Mulla Nasrudin was weary of a strange malady he had been suffering from for a while. No specialist could even find out what was wrong with him, let alone treat it. Finally, one day a doctor called him into his office.
“I’m sorry, my friend,” he said, “I’ve gone through your reports and I’ve got bad news for you.”
Mulla nodded as much expectantly as anxiously.
“You have been diagnosed with a rare terminal disease,” the doctor said.
“Oh, thank God,” Mulla exclaimed. “I thought you were going to tell me that you couldn’t find anything.”
It is quite a nagging feeling when you know something is causing you pain but none of the professionals can diagnose it. You are repeatedly told that nothing is wrong with you, whereas you as a patient suffer from the ailment every day. Since the tests and reports come out negative, your pain is dismissed as psychosomatic or merely paranoia.
The journey of self-realization is not much different. As you read on, you will know what I mean. Here are the six steps to the final awakening, as I see them:
As strange as it may sound, it always starts with a sense of discomfort. You feel that something’s not quite right. You have everything, a career, family, savings and whatnot, you are even happy for the most part, but something is amiss. The more you try to ignore this feeling, the more it bothers you. It’s like that child sitting behind you in the cinema hall, just when you start to forget about everything and focus on the film, he will kick your seat. It’s a great movie, you bought the ticket, popcorn, and drinks, every other person in the hall is having a blast but this child who is not even yours will deny you the fun. You can scorn, stare, ignore, smile, do whatever you like, he’s not walking out till you do.
Once you realize that this feeling of void, of discomfort, is here to stay, the process of diagnosis starts. Someone will tell you about some method, process, guru, speaker, or saint etc. and you will try that. You just want to know what’s wrong with you or what you can do to erase this sense of discomfort. You don’t want to curb it because you have tried that and it doesn’t work. The same child who was kicking your seat in the hall is now also running in the corridors of the airports you pass through. He’s drumming the table with that fine silverware at the restaurant you are dining at. There is no respite.
The sad part is that sometimes the process of diagnosis can take an entire lifetime. If you end up in the hands of a quack, easily a decade will go by before you discover a chink in the armor. During this phase of the journey, you are eager to know what exactly you need to do to make the discomfort go away. You want to get to the bottom of it but everyone you meet gives you a different opinion.
From my observation and experience, at least fifty percent of sincere seekers reach this state. Discovery starts when the diagnosis is complete and you now know what’s wrong. The discomfort is still there, not much has changed but you know what does and doesn’t work for you. You know the ailment and now that it’s been diagnosed, you no longer run from pillar to post in search of a cure, some panacea. Based on what you now know, it’s very clear to you that you have most probably discovered your truth. I say most probably because discovery is not an aha moment per se, it’s a process in its own right. When the sunbeams announce their descent through the window panes in the morning, you begin to see the dust around. It was dusty all night but it’s only now that you see it.
The light of truth courses through your soul and you know exactly what you need to do to cleanse yourself. The petulant child of the cinema hall is long gone but now the movie appeals to you no longer. You see popcorn as full of carbs and your drink unhealthy.
The discovery was supposed to set you free but it hasn’t (and it doesn’t). Mistaking this phase of discovery as the realization of truth, this is where most seekers stop. No doubt, they have found the source of discomfort, diagnosed it accurately, found the solution too but signing up for gym membership alone does not bestow great health. You’ve got to workout and watch what you eat. Besides, the process of absorbing the truth and practicing it with love, compassion, humility, and altruism is the work of a lifetime.
After discovery, there’s a brief phase of euphoria when the seeker feels they have it all figured out. But soon the truth surfaces to the top like cream in a poorly made and microwaved milky coffee. It’s neither pretty nor tasteful. You don’t know what to do with it. Leave it and it will stick to the inside of the cup making it one ugly sight.
This phase of disillusionment is one of the most remarkable periods in the life of any seeker. You emerge stronger, clearer, wiser, and humbler. You realize that whatever you knew might have felt right at the time but just because it appealed to you does not mean it was actually right for you. The insight you gain while you go through the period of disillusionment causes profound and lasting transformation in you.
The child in the hall or the restaurant does not bother you because you are completely engrossed in your inner world. There’s a whole lot of thoughts and emotions crossing each others’ path incessantly. But in some paradoxical ways, this tempestuous storm is calming because it will uproot all that was not firmly grounded. It will toss about everything and test the strength of your moral, spiritual and social structures. Once it passes, things will look rather different.
Many seekers at this stage go back to their old ways, completely denouncing everything they learned and equating it to being brainwashed in the cult etc. They look back at their journey of self-discovery as a mistake or an experience. The new narrative is more aligned to conventional thinking. All is back to normal. They no longer have an itch they can’t scratch. Pray or not, meditate or not, just live and move on.
But, not every explorer makes the same choice. A rare few realize that just because they dug the wrong well does not mean the world has run out of fresh water.
It reminds me of the four faults of natural awareness as stated in Mahamudra (translation by Ken McLeod in Arrow to the Heart).
So close you can’t see it.
So deep you can’t fathom it.
So simple you can’t believe it.
So good you can’t accept it.
Be too close and you can’t see the whole, only a part. Go too far and you see the whole but can’t appreciate how the parts are holding together the whole. It has to be the right distance.
The wisdom gained out of disillusionment invariably leads, if not propels, the determined aspirant to the next step.
Now you have truly found your path. This is irreversible. You exist peacefully amongst the contradictions and differences. Your faith at this stage is unshakeable, you’ve gone through your learnings and have arrived at the conclusion that you are more than the sum total of all that you have thought and done.
This is not the elation or celebration of a victory lap. Instead, it’s the fundamental understanding that you don’t run a race just to win the trophy, you run because you love running. You run because of the high you get when you put your sneakers on and hit the track. You no longer do it to go through the paces or to win any approval. And you don’t go back to the old painful ways. If anything, your resolve is now as still as the Himalayas. Granted that it will snow and hail and rain, storms will rage, avalanches will come tumbling down, but they happen at the surface. They don’t move you, much less remove you.
This is lifelong dedication. Gandhi, Mandela, Buddha, Einstein, and numerous others found it. Those who remain steadfast move to the final outcome.
Liberation is like money in some ways. You can work towards it but you can’t run after it. Doing so will take the joy out of everything. If you care about the journey and you keep walking diligently, deliverance is not too far ahead. It’s just around the corner (like discovery, so be careful).
What happens is something remarkable at this stage. That is, you change, the world around you will change, your priorities and your outlook will change, but the real you sort of becomes changeless. What I mean is, firmly established in your own truth and splendor, you watch the world go by just how the mountains watch the seasons: silently.
You, as the supreme spectator, are no longer bothered by the rowdy kids or raging storms. Full of life, you are likely to be even more boisterous than the naughtiest children. Besides, within you, you have found boundless stability, humility, love and compassion. You can be still as the mountain or moving as any stream, either way, you remain perfectly aware. Just as the salty oceans trickle down sweet water upon becoming rainclouds, everything that touches you becomes sweeter.
All it takes to begin is a sense of discomfort. When that happens, you are ready to embark on the most important journey of your life. And when you are sure that you have found your truth, just give it some time. Let the fireworks finish, the smoke will settle, the night will wane. If you resume your journey, you will go on to transform not only yourself but everyone else who crosses your path however briefly.
Between discomfort and deliverance rests your destiny. Claim it, write it. For, those who don’t show the courage and competence to scribble their destiny are handed one randomly by Providence.
Go on, write one. Diligently.