by: Bill Harris
Stop for a moment and think of all the people you know-friends, relatives, people you work with, people you play with, and people you see from time to time as you go about your business, but don’t know well.
Also think for a moment about all the people you know about, but don’t know personally-politicians, celebrities, leaders, and so on.
All these people have one important thing in common: they’re all doing their best to make sense of what it means to be a human being.
Think about it. Here we are, on this spinning rock ball, in the middle of endlessly vast space, in a thin and fragile protected environment absolutely necessary to us if we’re to stay alive. We come into the world, and then, after an undetermined amount of time, we’re gone. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
(Actually, if you think about it, it would be more accurate to say that we come OUT of the world, like an apple comes out of an apple tree, but that’s another story, for another day.)
When you think about it, doesn’t it strike you that this whole business of being a person is quite weird? I mean, what’s it all about? Why is it happening? Is there any purpose to it? If so, what is it?
One of the reasons we wonder so deeply and so universally about these questions is, I believe, that as it’s all going on, we suffer. Our tender bodies allow us to connect and interact with the world, but this same sensitivity also makes us vulnerable to pain. Then there’s the fact that we want things, but sometimes we don’t get them. When that happens, we also suffer. Then there are the times where we get what we don’t want, and we suffer when that happens, too.
As if that weren’t enough, we’re each part of a gigantic web of cause and effect over which we have minimal control. Numberless ongoing physical events throughout the universe affect our galaxy, our solar system, our planet, and, ultimately, our lives. There’s nothing we can do about cosmic rays, gravity, weather patterns, the tides, sunspots, the seasons, the Earth’s magnetic field, the tectonic movements of the continents, earthquakes, the volcanic stirrings beneath the Earth’s crust, the makeup of the atmosphere-and an infinite number of other things totally beyond our control.
What’s more, billions of people, including you, are acting to get what they want in each moment. Some of these actions affect you directly (positively or negatively), while others affect you in a less direct way. Even far-removed events still have an effect on you, though it may be less apparent.
And though your own actions give you some small degree of control over what happens, ultimately you’re at the mercy of forces vastly beyond your control. There’s no getting around it: there is no escape from cause and effect.
As if this wasn’t enough, there’s another big reason why we suffer. Despite our puny influence on cause and effect, we still manage to get what we want some of the time. But even when this happens, whatever it is eventually passes away or falls apart. Everything is impermanent.
We probably suffer about this more than anything else. Nothing lasts. The people and things we love won’t last, and neither will we. Because of this, even though we can enjoy things while they exist, and can enjoy life while it lasts, human existence is imbued with a certain underlying regret or melancholy-an underlying awareness of the transience of things, and a bittersweet sadness at their passing.
You might not have thought of it this way, but much of life, and much of our effort to make sense of it, consists of an attempt to come to terms with these two things: that we’re caught in a web of cause and effect over which we have very limited control, and that all things are impermanent, including ourselves.
Humans have come up with endless strategies to try to deal with this. Some just don’t want to think about it. They stay busy, distracting themselves with activity, drugs, striving, or something else. Some create an after-life or rebirth, or a higher power that they hope does have control, and who might hopefully have a larger plan we’re unaware of, that hopefully will cause everything to turn out alright.
Some decide to make hay while the sun shines. They strive to accumulate wealth, or power, hoping to gain more of a fighting chance in the struggle against cause and effect. Others do what they can to fend off the inevitability of impermanence with modern medicine, exercise, and healthy living. Some find comfort in leaving good works or some sort of legacy that will remain after they’re gone.
Some people just try to stay high all the time. Others become interested in philosophy, hoping to find an explanation. Others become deeply angry and lose control. Still others hope that controlling their mind will provide an answer.
Some hope that individual action will save them. Others seek the security of their group, their tribe, their religion. “If I follow the rules, everything will be fine.” Some divide the world into good and bad, appropriate and inappropriate, and fight against the bad and run after the good. Others hope their adherence to certain guiding principles and ideas will help. Others hope that going beyond principles and ideas, into a state of “no mind,” will provide a solution.
Though it’s not hard to find people who swear by the effectiveness of each of these methods, so far no one has found a way to escape from cause and effect, and no one has found a way to escape from the underlying impermanence of all things. We don’t like to hear this, though. It gives us an uneasy feeling. “There’s no escape? There’s nothing I can do?” So, many people hold out hope that there will turn out to be an afterlife, or that reincarnation will bring them back again (interestingly, Buddhists and Hindus are hoping to step out of that cycle, not perpetuate it).
You may have tried many, or even most of, these methods. You may have tried them all. I’ve tried most of them myself. In the short run, all of them work, or at least seem to work while you’re involved in them. In the long run, none of them work.
As infants we hope that if we cry loudly enough someone will take away our suffering. That’s the only method we have access to. As small children we imagine magical powers that will give us control over what happens (we also keep the crying option open). As we get older, we stop thinking that we have magical powers, but instead attribute them to a parade of powerful others: parents, authority figures, worldly (or spiritual) leaders, a romantic partner, or some higher power.
None of these methods, though, allows us to escape from cause and effect, or from impermanence, because there is no escape. Maybe that’s why we feel so profoundly disappointed (and sometimes angry) when it becomes apparent that one of these “powerful others” isn’t going to provide the answer, the salvation, the solace, or the solution.
No one escapes from these two cornerstones of the human condition. Some people, though, do come to terms with them. Except in rare cases, though, this doesn’t happen until every possible means of escape has been tried.
Human development (which I’ve written about extensively on this blog-see the first dozen or so posts) can be seen as a series of increasingly sophisticated approaches for dealing with impermanence and cause and effect, along with an increasingly broader perspective about such things. Magical thinking (I have magic powers that allow me to control the universe) and mythic thinking (placing the magical power in a powerful other rather than in the self) are examples of this, but there are many other ways human beings attempt to defeat or forestall the effects of cause and effect and impermanence.
You’re probably thinking that I’m about to suggest a solution to all of this. I’m not. I don’t have a solution. There isn’t one. I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but there really IS no escape.
But what if we took the fact that there’s no escape as a starting point, instead of fighting it or ignoring it? What if we could somehow come to terms with death and other forms of impermanence, and with cause and effect? Wouldn’t that at least be more realistic? Perhaps surrendering to “what is” would do something that would make life worthwhile, despite the realities-in the same way that someone who has finally accepted their terminal illness exudes a transcendental radiance and inner peace, creating a sense of awe (and a contact high) in everyone around them.
Buddhists call the unwillingness to accept impermanence and cause and effect delusion, ignorance-in other words, an ignoring of the most basic facts of life. But, you say, accepting all of this seems to be such a profoundly negative outlook. Ironically, though, this embracing of “what is” turns out to be incredibly freeing.
I mentioned earlier that you probably won’t give up your struggle against these two until you’ve tried everything. Just being told that there’s no escape doesn’t work. Reading this post isn’t going to change anything for you. Even if you agree on an intellectual level that there’s no escape, you’ll still keep trying to escape-until and unless you run out of options.
There are some people running around who still believe the Earth is flat. No amount of arguing will change the minds of such people. To change the mind of such a person, you’ll have to show them, experientially. How would you do that? You might say to them, “Well of course the Earth is flat. Wouldn’t it be fun to go look over the edge?”
And, then to make sure you didn’t wander around in circles, and not find the edge just because you were sloppy about your search, you’d program your GPS and head due east, for instance, on a certain line of latitude. In other words, you’d head for the edge you’re hoping to find, in a disciplined way. Then, when the two of you finally returned to the place where you’d started, the flat-Earth person would have to at least admit that the Earth is a cylinder.
In much the same way, a good spiritual teacher will send you off in a disciplined search for a solution to the problems of impermanence and cause and effect-not to find a solution (though that’s what you think is going on), but rather to get you to try every way out, until you have no choice but to come to the inevitable conclusion, from personal experience, that there really is no escape.
I’ve discussed Zen master Genpo Roshi’s innovative Big Mind process many times in this blog. In this approach, you’re asked to speak from various “voices” or aspects of the self (as well as those of the transcendent “no-self”). One of the most potent of these voices is the voice of Great Doubt. This voice represents the part of you that really, truly doubts everything, including that there’s any possible escape, solution, or salvation.
Amazingly, when you really get into the voice of Great Doubt, instead of the darkness and gloom you might expect, you find ultimate freedom. This gives us a second way to drop your impossible quest for a way to escape: you could try every possible way out, until you exhaust every possibility, or you could go right to Great Doubt-be Great Doubt.
Great Doubt is, in fact, the road to Great Enlightenment. Few, however, want to go there. After all, it seems so negative. Great Doubt involves doubting that ANYTHING will save you: your ideas, your knowledge, your skills and expertise, your health, your accomplishments, the power you’ve accumulated, your religion, your physical prowess, your money, your possessions, your fame, your self-esteem, the respect you’ve earned, the therapy you’ve gone through, your love relationship, your children, your friends, your healthy diet, your doctors, your philosophy, yoga, meditation-or anything else.
Let me be clear that I’m not against any of these things. All of the above are part of what makes life juicy, interesting, and worth living. However, if you’re doing them under the illusion that they’ll save you from cause and effect or impermanence, you’ll always end up disappointed.
When you doubt-and therefore see through-all of these things, when you’ve doubted it all (that is, doubted that any of it will ultimately save you from cause and effect and impermanence), there’s nothing left to hang onto. In a spiritual and psychic sense, you’re naked. This seems like it would be very negative, doesn’t it? But once Great Doubt brings you to the place where you have nothing to hang onto, something remarkable happens and YOU’RE FREE.
There’s a koan in Buddhism: How do you take the first step off a 100 foot pole? It seems that taking that step would lead to death, annihilation-a splat on the pavement. Unless you actually take that step, though, you never discover that when you hit bottom, you bounce.
I once heard Alan Watts tell a story about a play he saw when he was a little boy. The curtain opens to a man sleeping in a fancy Victorian-era room crammed with fringed lamps, extravagant Victorian furniture, and all kinds of ornamental gewgaws and bric-a-brac. The alarm clock rings, which enrages the man so much that he grabs his shoe and begins smashing the alarm clock until it’s a flattened pile of metal and gears.
He then jumps out of bed and in his rage begins tearing the sheets off the bed and ripping them to shreds. He then smashes the crockery and the mirror and the furniture, and everything else, until the room is a scene of total demolition. The last thing standing is a tall floor lamp with a fringed lampshade. In a final act of anger, he picks up the lamp and throws it across the room…and it bounces. The surprise is that it’s made of rubber.
Though the actual contents of the story have nothing to do with what I’m talking about (other than the idea that, in the end, you “bounce”), it created such a vivid image that I’ve never forgotten it. Watts told this story to illustrate what I’m saying here: when you take that step off the 100 foot pole-when you really and truly give up all hope that anything can save you from cause and effect, or impermanence-you bounce. When you step into the abyss-or what looks to be the abyss-the dreadful consequence you were so afraid of doesn’t happen.
Instead, you discover that you are free. You discover that you are the transcendent, the unborn/undying pure awareness, the Christ, the Buddha, the One. This realization is freedom. Then, for a while, you float along in this transcendent state, where there are no problems and no one to have them, because you’re the infinite Oneness that was never born and will never die.
Later, you might come to see that even though that’s who you are, the organism through which you’re experiencing who you are is still subject to impermanence and cause and effect.
Until you decide to actually take that leap, though, what else can you do? Let’s start, then, from the assumption that there really is no escape-even if you’re the Buddha-and that you can choose to surrender to impermanence or fight it, but either way, it will win. True wisdom is seeing things as they really are.
Here you are, then, in a universe over which you have little control, and where everything eventually falls apart, including you. You realize, though, that who you really are is beyond the separate me in a bag of skin you thought you were. Still though, here you are, living (for now) in the relative world, a world of cause and effect and impermanence.
I’ve often said that awareness provides the solution to all problems. Let me explain how that’s the case even in this situation. I’ve also said that awareness gives you choice. So look at it this way. If you are caught in cause and effect (which you are), and you’re unaware, you’ll be likely to unknowingly place yourself in situations where the consequences-the effect-involve getting something you don’t want. You’ll find yourself with outcomes you don’t want, with people you don’t want, in situations you don’t want to be in.
If you have enough awareness, though, you can see that web of cause and effect before you act. You can see the inevitable karma (to use the Eastern philosophy word) you create whenever you think a certain thought, make a certain picture in your head, make a certain decision, or take a certain action. With enough awareness, no matter how complex the situation, you’ll see the potential consequences, and act accordingly. You’ll enter into life choosing the consequences you experience.
To the degree that you’re unaware, you’re quite likely to step into one situation after another, think one thought after another, make one decision after another, which leads to suffering, both for you and for others.
So while you can’t do anything about the fact that as a human being you’re subject to cause and effect, you can choose-if you’re aware-what consequences you create, what situations you enter into, what thoughts you think, what decisions you make and which actions you take. Though consequences are inevitable, you do have a choice about which consequences you generate.
The gift of awareness is choice. Remain unaware, though, and you have little or no choice. When you’re unaware, life seems to “just happen,” and some of what happens is unnecessarily painful. Suffering is built into life, due to cause and effect and the impermanence of all things. From these two there is no escape. None. The super-aware human being surrenders to impermanence, because all other choices involve delusion-the delusion that you can do something about it.
The super-aware human being also sees how cause and effect works and, in that awareness, CHOOSES how he becomes involved in it. Knowing that all thoughts and all actions have consequences, he chooses the thoughts and actions whose consequences he’s willing to experience. I choose, for instance, to be emotionally involved with Centerpointe. Because Centerpointe, like everything else, is impermanent, I know it will change and eventually fall apart. I also choose to be attached to my wife, Denise; to my daughter, Brisa, and to my son, Evan.
To be unattached to these things would make life, well, lifeless. I also know that this attachment generates consequences, but being aware, I can see them. I also know that everything I’m attached to is a choice I’ve made, with full knowledge of what I’m getting myself into. Without awareness, though, these things are not a choice.
The only thing that really gives you a leg-up in this world is awareness. Ironically, you are that awareness. That’s the only thing that was never born and never dies. That Pure Awareness, the real you, is beyond impermanence, and beyond cause and effect. The body you’re in, however, and the concepts and ideas that make up who you think you are-what I’ve called your Map of Reality, or what could be called “the separate self”-are all impermanent, and are all subject to cause and effect.
This is why Holosync is so important. Holosync creates awareness in a way I’ve never seen anything else do. As you become more aware, you start to see how you’ve been unknowingly creating the karma, the consequences, that you’ve been experiencing. The more aware you become, the more clearly you see this. And the more you see it, the more you automatically know the most resourceful thing to do in each moment.
Zen master Genpo Roshi makes a distinction between the human part of you, the part that is subject to impermanence and cause and effect, and the being part of you, the pure awareness that is beyond these. Ultimately, while you’re here, in a body, as a living thing (a “sentient being,” as they say in Buddhism), you are both human and being. The idea, then, is to integrate your humanness with your beingness, to transcend, and at the same time include, both. Genpo calls the result of this integration “the one who consciously chooses to be a human being.”
I’m not going to tell you to surrender to impermanence, because you won’t do it until you’re truly convinced that there’s no other choice. No one takes that first step off the 100 foot pole until they have no choice, though sometimes you fall without intending to. I am going to tell you, however, to do everything you can to become more aware. In my opinion, that means meditating with Holosync every day.
Alan Watts used to say that from the moment of your birth, you’re in free-fall. Clutching at the other things falling alongside you isn’t going to help. While there might not be any escape from impermanence and cause and effect, there is a way to enjoy the ride, and to be much more in charge of what happens during your plunge to the bottom. Awareness is the key.
Keep watching, and be well.
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