What if a mystic were to tell you that suffering, in its 10,000 forms — the great variety of life’s sorrows, disappointments, conflicts, contradictions, perplexities, and all else — is ultimately an illusion, a dream from which you could awaken? Would you say, “Hallelujah, praise be Buddha! Where do I sign up so that I may attain this liberating insight?”
You might think that that is what you’d say, but in truth the inner man within you — the guardian of the psyche, who subscribes to the saying, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” — would unconsciously respond to the offer with something along the lines of, “Hmm, so you’re saying, then, that I don’t have to suffer anymore? OK, buddy, what’s the catch? What’s it going to cost me?”
The mystic then explains that awakening from the dream, or nightmare, will cost you everything. It will cost you your world, and your self, indeed, your sense of identity, as ego, will be perceived to be hollow, void, empty.
Is it any wonder, then, that the offer is almost invariably declined, even if millions of people go through the motions, in an effort to fool themselves into thinking that they have accepted the offer, that they have merely stood at door without opening it? Thus, if so few enter through the “gateless gate,” to Buddha-land it’s because they simply don’t wish to pay the price of admission. And who can blame them, for it is natural to fear, as Shakespeare says, “…the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” For Hamlet, it was conscience — the fear of the punishment that could follow death — that “…does make cowards of us all.” But here it is consciousness, or rather the consequence of higher consciousness, that does makes cowards of us all.
The Lust for Life &Yearning that Might Drive Us On
What we fear, then, is the ultimate disorientation that would ensure were we to awaken from this dream we call life. Certainly, the prospect of being free of our misery is appealing. But we intuitively know that it is, paradoxically, our misery itself — in all its terrible familiarity — that keeps us grounded. Indeed, we wake up every morning, and before we can make it down to breakfast, we are thinking of our problems. And if that isn’t sufficient to cast a pale over the day, right from the get-go, we turn on the news or read about it on our computer, and to get the sense that all is not right in the world.
How is it, then, that some people do actually cast their fate to the wind and enter through the door that leads into the unknown? Perhaps it’s because they have suffered quite a bit and can stand no more. And perhaps it’s because they are perceptive enough to lose hope that the future will essentially be any different from the present. But it’s often something more than the wish to be free of suffering that motivates them. Rather, they are motivated by a lust for life, a yearning for ultimate reality. It is that yearning that gives one the courage to venture forth into the unknown. And courage is critically important, for as Friedrich Nietzsche contended, a philosopher needs much more than intellect to uncover the truth He or she needs courage.
Acquiring the Courage, if It is Lacking
What if one lacks this yearning and this courage to enter into the depths? Can it be acquired? It certainly can, and there are many ways to gain that courage. I’ll mention just several of them. One is the ancient practice of meditating on death. As Bob Dillon sang, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” Consequently, if you accept that it’s but a hop, skip and jump to the grave, that you shall be dead soon enough, you can martial your courage to enter into the unknown.
A second source of inspiration is compassion, what the Buddhists call “Karuna.” Compassion for the suffering of other people can inspire the heroic in us, and prompt us to awaken so that we might help other people to awaken.
A third source of courage involves what the ancient Greeks called, “Thumos,” which has been translated as honor, spiritedness, and “fire in the belly.” If a person can be inspired — or perhaps shamed — into acquiring a bit of thumos, he or she may then proceed into the depths.
A forth source of this courage spiritual courage is, strange to say, curiosity. Have you ever had a sense — perhaps in a nightmare — that there is a box you mustn’t dare open, a room that you dare not enter, a certain something that has been following you, which you dare not turn around, for the first time, and look at? And yet, our of a profound curiosity, you cast all caution to the wind and turn to look upon that which no man can see and survive. This is not small matter, for it has been written that no one can see God and live. Similarly, no one can see the truth and remain himself.
In any case, one way or another it is necessary to find the courage to risk seeing what must never be seen. You’ll know when you find it, for then something, a certain force in the universe, will come looking for you.