Something has become obvious to me these past several days as I have traveled and talked with folks about their lives. As a people we are wonderfully kind, we care about our troubled world, we are good and sincere, but we don’t want to end suffering. We do not want to give up our self-focused orientation to life and join with the invisible author, whoever or whatever that may be, of all our experience. We say we want to be happy and to an extent, I think, that’s true, but our actions suggest otherwise. To be truly happy requires that we abandon self-centeredness, and that is something almost nobody is willing to do—not because we are bad but because we are helpless. We imagine that who we actually are is the “self” we were taught to be, and so we act upon the unconscious imperative to remain at the center of our own universe, and would rather have that than true freedom.
Yesterday I met a man in a park named Presley (his friends call him Elvis, he said). He was walking home from the hospital. Presley told me after some hesitation that he has a life-threatening illness. It’s in remission right now, thankfully, but he knows that at some point it will reemerge and kill him. Naturally, Presley is struggling to come to peace with that fact. When he first received the news, he said, he blamed God and hated God for allowing this tragedy to happen to him, but later he let that go and found the courage to put his trust in God instead. “The whole thing brought me back to life,” he told me, and he seemed sincere.
It has been some time since Presley’s diagnosis. Gradually the spark of life that had ignited in the face of the tremendous challenge has lost its vigor. It has not died, but Presley is worried it will. “I don’t know what is wrong with me that I am losing touch with God.” he said over and over. I told Presley that I didn’t think there was anything wrong with him at all. He is, I said, like everyone else: we are deeply habituated to choose distraction over the presence of divinity.
I told Presley about one of my favorite heroes, a monk in the middle ages by the name of Brother Lawrence. Brother Lawrence by all accounts achieved a remarkable state of grace. It is said that he lived in communion with Life/God all of the time. The way he managed it was through a simple method he called “Practicing the presence of God”. Every time his attention wandered away from his experience of divinity he would bring it back, over and over all day long for years. That’s it, and that was enough to carry him to a state of beatitude.
This is all that someone in Presley’s predicament (and we are all in his predicament) needs to know: that there is nothing wrong, that he is just experiencing the human habit of distraction, and that a simple practice exists that will reunite him with Life. Unfortunately, he was not interested. He wanted to focus instead on what is wrong with him and the supposed truth that he is not the person he should be. I felt sad at this, but not surprised. To do what Brother Lawrence did is the most difficult and frightening of all things a human could choose to do, as far as I can see. We are so programmed to live immersed within conditioned mind that almost nobody can even see the other alternative. And yet the fact remains that there is a clear path to true happiness, and we must all follow it if we are to save ourselves from individual sorrow and universal destruction.
More about this in the next blog.