysterious and wondrous than we’d ever imagined. Where did we all come from anyway…. maybe we’re simply made of some cosmic dust that arose from the universe billions of years ago after a star exploded, sending trillions of atoms far into space and marking the beginnings of infinite new galaxies, one being our own
As for me, I can say that even only have just some experience of this truth has radically changed my perception of reality and brought with it a deep experience of peace. It allows us to peer through the window of wisdom and into the truth of reality, awakening us to the ultimate mystery of life and of our self
Even if we were merely to call it a view, when we hold it we no longer view our self as separate from everything else, there is no more conflict and the bi-product is a feeling of deep peace and a joyful bliss naturally arises. After all, if we’re upset with our partner, boss, or even just a complete stranger, when we realise they are just as much ‘us’ as this ordinary body and mind we normally assent to, who is there to be upset with? Experiencing this as a personal truth is extraordinarily liberating
Sound a bit much like the twilight zone? The truth is we’ve all been conditioned to relate to things in a certain way and believing what appears to us to be the truth. There’s no right or wrong in it, but the fact is that one view gives rise to the pain and suffering of a limited being that will eventually have to leave this world, whereas the other gives rise to only peace and joy… and when we come to identify our self as all things, death is something we no longer need to fear
How can we know the truth for ourselves?
If we really want to uncover the deeper meaning of our life, and even our existence, then I believe we need to be willing to move from a state of certainty to one we might label ‘unknowing’. Whilst we think we know with great confidence how our self and things actually do exist, then we’ll never be open to any other points of view
Ultimately we need to think about what we really want, and if we check it’s just for things to go well, not to encounter difficulties or problems… essentially we just to be happy. Seeing as there are many wise beings out there telling us that holding this view, or we could say realising it for ourself, will make us happy then surely it should at least peak our interest
I mean what does anyone have to get out of us adopting, or at least being open to, this new way of looking at things anyway…. other than being happy in knowing they’re benefiting people? I remember my dad once asking me ‘do you have to give all your money to this buddhist organisation?’ (I was like ‘no dad’). So it’s normal for us to be sceptical, and at times of course this can be a good thing, so we need to rely on our own experience and common sense when evaluating the character and motivations of others
For me, the mystery of life has been coming to recognise that the self I thought I was doesn’t actually exist. How did I come to this understanding? Well, I’d certainly heard the teachings for a long time, but I hadn’t been able to deeply internalise them. To my surprise, one day a friend suggested to me that taking a small dose of LSD might help me move towards this insight; this certainly wasn’t something I’d ever considered, but it peaked my interest given his strong faith and depth of experience
Now I’m not saying that taking illicit substances has anything to do with following spiritual paths in any way, because it doesn’t, but at the same time I think it’s important to be open minded regarding how we might be able to learn from other people and experiences, rather than judging things or pushing them away simply because we don’t understand
Of course superficially it seemed like a stupid idea, but I wanted to check further to be sure, so I engaged in my guru yoga practice to see if I could establish whether it might be of some benefit. After meditating on it and receiving a clear sign that it would be beneficial, with a pure motivation I decided to give it a go… and i have to say it wasn’t what I expected! I can say that, based on the foundation of my own experience and internal conditions, this method did actually help me move towards the experience of non-duality
Now my purpose for bringing this up isn’t to encourage anyone to do this themselves. For many of us already following spiritual paths then we may have made a decision not to take intoxicants any more, and there’s a lot of wisdom in that decision. One of my objectives in sharing my experiences is always to come from a place of honest and to be authentic, and so I’m writing about it now simply because this is how I came to have my first deep experience of the true nature of things
Of course it’s likely much of this experience came from previous ground-work steeped in meditation, reading books, contemplating and in particular having a strong mind of faith, for had I not got an indication that it would be a beneficial thing for myself to be doing personally, then it would have held no interest. I would suggest that these are the most important conditions to have in order to come to this realisation, assuming we have already found a reliable teacher and teachings. It just seemed that taking it acted as a catalyst and I’m grateful for the insights that experience gave me
All I would encourage you, the reader to do, is not be satisfied with believing that the way you, your life and the world appears to you is actually how it exists simply because it looks that way
Even though we might say that the things that appear to us exist because we can see, touch and hear them, could we not say the same about our dreams, for do they not have those exact same characteristics? You might say ‘yes but I know my dream isn’t real, because when I wake up it becomes obvious.’
And so I’d say the same to you – just as the person who is awake, conventionally speaking, looks back at themselves the dreamer and can clearly see that what appeared to them at that time wasn’t actually real, in the same way the person who is awakened to the truth of reality can look back at their own self when they were just living their ordinary life, and with the same level of confidence say that what they thought was real was in fact not reality at all. At that time, having awakened from the sleep of ignorance and having come to experience the true nature of reality this becomes self-evident and undeniable
For me, watching the waves at the beach reminded me of this truth and helped to once again open my heart to the most beautiful mystery and wonder of life. Believing my self to be separate from the waves in the ocean, and indeed everything else, is simply a cause of great pain now. But by opening my self to the truth, that our ultimate nature is our inseparability from all things, I once again immersed into an all-pervasive feeling of well being….. the unceasing peace arising from awakening to the ultimate unity of all things
This has been my experience and, as always I hope it’s been beneficial for you, the reader. If it’s resonated in some way but you’re still not clear what it’s all about or how to move forward, you can get clear and unmistaken teachings on this topic in the section called ‘Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta’, which can be found in the free eBook Modern Buddhism. Or if you don’t feel like doing that don’t worry, go on your own exploratory adventure and discover for yourself the true mystery that is life