Only the shallow know themselves.
— Oscar Wilde
We all know that life lived with our attention solely in the shallows of gossip, the headlines of newspapers and our daily round of worries and responsibilities easily becomes two dimensional, dry and empty of meaning. Turn inward, the wise say, if you want the waters of life to flow. But turn inward to what?
Times have changed. In a post-traditional and post-modern age of questioning, and in a spirit of exploration, many of us no longer need to turn toward some preconceived or inherited notion of oneself; but instead to whatever is there, whatever it is. Look and see with an open heart and mind; listen and learn, with open ears, what might be today’s mantras for a deeper life.
For surely, a priority for a deeper life is curiosity. Intellectual curiosity is one thing: Asking and pursuing questions about the world, culture, civilization. That can light a fire to last a lifetime for the intellectually inclined. But that kind of attention is still outwardly directed. Another kind of curiosity turns back on itself in an arc of self-reflection (as distinct to self-analysis).
What am I thinking? Watch how the mind stream flows, unceasingly. What am I feeling? Watch how the feelings rise and fall. How interesting, I never knew that this was what I was feeling. Perhaps it’s always like this; perhaps I’m never really upset for the reason I think. And as one notices without interfering, the awareness of a witness arises — a dimension of consciousness that is different to either thought or feeling.
You might drop a further question into the well of the mind: What bothers me? What is at the centre of my life? What is this that is living now? Not with any expectation of an answer in the form of words, just a felt sense of the openness or spaciousness in the heart and mind that such a question can give rise to. This is one aspect of SocratesKnow Thyself: We are not who we think we are, and will always be more than we know.
This kind of attention is less like a laser beam and more like a candle — one that casts a soft glow not only on a specific thought or object, but also on its surroundings — the context that gave rise to it. An attentiveness, rather, that is a bodily, sensate experience as much as one of the mind. A heart experience too, in that there is a loving attention, kind in its regard, non-judgmental, connected, whether directed to oneself or others.
Attentiveness of this kind can give rise to vulnerability, in the sense of being undefended; undefended from the truth of what we see and find in ourselves. This both in our thoughts and feelings and also beyond; in the wordless silence that can open up around us like an ocean of space. Vulnerability, too, in the sense of porousness, receptivity to the unknown and unknowable vastness. In the sense of less and less to hold on to, either inside or outside.
If we sit with this and not do anything — not make it a practice of meditation, but rather be there as an inclination, an attentive way of being, willing to be more and more deeply present to our experience — then we open to mystery. As we continue to sit in this way, we ourselves become the mystery. The fruitful void, you might say. Fruitful as in nourishing, fulfilling, enlivening.
Although there is no need to give it a name, since naming something is accompanied by the implicit assumption that we now know what it is and who we are. We don’t, we can’t and we never will be able to know or name who we are or what this life is. Even so, that doesn’t stop the desire to know. So, in the footsteps of the anonymous English author of the 13th century book of the same name, we continue to lean into the cloud of unknowing that permeates our existence; not with our mind alone, but with all that we are.
One way of describing all that we are is presence — the embodied, felt presence of mind and heart. And yet, the deeper we lean into the silence that grows from below our thinking and feeling, the less we can even point to ourselves as being separate in any way from anything else.
The presence then becomes not so much our presence, but the presence of life as it streams and moves through all things. A deeper life moves us beyond our narrower versions of who we are, toward a more fluid and connected sense of being in the world with others — others who are essentially not different from us.
That’s when the apparently superficial world of mundane activity becomes essentially no different to what we started out by calling the deeper life. Because eventually, a deeper life no longer refers to our own personal inner state. Rather, it refers to an awareness of being part of life as it flows through everything and everyone, whoever they are and whatever they are doing. Then sweeping the kitchen is no different to kneeling in the temple, inner is no different to outer, and deep and shallow both fall away.