When I let go of what I am, I become what I
might be. – Lao Tzu 5THcentury
Reality is not what we think it is. We live inside our minds, believing the picture show happening there to be reality, and in one way of looking at reality, it is. It’s our reality. People of the same socio/economic/cultural orientation have a lot of overlap of their realities, yet even with siblings, there can be startling variation in what they believe concerning the history and experiences they have in common. Imagine comparing our notion of reality with a person of another historic/cultural orientation entirely, say with a 5th century BCE Chinese. We would find the area of overlap to be much smaller than with a person of our contemporary orientation and the areas of difference to be much larger. In a very real sense, we collectively think a 21st century America into being while 5th century BCE China was thought into being by the minds of those who lived that experience. Individuals and historic periods have stories they tell and call these stories reality, when, other than relatively speaking, they are not.
The swirling thoughts and images which fill our consciousness are creating a virtual reality in our minds made of a soup of information (and much misinformation) about who we are and what the world is about. From the moment of our birth, society and culture, in the shape of parents and all the social influences around us, begin creating this idea of a world for us that we accept as real and true when it is only real and true in an extremely limited way. It is a very selective and limited representation of the everything that reality actually is. In returning to what it would be like in 5thcentury BCE China, one interesting variation of this scenario is the question: if you were born into this world, into an entirely different historical and cultural period, would you still be you? Could you be born into any other circumstance other than the one you WERE born into and be you? It all depends on what you believe the real you to be. Are you the perspectives and attitudes and beliefs you hold, or are you something much more fundamental?
Could it be there is some essence of a person that transcends the mental illusions they hold about reality, an essence that is like the clay that society, culture and experience, both shared and individual, shape into a socio-historic person that has a particular take on reality, a reality that from other perspectives might be considered delusional madness? I think we would have to say absolutely yes, for the total disorientation of a 21st Century person and a 5th Century BBCE Chinese person in the others’ world, which would at first feel like madness, would slowly give way to more and more shared reality constructed out of the new experiences. Some essence of the person, a consciousness not shaped by conditioning, would, over time, cause our total disorientation to give way to adopting more and more of the contextual reality of the place and time we found ourselves. We would still be the human being we are, with our own particular uniqueness, beneath any of the new conditions, circumstances or beliefs we held concerning reality.
From a Zen perspective, the real you, the essence of you, could be born into any circumstance and still be you, for you are not considered to be the social/cultural/personal psychological content that goes into the mind, but rather the consciousness that is the basis of mind itself. This consciousness energy is then shaped and individualized into a unique expression and way of perceiving that is a person. The uniqueness, however, precedes the conditioning. As Zen draws its reference for reality from Nature, it recognizes that for humans, just as with leaves and snowflakes, there is the commonality of the leaves, snowflakes or humans, yet each is unique, no two are exactly the same. In Nature, the law of reality is a unity of Life replicating uniqueness within commonality through dimension after dimension.
Born into this world a unique person, we experience our separateness, reinforced to greater or lesser degrees by how our culture emphasizes separateness, yet there is always some instinct, some insight, some intuition, that separateness is not a true and total picture of reality. Despite our senses registering separateness, there is this deeper sense that pulls us to oneness and connectedness, to the Way of Nature, as ultimate reality. This is why a contemporary can read the writings of the 5th century BCE Chinese sage, Lao Tzu, the fountainhead of Taoism, and recognize truth as he beckons us to look to Nature to find the template for a wise and true life.
So, when the Zen master exhorts us to show our “original face,” what is being asked, and how is one to find this “face?”
We must realize that one level of reality is how the human brain processes the information of our senses which then, within our field of consciousness, constructs a “reality.” This virtual reality matrix of our psycho-social-cultural conditioning is held together and in place through constant movement of the contents of mind, retelling the story of this virtual reality with every perception that leads to an interpretation of the perception consistent with the story. We live inside a swirling and mostly opaque screen of thoughts and images holding together our virtual reality, and as long as this swirling movement is all we attend to we have no sense of the truths and reality that lies deeper.
And so, one common reality for humans of every era and culture has been, when searching for deeper understanding into reality, to learn to slow down and even stop the swirling matrix so as to discover a vibrant, dynamic energy of stillness where the Universe enters into manifestation through an individual human life – there to glimpse the deeper principles of Reality, of the Universe itself.
Lao Tzu’s Taoism and its philosophical offspring, Zen, are just such attempts to search for deeper and deeper levels of reality. They recognize that the matrix of spinning ideas and images must be penetrated to see what is beneath them, to understand their place and purpose in the unfolding saga of what it means to be human. And so their first task and teaching is to slow down, perhaps even stop, this spinning matrix to see what is beneath and prior to it. Profoundly, the word “zen” translated into English means “sitting,” and the genius of Zen as a practice for penetrating into Ultimate Reality is that it realizes that if we just stop, if we just “sit,” if we quiet the swirling manifestations of our virtual-reality minds, there we find the Universe as-it-is. Here, this moment, without projecting any of our conditioned virtual-reality upon it, we feel, we see, the illusion of our matrix for what it is.
When the illusions of our conditioned reality as individuals or an entire society’s illusions, begin to fail us, this then becomes the time for stopping, for “sitting,” for waking up to look for deeper levels of reality. It becomes time to check in with our deeper reality and truly see what works and what does not, to see what is needed to reconnect and establish flow with changing conditions – and we will always find that what will be required is more honesty, more inclusiveness, more compassion, more creativity, more courage, and more connection with what is natural and true. We must change our reality. We must evolve our reality to contain in harmony what it could not previously contain while we also let go of illusions, false concepts that had been accepted as true, but which our new, expanded view exposes as false.
The great 20th century scientist, Albert Einstein, observed that problems cannot be solved with the same consciousness that created the problem. He also shared that his great insights into the nature of the physical universe would come to him, not through thinking, but through silent contemplation, or even quieting the mind by taking a walk or swim. Without being a Zenist, he was realizing Zen, for the art of Zen is in the cultivation of ever-increasing skill in penetrating through our swirling thought-show to experience deeper and deeper levels of truth into what-is. We must stop so as to see and feel Reality. Thinking and language then become the tools we use to express that which emerged from silence. We really do not have to go to 5th century BCE China to realize that this reality we accept right now has not always been our reality. After-all, how much of our own reality has changed through the course of our lifetime? True Reality is always a fresh horizon awaiting our willingness to see it for what it is at subtler and deeper levels than we ever thought. Sitting in the here-and-now with quiet mind opens the portal through which we can view the horizon ahead with fresh insight, to realize and create new realities, new consciousness, to solve the problems created by old realities that have outlived their purpose and are now creating rather than solving problems. We must let go of what was to find what can be.