Here are some things I’ve learned on this path. The list is neither definitive nor complete, but here, for now, is what I see.
- We do not know the future.
I find that much of our suffering now is based on projecting that that future will be negative. We believe certain events will happen and we know that those events will be bad for us. But neither aspect of that statement is true. We really do not know what is going to happen next. There are probabilities, but that is all they are.
Perhaps even more important, we do not know how we will judge the event when it actually shows up. Life is rich and complex and all kinds of things we do not anticipate will be part of our future. We may end up loving something that we now think we will hate.
Knowing that I do not know the future—not matter how sure I am that I do—returns me to peace.
2. We never truly know the past, and the meaning of the past is not fixed.
Memory is the great trickster. We believe our memories are recordings, like video that we can play back and see what happened in the past. It is not true. Science has settled the issue rather convincingly. Our memories are experiences generated in the present by our nervous system, which has been affected by everything that as come before. Experiments show that people will weave in scenes from movies and books and include them as part of their original memory—with no awareness that they are doing so.
We can never honestly say we know what happened in the past. We can only say that at this moment, this is my memory of the event. And that is all anyone else can say as well.
Additionally, the meaning of the past can change for us. I may dislike something that happened in the past, but later, without any change in the circumstances, I might see the incident in a whole different light. The meaning of an event can change—where I thought someone was mean, I may now see that he was committed to me. And with that change in meaning, my past has changed.
3. It is valuable to distinguish pain from suffering.
We reach out and touch something hot and feel burning pain. The body learns from the pain, so next time, we are much more careful about reaching out. We lose someone close to us and we feel grief, a kind of emotional pain. These reactions are part of being alive. I see them as healthy.
Often, however, we are experiencing a different kind of pain, which is based on something else, namely our stories and beliefs about life. I call that kind of pain “suffering.” It can be acute and strong, which might show up as obsessing about how angry you are at someone else; or it might show up as more subtle and chronic, as in always feeling anxious toward life and not even realizing that anxiety is almost always present. In both cases, the suffering arises from something I am believing to be true that is not ultimately true.
A relationship ends and I feel pain. At some point, the pain will pass. But I could get caught in a belief that I will never have a good relationship again. That belief is a source of suffering. It is also something I cannot know to be true. Pain is fine. Suffering takes away our freedom and joy.
4. Inquiring into our beliefs can free us from suffering.
I am indebted to Byron Katie for her clarity on this point and her excellent practice of inquiry, The Work. I have witnessed hundreds of times now the power of exploring our own beliefs to free ourselves from the prisons they create. I am amazed again and again when I or others regain freedom and peace through meditative inquiry.
5. Peacefulness is the natural state of being.
When I am not worried about the future, or struggling with something from the past, I am peaceful. I do not have to do something to achieve this peacefulness. It is just there, available, when the struggles are not in the way.
By peaceful, I do not mean that other emotions do not arise. They do. Anger flashes, briefly burns brightly, and disappears. Grief and sadness will show up around loss. Delight might appear at some unexpected good news. These are all part of the richness of life. They pass, and that is healthy. If they do not, something else is going on.
From peacefulness, gratitude and appreciation arise easily. And I find awe shows up more frequently.
6. Truth reveals itself when we look without attachment or righteousness.
If I am attached to a perspective, I am limited by that attachment. I avoid facts and arguments that challenge it. I can become emotional about my views. These limit exploration. It is fine to have conclusions, necessary even, but I can have that without attachment. “This is my conclusion now based on what I have seen or read. It may change as I learn more.”
When we get very attached to our views, we can become righteous. The righteousness is an expression of ego. That does not mean we should not take stands. But our stands need not involve righteousness. We can be clear that based on what we know, we are going to stand for or against something. But we recognize our knowledge is limited and we could end up discovering our views are incomplete or even wrong.
One can be peaceful and deeply purposeful. Indeed, they go together well. One can have passion for a purpose without righteousness. That is purposefulness without deep egoic involvement. In my experience, that is both more satisfying and more effective.
7. What we love can guide us in life.
We are called by what we love. When we align our lives with that calling, life is richly satisfying, and we can contribute more to others. Sometimes it is hard to hear that call, or to see how to answer it. What is in the way is our suffering. It is a distraction or barrier, but it is also a friend: it shows up where we are trapped.
We can get free by looking without attachment or righteousness, by inquiring into our beliefs about the situation. When the distraction of our suffering diminishes, the opportunity to be purposeful, to align our actions with a greater meaning, becomes clearer. Our loves, then, are guiding us.