There is a German expression, werder was du bist, which roughly means “become what you are.” It’s a rather odd notion – what else could we be or become than what we are? Yet most of us, at least some of the time, feel that we are not what we truly are. So what stands in the way?
There are at least two senses in which a person might say “I don’t feel that I now am that which I most truly should be,” one external and one internal. The external is the feeling that we haven’t reached our full potential, that we aren’t doing the things that we are meant to be doing. This is a feeling well worth probing – it is a fortunate person who can make their living doing that which they truly want to do, so striving to make that match is a worthwhile effort. But it is not this external sense, but the internal sense that I want to explore here.
Inwardly, when we say that we are not what we most truly are, I think we usually are saying that we are not fully present to our life, that we are a little distracted, a little abstracted. So what would it be, what would it take to be, fully present and completely centered in our life? How do we free our self from distractions and abstractions that keep us from being our self in the most complete way?
“We already have everything we are looking for, everything we want to become. We are already a Buddha.” So writes Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist. Statements like this are rather common in Zen Buddhism, and they can be a bit frustrating for students, even advanced ones. We want to say, “I don’t feel at all like I am a Buddha, so what do you mean?”
What both the German expression and the Buddhist statement are saying is that we don’t need to add something, in order to be what we most truly are. We already have what is necessary. What we need is more of what we most truly are and less of what detracts from that. But what is it that we most truly are?
Many people, Buddhist in particular, claim that the practice of meditation can help us discover what we most truly are. I for one, will attest to this claim. If a person sets out to learn meditation, they will likely find at first that the mind is a rather busy place. A common meditation practice is to simply pay attention to each breath through the entire duration of the inhalation and exhalation. For a beginner, being mindful of one’s breathing for even that long can be a challenge. There are so many other things in the mind calling to our attention. So many things that seem more important.
With time, though, our concentration improves and we can stay mindful of our breath for longer and longer. As we become more experienced as meditators, we gain greater detachment from the press of our thoughts and feelings and other things passing through the mind. We can start to observe these mental states, explore how they arise, linger a while and dissipate. We become better at recognizing what happens when our attention is suddenly hooked by some passing thought and our mind is yanked far from the object of concentration. We become more skillful at releasing our mind from the distracting thought and bringing it back to the practice of meditation.
As the practice of meditation grows further, it can lead to an increased awareness of what, in our mind, is essential and what is inessential. We have thoughts, fantasies, emotions, fears, cravings, perceptions and the like. But all of these things come and go, enter the awareness, abide there for a brief time, and dissipate. But the awareness remains. If the awareness goes, we no longer are, we are either unconscious or dead. So awareness is more central and essential than any of the particular things that we are aware of, the various contents that run through the mind.
Nearly as essential as awareness is the ability to focus awareness. The practice of meditation is at one level an exercise in focusing. It strengthens and tones our mental focus much as physical exercise strengthens and tones our muscles. The two together, awareness and the ability to focus awareness, which we could also call mindfulness and intentionality, are the most essential aspects of our mental being. All the other aspects of immediate consciousness are ephemerata.
Above I said that “What we need is more of what we most truly are and less of what distracts us from that.” If awareness and focus are what we most essentially and truly are, then that is what we need more of. We don’t need to, nor could we, import these into our being. Unless we suffer from a medical deficiency, we already have the awareness and focus necessary. What we probably do need, however, is to learn to exercise and develop the full potential of our awareness and focus, to use it effectively. To use it more effectively, we need to learn how to refrain from getting caught up in all the thoughts, fantasies, etc. that run through the mind. We need to recognize that all of these things can wait, and many of them aren’t really worth paying attention to at all.
If you’ve ever watched a puppy, you notice that they are easily distracted by each new thing that comes into view. But a mature, well trained dog can stay on task amid considerable distraction. The practice of training the mind in meditation is a little like training a dog. It is said that a well-trained dog is a happier dog, and from my experience I would say that a well-trained mind is a happier mind.
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It would seem that being what we most truly are should be quite simple. So why isn’t it? I think part of that goes back to Darwinian evolution. By nature, we humans are good at solving external problems, finding food and shelter, and protecting our self and our offspring. These are the things that helped our ancestors through the ages survive and thrive. These are the things that our biological evolution supports.
Being what we most truly are is not one of these things. It is not essential to, and in certain circumstances might be detrimental to, our survival. Modern forms of spirituality, such as Buddhism and Taoism, arose in relatively advanced civilizations. They arose when the basic problems of survival had largely been solved and humans could turn their attention to exploring just what else the mind could do besides what was required for survival. This led to such things as the arts, sciences, philosophy as well as spirituality. None of these come naturally to us humans, none of them come easily, they are all cultural achievements.
Mindfulness is difficult, because we are swimming against the stream, climbing against gravity. During the long course of evolution, our ancestors survived by paying attention to possible sources of danger or opportunities for nourishment. It is in our nature to be externalized. Meditation is a rather unnatural activity.
Oddly, though, as you become an experienced meditator, the quiet focused mind seems to be what is most natural, and the distracted mind seems unnatural. And when we start to feel this way, then we are becoming what we truly are, a deeply focused and aware being.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.