How do we come to a place in our lives where this present moment, our only access point to this human experience, is felt as sacred?
It is this ability to drop deeply into the moment and feel it’s ineffable perfection that separates the great teachers, saints, sages, buddhas, and bodhisattvas from the rest of us. Can this perspective be taught and practiced? Or is it supernatural phenomena reserved only for the best among us? How does one come to recognize even the most mundane aspects of their existence as sacred?
By its very nature, the answer we are seeking cannot come from words. However, some words carefully articulated and spoken from truth, can serve to point you in the direction of first-hand experience. I am hopeful these words are such.
I cannot articulate exactly how one comes to this moment of recognition. No one can. What I can do, is speak about how one comes to this perspective through the lens of my own life experience, and share the practices I’ve implemented to awaken to this moment in the hopes that the reader can relate and find some motivation.
In the interest complete of authenticity I should state that in my life, though I have tasted moments of the ineffable beauty of creation, I still very often grapple with thoughts, situations, ideas, and beliefs that obstruct this perspective. I make no claim that I walk through life with a deep and conscious connection to this truth of sacred existence in every moment, though I believe this to be the most worthy goal of this worldly life, and one that is possible for anyone to attain with practice.
For me, life became difficult enough that meditation seemed like a good idea.
I have a teacher who says there are two kinds of people who come to be dedicated meditators. The first kind is highly successful individuals; people who, from an external investigation, seem to have played this game of life and won. These people have come to possess those things that everyone believes are the key to lasting peace and happiness – money, worldly success, power, prestige, even fame. Through their life situation, these people, however, are given precious insight that will likely elude those of us who will spend our lives pining for what they have – the insight that lasting peace and happiness will never come from external accomplishments.
Yes, it feels good to be successful, to achieve goals, and to earn money and financial freedom; but these people experience firsthand that happiness attached to accomplishment is fleeting. Having felt no lasting peace from their success, these over-achievers turn to the internal path to find what they are looking for. They’ve achieved everything they set out to achieve in the world and are still left feeling like something is missing. They turn to meditation and spiritual practice for the peace they seek.
The second group is those people who just can’t seem to even get in the game. Their inner life is in such turmoil that they can’t really put together enough momentum to be successful in the world. These people typically struggle with things like addiction, depression, and compulsive behavior. Their minds do not seem to be their friend. Exasperated and desperate, they turn to meditation and spiritual practice seeking refuge from the pain of their existence.
I count myself lucky to hail from this category of tortured souls. Existential pain is a precursor for existential inquiry.
In between these two fringes are the majority of people. People for whom life is not too good or too bad – people whose life experience does not inspire or require a quest for the answers to life’s deeper questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Why do I exist? Why does anything exist? What should I do? The majority of people, more or less content with the way things are, will not be called to this path of inquisition. Though I believe this is changing. I believe as a species evolution is calling us toward the practices that will elevate our consciousness, individually and collectively. I believe the survival of our species depends on our capacity to listen to this call.
As I mentioned, I came to this path from the second group, the tortured souls. In retrospect, I had always had a spiritual curiosity, even as a young boy. I remember, as a child, often going alone into nature and just sitting among the trees in the dirt. I remember feeling like if I sat still long enough that all barriers between inside and outside just disappeared and I became part of the scenery. But it wasn’t until my early 20’s that life had become painful enough that I turned to formal meditation practice to seek refuge from what felt like the torture of being myself.
In my early exploration, I had no intention or desire to live what we could call a sacred existence.
In fact, had someone used that verbiage to motivate my practice I likely would have rolled my eyes and wrote them off as a capable teacher. I had zero interest in any mention of the divine, God, the esoteric, or the sacred. I was a product of 12 years of Catholic school. I had vigorously and with intense disdain thrown off my religious conditioning. I literally tattooed the phrase NO GODS NO MASTERS on my body. I called myself an atheist. Any mention of God or higher power fell on deaf ears as it was immediately associated with formal religion which I had deemed an obstacle on the path to Truth.
I really just wanted someone to teach me a way to calm my mind. There was a voice in my head that was very unkind, and it was making my life difficult. I simply wanted to learn the skills to prevent my mind from generating fear, sadness, and anxiety. I was seeking refuge from a mind that was consistently telling me what an awful person I was, that I’ll never amount to anything, and constantly suggesting terrible ideas like isolating myself in depressed solitude for days on end, getting shit faced drunk, fighting people in the street, and killing myself. These issues seemed much more urgent than some lofty idea of a sacred existence which was so far removed from my direct experience that I had absolutely no capacity to relate.
So, after reading some books and attempting to cultivate a daily meditation practice I sought out a teacher. It took some effort to find a teacher who presented meditation in a way that I found palatable, but eventually I found myself in the right place. I learned to cultivate skills like equanimity, sensory clarity, and concentration. I learned to observe my mind neutrally and recognize it as a pattern of tendencies shaped by conditions. I learned to be still. And I noticed that as I implemented and integrated these skills that I had been practicing on the meditation cushion into my daily life, I suffered a lot less. I still had really hard days, and in fact I still do, but with consistent practice I noticed my inner life was becoming a lot more peaceful. There was an empty space emerging between the events of my life and my reaction to them – and in that space a peaceful curiosity about self and world was germinating.
As my practice began to bear fruit, my curiosity about what is possible on this path increased.
That curiosity became motivating. I felt called to retreat practice. I sat in silence for three days – this seemed pretty scary at the time. The experience of my first retreat wasn’t necessarily an enjoyable experience as it was happening. It was very challenging to sit with my mind with no distraction. But I learned so much about my mind just by taking a few days to sit with it. There were fleeting moments of something that felt strangely familiar; those brief moments of stillness and deep connection were enough to leave me wanting more.
I noticed that life unfolded differently after retreat – it seemed I could see things more clearly, it seemed more of ‘me’ was actually present for the events of my life. Over the years, three days in silence led to five days, a week, two weeks, four weeks. The benefits could not be denied. Consistently setting aside time for contemplative practice had become a priority in my life.
For me, it was in those moments of the stillness of my practice that this sacred perspective of life started to emerge. I had a lot of answers before I started to practice; now, I seem to have a lot more questions. And that’s ok. I’ve heard meditation practice described as an investment in loss. There is nothing to be gained on this path; conversely, in my experience, there has been a stripping away of everything I thought I knew. Stripped of answers, freed from the certainty of who I am, I’ve been left to live in a bit of a mystery.
Initially that experience of being stripped of the answers about your identity can be scary, but ultimately, it’s quite liberating. I have no choice but to admit that I have no idea who I am, where I am, where I begin and where I end, why I exist, or why anything exists at all. For me, a reverence and sacred appreciation of this present moment has been a natural by-product allowing the mystery of this existence to really land.
Life becomes sacred by allowing the mind to drop in to the profound mystery of this human experience.
The mystery can only be experienced directly. One of the paths to the direct experience of this mystery is practice in stillness. Consistent diligent practice will lead to the direct experience of this mystery. Direct experience bears the fruit of insight – the insight of the profound sanctity and absurdity of one’s existence.
Without a doubt, I still struggle. I still have very difficult moments. I still forget the ineffable beauty of this life and get caught in the ebbs and flows of my chattering mind. But, with increasing frequency, I remember. I remember that I have no idea what’s happening, I remember that it’s an absolute miracle that I’m alive, and I remember how exquisitely perfect it all is. I remember the mystery that I seem to be living in. Awareness of this mystery tends to wash everything away and bring me into the stillness. In the stillness I find a sacred perspective.
There was a time in my life when I was crippled by depression. I was so terrified to be witnessed in those moments of pain that I would isolate myself for days on end to avoid the terror of simply being seen by another person. It was that pain that motivated my inquisition; for that pain, I am eternally grateful.
I share this because I want you to know that if this perspective can awaken through me, it can awaken through anyone.
Yes, even you.