If you think you have to postpone freedom, or that you can postpone it, you don’t know what freedom is. Postponement is nothing that you do out of generosity. It assumes that your own peace of heart isn’t the greatest help you can offer to all beings. It assumes that because of your generosity and compassion you need to keep suffering. That doesn’t make any sense. How can your suffering ever help anyone? The only thing that can help is for you to end your suffering.
The Buddha talks about enlightenment. But he knows that enlightenment is nothing. There’s no such thing. When you wake up from a dream, you realize that it was never real. You’ve just been asleep. You’ve been asleep because you’ve been believing stories that were so compelling that they created even the storyteller. When you’re being generous and giving something with your whole heart, you’re simply not aware of any generosity. You’re not self-conscious. In fact, you would laugh if someone called you generous; it would seem ridiculous. When a mother breast-feeds her baby, does she think, ‘How generous of me!’? That would be the farthest thing from her mind.
The suffering that people describe to me necessarily comes from either an imagined past or an imagined future, since an identified mind is always remembering or anticipating what isn’t happening in reality. I realize that everyone is always okay; they’re always in a state of grace, whether they realize it or not. Some people think that empathy means feeling another person’s pain. But it’s not possible to feel another person’s pain. What happens is that people project what someone’s pain must feel like and then react to their own projection. This kind of empathy is unnecessary for compassionate action; it actually gets in the way. Empathy, in my experience, has nothing to do with imagining pain. It is a fearless connectedness and an immovable love. It’s a way of being fully present.
I used to tell my children, ‘Make friends with mediocrity.’ You can find perfect enlightenment in just doing the dishes. There’s nothing more spiritual than that. Someone can spend three years meditating in a cave, and your practice of just doing the dishes every day is equal to that. Can you love the balance, the harmony, of sweeping the floor? That harmony is the ultimate success, whether you’re a pauper or a king. You can achieve it from wherever you are. There are no trumpets blaring; there’s only peace. Peace dwells in the ordinary. It’s no further away than that.
All genocide, terrorism, rape, and cruelty to children and animals are in the past. They don’t exist in this moment, and that is pure grace. I accept that grace with a sense of deep gratitude. When you believe that such apparent horrors shouldn’t happen, even though they do happen, you suffer. So you’re adding one more person’s suffering to the world’s suffering, and for what purpose? Does your suffering help anyone who is being harmed? No. Does it motivate you to act for the common good? If you pay close attention, you’ll see that this too isn’t so. By questioning the belief that these things shouldn’t happen, you can end your own suffering about the suffering of others. And once you do, you’ll be able to notice that this makes you a kinder human being, someone who is motivated by love rather than outrage or sadness. The end of suffering in the world begins with the end of suffering in you.
When we reach the ‘other’ shore, we realize that we have never left the shore we started from. There’s only one shore, and we are already there, though some of us haven’t realized it yet. We think that we need to get from here to there, but there turns out to be here. It was here all along. ’Nothing exists’ may feel like a truth, since it’s a pointer to something more accurate than a solid self looking out at a solid world. But the nonexistence of things has to be deeply realized before it is anything other than a concept. If you believe that nothing exists, you’re still identified as a ‘you’ who believes that nothing exists.
Many of the monks who were listening to the Buddha must have realized who he was: no one. But some of them may have wanted to treat him like a guru, to put him in a different category, to think that he was superior to them, a more evolved or exalted being. They may have looked at him with starry-eyed adoration. The Buddha’s response was to love them and keep helping them to question their thinking, so that they could find their own freedom … He kept saying that he didn’t have anything they didn’t have. He constantly returned them to themselves, to the only way possible.
Ask yourself, ‘Who is thinking?’ There’s no answer to that. The question short-circuits the mind. You can never have an answer. You could wait for a million years, and there would still be silence. And really, there’s no answer for anything. We can’t explain anything essential in our lives. When I judge someone, I’m seeing a distortion of my own mind superimposed onto an apparent other. I can’t love the one I’m with until I see him (or her) clearly, and I can’t see him clearly until I have no desire to change him. When confusion takes over the mind, when it argues with reality, I see only my own confusion.
Suppose you’re psychic and you have a vision of a box that’s buried beside a tree in a country you’ve never visited. And they find the tree and dig, and lo and behold, there the box is! Now you can be famous and tell us all about it on The Tonight Show. But what does that prove? After it’s all over, do you still get upset when you find a parking ticket on your windshield The world you see is a reflection of how you see it. If your world is ugly or unfair, it’s because you haven’t questioned the thoughts that are making it appear that way. As your mind becomes clearer and kinder, your world becomes clearer and kinder.
I came to see that there was nothing unacceptable. This is very difficult for some of us to take in at first, because in order to understand it we have to lose our entire world. We’re afraid of losing the world of opposites that we depend on to maintain our precious identity as the one who is justified in suffering. People can’t oppose anything but their own thinking. When there’s no opposition, the chaotic mind hears itself. It notices that the only opposition is its own.”
The only place we can be happy is right here, right now — not tomorrow, not in ten minutes. Happiness can’t be achieved. We can’t get it from money or sex or fame or approval or anything on the outside. We can only find happiness within us: unchanging, immovable, ever present, ever waiting. If we pursue it, it runs away. If we stop pursuing it and question our minds instead, the source of all stress disappears. Happiness is who we already are, once our minds are clear. When the mind is perfectly clear, what is is what we want. We’re happy with whatever life brings us. That’s enough, and more than enough. Here’s the bottom line: suffering is optional. If you prefer to suffer, go on believing your stressful thoughts. But if you’d rather be happy, question them.
Hurt feelings or discomfort of any kind cannot be caused by another person. No one outside you can hurt you. That’s not possible. Only when you believe a story about them can you be hurt. So you’re the one who’s hurting yourself. This is very good news, because it means that you don’t have to get someone else to stop hurting you or to change in any way. You’re the one who can stop hurting you. You’re the only one.
Everything in the world is doing its job. The ceiling sits on the walls, the walls sit on the floor, the curtains are hanging in front of the windows; they’re all doing their jobs. But when you tell yourself a story about how reality is supposed to look, you end up arguing with the ceiling or the wall, and it’s hopeless. It’s like trying to teach a cat to bark. The cat won’t ever cooperate. ‘No, no,’ you may tell it, ‘you don’t understand. You should bark. It would be so much better for you if you barked. Besides, I really need you to bark. As a matter of fact, I’m going to devote the rest of my life to teaching you how to bark.’ And many years later, after all your sacrifice and devotion, the cat looks up at you and says, ‘Meow.’ Trying to change people leaves you in a hopeless state of mind, because you just can’t do it. … People change or they don’t. It’s not your business; your business is to understand your own mind. When you understand your mind, you feel gratitude when they change and gratitude when they don’t. You can argue with reality all you want, or you can stop arguing long enough to understand it and be free. You come to know for yourself what’s true, and that’s where your freedom is; it has nothing to do with anyone else in your life.
We go through life mother-realized. We know what she did. But we’re not self-realized. We’re so busy judging other people that our self-realization is hidden under our judgments. So be still. People don’t have to get along with me. Do I get along with them? —that’s the important question. People don’t have to understand me. Do I understand myself? Do I understand them? And if I understand myself, I understand everyone. As long as I remain a mystery to myself, people remain a mystery. If I don’t like me, I don’t like you. Who started all this confusion? You did. Who can end it? Only you.
As your mind changes, the world you perceive changes, since the world is your projection. Every time you question your stressful thoughts, you become a clearer, kinder human being. You may not even notice that. But little by little, over the months, over the years, life becomes simpler, and your mind settles into a peace that you weren’t even aware of before. Your relationships become easier and happier. You realize that your enemies are really your friends, that the difficult people in your life aren’t really difficult: it’s your own mind that created the difficulties. And the clearer your mind gets, the more it projects a friendly universe, until one day it occurs to you that you haven’t had a problem for a very long time.
When you learn to meet your thoughts with understanding, you can meet us with understanding. What could anyone say about you that you haven’t already thought? When the thoughts are met with understanding, through inquiry, the child is able to see what the mother sees: that it’s just a dream. And when you wake up, you see that there’s no dream, and not even a dreamer. It’s thrilling to watch the ego dance, no matter where it goes — left, right, up, down, all around — none of it valid, none of it real. You just can’t help delighting in its antics, its brilliant attempts to be something that has never been, is not, and never can be.
When you imagine any scenario, that is your world in the moment, and there are many worlds within the illusion of time — as many worlds as there are grains of sand in the Ganges or stars in the sky. You think that you know what other people are thinking, but it’s just you thinking. Even if they tell you what they’re thinking, that doesn’t mean it’s so. You hear and see only from the perspective of your own world.
Everyone has the perfect body. If you weren’t able to compare your body to any other, what could possibly be lacking? Without the mind’s comparison, no one can be too fat or too thin. That’s not possible; it’s a myth. Comparison keeps you from the awareness of what is … If this body story were true, it would mean that no fat person could ever be self-realized, no one in a wheelchair, no one old or sick, no one who’s not beautiful. That would leave out practically the whole human race! Under this theory, none of us would have a chance for freedom. People think they need to get their life perfect first, and then they’ll have peace. Can we just do it from here, now? If mind believes that it is what it’s not, then it has to imagine that everything it projects is real. And in that arrogance, it thinks it has to preserve what can never be preserved.”
The only thing worth learning is to unlearn. The way to do this is to question everything you think you know. Once you’ve found the key to yourself, you discover a freedom so vast that no physical body can contain it; not even a universe can contain it. Unlearning is how the vastness reveals itself. As long as we’re stuck in what we think we know, the world remains small, and life is lived in apparent suffering. It takes an open mind to question your certainties. It takes a mind that is fearless in its journey inward, a mind willing to go to places it has never been to before. It’s a journey into what is true. And everything dissolves into the truth. Nothing survives it. It is love itself, and there’s nothing that it isn’t. It’s the mind finally resting in itself, at home with itself. It’s the end of contradiction, war, unkindness.
Whatever job is in front of me is never more difficult than I can handle, since I never have to handle it. Either I pick up the garbage, or if I don’t notice it, it’s left for others to notice. When you notice the garbage on the ground, what do you project out of it? Is it ugly, a bother, a disgrace? Or is it your perfect job in the moment? To clear your mind so that you can live in a beautiful world, the real world, is the ultimate job. Heaven is created out of this, or hell. The job of the Buddha is simply to pick up the garbage, to do the dishes, to sweep the floor. In this, he changes the world a little bit, for the better. But the ultimate job is not to change the world; it’s to understand the world within you. What could you say about me that hasn’t appeared within me as a thought? It’s so simple.”
Security and comfort, and even great abundance, can’t ever satisfy us. You can have a beautiful, healthy body, live in a mansion, drive an expensive car, eat the finest food, and still your life may be filled with suffering. It’s like dying of thirst in the middle of a clear lake. The only thing that you have to work with is your thinking. People tell me they want a quiet mind; they think that freedom is the mind stopped. That’s not my experience. What I knew to do, since my mind wouldn’t shut up, was to meet my thoughts with understanding, through inquiry. And then I noticed that people were saying the same thoughts I had been thinking. So because I had met my thoughts with understanding, there was no one to meet; there were only concepts understood, which I called ‘people.
There’s nothing unkind about the falling away of a species, or even of the earth, except for the way you understand it. Do you see the deterioration of your own body as terrible? Do something about it! Then, ten years later, do something about that! And later, as you notice that you’re even older, that your body has deteriorated beyond anything you could prevent, do you see it as terrible? Your body is like the earth. Take another look.”
Excerpts from Byron Katie, with Stephen Mitchell. A Mind at Home with Itself.