“When you can’t go up, down, or sideways, then practice really begins,” said the revered meditation master Ajahn Chah.
Life is challenging. Sometimes the demands on us are so great that we go into commando mode. We plot and plan and mentally rehearse the operations to be executed, the trips from here to there and back again. Like Navy Seals or ninjas, we maintain a positive attitude, a laser-like focus…and then…
And then something unexpected happens. A phone call or an email comes bearing news of a sudden and sometimes shocking change. More may be asked of us than we are used to giving. The situation may be so unknown and so fluid that we can be thrown for a loop, as the saying goes. We are pushed out of our comfort zone, out of the brain’s smoothly running default network, into a wilder loop. Fear and the ancient impulse to protect ourselves by fighting or fleeing or freezing can be triggered.
The moment before fear ignites, we can feel as if we are masters of life. We are sleek and nimble nijas, totally in control yet relaxed, open, and present. With our plans and self-image humming along in the background, we allow ourselves to feel the crisp fall air, see the beauty of the changing leaves, hear birds sing. We tell ourselves that life is good and we are good. Then comes the unexpected and possibly shocking news or demand. Instantly we contract, closing the doors and windows to intruders. Suddenly we are embattled little fortresses in a dark world.
Suddenly we are six or even three years old. In the grip of fear and uncertainty, the thinking and projecting grow as repetitive and relentless as a frantic child. We become very self-enclosed. We want to be tucked back into the default network. It isn’t comfortable wandering outside the loop of the known.
There is a powerful undertow to fear. There are stories to it, in every sense of the word. It pulls us down to our earliest memories, down toward the primal fear of death, and not just physical death. When life asks more of us than we think we can handle, it can feel like being trapped in the white glare of a searchlight. After all these years, the ego is busted for spinning the straw that we are into fake gold, for passing us off as competent and worthy when we are really trembling, vulnerable beings.
Here is a secret: under the mind that is freaking out, there another mind, a vastly more quiet and responsive mind. We find this deeper mind when we let go. Here is another secret: letting go can feel like garden variety giving up. Meditation (and prayer and spiritual practice) has been called death in life. We die into a greater life.
We need not be in a monastery or on a mountain top to experience this dying. Ordinary busy life offers us many opportunities to experience this dying in a small way. We fret and fret and fret about an event. Finally we get so tired of all the fretting and projection and tension that we just give up. At least for a moment or two, we die into the state Buddhists call non-self or emptiness. Other traditions may call it salvation or the quickening of the spirit or touching the higher Self. It is a state of great peace and simplicity. It is the state of slipping under the electrified fence of the ego. In such a state, we feel the crisp fall air and hear the birds without any background hum. We feel stillness. In such a state, we may find what we seek.
“All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming.” – Helen Keller
“The experience of Self is always a defeat for the ego.” – Carl Jung