When you put a drop of ink in a clear glass of water, the whole glass goes dark. When you put a drop of ink in the ocean, nothing happens. A tiny dot of darkness is no match for the immensity of the sea.
So, too, the smallest slight can darken our whole world. Does an unkind word from a colleague ruin your day? When a driver changes lanes in front of you without using their turn signal, do you see red? When a loved one overlooks an opportunity to shower you with love and attention, do you construct a grimly exaggerated narrative that they don’t love you anymore? These drops of ink, these trigger moments, have the capacity to cloud our minds and shift us into sadness and anger. What if there were a way to defend ourselves from these useless and self-destructive interludes? There is. And it begins with a better understanding of the nature of consciousness.
We use the word consciousness to refer to the entire cluster of awareness and cognition known as the mind—all of our memories, our emotions, our understandings, our concepts, our beliefs, our perceptions, our capacities, our fears, our aspirations, and our sense of self. In its broadest sense, consciousness is not housed solely in the brain. Each of the 100 trillion cells that make up our body are in a way conscious, if by conscious you mean aware, for each of our cells is in communication with the cells around it, sending and receiving signals and making decisions based on shared information. Cells make decisions the way flocks of geese make decisions—one turns, they all turn. This requires a great deal of attentiveness and responsiveness—in a word, consciousness.
So consciousness isn’t a thing—it’s a phenomenon, a happening, a cluster of interdependent events. Given its cloud-like structure, it’s difficult to talk in simplistic terms of cause and effect. Rather, everything is causing everything without boundary, beginning, or end. A butterfly flaps its wings in China and…
When new experiences occur—a co-worker’s unkind word, an inconsiderate driver’s slight, a distracted lover’s momentary apathy—we experience that event through the grid of our world view, a narrative so well established that it takes on the air of truth, despite the fact that it is largely fictional. We perceive everything through the filter of our preconceptions, judgments, and assumptions. Nothing gets through unfiltered. As the Jewish book of wisdom, the Talmud, points out, “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”
There are many pieces to the puzzle of consciousness, but a few stand out. One is our woundedness. We have a knack for remembering every insult, every hurt feeling, and every rejection. Positive events don’t seem to make it to long-term memory as well as the bad stuff does. So understandably we become hypervigilant at scanning the horizon for any possible incoming harm, keeping our defenses raised. This ardent self-protection closes us off from the imperfection of others, thereby diminishing our capacity for mercy and compassion. Instead, we are quick to criticize the failings of others, unaware that it is our own weakness, incompletion, and underdevelopment that most irks us. Somewhere along the way our ego learned to bolster its own importance by pushing others down. When we condemn the other we feel a momentary flush of superiority. But it is short lived, and the beast must be continually fed. We grow crueler and more aloof, falling further and further into a pit of judgment and isolation.
Fortunately, there is a way out of this morass. It’s called meditation.
When we practice meditation, we slow down and slip through the gaps between thoughts and sink into the boundless stillness of awareness itself, a region beyond language and concepts. Here we realize that we are not our thoughts—we are their witness. This simple shift is enormously significant. The instant you realize that you are not your thoughts, they lose their grip on you. In a word, you’re free. And with that freedom comes an abiding sense of joy and well-being. You realize that joy is not something you seek, it’s something you are. It is your natural, innate state. All that’s required is the removal of the hindrances that hide our joy from our sight, namely the illusory narrative of the thought-stream. No persuasive essay can accomplish this shift. You can’t be talked into it. You simply have to experience it for yourself. Then, by the unimpeachable authority of your own experiential awareness, you will know.
When you begin to spend a little time in the boundlessness, you carry a piece of it with you wherever you go—into the workplace, into traffic, and into your relationships. Then, when the slights occur, and they will, you’re better equipped to perceive them correctly and in proper proportion. You will no longer exaggerate their power. A drop of ink has no power over the sea. You will respond to them wisely, kindly, mercifully, compassionately, and everyone walks away unharmed. This is how we build peace, both in our relationships, and in the whole world.
It’s as if by slipping down into the infinite stillness beneath the separate ego, you realize your identity with the one ground of being that informs all things. From the perspective of this vast field of awareness everything slips into its rightful place. The final illusion fades – the mistaken notion that consciousness is a private possession, existing in isolation from everything else. Instead of a glass of water, you’re the vast, immeasurable sea. When a drop of ink falls in, the waters do not darken. The ink has no power here.
All of these claims are wordlessly verified in the depths of our own awareness when we grow still enough to slip loose from the grip of our thought-structures. This cannot be achieved by thinking, no matter how beautiful, deep, and profound our thoughts. This level of awareness has nothing to do with thought. It is pure awareness itself, content-free, and silent. The more we talk about it, the further away from it we go. It cannot be explained, only experienced.
You have a choice to make—continue suffering or heed the call coming from deep within your own soul to move toward healing. By incorporating a simple meditation practice into your life, you begin to experience a softening of the symptoms of your discontent. The world will gradually, steadily right itself. Meditation won’t answer all your questions or solve all your problems, but it will move you to a place where your questions and problems no longer have the same disruptive power they used to have. You will no longer see yourself as tiny and insignificant, isolated from the totality of it all. You will feel in your bones a deep aliveness and wellness lifting you over all chasms and obstacles. From this new stance of increasing wholeness and freedom you’ll be better able to create the life you deserve with the people you love, and with the sea of strangers around you.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, spiritual teacher, singer-songwriter, and philosophy professor. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, or at www.peterbolland.com