The Bigger Picture
Ezra Bayda; Edited from: The Authentic Life: Zen Wisdom for Living Free From Complacency and Fear, Shambhala, April, 2014
I once heard a dying hospice patient ask, “What is the point of this miserable life?” The question itself reflects a view that is very myopic—one that assumes that life is miserable to start with. In truth, for most of us, in life as well as in practice, our view is also often myopic. We may not believe that life is miserable, but our views are still usually so short-sighted that we miss the bigger point.
On the animal level, we can say that the point is simply to live, to survive.
Beyond survival, however, the bigger point is to live as authentically as possible. Why? Because it’s our nature to do so. Our true nature strives to reveal itself, like an acorn strives to become an oak. This is why our deepest satisfaction is to become who we truly are.
However, isn’t it true that we usually live going from one thing to another, often only seeing what’s right in front of us? In other words, much of the day we’re lost in or identified with whatever we’re doing, rather than being actually aware of who we are and what we’re doing with our life. And often, what we focus on is based primarily on wanting to be comfortable or secure in some way—with our planning, our busyness, our entertainments, our entitlements.
We can also spend a lot of our energy trying to fortify a particular self-image, such as being nice, or competent, or helpful. We spend even more time and energy following our usual strategies, such as trying to please others in order to gain approval, or trying to prove our worth, or trying to gain control to ward off chaos. When we devote our life energy to fortifying these self-images and pursuing our usual strategies, that energy isn’t available for what helps us live more authentically, more awake—or toward seeing The Big Picture more clearly.
What I’m describing, of course, is the basic human predicament—that in striving to be comfortable and secure—to living a life of entitlement—we are cut off from awareness of our true nature. In contrast to this, it’s possible to have a particular experience of presence, and a clearer sense of who we really are and what our life is actually about. But what’s remarkable is how seldom this experience occurs; and as a consequence, our life stays very small, and most often, perplexing to us.
The question, “What is this life really about?” may sound philosophical, but unless we ask this question over and over, unless we look beyond what makes us comfortable and secure, our life will never be genuine or deeply satisfying. Without a bigger view of what life is, we will most likely continue to sleep walk through life without a sense of conscious purpose.
I remember one day sitting on the beach when I was in my early-twenties. I was watching some seagulls, and it occurred to me that their life is quite simple; they are born, live their seagull life of flying, eating, reproducing … and then they die. On one level, are we any different? The physical body is born, it lives, and then it dies.
Yet, on a different level, many different teachers say that life and death are just concepts, and that who we truly are—the interconnectedness of all and everything—never dies, but only changes form. Unfortunately, this understanding is usually mostly philosophical, and cannot negate the level of everyday reality—how we actually live—where it is so crucial that we understand that we don’t have endless time, and where we can’t rely on the comforting words that our true self never dies.
Yet, it’s still important to have tastes of the bigger picture. To get a sense of this, it might be worthwhile to take the time to go out on a clear night and look up at the stars. Astronomers tell us that at best we can see about 2000 stars; yet in our galaxy alone there are 400 billion stars. What’s even more amazing is that our galaxy is only one of 400 billion galaxies! When we reflect on the immensity of the cosmos, we can readily understand that life is much vaster than we ever imagined.
We may even have the good fortune to occasionally experience a taste of the vastness, the mystery—either through effort or through grace. These tastes can give us direct knowledge that we are more than just our little “Me” —that, as Shakespeare said, “There is more to life than is dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Even if the sense of our interconnectedness with all of life is only vague, it still gives us at least some notion of a bigger view of what life is.
Yet, it is very easy to forget and lose sight of even the possibility of a bigger view. Suzuki Roshi once said, “The most important thing…is to find out…what is the most important thing.” When we don’t remember this possibility, we can end up living life protecting ourselves, wasting time on unnecessary things, and staying caught in complacency.
One simple way to viscerally remind ourselves of the bigger view is to just pause, take a long slow breath, and feel the air enter the body. Then be aware that the air you take in is the same air that is all around you, and that the air inside of you becomes the air outside on the exhale. As you breathe in and out, feel your presence—the total experience of the moment—the body, the breath, the air—all interconnected. In this brief moment, it’s possible to immediately tap into a taste of the interconnectedness that we are, even if it’s on a very small scale.
It’s important to understand, even conceptually—that we are the air we breathe as well as the ground that we walk on. Just as we each share this air and this ground, we also share in the energy that courses through each thing—not just living things, but everything.
Reality on this level is vast. To realize our true nature of connectedness means we understand, experientially, that we are the vastness, and also, at any given moment, a unique manifestation of it.
The point is; to live truly authentically requires opening out of our small, myopic view of life. Cultivating a bigger picture can involve many levels, starting with learning to see every experience in our life as an opportunity to live more awake. From there, as we become increasingly less identified with our small self, we can begin to expand beyond our limited bubble of perception into a more openhearted relation to life.
Ultimately, cultivating a bigger view can lead to a comprehension of who we truly are—that the nature of our being is connectedness and love. Living from this understanding is the essence of living authentically.