AWAKENING TO DEEP ACCEPTANCE
The Wholeness of Life
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking
new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
The wrinkles on your elderly father’s hands. The cry of a newborn baby. A sculpture in an art gallery. A certain combination of notes in a piece of music. A dewdrop on a blade of grass. A momentary look on a stranger’s face, suddenly and unexpectedly melting your heart. Wholeness suddenly piercing through separation.
Life is rich with mystery.
I was recently talking to a friend of mine who had just given birth. My friend is a scientist, a “rational thinker,” and an atheist, with no interest in spirituality or religion or anything that cannot be proved through “peer-reviewed research,” as she calls it. She believes that life is all about working hard, providing for your family, saving for old age, and eventually retiring and enjoying “the good life” before you die.
And yet, as she talked about her experience of her daughter’s birth, her words were not those of an atheist; they were religious words, spiritual words, words pregnant with awe and wonder and the overwhelming miracle of creation. She talked about the miracle of life itself—the mystery of birth and of death, the cosmic riddle that permeates all things. She told me that as she held her newborn daughter for the first time, all self-centered thoughts fell away, past and future dissolved, and suddenly there was only this—only life itself, present, alive, mysterious. There was only this precious moment, here and now, and nothing more.
She told me how she wept with gratitude upon seeing her daughter’s tiny little fingers for the first time—how delicate they were, how fragile. She told me how amazed she was that something so mysterious andalive could have emerged from her, how something could have come out of nothing, how life could produce life out of itself, how the same life that was present at the Big Bang is somehow also here, in the form of this tiny, pink creature. She was suddenly consumed with
an unconditional love—for her daughter, for all babies and mothers everywhere, for all existence. It was a love she had no words for. All peer-reviewed research crumbled in the face of the incomprehensible vastness of present-moment experience.
My friend, the scientist, the rational thinker, the skeptic, had temporarily become a nondual mystic, and she didn’t even know it. For a moment, she had touched the wholeness of life, the wordless mystery that permeates all creation. For a moment, she had fallen in love with existence; the separation between her and life had fallen away, to reveal a love with no name.
I have met many people over the years who have become interested in spirituality because of certain strange, inexplicable, incomprehensible experiences or realizations they’d had, often out of the blue—experiences that were later hard to put into words and harder still to communicate to their friends and families.
Artists talk about the self falling away when they are absorbed in painting. Musicians tell of how, while absorbed in their music, there is only the music, and they, as a separate entity, vanish into it, as if they’ve been absorbed by life. They are not playing the music—they are the music, playing itself. Athletes talk about getting into the flow or entering the zone, a place where running or riding or jumping happens effortlessly, and the body functions perfectly even though they no
longer experience the body as their own. Actors talk about disappearing into their characters, about losing themselves in a role, about how when they are really acting, there’s nobody there acting. When they are later congratulated on their performance and asked how they managed to achieve it, they have to admit that they really don’t know.
Or you’re walking through the park, and suddenly there’s no you walking—there is only the wind on your face, the rustle of leaves, the laughing of children, and the barking of dogs. You disappear, and you become everything—or everything disappears, and you become nothing. Words simply
don’t do it justice.
Sometimes the stories are less dramatic. You’re washing the dishes, and suddenly the glistening soap bubbles become the most fascinating things in the universe—indeed, the soap bubbles become the universe in that moment. And all your problems, your fears, your anxieties, your desperate search for a better life, for fame, for glory, for love, for enlightenment, fade away. Everything is deeply okay again—cosmically okay. Even though your life situation hasn’t
changed—there are still bills to pay, children to feed, work to do, pain to feel—your relationship to it all has suddenly transformed. In an instant, you’re no longer a separate individual struggling to find wholeness. There is only wholeness. You’re back in the womb of life—a womb you never really left. And yet, ordinary life is still present, and you continue to function in the world effortlessly.
Science has a hard time explaining these experiences—or non-experiences or whatever you want to call them—for they take us beyond the world of cause and effect, subject and object, observer and observed, absolute and relative, inside and outside, even time and space. They are hard to prove or demonstrate logically, scientifically, philosophically. But to those who experience them, they are more real than anything. Call them awakenings or peak experiences or simply raw encounters with life as it is. It doesn’t really matter what you call them, because in the end, the words
always come later.
Existence is rich with mystery and wonder, and sometimes, without warning, light can shine through the cracks in the separate self. For a few brief moments, there is the cosmic suggestion that life is somehow infinitely more than what it appears to be. The most ordinary of things can easily turn extraordinary, making us wonder if, perhaps, the extraordinary is hidden in the ordinary always, just waiting to be discovered.
Yes, perhaps the ordinary things of life—broken old chairs, bicycle tires, sunlight reflecting on broken glass, a smile from a loved one, the cry of a newborn baby—are actually not ordinary at all. Perhaps hidden in their ordinariness is something extraordinary. Perhaps all of those things we take for granted are actually divine, sacred, infinitely precious expressions of a wholeness, a Oneness that cannot be expressed in thought or language.
And perhaps this wholeness is not “out there,” somewhere else or in the future, waiting to be uncovered. Perhaps we don’t need to go to the farthest reaches of the universe to find it. Perhaps it is not in the heavens or hidden away in the deepest depths of our souls. Perhaps wholeness is right here, where we already are—in this world, in this life—and perhaps we have somehow blinded ourselves to it in our obsession with our search for it.
Modern physics is now confirming what spiritual teachings throughout the ages have always been pointing to: everything is interconnected, and nothing exists separately from anything else. We have invented many words over the years to try to point to this cosmic wholeness, words like spirit, nature, Oneness, Advaita, nonduality, consciousness, awareness, aliveness, Being, Source, Existence, Isness, Tao, Buddha Mind, and presence. We could sit and argue for a hundred years about what the wholeness of life actually is, but I wonder if we’d end up arguing over words and miss what the words are pointing to. So pick your favorite word for wholeness, because in the end it’s not about the words. You call it the Tao. I call it Life. She calls it God. He calls it consciousness. Someone else calls it nothing, and someone else calls it everything. Someone else likes to keep silent about it. An artist paints pictures about it. A musician writes music about it. A physicist tries to touch it through complex calculations and mind-bending theories. A poet or philosopher juggles with words to try to reach it. A shaman gives you strange substances so you may see it for yourself. A spiritual teacher points you to it both with language and silence.
The point is, whatever it is will never ultimately be put into words. Thoughts and words fragment wholeness; they break up a unified reality into separate things: bodies, chairs, tables, trees, the sun, the sky, me, you. The world of thought is the world of duality, the world of things.
Of course, I’ll be using a lot of words in this book. Words are very useful for writing and reading books! But the most important thing to remember is that it’s not about the words. It’s about the wholeness of life itself—and that comes before all words, even the word wholeness.
There is a great silence and rest that permeates all of these words, and it is this inner stillness that I speak from. This entire book is a love letter from stillness to itself—from who I really am, to who you really are.
I used to volunteer in a hospice, and I spent time with people who were in the final weeks or days or even hours of their lives. Often the patients would confess to me that it was only at that moment, as the curtain was about to fall, that they were really opening their eyes to the performance. Only then were they starting to see how precious life is—and always had been. Many of them talked about their regrets. Regrets over not having lived life to the fullest. Regrets over not having loved enough, over having held their feelings back out of fear of rejection. Regrets over not having been more honest and open in their relationships. Regrets over working themselves until they were sick, in pursuit of a future that never came and was never going to come. If only they’d known that life had other plans in store for them, they might have opened their eyes sooner.
For some of them, it was only when time had been stripped away from them that they were really starting to explore life. They didn’t have time to live in hopes and dreams anymore—they only had time to live. Some had taken up art; some were learning to play an instrument or sing or dance for the first time. One woman I met had finally found the courage to record her debut album. For her whole life she had hidden away, singing in the shower when she was alone, protecting herself from ridicule and rejection. But now in the last weeks of her life, when she had nothing to lose, she was singing her heart out, as if nobody were listening, as if she had already died and there was no longer anything to fear. Ridicule and rejection were no longer her enemies. One day, I was playing chess with a female patient. We barely spoke to each other as we played. Her head was shaved, and she was obviously weak from months of chemotherapy. But she was so present with me for that hour or so that we were together. She was so in the here and now, so absorbed by life, so fascinated by everything, like a newborn baby. “Checkmate,” she said with a smile, as she cornered my king. She died that evening, but during that game she was more alive, more open to experience, more in love with the present moment, than many people who have another fifty years to live. Being present has nothing to do with time. Why does it often take extreme life situations to bring back an awareness of the magic and mystery of life? Why do we often wait until we’re about to die before discovering a deep gratitude for life as it is? Why do we exhaust ourselves seeking love, acceptance, fame, success, or spiritual enlightenment in the future? Why do we work or meditate ourselves into the grave? Why do we postpone life? Why do we hold back from it? What are we looking for exactly? What are we waiting for? What are we afraid of? Will the life we long for really come in the future? Or is it always closer than that? This book is about the wholeness of life and about the possibility of discovering that wholenessright now—not next year, not tomorrow, not “one day,” but right now, in the midst of present experience, in the midst of whatever is happening, even if what’s happening is discomfort and pain and a longing to be free. This book is about finding out who you really are, beyond who you think you are, beyond who you’ve been taught you are, beyond your story about who you are, beyond all your concepts and images of who you are. And it’s about discovering the ways in which, in forgetting who we are, in our attempts to build and hold up what basically amounts to a false, thought-constructed image of ourselves, we go to war with present experience, with each other, with the planet. Our inner conflict becomes outer conflict. When I am at war within myself, I go to war with you. What I reject in myself, I reject in the world. And that rejection leads to suffering of every kind. We addict ourselves to substances or habits, even seemingly good ones, to avoid what we don’t like about ourselves. We battle with painful emotions. We search for another person and a relationship that will complete us. We desperately seek to escape discomfort by becoming enlightened.
In this book, I’ll hold up a magnifying glass to the place where conflict begins in us, because the place where conflict begins in us is also the place it can end. It is estimated that in the twentieth century alone, human beings managed to kill more than 200 million other human beings in wars and through genocide. Human beings seem to be unique among the planet’s organisms in that we harm and kill other humans not just to protect ourselves physically, not just in pursuit of food and territory, but also in defense ofimages. We kill in the name of every kind of image—ideologies, philosophies, belief systems, spiritual paths, worldviews. We kill in our attempts to create our image of heaven upon the earth, to impose our image of the world upon other human beings who are not like us. We kill in the name of images of reality, images of truth and falsehood, images of who we are and who others are in relation to us—images that rarely, if ever, correspond to reality. Where can this violence end?
It is fashionable these days to talk about a shift in human consciousness that is happening on the planet—the idea that human beings are in the process of reaching some higher state of consciousness. But instead, I think what we’re really doing is developing a new and heightened awareness of the madness of the human mind. We are more aware than ever that our old ways of doing things are not working for us. Our old assumptions about who we are, our dualistic way of thinking, our us-and-them mentality have not led to peace—peace in the world at large or peace within ourselves. Quite the opposite. Wars, genocide, oppression, and violence are still going on at this very moment the world’s financial system is on the brink of collapse (and some would say it already has collapsed), and the greatest superpowers are in terrible debt. Ecological disaster looms on the horizon. And humans are experiencing record-high levels of depression, anxiety, and stress.
The world has always been mad, but these days, we are more aware of that madness. For the first time in human history, information about the state of the world is available to pretty much everybody who can get access to a computer. It’s also probably true to say that we are more desperate than ever for a way out.
This book is not about solving all the problems on the planet; I am not qualified to talk about that. What I do want to talk about is where all human suffering, conflict, and violence originate: the dualistic split in present experience, in the separation of “me” from life itself. If, at some point, each of us does not face our own present experience and heal the madness and violence and separation there, we have no hope of finding a way out of the collective madness of humanity. If we can find out where the violence, the suffering, the separation from life and each other begin in our own experience, and if we can clearly see and understand the suffering we create for ourselves, then we will also be able to see how we create suffering for others, for the ones we love, for our cities, our countries, our continents, our planet. Violence begins and ends with you. Recognizing this truth leads to total responsibility, in the best sense of the word. I’m not offering a way out of the madness of the human mind, but a way in. I’m not actually offering a solution to suffering, but another way of looking at suffering—a radical new way of relating to it. We have no hope of ending suffering – personal or global—until we understand what suffering really is, at the most fundamental level. And when we truly understand suffering, we may discover that true freedom is found not through escaping present experience, but by diving fearlessly into its hidden depths. In there, perhaps, we will discover all the peace, love, and deep acceptance that we were always seeking “out there.”
Now, it might sound selfish or narcissistic to focus on your own suffering in this way. “Who am I to sit here and look at my own suffering? Shouldn’t I forget about myself, get out there, and help to end the suffering in the world?” Remember, any suffering within you will inevitably get projected out into the world. You and the world are one, as we will discover. Anything you are at war with in yourself, you will eventually go to war with in the world. If there is violence and separation alive in you, you will bring it into your close relationships, into your family, into your workplace, into the world at large.
The world is nothing but your projection of it, as spiritual teachers, saints, sages, and mystics throughout the ages have been reminding us.
The spiritual teacher Osho spoke about the paradox of looking deeply into your own experience rather than trying to end all the world’s problems: “Yes, it will appear as selfishness. But is the lotus selfish when it blossoms? Is the sun selfish when it shines?” In a very strange way, in order to be totally unselfish, you must be totally selfish, totally obsessed with yourself, but not in the way we usually think of obsession or self. You must be fascinated, curious, willing to see through separation, in all its forms, in the midst of your present experience. You must be open to exploring suffering—how and why it manifests in you, where it originates. You must be willing to take a look at your worst fears, your pain, your sadness, and your deepest unfulfilled longings. You must be willing to face them head on and to find the place where even the most seemingly unacceptable aspects of yourself can be deeply accepted.
Great freedom lies in fearlessly facing the darkness and finally coming to see that darkness is inseparable from light. It lies in recognizing that what you were always seeking was hidden even in your worst fears. To paraphrase Thomas Hardy, if there is a way toward the better, it lies in taking a full look at the worst—and finding deep acceptance there. When you understand how suffering manifests in you, you immediately understand how it manifests in everyone else.
We often focus so much on our individual differences that we fail to see that, in the most basic ways, we are all the same. We all suffer, and we all seek a way out of suffering, as the Buddha taught. When you see and understand the mechanics of suffering in yourself, you gain deep compassion for others’ suffering—in the true sense of the word compassion (from com-passio; literally, “I suffer with”).
When I see pain as mine, I am lost in my personal bubble of suffering and feel disconnected from life, shut off and lonely in my misery. But beyond the personal story of my own suffering, I discover that pain is not really my pain. It is the world’s pain. It is humanity’s pain. When I lose my father, the grief I experience is not my grief, but every son’s grief. I grieve for, and with, every son who has ever lost a father. When my partner leaves me, I become anyone who has ever lost someone they love. In the most intimate recesses of present experience, I discover that I am the universe that I am trying so hard to save; I discover that I am the compassion that I try so hard to act out in the world. I discover that I am the others I long so much for connection with. In the depths of the personal, in the midst of the most intensely painful and intimately personal experiences, I discover the impersonal truth of existence, and there, I am free. Many spiritual teachings speak of escaping the personal and reaching some future impersonal state, but as we shall see in this book, the personal and impersonal are intimately one and cannot be divided in this way. Division is the root of all suffering and conflict. On one level, this book is not necessary. You are already complete as you are. You are life itself and always have been. This is it—here and now! This moment is all there is, and it is complete in itself. There is nothing else to do. Congratulations! You can put down this book and have a cup of tea and a sandwich.
On another level, perhaps you don’t yet recognize that you are already complete. Perhaps beautiful, inspiring spiritual truths like “You are already complete” and “There is only Oneness” are still just beautiful, inspiring words and are not yet a living, experiential reality for you. Perhaps you are still battling with your feelings, with pain, with addiction, with relationship conflicts. Perhaps you are still looking for answers, looking for love, looking for approval, looking for enlightenment. Perhaps you are still waiting for peace, still longing to find a way to live in this world in a more grounded, loving, authentic way. Perhaps, even though you believe that you are not separate from life, you still feel separate from life.
Your suffering is not a curse, a punishment, an aberration, or a sign of your failure in any way. Suffering is always a great place to start exploring present experience. God knows, if I hadn’t suffered the way I did, I would never have begun questioning everything I knew and discovering freedom in everything I was at war with, in everything I tried to deny in myself.
I’m not promising you a special state or a special spiritual experience; I’ll leave that to the spiritual gurus. Besides, states and experiences come and go, and if we are truly interested in ending suffering, we must go beyond passing states and experiences, beyond spiritual highs, and discover something that doesn’t come and go. Something that’s always here. Something that’s here right now, but always seems to be ignored as we constantly pursue future experiences and long to return to past glories.
I don’t see myself as a spiritual or self-help guru; as a special, awakened, or enlightened being; or as fundamentally different from you in any way. I see myself more as a friend, gently pointing you back to who you really are, reminding you of what, deep down, you already know. I certainly don’t want you to simply believe everything I tell you. I want you to look for yourself, to test everything I say against your own experience. I am not an authority on life. (Who can be an authority on the birds singing, on the heart beating, on the rain falling, on this moment as it is?) But perhaps the words in this book will point you back to an awareness of what is really true in your experience right now. Perhaps they will point you back to a deep, all-pervading acceptance, ease, and rest at the heart of everything, which will take you beyond the need for any external authority and leave you standing free, like a tree in a storm, facing life head on, fully engaged with the realities and challenges of relative existence, but also grounded in the unshakeable certainty of who you really are, deeply rooted in a knowing that will never die.
© 2012 Jeff Foster
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
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