Excerpt from “This Very Moment,” by Charlotte Joko Beck
Always we have an illusion of being separate, which we have created. When we’re threatened or when life doesn’t please us, we start worrying, we start thinking about a possible solution. And without exception there is no person who doesn’t do this. We dislike being with life as it is because that can include suffering, and that is not acceptable to us. Whether it’s a serious illness or a minor criticism or being lonely or disappointed—that is not acceptable to us. We have no intention of putting up with that or just being that if we can possibly avoid it. We want to fix the problem, solve it, get rid of it. That is when we need to understand the practice of walking the razor’s edge. Spiritual practice is about understanding the razor’s edge and how to work with it.
The point at which we need to practice walking the razor’s edge is whenever we begin to be upset (angry, irritated, resentful, jealous). First, we need to know we’re upset. Many people don’t even know that upset is taking place. When we meditate and begin to know our minds and our reactions, we begin to be aware that yes, we are upset.
That’s the first step, but it’s not the razor’s edge. We’re still separate, but now we know it. How do we bring our separated life together? To walk the razor’s edge is to do that; we have once again to be what we basically are, which is seeing, touching, hearing, smelling; we have to experience whatever our life is, right this second. If we’re upset we have to experience being upset. If we’re frightened, we have to experience being frightened. If we’re jealous we have to experience being jealous. And such experiencing is physical; it has nothing to do with the thoughts going on about the upset.
When we are experiencing non-verbally we are walking the razor’s edge—we are in the present moment. When we walk the edge the agonizing states of separateness are pulled together, and we experience perhaps not happiness but joy. Understanding the razor’s edge (and not just understanding it, but doing it) is what meditation practice is. The reason it’s difficult is that we don’t want to do it. We know we don’t want to do it. We want to escape from it.
If I feel that I’ve been hurt by you, I want to stay with my thoughts about the hurt. I want to increase my separation; it feels good to be consumed by those fiery, self-righteous thoughts. By thinking, I try to avoid feeling the pain. The more sophisticated my practice becomes, the more quickly I see this trap and return to experiencing the pain, the razor’s edge. And where I might once have stayed upset for two years, the upset shrinks to two months, two weeks, two minutes. Eventually I can experience an upset as it happens and stay right on the razor’s edge.
In fact the enlightened life is simply being able to walk that edge all the time. And while I don’t know anyone who can always do this, certainly after years of practice we can do it much of the time. It is joy to walk that edge.
Still, it is necessary to acknowledge that most of the time we want nothing to do with that edge; we want to stay separate. We want the sterile satisfaction of wallowing in “I am right.” That’s a poor satisfaction, of course, but still we will usually settle for a diminished life rather than experience life as it is when that seems painful and distasteful.
All troublesome relationships at home and work are born of the desire to stay separate. By this strategy we hope to be a separate person who really exists, who is important. When we walk the razor’s edge we’re not important; we’re no-self, embedded in life. This we fear—even though life as no-self is pure joy. Our fear drives us to stay over here in our lonely self-righteousness. The paradox: only in walking the razor’s edge, in experiencing the fear directly, can we know what it is to have no fear.
Now I realize we can’t see this all at once or do it all at once. Sometimes we jump onto the razor’s edge and then hop off, like water dropped on a sizzling frying pan. That may be all we can do at first, and that’s fine. But the more we practice, the more comfortable we become there. We find it’s the only place where we are at peace. So many people say, “I want to be at peace.” Yet there may be little understanding of how peace is to be found. Walking the razor’s edge is it. No one wants to hear that. We want somebody who will take our fear away or promise us happiness. No one wants to hear the truth, and we won’t hear it until we are ready to hear it.