There are probably times in most of our lives when things fall apart with such apparent finality that we are forced to give up our assumed social identities and come Home to the only identity that remains--Who we really are. These experiences may be the source of the advice, often given in 'Seeing' workshops, that a good way to remember Who we are is to have some problems. For when our lives aren't working, even in less extreme ways, we can always find the place of refuge where there is nothing to go wrong.
However, in my experience, problems don't always bring me Home; it's not a given. And it's not as if I have only a few problems. My world seems flooded with them at times. This being the case, I have felt the need for some kind of tool I can use to help me Home when I am faced with a problem. Since the most effective aids for me are workshop exercises, where I have to experiment and not just think, I have tried to put together an exercise (using parts of existing ones) that I can use as a guide when life is difficult. The rest of this essay will take you through the exercise as if you were doing it. Of course, you will get the most out of it if, after you've read it, you try it out.
To begin, pick a problem you have. You might write it down on a piece of paper and then hold the paper in your left hand, or you can imagine that your left hand represents the problem, In either case, raise your left hand up at about 45 degrees in front of you, a little to your left, and look at the problem out there at the far end of your arm. Notice how complex it is, how temporary it is in the sense that it has a beginning, and how partial it is in the sense that, even though it may seem large, it is in fact displayed against a larger background. Notice too that it inspires or attracts your feelings of anxiety or depression, or courage and determination. But most of all, notice that the problem is out there in the world at the far end of your arm.
The second step, while you are still looking at the problem at the far end of your arm, is to bring your attention down your arm, past your elbow, to the shadowy shoulder at the bottom of the picture and then right off the picture into the Void. At the near end of your arm, is there a head, or another hand, or anything at all holding or wrestling with a problem? Isn't the Space that you are looking out of so empty and clear that there is nothing here to go wrong; in other words, isn't it problem-free? Aren't the feelings associated with the problem tied into the problem rather than into the Space? Don't they come and go with the problem? No matter what the problem is, can't you travel the journey down from the problem and all its implications and anxieties to the relief and refuge of Who you are? Besieged, as it were, by problems, don't you nevertheless live in the impregnable fortress of your real nature?
This observation doesn't make the problem go away, but it does place it where it belongs and where it can best be handled. It makes it clear that here is my Identity and there is the problem, and that Who I am--and my real Self-esteem--is not at the mercy of any confusing or distressing problem I am dealing with. This is in no way an excuse for ignoring or denying the problem. Just as you keep looking at your left hand while you descend to the Void in the exercise, so you keep your eye on the problem, but from the vantage point of the problem-free. Nor is it a way of disowning your problems. Your arm, with your hand at the end of it holding the problem, is like a tree that rises up out of the Void. The roots of the problem lie in the ground of your true nature, and when you see Who you are, you climb down the tree to the root of the problem, not up and away from it. Here is where the problem ultimately originates; the Void is as integral to the problem as the roots are to the tree.
Is there a danger, though, that my descent into the problem-free Void will become a fall into the trap of quietism and resignation? Not if I continue to distinguish between the far end and the near end of my arm. For, having climbed down my arm to the problem-free Void, I do not necessarily let go of the problem in my hand. My hand continues to hold the problem, and I continue to look at it and work to resolve it as best I can, using whatever tools are available to me. At the same time, however, I notice something very different at the near end of my arm here. Not only is there no problem to hold onto, but there is no hand to hold with. Here I cannot let go because I was never holding on. No hand, no grip, no release of grip. Just as for loving I am built open, so for problems I am built surrendered--yet in a way that facilitates all sorts of problem-solving out there where problems are handled.
The third and final step in the exercise addresses this flip side of problems--solutions. Keeping your left hand up, raise your right hand at about the same angle but slightly to your right, look at it, and imagine that it represents a possible future solution to the problem in your left hand. Notice how the solution will of necessity be temporary, subject to revision or simplification, and finally obsolete. And just as the problem attracts feelings, so does the solution: feelings of success, confidence, or relief. But underlying all these characteristics is the fact that the solution (like the problem) is placed out there in the world at the end of your arm. Descend your arm to the Void and you will find your real nature is as bare of solutions as it is of problems. Not only are you problem-free, but you are also solution-free! And just as you are at the root of the problem, so you are also at the source of the solution. When you come Home to the Void, you come to the great Storehouse of solutions. What a practical place to arrive at--the Gap that links the problem to its solution, the Gap that is both the cause of the problem and the source of the solution! In fact, this place is quite awesome, for here I find the ultimate cause of all problems and the ultimate source of all solutions. It is like a master key that opens up the inner secret of all problem-solving.
What is that inner secret? Perhaps it is that while I don't want problems (I want to change them into solutions), and while the solutions I do get never remain satisfying (they may even develop into new problems), right Here I already have what I really want. The true and liberating secret underlying my problems is that while on their own level they are only partially resolvable, Here, below and between and inside, the resolution is perfect. That resolution is always available, Here, when I see Who I am.
There is one more issue that this exercise helps clarify for me, and that is the issue of the traditional conflict between my personal will and God's will. How do I know that what I want is what God wants? To answer this question, I look out at my hands again. Out there are problems and solutions, action, effort, willpower. Out there are all the wants and satisfactions of my life. I look down my arms to the Gap between them. Here is non-wanting, non-doing, non-will: 'choiceless awareness.' These arms reach out into the world of will and action not from my head but from the empty Godhead. These arms are God's arms and do God's will. And just as God moves the left as well as the right, so does God, out there, will problems as well as solutions, for the two are inseparable, two ends of a see-saw that rests upon the still fulcrum of God's will. What I really want depends on Who I am, and when I look Here, climbing down from either the problem or the solution into the Godhead, I bring my personal will into line with God's and say yes to both. In that moment, God lives and wills and works through me.
In Ramana Maharshi's words, the solution to my problem is to see who has it. Here is relief and perfection. Here is surrender, not resignation. Here, ultimately, is God's will, not mine.
This exercise is just a map--simplified, general, meant as no more than an aid. Yet in a sense it is also the actual journey, for when I travel that short distance from the problem I am grappling with to the problem-free Space here, I step into the place where the fundamental question that all problems pose--Who am I?--is solved.