Growing up in a Christian world (I was an Anglican choirboy for many of my most impressionable early years), my mind has been suffused with lots of implicit Christian beliefs, even though I long ago gave up my childhood faith and turned to Buddhist dharma. Tom Holland’s excellent history of this almost planetary over-soak of Christianity, Dominion, is a fascinating read but it’s made me think particularly about one hidden notion that I had not spotted.
That’s the notion of EXIT.
The lure of Heaven is still alive and well on TikTok.
We in the Christian-infused world grow up (whether we’re secular or religious) in a culture that implies that there is a better place elsewhere. Pre-Christian Romans and Greeks, for example, had a very dim view of the afterlife. It was drear and bloodless and nothing to long for. But it was Christianity that planted the seed of Heaven and the notion that all the good stuff was elsewhere, was in the Beyond.
Many of us may have left that idea of Heaven behind (though I’m not sure I ever did, really). But you don’t have to scratch hard at the modern consumer capitalist world to find the structure of Protestant Christianity with the infinitely delaying notions of the better world, the better society, the better Life. The lure of Heaven is still alive and well on TikTok.
“This can’t be it!” is so pervasive that it’s almost impossible to spot.
As a good Vajrayana Buddhist, I am shocked at how much I still buy into that idea of exit. That there is a better place, a better me, a better consciousness somewhere, elsewhere. That may be a hangover of being brought up with the idea of Heaven or it may be a more species-specific bit of hard wiring that primes me to always look for something greener over there.
However, when it comes to spiritual practice or indeed enjoying day-to-day living I find it can be catastrophic. That implicit dissatisfaction with what is right in front of me is mostly created by the notion that somewhere else there’s a better version. My subcutaneous hunch that “This can’t be it!” is so pervasive that it’s almost impossible to spot.
I’ll be frank. All my life I’ve been trying to get somewhere else, become someone else, to touch different worlds through art, through meditation, through drugs. And I’ve always thought that this was just a personality trait or perhaps, in brighter moods, a healthy sense of adventure and natural curiosity. But lately, I think it stems from a mind pickled from birth in the notion of heaven, of the better world that lies over the horizon.
There is no other state, no altered, better, over-the-rainbow Alistair.
The Vajrayana teacher, Chogyam Trungpa once said: “ There is no way out. But the magic is to discover the way in”.
What if there were no alternative universe? Only this one forever and ever. What if this day-to-day consciousness that I wake with in the morning and put to sleep at night, the one that feels stuff, sees stuff, tastes, smells and thinks stuff is all there is? There is no other state, no altered, better, over-the-rainbow Alistair. Only this one, typing right now, this evening.
Eastern philosophers were horrified by this possibility. The awareness of cyclical living filled Hindus and early Buddhists with dread. To be stuck with this forever! So, they too have a heaven principle. An escape hatch from the endless monotony of this, this, this. They call it moksha. Or liberation. Or nirvana.
There is only this rapturous universe doing its thing
But later versions of Buddhism saw this as a dangerous trap. Nirvana, in that escapist sense, is non-sensical and the motor of suffering. They saw that striving to escape the washing machine of samsara, is what creates the misery of samsara. The problem is not all this stuff. It’s how we engage with it.
Tantric Buddhists recognise the bracing truth that reality is all there is. There is only this rapturous universe doing its thing - mostly nuclear explosions, interstellar space and a few miraculous pockets of life and consciousness. And that rather than trying to escape it - and programming dissatisfaction into the very fabric of our consciousness, - we should embrace it as the only reality and consciously love it.
This is the key. Not to turn away from our one precious reality by fantasising impatiently about fatuous ones, but rather to find the “way in” which is as Trungpa says, a form of magic.
The mirage of the escape hatch hurts us and fills us with impatient hatred for what is all around us
When I first heard this teaching of “The wisdom of No Escape” from Pema Chödron, I thought it was some Zen paradox and moved on - but as I practice more and more with the excellent sangha around Mingyur Rinpoche - I see that it is actually the way to bring magic into day-to-day consciousness.
Until we drop our obsession with exiting this life (either by daydreaming of heaven/moksha/nirvana or by constantly wanting something different) then we are chained inexorably to a miserable version of this life. The mirage of the escape hatch hurts us, and fills us with impatient hatred for what is all around us. And that’s a horrible state to live in. Never accepting reality and constantly wanting to be somewhere else is the very definition of dissatisfaction.
We fall in love with our own experience but also with all the other beings who share this world
By contrast, “finding the way in” is magical. It involves being conscious of the same reality but in a different more conscious way. Embracing the “wisdom of no escape” we become more aware of everything that is at play and start to really cherish it. To use Mingyur Rinpoche’s beautiful phrase, we ‘fall in love with the world”
We fall in love with our own experience but also with all the other beings who share this world. And the more in love with it all we are, the more painful it is to see others still hell-bent on exiting it. That’s the upswell of compassion.
But there’s also an upswell of appreciation for the other folk who have chosen to ‘stay in’. And that’s devotion. Because people in the past who have found this ‘way in’ are pretty inspiring. All the beings, teachers, and enlightened ones who stopped exiting are magical precisely because they have found their way back into this world of plates and pomegranates, arguments and sunshine, teacups and orgasms.
It’s the same universe but one set of people experiences it through a haze of anxious dissociation and the other is experiencing it through love. I can make my choice.
There’s a story I read once about Trungpa who was visiting some students in Chicago. They were in rather a cheap apartment with rear windows that opened onto a fire escape with no view. There was a huge billboard right next to the window blocking any glimpse of the city. Trungpa went onto the fire escape, looked around and said - without a scrap of irony - ‘Look how magical this place is.’ His eyes welled up and all his students could see that he was genuinely entranced by what he was seeing.
No way out. Only the magic of the way in. Forever and ever. Without end.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Am I alone in having Heaven secretly imprinted in my mind? Or have rational, scientific types transcended such fantasies? I suspect not. But I'm often wrong... Please add your comments below.