So. I have been engaged in some very difficult work in the past couple of weeks. Facing, at long last, some of the deep, dark, smelly shit of my own creating. It very much has felt like falling into a pit of filth, but I think what my practice has allowed me to do is not just splash around, gasping and retching and casting about for anything, anything that would get me out of it, but to actually dive down to the very bottom of the pit, reach around for the drain plug, and yank it out.
Drain the pit.
Now I’m still sitting in a deep pit, covered in my own shit, but I feel like I’ve really done something.
And I know that it’s because of my practice that I’ve been able to make this profound shift in my approach. Practice is what actually led me to the edge of the pit, and then it shoved me in. And then it told me to relax, to not fight it, but to go deeper into it.
And it gave me the wisdom to go all the way down, despite the horror and revulsion and fear that completely overwhelmed me. And practice gave me the tools to actually pull the plug and drain the cesspool.
And now practice is going to throw down a towel for me to wipe my face with, and it’s going to reach down a hand and help me out of the now empty pit. Give me a shower and take me to a table piled high with abundant blessings, wrap me in a cashmere shawl and anoint my feet with oil.
And then it will lead me to the next pit and push me in again.
That’s the real path, brothers and sisters.
It’s not for the faint of heart.
But I got a real joy for it. I don’t know how to express what it’s like to do this, it’s absolutely the most difficult and profound work I’ve yet encountered. And I’m filled with love for it, I truly am.
I see how much I’ve cherished myself, how much I’ve given myself the benefit of the doubt, time and time again, when I’ve let others down, when I’ve failed to be a good man, a good husband, a good father, a good cop, a good human being. I always felt bad about my failures, yeah, but at the same time I secretly held the conviction deep in my own heart that I hadn’t really done anything wrong- that I had done the best I could under difficult circumstances, that there were other things going on, that I was having a bad day, that I didn’t really mean it, didn’t really mean to do it, it didn’t count- blah, blah, blah.
I might have hated myself, I mean, I said that all the time- but really?
I hated getting caught being myself.
And what this path is all about is coming to know yourself. What lies behind the lies you tell others, the lies you tell yourself? You know that mask you put on all the time, the many masks, really- the good friend, the kind stranger, the diligent employee, the thoughtful spouse, the caring parent- what happens when you drop all of those masks? Who is standing there naked and unprotected?
Who is that guy? What’s he all about?
Well, he’s a mess, is what. He’s confused about how things really are. He’s convinced that although he can see through the masks that others wear to protect themselves, no one can see through his. Of course, the truth is that everyone sees through our masks except us! They only hide us from ourselves, not from others.
It’s so embarrassing to realize this.
But if you have the tools that practice gives you, you learn to sit with this naked fool and get to know him. You really study how his mind works, and you see that it really is like the teachings say- he wants to be happy, but he doesn’t understand how things are, so he goes about it the wrong way, the way that leads, reliably and repeatedly, only to his own suffering, and of course, pain and suffering for others.
And you start to look deeply into that confusion and you find that there is another quality that lies beneath all of that confusion and suffering, something that seems to be a kind of basic goodness, a basic intelligence, something that isn’t really affected by the layers of pain and suffering and ignorance, the grasping and aversion.
And if you look really deeply, and keep looking, really probe and explore, you come to this understanding that the confusion and ignorance isn’t really yours in some personal way. It’s actually just the universal energy of those forces, or of those qualities. They exist and they manifest kind of continuously, they aren’t anything that you’ve created all by yourself. And the same thing is true for the basic goodness in you, you didn’t create that, either. They both kind of just exist as aspects of what you’re experiencing. So you can feel a kind of openness about them, a kind of relaxed approach to them can begin to take place in your mind.
And when you take away the masks, the various roles that ego plays, as some real and fundamental aspect of the self, and you take away the ignorance, grasping, and aversion that act as these obscuring veils over our basic goodness, you take them away as some real and fundamental aspect of the self, and then you take the next step and understand that the basic goodness exists independently of the self as well, then you’re left with all these things that clearly are not you, clearly are not the self in itself- but there’s also nothing left to point to as the self itself.
And this is where true freedom lies. This is where basic sanity begins. You may not be a Buddha yet, you may not be a Bodhisattva, a saint, or even a good person! But you understand a little bit now about how things really are, and you can begin to use this knowledge, this wisdom, and start to operate in a new way. Maybe cause less pain to yourself and others. Maybe expand your understanding of your own error to other people, open your eyes and your heart to the fact that everyone else has been engaged in the same mistake making process you’ve been so wrapped up in. And maybe that means that they aren’t so bad after all, that maybe they really are doing the best they can, and they don’t mean to harm themselves and to harm you. And maybe you can begin to cultivate some compassion, some real compassion, some real sense of sadness for their confusion, and of real hope for their eventual escape from that confusion. And maybe you decide you’d like to try to help.
So, that’s the process I’m going through at least. I share these thoughts with the prayer that they are of benefit to you in your own struggles. You are not alone. There’s nothing so intractable that we can’t work with it.
I am profoundly grateful to have found one big, nasty pit of my own ignorance and bad behavior and to have drained it at long last. I’m grateful for the suffering that led me to be willing to face anything, even my own lies, in order to stop it. I’m grateful to my teachers for undertaking their own spiritual paths and gaining the knowledge that they then have shared with me- going back all the way to the very first one who woke up to the way things really are. I’m grateful to everyone who shares this path with me, who wants my own success more than their own, who is willing to stand naked and unprotected, who is willing to do the difficult work of learning how to be a basically good human being.
And of course, I’m grateful to my long suffering wife, who has been the primary victim of my errors and confusion, the one I most often railed against when faced with my own real self, the one who loves me even though she knows me. I pray that she’ll benefit from this work most of all. She deserves to.
I pray that you are moved to look deeply into your own heart, and are inspired to find the courage to really see what’s there, to see both the confusion and the wisdom, and to work with what’s there as honestly as you are able to. And that you cast your love and compassion as widely as you can- to the very farthest reaches of the Universe.
We are all one.