Last Updated: March 26th, 2019
“The more we try to control things,” writes mindfulness teacher Michael Stone, “the more disorder is created.” Before I meditated, I was much like a compulsive housewife cleaning the suburban mansion of my mind. In an effort to control my life and thoughts, I rinsed every dish in the sink of the moment. I filed every loose paper of my consciousness into the top drawer of my perfect future. I lined up every shoe in the foyer of my past. While trying to control my fate, however, I became a panic-stricken mess.
Meditating gave me the courage to stop ignoring the rotten crevices of my mind. I uncovered grimy clumps of self-loathing, smelly scraps of worthlessness, layered filth on my image of self-worth. And beneath everything I saw a great stillness. Behind it all, I could not find a solid Me. No one was there to wash the dish piles of my consciousness, no one appeared to arrange thought’s crooked piles of shoes. More accepting of myself, I learned to be a little more open, a little more flexible. I learned to let entropy rule.
This is as far as I’ve come on my modest spiritual journey, yet I’m told if the practice continues, our entire conditioning lays itself down at our feet. Over time, we’re purged of the curses of our cultural creators: the media, parents, politics, our peers. We emerge from the cocoon of self-consciousness, flapping our wings of a second innocence. Or perhaps we simply lose our sense of self, guts hollowed out to the core—depersonalization disorder, as it’s known in the DSM-IV.
Visually, this process takes a non-linear shape. It maps out nebulously onto concentric circles, radiating vectors and sweeping curves. There’s no end point, as the meditator passes through the stages in unpredictable order. We might visit every stage of awakening in the course of a single retreat, sitting, or breath. And if there were a definitive end point, it would likely be right back to where we came from. The path to insight? One big stroll around the lake.
As the Zen aphorism states, “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” Specifically, the first mountain is based on our own conceptual terms. Our idea of “a mountain” in this stage is coherent, rational and fixed. Most meditators soon realize, however, that true objectivity can never be achieved. Our lives are never quite predictable, never entirely in our control. Thus the conceptual mountain collapses and the meditator enters the second stage. Here, instead of a fixed mountain, the seeker desires the subjective understanding of one. She teases reality apart into its intuitive, ever-changing forms. Life on objective terms disappears.
If the meditator continues down the path, it is said, she will reach the third stage, wherein the mountain returns. Now, conceptual reality is back, only this time it’s expanded, boundless and integrated. Intuition and reason are reconciled; we are free. As philosopher Dennis Ford writes, “Objectivity, which maintains separation between the knower and the known, must give way to reintegration and tacit knowledge. ‘Why?’ must give way to acceptance. Thinking about becomes thinking with; belief becomes faith.”
In the enlightened world, the awakened one no longer seeks extrinsic rewards or objective truth. Instead, she senses the intrinsic value of things. Compassion, generosity and wisdom supplant the hedonistic urge. She does things just because. Freed from the fetters of conditioning, she realizes the inherent value of her life. Objectivity gives rise to its opposite—subjectivity—and enlightenment resolves the two. The mountain is a mountain once more.
As I sit sprawled out on my bed in a self-absorbed puddle of winter gloom and ennui, I must confess my doubts about this perfect resolution. Perhaps the path to enlightenment travels more like a pendulum, an endless back-and-forth. Whatever its trajectory, I prefer to desire the changing tides of awakening over the whirlwind of constant craving and gain. Even if at the end of the day, I simply focus my desire on non-desire, that’s good enough for me.
Perhaps I will one day reach enlightenment, or perhaps it will forever remain an ideal. I cannot say for sure. I cannot claim to know the truth of awakening, just as I cannot guarantee its realization. All the same, sitting has taught me that life itself matters far less than your relationship to it. It is the promise of the path, not its realization, that keeps me optimistic.