We can think of the conditioned mind as a jail cell that we mistake for the entire world. When we see reality (i.e. “wake up”), it results in the equivalent of departing from this cell and into the wide open world. It’s like we march instinctively to the door of the cell—a door we never knew existed before that very moment—and step out into a vast field, experiencing sunlight for the first time. In many cases, we don’t know why we’ve been moved to this action.
Many people take steps towards the door. They become “spiritual” and challenge a few of their old beliefs, yet ultimately remain in the cell. Sometimes they’re right at the door with their hand on the knob, and they turn around to go hang out in jail for a while longer. The person always has a logical explanation for this action: “It’s not the right time,” “I have more important things to do,” “I’m fine the way I am,” “This doesn’t make any sense,” and “I just can’t accept this,” to name a few. When we get really close, the mind becomes even more preposterous, desperately trying to keep us in its grip. It might even say “Stop! I’m dying!” even though our bodies are perfectly healthy.
The cell of the mind can be very compelling. It has many tricks to keep us trapped within it. Nonetheless, it is the destiny of all beings to exit our cells. We will all discover true freedom and know the Absolute; it is only a matter of when.
While beautiful, this departure from the old mode of thinking can be very overwhelming: A lasting shift means you can’t walk back into the cell. You turn around and the door to your cell is locked, or, more accurately, the entire structure has disappeared.
This is why awakening can feel so chaotic, especially for those of us who do not (consciously) seek to awaken. All our lives, at the encouragement of the world, we sincerely take our minds to be who and what we are. We believe the things the mind says about us, no matter how contradictory. We believe the things it says about others, no matter how cruel or simplistic. We cherish the mind and build it into something that seems strong. We stock it with stories and information and world-based knowledge; we use it to reinforce itself and our egos by finding all the “right” things to think. We become entranced by our personal histories, continuing to regale ourselves and others at every opportunity. And yet, for all this effort, identification with the mind and the past is always a misstep.
On the quest for fulfillment and Truth, we often make this misstep over and over and over again.
Those of us who experience mental illness can feel like we’ve been born into awful jail cells: They are tight and cold and perhaps the only food we get is stale bread and butter. What I am describing would be the equivalent to a depressive and/or anxious mind; it affords little comfort and is incredibly limiting. (This notion stands apart from one’s intellect, which can still be extremely sharp. A strong intellect isn’t of much use if the mind itself keeps the person in tremendous pain.)
In terms of thought, such a mind can convince us we are worthless, that life is not worth living, and that there is something dramatically wrong with us. It will show us only what is evil and sick in the world; it may even unconsciously invite evil and sickness in order to affirm itself. I remember this mode of life now as a distant memory or an absurd dream.
The most important factor for this jail cell to go unexamined is not that it be an enjoyable place, but that it be stable. Most of us feel perfectly okay with our small cells because they feel consistent enough. We can even observe that many people in this world are not comfortable in their minds at all. We can see on the contorted faces of “important people” that they are miserable, taking everything seriously, constantly having to maintain their egos. They lead ridiculous lives, and the people around them help build their distorted realities. The minds they occupy and identify with are not cozy, but they are reliable, and this reliability is enough to prevent one from seeking true freedom.
Someone who might do well in this world (materially speaking) would be someone with a nice jail cell, a comfortable-enough mind. Here they are given various foods, room to stretch out, and a lot of things to read and look at. They take themselves as “fine”—maybe even “happy.” And as far as their reality goes, this is true. The dream of thought in which they operate is a nice enough dream that waking up is no concern of theirs. Such is their course in life, and you cannot wake up someone who sincerely wants to stay asleep. However, as life on Earth becomes increasingly tense for humans, I expect there will be fewer and fewer of us who have the luxury of remaining unconscious in such a way.
Those who are comfortable and/or stable within their minds have very little motivation to leave. This is the blessing of mental illness: The level of discomfort that the mind can bring is the very factor that compels us to get out of it. Self-hatred, chronic anxiety, fear, neurosis—these things are like the jail cell shrinking in size, perhaps becoming unlivable. When the mind becomes unlivable for extended periods of time, we might call this severe depression, which our culture explains in various ways. The primary causes of depression are very simple.
Mainstream psychiatry overcomplicates this simplicity and misses the point that human beings don’t really exist in a vacuum separate from the rest of the world. We only act like we do, and this great pretending act is actually one of the main causes of widespread depression. All through life we bullshit ourselves about who we are, usually without the luxury of even knowing we’re doing it.
Sometimes we see suicide as a way out of this unlivable jail cell. Here, we see just how hopelessly entangled we are with our minds: We believe that only way to escape the mind is to escape life itself. It doesn’t need to be this way. You can be free of a choking mind without ending your physical life—so free, in fact, that you will regard your depression as strange in retrospect. You do not have to live in your mind. You do not have to allow your thoughts to dictate your entire existence.
What you are is so much more vast and perfect than your jail cell. Discovering this vast perfection is only a matter of distancing yourself from those thoughts that pull you in, inviting you to live in them. It is in this way that we find who and what we really are. In this discovery, our prior suffering is small and faraway. It cannot touch the Truth.
We must learn to reject the mind’s tricks over and over and over again, to simply stay right here.
The mind I took myself to be—the mind that was called “bipolar”—was like a shifting jail cell. There were times when this cell was filled with many beautiful things. It was enormous. It had a cozy bed and art on the walls and all the books I ever wanted. It had music and jewels and Indian food and gelato. Then, immediately and without warning, this cell would transform into a stark, tiny dungeon with nothing in it but the dirty floor. The height of my cell’s ever-changing nature occurred during a major manic episode and in the year that followed it.
What was once called “an illness” has revealed itself to be a great teacher. The whole time, as a deeper consciousness was germinating within my being, I experienced this mind as a terrible burden. It felt dense and heavy, like I just couldn’t go on within it (and I didn’t.).
Today, I couldn’t be more grateful for the levels of instability my mind has reached. What these experiences have taught me is that the personal mind simply cannot be a stable place, even for those who externally seem very stable. Its desires change from day to day, hour to hour. It will claim it wants one thing and then compel us to do the complete opposite. It can convince us to harm our bodies and environments in various ways. It will cling to events that occurred many many years ago. Being powered by the mind, these events will hold our beings hostage, destroying our opportunity for joy. The mind is certainly capable of clinging to stable depression rather than accepting the challenge for freedom, which would require that it lose its power. It will judge. It will make Heaven and Hell for us, perhaps in the same day.
Its instability is ultimately revealed in death: The personal mind will end when the physical body is no longer sustained. Only in our discovery of the timeless Self (that which is outside of the personal self) do we know life in its fullness. The jail cell of a conditioned mind represents both impermanence and smallness, both of which create suffering.
Getting out of the cell and coming to know your true mind—this is where everything is.