"What exactly do you mean when you talk of our true nature ?" This was the question posed by a student on my recent retreat. We were talking about our retreat theme "Coming Home", and the topic of our true self, our true nature, came up for discussion. With much wild hand gesturing and searching to pull THE ANSWER out of some elusive place, I gave the best response that I could. With some pondering afterwards I realised that perhaps a simpler question to grapple with is:
If we can't say categorically what it is, then perhaps we can talk about what it is not?
Let's take a look at what the traditions say that it is:
Buddhists teach that our true nature is emptiness. This emptiness is obscured by veils and negative mind states like wanting, (desire and aversion), fear, ignorance and delusion. We move towards our true nature through developing awareness, slowly gathering wisdom and gaining insight. With time, patience and practice, the divine states of compassion, loving kindness, empathy and equanimity emerge. This is our true nature, our Buddha Nature.
Yogis and the Hindu faith teach that all life is a journey towards union with Brahman. Brahman is defined as the ultimate Supreme God, the cosmic spirit. Brahman is formless, limitless, omnipresent, boundless, unknowable and the Truth. Until we achieve union with Brahman, the human condition is to remain caught in a cycle of suffering and reincarnation. Each human soul is born with an Atman (our individual soul); this soul is our permanent, true nature, and is a spark of the divine Supreme Brahman. The path of our soul, through many lifetimes, is to strive towards liberation from suffering through right action, practicing devotion, self study and gathering knowledge. With right action we achieve liberation from the human condition, resulting in bliss and ultimately, union with Brahman.
Pure knowledge is not imparted by another; it comes unmasked. It is the one that is listening: it is your own true nature. ~ Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
Words are just blah, blah, blah, unless you know what they mean. And further to that, when the words hit a spot that vibrates with crystal clear, sparkling, hallelujah truth, then you know you are really onto something. So when an aha moment strikes, do yourself a favour and pay attention! How do you feel about the Buddhist idea of emptiness? Or the belief in reincarnation and suffering for many lifetimes? Bhakti yoga (yoga of devotion) is not what I am personally drawn to, but it may be the sparkling, shining truth for you. But even if we don't believe in reincarnation, or enlightenment, there IS something to explore in this true nature proposition. We feel it!
I observe that my students come to class for so much more than just a good old down doggie, a nice sit, or a lovely lie down. They want more. We all feel a yearning for more understanding, clarity, and a greater ease with ourselves and being alive. The promise of yoga (yoga is union of all parts of the self) offers something eminently desirable. We don't know quite what we want, but we do know that we are wanting. Compassion, loving kindness, empathy and equanimity are all appealing qualities. Achieving liberation from suffering is a tantalizing goal. What do you want freedom from?
There are many winds full of anger, and lust and greed. They move the rubbish around, but the solid mountain of our true nature stays where it's always been. ~ Rumi
So how do we recognise our true nature?
In the quote above Rumi talks of the "many winds of anger, lust & greed". The internal weather analogy makes great sense and is helpful in identifying when you have blown off course. It shines a little light onto the true nature question. What it is not. We all feel the storms that rage within us, the subtle and not so subtle winds of discomfort and dis-ease. They push, pull, shape, burn, bury, saturate, flood and obscure our more balanced states of being. They throw us out of whack and we feel bad. We react. We suffer. Life is continuously throwing up small and big challenges, and daily we meet these challenges and make choices about how to act. Do our choices result in joy, compassion, loving kindness? Or are we lost in a storm, battling physical, emotional and mental disturbance, trying to survive? The disturbances make us angry, sad, jealous, resentful, lazy, confused, sick... They make us suffer. Are these reactive states who we fundamentally are? Or are they learned habits of behaviour? When you are not trapped in the tide of wants and fears and reactions, then who are you?
Always with me was the inner twin: my true nature, my true self.
It is timeless, free, compassionate and in love with whatever is natural to me ~ Alice Walker
" ...And in love with whatever is natural to me", is a pertinent phrase from Alice Walker's words above. To follow a path of love; to allow and foster loving whatever comes naturally to you, gives a strong road map and helps tune your inner divining compass. Finding, pursuing, and being led by a path of truth and love. Your truth. Your passion. Whatever floats your boat. When you are not struggling and straining against the heart of your true nature, you are able to act from a place of compassion, ease and loving kindness. You will be more contented, joyful and happy with your lot. My favourite Chinese proverb - "Relaxation is who you are, Tension is who you are not", illustrates it beautifully. It really can be that simple.
The other factor helping us on our quest to reveal our inner truth is growing older. Growing old equals growing wisdom. How quickly this wisdom grows depends on effort and how diligently you pay attention. For most of us this process, to some extent, is natural and intuitive. There are also the examples of the person that gets more cantankerous, bitter and angry as they age, but that really is largely their choice.
The natural, maturing process teaches us:
Less resistance! Less hurry! Less worry!
Less trying to please others!
More settling into the comfortable couch that is the seat of your natural self, and more allowing the everyday stuff of life to wash, wash, wash away the irritations and struggle. The washing, the scrubbing, the dusting, the settling, the resting, the loving, the polishing ... and hey presto, the gem is revealed!
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves…
~ Mary Oliver
The other important point to make about this quest to uncover your true nature is the ordinariness of it. You already know your true nature, it's nothing special really! It is YOU.
It is easy to be seduced by the idea of spiritual growth and awakening meaning that you will be transformed into an exalted, other worldly, extraordinary self. A different self. As if the one that you are already is not good enough. And you may be believe that when you find this ideal true nature, you will be walking around in a cloud of pink heart love, smiling at everyone, greeting your enemies with a kiss, and having no problems... Hmm, well, there will be moments like that, and then... er....there's the shopping to do and the rubbish bins to put out and...
The real effort and regular work towards settling in to your comfortable seat comes through attending to the grubby stuff of everyday life. The daily irritations, annoyances and challenges - not just the big life changing moments but all the small hurts and pains - the daily elbow grease of polishing the gem.
We can never KNOW the truth about what happens after this mortal existence, but we all feel keenly and KNOW the truth about living this messy, mortal existence. Quite enough to be getting along with for now, me thinks, and you?