9. A Dog With A Bone

Q: I feel like a terrier who knows there is a mouse in the room. I just can’t let go of this search for enlightenment. Much of my search, it is true, is based on hearsay, but I do feel like I am learning more about who or what I am. More and more I notice how much of my behavior is habitual. I see myself as a collection of thoughts, habits, and conditioning, not really solid, and yet persistent, and impossible to deny. When I have a rough day, I still just have it. I feel it happening to me.

You, on the other hand, just seem to observe “Robert” having a rough day or whatever without being embroiled in any of it. You must have aches, and feel sadness and loss just like me, and yet, that additional self-inflicted mental suffering seems missing in you. You are, it appears, no longer identified with ego. So, when you answer me, Robert, who answers? Who is the voice of your identity?

I practice identifying “myself” as just an empty space where the world is felt. The rustling cedars, the warmth of my feet on the path, or the ringing in my ears, arise in my awareness, and yet they seem to be happening to me. I feel a separation between experience and experiencer. I feel like a detector of sensations that also thinks and judges. I feel trapped in this condition.

That monk who heard the bell ringing and, realizing that he was simultaneously the bell, the hearing of the bell, and the hearer of it, was instantly enlightened. One, not three. Seer-seeing-seen. How to get to that? How to realize that I am already all that arises? That is my question. That is what my inner terrier is trying to find.

At times, it seems to me that awakening is like evolution through natural selection. Some are selected and some aren’t. It’s as though, given the perfect combination of variables through time and space, organic life arrives at the level of human enlightenment, seeing one complete wholeness where nothing is separate from anything else, and living from that understanding. But that, it seems, happens only occasionally.

You said, “It happens when it happens. You get what you get when you get it.” I guess that means there is nothing I can do about it, but that terrier in me keeps digging anyway.

A: Although people like to glorify teachers and sages—particularly the ones who are said to be “enlightened” or “realized”—advice about these matters may not always be helpful. A bunch of mansplaining on the question of what the self is and isn’t could be more a distraction or an impediment than a furtherance. If one regards these purportedly enlightened maestros as infallible fonts of “truth” rather than the ordinary human beings they and we are, one is liable to fall into a kind of hypnotic spell like the dogged attitude of a recalcitrant donkey being led forward by a carrot dangled in front of its nose. That trick works every time. A donkey, however, will not dangle a carrot in front of its own nose. People will.

I have nothing to say about attaining enlightenment, or “realizing” the self. That subject, and its vocabulary, are the carrots of fantasy. No matter how often you hear the words “this is it,” or “what you seek is what is hearing me right now,” you do not accept it. There must be something else—something more evolved— and you imagine it. But that imagined MacGuffin, to be pursued until finally it is tracked down and attained, implies, and so creates, a need for time — an interval between now and then during which some learning, some progress, some deserving, some evolution has somehow to occur.

“I don’t get it now, but if I ask enough questions, someday I will get it. I am not enlightened now, but someday I may evolve into becoming enlightened.”

But that’s nonsense. In this matter, there isn’t any time. There isn’t any interval. Nothing becomes anything. This is it. There, I’ve said it again. Can you not accept that? What were you expecting?

The self you seek is here right now, and is not becoming anything.

You have before your eyes dots on a screen or ink on a page. None of it means anything at all until the “self” scans and makes sense of those dots and squiggles.

It is not the eye that perceives squiggles and sees words, but mind. If you speak the language represented by those squiggles, a flow of images and ideas arises effortlessly. You don’t have to try to decipher the squiggles, or try to construct images and ideas from them; it just happens. That effortless happening is the self. It was there in childhood, and it is here now. There will never be any other self. This is it.

You believe that I have acquired some extraordinary power of simply observing, so that I stand apart from pain and loss, and suffer them less than you do. That’s backwards. I have no way of avoiding pain or anything else I feel, and I know it. I feel what I feel, and what I feel is me. Without feelings, there is no I, and without I, there are no feelings.

“I” am not observing anything. The observer is the observed. A dividing line between inside and outside is a feature of Fantasyland, and I don’t hang out in that theme park. It’s all me. I have no way to distance myself or be rid of anything. After all, where would I put it?

Because your concerns center around suffering and the avoidance of it, when I say I cannot avoid feeling whatever I feel, like it or not, that might sound dire like being “trapped in this condition,” as you said, but honestly, choicelessness is quite a relief. It feels quite relaxing, let’s say, to swallow the world and be swallowed by it.

Each apparently separate feature of experience arises in unison with every other apparently separate feature. Reality is all of a piece, so there is no question of accepting one part of it while rejecting another. No one stands independent to accept or reject anything. Whatever I see, feel, and think is me. We may imagine other entirely different orders of existence. We may imagine anything. But what we actually know is very little: only what we see, feel, and think.

Have you heard the story of the little terrier who was running around with a bone in its mouth? Well, he got to a bridge over a pond, and looking down saw another little terrier reflected in the surface of that pond. And that dog also had a bone in its mouth. Hungering for the other dog’s bone as well as the one he already had, our little doggie began to bark, and as he did, the bone he had been enjoying slipped from his mouth and fell into the stream, lost forever.

Have a little chat with that terrier in you. Explain to him that in each moment, things are just as they are, and so there is nothing to seek or to attain. “Call off the hunt, little doggie,” you might tell him. “There’s no sense in riding a donkey searching for a donkey.”

You don’t have to do anything. Just remain open to situations, thoughts, and emotions, meeting each fresh moment without reservations. In that simplicity is the end of seeking.