following is an arrangement of sentences and passages that I wish I’d written,
pieced together into a narrative on life, death, spirituality and connection. They come from books that I love, written by
authors that I revere. Hopefully certain passages will lead you to a new book to put on your list. All books are listed at the end of the post. The quotes are almost
entirely direct, with a few small adjustments indicated by brackets.
Who are we—mites in a moment’s mist—that we should understand
the universe? The universe is one vast, restless, ceaseless becoming. Simply knowing there is something unknown
beyond [our] reach makes [us] acutely restless. [We] have to see what lies
outside – if only, as Mallory said of Everest, “because it’s there.” This is
true of adventurers of every kind, but especially of those who seek to explore
not mountains or jungles but consciousness itself: whose real drive, we might
say, is not so much to know the unknown as to know the knower.
I’m not really having an
existential crisis, if that’s what you’re worried about. No doubt you still
feel pretty much in control of your brain, in charge, and calling all the
shots. You will still feel that someone, you, is in there making the decisions
and pulling the levers. This is the homuncular problem we can’t seem to shake:
The idea that a person, a little man, a spirit, someone is in charge. Even
those of us who know all the data, who know that it has got to work some other
way, we still have this overwhelming sense of being at the controls. For all intents and purposes, a conductor is
now leading the orchestra, although the performance has created the
conductor—the self—not the other way around. The conductor is cobbled together
by feelings and by a narrative brain device, although this fact does not make
the conductor any less real. The conductor undeniably exists in our minds, and
nothing is gained by dismissing it as an illusion.
Nothing places the
question “Who am I?” in such stark relief as the fact of death. What dies? What
is left? Are we here merely to be torn away from everyone, and everyone from
us? And what, if anything, can we do about death – now, while we are still
alive? Most social life seems a conspiracy to discourage us from thinking of
these questions. But there is a rare type for whom death is present every
moment, putting his grim question mark to every aspect of life, and that person
cannot rest without some answers.
Death: the ultimate frontier. “The
quick chaotic bundling of a man into eternity,” as Melville called it; the last
impossible phase shift from being a person to being nothing at all. Even with my lifelong meditation on death, my existence had
still seemed something permanent and stable on the planet Earth—something
dependable, like igneous rock…Atheism seemed like a pretty cruel thing to do to
myself. I begged my brain to reconsider. I thought: Won’t I survive somewhere,
in some form? Can I believe it? Please? Pretty please can I believe in the
everlasting soul? In heaven or angels or paradise with sixteen beautiful
virgins waiting for me? Pretty please can I believe that? Look, I don’t even
need the sixteen beautiful virgins. There could be just one woman, old and
ugly, and she doesn’t even have to be a virgin, she could be the town bike of
the ever-after. In fact, there could be no women at all, and it doesn’t have to
be paradise, it could be a wasteland—hell, it could even be hell, because while
suffering the torments of a lake of fire, at least I’d be around to yell
“Ouch!” Could I believe in that, please?
Dreams are real as long as they last.
Can we say more of life?
The word “religion” comes from the Latin for “binding
together,” to connect that which has been sundered apart. It’s a very
interesting concept. And in this sense of seeking the deepest interrelations
among things that superficially appear to be sundered. [But]
this feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in
flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living
organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of
it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual
is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total
universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced
by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense
or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside
bags of skin.
It’s as if we live at the edge of a
waterfall, with each moment rushing at us—experienced only and always now at
the lip—and then zip, it’s over the edge and gone. But the brain is forever
clutching at what has just surged by.
[The] wider field of consciousness is our
native land. We are not cabin-dwellers, born to a life cramped and confined; we
are meant to explore, to seek, to push the limits of our potential as human
beings. The world of the senses is just a base camp: we are meant to be as much
at home in consciousness as in the world of physical reality. This is a message
that thrills men and women in every age and culture. I use one central metaphor for conscious
experience: the “Ego Tunnel.” Conscious experience is like a tunnel. Modern
neuroscience has demonstrated that the content of our conscious experience is
not only an internal construct but also an extremely selective way of
representing information. This is why it is a tunnel: What we see and hear, or
what we feel and smell and taste, is only a small fraction of what actually
exists out there. Our conscious model of reality is a low-dimensional projection
of the inconceivably richer physical reality surrounding and sustaining us. Our
sensory organs are limited: They evolved for reasons of survival, not for
depicting the enormous wealth and richness of reality in all its unfathomable
depth. Therefore, the ongoing process of conscious experience is not so much an
image of reality as a tunnel through reality.
The sole means now for the saving of the beings of the planet
Earth would be to implant again into their presences a new organ … of
such properties that every one of these unfortunates during the process of
existence should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his
own death as well as the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention
rests. Only such a sensation and such a cognizance can now destroy the egoism
completely crystallized in them. As we now regard death this reads like a
prescription for a nightmare. But the constant awareness of death shows the
world to be as flowing and diaphanous as the filmy patterns of blue smoke in
the air. May we light the fire of Nachiketa That burns out the ego and
enables us to pass from fearful fragmentation to fearless fullness in the
changeless whole. Most of our troubles stem from attachment to
things that we mistakenly see as permanent.
Love and compassion are what we must
strive to cultivate in ourselves, extending their present boundaries all the
way to limitlessness.
Damyata datta dayadhvam, “Be
self-controlled, give, be compassionate..” The joy of the spirit ever abides, but not
what seems pleasant to the senses. Both these, differing in their purpose,
prompt us to action. All is well for those who choose the joy of the spirit,
but they miss the goal of life who prefer the pleasant. Perennial joy or
passing pleasure? This is the choice one is to make always. Those who are wise
recognize this, but not the ignorant.
Those who see all creatures in themselves and themselves in all creatures know
no fear. Those who see all creatures in
themselves and themselves in all creatures know no grief. How can the
multiplicity of life delude the one who sees its unity?
The faculty of
voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very
root of judgment, character and will. An education which should include this
faculty would be the education par excellence.
Ancient Pali texts liken meditation to the process of taming a wild
elephant. The procedure in those days was to tie a newly captured animal to a
post with a good strong rope. When you do this, the elephant is not happy. He
screams and tramples and pulls against the rope for days. Finally it sinks
through his skull that he can’t get away, and he settles down. At this point
you can begin to feed him and to handle him with some measure of safety.
Eventually you can dispense with the rope and post altogether and train your
elephant for various tasks. Now you’ve got a tamed elephant that can be put to
useful work. In this analogy the wild elephant is your wildly active mind, the
rope is mindfulness, and the post is your object of meditation, your breathing.
The tamed elephant who emerges from this process is a well-trained,
concentrated mind that can then be used for the exceedingly tough job of
piercing the layers of illusion that obscure reality. Meditation tames the mind.
Above the senses is the mind, above the mind is the intellect, above that Is the ego, and above the ego is the unmanifested Cause. And beyond is Brahman [the Self], omnipresent, attributeless. Beyond the reach of the
senses is [the Self], but not beyond the reach of a mind stilled through the
practice of deep meditation. Beyond the
reach of words and works is he, but not beyond the reach of a pure heart freed
from the sway of the senses.
Those who realize the Self enter into
the peace that brings complete self-control and perfect patience. They see
themselves in everyone and everyone in themselves. Evil cannot overcome them
because they overcome all evil. Sin cannot consume them because they consume
all sin. Free from evil, free from sin and doubt. When all desires that surge in the heart are
renounced, the mortal becomes immortal. When all the knots that strangle the
heart are loosened, the mortal becomes immortal.
As rivers lose their private name and form when
they reach the sea, so that people speak of the sea alone, so [the separate self]
disappears when the Self is realized. Then there is no more name and form for
us, and we attain immortality.
As a heavily laden cart
creaks as it moves along, the body groans under its burden when a person is
about to die. When the body grows weak
through old age or illness, the Self separates himself as a mango or fig or
banyan fruit frees itself from the stalk, and returns the way he came to begin
another life. Thou hast
existed as a part, thou shalt disappear in that which produced thee. . . .
This, too, nature wills. . . . Pass, then, through this little space of time
comfortably to nature, and end thy journey in content, just as an olive falls
when it is ripe, blessing the nature that produced it, and thanking the tree on
which it grew.
As a lump of salt thrown in water dissolves and
cannot be taken out again, though wherever we taste the water it is salty, even
so, beloved, the separate self dissolves in the sea of pure consciousness,
infinite and immortal. Separateness arises from identifying the Self with the
body, which is made up of the elements; when this physical identification
dissolves, there can be no more separate self.
The Self in man and in the
sun are one. Those who understand this see through the world and go beyond the
various sheaths of being to realize the unity of life. Those who realize that
all life is one are at home everywhere and see themselves in all beings. They
sing in wonder: “I am the food of life, I am, I am; I eat the food of life, I
eat, I eat. I link food and water, I link, I link. I am the first-born in the
universe; Older than the gods, I am immortal. Who shares food with the hungry
protects me; who shares not with them is consumed by me. I am this world and I
consume this world. They who understand this understand life.” This is the
Upanishad, the secret teaching.