I remember hearing a talk from a very famous Tibetan teacher, a man who had spent many years in a small, stone hut in the Himalayas. He was crippled, and so he couldn’t use either one of his legs. He told a story of how a big boulder fell on his legs and broke them, and he spent many years in a stone hut, because there was really nothing that he could do. It was hard for someone with broken legs to get around much in the Himalayas.
He told the story of being in this small hut, and he said, “To be locked in that small hut for so many years was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. It was a great grace, because if it wasn’t for that, I would never have turned within, and I would never have found the freedom that revealed itself there. So I look back at the losing of my legs as one of the most profound and lucky events of my whole life.”
Normally, most of us wouldn’t think that losing the use of our legs would be grace. We have certain ideas about how we want grace to appear. But grace is simply that which opens our hearts, that which has the capacity to come in and open our perceptions about life.
– Adyashanti, Falling Into Grace
Originally I wrote that last sentence differently. I wrote, “I am lucky: I am fit and healthy…”
But it’s not luck. Not really. It’s all about making choices, and then making them happen.
It’s interesting how we are trained to think about luck or grace. What he expresses there is, in a sense, the myth of the personal will, and I understand how it can appear that way. I understand how thoughts may say: “Luck has nothing to do with it. My will, and what I decide to do, is not luck. It’s what I decide to do.” And how mind may take it as true or not.
To me, it’s “luck” and grace to have the ability to make that choice, and make it happen. Infinite things has to fall into place for that to be there. What a thought may label choice, or will, or actions is all pure grace. Life has to agree, it has to make it available and set everything up for that to happen. When a thought says “I did that”, it comes after infinite things falling into place, it comes after what’s pure grace throughout. And that thought is also infinite things falling into place for just that thought to appear, and be identified with or not.
Anything is grace, both what a thought says is good and what I want, and what a thought says is not good and what I don’t want.
It’s all life setting it up, infinite things coming together, for what’s here to happen.
My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.
– 2 Corinthians, 12:9
This is another beautiful pointer from the New Testament.
When I recognize my weakness, through and through, there is receptivity for God’s grace. Said another way, when I am less full of myself, there is more room for God.
I can recognize my weakness in innumerable ways. My human self is dependent on support from people close to me, society, ecosystems, the earth as a whole, the solar system and the unviverse as a whole. Without all of this, no human self. Even what I tend to take credit for – such as skills, insights, choices and actions – are gifts, given to me through experience, culture, biology, ancestors, the earth, the universe. I try to control my life and circumstances, but can only do it to a very limited extent. My days are numbered, and I can die this very moment. I aim at following precepts and guidelines, and fail miserably. I aim at living from what I really am, and fail miserably. There is no end to the weakness of this human self.
And I can also recognize my weakness as a doer and observer. When I explore the doer and observer, I find that they are only images. And also that the doer takes credit for shifts, insights, choices and actions after they have happened. This is the real, 100%, weakness of what I take myself to be.
I watched Seraphim Falls yesterday. It is a simple and elegant movie, and although it may not seem all that profound or sophisticated on the surface, it does illustrate something most movies don’t touch upon.
The grace of exhaustion.
Or more precisely: What happens when we have the receptivity to allow the shift that exhaustion invites in us.
When we persist in our folly, have nothing left to lose, and get exhausted enough, there is an invitation for a shift. And in this movie, the two main characters show the receptivity to allow that shift.
I persist in holding onto a belief. If there is enough friction from life, I get exhausted. And in that exhaustion is the invitation for a shift. An invitation to shift out of that particular belief, to see it as just a story. If I am receptive enough, I allow that shift. If not, I will get even more exhausted and there will be other opportunities.
The friction, the exhaustion, the invitation and the receptivity is all grace. As is the initial belief.
Some of the things that seem to often precede awakening…
- Nothing at all. It comes out of the blue. The person may have no interest in religion or spirituality, and have done no spiritual practice. Although for many, there may be a great deal of psychological stress and a sense of being at the end of the rope before the shift, as happened with Byron Katie, Eckhart Tolle, and even me. (I was an atheist at the time of the initial awakening.) There is a ripeness there somewhere, in terms of being ready to give it all up – all identifications, all hope.
- Intention. A clear and refined intention to know God, to know truth, to wake up. This may go along with practice and prayer or not.
- Trying hard and failing. Trying hard to awaken through a range of practices, and thoroughly failing. Exhausting all possibilities.
- Practice. Engaging in a range of practices that invite in a thinning of the veils. The “distance” between what is here and awakening gets smaller, although the final shift doesn’t happen through practice.
- Shaktipat. An energy transfer that invites in awakening, such as diksha.
And finally grace. Grace is always what invites in the shift to awakening. Whatever a separate I can seem to do is not enough. It can prepare the ground, but that is all. As Baker Roshi said, awakening is an accident and practice makes us accident prone.
Also, is there really a “leading up to” awakening? The awakening is an awakening out of the stories of time and causality, and also the story of awakening not being here already. From here, there is no leading up to it, although there is also the freedom to use those stories as skillful means.
I am back in the town where I grew up, and walk on a pedestrian path up a steep hill with my kicksled. It felt a little funny to be back doing what I had done so many times as a kid. The hill is icy, and I am unable to get up the last 20 meters or so. It is almost vertical and pure ice. Two people are on the side of the path. I notice they are Swedish, sister and brother, in their mid twenties, and dressed in winter sports clothes. They ask me if they can help me up the last bit of the hill. I hesitate as I imagine they may play a prank on me and send me sliding down the hill, but then remember that I cannot get up on my own, so wouldn’t lose much by sliding down either. I accept their offer, and they help me up effortlessly.I have had several dreams over the last year or so on this same theme: almost getting to the top of a hill but unable to make it all the way up, and then being helped up the last stretch.
It seems to reflect the process of doing some work on oneself, and then grace allowing the shift. The work prepares the ground for and invites the shift, but does not cause it. The shift itself is grace. This seems to be true for many areas, such as The Work where I inquire into a belief, and grace allows attachment to it to fall away (or not). When I do the work of deciding to wholeheartedly be with everything alive in my experience, and grace shifting how it appears (or not). When I do the work of headless experiments, and grace allowing a shift into headlessness (or not). Or any other practice for that matter. I do the work, and grace allows for the shift, or not.
(It is of course not really like that. If I look more closely, I see that this “I” the appears to do the work is just an idea of a separate self placed on top of thoughts, decisions and activities, and it is easy to place a sense of separate self on top of these because they tend to be in the foreground of attention. Similarly, what appears as Grace appears as Other because these are dynamics that tends to happen outside of attention. In reality, they are just two aspects of one seamless whole, life manifesting, the activities of the manifest world.)
And it also reflects a dynamic in my daily life. I notice I am in the grips of certain patterns, and am not quite able to get out of them. I admit it to myself. And I ask someone in my life: I am in the grips of this pattern, can you help me? I procrastinate, can you ask me by 8pm if I have done this task? When we go to the store, I want to make sure I don’t get that sugary stuff, can you remind me to not get it? Can you hold me accountable? I do most of the work myself, and also ask for help from others for that last little bit. (Much like a twelve step process.)
Other aspects of the dream:
The number 20 came up twice in the dream, first in the distance to the top and then in the age of the siblings. And they are two, so there is that number again. I am not sure what that is about yet.
The siblings had a freshness and innocence about them that I associate with (some) Scandinavians, and also a great deal of maturity, heart and skills.
I am also not sure why this was in my childhood town. Maybe I am revisiting old patterns established back then, and now am in a position to “get over the hump” with them.
When there is a belief in a separate self, however subtle it may appear to be, any other story is filtered through this core story. Any other story, whether told to others or oneself, is tweaked just slightly to make this separate self look either a little better or worse than the rest of the world (as what it used to be, could have been, may be, what others are, and so on).
When there is a belief in the core story of a separate self, then every other story gets caught up in its gravity and is used to support and prop up that story of a separate self… as better or worse than the rest of the world.
And it is possible to see this in real time, as it happens, in a finely tuned and finely grained way…
It is easy to resist this, especially as we see more closely what the effects are of all of this (separation, alienation, being caught up in the rollercoaster), but that too is just another story used to prop up a sense of separate self. Resistance itself, or rather the identification with the resistance, comes from and supports a sense of a separate self… an “I” resisting something else.
Eventually, it brings a sense of a gridlock… everything grinds to a halt, with nowhere to go, no way out… with only grace as the only possibility, the grace of a release from a belief in this separate self, an I with an Other…. and no way to create or trigger this grace. It has to happen on its own, in its own time.
And, of course, wanting, looking forward to, expecting, hoping for, wishing for, even praying for this grace, is just another story propping up the sense of a separate self. A story about an I here that grace may happen to, one that is separate from grace and the results of the grace.
Which brings us back to the gridlock. And then the seeing of this gridlock, knowing it is what may invite grace to happen, so a looking forward to it, and then seeing that too as another story tweaked to support the sense of separate self.
And so it goes.
An awakening can happen spontaneously, out of the blue, apparently uninvited. Or it can happen following a period of practice, of deliberately walking the path.
In sufism, the initial version is apparently called majzub, and the second salik. One is obviously grace, the second apparently effort. Although there is also effort in the first one, in terms of exploring and living what happened. And there is clearly grace even in the second one, first in the external and internal circumstances coming together for someone traveling the path, and then in the awakening itself.
As J. Nurbakhsh says in The Path (p. 31), both have to be present for it to be complete – especially if that person is to guide others. If there was first an awakening out of the blue, then the path has to be traveled later on (either from within the awakening, or after an apparent fall). And if the path was traveled initially, then the grace and popping of awakening has to happen for it to be more complete. One alone is not sufficient.