S E P T E M B E R 2 0 1 9
What is your edge? What limits you? What limits your capacity to be spiritually present and awake? or to be intimate and loving? to be generous? to be forgiving? to be patient? to be creative?
Engaging in this kind of inquiry isn’t easy. The edges in question are not visible, but they describe and constrain our lives nevertheless. How do we recognize the edges that constrain us? How do we open beyond them?
For starters, let’s back up first a few billion years and consider the origins of life. It seems that the earliest forms of single-celled life were made possible by the creation of a membrane, an edge, that allowed the chemical reactions necessary for life to develop in a protected environment. The membrane was all-important — without it the chemistry of life would have been swept away in the primordial seas.
The microscopic creatures that came to life inside their solitary membranes were enormously successful; for a couple of billion years they were the only form of life on earth. But then something extraordinary happened — they began to cooperate. In effect, they opened beyond their own edges, they began to relate to each other, and their meeting allowed them to evolve into multicellular organisms. This miracle ultimately resulted in the vast diversity of life forms we know today — including you and me with the 37 trillion cooperating cells that make up our living bodies.
I think it’s fair to extrapolate from this extraordinary process in the evolution of life to our own evolution as awakening beings. We might think of our individual self-sense, our individual identity, as analogous to unicellular life forms. For example, I maintain my me-ness by the edge I create around what I consider to be me. I believe I’m inside here, inside my identity-edge, and everything else that is not me is outside. This gives me a degree of coherence and some capacity for survival, but just like a unicellular creature, the edge that I create limits what I can become.
How do I create that identity-edge? By constantly reinforcing it with stories of various kinds. It’s as if I’m inside a room and the walls of the room are papered with stories and reasons that I tell myself. For example, if I become irritable, I tell myself I have good reasons for being irritable. I paste those reasons on the wall and they reflect back at me my point of view and assert my identity as being the one with that view. If I’m judgmental, I paper the walls with the reasons for my judgments. If I feel I’m unworthy and not as good as others, I paper it with reasons to justify that feeling. Over time, I become defined — and confined — by those reasons.
So how can we free ourselves from the confinements we create? What is asked of us? I think it’s important to remember that we don’t actually abandon what we are when we step through our identity-edge. We don’t go somewhere else. After all, the unicellular creatures did not abandon the life they harbored when they opened beyond themselves. They shared it, becoming more life.
Let’s look closely for a moment at these edges that limit us — what are they really? Are they solid? Impenetrable? Look, for example, at what limits your capacity to love someone close to you. Yes, you love them, but you know you could love them more — there’s an edge to your love and it’s made of various reasons — the person is not perfect, they don’t respond the way you’d like, they don’t fulfill your expectations, etc. But thinking of that person right now — do these reasons really make an impenetrable limit to your love? Is there really an edge there?
Or look at what limits your capacity to be spiritually present in your life — the edge you make between your self-sense and the open awareness of your true nature. You may create that edge by continually sorting your experience into what you like and what you dislike, or by restlessly doing one thing after the next to cover your feelings of groundlessness, or by any number of other avoidances (described at length in the book The Open Path.) But when you look for that “edge” between you and the open awareness of your true nature, is there really an edge there?
Questioning the edges that limit us like this, walking, so to speak, right up to them — we can’t find anything solid. When we stop asserting the truth of our stories and just look at them, they change. They’re no longer an edge that limits us — they’re permeable — they become an opening, a way, a path. Taking this path is what is meant by edgewalking.
Edgewalking can feel risky, at least initially. We don’t know what will happen when we let go of our insistence about the truth of our stories, or the need for our avoidances. We sense a spaciousness, a non-definitiveness. When we experience this spaciousness, this openness, we’re edgewalking. We don’t know what will happen next but we’re fully present to what is. We’re curious, creative, and caring. This happens naturally, without effort.
Edgewalking means moving from the known and preconceived to the unknown and the fresh. It means embracing paradox — on the one hand, recognizing the ways we continually create the edges of our self-identity, and on the other hand, seeing through their illusory limits. It means being humble and confident at the same time. It means being aware of our own limitations and the limitations of others while ever practicing compassion and forgiveness for all of us.
To me, this is a critical point about edgewalking. We’re not trying to be super-human here. We’re not trying to pop out of the world of limitations and edges into some rarefied, spiritual dimension. We live ordinary lives, extraordinarily. As individual beings, we walk the edge between being an individual and being a community, recognizing the edge we “walk” is permeable. As mystic beings, we walk the edge between the absolute and the relative, recognizing the same — the edge is permeable, open — we are form and emptiness; embodied human beings and, at the same time, we are beyond embodiment.
This is what poets do, and artists of all kinds, when they practice their art. They play at the edge between the known limits of the medium they work in, and the unknown and limitless. This is what great physicists do, and astronomers, philosophers, and shamans when they ask ever deeper questions. This is what you do when you forgive someone for an old hurt, or when you don’t react defensively when you feel blamed. You walk right up to that edge of hurt or defensiveness and recognize it for what it is. This is what you do when you realize your restless thoughts and actions are your way of avoiding being present, of being the simple loving awareness that you are. You walk right up to that edge and see it for what it is — a path beyond itself.