Enlightenment. Oh boy! This is the big one.
Last week I shared two of the three reasons why you might be meditating. The first was general curiosity. What's this meditation thing all about? What's the big deal? Why are apps like Headspace receiving tens of millions of dollars in funding? The second is meditation's main selling point, to relieve stress and anxiety. The meditation app Calm's mission statement explains that the most important health issues of the modern age are anxiety, depression, insomnia, and stress. Suicide rates in the US have increased by 30% since 2006. It is the second-leading cause of death for persons age 10 - 34. These numbers substantiate Calm's mission and the millions of dollars in investment. The third reason is a bit more dramatic. Enlightenment! It's the fully realized consequence of this practice. Headspace touches on this in its mission: to improve the health and happiness of the world. But most apps and modern teachers shy away from the grandiosity of what the more traditional lineages believe is possible.
It seems we are collectively on a mission to Enlighten our species. We've been here before. The Athenians of ancient Greece had their era of wisdom and flag shipped democracy for the world. The Rennaissance was the uplifting response to the Dark Ages. Now, we are actively pushing mindfulness into the masses to counter-balance the trends of mindlessness, egoism, and hedonism that have popped up in our cultures. I think of it as the Rennaissance of Consciousness! We all know the road is long, our growth is subtle, and the finish line is far away but we are certainly on the path to balance. The meditation push is both necessary and glorious. To meditate personally is one way of taking this global mission seriously as an individual.
"There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power," said Henry David Thoreau, channeling the intuitive sense that exists at the heart of idenity itself. The message being, "I matter."
Enlightenment is the moment where this individual spirit within each of us is not only realized as absolutely significant but embraced as perfect. The skill is honestly sensing ourselves as perfect without self-delusion. That is not easy, nearly impossible in fact. Once it occurs the beauty that defines the worth of the individual bursts forth. The collective, or "state" as Thoreau says, is now educated by a living example of love. Do I truly love myself? My crooked nose. Short arms. Bouts of anger. Insecurites. Failures. Do I really nurture myself? When the answer is induspitably "Yes!" there is nothing else to achieve. What's left after that is only the embrace of life's experiences as games and gifts to build upon a love that is already strong.
The breakdown of Enlightenment as a reason to meditate is easily detailed through the life cycle of the Lotus flower. An unassuming seed transforms into a beautiful flower. It's the climax in a narrative about transformation. It's the same story as the ugly duckling that became a beautiful swan. It's why millions of people around the world tune in to American Idol to see an average person with unrecognized talent rise above the masses to claim an opportunity and become extraordinary. This rags to riches tale is a story arch we all love because we see ourselves in it. In meditation that heroic tale is fully appreciated through the blooming of a fairly ordinary flower. That flower is 100% you. A fairly ordinary legend never told! That flower has since then become the mascot of many liberated souls! Buddha, for example, sat one day in front of a mass of seekers and said nothing. He only held a flower. Minutes passed. Finally, one student, Mahakyaspa, smiled and received the wordless transmission. He recognized the flower was the lesson.
The Lotus is Enlightened
The life cycle of the lotus is a particularly popular metaphor for meditation as it starts its life encased in a seed at the bottom of a lake covered in silt. It is something hidden, lost in its own private sanctuary. At a certain point the hiding husk cracks and the seed sprouts. This point in the Lotus' story is akin to the person who is simply curious about meditation as something outside of what is familiar to them. So often, we do not know the pandora's box that meditation is, as it opens an inner reality of deep emotion we have always known and only recently forgotten.
Once the seed is cracked there is no turning back and very often, when we realize there is so much more emotion, memory, and desire within us through meditation it is very hard to become numb to it, again. We are left stuck in sensitivity with a strange desire to feel and know as much as we can of ourselves. When we become willing to feel what we know is true, and in that willing to accept our lives are not what we wanted them to be, we become Shiva, the destroyer. Old passions resurface and encourage us to make the necessary changes we know will both challenge and reward us. As they say, "to make an omellette you've got to break a few eggs." So the lotus sprout cracks the seed and grows upwardly. It can never curl back into its seed. It maneuvers through gentle lake currents until it breaches the water’s surface. As the circumstances of our lives are in constant shift, the water is in constant flow but we carry on as does the fledgling lotus sprout.
Look out into the world right now, see who surrounds you or stare into your social media feeds. For a second stop and see everyone as a lotus sprout. See people talking, persuading, agreeing, and disagreeing. They are attempting to validate there own existence as you are. Through validation, we are all attempting to escape aloneness, insecurity, and doubt by growing, sharing, and broadcasting ourselves. It is the pursuit of their truth, that stable and mythical thing that modern life has turned away from because we are distracted by the pleasures of technology and achievement. This pursuit of truth is still there, still beautiful and innocent. When it's noticed no one can be wrong. Trust we all seek love the way all flowers seek light and that inside every post, political debate, corporate campaign, and personal gesture there is the projected message to "See me! Hear me! Notice me! Hold me in your thoughts. Agree with me! Believe in me!"
This newsletter is my hope for that very recognition. Do you hear me? Every word is my strategy for security. I, like you, am a lotus sprout forever insecure like a tree forever trying to root further into the earth. The meditator looking to relieve stress and find something comfortable is ultimately looking for some sense of stability in a world that is inherently unstable. Their moments of anxiety, stress, insomnia, and depression are simply a moment of resistance to metamorphosis. They are the sprout reaching for the surface being swayed by a lake that also a womb but felt as a storm.
Once at the surface the flower begins to mature in its pod as the lotus’ leaves absorb more and more sunlight to power the final phase of the process. Blossom! You'll find that meditators looking for Enlightenment are disciplined. They are sharpening their skills as any professional athlete would. Practicing pure focus, sensitivity, compassion, stillness, and breathing techniques while memorizing mantras and philosophies the way law students study for the bar exam. All of these aspects of meditation, both physiological and psychological, are put together the way a chef assembles a meal. If you are looking for this state of being, bravo! Channel discipline, routine, and ambition. All of that takes energy. Grow your "leaves" and collect your sunlight by practicing intensely, at least for a period of time. Tibetan Bhuddists have a tradition of going on 3-year retreats. It's like meditation college or bootcamp for the military. It is a period of intense study that creates a strong foundation of understanding. I highly recommend you do the same if this matters to you, perhaps through a teacher training or a personal commitment of meditating every day for 6 months. Or maybe through an 8-month training that'll be happening in 2020 with me in Topanga...:)
On one ominous day, the lotus flower blooms. One ominous day the meditator finally feels they are where they are meant to be. They are no longer striving in their practice. They are no longer reaching for a particular state of mind. They are no longer trying to fit in. They have learned the futility of identifying to one particular state of being or to others' opinions of who they should be. No longer are they haunted by the lack of direction, meaning, or belonging that wounded their moments before. Loss of self is the reason suicide is up. Find yourself and life becomes not just bearable but beautiful. The lotus meditator feels in a moment of Enlightenment as if they have arrived! Think of enlightenment as practiced enthusiasm. Enlightenment, practically, is a superb reframing of life where someone willfully takes a brand new perspective on their burdens and authentically learns to embrace themselves and their environment.
Ask yourself, can you enthusiastically embrace a philosophy you disagree with or choose to love someone you don't? Can you be grateful for your illnesses? Could you wish for more obstacles and greater challenges? If you need a rational reason, you know they would only make you stronger. If you can't do any of these things how conscious can you actually be? How much control do you actually have?
An enlightened soul has developed a level of control that permits insane inclusivity. Easy is the choice to never push life away. Love is a matter of control! Enlightenment is a matter of control! So often I notice students tighten up when I mention the word control. I think they fail to realize the greatest expression of self-control is letting go of ourselves. You need to develop perfect self-control to let go of yourself by admitting. "I am the one who misperceives. I am wrong. I do not know." Then, the head of the ego is removed and new insight pours in allowing the flower to blossom.
The literal Lotus flower once bloomed is a means of pollination, which essentially kick-starts the life-cycle process all over again for a new Lotus. Beetles get trapped in the Lotus overnight. These beetles are covered in the pollen of other Lotus plants and fertilize the seeds. A new seed finds itself at the bottom of the same lake to make the same journey. This is the most important detail of the life-cycle metaphor. The moment you believe you have arrived is the moment you realize you haven't. One chapter only leads to the next in a story that has never ended once. You'll hit this checkpoint many times in the life of your practice and each time it will feel more familiar. You'll smirk at the arrogance of thinking you've arrived, falling for the same trick countless times. Completion is a myth that serves the single purpose of prolonging the journey of growth until its non-existent conclusion.
Enlightenment is the embrace of unending change coupled with the drive to become better! A meditator seeking the alleviation of stress (the second reason someone would meditate) is a meditator looking to get out of the existential negative. They are escaping their karmic debt so to speak. A meditator looking to experience Enlightenment is trying to generate profit and spiritual wealth! Enlightenment is a meditator looking to optimize by enhancing their ability to enthusiastically exist. I find many people seek prosperity but are in fact seeking to escape their pain.
Enlightenment is Psychological Prosperity
Human optimization is currently a very popular conversation. It seems to be the era of the Type A personality. Perhaps we are competing with the proficiency of the technology we use and update everyday? Dietary trends like the Keto diet, cold therapy, intermittent fasting and the behavioral hacks that we find in mountains of blog posts and books devoted to increasing productivity all fall in line with the pursuit of Enlightenment on a secular level but Enlightenment is spiritual optimization not financial material optimization. Let's say spirituality is any effort that is not motivated by attainment but by connection. Approach it as impractical but existentially valuable. How can I connect more to Life not for the sake of personal gain but for the sake of understanding only?
The danger of this trend to optimize materially by becoming the best is that we tend to compare ourselves to each other. The undiscussed competitive nature of social media platforms has led to this increase of depression and suicide, especially for young adults, and most dramatically for young women. This is not spiritual growth but egoic growth. One is uplifting. Another is corrosive. And it's very hard to distinguish the difference, especially for the young and ambitious. Again, Enlightenment is the absence of ambition. It is a state of spectacular satisfaction generated through the will to connect, understand, and experience all that can be connected to, understood, and experienced from where the individual currently exists as they currently are.
This agenda of optimizing is the pursuit of “a better version of myself” as the individual sees it. Where the Ugly Duckling had no idea it was a Swan. We have heard from the world there is a swan inside us. It is the sword in the stone that none but us can liberate. We have been told since we were children to become this swan. Naturally, we seek to become it! If you meditate to achieve enlightenment you've taken this suggestion to heart and applied it to a most sincere and ancient pursuit! To reach for literal Enlightenment is to build a fantasy out of your life. The question the lingers is, "Is this real? Or is this insanity?" It takes courage to commit to spirituality. Be brave, if this is you. Take what you believe to be the road less traveled but listen well...
If You Meditate For This Reason
You are unique! The need to be enlightened, as silly as it may sound to others, is very real to you. It is real to me! I am proud that I keep this little flame of unreal hope alive inside me as I believe it will come in handy when my life comes is coming to an end. It is personal. For those that resonate, this need does signify desperation to be something or someone else or to exist somewhere else. Most teachers suggest that if you are actively pursuing Enlightenment you should be very wary. It's a twisting and dangerous road because in the end that person's passion often works against meditation and the world they want to embrace. They are often diminishing the beauty of life around them for some unmatchable ideal. They are often deluded and blind to their inflated sense of grandeur. They are often numb to the level of desire and resistance they harbor, building Karma by continuing to judge others for being less enlightened than they are. They are often ignorant of their insecurity, which is why they can’t sense their perfection or the perfection of others. This insecurity stops them from defining their perfection for themselves in the first place. The same traps that the youth confronts as they try to stand out at school, that professionals confront as they try to succeed in life, the spiritualist confronts in their ashrams.
We are all together, confused, and searching. Instead of getting off the ladder of hierarchy, the fanatical spiritualists climb it from a different perspective. So those desperate for Enlightenment look within themselves, as others look outside themselves, towards exaggerated and fantastical philosophies of heaven and destiny to help them ascend the ordinary. To crave such grandeur comes from the same place as the billionaire who wants more money, or the celebrity who can't stand to not be in the spotlight. And we, the ugly duckling, lotus sprouts, idolize these exaggerated characters as if they've achieved what we're looking for blind to their obvious imbalance.
If you are meditating to be Enlightened it's time to practice on your own! Do not look to Buddha. Do not look to the financial gurus. Do not look to Shiva. Do not look to celebrities, heroes, or influencers. Do not look to your parents, politicians, or your friends. Enlightenment is about realizing you are the chooser of your own path. Yes, learn from others but sit as the authority without a doubt. The Vedic chapter in India was superseded by Vedanta. Veda means wisdom. Vedanta means the end of wisdom. The final lesson is to stop striving for wisdom. Accept you are whole! There is another Toaist concept that highlights this projection. The first lesson is Buddha. Escape your pain. The second is No Buddha. Forget what you've learned. The third lesson is the Tao. Enjoy what is.
The Lesson is Simple Mindfulness. It's what Calm and Headspace are being funded to teach!
If you meditate to find Enlightenment, meditation for you would involve studying your need for the extraordinary. I would prescribe mindfulness because it is grounded. It will more than likely seem too simple like you're ending where you started. You will want to travel around the world, drink all the ayahuasca, go to Burning Man, fast on nothing but water, hide in caves alone, explore the taboo, renounce modern culture, all to realize something no one else has realized before... the imperceivable. You will identify as mystical. You will feel as though the world doesn't understand you but you are wrong! The enlightened one, whoever that is, would not seek heaven nor would they seek to escape hell. They would not seek undersatnding or acknowledgment nor would they push it away. They would sit beside you, permeable, unassuming, and looked over, and you would never know it. As you in all your enlightened wisdom sit next to others at the cafe, in the yoga studio, at the office , or in traffic unrecognized for your divinity. If you can take it upon yourself to see the divinity in all other things other than yourself you sit as the Enlightened. Listen. Look. Feel. Taste. Smell.
Mindfulness is how the ordinary is learned to be witnessed as the divine. Mindfulness is about letting the senses run freely in the world as it is. Listen to anything and everything. Feel anything and everything. Realize this moment is the legend of reality! Let the mind wander and when it wraps you up in any conceptual story, notice it and then return to objective observation of what is normal and perceived to be gray. Mindfulness is about not caring so much about what is or isn’t. You are where you are supposed to be because you are where you are and nowhere else like a lotus blooming in a scummy pond. Like a lotus dying in a scummy pond! And if you are certain that you aren't where you are supposed to be, then be there, trapped in something that is wrong and undeserved. Once we stop caring so much and release our grip for perfect we'll see life is more of a rainbow than we wanted to admit. Even as rainforests burn, as the youth crumbles, as ocean levels rise let the colors back into your life by sitting with it as it is. Be the single person who feels life is perfect as it is by taking all the sides and taking none of them at once. See the world as children playing the game of living, projecting, and dying. Even the first and immortal yogi Shiva, the destroyer I mentioned earlier, with his blue skin and elephant-headed son just sat with life in his finest moments. We can certainly do the same. The magic will come to us as we age and as we learn!
There you have it. I would bet you are in one of these three categories, if not all of them at once. This is highly generalized and of course, you as an individual have your own reasons to meditate. Agree with me and disagree with me. Meditation is a life long practice and it will change endlessly over that time. What I've learned though as I look back at when I started is that I was meditating the very first time. I knew what to do before getting hot and heavy with the classic scriptures and techniques. And while I feel I’ve developed some degree of mastery with meditation there is also this beautifully eerie feeling that I haven’t learned anything at all. I have gone nowhere. I am the same imbalanced, judgmental, and insecure lotus I was before and I’ve learned to savor that bitter lotus seed becasue I know where it leads.