From heartbreak to soulbreak.
“Man must face the perils of worldly passion if he is to secure the precious pearl of Enlightenment. He must first be lost among the mountainous crags of egoism and selfishness, before there will awaken in him the desire to find a path that will lead him to Enlightenment.” ~Buddha
Individuation? Self-actualization? Satori? Nirvana? Zazen? Enlightenment?
It all seems so serene and peaceful, so smooth and effortless, so tranquil and full of light. But it’s not gentle and sweet. It’s jagged and elusive. It’s not artificially blissful; it’s authentically painful. It’s not pretend-forgiving; it’s ruthlessly absolving. Indeed. Some brutally hard shit must hit some unpleasantly fast fans before you can even think about placing a single toe on the Path toward Providence. Too heavy of a colloquialism for you? Okay, try this: before you can experience the stillness on the tip of the iceberg of illumination, you must first have reconciled the hidden iceberg of annihilation. Too cryptic for you? Fair enough…
Here it is, plain and simple: It has to hurt first. In a word – heartbreak. First your ego’s heart has to break, then your soul’s heart has to break. You need to go through a meta-ton of pain: mental, physical and spiritual –soul-caliber pain, tantamount to existential proportions, far exceeding the trivial pain of the hyperreal plane. Then, and only then, may you proceed along the path.
But remember, the pain doesn’t end there. Many a Buddha will pop up along the way trying to convince you that you’ve made it –that you’ve achieved the spiritual Mecca, that you’ve earned the elusive Philosopher’s Stone, that you’ve secured the sharp-as-god Golden Ratio, that you’ve merited the Sacred Phi of enlightenment. But you haven’t. And you should do as Linji Yixuan suggested, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Indeed. The journey must remain the thing.
“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” ~Mark Twain
Heartbreak is the end of innocence; the realization that this world does not belong to you, but that you belong to it. It’s when the independent blood in your veins recalibrates into interdependent lifeblood, and the earth in your bones rectifies its posture as a force of nature first and a human second, that you understand yourself as the world and the world as yourself. It hurts because it’s the end of unreasonable expectation. It’s an embracing of the cosmic joke, and the irrefutable fact that you’re the butt-end of it. But like the Dread Pirate Roberts tells the princess in The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
This is authentic heartbreak, precise heartbreak. Not pretend sorrow or fairytale anguish, nor whiney, all-the-world-please-pity-me, unrequited romantic love. But the genuine death of your innocence, the warm-blooded murder of your naïveté. It’s discovering within you that which is the closest thing to immortality that a mortal can achieve. As Pema Chodron said, “Only to the extent that we can expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.”
True heartbreak is annihilation. It’s ego-death. It’s the birth-death-rebirth cycle spiraling out inside you. It’s your caterpillar-self dissolving into vital butterfly-self components within the cocoon of your spirit. What comes out the other side is your budding soul, nascent and ready to flourish, but still reeking of ego residue. Everything is turned upside down. The basket you once held all your eggs in has been shredded into tatters, sprinkled over the sticky white and yellow yoke of your beliefs. Your worldview lies shattered and broken at your feet, like as if your higher-self dropped the glass globe of your ego onto the unforgiving concrete of Truth. Your heart is broken, wide open, a crack so big the only thing that can fit into it is the entire universe. And so it does.
“Suddenly you’re ripped into being alive. And life is pain, and life is suffering, and life is horror, but my god you’re alive and it’s spectacular.” ~Joseph Campbell
When the soul is awake, the ego takes a backseat. But the ego is on the edge of that backseat, because it is now finally able to experience astonishment and awe. It’s existentially taken aback. It is so transfixed by the inscrutable mystery of being an interconnected thing that it wonders in absolute befuddlement how it could not have noticed the poignant beauty of the interdependent cosmos in the time before. How could it not have foreseen that the soul was more powerful than the self? Then again, how can a caterpillar fathom the butterfly still to come?
With the soul awake comes a new flavor of pain. Your ego needs to figure out how to switch from being in charge to being a tool for the soul. This can be a painful process. The ego wants to be the one calling the shots, not playing second fiddle to the upstart soul, no matter how much healthier things are when its faculties are focused into soulcraft. Ego transformed into a tool for soulcraft is the ultimate art form. But this requires a lot of trial and error, much admittance to being wrong about a great many things, and truckloads of pride must be swallowed.
This is painful for the ego because it means that the past must be abandoned, that the Great Mystery can no longer be avoided, that the self-as-it-was cannot continue, and that nothing is ultimately permanent. When you know this in your bones, you live for the first time in your life. The cocoon of your rebirth is a broken shell lying at the edge of where the Matrix (self-deception) meets the Desert of the Real (self-awakening). And you know you must leave it behind, because now you are no longer limited by boundaries, you are liberated by horizons. You stand at the forefront of that liberation, declaring to the universe, “In order to awaken all things, I must attempt to awaken all of myself. The way of awakening may be unattainable, but I vow to attain it.”
“I overcame myself, the sufferer; I carried my own ashes to the mountains; I invented a brighter flame for myself. And behold, then this ghost fled from me.” ~Nietzsche
Just when your confidence is bolstered and your soul is flourishing into a state of Eudaimonia, the hard truth of the path sets in: true enlightenment is unattainable. Infinity is unreachable. Self-perfection is an illusion. The Fibonacci sequence can never achieve the sacred state of Phi. The Tao that can be named is never the true Tao. But there is sacred beauty in such painful truths: curiosity can never be quenched, there will always be questions, and the fact that everything changes means that nothing can ever be fixed. There is deep freedom in such musings. There is soulbreath in the soulbreak.
As I wrote in Shadow of the Shaman:
“Soulbreak, like heartbreak, opens us up to the vast knowledge hidden within the nature of pain, but it also teaches us detachment. Soulbreak is detachment in the moment. If you are truly detached, your mental-spirit-body becomes a mighty tool for clear seeing. Authentic detachment becomes existential seeing.”
Existential seeing and present detachment are the cornerstones of having the wherewithal to walk the path. Without agenda, free of conceit, and liberated from the boundaries of having a goal, present detachment is the wonderful side effect of having survived soulbreak. With it comes existential seeing, the ability to see the big picture, to feel the interconnectedness of all things weaving in and out of life and entropy. You see with over-eyes, like a cosmic owl with galaxies in its giant pupils, perched on the branch of the universe, taking it all in.
Your heart, having broken, is a beautiful wound made all the more fecund by the painful process of initiation. Your soul, having cracked in half, is stronger than ever, breaking apart and coming back together again. Each time more robust. Each time more open to receiving the truth of impermanence. The path to enlightenment is still a razor’s edge, but your feet are sharpening stones. You sharpen the universe and the universe sharpens you right back. You’ve cut through God so many times that infinity lost count. Vital cocoons behind you. Vast horizons ahead of you. The heart with which you perceive Love is the same heart with which Love perceives you, and the soul with which you envision Infinity is the same soul with which Infinity envisions you. You’ve carried your hard-earned ashes to the mountain. Somewhere in the brighter flame of that summit is a Phoenix laughing at its own rebirth.
Read more articles from Gary ‘Z’ McGee.
About the Author
Gary ‘Z’ McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide awake view of the modern world.
This article (Walking the Razor’s Edge Toward Enlightenment) was originally created and published by Waking Times and is printed here under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Gary ‘Z’ McGee and WakingTimes.com. It may be re-posted freely with proper attribution, author bio, and this statement of copyright.
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