Imagine walking across an arid plane. Of course, you see and feel your feet as you take your steps. You can lift your face up to the clouds and feel the breeze against your face. Then you look broadly forward to see the horizon ahead of you. As time passes while you walk, you know you are covering territory, but the lay of the land is such that the horizon is always there, never reached. You know you are approaching what was awhile ago the edge of the horizon. But it is ever there, receding forward. You know you are approaching it, but it is ever there, seemingly in the same place.
From the ancient Vedic texts, on through Buddhism, and the “My Kingdom is not of this world,” of Christianity, there has been the suggestion that our individuality, the sense of separation from the world, is an illusion. Sages have said that truly realizing this illusion and casting it off to become one, is the essence of enlightenment. Though it is a simple and fundamental teaching, it is the most frightening of any of life’s accomplishments. As people, we are sentient beings; that is, we realize our own individuality and we define our lives by the physical aspects of our human-ness. We know we were born, and as we age, we become more and more aware of our mortality.
Non-duality is one way to define the idea that we are one with all. “Thou Art That” is often used as a way of defining a non-dual approach to life. If we are indeed one with all, and there is no way I can write words to convince anyone of this, then must we not boil everything down to a simple way, the jewel, the diamond?
Some live under the mantle of a sense of individuality by burning life’s candle at both ends, as it were. “Live hard, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse,” is a saying defining this lifestyle. Others live in quiet ways, never questioning nor seeking truth. Some have adopted a flippant New Age approach to life. We could enumerate many different ways to live, to approach our lives. But truly, only a very few among us live a fierce focus on one single truth. To shake off the veil of individuality, to commit to non-duality, is a way few have the courage to commit to.
Why courage to commit? If our individuality, based on “ego mind,” is our way, we put the ego in jeopardy. This in itself is a kind of death. It is not suicidal. It speaks of our commitment to truth.
There is truth in sentience, but it indeed is a fleeting truth, like that spoken of in the Buddha’s Diamond Sutra. Think about it: is not living one’s life in the oblivion of all the trappings of the ego, not a self-aggrandizing way of life, all of which have dead ends? Money, status, power, all of these end like dead-end alleys. There is nothing lasting in it. If sentience implies being aware of our own death, then a double-layered metaphor suggests no end, but dead-end alleys.
Implied by sentience is a never-ending desire for this or that. “If only,” could be the motto of a life of sentience. We are ever driven by a desire to improve one thing or another. In a way, beneath the sentient life lay a dissatisfaction with anything. Because nothing lasts, we labor under the guise of never achieving anything permanent. Buddhism, of course, has impermanence as its underpinning. Individuality evaporates into nothing in a life recognizing the futility of “permanence” and along with it a fundamental understanding of the inter-relationship of all things.
Sentience is in a way like being a completely aware embryo inside an egg. You know you’re in a shell, and you just keep pecking, keep trying to expand your world. Then, Bam! You’re outside, and then, as Bob Dylan asked, “Are birds free from the chains of the sky?” Yet another layer of seeking is born. But, in these many columns I keep on and on, writing about things too simple to put into words. Yet I am compelled to do so.
There are so many metaphors one can use to illuminate the concept of sentience. A goldfish in a bowl, realizing it is encased; the embryo in the egg, or the child in the womb. It seems that countless depictions of human life can poetically describe our existence. But no matter what we use to describe it, sentient beings, aware of our own mortality, are short of complete. I realize I live inside the cocoon of being a human being. If I adopt a good posture, it’s fun to be alive. But it falls short of completeness, of enlightenment. So I accept without question the ultimate truth of our connectedness to all things. So difficult it is to grasp and live, but to all who have experienced it, it is vastly complete. To live in completeness. What an idea.
The arid plane’s horizon is forever there for us encased in our sentient bodies and minds. But perhaps the great sages are right, and we can reach that horizon and make it disappear when truth comes to us.
Through a series of events seemingly unrelated to actual seeking, books of the Enlightenment Trilogy by Jed McKenna, have come into my life. I had planned to write about sentience and individuality in this column this month before I was aware of Jed McKenna. But here are his books! And this is precisely the focus of them. I didn’t find the author through research or any actual seeking, but a kind friend purchased the books for me as a generous gift. By that time, it seemed like he was coming at me from many directions, none of them from my own seeking. If you want to read books written in plain English, dealing with the essential teachings of living with meaning, the truth in these books is a great read.