Recent events in my life served the function of popping the vacuum sealed lid of a small glass jar of fear I had been carrying around in my coat pocket. I smacked dab into some real world events—moments of indeterminate outcome surrounded by a steadily gathering mob of foreboding consequences—and you could hear the audible inrush of air as the jar was pried open. Out spilled vestiges of a future I had sworn to abandon, puzzle pieces of a compromised self, and a lackluster world absent of meaning—a world without a floor populated by people whose faces had been replaced by magazine clippings.
Feeling caught between two unfortunate choices, each inhabited by its own particular breed of inner kryptonite, my difficulties metastasized until even the pauses at the poles of my breath had been taken from me. Each end of my being had become a dull ache. You try to reason your way through these quaggy mires, but the biggest shortfall of the mind is its inability to recognize when the situation has eclipsed reason altogether. It’s like being a man standing in the midst of the Great Fire of London with a half-filled canteen in one hand and a brochure about safe-making campfires in the other, unable to stop trying to mentally rearrange the canteen, the piece of paper, and the water in such a way as to put things right.
That doesn’t sound all that bad really—just kind of foolish. That’s not me, we say. That guy with the brochure’s just an idiot. But to keep shuffling the canteen and the paper around while being slowly burnt, and to feel the intense pain of it but to still be unable or unwilling to turn and make a run for it… what is that? What keeps a man rooted in such a place? Is it bad to want to extinguish the fire? What’s wrong with wanting to wave the wand of peace? Is it bad to keep hoping an answer will come? Is it fearful to retreat? Is it a failure? A regression?
What if the people you love were in a structure swallowed by the flames two blocks away? What if they might still be alive, and it’s impossible to tear yourself away from your spot, despite such pain? What if the journal that contained every important thought you ever had was also in that house? Pain is precisely this sort of conflict.
A burning face. Tear-filled eyes. An inaccessible heart. A heart filled with bitterness.
This is the quaggy mire from which I have emerged. I’ve reached the other side, but I’m not the same as I was, for the dissolution of this particular entangled state brought home to me the distinction made in A Course of Love (ACOL) between the time of learning and the time of discovery. My experience also revealed the importance of the passages contained in ACOL related to the release of bitterness and the desire for reward.
Bitterness is inescapable when we’re confronted by those circumstances from which we can neither run nor hide, situations where it seems that our losses and our love are seemingly intertwined, where justice and compassion seem unable to co-exist. It’s so easy to forget that any such experience is rooted in false premises, particularly when something we view as necessary or vital to us is threatened. When our visceral feeling is that something is wrong—when that little jar of fear has been pried open—it’s nearly impossible to bring the mind out of its recurring analysis of the situation, to keep it from continuously retracing its steps through a situation utterly devoid of answers.
This class of situation is the way we’ve brought ourselves the gift of learning. We use these intractable difficulties as both the motivation and the means of revealing to ourselves our deepest lessons. But what if we don’t need lessons anymore? What if that age old instinct is over-applied? What if you’ve looked yourself in the mirror, seen the worst you have to offer, blessed it, and now it’s time to let it go? How do we stand in the freedom and power that resonates at the core of our being if every situation is a reminder of what we’re missing?
On the day this fever broke, I spent some time in seated meditation focusing on forgiveness. Inexplicably, a few hours later, without any reasons as to how or why, the difficulties lifted. The weather shifted. In place of a shaken sense of self I possessed a brewing confidence—a confidence without reasons or evidence, a confidence I could not possess while perpetually learning my lessons… The thing about this particular departure of weightiness was that it was devoid of reasons, events, and histories. It was devoid of clarity about how and why. It was simply forgiveness. An acceptance, and a friend who helped me to see that standing in the fire was not a defeat. Maybe that’s just who I am right now. If you need to stay close to the place you once lived, stay close to it. Without the bitterness, it’s simply a choice. Without the sensation we won’t be complete until we learn what needs to be learned, it’s a moment of revelation.
In the few brief days since the cooling of my proverbial jets, it has been a joy to confront situations that just a few weeks ago would have put me on my heels. It has been a relief to know they aren’t signaling me to take a look at something that needs adjustment—to feel that twinge of self-doubt and let it fly along, to know the perfection within me and within all of us is already complete, and that the encounter is simply a moment with which to work. I’m not going to say I’ve conquered fear, for I’m not sure that you can, but it has become clear that fear results, at least in part, from viewing circumstances as some type of evidence about who we are. When we realize that no event, no circumstance, no action of those around us has any ability to define us, we are free of them. This is the type of fearlessness I’m closest to mustering.
Burrowing through difficulty requires a certain mindset—the mindset of learning. Learning isn’t bad, but learning ends. Recognizing there are no right choices to be made, no outcomes that offer accomplishment, no victory to be had either in avoiding the fire or in enduring it, then we are finally free to speak with it. Our power is no longer forsaken. We can stand in the fire and be burned, and it won’t mean a thing. This is simply what we have chosen to be, and we are free to choose again.
Free in every moment to choose anew.