On my last Christmas at Interview, the boss distributed presents to the staff. Weirdly, my gift from Andy was a white silk scarf painted with a black pyramid and lotus-seated figure, the words THE ONLY WAY OUT IS IN scrawled underneath in inked capital letters. Six months later, Andy was dead following complications from gall bladder surgery. He was only 59.
I was already in India by then, traveling with Andrew Harvey, an eccentric British friend who had been born in the twilight of the Raj near Connaught Circus in Delhi, where we were now sitting one evening after dinner.
A harvest moon hung low in the sky. The air was dusty, sweet and warm. We’d been smoking hash, which made it sweeter and Andrew, a professor and poet, was now holding forth in his trademark style (operatic monologue) on the subject that most compelled him – the loss of sacredness in the world. “Until people realize that all of this,“ Andrew swept up his hands to encompass the great, entropic, swirling mass of humanity, rickshaws, cows and sirens surrounding us on all sides, “until people actually realize that all of this is divine, every last inch of it, even the ugliest parts,” he said. “Till they finally move past the naïve idea that a world with God would be a world without suffering, a big Disneyland where everyone gets in for free,” Andrew declaimed, “they will not truly understand that suffering is here for a purpose.”
“And what, oh wizard, might that be?”
Andrew ignored me. “We spin and spin in our little cages without looking outside of them or even more deeply within,” he went on. “But if people took the time to look more deeply, if they dared to look underneath their masks, they would discover something that could change their lives forever.”
“Please tell me what you’re talking about.”
“They would discover their real face in the mirror.”
What real face? I thought to myself. Till that moment I had never considered that there might be a different ‘face’ to things of which I was wholly unaware, some secret, even-more-bona fide visage. But what if Andrew was right, I wondered, influenced by the hash and the moonlight? My friend was hyperbolic but also wise on subjects spiritual and mysterious. What if this thing we called ordinary life really was (at least in part) a case of mistaken identity? Something in his words struck a chord of truth and tintinnabulated inside me.
In time, I would come to discover that spiritual traditions across the board all put forth some version or other of this same strange realization: that we do not know ourselves, in essence; that our worldly masks are, in truth, a mere façade. During times of crisis in years to come, I found myself, to my great surprise, increasingly aware of this other face peering out at me through my physical eyes, seeing through my own mask, penetrating with questions.
It was impossible not to notice that this new awareness emerged in direct proportion to assaults on my ego.
This must be why the Buddha laughed: because nothing more could be taken from him. He recognized his own true face. He was liberated from craving and fear. He saw the freedom in letting go, the hidden reward of not looking backward. This freedom came at a price, of course; it comes at a cost for all of us. But considering the dividends, in self-knowledge, joy, and unshakable strength, as I would soon learn on my own uphill path, only a fool would refuse to pay it.
www.markmatousek.com [Excerpted from When You're Falling, Dive: Lessons in the Art of Living, just out from Bloomsbury Press, by Mark Matousek (pictured below). The Vancouver Observer will be publishing regular excerpts from Matousek's book.]