“In fact if everything arises from pure and total consciousness, then pure and total consciousness has no need of a path to tread to reach itself”
~Chogyal Namkhai Norbu
In the vast library cataloguing exceptional human experiences, daunting adventures, and intriguing explorations, the tales of humanity’s search for spiritual liberation are some of the more compelling, and have even formed the basis for most of the world’s religions and philosophies. We all love a good story!
However, as fascinating as the reports may be — these bold testimonies of spiritual heroes and heroines persevering through all manner of adversity to finally attain the pinnacle of human potential, pull the sword from the rock, and ascend blissfully beyond the dreary fate of ordinary mortals — the actual truth is that they are all based on a fundamental case of mistaken identity.
It’s not so much that they have often been seriously “airbrushed” (although that is a regrettable though all too common fate of many of these hagiographies), but rather that they were embarked upon under false pretenses from the beginning. That many of these characters burst out laughing in recognition of that fact at the culmination of their quest does provide a saving grace element to the reports. Let’s examine why.
In reality, nobody goes from being bound to being free, from being lost to being found. There is no mountain to climb, river to cross, or surrender to be done in order to acquire or attain that which we already are and have always been. Free. Nobody has ever been bound, nobody has ever required salvation. Indeed, whatever we try to do to grasp or achieve it actually obstructs its recognition as our natural primordial state.
In Zen, there is a saying that “the obstacle is the path”, but here it might also be recognized that the “path” itself can be (and often is) the obstacle, especially if we are approaching it as some kind of self-improvement strategy.
Despite all hope or idealism to have things be other than they are – better, more agreeable, brighter — there is never going to be any more to who and what we are, than who and what we really are right now. There is nothing about who we really are that has ever needed improvement. Freedom is our native, or default, condition, and it has never changed, nor will it ever. It is not modified by time or experience, is not born, and never dies.
We are always already free, even to the extent that “freedom” itself is just a conceptual designation signifying that which has always been the case from the very no-beginning. What is, simply is. “Is” does not need to become more “is”. Nor is there anything about our primordial nature that needs to be liberated, redeemed, saved, or enlightened, but simply recognized.
The real freedom that is true of us is not a new accomplishment or state to be gained in opposition to bondage. This pristine awake awareness that we are has never been conditioned, nor can it become more aware. It is empty and transparent, yet knowing. Knowing what? Knowing this immediate experience, whatever it may be.
Within that ineffable spaciousness which has no limit and no circumference, thoughts, emotions, memories, sensations, and perceptions appear and vanish as the display of awareness itself, our display, in the same way clouds appear and vanish in the sky. This also includes the sense of self, a projection of mind which mind may in turn mistake as our true identity, even though our true nature is this prior awake awareness.
Whatever appears in the sky does not affect the sky, any more than what is reflected in a mirror affects the mirror. The most profound beauty or the most terrible ugliness are exactly the same to the mirror – mere reflections without substance or endurance. They all comprise what comes and goes, but awareness itself is motionless.
Within the space or embrace of awareness, whatever arises is instantly known, just as what passes before the mirror is instantly reflected in it. The knower of whatever arises is this fundamental awareness. When the sense of a concrete and independent self-entity arises within this space, it is simply the space of awareness manifesting as a momentary, empty formation. Awareness itself is never implicated by its content.
However, emptiness is also form, and so this transient complex of thought energy may begin weaving a narrative – a story composed of thoughts, feelings, and perceptions that seem to amount to a substantial “me”. Mind projects this dreamy character and then sets about trying to confirm its existence in the virtual reality realms of infinite experience.
Nevertheless, this “me-complex” can never be truly satisfied, its longing for validation truly quenched, despite all efforts to make it so. After all, it is merely a temporary play of consciousness, like a movie character that seems real, but is actually just the projected light reflecting on a screen.
In Buddhism, this stressful sense of dissatisfaction or un-fulfillment is called “Dukkha”. The Buddha taught that it inevitably arises as a result of a fundamental ignorance regarding who and what we truly are – this sky-like awake awareness. It represents a contraction of the free flow of beingness, a kind of knot-complex entangling life energy in the illusion of insufficiency.
In any case, it is that one, the dissatisfied one, who is forever exploiting the possibilities of experience in the hope of acquiring happiness. However, because such quests inevitably turn out to be in vain (in the sense that all effort at happiness only reinforces the sense of unhappiness), it is also “that one” who may eventually assume the identity of a spiritual seeker, armed with all sorts of schemes and strategies to get enlightened, saved, redeemed, and thoroughly satisfied at last.
As it so happens (and to make a long story short), that seeker is also the very one who disappears in the blaze of true realization. In that unaccountable grace of recognition, awareness suddenly awakens to itself. Of course, this is just a manner of speaking, pointing to the moment in which the subconscious ceases projecting an independent self, along with the dreamy story of “me & mine” which accompanies it.
It is not as if the ego-mind finally triumphs in the attainment of its goal. It is simply that it is seen through and recognized as the illusion it has always been. Upon awakening, the fate of our dream characters is moot. They were only dreams, after all. The seeker does not suddenly awaken. They never will, since they were a fiction all along. Who applauds when the mirage is seen to be a mirage?
In a flash of Realization, the sense of identity has now been reversed, from being the desperate searcher-subject we took ourselves to be, to the recognition of our true nature as the pure and timeless awareness in which that dancing thought-form momentarily arose and then melted away.
It is not as if a definitive key to life has been discovered. The one who would find such a formula has been a fictional creation all along. In reality, there is only life, what is, “this”. It can’t be divided into subject and object, except in the imagination. There is no separate “awareness” that is witnessing experiences.
Even calling it “our nature” is a kind of language trick, since how can “what is” belong to anybody? In that sense, “impersonal” does mean some sort of cold and aloof state of withdrawal from relations, but simply indicates the absence of a personal subject, separated out from experience. There is simply experience, life, happening to no one.
In reality, nothing has happened, nobody has arrived anywhere. Nor is this a clue for the mind still committed to dilemma, any more than the sound of tides washing onto the shore is a way or a means to something more. The waves wash in, the waves wash out, but the sea remains the sea.
“Pleasure and pain alternate. Happiness is unshakable. What you can seek and find is not the real thing. Find what you have never lost, find the inalienable.”