One morning about a year ago, I awoke from a dream in which I was creating an elaborate sand painting. A creation of painstaking detail, it was a sculptural kind of bas-relief made up of three separate parts. It would be cumbersome to explain in detail, but imagine three masterful constructions intricately woven into a perceived one –in other words, a massive undertaking. While carefully finishing the piece, I understood it would be exhibited at a museum for only 48 hours, after which it would be annihilated. The dream suddenly shifted, and I found myself at the museum in front of my painting with a child standing next to me. He asked his parents why in the world something so beautiful would be destroyed. I couldn’t make out what they said, but the boy was filled with sadness as he listened to their explanation. I stood amazed and somewhat agitated as the boy’s dismay became something utterly different. Contagious excitement erupted in tandem with the realization he could watch the dramatic unhinging of my massive undertaking! I stood motionless, listening and thinking, “Wow, this is a great lesson for kids on how to let go of things,” and I noted a deep sense of emotional clinging and physical tension brought on by the wish to not have my work disappear – and yet the boy, whom I identified with for some unknown reason, was so very happy. How could his remorse be released so effortlessly, and how could he be so rapturous over the demise of my massive undertaking?
When I opened my eyes and the meaning of the dream washed over me I couldn’t help but smile. Surely the sand painting is the project of “self” I’m continually in the process of creating. In the dream, I felt a part of me would die when the thing I’d created was obliterated. Am I self-created? It’s taken years of effort, countless experiences, piles of memories, opinions, desires, wounds, dreams and struggles to become who I am – but are any of these things in an of themselves truly me or mine? Am I not a conglomerate of myriad manifestations of form and consciousness? How many grains of sand can you pile into one big heap? To count and arrange them all – Atlas himself never encountered such a massive undertaking.
Perhaps the answer is “Yes! This is me, right now!” Then what happens when one of my opinions is challenged or a deeply held belief, abandoned? Where does the Susan who was solidly defined by her thoughts and choices go? What if a new experience challenges the ground I’ve planted my flag of identity upon… then what? Do I become a totally different country? If so, where did the United States of Susan 1.0 disappear to? (I won’t even ask where Susan 8.0.2 wandered off to.) If something is solid, reliable and definable, how can it suddenly shift shapes into something that is not itself? It’s easy enough to recognize my dreams aren’t real. Comfort zones can handle it. Can I courageously leap into the awareness that what I create in my waking life could be just as insubstantial? Everything we construct eventually ceases to exist. If someone is being created, who is the creator? Can you locate the source of the dream? Can you identify the dreamer? Like a rambunctious child scrambling over sand castles in search distant shores, don’t back away from these questions. Be bold! Make friends with the questions that scare you.
And who is the little boy? Didn’t Jung or Freud say every character in our subconscious represents an aspect of ourselves? Children have less conditioning, fewer experiences, and societal branding than their future incarnations. Their yet-to-be “selves” will inevitably lug around a clan of identities hitched to their belts. For most children, time hasn’t had a chance to clutter the mind with a lifetime of cherished notions of me and mine, and self and other. Fences to protect and defend against the threatening “other” are harmless Lincoln Logs compared to the Berlin walls of adulthood. My smaller self felt sad for a moment or two – after all, the massive undertaking of his future was on the verge of radical deconstruction. But what was there for him to hold on to? A future self doesn’t exist in the here and now. Sadness led to inquiry – inquiry, to excitement – Hey! Why not dismantle this thing and see what happens? Wow! This is the most awesome field trip ever!
If it were only this quick and easy four decades later. The older I get, the more aware of how massive this undertaking actually is, and the slowness of shaking the sand out of so many pockets. Indeed, in the not so distant future, it will fall apart and decay into heaps of dust on floor of our collective museum. We either move toward this truth with curiosity and courage because it’s an unavoidable fact of our existence, or we gloss it over, finding false refuges to numb the soul and prop up a falsely identified and fearful ego. Don’t listen to the Fat Head behind the curtain, Dorothy! Maybe jumping off the cliff of certainty into the unknown isn’t as horrifying as it seems. Maybe the cliff is uncertain and taking flight is a leap of faith into reality. Concepts are subject to change and as such, can only provide the illusion of protection. We need not be bound by them. Entertain the possibility you are less than than your ego insists it can tolerate and see what happens. We are infinitely more than the mind can fathom. In fact, there are no words which can adequately describe what can only be understood by letting go and directly experiencing it. Freedom is the absence of a cherished self – with so little baggage, you just might find yourself defying gravity. With no thing to carry to the distant shore – with emptiness instead of the weight of massive undertakings – what will your last breath be like? What measure of substance will remain to let go of?
This is the end of the burden of becoming something or someone the Buddha spoke of. It is the end of death; the end of the cycle of pain; the snuffing out of self-inflicted suffering.
May all beings know the causes of suffering and find freedom.
Re-post from 2009 with additional reflections and insight. Image shot October, 2007 on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts