To Be Awake and Alive

I’ve been busy the past few weeks looking for a house that I’d planned to buy and live in with my girlfriend. But it all fell apart last weekend after a good talk with a friend, when I decided that the house was just one more thing that wouldn’t make me happy and I’d have to put off a long retreat even further. My girlfriend is hurt and angry. She wants to get married next summer and instead I may be leaving for good. I feel like I hurt her by continuing to stay with her in this “half-in-half-out” state and will hurt her by going. Did you feel desperate when you started on your path?

There is a possibility that I could do a three-year retreat, Tibetan buddhist style, within the next couple years. But I am not sure if this is what I want to do. I’ve often thought that a year-long silent retreat would be best for now, but I don’t know where to do it. Where did you do yours? Today I talked to my lama about this, and he strongly suggested doing ngondro (preliminary practices before 3-year retreat) for a year on Salt Spring Island. Does it matter what I do? You seem to suggest a path of inquiry, but can you say more about what the path looks like?

You say that the time to wake up is now. That seems to be right, but while I am moved by your teaching and others, I have not woken up. I can envision attempting to remain in the world as I am now while trying to follow a path of awakening as best I can. But it’s painful and I feel like I’m avoiding my true life. I don’t want to do it. I want to “head for the hills” as my lama puts it. Even as I fear it’s some kind of avoidance. How do I decide what to do? As I read over this I see that I’m trying to convince myself that it’s okay if I have to leave. Thinking about that and thinking about [her] makes me want to cry.

I don’t mean for this to sound harsh, but it’s important for you to realize that you haven’t woken up because you haven’t really wanted to wake up. It hasn’t been enough of a priority. You have to want it more than anything else, and up until now, that hasn’t really been the case. Now, however, you may be at a turning point. That part is up to you.

There are several issues here, but they are closely related. In an attempt to set up a more convenient, predictable (and automatic) lifestyle in which we get what we imagine to be our basic needs, plus a few major wants, we habitually and systematically negotiate away our freedom. The reason you imagine you aren’t awake is that you have woven a web of self deceptive and contradictory patterns and desires that has ended up being quite painful. So now that pain is in your face, and it seems too difficult to look at. Yet the fact that it is unavoidable could very well be your salvation, your awakening bell, if you are willing to allow it to be so. If you are courageous enough to turn and face the pain, with no psychological defense whatsoever, truth will be allowed to tell its whole story. In this, you will realize that you have made your own free choices every step of the way. At this point, it may be unlikely that you can spare either of you any pain. What you can do, however, is act with as much sensitivity, integrity, compassion, and humility as possible. Let honesty, kindness and wisdom be your guide.

Furthermore, it’s not a matter of getting from “here” to “over there, where I want to be in the future.” There is no journey. It’s not helpful to continue imagining that “a path of awakening,” or radical inquiry, and “attempting to remain in the world” are anything but present thoughts, memories and fantasies. Do you want to be awake and free, right now? Do you want to be fully alive and intimate with all that is, here, now? Is that more important to you than anything else? That’s the only real question. The rest is all planning and speculation, a defense, a way of avoiding and trying to escape from what is. I’m not at all suggesting that a silent retreat in a secluded, natural environment might not be helpful. It might very well provide a clarifying and healing spaciousness that would make it easier to sort through things. It was certainly so in my case. Whether it is here or there, however, is not the determining issue. What is essential is that you find out who and what you are this very instant. Then you can employ any skillful means you like to deepen that realization. Without it, three years, or thirty years, in seclusion and practice will make little difference at all.

Again, the key question is, are you ready? Are you unconditionally ready for what is? What is, in nature? What is, in the city? What is, in a particular relationship? What is, in no particular relationship? What is, in spiritual practice? What is, in the absense of spiritual practice? Let everything be in service to that. It’s completely up to you.

-Scott Morrison-

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