In this blog, I want to offer a personal insight, one based in the tradition of yoga that I’ve been studying full-time for twenty years, but crystallized and refined in deep inner contemplation over the last few years. It seems to me that this particular insight, when grasped, can be a game-changer in the spiritual life. Like all profound truths, on the one hand it’s very simple, and on the other, its ramifications, if explored, can rock your world.
First a few sentences of context. In yoga philosophy, we find a basic distinction between the body-mind (the realm of prakṛti) and our deepest nature, our fundamental being, our inner divinity if you will ~ the deathless transpersonal power of awareness itself (called variously svarūpa, svabhāva, ātman, cit, etc.). Patañjali (author of the Yoga-sūtra) and other sages argue that nearly all our suffering comes from not understanding the respective natures of the body-mind and our innermost being, and falsely attributing qualities of one to the other. We tend to seek a self, an abiding center, where it can’t be found, identifying ourselves with what we fundamentally aren’t — that is, with the contents of awareness (such as thought, feeling, and bodily sensation) instead of with awareness itself, the inner Knower.
Here, then, is the basic proposition I want to offer you. Though it’s something I’ve personally realized, here it’s stated in the second person, to be more impactful:
You can gain insight into the difference between who you think you are and who you really are by comparing what you think you want with what is — because who you really are always wants ‘what is’ in any given circumstance. Your essence-nature is always in love with reality — it gives itself unconditionally to what is, to the reality of the present moment, however wondrous, dull, or horrific the mind judges it to be. You may not be in touch with your essence-nature, but it’s always there, and always gently, unconditionally, lovingly, giving itself to the reality of whatever’s happening.
Let’s explore how desire operates on these two different levels of your being. The body-mind nearly always wants something that is not currently happening — ranging from desiring a slightly different temperature to longing for a different job or living situation. Your essence-nature, on the other hand, wants what is happening, is in love with what is happening, gives itself to what is happening — it doesn’t even have the capacity to want anything different from what is happening.* Therefore, if the body-mind aspect of you is currently wanting something it doesn’t have, your essence-nature is simply enjoying the experience of wanting. Since it wants what is, if the body-mind is currently wanting, then essence-nature wants to want; it is content with wanting.
The point here is that on the spiritual path you don’t actually need to get rid of desire or pretend you're okay with something that you're not. Instead of trying to persuade the body-mind that it doesn’t want what it thinks it wants, we engage in spiritual practice in order to access a level of being where we already are totally content with what is ~ a level on which we feel “all is well, all is well, all manner of things are well,”** including even wanting, grieving, and pain. Pain becomes a thing of sharp beauty when seen in the light of our real nature.
This is not what our minds are programmed to believe, clearly. The mind believes that getting what it wants is the best thing that could possibly happen — that getting what it (thinks it) wants is the Royal Road to Happiness. By contrast, essence-nature knows that it doesn’t know what the best outcome would be, and it further knows, or rather nonconceptually intuits, that there is no path or trajectory that leads to happiness; that the accumulation of advantages or desired experiences doesn’t actually lead anywhere in particular; and that real joy and contentment comes only from relaxing into your true self, which means relaxing into your natural ability to be with what is.
Having learned the teaching that the goal of the spiritual life is full surrender and openness to reality, I used to feel horrible about myself for resisting reality. Any state of nonacceptance was made more unpleasant by beating myself up for not accepting things as they are! So it was a game-changer when I realized that true acceptance includes acceptance of my mind's resistance. Instead of trying to change the character of my mind and emotions, I discovered that by sinking to a deeper level of what I am, I naturally came into loving acceptance of my nonacceptance, revealing a unique joy.
The ability to be with ‘what is’ (सत् sat in Sanskrit) is the highest joy (sacchidānanda, 'the joy of awareness of reality'), and it is intimately linked with a deep trust of life. If I want something, and it doesn't happen, I know I can trust that getting it wouldn’t have been the right thing. Plus, not getting what I think I want is a gift, because it teaches me something about who I’m not. If I didn’t get it, then I know the one wanting was the ego or ‘false self’*** — because my true nature always gets what it wants. After all, it only wants what Life wants, since it is Life.
Let all that sink in; look out the window and just be with it for a minute. When you're ready, you can move on to the application of this teaching below.
Though your body-mind seems to want so many things, in reality, its deepest secret desire is to be more like essence-nature; in other words, what it really wants is to stop wanting so darn much. Your mind thinks that the cessation of wanting could only come through fulfilling more of your specific desires, but it's not true: on that path, more desires keep arising almost as soon as the previous ones are fulfilled. However, the deep fullness and contentment the body-mind longs for arises easefully and naturally the more the body-mind receives the impression of essence-nature. Then cessation of the frustrating kind of desire is seen to be the natural result of loving what is more completely.
So, in summary, essence-nature is already eternally in love with and fulfilled by reality as it is (nityānanda-svarūpa), so spiritual work involves repeatedly touching into your essence-nature and allowing your body-mind to receive, again and again, the imprint of that divine core of being.
In a 1200-word blog post, I can’t explore all the implications of this profound nexus of teachings, but this is what I’ve seen: even the barest beginning of realizing these truths can create deep shifts in how your life manifests.
You aren’t just a part of the whole — somehow, inexplicably, you are the whole, and what you are manifests the whole world of your experience. You are capable of astonishing beauty, terrible ugliness, and everything in between; the whole world is a mirror, reflecting your real nature back at you. Somehow, mysteriously, opening to the whole of what you are, and learning to love the whole, fundamentally shifts the character of your life, the way the world mirrors you.
The yoga tradition is unanimous in declaring that if you know yourself as you really are, you will be free — more free than the mind can even imagine.
As the sage Kabir said, “If you don’t do anything now to bring about this inner experience, when will you attain it?”
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* Though of course, it doesn’t want it in a static way, meaning that wanting ‘what is’ doesn’t mean not wanting it to change, because change is a fundamental characteristic of ‘what is’.
** A quote from the incredible female poet-saint and mystic, Julian of Norwich.
*** Unless, of course, it just hasn't happened yet; Life always gets what it wants, but not usually on the timeline the mind wants or expects.
Photo credit: LBEARD.com