We’re always aware of something or another.
We’re aware of ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, the world around us and everything in it as well. We’re aware of the things we need to do today. We’re aware of our goals, and maybe our fears.
But we’re usually unaware of being awake and alive (conscious). We take it for granted. We know, in the back of our minds, that we’re conscious. It’s a given. It’s such a given, that it’s easy to push into the background.
We spend most of our days being aware of the things that come and go in our field of view, but we seldom give a thought to the field itself.
This is unfortunate for us, since it’s the main cause behind all our suffering. We get so wrapped up in the movie that we forget about the roll of film and the projector. But if we’re watching a movie and suddenly think, “This is a movie,” then we’ve suddenly escaped the plot.
Movies and plays only work because we forget that they’re movies and plays—that’s why actors rarely break the “Fourth wall.” When an actor acknowledges the audience, we remember that we’re watching a play. We’re suddenly aware of our bodies, the theater, and the seats again.
It’s not that all those things vanished when were immersed in the story—they were still part of our lives—we just weren’t aware of them, we didn’t know them, the same way we didn’t know that the play was a play.
Being aware of being alive is just like that. We’re breaking the invisible fourth wall that’s become a part of all our experiences, that separates the observer from the observed.
One of the reasons we suffer is because there’s an imbalance in our experiences. When we’re more aware of what’s going on in our lives than life itself, we can lose our footing and get swept up by the current of our own senses, thoughts, feelings, and desires.
So we shift being aware of what is going on to being aware of what is.
Buddhism is interesting because its core doctrine is basically, “Everything is cause and effect, and each effect serves as another cause.” I’ve never come across another religion or philosophy that places so much emphasis on causal inference.
If there’s A, then there’s B. The things going on in our lives are B, and that’s generally all that we’re aware of. So the practice involves being aware of A. Once we’re completely aware of A, then B isn’t as menacing or maddening as it once was.
Imagine if we didn’t know that a coin had heads and tails, we thought it only had tails, that heads was made up. So when someone says, “Heads you win, tails you lose,” then we’re gonna think that losing is unavoidable. Tails = the things going on in our lives; heads is life.
Our cynicism isn’t unfounded because the coin is rigged so that it always comes up tails. To spot heads, we’ve either gotta pick it up and look at the other side, grab it in mid-air, or glimpse heads as it turns.
But seeing heads isn’t complete realization. We’ve gone from one extreme to another.
Complete realization is seeing that it’s altogether; consciousness and the things we’re conscious of never appear without each other. It all looks like this:
If there’s life, then there’s life.
If there are things going on in life, then there are things going on in life.
If there’s life, then there are things going on in life.
If there are things going on in life, then there’s life.
From a logical standpoint, those first two lines are fallacious since they involve circular reasoning. That’s why samsara seems to exist. If we’re stuck on 2, then we’re in a constant loop of, “Things are going on, things are going, on, things are going on…” If we’re stuck on 1, then we’re stuck on, “Nothing’s going on, nothing’s going on.”
If we bring them together, like in lines 3 and 4, then they’re unconditionally true (same conclusion from both perspectives), and the spinning stops. That’s what Buddha called the Middle Way.
I’ve met a lot of Buddhists, philosophers, and people from other mystic traditions who get stuck on 1. I call them, “Zen Bastards,” because they’re usually annoying as fuck.
But going from knowing the many to the one only brings us halfway there. We’ve gone from saying, “There’s only tails,” to, “There’s only heads.” This might ease our suffering, but only for awhile. And it doesn’t do anything about the suffering-at-large.
Then we have to take that last step and go from knowing the one, to knowing the one and the many at the same time. This is like propping the coin up on its edge.
Then we see that all the polarities we’ve ever known are like this. This allows us to be in the world but not of the world, to handle what’s going on in our lives without being handled by what’s going on in our lives.
But, to do that, we usually have to see the other side of the coin first. We can’t rely on faith (“I believe in heads!”) or reason (“If there’s tails, then there’s heads”). We can use them both to send us on our way, but really we have to see for ourselves because neither faith nor reason are beyond a reasonable doubt.
Just as the teachings can make us doubt our conclusion that, “There’s only tails,” daily life can make us doubt the conclusion that, “There must be heads.” So if we rely only on faith or reason, and don’t put in the footwork, then we’re gonna eventually fall back into our old ways, our old suffering.
So first, using either faith or reason, we move our emphasis from what’s happening to what is, from the seen to the seeing until, for a moment, we only know that seeing, what is. That’s not a time to settle, but to double our efforts until enlightenment spits us back out into the world.
Then we can see the sun and moon with one eye. After that, we can just live ordinary lives, going wherever the wind takes us.