The Kingdom of Heaven
“If those who guide you say: Look
The Kingdom is in the sky,
Then the birds are closer than you.
If they say: Look
It is in the sea, then the fish already know it.’
The kingdom is inside you
And it is outside of you
When you know yourself
Then you will be known,
And you will know that you are the child of the Living Father,
But if you do not know yourself,
You will live in vain
And you will be vanity.”
– The Gospel of Thomas
It’s one of the most common, insidious stories that we tell ourselves: “I’ll be happy when…”
To transform this story, it’s essential to recognize it. We can invite the body-mind into openness by getting curious about the question: when will this moment ever be enough?
It also helps to name it. “This is the trance of never enough.” To be in samsara is to live in a kind of trance.
We spend our lives chasing possessions, people, experiences that we think will provide access to some reliable, stable state of happiness. We all know how the fairytale is supposed to end: “And they lived happily ever after…”
But things inevitably change and the search resumes. Samsara is like this.
Reflect on your own life and inquire into your own moment to moment experience to see if this is true or not.
We get a brief taste of happiness, only for it to prove elusive. Happiness always seems to be just around the corner. The job promotion, the new relationship, the end of the old relationship, the thrilling experience…
All of these offered a taste of happiness that was tantalizing but ultimately impermanent.
For a while we were happy, until we weren’t. Maybe we became sad. Perhaps we just got bored. All of these are different rasas, or flavors, of dukha, the fundamentally dis-satisfactory nature of a life as experienced through the lens of the grasping mind. This is the default mode of perception that awakening aims to transform. Meditation is central to approaching practice but is only valuable when practiced among many.
We also need to see ourselves through myths and archetypes. One key to doing so is to see yourself as every character in the story, not simply as the hero but also the villain, not just the protagonist but also those people on the periphery.
How do we get caught in this pattern of seeking, this cycle of chronic dissatisfaction?
Yogic traditions, including Buddhism, refer to this cycle of seeking as samsara. Samsara is the weight of our psychological conditioning, the momentum of our accumulated habits, that keep us spinning around and around like a hamster on a wheel.
Unable to find true refuge in chasing happiness in external appearances, unable to cope with the dissatisfaction of life and the reality of aging, disease and death, we seek security in concepts. Like many of us, I was raised with this story: after you die, you’ll go to heaven. One simple point to make is that this is a story. Perhaps it’s a true story or perhaps it’s a false one. Regardless of which you believe, it’s helpful to notice, as with all beliefs, if there is spaciousness around the belief or if there is attachment—for where there is certainty, there is clinging. Where this is clinging, suffering inevitably follows.
Briefly consider samsara through a psychological and neuroscientific lens.
Positive psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill. Once we acquire the object of our desire we expect a brief hit of positive emotion, of dopamine. Then this levels off. So we chase another object of desire. And the cycle repeats itself, over and over again.
This isn’t just sensory pleasure, but all the various ways in which we seek to accumulate status and to acquire validation.
Dopamine is essential to motivating us to move towards goals. But we have to reflect carefully on the goals and desires that orient our search. What is it that actually offers the most reliable way to pursue happiness? Articulating the right answers to this question is essential to that dimension of human flourishing that Ken Wilber calls “Growing Up.”
Waking Up allows us to recognize that paradoxically, there is a deeper, more satisfying form of happiness that arises when we stop chasing it. We start to recognize the ways in which simply chasing that next dopamine hit is itself a quick fix that in the long run only keep us spinning around and around in samsara.
Waking Up offers a different way of relating not only to the mind but of envisioning happiness. It’s something closer to contentment, to genuine well being.
How do we get there?
First we have to become disillusioned with samsara. We have to become thoroughly convinced through insight and through experience of the inherently unsatisfactory nature of chasing happiness “out there,” of a mind that seeks to acquire, maintain and cling for fear of losing.
Perhaps the Kingdom of Heaven is not a place existing in the future. Maybe the Kingdom of Heaven is always and already here and now, if only we had eyes to see it.
I believe this is what Jesus was pointing towards in the quote at the top from The Gospel of Thomas. It’s the same truth towards which Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche was pointing when he said that:
Samsara is a mind turned outward
Nirvana is a mind resting in its own place
The Kingdom of Heaven arises when the mind ceases to turn outward to seek gratification in impermanent objects of the senses, and turns inward to rest in its own place, in true recognition of the mind’s sky like nature, irrespective of how many clouds are covering it. It’s what happens when the Great Light of Consciousness (prakasha) is animated by the The Goddess as vimarsa, the power of that light to recognize itself.
As we stabilize in recognition of the true nature of mind, we encounter a more subtle, but more reliable way of finding happiness. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we don’t discover true nature; we uncover it. Except it isn’t the “I” or the “me” that uncovers it. It’s consciousness becoming conscious of itself.
Ultimately, the true voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes, but in seeing with new eyes, as Marcel Proust understood.
This doesn’t only entail the abiding sense of peace and contentment that we feel on the meditation cushion. As our practice cuts through the illusion of separation, we gain more insight into the deeper causes of happiness, which is closer to the Greek of eudamonia (human flourishing). This is in contrast to hedonia, the pleasure that comes through the senses.
How does a mind that ceases to turn outward and turns inward to rest in its own place manifest in daily life? It manifests differently for everyone; the universe expresses itself through each of us uniquely. But in Vajrayana this is what the idea of ultimate bodhicitta refers to: it’s the flourishing of love and compassion that arises when we transform our perception from samsara to nirvana.
What are the qualities of this person, Jesus, pointing us toward the Kingdom of Heaven that is always and already here and now? Loving, forgiving, compassionate. He doesn’t cling to possessions, to people, to experiences, or even to life itself. Yet even though he’s not attached, he isn’t focused only on the transcendent.
He’s also immanent. He’s in this world, but not of it.
Jesus represents not only the masculine aspiration for freedom, but even more so the feminine ideal of intimacy. He’s turning towards the world, to awaken through relationships. In notable respects, Jesus is a Tantric yogi.
In a religion that is otherwise patriarchal, that conceives of the divine as masculine or father, Jesus represents the feminine. Life has a way of gravitating towards equilibrium, of moving towards wholeness.
Isn’t the radiance that draws us towards Jesus as an archetype similar to the way that people are drawn to Krishna as an archetype?
However, confusion arises when we fall into the typical default mode of perception of samsara. We think that what we’re seeking is out there. Like any great spiritual teacher, Jesus is pointing us back towards the radiance that is always and already within ourselves. Awakening to the Kingdom of Heaven unfolds when the Great Light of Consciousness turns and recognizes itself.
To elaborate on this metaphor from Kashmir Shaivism, this process has two qualities. The Great Light of Consciousness, Shiva, is masculine; however, the power of that light to recognize itself, the vimarasa, is feminine, Shakti.
The true nature of consciousness is beyond gender and concepts. Yet, we need to be able to hold the absolute and relative truths at the same time: this divine universe consists of both the macrocosm and the microcosm, the formless and form; it is both transcendent and immanent. This human form arises only through the union of masculine and feminine. The Divine is the Lord in the sky; but he is also in human form on earth, not only as Jesus, but as each and everyone one of us.
This is the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus is reflecting back to us, the radiance that is always and already within ourselves. It’s our very essence.
When the mind like sky pierces through the veil that obscures its true nature–wide open, luminous, without center or edge–when it learns to rest in its own place, that radiance shines through more and more brightly. That intensity of The Light, the way that the divine burns within us as consciousness, increases as The Goddess, in her form as vimarsa, turns and recognizes itself. For as The Vijnana Bhairava Tantra says: “It is by means of The Shakti that ones faces directly into Shiva, for She is His Very face.”
The mind wants to grasp after concepts, to try to pin them down intellectually, but please receive these symbols and words not as assertions about what is true or false, but as an invitation to look directly into your experience.