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Recent brain science and ancient spiritual practice reveal that the mind is wired to make heavens and hells moment after moment. We perceive and almost instantly we react, overlaying experience with a feeling tone—it is pleasant or unpleasant or neutral, worth grasping or pushing it away. These almost instantaneous primal judgments, evaluating all our experience in relation to ourselves, almost always make little hells of our endlessly changing experience—there an aspect of imbalance or unease imbedded in almost everything that happens—the food isn’t quite hot enough or too hot.
“Almost” is the key heaven. There is a tiny but real open space—a space of possibility–between perception and reaction. Noticing this open space—usually by turning the attention back to ourselves rather than to the object of our perception and (usually) our craving—brings a new possibility. It offers a path towards heaven instead of our usual, habitual hell.
It takes a long time to realize that the gate to a deeper, richer, higher, finer life—to paradise–swings inward. The kingdom of heaven, the farthest reaches of cosmos, the beating heart of life, is not “out there” somewhere—it isn’t in the South of France or Asia or anywhere but here—it is right here, within the experience of each of us. We don’t need special equipment to find it, no accelerator, no telescope, not even a better brain. We need a new kind effort and intention–not aimed at something big (and most of us pine for sizable accomplishments and things, book deals, deeds of sale, wedding rings). We need to aspire to something very small, to be willing to pause before we react, to be with our experience, to wait and see what arises.
This sounds like something an old rural person would do, not someone young and hip and urban. Decades ago, a wildly ambitious, glamorously urban college friend of mine jabbed a finger at me after a few cocktails: “Do you know what your problem is? You always hesitate. You always hesitate.” This criticism stung deeply. I wanted to be like my friend, wild and impulsive, a woman who went to Paris and Rome on a whim. I wanted to be a woman of daring, a woman of action—surely taking risks attracted the notice of the gods, drew down life. At last, however, I’ve come to see that hesitation can be daring. The right kind of hesitation—not over thinking but the opposite, daring to unclench the fist of thought, relinquishing whatever object is in its sweaty, insistent grasp—is a way of being brave, of daring to be vulnerable. Nobody can see what you are doing (this is the beauty of it) but for seconds at a time we can open up to the true wild, uncharted region of the present moment. Hesitation can be generous.
“In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear.”
Dante gave us an incomparable masterpiece about what it can mean to be lost, to perish, and what it can mean to find paradise. Yet it’s extraordinary to see how we can be lost in a moment, to be carried along passively, never guessing we miss as we went charging and lunging about. Paradise is waiting.
How to enter? (He who hesitates may not be lost.)