My lifelong interest in “enlightenment”—or whatever you want to call that enduring wisdom which offers relative equanimity in adversity, and acceptance of the world and its inhabitants “as-is,” began with a childhood reading of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. I loved the gentle monk and his Little-Friend-of-all-the-World. At about the same age, I was intrigued by the cloistered life depicted in the movie, The Nun’s Story. Reading my grandmother’s Bible, I observed the same spirit of love and forgiveness in the gentle teachings of Jesus, and later, in college, marveled at Gandhi’s and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s writings.
As years passed, I also wondered whether the rare, kind, and imperturbable elders, sick or well, rich or poor, whom I occasionally encountered were also “enlightened” beings, and if so, what wonderful secret, what key to peace and acceptance did they possess?
I think now that, while everyone experiences moments of clarity and vision and contentment—call it enlightenment if you will—probably no one suddenly becomes suddenly enlightened once-and-for-all forever, as did Kim’s fictional monk, and as the Buddha is said to have done, sitting under the bhodi tree. I’ll bet both experienced some unsettling moments even after achieving enlightenment, just as the Dalai Lama readily admits today.
Nevertheless, the Dalai Lama absolutely knows something universal that is well-worth knowing.
Yet no single goal, no path, no pursuit, achievement, possession, relationship or experience, no moment of revelation, awakening or rebirth seems exclusively to offer life’s “answer” to the problem of human suffering. And of course, there is no ultimate solution which can finally cure life of difficulty and heartaches.
Nevertheless, spiritual wisdom can make life easier if not easy, and definitely more joyful, relaxing, rewarding, manageable, lighter, friendlier, and fun, as well as deeper, kinder, more helpful, and far more meaningful.
Enlightened beings are to be found in every culture, religion, philosophy, and walk-of-life. It’s true that they see the world through new eyes, having conquered most of their cultural conditioning that leads to fear, selfishness, guilt, and anger. Spiritual mystics and visionaries really do achieve a remarkably robust internal perspective which consistently supports them in spending more of their present moments awake, aware, and appreciative, undistressed with past or future concerns, and embracing all-that-is, as one, and lovable.
The warm, ecumenical vision of these human and fallible saints and seers (who are often disguised as the kind little lady down the street, or the conscientious, cheerful worker down the hall) is available to anyone who wants it more than s/he wants anything else, because enlightenment is less a closely held secret of an exclusive club or church, and more the result of the desire, perseverance, and time necessary to unlearn the huge amount of cultural and personal mental and emotional baggage most of us acquire in our youth–not to mention even more time and patient effort to relearn the experience of each of life's many aspects freshly, differently. Enlightenment is a continual, never-ending, and sometimes arduous pursuit, regardless of one's particular chosen path to its achievement.
You might think me enlightened if you caught me in a moment of lucidity. At other times, I struggle mightily with many as-yet-unconquered habits, including habits-of-mind, unexamined beliefs, and the frustrations and impatience that come from comforts, courtesies, and convenience. My longtime friends would agree that I’ve changed, or at least that I’m suspiciously happier and easier to get along with, although I'm still miles away from imperturbable or selfless. Like everyone else, I grew up not knowing what I didn't know, and knowing a lot of things that just weren’t so. However, I’ve begun to do the work to learn and to unlearn, replacing my old eyes and heart with a more reliable spiritual worldview.
The peaceful, positive, and helpful presence-of-mind which I have consistently sought is attainable by anyone–regardless of starting point or particular spiritual path–who sincerely desires and pursues it. It is not magic. It is the same awareness of the unity of God, man, and nature, the same feelings of well-being and rest which everyone experiences from time to time.
Yet such moments of peace, clarity, and oneness occur for me more frequently these days; they last longer, and I can find my way back to them more easily. I don’t know whether that’s enlightenment or not, but I know I'm at least on a clear path to it. As I seek to learn what seems universally true—and as I pursue varied paths to truth and apply that learned truth to my daily life, my understanding broadens and deepens.
Although I spend more time now in peaceful acceptance, I haven’t yet learned to stay humbly (if metaphorically) on my knees. I keep popping back up to proudly celebrate, and stumble, and fall back down to my knees again….
I still waste time struggling with fear, anger, anxiety, and guilt, still succumb to other useless self-created nightmares as I read the daily news and go through my daily tasks. Often I’m oblivious to others’ needs, distracted, defensive, resistant, defiant, sick and tired. But such times are less frequent, and I’m learning to rely more readily upon God’s (as I understand God) strength to help me back onto the path of the seeker of truth.
From one perspective, “Life is not a puzzle to be solved, but an adventure to be lived.” On the other hand, some of us like puzzles. But no, we won't ever “figure God out” or “fix” life–but we can move from miserable ignorance to happy knowing.
Anyone can learn to manage life better, if they deeply desire to acquire better habits and better ways of experiencing and contributing. It helps a lot to be blessed with the knowledge that, step-by-small-step, over time, I can learn anything I'm willing to work at and persevere for.
I find it interesting that the more I learn, the more I appreciate, and also, the harder I work—no longer to keep the wolf from the door—but instead, to take advantage of opportunities to contribute to and enjoy life, opportunities which were always there, even if I didn’t see them before.
I revel in the joys my new spiritual insights provide. One clear difference in “before” and “after” has been a newfound delight in the details of life-as-it-is, particularly an appreciation for people-as-they-are, but also with things-as-they-are. It’s such a relief not to always have to attack, condemn, blame, evaluate, analyze, and judge everything and everyone (including myself) (although sometimes I still do.)
I love the present-moment rewards that come with a commitment to excellence. I enjoy not only better results, but also considerably more enjoyable processes, as I stay within each present moment, and let go of my attachments to end-results. More and more often these days, I focus on the present moment’s pleasure or pain, without adding to it unnecessary heavy loads of negative, past-and-future mental and emotional “stuff.”
Moments, hours, even days and weeks of such “enlightenment”—or at least what feels to me like enlightenment (clarity, unity, peace, oneness, vision)—are more frequent, deeper, less elusive. Each radiant aha!-moment, though precious and sufficient in itself, seamlessly flows from earlier insights into later ones, each reinforcing and enlarging the other. Every day I discover new facets of a larger global understanding, of a unified and universal, if distressingly inexpressible, truth.
I find, very often, that doing small, ordinary tasks is completely fulfilling, no one activity more than any other—the primary difference being what I am able to bring to each process on any given day. On some days and at some moments, I bring more energy, love, and presence to various tasks than I do at other times, and that is all….
I accept with relief that I’ll never get “it” “right;” human wisdom and insight is never final. In fact, I’ll never get anything completely “right”—no relationship, no goal, no habit of mind. And no one else will either—at least not in this life, and nobody knows what comes after.
Human beings can experience, learn about, and attempt to express universal, even eternal truths, yet truth will always defy and surpass merely human linguistic capacities. Certainly, no one ever gets any “explanation of life” “right,” because there is no universal “right” for all to get, just as no one ever “finally” achieves balance, nor maintains it over time. Life itself seems to be one long intricate balancing act.
Spiritual wisdom can be achieved by anyone who aspires to it, with the help of God—or whoever or whatever you personally choose to call that holy spirit, that power-not-ourselves that we each experience uniquely. Enlightenment is to be found along every honest religious and spiritual path, and often along other less apparently spiritual paths as well–certainly through service and daily spiritual practice such as meditation and yoga, and often through scholarship, science, athletics, nature, music, art, literature, psychology, business, parenting, marriage, and other pursuits of understanding and service. Kipling’s Kim and his beloved monk seemed “naturally enlightened,” yet even they had to come to “realize” (as in “realized masters”) the reality of what they had always been, what they could always do, and what they had always known.
I’m not discouraged to find ultimate enlightenment elusive. It isn’t daunting to know I may never “get right” my small hopes for doing my little part in saving the world, or caring for myself and the people in my life. Rather, I feel newly free of the heavy obligation to somehow nail that perfect wisdom. Instead, I forgive myself and others for our many shortcomings and trespasses, and focus instead on feeling good about how far we’ve come, and how far we can yet go.
Not everyone thinks wisdom is a big deal. I appreciate, respect, and support others’ efforts to achieve whatever it is they most want, all the various pursuits and goals various people choose, as uniquely most important to them. Enlightenment isn’t everyone’s bag. Some people really want to play very good soccer; others want to stop fighting with their families, or to make a billion dollars. It’s a relief to know I’m not here to judge what others choose to do with their lives, but rather, to love and support all of us, exactly as we are, wherever we are on our roads to learning and growing and becoming.
I like to think that, in a spiritual sense, no matter where we begin our learning, we all eventually will learn whatever it is we need to know to return to God. Some people, like me, take a mighty circuitous path. Yet we all need help from one another, and no matter where we began or where we are now on our various paths, we will all arrive together and simultaneously, leaning upon and supporting one another.
When I learn to accept and forgive myself and all of God’s creations, when I consistently choose to think positively, and live fully within the present moment, letting the past and future go, I am taking giant steps toward enlightenment. Far more powerful than any particular achievement or activity is the power of my attitude during each quickly-passing present moment, each “now.” Where I’m coming from during this moment, this “now,” determines what I think, where I am, what I do, what I create, who I am, how I am, what I achieve and contribute, my happiness, my peace of mind, my past and future, and my relationships with my fellow man, nature, and God.
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