Transcending the Dark Side

“To bow to the fact of our life’s sorrows and betrayals is to accept them, and from this deep gesture we discover that all life is workable. As we learn to bow, we discover that the heart holds more freedom and compassion than we could imagine.”
-Jack Kornfield

What happens when you dive into discomfort? In the same way a dark cavern is less scary when you navigate it with a light, exploring your own mind is less difficult when you do so with mindfulness. A lot of people try to uncover the depths of their consciousness without developing mindfulness. They often see things they don’t want to see and they let themselves get carried away by the darkness. Similarly, in meditation we often uncover difficult emotions and ideas. When we sit with them, though, they become less frightening. The less light you shine on the darkness, the more powerful it remains.

In this respect, we can see meditation as the process by which we shine a light on every thought, good and bad. In observing these thoughts neutrally, we learn that they aren’t as terrifying or powerful as we think. Put into perspective, most of our worries can be seen for what they are— relatively insignificant. Part of meditation is recognizing yourself as both the center of the universe and also a tiny ephemeral speck. Making peace with the paradox and the contrast between the two is the work of a meaningful life.

Suzuki said something like, “In meditation, leave your front door and back door open. Let all thoughts come and go, but don’t serve them tea.” If you indulge in a though, it takes root, and then you need to let go for longer in order to return to no-mind. Sometimes when we meditate thoughts come along that we can’t help but grasp onto. The real work of Zen practice is building the inner-strength and stillness to let even the most difficult intrusions go.

What is this process if not the ultimate disempowering of thoughts? When you reach the point where your greatest fears and insecurities emerge during meditation and no longer cause you harm, you have transcended the mind. You are operating with a script deeper than language, the language of intuition and experience. You have conquered these once powerful thoughts through not trying to conquer them. When you let them come, they eventually do go if you don’t dwell on them. After you experience this a few times, the darkness is significantly less frightening.

With an acceptance of darkness comes an acceptance of its constituents— difficulty, confusion, confrontation, dishonesty, among many others. Realizing that the truth isn’t so scary if we just try to understand it helps us stop lying to ourselves. It opens up a whole new world of inquiry and awareness. This all inevitably leads toward a more mindful and interesting life.

We’re educated our entire lives to trust in the power of mere thoughts. We’re taught to worship “thinkers”, but at what cost? We’re told, “Thoughts and ideas can change the world.” Yes, of course they can. Thoughts are the vehicles for many actions. But what happens when the thoughts we don’t want to acknowledge come along? If we empower thoughts too much, we become obsessed with the ones that cause us harm, and then they hold us back from true understanding. But when we learn the limits of thought through reflection and experience, we can understand that ideology and mental work must be balanced with direct experience and meditation. A truly holistic self-education is equally mental, physical, and spiritual.

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