A Story of You
Distractions abound in seemingly endless forms with every new gadget that gets released. It’s the same with each new must-see show or movie or snippet of data from the internet. Because of this, we are all unknowingly isolating ourselves from an already connection-starved world. It’s astonishing to see only the tops of most people’s heads as virtually everyone is buried in a screen of some kind. This can lead to all kinds of quiet desperation, as we wonder why we’re not happy, why the world can seem so oppressive, and why we don’t have the happiness that we know we deserve.
One of the reasons for this disconnect is because of this hard-to-grasp fact: Most of us live our entire lives from the outside in, instead of the inside out. Yet, to realize our own true nature from the outside is said to be impossible.
What does this mean?
In plain English, it simply means that most of what we decide is true about ourselves comes from the outside. A great number of us never learned how to fully trust our own hearts, which is the surest path to Enlightenment! In fact, most of us were conditioned out of what we knew to be true when we were children. That beautiful, unfettered mind we naturally possessed when we were kids is our True Mind. It’s our True Nature, and the purest expression of our humanness. The mind of a child may lack filters, but it also accepts every possibility as possible. We also know how to use our intuition, our imaginations, our keen sense of others’ feelings and emotions and states of being. Our very survival depended on it!
It’s one thing to tell ourselves that we are all connected or that we live life to love and to be loved. It’s another thing entirely to live that realization from our awakened, fully-formed selves, when we remember our True Nature, and also remember that everything we ever needed to live a fully-realized was always within us all along. Part of the reason so few of us remember that we are Enlightened from the day we’re born until the day we die is this one thing:
It takes great courage to sit with one self. Most avoid it at all costs!
Society does absolutely everything in its power to distract us. There are few things more powerful (and potentially more dangerous) than a fully-formed adult human who can see past the illusions of this reality and peer directly into our own soul, into our True Nature. Trusting our own hearts wholly and completely is what the very core of every spiritual tradition is about, including Zen Buddhism. What we find when we truly sit with ourselves, is the answer to our frustration, to our agitation, to our discontent; it’s that beautiful, completely connected Original Mind that has been buried under years of conditioning and distraction. It’s the place where genuine, unshakable happiness truly does exist.
Our True Nature
Our true nature is to naturally be at peace, to be one with god, the universe, our Divine Self (a state of non-duality). The root of all suffering actually is our separation from our original selves through life’s countless distractions. It’s why we feel this churning in our stomachs, it’s why we so desperately want to feel “home”, it’s why we quietly suffer through our days, even our happiest ones. We’re all becoming experts at convincing ourselves that we’re happy because of the enormous pressure from the world around us to shut up and be satisfied with what we have. Who are we to want more? I say; who are we NOT to want more?
If you feel that you’re happy and nothing needs fixing in your life or your spirit, let’s take a “pop quiz” to find out. My favorite personal “pop quiz” to see if I am living authentically, is to observe my reaction to negative feedback. If someone cuts me off in traffic, if someone tells me that my anger often seems inappropriate for the situation, or if I’m told that I’m being stubborn, that I’m not listening, that I’m not “hearing” someone of the feelings they’re trying to express or whatever else it might be — if my initial reaction is anger, I know that I am living in-authentically, from the outside in, from my false self, from my immature-self.
The beautiful thing about this pop quiz is that it’s infallible; it never produces anything but a true result, no matter how much I remain convinced that the root of that initial anger is anywhere other than outside of my own self. When I am actually living my life without fear, trusting wholly and completely the person I know myself to be, by default, I will then be living at one with the present moment and in perfect harmony with the whole of the Universe. Seriously. And without fail.
Every great spiritual teacher spoke of this connection with the whole of the Universe in different words; whether it’s the teachings of Buddha, Krishna, Lao Tzu, or even (and especially for us Westerners), the esoteric teachings of Jesus that became buried and obscured over time. Rumi, a great sufi master spoke of this state through countless poems I personally find inexplicably beautiful. Joseph Campbell, an accomplished academic and expert on mythologies spoke of this state of non-duality throughout his career via simple translations of the myths most of us pay attention to only in passing. He spoke of one called “The Hero’s Journey,” which explains through metaphor, the difficult path of learning to remember our true nature, our Original Self, and our natural state of non-duality with our own personal Divine. It’s not an easy path, nor is it a path many people have the courage, strength, opportunity, or determination to pursue.
But it’s the path that is the very essence of the human experience and why we’re all here.
Seemingly worse yet, though, before any of us can fully understand and appreciate truly being in only the present moment or existing in a state of non-duality, we absolutely, without exception, need to have a healthy mind first. This is a detail that I would learn the hard way after many years of searching for something I not only already had, but didn’t realize I couldn’t fully integrate and understand because my dysfunctional mind would continually obscure the truth and thwart even my most sincere and determined efforts. (I explain this in vivid detail in my “Healthy Mind Before Zen Mind” article.)
When I first experienced my True Self, when I awoke to my Divine Nature, to my Buddha Self in the late 1990’s (my actual first out of body experience was as a boy in the dentist’s office), I couldn’t figure out why my external life wasn’t transformed by this ineffable experience. I thought that by simply knowing that there’s far more to these lives than I had been taught, that by experiencing, first-hand, the realm of the Divine by somehow slipping through the cracks to witness my own Divine Nature before I was ready, that my life would instantly transform, that my suffering would cease, and I would somehow physically glow so brightly that everyone around me couldn’t help noticing.
No such luck.
The Beginning of the End
So, I did what I always did; I started to research. (My research resembles inhaling more than researching, but I do manage to cover a vast amount of ground, for whatever that’s worth.) My research began with the history of my own religion (Roman Catholicism), to the root of spirituality, to shamanism and entheogens, to trips to strange and exotic places around the world to “live” those strange and wonderful things I read about, even venturing into the deepest parts of the Peruvian Amazon where I thought I could find whatever secret piece of the puzzle I was missing. I started websites, wrote articles, continued to inhale books at an alarming rate, reading (and often suffering through) the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Book of the Dead, and any other sacred scripture I could get my hands on. I researched every pathway others seem to have found to the Divine that might glean what it was I didn’t get, why I had an undeniably ineffable and rapturous experience, yet didn’t feel any differently at the end of the day.
As a result, the life I have lived up until this moment has cut a complicated swath, riddled with and equal number of joys as dead ends that have left more for me to now untangle from than I ever imagined it possible to have created in the first place. Fear is an extremely powerful motivator, but so is the powerful and enticing goal of my thinking mind working to distract me from my true nature for a great number of years. The world I managed to create around myself is overwhelming to even me at the moment, yet I was so convinced that the world I clung so tightly to, often so desperately to, was an expression of my true self. It was an expression of my own dysfunction and undeniable evidence that I was clinging to a false version of who I was so vehemently convinced I was.
But why might my rational, thinking mind might do this to me?
Not Good Enough
In overly simplistic terms, I was taught from an early age that who I was wasn’t good enough, smart enough, or worthy of loving or being loved. To shield me from ever having to sit with my true self (which I was convinced would be a terrifying, empty place), I lived my life in “fight or flight” mode, on constant alert, doing whatever it took to ensure my only goal; to never be alone. My childhood coping mechanism is called “People Pleaser Syndrome” and it has provided endless challenges to living a healthy, happy life. I’d find myself in relationships that fit into that mechanism, never understanding that no one I was ever involved with could ever have been anything other than an exact mirror of my own self, of my own issues, and of my at least as equally inauthentic self.
So, no matter how hard I tried, no matter how many hours a day I spent reading books on spirituality, no matter how many trips I made to see gurus and shaman and mystics across the globe, I was missing the only element I ever truly needed to awaken: a healthy mind, free from dysfunction, capable of living fully and completely from my fully-formed adult self in the present moment, truly free of fear, past trauma, and future thinking.
Years of difficult, often grueling work on myself, with vastly less focus on my external obsession with “finding Enlightenment,” eventually peeled away enough layers of the onion to show me a stark truth I and most people I have ever known deny: Our lives are guided by our immature, traumatized, indoctrinated, often-brainwashed, often-abused boy and girl selves and not the fully-formed, emotionally present man or woman selves that help us to be in a position to recognize our true nature. We need to know how to live life through the eyes of an adult before we can free ourselves to safely look wide-eyed at the world once again as we all did by default as children. But it comes at a price most are unwilling to pay.
The good news is that anyone who puts effort into remembering their own truth can transform their reality into one of absolute authenticity.
But it’s a difficult path. It’s a lonely path. And it requires great courage from places I never knew existed within me. But to anyone who chooses this difficult path: The rewards are far greater than I could ever hope to explain or share, but can only be found when ones ceases to look or anticipate any result. With the perseverance to remain only in the present moment, a life lived truly fearlessly becomes the only way live. My informal but determined and often seemingly fruitless meditation practice of almost 20 years has culminated in a spiritual awakening that has left me with no choice except the path I am now on. As grateful as I am for every one of the moments I’ve lived, most of my online world, my 100+ websites and multiple careers are distractions from a life I used to live.
Searching in Vain
Creating real space for me, continuing to organize many thousands of pages of journal entries, detailed meditation work, and detailed documentation of spiritual explorations that took me down often fruitless (but stunningly beautiful) paths in Cambodia, Tibet, Nepal, Zen Centers of California, temples in New York, deep into the Peruvian Amazon, almost on camel back in Algiers and many other places in search of something that was within me all along has made the 80+ hours per week I spent focused on my career seem like part-time practice. This extraction of my journey may take shape (or might not) from this page outward, as I presently plan to distill over 20 years of the most personally effective tools, teachers, books, and techniques that has led me to this moment; to this glimpse of what it’s like to live in the eternal now, egoless, fully awake, aware, and ready to finally become a true student with an true spiritual practice.
Oddly enough, in the many hundreds of articles I’ve written online, rarely have I written about my own personal journey to health and to spiritual awakening. I no longer live in fear of what others might think of me, and no longer have a desire to accomplish anything out of fear. Shockingly, never have I felt physically healthier in my life as a tangible transformation has literally erased the aches and pains and complaints from my physical body, and the emotional trauma of living a fear-based life has been replaced by an often gentle bubbling of joy that can only be described as a combination of that initial rush in the first moments of a roller coaster ride, and a tangible joy that manifests as an almost constant smile, and a deeply sincere interest and reverence for every living creature.
When exploring every major spiritual philosophy and religion, I did remain mindful of one key guiding fact: Religion is everywhere, belonging to no one and to each one of us, despite what we’ve all been led to believe. In all of my reading and researching, I felt that”The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho and “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse captured the essence of my own spiritual journey, yet it wasn’t until recently that I found a framework, name, or context for the spiritual practice described in those pages. Buddhism never resonated with me, nor did any specific spiritual practice, partly because of the rigors associated with virtually all of them. It wasn’t until I discovered Zen after working from a healthy, fully-formed adult mind that all the pieces finally fell into place. It was an audiobook by Jakusho Kwong-roshi called “Breath Sweeps Mind” that I discovered only recently.
Remembering Our True Nature
Of the few things I do know, there is complete sincerity of my practice and I recognize my own internal Divine Nature. The whole of my practice consists of my imperturbable composure during my meditation, working to accomplish nothing, except fully recognizing and being in only the present moment. I know, without question or doubt, one ineffable truth I am a temporal embodiment of the truth. I know I have experienced a state of “oneness” with god, where I not only had no body, but I could barely remember that I ever had a body or took human form, where time was no longer linear, and I felt completely, utterly connected to the whole of the Universe. My desire has never changed; to shine as brightly as I can while doing my small part to perhaps help have a positive impact along my journey.
Little did I know that all of these things seem to be most in alignment with the Zen philosophy. They also seemed to be aligned with the Hero’s Journey that Joseph Campbell spent a lifetime teaching about. Perhaps even most perplexingly; it also identically followed my path of therapy with the person who became a spiritual guru of sorts for me; Hanalei Vierra, PhD.
Shunryu Suzuki-roshi says this: “Zen is based on our actual nature, on our true mind as expressed and realized in practice. Zen does not depend on a particular teaching, nor does it substitute teaching for practice. We practice zazen to express our true nature, not to attain enlightenment.” (Zazen is simply sitting meditation without any goal or expectation other than to simply to truly be in the present moment.)
Translator, poet, and author Peter Levitt describes his version of this ineffable state in terms of his personal spiritual choice; Zen Buddhism, but it applies to any non-institutional religious system that is based in non-duality; “True Zen masters (which is every one of us when we remember the Oneness of all things) live through and through. You can see it in the way they pour tea, place their shoes together outside the meditation hall, walk down the road. You can feel the presence of their intimacy with all things in their undivided way of engaging with any activity their daily lives may bring. There is a vitality in their manner of speaking and in their gestures, no matter how small, that makes it seem the whole of life has just entered the room. And it has. Jakusho Kwong-roshi says this is Zen. It is not something special, to be found exclusively in the meditation hall, but rather it is the aliveness we bring to our everyday lives, the aliveness that is already present within every one of us waiting to emerge.”
But any of these things were said in slightly different words by all of the spiritual leaders of the world, across any philosophy or religious system. It’s the esoteric knowledge that has become buried within the original intent of most of these religious systems of philosophies that have led so many, including myself astray. Despite such an interconnected world, it’s our growing disconnect with each other, nature, and the Divine that has so many of us feeling unfulfilled, dissatisfied, impatient, and lost that has more looking for personal meaning and meaningful spirituality in their lives than ever before.
If nothing else, as I said, Zen gives me a framework, names, and a context for the practice I’ve been blindly doing for longer than I can remember. And, any words I put here are little more than personal motivation to remain mindful, and perhaps sort out the mountains of information I’ve now accumulated, to pare it down into the moments I can carry with me from day to day, and see what it all looks like. It probably looks a whole lot like me.
Lastly, a few who have known me more than a few years have said that I seem “so different” from the person I was even just 1 or 2 years ago. The inevitable question then is what I’ve learned and how do I know I’ve found what it was I thought I had lost, but realized I had the entire time?
What I Have Found
In all honesty, I haven’t learned or found anything. I finally simply remembered that there isn’t anything to learn or to find. If there was something to learn, then it would be a simple matter of study to “attain” what it was I needed. But to be fully present in this moment is far more difficult because it requires remembering my own true nature which, by default, requires me to first know my own truth so intimately that I become the embodiment that truth in every moment I’m alive. It’s a constant unfolding now, as it’s effused the whole of my personal world and reality.
All the studying in the world was of no use to me. And, I finally realized that in the 47 years Buddha was teaching, he didn’t once impart even a single shred of wisdom to anyone. I discovered that even though I thought I was tasting my morning tea, reading a few pages of a book, listening to a friend talk about their day ahead; I wasn’t actually tasting, reading, or listening at all. How could I? The weight of my own illusions weighed so heavy on me that there was no way for me to carry a single shred more. I’ve simply discovered the truth that I have carried with me since I was born and will die with. In that is liberation from illusion and a rare chance to live a life truly alive, awake, and fearlessly, as I clarify and embody that truth from this moment forward.
– Keith Cleversley, PRESENT MOMENT