October 19, 2011

Ignorance Isn’t Bliss!



Ed is from the Bronx and Deb from England, where we lived many years ago. Going there we thought it would be a great chance for Ed to immerse himself in a different culture and Deb needed to be closer to her elderly parents. As Ed had lived in India and NYC, the melting pot of the world, he thought that moving to another country would be easy. But in retrospect it was somewhat naïve, perhaps a matter of ignorance is bliss!

The move turned out to be a much bigger challenge than either of us had anticipated and gave rise to an even bigger shift as Ed felt isolated, had no reference points, the English were far too reserved and he was unable to reach out to others. Despite years of meditation and spiritual training, he was confronting himself like never before. He began to lose both perspective and the plot, spiralling into depression.

Such a response is not surprising as we easily carry layers of insecurity and self-doubt within us that we may be unaware of or do our best to avoid, usually by resisting making changes. How often have you said, or heard a friend or relative say, ‘I can’t change. This is the way I am and I can’t help it, so it’s just too bad!’

Normally Ed is excited about change, he has travelled the world and loved each place, so what he went through was even more dramatic and powerful than we were prepared for, and almost impossible to deal with. The change he confronted appeared as a threat, rather than an exciting challenge or an opportunity for growth. It made him very clearly see how fixed and immovable a part of him was, how easily unconscious fear can arise, and how fragile our mental stability can be.

Our deepest fear is the fear of the unknown. Our present life may be stressful, demanding and challenging but at least it is familiar, whereas change implies unfamiliar, unknown territory. Despite feeling confident, fear can creep in unannounced, distracting, demanding, overcoming our rational mind.

Ignorance is bliss sounds much safer than confronting fear, or confronting ourselves with all our uncertainties. We think that if we know too much it will just be a burden we can’t handle, best to keep our heads down like an ostrich and ignore change and fear. The less we know, the less we have to deal with the unknown or have to change ourselves, so much the better. Just hold on and keep everything as it is.

Yet is ignorance really bliss? Does it not mean we just get lost in the confusion, sadness, shame and ignorance that lurk in our head, denying us happiness? The great spiritual teachings tell us our purpose for being here is to awaken to our true nature, as that is the greatest of all happiness, to uncover the peace that is inherent within us all. But few of us really pay this much attention as we seek temporary, transient happiness, the ‘if only I had’ game, which constantly brings dissatisfaction. It is endless, like the mouse on a treadmill going round and round and still ending up nowhere. Most people prefer to live in the familiar past, the better-the-devil-you-know syndrome, or the wishful-thinking future, as we don’t trust happiness and don’t believe peace to be real or lasting.

Swami Satyananda, Ed’s yoga guru, said, “The difference between a Yogi and a madman is that the yogi knows he is mad.” In other words, if you think you are losing it you are not as you are aware of what is happening. If you are not aware that you are losing it, you are in trouble. Ed was aware of what was going on inside himself. He was able to observe, pay attention and, therefore, not get completely lost.

This understanding of ignorance versus consciousness was what Ed needed to regain his sanity, the key being his awareness of basic goodness. Whatever else is going on in our lives, at the core of us all is the heart of goodness, whether we are aware of it or not. It is through this basic goodness and basic sanity that we can avoid sinking to the depths of despair.

As this awareness arose in Ed, it meant deeply understanding that when a mental shift occurs that is difficult to relate to or appreciate it invites us to go to a deeper place inside us, a place of greater honesty and kindness. He realized that what he was going through was an opportunity to open his heart to himself like never before.

photo from playingwithlights photostream at flickr.com

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