By Jim Paredes
( I wrote this years ago. I was amazed to read it. It was a moment when things were so clear).
‘No matter where you go or what you do, you live your entire life within the confines of your head’–Zen saying
I posted this quote on twitter and facebook and was quite surprised at how many people resonated with it. So I thought I’d explore the topic further.
That the whole phenomenal world is perceived and appreciated through our body, senses and the grey matter which resides inside our heads is a fact. And that has has many implications. Whatever is out there, it can be safely assumed that no two people can and will appreciate it in exactly the same way. Whatever we experience, even the collective ones, will have its own uniquely personal nuances that will make the same time, place and event different for each of us. Perception is always personal. Such is the uniqueness of being alive.
Around18 years ago, I read a question a writer had posed which asked, ‘Do you control your mind or does your mind control you?’ I was immensely fascinated by the question which shook my being completely. I started reading about the topic and in the course of doing so, I was led to the book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki, a zen master.
While the book did not actually answer the question, it led me to a greater field of interest. The book begins with the phrase, ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.” This insight, which to me at that time seemed so radical and which went against the grain of how the world was, questioned everything I knew about what an educated person should be. I started to examine what many believed to be the ‘learned’ mind as opposed to the ‘open’ or empty mind which the author was writing about.
I reflected on all the years and all the effort I spent in school learning facts, figures and bodies of knowledge. Much of it had not only changed since I learned them but some had even become irrelevant. I came to the conclusion that as much as learning them was necessary to pass my classes, the greater value was in learning to learn, to discern, to think things through and respond to whatever situation life presented. This was more important than having prior knowledge about anything.
And I also realised that knowledge itself is the same as any other possession in the world. One must not be attached to it like dogma but must be ready to dispose of it when it reaches its expiry date and when something more true and useful comes along.
Zen and Suzuki opened me to many dimensions of nuanced thinking about dichotomies and unities such as form versus emptiness, and form being emptiness itself and vice-versa. It pointed out how our minds are constantly pulled here and there by conflicting concerns and spoke of a state where one can rise above all that and rest on a clear, empty mind. Not only that, reading the book gave impetus to my meditation practice which continues to this day and probably will never end.
The mind is a wondrous thing. But it must be mastered or it can drive you crazy. And the person who can explore and understand his own mind will know that a big part of it is the cultivation of ones’ inner life and how it opens itself to states, levels and lines of subtle thoughts, insights and experiences. It begins with thoughts but soon becomes something bigger which is consciousness.
When I started to do zen meditation (zazen) with regularity, I began to notice that aside from what I knew of myself, there seemed to be a witness that made possible my knowing this self. The witness watched this self that resided in my body that appeared to live a life. It was a rather small self compared to the one witnessing it.
This witness watched the small self who was called Jim Paredes. It could see this self as a third person. It was like there was two of me. The witness was vast and borderless, an infinitely larger SELF. And recognising the witness who was making itself aware as consciousness was a huge awakening of sorts for me. I discovered that I was actually infinitely bigger than I ever imagined. I was more than my personality, or the persona as the world knew me. I was the entity who could see behind the details, the labels and the name of what the world saw.
There was, in fact, the big ‘I’ and that was my true self.
I was not just the one living Jim’s life but the one witnessing Jim’s life being lived, while watching everything else in the world that was unfolding and arising.
Coming to this epiphany was like the Universe had opened itself to me in its full splendour. It was a state of full consciousness as clear and empty as the sky. Life’s events, thoughts and concerns were mere clouds that floated by. All of a sudden, there was no individual thing that existed. Everything and everyone was of the Oneness playing out. It was like what Osho, the yogi said, where one ‘falls in tune with the whole’. The limits of time and space could be surmounted and glimpses of eternity could be experienced in the mundane world. There was no such as thing as an ordinary thing, much less an ordinary life.
The brain is a body of nerves, synapses and stuff where a lot of things happen. It is located in the cranium or the skull. This is where one might say, our knowledge is stored physically. But there are states of mind that go beyond the plane of knowledge and ordinary perception. To be in full consciousness or in an awakened state is to realize that there is a reality that goes beyond what mere senses or regular cognition can speak of, and that the one who perceives this, this consciousness, is non-local. Truly, the exploration of the mind beyond logic, ego and into awakened consciousness can lead one to spirit.
No, I do not smoke anything to have such experiences. And before I sound any more esoteric, I do not claim to be in this state 24/7. But I will admit I have been there a few times, even if at other times I still get lost in the pull of everyday emotions and concerns. And yes, I still have blind spots and my ego can still want to be in control, and it still desires to win quite often. But the profound experience of awakening to the witness has made the landscape and contours of my inner life quite different. What used to be just thinking before seems to have moved toward the greater state of being consciously aware.
And all this has nothing to do with acquiring knowledge or achieving any intellectual feat. It has everything to do with not trying to grasp anything and letting things go. The practice of emptying the mind and making room for the untainted, unblemished present unfolding is a spiritual exercise. You see things just as they are, without artifice or spin. A Japanese zen master could not have put it any simpler when he said, ‘”Don’t seek the truth; just drop your opinions.”
And what used to be a constant battle to escape the world and its attendant pains has become more and more an acceptance and accommodation of it.
If, as the saying goes, everything we do or experience happens within the confines of our head, we may as well awaken the mind-spirit to its eternal radiance and “borderlessness” so that the entire Universe and more can fit inside it.