The Search for Nirvana
During a support group that Hillary and I gave not long ago, something struck me with full force while one of the participants was talking about pain. It made me think about the ancient search for nirvana. In one moment, I remembered that "nirvana" translates literally as "no pain." In the next moment, I realized that, to the best of our ability, we have all already achieved nirvana. But not in the way we intended. This process of Waking Down is about finding our way home from that desert wasteland. Allow me to explain.
The quest for a painless existence must be as old as life itself. This messy, chaotic struggle for survival with the forces of nature and with our fellow creatures has been, for millennia, and for the most part, a horrific nightmare. For most of our time here on Earth, life has been an endless striving for nourishment, searching for mates, struggling to build a safe nest, dealing with raising and protecting our children, battling attackers, nursing wounds, writhing in the torture of disease, and, in general, resisting the apparently pointless crucifixion both of life and of death. In the midst of this, on the individual scale, the impulse to avoid pain is none other than the impulse to survive. On the global scale, this same evolutionary impulse unchecked has landed us in the current Age of the Hypermasculine. It is the age of dissociation, reaction, and aversion to all the pain of Being here in and as these vulnerable human bodies.
As a species, we have advanced our knowledge of the arts of healing in perfect step with progress in the sciences of weaponry, mass murder, and global environmental destruction. This seemingly endless nightmare of our existence has been referred to as the "wheel of birth and death", which the ancient seers have declared to be the essential problem. As they have seen it, the essential problem is that we are here. And the solution is to get out of here. Pictures of the escape routes are painted in rosy hues (transcendence, nirvana, going to heaven, some world of light, some asteroid, etc.), but to me its all the same. Still, I cant buy that we came here just to get wise enough to figure out that we should leave as fast as we can.
Its clear to me that our practically endless searches for physical freedom and comfort in the forms of food, clothing, shelter, transportation, political freedoms, and emotional support are an evolutionary necessity; we have been struggling to free up sufficient energy and attention so we can begin to notice Who and What we actually are. You and I and many others alive today are on the cutting edge of that investigation. We are among the first who have been granted, by the hard work and mortal sacrifices of our parents, our grandparents, and all who have gone before us, sufficient mental, physical, and emotional freedoms to conduct this investigation unhindered to permit its inevitable and devastating conclusion.
What is that conclusion? It seems to me that we are beginning to enter a period of The Rot (technical termread Saniel's book Waking Down)on a global scale. We are finally able to stop, take stock, and notice that, despite all the thousands of ways we have engineered our avoidance of discomfort, ITS NOT WORKING. Sure, parts of our civilization are working in some ways, some of the time. Here in the U.S., weve murdered enough of the indigenous people to insure a minimum of territory battles (thereby invoking plenty of extremely nasty karma). Weve killed enough of the wild, man-eating animals (and their environments, which we share) to reduce that threat to a minimum. Weve learned how to build reasonably safe, life-protecting houses (that kill too many life-bestowing trees and demolish the environments around them). Weve created magical steel boxes that rapidly transport us to other locations (while simultaneously stressing all life-support systems on the planet). And weve developed wonderful medical technologies (that statistically harm or kill over 50% of the people they intended to heal, but heckthats progress).
So how is this Global Rot? Were beginning to notice that, despite everything weve manifested for the sake of reducing pain, WERE STILL IN PAIN. Not only that, but the accumulating consequences of the devastation weve wreaked to get ourselves to this point is catching up with us. WERE IN A LOT OF PAIN AND (in many ways) ITS GETTING WORSE. Were sick and tired and numb and insane in our cozy cages, and were only just beginning to get it. What are we beginning to get? THERE IS NO ESCAPE FROM PAIN. NOT NOW, NOT EVER. This is the premise of my long-term work in progress, a book entitled "You are God, trapped in Hell."
So here we are, a generation of spiritual seekers, who grew up with an unquenchable aspiration for something called enlightenment, or nirvana. Many of us have given our lives for this purpose. We have given our time, our money, our energy, and our whole beings for this sacred purpose. Given all this, it is no wonder that, when faced with the promise of a radiant, happy, pain-free existence, many of us were (and still are) irresistibly seduced by the advertising.
Before I continue, let me state my conviction plainly: a permanent state of nirvana (happiness or pain-free existence) is impossible. Why? Because the only "thing" that can apprehend the constant change of relative, ever-changing creation is That Which Never Changes; That which is Conscious of all that is. In itself, that Absolute Consciousness is the only abiding Freedom; it is the painless, formless subject which experiences all objects, all forms, and all pain. So why not, as the ancient sages have proclaimed, simply realize your identity as That, and be forever happy and free? Well, the bad news is that You as Consciousness, being infinite and free, cannot help but apprehend EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE, no matter in what space, time, or dimension any drama is taking place. And every drama is itself an ever-changing sequence of moments in creation, containing both happiness AND sorrow, pleasure AND pain, life AND death. If Consciousness apprehends All, certainly it cant miss the down side of the equation. And if you succeed in finding a way to look on the sunny side for any period of time (be it moments or millennia), its a guarantee that a fuller realization must eventually dawn.
But most of us humans are not quite prepared to accept this. We have been engaged for God-knows-how-long in the practically endless escapes from our pain that can be boiled down to two basic approaches: 1) control of the Self (the experiencer), and 2) control over what appears to be Non-Self (the objects of experience, including body, mind, emotions, other beings, and the environment).
The most infamous attempts to control what appears to be non-Self have given us Hitler, Hiroshima, World Wars, the destruction of the rain forests and wetlands, the extinction of whole species, genocide, mutilation, repression, and domination over what turns out sooner or later to be parts of ourselves anyway. The most notorious attempts to control the Self (as well as that which feels so close to Self as to be mistaken for it, i.e., our bodies, minds, and emotions) have been enacted by the millions of seekers (us) who have undertaken, sometimes for many lifetimes, untold variations on yogic techniques designed to change the state of ones own consciousness by manipulating body, mind and emotions. The result (not the only result, but, I contend, the basic result) has been isolation, detachment, arrogance, and a chronic tendency to fix, change, manipulate, or transcend whatever just IS for the sake of gaining some much-desired peace of mind.
A more common approach to control of Self is appropriately called "self-control", and is advocated by practically everyone as a good way to avoid inflicting or experiencing pain. It amounts to consciously stopping yourself from doing or saying anything that might create pain for others or painful repercussions for yourself. As weve all experienced, the universal result of this fearful practice is the intense, deeply internalized pain of self-repression, along with an automatic impulse to reject others (in order to get even) or to clutch onto them (to avoid the pain of your own separation). I say that the result of self-control is a world of sleep-walking zombies where everyone is afraid of doing or saying just about anything that might piss somebody off. But when it comes right down to do-it-yourSelf-control, most folks opt for self-numbing through the usual escapes: alcohol, drugs in all forms (including food and the ways we eat too much or too little), sex, TV, isolation, overworking, not breathing, not moving, sleep, and, ultimately, death. (I am only referring to the ways we numb ourselves through these channels; I am not suggesting any of these are escapes in and of themselves.). It is my feeling sense that there is practically nobody alive who doesnt, at some deep subconscious level, hold this last escape (death) as the final "out", in case things get really bad.
So, I say that our attempts at achieving nirvana must inevitably fail. But what has been gained is, I feel, a most wonderful realization that Saniel has so eloquently articulated: There is a difference between necessary pain and unnecessary pain. When youre ready to give up your search for nirvana, youre ready to square off to your own pain and examine it closely. You get to see how much of your own life, your own BEING, can be liberated by ceasing to run from the necessary pain, and averting only that pain which is not necessary. Another way to put it, which may become the title for another of my works, is this: IT HURTS TO BE AWAKE.
The recognition of the hopeless inevitability of life in the eternal frustration of both change and non-change, of perpetual stress at the intersection of the Infinite and the Finite, is sobering, to say the least. But that very sobering, once permitted, catalyzes a complete transformation which, paradoxically, releases the startled realizer into full encounter with his or her own inherent divinity. Once the Hell of our situation is allowed, the grace of God dawns spontaneously. No longer avoiding the pain of being alive, we find ourselves released into the fullness of our Second Birth: awakened as both infinitely free, and mortally crucified in the limits of embodied existence. This is not the kind of nirvana we had hoped for when we read the advertising. But one thing is clear to me: in its advanced stages, the Second Birth is definitely a state of no bullshit. Ultimately (after the inevitable transfiguration has fundamentally run its course), there can be no posturing, pretending or avoiding here. There is only the stark and defenseless Reality of Who you Are, and of what is currently before you.
If its true that we are the Infinite, trapped in Limits, that we are God, trapped in Hell, then what is left to realize? What hope is there for a happy, meaningful life? And, whats the point? I say that whats left to realize is all the ways we have dissociated from ourselves, from each other, and from the nectar of Love-Trust that results from engaging in deeply feeling relationships lived in mutuality. I say there is tremendous hope for a meaningful life that is both happy and unhappy, and which isnt unduly crippled by our endless escapes from reality. I say that the point is to go forth in the journey of fully Being Who and What we Are, and to fully manifest in all dimensions what we are here to create. Let us use our newfound liberation to discover and to actually fulfill our uniquely individual, divinely human purpose. What forms will such fulfillment take? And what will we, as a culture of divinely human beings, create together in our awakened lives? I have no idea. But Ill bet its miraculous.
© 1998 Ted Nathan Strauss