When I got home from my first retreat with Shinzen Young 16 years ago, I was high as a kite. Then, my boyfriend of three months dumped me over the phone. I remember that he was multitasking at the time, breaking up with me while also trying to fix his fax machine.
I told myself to bring loving acceptance to the situation and convinced myself I was succeeding. But below the surface, I was outraged. Through an ecstatic encounter with a radish, I'd finally gotten a reprieve from suffering so relentless, it had become background noise. This guy had just completely stomped on my buzz. Worse than that, I was trying to lovingly accept it as a desperate attempt to hold on to the bliss I felt slipping away.
That night, I dreamed my ex and I were chained to each other and he was plotting to kill me. I woke up, got out of bed and my back went into an excruciating spasm of pain, the likes of which I'd never known. I crumbled to the floor and lay there until I could gather my strength to crawl back to bed.
This was the beginning of two and a half years of chronic pain. I was diagnosed with two herniated disks. I tried every therapy under the sun, Western and alternative, until book called Healing Back Pain by John Sarno miraculously helped me resolve the issue. I’m now completely pain free. I’ll save the story of that recovery for another time. I want to focus on my recovery from another chronic condition, in the form of a fundamental misperception. The condition is suffering itself and my recovery is ongoing.
That two and a half-year window of protracted pain was like a monastery for me, and mindfulness became a profound resource. I couldn’t sit comfortably for more than five minutes, so I practiced lying down. My activities became more and more restricted, so I spent more time meditating on my own and going on every retreat I could. Practicing mindfulness helped me feel like I was offering something useful to the world, while caring for myself.
When I got that first big taste of bliss, I thought I understood the value of meditation. I thought meditating would help me eliminate all the unsavory bits of myself so I could become an ever-glowing sunbeam of pure, loving radiance. I could extract my flaws, leaving only bliss.
But bliss is still just a part of the wheel most of us are unconsciously stuck on. The cycle of pleasure and pain is not a problem, in itself. The problem is unconsciously and automatically identifying with a “self” (sometimes called “ego”) experiencing pleasure and pain. We habitually see ourselves as a solid, separate thing experiencing this or that. Awakening happens when the limited self recognizes the true self. The true self is immaterial and un-fixated. Never separate. No thing.
The separate "you" knowing the true you is a loving act. The separate "you" surrenders a tragic construct providing familiarity, certainty, achievement, safety, power and protection, but at a tremendous cost. When the separate "you" knows the true you, even for an instant, a new separate self is born, freer from the alienation of separateness, and better able to manifest qualities of human goodness like compassion, wisdom, joy, courage and kindness. When the separate self meets the true self, at that instant, a wondrous discovery is made: This meeting is taking place everywhere, always. Beginner’s mind is the process of freshly discovering the true you, over and over, each time giving rise to a new, more enlightened self.
I hadn’t yet started experiencing this clearly, so I judged my reaction to my boyfriend. I thought it made me less spiritual. But now I know ego is not the problem. Ego is the separate self born with the capacity to wake up. Ego is a dormant seedling of human goodness ready to blossom at any moment, just through being recognized. Ego doesn’t stand in the way of bliss. Bliss is a byproduct of remembering who you truly are. Mindfulness is one name for this loving activity.