Friday, 11 December 2015

Life's First Impression

Are we a tabula rasa, an empty space, when we come into life? Or are there tendencies and inclinations that come in with us? Either way what is that first impression when the curtain goes up we make our entrance?

In 1979 I was travelling in Sri Lanka taking the first steps on a long search. I ended up staying in a vipassana retreat centre for two weeks. It was very austere. There was total silence and no eye contact with anyone. Male and female were divided, of course; we had a small cell each about 8' x 6'; the bed was just a concrete step, with no mattress or pillow. The day started at 4 o'clock with a hot drink; there were two meals a day, breakfast and lunch, which were completed before midday, then no food until the next morning. 

The whole day was taken up with meditation. The actual practice, to begin with was breath awareness. Just watch the breath, that's all, all the time. Lose breath awareness, when you know you've lost it, return to breath awareness. Repeat. Continue.

There were four scheduled sittings of one-hour each; the rest of the time was either for private meditation in your cell, or walking meditation around the veranda to relieve the body of sitting. The walking was done very slowly, eyes down, with full awareness of movement, and we were not supposed even to look up at the sky or the surrounding countryside.


Sensory deprivation


Put all that together and what it adds up to is almost complete sensory deprivation. All the input channels for the senses are shut down. The eyes see only the floor or wall; the sounds were incidental from the surrounding nature or silence; even the food we were encouraged to take quickly without emphasis on the taste. And the body and its contact with the environment was limited only to sitting, walking and sleeping.

I was pretty much a beginner, and of course it was excruciating at first, for at least the first few days, then very gradually it began to ease up a bit. There were even times when you didn't feel the pain in the body when sitting for long periods. But after some time it becomes clear that eventually with the sensory input shutdown there's nowhere to go. 

That is there's nowhere to go except inside. And at a certain point that's exactly where you do go. You end up living full time in your own inner world. And what that consists of potentially is every experience you’ve had, ever. Of course they don't all come together, or at once. There's some kind of internal selection process which allows particular deep impressions to surface at the right time.

Who was I before all this?


Anyway one day after floating around in there for some time, the thought came to me, almost casually, who I might have been before I was born. And without any effort and very naturally it was like following a pathway back through time ticking off a few experiences along the way but not being distracted by them, back to the very earliest remembered experiences of life, back before that to pre-conscious memory - somewhere in there but not consciously recalled in the mind - and then back pre-birth to the womb. That was as far as it went, it didn't go back to the original source before that or anything. 

But it was very nice to be in that comfortable place, in the mother's womb, and then being aware at the same time that you know you're going to have to leave and enter the world and life begins, and when that happens, if you're lucky, you find out what your very first impressions were at that moment.

These first impressions, no doubt an outcome of previous karma, shape and colour the view of life so completely and consistently that we don't really know that that's what it is or even that it's there. But if you ever get to see and experience those first impressions, then you see your life in an entirely different way. Not so much the life, but how you see the life. And then you may also realise that there is a choice of an alternative, you need not be bound by those same impressions eternally.

My birth had been a difficult one. Technically I shouldn't be here. I don't know the details, but I know that I wasn't breathing for a long time, was put in some kind of resuscitating machine, an incubator I think, and nearly didn't make it. I mean I only made it because of the technology that prevented what would have been inevitable death. 

Not so personal after all


Nature appears to be a random thing, selecting here, discriminating there, and disposing accordingly. There's so much we don't understand it makes us mad; so much we don't understand that we have to ascribe this randomness to some kind of force to try to explain it. And then of course we have to challenge that force and say how can it be so capricious and allow so much randomness, without rhyme or reason, to the point of extreme unfairness and cruelty.

One thing that we have to keep in mind, even if it’s already self-evident, is that from the very beginning consciousness is complete, has always been complete. Consciousness never changes. We do not expand consciousness, we expand awareness into consciousness. The more the awareness expands the wiser we become. That wisdom is always there waiting to be discovered, but we would be fooling ourselves if we think we have more access to it than we really do! 

Like sunlight breaking through and brightly illuminating on a cloudy day from time to time we get glimpses. And these are like signposts indicating the way. They tell us how the search is going and we adjust accordingly. And they brighten and inspire us to continue searching for that certain something which is hidden most of the time. But when we do get those glimpses, for a moment we know and we need no other ratification. Then we forget again, and the search continues.

That experience in Sri Lanka has repeated a few times over the years. And each time the experience gets a little less gosh-wow, and a little more refined, and a little more insightful. What I discover back then was that at the critical moment, when life at birth was hanging in the balance, that my choice, my inner desire, was to be allowed to die. I didn’t want this life. I just wanted to let it go - it all seemed wrong, however brief it might have been - and get on with whatever came next. 

Naturally it didn't happen that way, and this one began and the journey went on this way, not that, and the lessons that have to be learned continue. And obviously one of those was that a personal preference is not a product of wisdom dictating what should have been - that capricious nature again - but something to have to come to terms with.

How do we get wise?


Our insights only tell us so much. When they come they seem so crashingly clear, that certainly everybody else must see it the same way. But really even at a level that we would call highly intuitive, these things are still very personal, very individual. What it amounted to, even though my 'wisdom’ said that the best thing was to be allowed to follow the natural course and get out of this life quickly, was that this life was to continue. 

But, instead with life interfering with that preference, that left a substantial residue of deep resentment. I clearly remember times in life ruled, overruled, by a kind of resentment, that I didn't ask to be born, that it's not my responsibility, a nihilistic view that said I don't owe anything to anybody! Actually that's not a bad starting point for the spiritual search, but that's another matter.

And coming to terms with that resentment and all that it implies has been the learning curve for this life. So although the insight said I shouldn't be here, the truth was actually the opposite, the learning through the experience of the very thing that the insight said shouldn't happen. In other words what our 'wisdom' tells us is more about us than anything. There is an ineffable interlocking matrix way outside our perception. But it seems that everyone has some insight into what that god wants. I mean, God knows, there's so much wasted conflict in the world based on exactly that!

And how righteous do you suppose the anger and resentment to be? Something so truly personal, seemingly all embracing, something must be at fault, and therefore there must be blame. That’s sort of what resentment is: anger at life getting in the way of expectations. And there has to be revenge, there has to be reparation, there has to be reconciliation. But if we accept even if only partially that there is a higher order of things, we would be wiser to try and harmonise with that rather than the other way round. Then even something so completely justifiable as a righteous anger, how real does it eventually turn out to be?

And one more thing, if we have got this far. If you can for a moment visualise the system in the hospital where there would be unsparing effort to save the life of a newborn child, whose life is hanging in the balance. And the massive anxiety of the parents. And yet the child’s inner desire, obviously unarticulated and unknown, was to be allowed to die naturally. And then what actually happens is defined by something else with each playing a contributory part. Now the unasked question: is that random or not?

Everything we do depends on that. To take it personally or not.

What nature intends nature gets


Now we’ve got to the point beyond any question of who or what is right - the child, the hospital, the parents, even god! Notions of right and wrong, of what is appropriate and what is not, of what moves towards the light and what moves towards darkness are not so clear-cut or obvious as our received wisdom from history, culture, religion and civilisation would have it. 

There has to be a force which is far removed from direct human understanding and therefore wise beyond wise in a way that can never be logically understood. That that force is not something to be feared, or propitiated, or worshipped, but maybe just respected. And respected in the best way, by acknowledging the limitations of our own certainties, and seeing and accepting our individual nature so completely that we get to see it accurately - and in doing so our limitations become known and eventually fall way. What that means experientially is that we come to accept ourselves, and others, and events, and everything, in a way that we have to say, I know how I think, but there's more to what I see than meets the eye.

Otherwise we are living a kind of fantasy life. This is not inaccurate or insulting because it’s true for all of us. There is more to know than what we know. And if we know only partially how can we think categorically? Realizing and accepting that at some fundamental level we don’t know ourselves is probably the greatest and most important step on the spiritual path, no matter how many years we have been travelling and searching. What has the power to transform that from a startling and perhaps uncomfortable thought to live with into a purpose for life is meditation, if you’re ready to commit to it. Plenty more on that in this blog.

There is a practice of going back consciously to early life, birth and rebirth. It’s called hridayakash dharana, focus on the heart space, because the journey back is accessed through emotion. Not the emotions as we are familiar with them, but pure emotion in its raw state. It’s accessed by entering into the space of the heart and going into the different familiar expressions of it. Hridayakash dharana is part of the 9 day meditation retreats.

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