version of:   September 19, 2004

Chapter 22: A Personal Quest

There is only one challenge. We can describe this challenge in different ways, using different words. We can say: stop! or drop! or be still! or just be! or don't do! or let go! or give up! or rest! They all mean the same, they all point to the same insight. Once you begin to get a feel for the direction these words are pointing to, exploration will become far easier and more efficient -- and much more fun, too.

Breakthroughs in Science

For a scientist, it is not hard to find things to do. At any point in time, there are always many scientific problems waiting for solutions. Mastery of a branch of science takes time, but once you have become an expert, you can see clearly how you can spend your whole life trying to solve all kinds of interesting problems. You can also see how you will make new contributions in the process, and how you are likely to open up new avenues of research.

What is hard is to take the courage to stop. Spending some time away from the mesmerizing attraction of trying to solve the next detail of the current problem, as well as from the seductive invitation that the next problem offers, may at first feel unnatural. But doing so, at least occasionally, is the healthiest thing a researcher can do.

When you really stop, and look at the scientific enterprise at hand, you have a chance to consider the structure of the foundations, of the fundamental assumptions that go into your daily activities. And chances are that, while doing so, new angles and insights will bubble up, unexpectedly.

In most cases, these new insights will still pertain to the problem at hand, but there is always the possibility of stumbling on completely new ways of looking at the whole methodology involved. It is at these occasions that major breakthroughs are made.

Breakthroughs in Contemplation

For contemplatives, too, there is the daily process of immersing oneself in reality research, observing and investigating the way the mind and the world operate, and how all that is given in sheer appearance. Dedicated contemplatives, like dedicated scientists, may enjoy their total immersion into their research and feel they are making significant progress, yet they are equally likely to miss the forest for the trees.

In contemplation, too, it is hard to stop. Yet stopping is the only way to gain real insight. Initial attempts at stopping will already feel rewarding, bringing with them a sense of accelerated progress. Later attempts will be even more rewarding, when the notion of progress starts to peel away. Subsequently, even the whole sense of there being anything that is rewarding will drop away.

Introductory literature in all contemplative traditions do not mention this notion of stopping, since it only can make sense once you have started to get into a tradition to some extent. In science too, asking students at the start of their freshman year to stop what they are doing in order to reflect on the foundations is not very helpful: you have to know the terrain in order to be able to stop and reflect on it.

Authentic descriptions of real breakthroughs in contemplation, however, begin and end with the notion of stopping. Until recently, most of those descriptions have not been publicly available, both because they were considered potentially harmful for beginning students, and because they can easily be misunderstood for blasphemy, and so attract reactions like that of the Inquisition. Fortunately, in the wake of globalization and increased access to information, these descriptions are now becoming more and more available.

Breakthroughs in Daily Life

In our daily life, too, we tend to be immersed in whatever draws our attention in the form of things-to-do: feed the baby, pay the bills, meet old friends, take care of relatives, repair the car, you name it. There always seems to be far more that needs doing than can be fit into the 24 hours of the day.

One thing we don't like to do is to take on more tasks. And the last thing we'd like to do is take out time for doing nothing at all, and just stopping. However, if we find the courage to set aside some time in our busy schedule, something amazing is guaranteed to happen, if and when we find a way to stop, even in a very small measure.

The easiest way, which is most likely to be sustainable, is to get up half an hour earlier than you would otherwise do, and to spend that time away from any other task or concern. Finding a quiet place, closing the door, sitting down in a comfortable position, you are then ready to embark upon the most profound exploration that anyone can possible do.

Starting with some initial relaxation exercises, such as following your breath, or some simple stretching, would be a good idea, but after that the challenge is to just sit, to just be, to just stop. At first this may seem like an impossible challenge, but that initial impression will gradually change.


One thing you will notice, when you begin to find ways to stop, is that this will be accompanied by a profound sense of silence, of something falling away. It can be compared with switching off a radio, that has been blaring for a long time, after which you are suddenly reminded of the possibility of a sweet silence.

It can also be compared to dropping a backpack that you have been carrying for so long that you've all but forgotten how light you can feel, just walking without luggage. These types of experience of suddenly feeling lighter are probably familiar to anyone.

While walking down a street, a ray of sunlight may suddenly trigger a deep breath, and a sense of being alive. Or while washing the dishes, what felt like a chore may suddenly reveal itself as a wonderful activity, whole and meaningful in itself.

A characteristic of such transitions and breakthroughs is that they cannot be `willed'; we cannot produce or fabricate them. However, we can create conditions that make their occurrence far more likely: spending half an hour each morning, shielded from daily demands, is an excellent way to do so.

A Lab

Setting aside time for daily contemplative exploration is a great start, and at first it is likely to be exciting and inspiring, because of its novelty. However, it is all too easy to get stuck after a while. Just sitting, trying to doing nothing, can become a routine in itself.

Just to sit and contemplate or meditate may seem virtuous, and certainly will help to calm the mind and let one's life become more whole, but it can also become a trap, very easily. It can become an escape from daily life, spent by waiting or hoping for some new deep insight, leading to passivity and dullness.

The central point of a contemplative exploration is to look at the whole enterprise in a fresh way, each day. This may sound very difficult, almost impossible. And it is here that the metaphor of a laboratory is useful. In a lab one tries to find something new, something that one has not seen before.

The metaphor here works best when we look at a scientific laboratory that is engaged in path breaking investigations, rather than in routine production of more technical details. Nowadays, the lab can be virtual as well: the laboratory can be a computer that conjures up a simulation of a cluster of stars in the nucleus of a galaxy, or a or cluster of molecules in the nucleus of a living cell.

Walking in a Fog

When someone working in a lab is really stuck, flabbergasted in the light of an unexpected experimental outcome, there is no systematic standard way to solve the puzzle. Instead, one tries this and that, in the hope to get new glimpses, new pointers, and new ideas.

Scientific research at such a stage feels like walking in a dense fog, with a visibility of only a few feet. You can see your feet, and you may see a path in front of you, but you're not even sure whether you recognize branches in the path, and you certainly can't see any beacons or points of recognition in the landscape.

This type of situation can be frustrating, but at the same time there is something enormously refreshing about having lost one's bearings, and being left to one's own devices in a world of pure potential. And it is only in such situations that real breakthroughs occur.

Gaining Trust

When you sit in your secluded spot, early in the morning, say, you can imagine that spot to be your reality lab. It shouldn't be hard to feel like walking in a dense fog: if you try to `just stop,' and wonder what `just stopping' might be and how you would go about doing that, you're likely to be completely nonplussed.

At that point, try to notice what little there is that you can still see in the fog. Is there something shimmering through, a vague outline perhaps, a hint of some contour or something that would warrant further inspection? Since you're nonplussed, you don't have a criterion to reject anything a priori, so you might as well investigate whatever offers itself.

Perhaps unexpectedly a new type of sensation occurs, a sense of silence or greater clarity or increased fluidity of your thoughts. Even if you don't yet have names for these phenomena, you can try to look for patterns, for ways to relax and open up, allowing these phenomena to make themselves more known to you.

At first they will seem very shy, disappearing whenever you try to look at them, but with patient practice and ongoing investigation you will probably find ways to get to know them, gaining their trust, so to speak. In fact, it is you yourself who has to learn to trust what appears, as it appears, rather than to trust only what comfortably fits into the established categories of your habitual framework.

Letting Go

One thing you can't do, is to reach or grasp. Any attempt to do so, by definition means that you will be reaching for something that already fits within your framework. The whole point of a laboratory is to widen your framework, to find new phenomena that are outside your current theories, outside your current understanding of what phenomena can possibly be.

Laudable as it may be to reach for wisdom or enlightenment or improvement of your life, such attempts will go only so far before they will get you stuck. As long as you are caught within the limitations of an ordinary world view, your conceptions of what wisdom or improvement could possibly be will be totally misleading.

At first it may feel very unfamiliar to be keenly present and aware, and yet not to strive or search or look for anything. But gradually you may gain a taste for this way of being, discovering a type of delight and well-being that is altogether different from the usual way of being.

The most notable difference may be a lack of tension, a lack of worrying energy that normally accompanies almost everything we do. You may catch yourself smiling lightly, while feeling tension drain away from around your eyes. You may notice how the rest of your body, too, relaxes in fresh ways.

A Lab Manual

When we search for something off the beaten path, we can't expect to start out with a detailed manual. Even so, there are a few steps we can take. Here is a short and simple manual for walking in the fog.

The first step is a resolve: to not be satisfied with received truths of a religious, scientific, cultural, or whatever nature. Instead, accept and embrace your situation of walking in a fog, enjoying the freedom and freshness that it brings.

The second step is a resolve too: to give up any notion of gain. No matter what life may offer you, you can see it as an interesting new setting for lab experiments. Since your life's circumstances will be new and different anyway, from moment to moment, each moment is a new opportunity for exploration. Looking at what is, and not what you can get out of it, is the key for using these opportunities.

The third step is to rest, and to look keenly for ways to stop. Whatever stirs and opens up for you, notice it, welcome it, explore it for a bit if you like, but then let it go. The point is not to find new experiences, new phenomena of any kind. The sole point is to find a way to stop.

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