Have you ever watched a full solar eclipse? When the moon slips mysteriously across the face of the sun and obliterates it from view, the light of day grows pallid, burnishing all the world with its eerie luster. As the air temperature cools, birds and insects react strangely. Dairy cows suddenly huddle together near their barns while sunflowers and many other kinds of plants turn their heads, leaning towards any residue of light in the sky.
In the premature dusk of a full solar eclipse, all manner of living creatures act as if it were night. And then light is swiftly restored to them. However, during an eclipse of the human heart, light may not come so easily.
While day bows to night, like all the creatures, we too are subject to becoming frail and insecure. But for us it might be in a lingering way. When anxiety and depressive states invade the mind, they endanger our equilibrium. Whether we suffer a minor storm of the heart or a full-blown life crisis, we may fail to see that our mental health is at risk. Our world is as if turned on its head and the confidence that once coursed through us plummets.
We may feel broken, lost, blinded, dazed, or disoriented; or a constellation of these disabling emotions, losing all sense of clarity or happiness. We are in danger of harming ourselves or others. Perhaps we try to simulate the way the creatures turn themselves towards the sun but lack the knowledge to do so.
Unlike the swift passing of an eclipse, restoring light and healing to the mind needs time, care, commitment, courage and robust faith in the power of the Dhamma. Are we ready to undertake a life-changing spiritual healing that will transform our suffering into compassionate understanding? Let’s say yes! If we realize the nature of suffering, it’s origin, and that we do not own it, then we can let it go. Letting go, we no longer suffer. To pursue such a path without giving up – that is the test.
How to begin? First and foremost, brighten the mind with the joys of generosity and moral restraint in our conduct and speech. We set our compass to kindness as our ‘true north’. These are quintessential to stay on course for the long, long journey.
Awareness is certainly key. But when we feel powerless and are swept along by sadness, regret, anger, fear or mistrust, we are often trapped in a cloud of negativity. We can even be rendered dysfunctional when a troublesome incident or affliction plagues the mind and obsesses it for days, months, or even years.
So, we are called upon to develop a deep sense of trust within our own awareness. Can we be like a gardener? We will seed and keep cultivating essential qualities such as resolving to be patient, to be content with little, and to be grateful for the practice itself rather than striving for results. Gradually they will come but, in this project, we need to throw away the yardstick.
As we nurture faith, it develops into an inexhaustible confidence. We know this way of practice is true medicine for our illness. Trusting further, stay with being aware and observing the eclipse process itself. See the feelings arising and falling away again and again. Repeatedly focus on the breath, for example, and be completely present as much as possible. This will be a tonic for us.
It may not be sustainable at first. So we persevere tirelessly, training ourselves to keep noticing these patterns. Learn how to stand back, observe, and stay on healthy ground from which to directly observe our experience. Imperceptibly, we become adept – as with any skill or profession. Again, patience with the process serves us mightily. We are learning to stop, to be still, and to see.
We are also gaining vantage and perspective that inject us with a secure footing. Inwardly stable, we appreciate what is happening at an atomic level. Now we can do this safely centred in the mind as it learns to rest within itself.
Rooted in trust, mindfulness grows. This, in turn, increases our energy. We focus attention more intensively to investigate the feeling of being afraid. And we begin to see something new, a revelation not previously understood. We see fear for what it really is.
It is no small miracle to realize that awareness of fear is not as enervating as feeling fear itself. We have learned how to attentively observe sensations in the body associated with difficult feelings of anxiety. Now we use that same way of gaining perspective to sit our ground and observe fear rather than being identified with and enveloped in the fog of fear.
To stand apart from fear and know it empirically from within the heart is groundbreaking. Can we see that we are not that fear? Awareness of fear and the feeling of it are distinct. Continue to observe in this way – not just fear – but all the permutations of feelings, sensations and moods in the mind. Repeating these ways of self-study again and again countless times is restorative. In time, these very insights invite the radiant light of wisdom to be directly experienced.
Through the lens of astute awareness, refine this posture of witnessing our experience. Notice unpleasant feelings and pleasant feelings and how the mind moves out of the grip of either one. That’s when it’s possible to understand them best, to see how we cling and how to detach so that we develop equanimity with the process – rather than spinning or reacting. We are tasting freedom from fear. The heat is buffered. It is cooled.
During a solar eclipse, the moon covers the sun. We watch and it travels on. The sun reappears and light is restored. So it is when awareness prevails over feeling. Just as a ray of light heralds the dawn, awareness surpasses our fear and invites a reversal of darkness.
By and by, we teach ourselves how to empty the rubbish in the mind more adeptly. And so, we sit in awareness with a greater sense of ease and calm. We must also learn to sustain it in the face of inner or outer storms, painful experiences, or other inclement conditions.
With pure awareness here and now, having observed feelings of fear or pain in their true light, we know what they really are. Directly seeing all that we experience in the body and mind naturally appear and fall away again, we penetrate beyond our individual feeling of fear to realize its three universal characteristics.
The first is impermanence. The ever changing quality of that feeling, and thereby all that we experience, is also understood as intrinsically unsatisfactory. Like every feeling, it is fleeting – and in the clock of moments, it will arise and pass away again and again – with an indeterminate momentum beyond our control. We have no ownership of either painful or pleasant experience. Once observed in this way, its grip on the mind should ease.
More importantly, we see that it has no owner. It is empty. Extending this insight to all experience teaches us that all is empty. We find no evidence of a self in any experience. Seen for what it is, dissolving in a moment and forever gone – even if it arises again – that will be a new moment, a new feeling, albeit a facsimile of what preceded it.
These aspects of our experience are to be known from the inside. They are as if forged from the core of our core thanks to wise intuitive reflection on what we truly see, and what results from that seeing. We intuitively understand the difference between what we are aware of and awareness itself.
Stilling the mind more and more, the inner quiet matures. We enter a dimension that fuses all objects of consciousness until we can longer differentiate them. Gradually, the awareness of the mind emerges to engulf all that we are aware of. The mind appears vast like the sky – boundless, empty but clear. At this moment, we are aware of awareness itself.
Practising awareness of awareness may seem ambitious and subtle but we can make that step. It is a momentous option that opens the gate. We try it on, develop it, grow it, expand it thoroughly, and sustain it as much as we can. In every waking moment, we bring attention to this new engagement – the mind knowing the mind.
Incrementally, we are moving beyond the state of eclipse. Alert and aware, the mind grows joyful and at ease. As we let go worry and stress, the present moment becomes our resting place, our recourse from the crush of the world. And we can continuously return to it. We are free, present, aware and able to sustain that unique clarity of pure awareness – regardless of what objects appear and fade away in the domain of the mind.
To be able to look directly at the solar eclipse, we need UV protection. To know the truth of the Dhamma directly, we need intuitive awareness of the mind and wise reflection to reveal its inner light. We reverse the darkness of ignorance, just like the moon completing its passage across the face of the sun.
Then we open to a noble dimension of experience, the mind seeing itself – unsullied by worldly concerns and trappings. We see its pure, stainless radiance in the heart of our heart. And in every heart. Within that interior peace, wisdom ripens. We are on the path. We are truly waking up.