27. Self-Pity

Q: I have read as much of your past writing as I could find. The way you talk about awareness, Robert, seems out of the league of ordinary minds like mine and the other seekers.

You have said that it is our own selfishness and attitude of wanting to attain something that prevents us from being awake. But I want to ask if you have ever been in the shoes of the people who desperately want there to be some meaning behind all the suffering in life? As a human being I am sure that you have been a victim of life’s bitchiness, yet you talk in such a self-assured way. Perhaps you’ve had the luck to find support in your network of acquaintances, or you have a socioeconomic status that enables you to overcome certain kind of problems, or maybe you are one of the lucky ones who had the opportunity to be raised in a loving and good-mannered family, and perhaps you have a natural immunity against the physical or psychological illnesses that many of us suffer.

You might think I am venting my anger with this nonsense rambling, yet I sincerely want to ask you this: How can you promote awareness and total self-consciousness when people are suffering devastating diseases, poverty, abuse by the powerful, discrimination, and many other vicissitudes of ordinary life, then blame them for not realizing how easy it is to be awake? Life seems so unfair. I am sorry if this seems like emotional bullshit, but I need to vomit all these feelings out of me. I hope you don’t feel this letter is hostile towards you. I really just want the opinion of someone as wise as I consider you to be.

A: I don’t hear much hostility in your letter. I hear self-pity. Sooner or later we all suffer, and trying to avoid suffering only makes it worse.

But people of all backgrounds and circumstances from the most privileged to the most deprived have come to self-understanding anyway, while others remain lost in resentment, fear, and anger. I do not know how to account for that apparent “unfairness,” but coming to psychological freedom does not seem to require fortunate circumstances, or even necessarily to benefit from them. In my experience, awakening can involve all kinds of adversity.

You may have read my words, but it appears that you have misunderstood them. I am not blaming anyone—ever. No one chooses who to be or how. In each moment life unfolds as it does, including what “myself” feels or doesn’t feel, understands or fails to understand, does or doesn’t do. Now you may disagree with that. You may imagine that you have control over your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. You may think that people who do bad things have chosen to do them, or at least not chosen to avoid doing them. That, I say, is not the case. We may have the illusion of choice, but not the actual power to choose. At root level, we are what we are, and no one ever chose that.

When I use the word “awakening,” I do not refer to some special condition that only a few favored humans can attain. By awakening, I only mean noticing that no one is choosing anything. This aliveness, influenced by countless factors, most of them completely beyond our ken, simply expresses itself as it does. To notice this is effortless, and also immune to effort. No one is “doing” noticing.

When the effort to escape from what is — from what actually exists, regardless of how one feels about it — comes to an end, and the fantasy of attaining something “better” ceases, one is awake. There is nothing hidden or esoteric about this.

Awakening, I should add, does not necessarily mean being happy. Nor does it involve believing, as some people do, that everything is perfect. It only means comprehending that everything you see, feel, and think is you. Perceptions, feelings and thoughts are not “out there” somewhere. They occur within your own nervous system. They are you.

I am not saying, as some try to say, that “the world” is nonexistent or only illusory. I don’t even know what that kind of talk would really mean. I am saying that you do not know “the world.” You only know your world: your perceptions, your feelings, your thoughts.

If you understand that, then it follows that the facts of each moment must be chewed up and swallowed, not avoided or evaded. You cannot, after all, avoid or evade yourself. If you try, you end up howling at the moon. Even people from the most fortunate circumstances can end up howling at the moon, as I am sure you really know.

In each moment, things are as they are and cannot be any different. So when you grouse about the unfairness of life, you are rejecting life itself, which has no relationship with fairness or unfairness, and which does not care one whit about what you want or don’t want. Your gripes and complaints only serve to keep you separated from actual life. In each moment, what is can only be embraced as is, never made over to suit your desires.

This is a simple matter. In this moment you seem to exist as a center of awareness. That is all you really know. All the rest, including what anything means or doesn’t mean, is conjecture. You may have opinions, beliefs, and judgments—I am sure you do—but opinions, beliefs, and judgments are not knowledge.

I don’t know what it takes for someone to understand that. I can talk about what it’s like for me, but that is not easily transferred or taught. Beliefs can be taught. Understanding arises only when and how it does, and no one can decide to understand.

I hear the pain and self-pity in your question, but I don’t know how to make you understand that this very moment, which is all you ever have or ever will have, is slipping through your fingers before you even see it, blinded as you are by your longing for something else—something more meaningful, less unfair, or not so painful.