mystery and awareness

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The various flavors of spiritual teaching speak of “It” as Ultimate Reality, the Absolute, Emptiness, Essential Nature, the Divine, God … whatever. The names are many. But let us always remember that as soon as we presume to give It a name, we objectify it. We turn it into an object that we can encounter or experience or enjoy, or sometimes run from. Finding a way to encounter It and say anything about It, without objectifying It, is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Especially for the Western mind.

This may be why so many Zen koans present us with obscure and sometimes convoluted propositions. They egg us on to find that direct encounter or experience without actually naming or describing what it is we’re driven to encounter or experience.

As an example, take this from Ellen Birx Roshi’s wonderful book, Embracing the Inconceivable: Interspiritual Practice of Zen and Christianity. Early in the book, Ellen assures us that:

“everything in the universe, including oneself, [is] the manifestation of inconceivable ultimate reality or God. This is not a concept,” she says. “It is experienced as the fact.” (p. 28)

She has given us a formulation for “the One.” Then later, she says:

“we must go beyond what the senses can perceive or what the human heart can conceive. Ultimately, it is the inconceivable mystery realizing itself. This is the spiritual practice of contemplatives in the Zen and Christian traditions.” (p. 30)

Now, buried within these words and this beautiful expression is a hint of the duality that forever haunts and sometimes confuses Western minds. Right there, in the phrase “the inconceivable mystery realizing itself,” are two entities: the “inconceivable mystery” and “itself.” We cannot, it seems, escape the notion of one and one – even while trying to express an awareness of “the One.”

The other evening, while I was sitting in my living room enjoying a warm fire (lucky me!), a couple of questions presented themselves from some realm I didn’t even know I was in:

Am I aware of It? Or

Is It aware of me?

Or, both?

There was in that moment an awareness of the crust of persona – the conditioning and all that comes with it – paired with some more indefinable ground of being that endures and prevails and rests in peace within that crust. And the question was, where does the awareness originate? And where does it live from moment to moment? In colloquial terms, does God (under whatever name) know or care that I am? That I exist? This is a mystery that we live – a mystery that sits with us and in us on the cushion.

It is possible – even probable – that this enduring center is what we encounter during meditation. But for sure, it can also be seen during ordinary activities, as well – even something as mundane and seemingly distracting as listening to music or watching TV.

It’s something you notice, and then wonder at in the serene stillness of your core. But what it is, really? Essential Nature? Emptiness? The Absolute? God? There is the mystery! “Who is in here? Or What?” That is the question.

When we become aware of that question, we go a-seeking. And if we ever come to think we’ve found the answer, we’ve probably led ourselves astray. If we experience a center from which we can live and act in love and peace and compassion and clarity and equanimity and all those qualities we yearn for, that may be the most we can hope for. That may be what we’re actually working toward. But as to knowing just what it is and how we can express it … that may be where our capacity for certainty and answers ends.

There is the mystery, and in that mystery may lie the very beauty of the experience of everyday living. That’s what makes every moment fresh and new – what makes our spirits soar and sing as we go along on our merry way. And after all, what else is there? What else should there be? We are born; we die. And in between, we live. We live!!