Tonight I’ll give the fourteenth in a series of Dharma talks that present highlights from chapters of Jack Kornfield’s book, No Time Like the Present Moment. The chapter entitled “Live in Mystery” begins with a quotation by Paul Valery: “God made everything out of nothing, but the nothing shows through.”
Jack encourages us to look at afresh at what we so often take for granted. For instance, in the palms of our hands we can see the “remnants of primate life and the future of humanity.” When we gaze into the eyes of a loved one, we realize that we have no idea where this human incarnation comes from or what mysterious form of consciousness connects us. Amazingly, our three-pound brain has more neural-firing patterns than the number of stars in the known universe.
There are many ways of knowing beyond our sense impressions, ordinary perceptions, and rational thoughts. Jack tells the story of a Senegalese woman who dreamed of exactly where to find water in a drought-stricken part of the Sahara desert. At that very spot, tribal drummers and singers accompanied hard-working diggers until precious water gushed forth. Their community trusted the woman’s prophetic dream and her intuitive wisdom.
Despite strong skepticism, a Berkeley scientist named Elizabeth Mayer followed her mother’s advice and hired a dowser to find a valuable, stolen harp. After he tracked the missing musical instrument to a single city block in Oakland, she located the harp. Elizabeth was so impressed by the dowser’s inexplicable gifts that she wrote a book called Extraordinary Knowing.
Many of us have had déjà vu experiences. The first time I traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, I felt as if I “recognized” the central part of the city with its imposing cathedral and nearby Dominican monastery. Seated at an outdoor café on the zócalo, I felt at home with the scent of gardenia flowers, the taste of salsa picante, and the ambient sounds of Spanish and indigenous languages.
Similarly, Jack describes how everything felt familiar when he arrived at a forest monastery in Thailand. It was as if he had already gone through the rituals of ordaining as a shaven-headed monk and receiving food in an alms bowl. During a state of deep meditation, memories arose of a previous life as a poor monk in ancient China. But Jack dismissed this experience as a figment of his imagination. In 1967 he told his principle teacher, Ajahn Chah, “I don’t believe in past or future lives because I’m from a family of scientists.” The forest monk laughed and replied, “No need to believe. Birth and death happen in every moment. Pay attention to this and you’ll learn everything you need to know about suffering and freedom from suffering.” Now, after 50 years of practicing meditation, Jack confesses, “I didn’t use to believe in anything. Now I pretty much believe in everything.”
Consciousness is not limited to the body. Some of you may have experienced what is called a “crisis apparition.” I recall waking up from a dream about my maternal step-grandfather visiting to bid me farewell. Shortly afterwards, my mother phoned with the news that he had just died.
Recently Mark and I watched a movie titled Awake: The Life of Yogananda. When he was an eleven-year-old boy, Yogananda dreamed about his mother, who had departed on a trip a day earlier. In the dream, she appeared to him in a state of terminal illness. He awoke with a premonition that she was dying—and indeed his fears were proven true.
Just as mysteriously, Jack recounts incidents of his spirit leaving and viewing his body from afar. Late one night on a month-long retreat at Spirit Rock, I experienced my spirit rising above where I was writing some insights in my journal to observe that my body was exhausted and in need of rest.
Occasionally at hospice, I witness terminal patients communicating with spirits of deceased loved ones, who are invisible to my own eyes. From the serene demeanor of patients involved in such an interaction, I hypothesize that what could be considered a psychotic hallucination is actually a reassuring visitation from the Great Beyond. At the moment of death, it seems apparent that an individual body is merely a temporary container for a fragment of sacred consciousness that permeates the universe.
On his international journeys, Jack sometimes leads past-life regressions for people while they are in deep meditative states. Whether or not they believe in reincarnation, many remember and learn from visions of previous lifetimes. When they re-experience how they died, these meditators describe spirit leaving the body and entering realms of lights or numinous darkness until a pull arises to enter a womb again. As Jack says, “There is no need for you to believe any of this. Simply keep an open mind.”
As I look at myself in a mirror, I notice that my body has aged, but I don’t feel older inside. Jack explains that although the body exists in time, the observing consciousness is timeless and can witness both the birth and death of the body. In The Color Purple, Alice Walker writes, “One day when I was sittin’ there like a motherless child (which I was), it come to me that feeling of bein’ a part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and cried and I run all around the house. I just knew what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can’t miss it.”
As Jack declares, “We are consciousness incarnated in a human body, but not limited by it. Consciousness is a clear space of knowing, as vast as the open sky. Rest in consciousness, in loving awareness. Let vastness be your home…. You are the consciousness witnessing it all, the loving awareness and the mystery from which it is born.”
There are many ways to touch that vastness. As you dance, you might sense yourself becoming part of the music. Or as you gaze into a loved one’s eyes, you may sense time and space dissolving into eternity. When you are deeply attentive, you can see through the veil of separation and recognize the ephemeral nature of your personality. The small self feels separate, insecure, unfulfilled, and frightened by the ever-changing river of life. But close attention reveals that you are life and the river. Ever-present awareness is your true refuge and can never be lost.
I find Jack’s words comforting: “You don’t have to be afraid to open. When you let go of the usual limited self, you are perfectly safe. Your body and personality and intelligence are still here. They become like your pets—you can feed and care for them and even enjoy their quirky qualities, but they are not ‘you’…. Your free spirit is beyond them all.”
If you define yourself by your history and self-image, you can become lost. As Jack says, “You are so much more than the stories you tell yourself about your body, your family, your history with its traumas and dramas, your failures and accomplishments. Reality is bigger than this.” While you can honor your family, nation, race, education, and sexual orientation, none of these fully defines you. Each of us is a unique individual with dreams and idiosyncrasies that transcend appearances.
In my book, I Dreamed I Was Normal, Jerry, a nonverbal music therapy client, typed, “God knows [that] the goals of autistic people are to deliver God’s message of love to those who pay attention.” Referring to one of Beethoven’s symphonies, Jerry wrote, “The seventh has a gentle quality that persuades listeners that they can trust in God even when they have doubts.” I feel grateful that Jerry taught me to look beyond appearances. This tall, awkward, clumsy, African American man, who lacks the capacity to speak, embodies a wise, brave, and compassionate spirit.
We are so much more than our roles and styles. My body, with its pleasure and pain, aging and illness, does not have to restrict me. Jack quotes Anne Morrow Lindbergh: “The spirit lays the body on the altar.” The human spirit is greater than impermanent forms of body and mind.
When he travels, Jack carries with him a photo of Vedran Smailovic, a cellist from the Yugoslav National Symphony, playing amid the ruins of Sarajevo’s National Library. For three years during the 1990s war waged by Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia, the Serb army surrounded and bombarded the ancient city of Sarajevo. Each day of the siege, Vedran would put on his tux, navigate through mortars and sniper fire, sit on a folding chair in sites where people had been killed, and play his cello so that his community would not give up hope. Vedran’s courage can inspire us to find dignity even in life’s ruins.
Gandhi stated, “When one person gains, the whole world gains. And if one person fails, the whole world fails to that extent.” When we quiet the mind and open the heart, we recall our interdependence with all life. Jack pays tribute to the Sioux medicine man whose thwarted struggle to save his tribe and ancestral homeland from soldiers and settlers is documented in John Neihardt’s book Black Elk Speaks. Neihardt accompanied the old man near the end of his life throughout a laborious hike to the summit of Harney Peak. Black Elk trusted that rain would fall on those who merit the Great Spirit’s blessing. Atop the mountain, the weary tribal leader lay down under a clear blue sky. To Neihardt’s astonishment, a few small clouds formed over Black Elk, who wept with relief as a soft rainfall moistened his body. Before dying, the venerable medicine man sensed that even though his mission to protect Native American territory had failed, the Great Spirit recognized that Black Elk had done his best.
We can trust that our life is not separate from the earth, the sun, and the stars. We are an integral part of the universe. Jack cites the Christian monk, Thomas Merton, who had a mystical experience on a street corner in Louisville, Kentucky:
At the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious isolation…. I have the immense joy of being a member of the human race, where the divine spark is made incarnate. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Now let’s try an adapted version of Jack’s guided meditation called “Just Like Me” (p. 264): Sit face-to-face with a partner, breathing together, and let yourself perceive the consciousness behind their eyes. Notice with kindness and patience the arising of any nervousness, shyness or embarrassment. Whenever possible, return to your partner’s gaze as you contemplate the following phrases:
This person is incarnated in a body, just like me.
This person was once a small, vulnerable child, just like me.
This person has had happy times in their life, just like me.
This person has loved someone, just like me.
This person’s heart has been broken, just like me.
This person has had a measure of sorrow and sadness, just like me.
This person has been hurt and disappointed, just like me.
This person has helped others, just like me.
This person will age, just like me.
This person has had physical pain, just like me.
This person has regrets, just like me.
This person wants to be loved, just like me.
This person wants to be safe and healthy, just like me.
Behind these eyes is the original spirit, born into each one of us.
Picture this person’s happiest moments as a child, laughing and playing.
May your happiness increase, because you want to be happy, just like me.
May you offer your gifts to yourself and to the world, just like me.
May you feel blessed as a precious human being, just like me.