Part 1 of 2 – From Caroline’s 2012 Salon
Buddha taught that life is an illusion and that we lose our power by believing something is “real” when, in fact, it is not. That teaching is a challenging one to comprehend, to say the least. I remember this one man in a workshop saying, “I don’t get it. If my wife dropped her iron on my foot, that would not be an illusion. That would hurt like hell.” (Ah, but for the literal mind, what would this world be like?)
True, I said. It would hurt like hell, but then again, Buddha was not saying, “Heavy objects dropped on your foot will not hurt you if you believe they won’t hurt you, was he?” Buddha was teaching a mystical principle, not a physics class or an alternate lesson on the law of gravity. In order to understand the nature of mystical teachings, it is best to learn the meaning of each teaching within the context of mystical consciousness.
While this may not be the best comparison, I recall the first time math class went from only numbers to including “letters.” For me, letters belonged to the realm of words, English, literature, and sentences. What were letters doing next to numbers? It was brain freeze time for me. No matter how much effort the math teacher poured into trying to explain the theory of algebra and higher mathematics to me, and how advanced mathematics required “letters” because you were now learning principles and theories, I stuck to my literary guns, insisting that numbers and letters just don’t go together. Nope. You can’t make a word or a sentence out of numbers – and what are you trying to teach me, anyway? Where’s Charles Dickens when I need him?
Well, I barely passed Algebra, not to mention Geometry, because I simply could not adjust my literal-literary mind to the higher realm of mathematics in which letters were required. I refused to go there. Truth be told, of course, numbers and math intimidated me to no end. It wasn’t until later when I grasped the theory of sacred Geometry that Geometry became delicious to me, but I had to find something “in it” for me.
My point, of course, is that each of us is our own master at constructing the boundaries of our reality, determining whether we will be open-minded or close-minded, literal-thinking or capable of imagining the universe in letters as well as numbers, or perhaps even within the design of the mystic’s inner self and soul. What did they see with such clarity? And how is it that their teachings have withstood the test of time for centuries upon centuries?
My reasons for Big and Small things
I decided to enter the subject matter of Big Things and Small Things through the portal of Buddhism for a few reasons, all of them connected to my experience as a teacher – no surprise there. But that role has taken more than one expression now. I’m a writer, a teacher, I do a call-in radio show, I have an interactive web site, and I have this Salon, FB, and sometimes I find time to write newsletters. I have many ways of reaching people and in return, people reach out to me. I pay attention to the letters I receive (even though I can barely get to answering most of them), but I read all of them. I listen intently to people I meet at workshops. And I take very seriously the people who call in for advice or counsel on my radio show. In other words, you are precious goods to me.
The majority of the questions I receive from people can be categorized in two distinct ways. They are either focused on matters related to a person’s physical survival or about a person’s emotional/psychological survival. The physical survival arena of life includes questions about jobs, relationships and life directions. The emotional/psychological and sometimes spiritual domain covers questions that speak of personal challenges, such as healing, working through emotional crises, issues of forgiveness and an appetite for vengeance, loneliness, and the search for meaning and purpose.
These two categories cover the challenges most people will experience in life. These are the issues that drive the engines of life, in other words. Most people would find it difficult to imagine that any of these, much less all of them, are, in the language of Buddha, illusions.
For example, telling someone who has lost his job that the humiliation of that experience coupled with the financial crisis that he now must confront is an “illusion” is almost preposterous. (At the very least, it requires just the right moment to introduce this teaching.) Similarly, I would never suggest to anyone going through the trauma of watching someone close die that this, too, is just an illusion. What could sound more cold-hearted, if not cruel?
I remember hearing one of those horrible, camera-grabbing reporters attempting to provoke an interview with an Amish spokesperson shortly after the brutal murder of all those young Amish girls a few years ago. With a smile on her face and a microphone shoved into the shocked, nearly paralyzed-with-trauma gentleman the media was trying to corner, she asks, “Are you prepared to forgive him?” What? Excuse me? This nasty reporter was trying to build a secondary story, suggesting or implying that the Amish community was “maybe not quite that authentic” because they were not considering forgiveness as an immediate response to the slaughter of their young girls. I wanted to reach through the television and ring her neck.
Ultimately, however, this courageous community, which wisely withdrew from amateur reporters and the gawking public in order to mourn, chose exactly that response – in their own timing. Their response baffled so many people, curiously most of them Christian (given the demographics of America). It wasn’t that the Amish collectively decided that the massacre of their daughters was an illusion; rather, they understood that they could not allow another person’s evil to destroy the good in them.
The question they confronted is this: Should any earthly experience have the power to ultimately destroy or command or take full control of the goodness in you? If so, then that experience is more real than your spirit is and you then position yourself through the choice not to forgive to serve the power and memory of that traumatic experience all the remaining days of your life. Or, you can decide to recognize evil in action and choose a position of consciousness that serves your relationship to life and truth.
This is what is true about evil: Evil things happen in this world. It is an illusion to think they do not. Evil does not discriminate. No one is immune. Nothing is personal about the actions of random evil. It is an illusion to think you are protected or immune from the natural forces of darkness, just as it is an illusion to think you exist separate from the natural forces of light.
Good things happen in this world. It is an illusion to think they do not. Goodness does not discriminate. No one is immune to goodness. Nothing is personal about the actions of random goodness. Impersonal goodness is often called “luck.” We live within the balance of these forces. This is part of the archetypal mechanism of life.
Truth versus illusion
We are such a curious species. We’ve spent so many centuries accumulating new learning and information, only to become blind and closed-minded when it comes to truth and knowledge. We continue to have the experience of discovering what we “believed to be facts” turn out to be “false truths,” replaced by later discoveries, but we dismiss knowledge that has remained solid and indisputable for centuries. The teachings of the mystics, for example, that pass down the wisdom of the ages fall into the category of what has always been true and what will always be true.
For example, entering the age of quantum physics has provided us with a type of companion physical science to energy anatomy and the “science” of the soul. We are now fifty plus years into a spiritual Renaissance in which we have had the benefit of learning Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, the Kabala, along with numerous other spiritual traditions and practices, only to see a rise in fundamentalism and creationism. Some people driving cars fueled by oil reserves that are millions of years old simultaneously believe that life began a mere 6,000 years ago because that’s what it says in the bible. And some of these people participate in the legislative body of this nation.
What, then, did Buddha mean by illusion? Buddha meant that you see what you want to see until you are able to perceive truth itself. We tell ourselves anything we want until we reach truth, which is an indisputable given that cannot be denied.
The Law of Gravity is a truth, for example. It exists with or without you. It has nothing to do with you. It is, in other words, impersonal. Let go of whatever you are holding and it will drop to the floor. It’s not personal that it drops to the floor. What makes the Law of Gravity appear personal is the reason why you let go of the object you were holding: Was it deliberate or was it an accident? Did you drop something of value to another person in order to hurt them or did it just slip out of your hand? Either way, the object will drop because it is subject to the Law of Gravity, but your intention personalizes that law.
Together, this forms the alchemy of “illusion,” the blending of the impersonal with the personal. Becoming “conscious” is the art of developing a keen eye that allows you to discern the “personal from the impersonal,” in your own actions as well as those of others. (So many lessons here, right? Whew). Where do we begin with this formidable task? Let’s start with learning to recognize the valuable from the insignificant.
The valuable from the insignificant
Most people do not clearly know what is truly important to them and if they do, they lose sight of it far too often. Wires get crossed and events, relationships, and things that are of no importance whatsoever rise to the top of the priority list. Here’s a guide list for you:
- Relationships that make you more conscious of your positive and shadow qualities;
- Opportunities to be of service;
- Opportunities to learn and awaken;
- Opportunities to give back;
- Opportunities to start over;
- Opportunities to cleanse and heal.
- Holding on to past injuries;
- An attitude of superiority;
- Your personal sufferings weighed against the suffering of humanity.
You may think that having to start over in a business or re-entry into the social scene after a divorce is a position of powerlessness, but Buddha would tell you that is an illusion. Starting over – new beginnings – is symbolic of new birth, new life. If you could see past the illusion of loss and the pain of feeling hurt and perhaps humiliated, the truth of what is unfolding is the shedding of a world that no longer suited you.
The truth is that if we could step outside the tumultuous emotions created by painful events, we would be able to separate the personal from the impersonal and in doing so, recognize that we felt the oncoming of the new beginnings for some time.
Here is a truth worth knowing: The fear of being humiliated causes us to value the insignificant and discount what is truly of value in life.
Big things that are really small
We make small things big deals because we lack the capacity to see clearly, to discern the larger picture. We respond too quickly when we should take a deep breath. We take things personally that have nothing to do with us. We overreact and say things when we should remain silent. We make small things really big because we lack the ability to just let them stay small. The fear of being humiliated and its sidekick, pride, can generate some of the darkest illusions people have to deal with. We create hells of our own making more often than not because we allow a small thing to get out of hand. So here’s a guide of small things (illusions) that should not be allowed to get big:
Heartbreaks – A broken heart for whatever reason, divorce or death of a partner or spouse, or a breakup, is one of the core traumas of life. We all agree on that. It’s not an illusion. It’s a huge sorrow. So why would I include that in a section that says it’s “really small?” Because the “illusion” part of loss is that it often feels as if you are the only one that has ever or will ever experience such pain. Why this core life experience qualifies for the “really small” category is precisely because it is a core life experience, which means everyone can relate to this sorrow – if not today, then someday. It also means that because such loss is an inherent part of life, even if you don’t want to heal, part of you will begin the healing process anyway because the nature of life is to heal and return the body and spirit to a state of balance. Even healing is not personal, but subject to the laws of nature and balance.
It’s worth saying again: Even the healing mechanism in the body is not personal. A broken leg, for example, will begin to heal as soon as it is set, regardless of whether you are happy or sad. The same, believe it or not, is true of your emotional self. You have to work to stay depressed, sad, and mournful after a certain length of time – unless you’ve been exceptionally traumatized.
Remember that heartbreak is still part of the vast expanse of human experiences and though our personal experience is devastating, there is nothing unique about the experience of a broken heart. Such a position is not meant to diminish a person’s grief, but to reposition one’s personal experience within an impersonal or archetypal vantage point.
Losing Your Job or Home – Many people have contacted me because they have lost their jobs or have or are undergoing home foreclosures. On the one hand, nothing is as “big” as job loss, much less the roof over your head. What could be more frightening? On the other hand, it’s precisely because the loss of a job and home are so frightening that understanding the teaching of illusion as applied here is so powerful. No, it is not an illusion to look at a bank account and see the terror of only $100.00 left. That is not the right interpretation.
Rather, understanding illusion at a critical time like that means that you grasp the truth that while you may have lost your job, you did not lose your power, your creativity, or your spirit. The truth is your life – your destiny – is not in the hands of any employer. Your destiny is between you and the Divine. It is an illusion to believe that any one human being has authority over the journey of your soul on this Earth.
Thus, from such a perspective of truth, the loss of a job becomes a Small thing. Whereas the loss of your spirit would be a truly Big thing. Get the difference? So long as you have YOU, you can face starting again. You may have to confront illusions you have about yourself, such as holding on to titles and certain salaries and privileges. Those, too, are illusions – big things that are really small. The truly BIG thing is You.
Here’s a truth worth knowing: Only God has the authority over your life’s journey. No human being has more power over you than heaven.
Betrayal – Betrayal comes under “small” things because betrayal is a life experience common to all of us. We have all betrayed people. We will likely confront that situation again. And we have all been betrayed. Betrayal exists because we struggle with honesty and justice. We demand justice, but find honesty and integrity a challenge.
Betrayal is the one crime of which we are all guilty. It puts us all on equal footing, whether we betray by breaking our word to keep a secret, or stealing money from our boss, or infidelity with a best friend’s husband. It doesn’t matter. The illusion is to tell yourself that you are incapable of betrayal, that you are above this type of darkness, that you are always fair and just and without negative judgment, and that you never betray even your own values.
Having said that, it is also the case that we would like life to be fair and just. We would like all the pieces of the pie to be divided equally. But that’s just not the way it is. Rather, it is fair and just IF you truly understood karma. If we did understand the wheels of karma, we would perhaps grasp that justice and fairness are cosmic forces that take who knows how many lifetimes to come into balance. No one action can ever be given that much significance as it is connected to countless other actions unfolding in your life.
Here’s a truth worth knowing: It is better and indeed wiser to diminish the power of any and all negative actions in your life to small things than to elevate then to the status of significant and big.
It is an illusion to think you know what is really unfolding in your life. Hidden within the unseen forces of every experience of your life are the threads of the future, laying the groundwork for opportunities yet to come. It is an illusion to think that you know why things happen as they do.
Look carefully over your life. What is big to you? What is small? What do you make big deals out of? What causes you to overreact and why? What should you notice more but don’t because you think it’s just not that important? Perhaps you should look again.
It’s an illusion to think that you can’t change the whole of your life just like that: You can. Just pick any illusion and let it go. Watch what happens.
In Part I of this two-part Salon we’ve covered Big Things That Are Really Small. In Part II, we’ll explore Small Things That Are Really Big!