Where You Are and Are Not
To say I was born in sin (separateness) is to say I came into the world with a false self. I was born in a mask. I came into existence under a sign of contradiction, being someone that I was never intended to be and therefore a denial of what I am supposed to be. And thus I came into existence and nonexistence at the same time because from the very start I was something that I was not.
(Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation)
Merton, who was heavily influenced by Buddhism, saw the fundamental contradiction in human existence. In the same way, Erwin Shrödinger proposed a quantum physics thought experiment about a cat in a box that was simultaneously alive and dead (look it up). I guess this is the question we all must ask ourselves: Are we alive or dead—or both? Who are we—really? When Buddha realized the clear light of awareness, he knew the answer.
That answer is inside every breath we take, every beat of the heart. But we get distracted by someone we were never intended to be. This is the false self born of ego clinging. Because this identity denies the possibility of existence and nonexistence occupying the same space, we develop a fear of death. Once this happens, we are never truly happy. We refuse to die to the moments of life and therefore do not experience liberation. Every difficulty we encounter comes from this unwillingness to let go of the deluded self.
So Buddha proposed an experiment in which we observe life and death within a single moment. This is called meditation. A refinement of meditation in the Vajrayana tradition proposes that we notice how the mind creates, and clings to, an illusory sense of self and other. We gain insight into this delusion by visualizing a reality and then dissolving what we have created. We notice how the nature of our original unconditioned mind expresses this rhythm of creating and letting go. In this way, we recognize life and death occupying the same moment.
I love the way T.S. Eliot expresses this paradox. (From East Coker in The Four Quartets)
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.