By John Lee Pendall
There’s life, and then there are the stories we tell ourselves about our lives.
I’m standing outback, the weight of weeks still clogging my mind. Then I pause and stare at the sunlight cascading across the field, following its trail as it spills out and gathers in pools along the driveway. Birdsong echoes through the morning light, and I feel the day’s rising warmth on my skin. My feet hug the ground as I slowly pace the pavement.
“It’s all bullshit, ya know?” I think to myself. “This is what’s real. So much more real than narratives, memories, and expectations. Come back to it, to the ground. This is home.” I take a deep breath, concentrating, and on the exhale, the weight falls off, dissolves. I smile. Relieved.
It’s so easy to get lost in thought, but there’s only unhappiness down that road. And it only stops if you stop it.
You can spend a lifetime never knowing the present moment, but relief can only ever be found in the here and now, in the raw sensations that make up our lives. Everything else is something extra, and the more extra that extra is, the more we suffer.
We live tangled up in stories, lost in personal dramas, comedies, romances, thrillers and nightmares. We usually cycle through the whole list of genres each day. And with each person, place, or thing we encounter, there’s another story. For everyone we love and hate, for every duty we have, we become a different character. Somehow, we manage to tie this all together into a single autobiography that seems to make sense. But, if it was true to life, it’d be 20,000 pages of word salad.
My cat doesn’t have this problem, and she generally seems much happier than I am. She lives in the moment; she doesn’t have any other choice. This is who we are as well, beneath the narratives. We’re always living in the moment, we just aren’t typically aware that we are.
Life is actually quite simple. We live awash in sensation, in contact. The body-mind is like a book; the sensations, feelings and inclinations are like the ink scattered about the pages. Consciousness is like sight tracing the ink designs from left to right. Perception is what transforms those squiggles into words and, acting together, this process gives those words meaning.
As a species, we’re hopelessly addicted to meaning.
We fill everything up with meaning, and when the thing we’ve filled tips over—when our expectations aren’t met—we suffer. We suffer because of one fact: Life will never be like it is in the movies. Life isn’t a story, life is just a moment—a single transforming moment that the body, well, embodies.
Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and feeling, these are all so much more grounded than thoughts and memories. A lot of Buddhists have gotten lost in arguments about what’s real and what isn’t. That’s unhelpful. What can be helpful is discerning the reality of something by how many of the senses it engages. I can see a rose, touch it, smell it, taste it (if I really wanted to), think about it, and experience feelings based on it.
Now, when I go back in the house and then remember that rose, I’m only thinking and feeling, so that experience is a little more fictitious than the one that inspired it. Everything we experience has some reality to it, but the quantity of the senses involved influences the quality of the experience. The less quality an experience has, the less we can trust it to tell us what’s really going on.
So, when we ignore our senses, we start to live a kind of half-life, a kind of daydream that can last for decades. Even sleep is just a temporary break from it. If you’re mindful, you can see yourself grabbing yesterday’s thoughts and feelings and dragging them into the new morning.
It would be better if we just considered sleep to be death, and each morning we’re reborn as new people, if we just left yesterday with yesterday, because yesterday only exists in imagination—in thought.
Meditation, mindfulness, and not being an asshole can wrestle attention away from thinking and evenly distribute it among all of the senses. Many of us—when we plop down into our bodies, into the moment—feel like we’d just spent countless months or years asleep. It’s a beautiful experience, but also sad, and a little funny at times.
An Awakened Mind is a mind without stories—a mind that sees through its countless thoughts, habits, views, fears, hopes and desires and gets in touch with what’s actually happening: just this moment, this room, these sensations. A mind without stories isn’t a blank book, it’s a book that knows it’s a book. It’s a mind that sees the body as the body, thoughts as thoughts, feelings as feelings, desires as desires and sensation as sensation. It isn’t all bundled together anymore into a confusing mess.
A mind free of stories has the ability to control itself, to write itself.
Prior to that, we’re written on by everything and everyone else. We’re written on by our genes, our parents, friends, enemies, culture, the media, teachers and religions, and it goes on and on. We respond blindly to pain and pleasure. And when we take on too much, when we try to keep up with too many stories at the same time, we collapse, start to play all of our parts badly, including the roles that others have cast us in in their own tales.
Freeing the mind from all these stories isn’t about letting go because letting go is just another story.
Enlightenment is a story too, and a Buddha is just another character. We don’t need it, any of that stuff. It all just prompts more clinging and craving. All we need is just this moment. Beyond this moment, and disconnected from the senses, there’s only stress, sorrow, pain and madness because we’re placing attention in an abstract, hostile environment that it was never designed to dwell in.
So, it’s vital to step out of character every now and then, to get in touch with the senses, and rest in the moment. Ideally we could just spend our entire lives in such a state, but that is almost impossible.
All we can do is clear a little more sleep from eyes each time we wake up.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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