“There are various tests to which a devotee is subjected: they could be of the mind, or the intellect, of the body, and so on. A number of such tests are there. In fact, God is conducting tests all the time; every occurrence in life is a test. Every thought that crops up in the mind is in itself a test to see what one’s reaction will be.”
There are many circumstances and conditions which we encounter in life that seem to justify a sense of fear, regret, or apprehension. These experiences will and do challenge and test us, as long as we maintain the façade of a separate and enduring person, striving to survive and prevail in a world of threats and dangers. As we discover more and more about what and who we really are, these tests will become increasingly transparent, and our faith in the inherent perfection of existence will grow stronger, even in the midst of apparent imperfection.
Here in this human incarnation, this virtual reality scenario, the tests we encounter are meant to serve our evolution. They will vary depending upon certain causes and conditions related to our particular traits and tendencies, which are themselves derived from accumulated karmic strands, but essentially they will fall into three interdependent categories: mind, character, and will.
In Irina Tweedie’s classic journal of spiritual testing, “Daughter of Fire”, her guide and mentor, Bhai Sahib, remarked: “By reason, you will achieve nothing. It then remains on the level of mind, and the mind is very clever. The mind is the Shadow of Shaitan, as the Persian proverb goes. If the Shaitan has yielded, the whole barrier is gone. But for the complete surrender one needs more than that; there is not only the Mind, but the Will and the Character to be surrendered too.”
Tests of the mind consist primarily in recognizing who and what we truly are, prior to the superimposition of conditional self-images and the sense of separation that creates and reinforces the illusion of self and other. Consequently, one might say that the salient issue here is seeing through ignorance – ignorance of our true nature and condition, our “original face”.
The mind is like a mirror where life, or what we take to be reality, appears momentarily and then seems to vanish. The comparison of mind with a mirror is often employed in the traditional literature because a mirror is always empty, regardless of the quality or quantity of the images that arise within it. Furthermore, within a mirror there is an infinite potential for any appearance to arise without obstruction, but since whatever appears in the mirror is essentially without substance, life and death and everything in-between is often compared to a dream, in that none of it has any enduring reality. In that sense, sages such as the contemporary Dzogchen Master Chogyal Namkhai Norbu have elaborated on the mirror analogy when he writes:
“For the mirror, nothing ever changes, as it has no intentions and never undergoes change. If the mirror reflects an exquisite deity, it feels no pleasure, if it reflects something terrible, it feels no displeasure. Because it has never “moved,” it has never entered into movement: its condition has the quality of reflecting, and the reflection manifests through the dualistic principle of interdependence. Any definition, of being or not being, any philosophical analysis one elaborates, concerns the reflection and takes place within the sphere of the reflection and never in the condition of the mirror. So, ugly or beautiful, positive or negative conditions, heavens or hells or transmigration do not in any way affect the underlying nature of the consciousness that is the state of the mirror itself.”
The mind is a process that functions according to dependent origination, or conditioned arising, which simply means that whatever appears does so based on multiple causes. In the process of this mental functioning, a sense of self (“me”) is implied or imputed, without there actually being such a one. This is all arising from a “source” that has no trace of personal or individual existence beyond the thoughts that arise as its expressive display. Nobody thinks thoughts, because there is nobody there, just thoughts about a someone who is then taken to be the thinker.
For example, during dreaming at night, the identity we might temporarily appear to be in that dream doesn’t really exist. Just so, in waking life, the apparently separate and enduring identity we seem to be doesn’t really exist beyond being a transient subconscious projection, a modification of consciousness that is contrived during the functioning of dependent origination.
The challenge here is to completely reverse one’s habitual viewpoint within the dream of being an independent and substantial “me”. A shift, or revolution in consciousness, must occur in perception. Instead of being the “me” desperately looking for Truth, or Awakening, the test is to recognize all arising phenomena from the perspective of Awakening or Reality Itself. In such recognition, the solidity of any personal identity previously believed to require constant assertion and defense is seen through, and in that very seeing, is dissolved.
Understanding the emptiness of both self and phenomena entails the direct recognition that the image of a separate, concrete, and enduring personal self is an illusion, and so likewise the world of external objects and people — all created and sustained solely by conceptual designation. In the mirror of mind, all kinds of pictures appear and disappear. The picture is seen, but we are not the picture. When we realize that all is in the mind and that we are beyond the mind, then mind’s essential nature is realized.
The category of “Character” is the next great test, after the penetration of ignorance. Character is all about integrity, which includes taking full responsibility for ones thoughts, words, and actions. Inherent in this quality is the development of an attitude and behavior that eliminates the poisons of greed, envy, hatred, and arrogance, and so yields a life of impeccable integrity that serves all with whom it touches. Above all, such a life strives to do no harm.
When we examine our behavior, is it always consistent with the truth we have realized in our awakening insights? Or, is there a gap between what we know and how we embody that knowledge? Are we always acting with full integrity, or are we still habitually falling back into patterns of relationship that are self-centered and less than compassionate? Have we rooted out the poisons of greed, envy, hatred, pride, and ignogance, or do those passions still infect our conduct and relations to any degree?
Many suppose that, having had some profound spiritual experience or awakening insight into their true nature, the job of liberation is done, but actually it has just begun. Failure to recognize that fact will lead to aberrations in one’s relationships, and do harm to both self and others. For example, we hear about teachers such as Swamis Muktananda, Satchidananda, and Rama, Ramesh Balsekar and Amrit Desai, Rajneesh, Yogi Bhajan, Adi Da, Sai Baba, and Ammachi, Trungpa, Kalu, and Sogyal Rinpoche, Seung Sahn, Baker, Maezumi, Gempo, Katagiri, Shimano, and Sasaki Roshi, and many other “spiritual” personalities who purportedly have attained deep insight into the mind, but nevertheless fail tests of character, and so remain trapped in the “Intermediate Zone” that Sri Aurobindo famously cautioned about. The relentless cavalcade of sex scandals that surround Tibetan lamas, Eastern (and Western) Zen Masters, Hindu swamis and would-be avatars, Christian priests and pastors by the boat load, and various other notable and less than notable religious representatives, should certainly sound an alarm in this regard.
Furthermore, fixating in a purely intellectual understanding of the emptiness of the self-complex can actually interfere with or impede its direct recognition (or clear seeing), which is something of an altogether different nature. In that regard, one of the strange drawbacks of such philosophical agreement is the tendency observed in so many enthusiasts of the nonduality persuasion to forgo a commitment to the practice/actualization component, choosing instead to “cherry-pick” certain themes from the totality of the teachings, such as, “there is nothing that need be done”, “everything is already perfect as it is”, “just be what you are”, and other typically misunderstood and out-of-context proclamations. As Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche noted: “If one only imagines it, if it is a mere theory, thinking ‘I don’t need to do anything, neither meditate nor practice’, one has completely missed the point. There have been many people thinking like this in the past.”
The third test category is “Will”. It is here that we come face to face with the final koan, “Not my will, but Thine.” What does such humility actually entail — aligning one’s own will with the “Cosmic Will”? What does it mean to step out of the way and let life live us, to let the Divine, or Source, live us?
One exceptional mystic, Marguerite Porete, answered in this way:
“The liberated soul no longer seeks God through penitence, nor through any sacrament of Holy Church; not through thoughts, nor through words, nor through works; not through creature here below, nor through creature above; not through justice, nor through mercy, nor through glory of glory; not through divine understanding, nor through divine love, nor through divine praise.
Such Souls … possess as equally dear, shame as honor, and honor as shame; poverty as wealth, and wealth as poverty; torment from God and his creatures, as comfort from God and His creatures; to be loved as hated, and hated as loved; to be in hell as in paradise, and in paradise as in hell; and in small estate as in great, and great estate as small … They neither will nor not-will anything of these prosperities nor of these adversities.
Whoever would ask such free Souls, sure and peaceful, if they would want to be in purgatory, they would say no; or if they would want to be certain of salvation in this life, they would say no; or if they want to be in paradise, they would say no. But then with what would they will it? They no longer possess any will, and if they would desire anything, they would separate themselves from Love.
Such a Soul neither desires nor despises poverty nor tribulation, neither mass nor sermon, neither fast nor prayer, and gives to Nature all that is necessary, without remorse of conscience. But such Nature is so well ordered through the transformation by unity of Love, to whom the will is conjoined, that Nature demands nothing which is prohibited.
She has fallen into certainty of knowing nothing and into certainty of willing nothing. And this nothingness … gives her the All, and no one can possess it in any other way.”
Motion and rest, expansion and contraction, yin and yang, birth and death, light and dark — it’s the nature of the phenomenal realm. If we cling to one side and avoid the other, then we will create a stagnating fixation, an imbalance in the flow, so the most skillful approach is to let go of all ego preferences and let ourselves be lived by the Power (or whatever name we wish to apply to the Divine). Not my will, but Thine.
True surrender involves becoming a clear prism for the Light to work Love into every thought, word, and deed, and so bring all our relationships into harmonious balance. On the other hand, what are we actually doing when we try to impose our will on any situation, subtle or mundane? What is the motive within the psyche to control and manipulate? Is it not fear? This fear goes very deep, getting more and more subtle as we dig through the layers of awareness, until (if we are persistent) we ultimately arrive at the “core story” itself – the story of “me and mine”.
All we are ever trying to protect and defend is some image we have of ourselves. The more reality we invest in that self-image, the more we take it to be who and what we are. In this way, we gradually become fixated in limiting positions, clinging to them as a matter of personal survival.
Likewise, we feel threatened by anything perceived to be crossing the illusory line in the sand we’ve drawn around our imaginary position. Thus, our mind, character, and will become subordinated to the task of perpetuating a fantasy of independence, separation, and self-preoccupation.
Upon thorough inspection, however, we can recognize that our personal positions have no concrete or enduring reality, except what we grant them in our afflicted case of mistaken identity. In actuality, we are not the self-image we are attempting to assert, confirm, and defend. Self-images are simply costumes or uniforms we don to accomplish particular activities, but then we typically forget that the costumes are just costumes, and come to believe that they represent our true identity.
When we fall for our own propaganda, we get stuck in positions that now seem to be in need of preserving. Fear is spawned to grease the wheels of attachment to the charade, and the life flow is crimped and cut off through the fixation of attention generated by this assumption of false identity. Suffering is the inevitable consequence, and can only be relieved by totally letting go, relinquishing clinging to any position or transient self-story. Our free will provides the option: stay glued to a fixed position and reap the result, or run freely, untethered by any self-imposed leash of limiting identity.
When Vachagotta asked Gotama the Buddha what position he espoused, he replied:
“A ‘position,’ Vaccha, is something that a Buddha has done away with. What a Buddha sees is this: ‘Such is form, such its origin, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origin, such its disappearance; such is perception… such are mental fabrications… such is consciousness, such its origin, such its disappearance.’
Because of this, I say, a Buddha — with the ending, fading out, cessation, renunciation, and relinquishment of all construings, all excogitations, all I-making and mine-making and obsession with conceit — is, through lack of clinging/sustenance, released.”
Through sincerity and perseverance, it is eventually revealed that the multitude of life experiences are all of one piece — one streaming shine of clear light, and never other than evidence of the most compassionate grace. However it may seem at the time, each experience that comes our way — each test — can be recognized as a gift, a blessing.
In such recognition, as if for the very first time, we will be able to see our own original face. We will realize that all the fussiness of comparative mind is simply a distraction. Furthermore, it will be seen that all the stories with which we have identified, all the positions claimed in consciousness, all the drama and history, are of the same dreamy nature as a virtual reality game – one in which we have never been truly implicated.
We will come to understand how we have never been divided from love – a love so without conditions that it cannot even be imagined by the human mind — and we will again appreciate, with a heart now broken by that love, how utterly divine each breath, each glance, each pulse of life, truly is. Only then is it possible for our mind, character, and will to conform to our true nature. Prior to that “falling in love”, there will always be some internal conflict, some lack of integration, manifesting in less than skillful behaviors in life and relationships.
Until then (which could be now, except that we are still more interested in other things), we have the opportunity to recognize our allegiance to those “other things” as mere errors in discernment, stemming from an innocent mistake that consciousness makes when it appears in form and then believes that somehow it actually is that form exclusively. Consciousness even assumes the destiny of that form, until it finds it isn’t really that, but so much more! It’s what remains when the movie ends, the same as it was before it ever started. Nothing has truly changed, nothing has actually happened, and every test was simply a pointer to that fact.
Moreover, in the midst of any apparent test (and as long as we still tend to identify with duality), a certain relative truth will invariably apply: those who are grateful will find more to be grateful about, while those who complain will get more to complain about. Consequently, how we react in the midst of these tests of mind, character, and will is crucial to either supporting or diminishing our capacity for higher adaptation in succeeding levels of the game, until all of the player’s masks drop away, replaced by the kind of heartfelt laughter that bubbles up from true recognition.
At such a juncture, we may even come to realize, as Sri Nisargadatta point out, that “truth is not a reward for good behavior, nor a prize for passing some tests. It cannot be brought about. It is the primary, the unborn, the ancient source of all that is. You are eligible because you are. You need not merit truth. It is your own. Just stop running away by running after. Stand still, be quiet.”