By Jed McKenna
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In the knowledge of the Atman,
which is the dark night to the ignorant,
the recollected mind is fully awake and aware.
The ignorant are awake in their sense-life,Bhagavad Gita
which is darkness to the sage.
KAMIEL CAME PREPARED. He carries a bulging, well-worn, triple rubber-banded notebook full of thoughts, ideas, and questions accumulated during several years of reading spiritual books, attending spiritual gatherings, and participating in spiritual Internet discussion groups.
“A lot of teachers,” he informs me, “say that the necessary first step in awakening is dissatisfaction; a gnawing discontentment on the feeling level. Is that what you mean when you talk about intent?”
Most of Kamiel’s reading in recent years has centered on the works of Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj, Ramesh Balsekar, Jean Klein and that whole crew. He seems philosophically inclined toward the peculiar brand of nonduality and neo-Advaita Vedanta that attracts a growing audience these days. Its allure seems based on its simple core truth; not-two. While not-two is not exactly true, two is exactly not true, and therefore succinctly marks the endpoint of dualistic thought; you’d think. Where nondual enthusiasts go astray is in trying to erect a philosophical structure atop this simple truth. Truth is always simple and never provides the basis for any philosophy, but Kamiel is determined to believe that his ramshackle nondual philosophy is structurally sound. I’ve explained to him that you can’t build a philosophy of This on a foundation of Not-This, but he is quite attached to his improbable little edifice and not yet ready to decamp.
Which is perfectly fine. Waking up is a stop-and-go journey. It takes a lot of hard work to reach a plateau like nonduality and pausing to rest and acclimate before moving on is part of the process. Nonduality may not be the final destination new arrivals might suppose, but getting there is an impressive and challenging feat and the views are rewarding in all directions. What’s more, I like Kamiel and generally enjoy talking with him. He asks good questions that elicit interesting answers. I’m usually limited to speaking in monologues rather than dialogues, but it’s the student who calls the tune and Kamiel makes a good job of it.
“Well,” I respond after thinking about his question a bit, “I guess it’s a matter of degree. Let’s try out a new analogy. I’m making this up on the fly so bear with me. Here’s the situation: You’re sitting in your skyscraper office a hundred stories off the ground thinking about how successful you are and how your life is just grand. With me so far? In terms of satisfaction, you’re very satisfied. You have it all; fancy office, great views, the respect and admiration of those around you, everything you ever wanted. Okay?”
“So, you’re like that—happy, content, well-satisfied—for however long; months, years, decades. But then one day, for whatever reason, dissatisfaction begins to creep in. Something about your office starts to bug you. It starts with little things. You’re dissatisfied with your curtains; they don’t go with the credenza at all. ‘What was I thinking?’ you wonder. ‘How could I have been so blind?’ And now that you’re looking more closely, it’s obvious that the carpet is a fiasco and the artwork is just an embarrassment. One minute you’re happy, the next minute you’re very dissatisfied. Extremely dissatisfied. This office is simply not an accurate outward representation of your inner professional. You’ve outgrown it.”
“It actually sounds like a pretty cool office.”
“Yes, well, that’s what everyone else thinks; your friends, colleagues, your family. They think you’ve got it made and that you’re nuts for wanting to mess with it. Of course, you’re only dissatisfied when you’re in the office. You pretty much forget about it when you’re anywhere else. Right?”
“And you’re following the analogy, right? These things can be a bit wobbly the first time out. Your office represents your relationship to the larger questions of life and your dissatisfaction represents—”
“Good. So what’s the answer? What do you do about this very dissatisfying office of yours?”
“Uh, I don’t know,” he shrugs. “Redecorate?”
“Yeah, that sounds right. But this time you’re going to be very serious about it. You’re going to bring in a top-notch decorator and strip the place down to the floorboards and start from scratch. You’re not going to be a mere dabbler; you’re going all the way with this. You’re a serious professional and you deserve a serious office. See what I mean? See how what started as a gnawing little dissatisfaction has grown into a life-transforming event?”
“Okay,” he says dutifully.
“So that’s what you do. You go out and buy books and magazines on interior design. You talk to people and attend lectures and events. You hire the best decorator you can find; someone you resonate with deeply. You yourself are being transformed by this experience. You yourself are growing, developing, expanding. It’s very challenging, but you’re taking a no-nonsense approach. It’s slow going, but little by little change is occurring. Your office is starting to look and feel like a genuine outer representation of your inner professional. It may take years to get it right, but nothing will stop you. This is too important. In fact, it has become one of the most important things in your life, right up there with home and family. See what I mean?”
“Yes,” he says eagerly. “The master decorator represents the guru and the redecorating process represents the spiritual transformation we undergo when we truly begin to challenge our beliefs and seek higher knowledge. What started out as kind of a gnawing dissatisfaction has grown into the impetus for important change, and although it might seem like a bad thing at first, this is how the process of change works. This is how we develop, how we grow.”
“Exactly,” I say. “Nobody acts from contentment. We need problems to solve or else we vegetate. That great office was once something we strived to get, then it was achieved and enjoyed in contentment, but then discontent sets in to let us know that it’s time to move on.”
“So,” says Kamiel, “that’s what the teachers are talking about when they discuss the dissatisfaction needed to spur us on, right? It might seem bad or uncomfortable, but it’s really a good thing?”
“Sounds right,” I say.
“And that’s the sort of determination and focus that’s required in order to awaken from delusion? To become truth-realized?” He smiles, excited, like he’s just now getting the big picture. “So that’s what you mean by purity of intent!”
I smile back.
“Fuck no. That’s what I mean by recipe for failure.”
His dismay is instantly apparent. I’ve cut him off in the first rush of a new grokking and now he’s confused and hurt. I did this intentionally. I didn’t allow myself to be drawn into this “A lot of teachers say—” conversation just wanting to make a point; I wanted counterpoint. That’s what the dialogue has been up until now because I wanted to make a clear distinction. This is the critical distinction between seekers and finders. This is where the line is drawn; a line the existence of which “a lot of teachers” don’t even suspect.
“That’s the sort of pathetic, half-assed approach that is absolutely certain to keep you confined to your current state. That’s the sort of approach that everyone takes, and that’s why they fail.”
He visibly and audibly gulps. “Oh.”
“The very people and institutions that are supposedly dedicated to waking us up are doing exactly the opposite. They are lulling us into a more comfortable sleep. That’s what we really want and that’s what they really provide.”
He doesn’t seem pleased. “Oh, God… well then… then what drives the process of true awakening?”
“Purity of intent, but what does that really mean? Okay, you’re back in the office again, totally satisfied with everything. Life is great. Okay?”
“Okay. So now dissatisfaction starts to creep in on you, but this time the dissatisfaction stems from the fact that you smell smoke.”
“The building is on fire now?”
“Wake up and smell the coffin, Kamiel. The building has always been on fire, you were just repressing that knowledge until now. But now you’re aware of it and it’s causing you some dissatisfaction. Quite a lot, in fact, and more with every passing moment. Now for the first time you realize that the flames are right outside the door and the temperature is rising. Acrid black smoke is pouring in. The door bursts into flames. There is no exit. Now you’re very, very dissatisfied with your office. In fact, you’re starting to hate your office quite profoundly. See how this dissatisfaction—this gnawing discontentment on the, uh, feeling level—is of a more immediate and compelling nature then the dissatisfaction brought on by the décor?”
He nods mutely.
“Sure. Now your dissatisfaction with your office is quite intense. Searing, really. In fact, your dissatisfaction is so intense that it feels like you’re on fire, like you can’t stand to be in your own skin, like anything would be better than more of this. Now you have no thought at all for career, home, or family. Due to a change in your personal circumstances they’ve all been reduced to complete irrelevance. Beliefs and concepts disappear and even death is suddenly small. You’re very focused now. You’re in the moment, very present. The flames are feet away. Your dissatisfaction with your office is well beyond anything even a master decorator could handle for you, agree?”
“And there’s no return, is there? No going back. No do-over. The fire is here. It’s a fact. Do you see that?”
He nods again.
“And you’re completely alone in all this. There’s no rescue. Your office is engulfed in flames and there’s no one here to save you. Not Jesus or Buddha or the Pope or your mama. This is your dissatisfaction. This is your problem. This is your agony. This is you about to burn to death, okay?”
“Okay. So what do you do?”
“Your world is burning. The whole office is in flames. You’re in a hopeless, no-escape situation. The pain has started and will only get worse. I think we can safely say that your dissatisfaction is now quite pronounced. What do you do?”
“Christ, I don’t know. Go out the window?”
“Hell, I don’t know. What else?”
“Yeah, I guess so. You’re in this inferno of an office while outside the window is blue sky, white clouds, and freedom from suffering. That seems like the only possible solution given your very dissatisfying circumstances. But—”
“Well, that’s not Hollywood glass in those skyscraper windows. You start flinging yourself against the window but it doesn’t give. Your dissatisfaction is of such intensity that you might break bones and crack your skull from hurling yourself desperately against the window, all to no avail.”
“Yeah, then what? What happens?”
“Well, the obvious thing is that you might simply perish in the hellish inferno. No law against dying.”
He looks at me desperately.
“Or, maybe you have some object that allows you to break the window out. Or maybe the sheer intensity of your—what are we calling it, dissatisfaction?—allows you to break through the unbreakable window. So, boom!, you blow out the window. Now there’s nothing left in the equation but you, the raging fire, and a hundred story plummet to the sidewalk below. Everything is suddenly quite simple. Perhaps for the first time, your life is perfectly clear.”
“Burn or jump, I guess.”
“Burn or jump?”
“Do you see another option?”
“Burn or jump,” he says flatly.
“When you become so dissatisfied with your office that the hundred story plummet and the sidewalk seem like the better option, so dissatisfied that you actually hurl yourself out the window, then you know the level of dissatisfaction necessary to awaken from delusion.”
He is silent for several moments, head bowed, thoughtful. “I guess dissatisfaction isn’t the right word.”
“Maybe not,” I agree. “I call it purity of intent, but that doesn’t really capture it either.”
“And that’s something every enlightened master went through?”
“You say it like there are countless enlightened masters dotting the spiritual landscape, but there are extremely few, and now you know why.”
“Jesus,” he mumbles, seemingly sincere in his effort to truly appreciate what he’s just been told. “Jesus.”
I deliver the moral of the story in three easy pieces.
“The price. Of truth. Is everything.”
“Jesus,” he repeats.
Jed McKenna is the author of the Enlightenment, Dreamstate, and Jed Talks trilogies. Learn more at WisefoolPress.com