I possess poor skills in predicting what will alter my view, what will awaken my heart, what will touch my soul, and what will potentially transform my life. Some ‘significant’ events (such as births, deaths, marriages, divorces) have not affected me that much; whereas some ‘inconsequential’ occurrences (perhaps a bird flying overhead, or a small child smiling at me in the grocery store) have opened my eyes/mind/heart to a completely new way of understanding and relating to the world.
One of these seemingly-insignificant-yet-truly-transformative events occurred two days ago. I was on a walk, listening to a talk given by a Buddhist monk. About a quarter of the way into the talk, the monk described the subtle-yet-profound transformation a meditator undergoes when she experiences genuine impermanence (as opposed to experiencing ‘just’ rudimentary change). The monk analogized the difference this way: When a person experiences change, it’s like they are standing perpendicular to a busy road, and are watching all of the cars pass back and forth, back and forth. Rise and fall, come and go, here and not here. Comprehending this change is a critical understanding to have, but it’s incomplete. Impermanence is a deeper, more thorough experience. When a person experiences impermanence, it’s like they turn and are standing parallel to the same busy road; what they then see is traffic moving in one direction only. They see fall fall fall, go go go, not here not here not here. They don’t get the ‘comfort’ of seeing the rising, the coming, the here; they only experience the fear of the fall, the go, the not here. They don’t get to soothe themselves with the balm of arrival; instead, they have to confront the intense pain, sorrow, and terror of loss. And yet, once these individuals do fully accept and rest in the very real tragedy of impermanence, of experiencing that EVERYTHING in life is impermanent (even “me” [indeed, experiencing that there is no such thing as "me", that "the thing that knows" is no thing at all]), they will come to find that instead of dying, they are actually more alive than they have ever been. They are liberated. They are forever free.
This portion of the monk’s talk was literally less than three minutes long (if you’d like to listen for yourself, skip to minutes 19:00-21:40 here ) – and yet, it snapped me wide awake. At the end of those three minutes, something inside me truly shifted,and I felt the concepts of impermanence (‘anicca’) and no-self (‘annata’) at a much deeper level. And it was simultaneously amazing, awe-inducing, and terrifying.
This trio of altered perception stayed with me as I sat in meditation yesterday morning. For the first time ever, my meditation experience was relatively non-verbal. Instead of mentally labeling things as they occurred (“wind”, “bird”, “thought”, “pain”, “anxiety”, “back”, “breakfast”, “planning”, “returning”, etc. etc. etc.), I experienced them more at the pre-conceptual level. I heard the wind and the bird, but I didn’t need to name it as such – I just knew it. I felt the pain and the anxiety, but I didn’t need to categorize it as such – I just experienced it. I saw the mind planning and returning, but I didn’t need to call that out – I just observed it. It was a very slight shift, but it produced massive results. In being unburdened from the overlay of language, words, ideas, and concepts, and in being with only the essence of things as they were occurring, I felt a sense of true presence. I felt a sense of genuine, authentic, and profoundly honest well-being. I felt release. I felt free.
In being with things exactly as they really are, I was able to access and experience a part of my internal workings that I never even knew existed. In that awareness, I felt a deep part of me that is working and longing to let go; yet at the same time I felt myself fighting that release, because I felt a tremendous amount of fear in not knowing what would happen next if I allowed part of “me” (or all of “me”) to drop away. It was (and is) really interesting to feel so conflicted, to feel such disparate and opposing emotions literally simultaneously.
But. Yesterday morning I also got a very small taste of true liberation – and it hit me like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. It was so powerful, I spent the entire day in a mild state of genuine equanimity: it felt like I was floating while still being fully grounded; like I possessed a deep and stable self-confidence partnered with a genuine and authentic caring for the happiness of everyone around me; like I had full knowledge of the tasks and chores and responsibilities in my life, minus the planning and worry and anxiety that such full awareness can invoke in me.
Part of me has a primal urge to keep things exactly as they are, to stay comfortable in the realm of the predictable and known, to keep “me” safe and whole (i.e., to keep my ego in tact); but yesterday a teeny tiny spark waaaaayyyyy deep down flickered for a millisecond – and now that it has been ignited, it simply cannot be extinguished. To live for a day in the presence of a single drop of such profound peace was more tranquility than I have ever known; I can’t even fathom what living in a state of full freedom could possibly feel like. So while I’m genuinely terrified of what the process of liberation will entail, I also now know that I simply don’t have a choice in the matter – I now “know too much”. I know what it feels like to be genuinely happy and authentically free. And I really, really WANT it.
P.S. In this post I did my best to articulate and share what can only be truly understood through one’s own experience. I’m not sure how ‘successful’ I was in conveying what occurred to me over these past few days; but I hope I did a good enough job that when I read this post months or years from now, I am reminded of my momentary encounter with amazing freedom – and that it serves as all of the encouragement I need to continue on the path.