If I am suffering, it is because I am choosing something over ending suffering.
— Short Recitation
If asked “Do you want to wake up and end suffering?” most practitioners of awareness would say “Yes, of course!” But when faced with a choice between suffering and freedom, how often do we make the choice for freedom? And if we don’t choose freedom from suffering, do we have a sense of the karma, the “person” we’d rather be, the situation that we cling to? This was the sobering and enlightening exploration of a recent group with the Guide.
Take a moment.
Pick up the recorder.
Explore for yourself where there is unwillingness to choose no-ego.
The temptation when we arrive at the crossroads of unwillingness to surrender ego is to “feel bad.” “There is something wrong with me” because of this gap between what I say I want and what I choose to do. If we stay with feeling bad, the choice being made, which we may or may not be able to see, is for believing oneself to be the wrong person, the someone who won’t choose freedom.
But what is choosing freedom? Freedom from what?
The spiritual definition of freedom is freedom from ego. The conditioned definition of freedom is to be the ego and not be miserable—an impossible ask, but one we cling to with determination! At the point of choice between waking up and remaining identified with ego, we stay with ego-identification perhaps because we have not yet let go the hope that we can be happily egocentric.
This brings us to growing up. We grow up, spiritually speaking, when we let go the hope that we can remain who we believe we are—an ego self that is separate from the rest of Life—and still be happy. It takes being really miserable or being really clear (having suffered enough) to stop making the choices for misery (ego) and start making the choices for happiness (no ego). Incidentally, facing what we’d rather not face (“happily egocentric” is an oxymoron) is not an optional course in Life’s curriculum. We may attempt to avoid what we find uncomfortable, unpleasant, and difficult, but no matter how hard we try to change the externals, or distract ourselves, the personality that we identify with as “I” comes along for the ride. At some point we must admit that “I” is the only thing that doesn’t change. Ergo, not-I (not an ego) has to be chosen.
This is one reason for being grateful for situations in our lives that bring us to what we describe in Practice as “the wisdom of no escape.” We can spend a lifetime in low levels of dissatisfaction, which often happens if we’re privileged. We have everything a human being needs, and often more than enough of what human beings want, but there is still a vague sense of “something missing.” This below the radar level of misery doesn’t catapult us into making different choices, the choices, say, for complete happiness. We are “content” to live that way, even while doing a spiritual practice, but both contentment and practice are, let’s face it, on ego’s terms. But sometimes Life arranges the circumstances so we get to confront what we have avoided so far. In these situations, the suffering ratchets up or the ego-I breaks down. Whatever “I” do cannot fix the situation. There is a hopelessness in it that is our Friend. And in that choice-less-ness, if it is time, the portal to true transformation opens. Then we get a close-up view of ego death. Being the chrysalis for this metamorphosis feels unbearable. But when we come through it, there is also an inexpressible lightness of being. We are not the same person! Until ego arises again in hope: “Perhaps I’ve arrived? Can I stay in this peace forever?” And again the cycle of hope and despair begins…unless it doesn’t.
There are always moments when one feels empty and estranged. Such moments are most desirable, for it means the soul has cast its moorings and is sailing for distant places. This is detachment -- when the old is over and the new has not yet come. If you are afraid, the state may be distressing, but there is really nothing to be afraid of. Remember the instruction: Whatever you come across -- go beyond.
― Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
On a spiritual journey, we may or may not “wake up” and stay awake. But if we accept that we are always in process, we up the odds that we remain in the process of waking up through a devoted practice, a practice of choosing freedom from ego. Identifying a karmic pattern is always encouraged as a first movement in practice. But once we have identified the pattern, we must transition to a practice of being aware when ego is operating, and once aware of it, choose not to perpetuate it.
This is incredibly challenging to do in the middle of ego-identification, akin to turning around the Titanic. The intensity of the sensations, the “reality” of the emotions, the belief in the story make it appear that redirecting the attention is impossible, even if there is awareness that the only thing going on is an ego takeover. With practice, we can use our tools to process what’s happening for us, and in bringing our experience into conscious awareness, shift the attention and dis-identify. This is progress! And we are required to go further. If practice becomes recovery from ego identification after acting out of it, that’s a practice of relief from ego identification; it’s still not transcendence. So what now?
We must each take responsibility for our attention.
― The Guide
The answer to “What now?” always remains the same: Practice custody of the attention. It is always the only “doing” that actually makes a difference in any situation!
If we’ve been practicing for some time, we are happier. But there is a place for all of us in which custody of the attention is elusive. We could call this place a karmic rut. Being stuck in a karmic rut is the proverbial doldrums of practice. Nothing, it seems, penetrates the dreariness of living with the conditioned mind. All the answers are “known” and the very knowing seals the exits from the mental prison. The temptation is to turn to hope again, that someone or something outside of us will save us. Worse, we might be tempted to go back into the “Matrix,” turning to ego as the answer in the form of any distraction that makes us feel better. Instead of changing how “I” feel, or hoping it will get better, we practice moving towards, via attention, to what the sages call the territory beyond the mind. It may take several attempts, days even, before the barrier is breached. But we make the attempt, again and yet again, even when it appears as if nothing is changing. There is nothing to lose after all! Just the ego.
A much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet.
― Pema Chödrön
Custody of the attention is not employing the mind to transcend the mind, which is the real definition of being stuck in a karmic rut. What custody of the attention is in the karmic doldrums is cultivating a fascination for stuck-ness, an interest in the very thing that we want to get away from. Attention as interest, as curiosity, as friendliness is counter-intuitive to conditioned mind in the situation. Everything in us is screaming to get out of the rut, but it’s a false scream. The rut is interested in maintaining “ego-me.” So the only way out is through. To grasp the moment by admitting what’s actually going on—deep identification with ego—to attend to this state of unwillingness, to find a way to make friends with the stuck-ness is a way to go beyond it. This is not being compassionate to self-hate or ego! Friendliness as an attitude of being, simply re-contextualizes facing what we don’t want to face. It’s facing ego but not facing it from the perspective that there is anything wrong. It’s not easy, but no one else can do it for us. In the end, it’s only when we face ego down that we truly see ourselves!
Taking responsibility for the attention is taking responsibility for our awakening. There is no imposed timeline. We can suffer as long as we choose. We can end suffering any moment we choose to. Directing attention to thisherenow, when the content isn’t charged, is a good training strategy. When the stakes are low, it’s easier to choose not-ego over ego. The more we exercise the choice for custody of the attention, the more access we have to willingness when we arrive at that threshold at which ego is unwilling. And, in the words of Anais Nin, the day will come, “when the risk to remain tight in a bud is more painful than the risk it takes to blossom.”
Perhaps today is that day? We needn’t hope. We can practice custody of the attention!
If I am suffering, it is because I am choosing something over ending suffering.