There are two basic movements in life; the outward movement and the return movement. I believe Eckhart Tolle speaks of this in “A New Earth”. The outward movement roughly equates with the ‘morning’ of our lives and is characterised by growth, learning, expansion, development, acquisition and an ever-widening sphere of influence. We grow to physical maturity, learning all the time, until we enter the ‘adult world’ and embark on a quest of accumulating; gradually increasing our possessions and money, progressing in our chosen field of endeavour, finding a spouse, maybe even physically multiplying by having children. There comes a point, however, when this cycle naturally comes to an end. The diminishment of all that we’ve spent a lifetime acquiring and accumulating begins to set in. Our career begins to wind down as we head toward retirement, the children we spent many years rearing leave home, our bodies begin to age, our health perhaps deteriorates, we find our sphere of influence significantly lessening and this diminishment manifests most starkly as our friends and loved ones begin to pass over.
Is that a depressing thought?
It needn’t be, for it’s simply the natural rhythm and flow of life. Look outside your window and you’ll see this rhythmic cycle unfold as the seasons pass in natural succession. You can’t avoid it: although humankind spends a lot of time and money trying to prolong and extend the outward movement, clinging on like grasping beggars. Ultimately all such efforts prove fruitless. The resistance to embracing and accepting the return movement is the cause of so much needless suffering in our culture and undoubtedly stems from our retarded attitude to death. As a species, we’re out of balance with life. We try to cling to the summer months and refute the winter, refusing to accept that it’s a normal, necessary part of the cycle. We become fearful, dysfunctional little beings locked in a state of misery and desperate clinging, causing so much suffering for ourselves and the world at large. We block the flow of life and in so doing all kinds of gunge gets clogged up around us.
On a personal level, I experienced the premature cessation of the outward movement when I lost my health and all the things that were previously important to me (though frequently taken for granted and unacknowledged) were stripped away: health, job, social life, many friends (the sad fact is that when you stop going ‘out’ as once you did many people rapidly lose interest in you). All the old ideas I had of who I thought I was, what I was doing and what was important were stripped away. I was forced into the return movement. Everything started to dissipate and slip away.
What remains when that happens? What remains indeed! The return movement is not something to be feared and avoided. In fact, it’s one of life’s greatest gifts and a true portal to spiritual awakening. When all the outer props are gone, when all the old images you have of yourself stand revealed as empty and hollow, all the remains is...yourself. By ‘yourself’ I don’t necessarily mean a ‘person’. I’ve come to see the ‘person’ as something wholly arbitrary; a collection of habits, memories, beliefs and behavioural patterns, none of which has any solidity or permanence, and which shift and alter all the time. What always remains? What is the one changeless aspect of self that will always be there, no matter how much our outward experience may shift, no matter how much our beliefs and concepts and self-images alter? This is not an easy question to answer, and I encourage everyone to ask this question of themselves. It is perhaps the most powerful line of enquiry in the universe!
Let go of everything you possess, and everything you think you are or ‘ought’ to be and see what remains. This is an excellent question which just popped in my mind and which I’ve found remarkably powerful: “If I let go of ______, what remains?” Insert whatever you like there. It’s helpful to explore what you would be without the concepts you have of yourself. For instance: “If I let go of my need to be a ‘good’ person, what remains?” “If I let go of my religious or spiritual beliefs, what remains?” “If I let go of all my judgements about myself and others, what remains?” “If I let go of my need to be a good mother/father/teacher/astronaut, what remains?” “If I let go of my fear of death, what remains?” “If I let go of my need to liked by everyone, what remains?” Try it! Try letting go of all your hopes and fears and all your most cherished concepts about yourself and the world. And really be open to exploring the answer. Don’t try to answer with words or concepts, just be open to an actual experience of what remains. If you let go of all memories, all perceptions, all beliefs, all hopes and dreams, all fears and doubts and judgements, what remains?? When all of that is stripped away, what is left?
While I urge everyone to seek the answer for themselves, I will also offer what I have discovered. All that remains for me when all else is stripped away is...a sense of being. This isn’t something new, but is something that has always been there, buried under an ocean of thoughts, beliefs, props, concepts and mental noise. I could lose everything in my life, every belief and I could have my entire memory wiped and I would still experience a sense of being.
When everything else is gone, all I know for certain is that...I am. There is awareness. This awareness is not a person, and it’s not limited despite seemingly being enclosed in a locked physical receptacle. That awareness - or consciousness - is the only constant in my life. It’s the only unchanging facet of my existence, whereas everything else in my life has been in a continual and continuing process of change and dissolution, like clouds in the sky, ever shifting, disappearing and reforming.
In this dream-like reality of ours in which even the seemingly solid and immutable is forever changing and dissolving, what is the single changeless element? What never changes? What always remains? The great masters and awakened souls have told us that to know the changeless amid the ever-changing is to know the difference between truth and illusion and to be grounded and rooted in that realisation of Self (or ‘being’, ‘awareness’, ‘consciousness’, or whatever words you care to use as pointers) is the key to being liberated. Like when you’re dreaming at night and occasionally while still immersed in the dream you become conscious that it’s just a dream and with that realisation the dream suddenly loses its ability to scare you and grip you. Rooted in that lucidity, you see the dream for what it is and can actually begin to enjoy it and consciously mould it with your intent, just for the sheer fun of it.
That’s what I wanted to share. Maybe it will mean something to you, maybe it won’t. The outward movement of life comes with tremendous energy and excitement, but it also tends to move us further and further away from our original undifferentiated state. We lose ourselves in the dream and give reality and solidity to what is ultimately transient and hollow. By all means have fun in this state, but don’t resist the return movement when it comes. It’s a portal back to our self, our true nature, if we chose to see it as such. In this way, the more we seem to lose, the more we gain, the more we remember and realise what we truly are, the more conscious we become of what always remains.
I believe this is what authentic spiritual awakening is; not adopting a certain set of beliefs and rituals and clothing the personality in new garments, but a conscious dropping away of all that is transient and false and a realisation of the one, changeless reality that underlies all form. It’s an invitation that’s open to all of us, at any point in our life. Alas, it seems that many of us need to experience great sorrow and suffering and loss in order to be forcibly shoved toward this awakening. But that’s another discussion. All we really need to do is accept and embrace the limitations we face in our lives and use them to go beyond and find that within us which is, and ever has been, beyond all limitation. This is the invitation to freedom.