As far back as I remember and even now, my attention is drawn to my thinking mind. There is a kind of captivation – an obsession so complete that there seems to be nothing else. I can figure things out, plan, understand, evaluate, categorize. There is a feeling of accomplishment and even safety in the thinking mind.
Then and now I am tempted to believe the utterances of this tormentor, the continual inner criticism that left no disposition, affect, or action without negative comment. The need to make all perfect took over where the critic left off. All was a mess of the incomplete and the inadequate. Nothing was ever enough. Of course not far behind was the conviction that more is always better. Do more, accomplish more, be better, and continually improve. All this capped by the belief that every negative event is a catastrophe. The trance of unworthiness reigned.
The result was always being on edge. Peace was nowhere to be found except in some passing pleasures like innocent diversions or chocolate or the haven of inventive rationalizations.
As a child growing up in a Catholic home there was an aura of spirituality always present – my mother at daily mass and religious icons ever present. In my early years, I tried to fit this version of spirituality into my thoughts and feelings with some success. But there grew alongside this conditioned religious attitude a broader appreciation of what it all meant.
At sixteen, my felt love for the divine drew me into training for the priesthood. For the ensuing ten years, the seminary education and training was intense and much of this was very satisfying to my rapacious thinking mind.
During those years of seminary training for the priesthood there was a deeper part of myself being nourished by a yearning larger than the satisfactions of organized religion and the thinking mind. There grew an awareness of the Divine that is as big as the universe and beyond. Indeed, it can only be described as an experience of Presence and Being itself, a realization that this reality, known only by simile, metaphor, and analogy when rendered by the thinking mind, is my deepest knowledge.
After ordination, drawn by this larger vision, I worked for the better part of four years in the organized priesthood and then left for a more secularized lifestyle. All the while seeking to answer the questions, “What do I really want? What really matters? Who am I?”
My early sense of presence and being itself was somewhat of a guide, like the north-star at night. But I needed more specific guidance. At that time, the notion of soulfulness in everyday life was being popularized by Thomas Moore, in his book, Care Of The Soul. His treatment of this subject helped me open once again to the value of my own sense of spirituality.
This search led me to the western teachers of Dharma. They guided me on a path toward a life mindfully lived. There I came to recognize the beauty of my inner nature and the frailty and inadequacy of the thinking mind.
Another way was opening up. I gradually began to see that my thinking mind, wisely used, is a wonderful and beautiful strength. This human ability has drafted the science that softens so much physical suffering, written great books, and has given rise to noble visualizations.
This same talent for the good and healthy had been and sometimes still is an agent of destruction in my life. These were like two sides of a conflict in my head. One side identified with the thinking mind and that was stultifying; the other trusted that I am more than this thinking mind and that was reassuring. My awareness is all encompassing and reveals my very being. This revelation cannot be captured by words or thoughts but only experienced, moment by moment, by the willing heart and mind. This awareness is too big for words. It lives in a place of deep peace and acceptance, best nurtured in silence. It is beyond the stresses of life and anxiety. Or rather, it is greater than these and allows them to play in its garden.
From this awareness of Being itself arises the gifts of love, compassion, wisdom, joy, and equanimity. Here is the true soil of life that provides all the nutrients I need to be at peace with myself and the world around me.
As the years go by, I still find myself sometimes identifying with the thinking mind, but have more and more treasured moments of presence. One such experience occurred last fall. On a cold November day, I sat alone amid the forest and fields of Pennsylvania watching a stream flow in the gulley below. This was just after I had celebrated a wedding in a 100 year old chapel. There was a sense of being loved, of belonging, of being at home, of peace.
I rose from the rock I was sitting on and walked alone through the fields knowing that I had touched the mystery of oneness and the mystery of impermanence. Realizing that emptiness is not an absence but a receptivity in which the Divine is reflected. I keenly felt the true meaning of the word sacrament. It means to recognize the sacred in all that is deeply human. Then love becomes radiant in the flesh and blood, smiles and tears of everyday life.
My malevolent obsession with the thinking mind is waning. This nightmare is turning into a wonderful vision that life can be joyful and is well beyond the influence of the thinking mind. To celebrate love in all its forms is available only in the present.
As the religious faith of my childhood was challenged and I matured, I may have, for a while, thrown out the baby with the bath water. This flame is now rekindled by the Dharma. Thankfully, a transformation.
To me, this means that the essence of truth present in all the major spiritual traditions is much larger than any one set of dogmas or myths. It lives within and around us day in and day out. It is available for the asking and if we are receptive.
This presence is available to all of us. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “There is power and pleasure in being present”.