We think we are our thoughts. We call our thoughts “I.” In letting go of thought, we go beyond ourselves, beyond who we imagine we are. Behind the restless movement of the mind is the stillness of being, the stillness that has no name, no reputation, nothing to protect. It is the natural mind.
Focusing attention on the sensations in the heart center, we notice each flicker of the mind’s contractions, the momentary stagnation we think of so much as “I.” Each contraction in the mind, each feeling and thought is felt like a shadow crossing the heart; each time the mind draws attention to itself, it reminds us to let go lightly of what obstructs our connectedness with our underlying nature. Then each previously threatening state of mind, so often thought of as the enemy, becomes an ally. Each fluctuation of the heart reminds us to let go gently into yet a deeper level of being. When the mind becomes full with itself, its denseness is so obvious it causes us to recall the freedom glowing in the heart, and we open into it. Then the heavier the emotion, the more intense the self-interest and confusion, the more these states become teachings that remind us that we are not these painful densities (painful because we fear and resist them, dense because they coagulate the flow), that we are rather the light that shines beyond. Even the thinnest sheet of tinfoil held before your eyes can block the warmth and light of the immensity of the sun.
Sufi teacher Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan said: “Overcome any bitterness that may have come because you were not up to the magnitude of the pain that was entrusted to you. Like the mother of the world who carries the pain of the world in her heart, each of us is part of her heart and therefore endowed with a certain measure of cosmic pain. You are sharing in the totality of that pain. You are called upon to meet it in joy instead of self-pity. The secret: offer your heart as a vehicle to transform cosmic suffering into joy.”
We have pushed so much of our life away, held it captive so deep within us that when we begin to let go, we notice how much our expectations, concepts, and preconceptions have limited our experience. As the self-protection of the mind is no longer encouraged, we begin to see all that we have suppressed come into consciousness once again. All these old holdings rise once again into awareness. But the priority has changed. We are no longer trying to create someone or something of “value” out of this constant, changing flow of mind. We are instead attempting to investigate the truth. In this investigation no state of mind is preferable to any other. Only the clarity of seeing is of importance. It is not what is seen so much as how clearly it is perceived. Then the investigation becomes: What is the truth? Who am I really? What is it that I call “I”? What dies? Am I these thoughts? Am I this mind? Am I this body?
The more we allow the mind to exist within clarity and compassion, the less we are tempted to call any fleeting moment “I.” The less we are lost in identification with the superficiality of “I am this or that,” the more we experience just consciousness itself, no longer so distraught with its contents or clinging desperately to its joys. We experience just the spacious stillness of being, without any need to define who it is that is being. Or perhaps, more accurately, what is being. Though the mind may scramble for a dozen definitions and limitations, the experience itself is limitless. And the small mind is seen floating within the vastness.
Then one day there comes a moment when you’re angry and all of a sudden you recognize anger. And you open to it in investigation: “What is it to be angry? How does it feel in my body? What does my mind do?” And, settling back into a chair and closing our eyes, we begin to move toward that which blocks the heart, instead of pulling away from it and allowing it to mechanically close us to a fuller experience of the present. Examining anger or fear or guilt or doubt, we begin to see the impersonality of what seemed so much to be “I.” We see that the mind has a mind of its own — that anger and fear and all these states of mind have their own personality, their own momentum. And we notice that it is not “I” that wishes to do harm to another but that the state of mind we call “anger” is by its nature aggressive and often wishes to insult or humiliate its object. We watch the fantasized conversations and arguments of the mind, the shadowboxing that has so often left us breathless and alone, and at last we begin to relinquish our suffering.
Then we begin not to cling to states of mind that barricade the wisdom of the heart. Once again love and trust open between beings. Then all that previously kept us isolated in the mind — our doubt and anger and fear acting like watchdogs that warned of the threatening approach of others — becomes a reminder of the painfulness of not loving and becomes a means of opening to, rather than withdrawing from, life. We see how our fear of, and identification with, the ramblings of the mind have made life shallow. We begin gently letting go of all that rises into awareness. We just let the mind be, without closing in judgment, and begin to recognize the ongoing process of arising and dissolution in the mind. In recognizing the impermanence of each thought, each feeling, each moment of experience, we come to see there is nothing we can hold to that will give us lasting satisfaction. There is no place we can solidly plant our feet and say, “This is who I am.” It is a constantly changing flow in which, moment to moment, who we think we are is born and dies. All that we would project ourselves as being is seen as transient and essentially empty of any abiding entity. There is no person in there; there is just process. Who we think we are is just another bubble in the stream. And the awareness that illuminates this process is seen for the light it is. We begin to give up identification with the mind as “I” and become the pure light of awareness, the namelessness of being.
The body dies; the mind is constantly changing. But somehow, behind it all, there is a presence, called by some “the deathless,” that is unchanging, that simply is as it is.
To become fully born is to touch this deathlessness: to experience, even for a moment, the spaciousness that goes beyond birth and death; to emerge into a world of paradox and mystery with no weapons but awareness and love.
Excerpted from Who Dies?: An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying by Stephen and Ondrea Levine, copyright © 1982 by Stephen Levine. Used by permission of Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved.