Today’s enlightenment is tomorrow’s mistake.
– Zen Saying.
I was 29 years old when I had a spiritual awakening so powerful that it made all previous experiences seem meaningless in comparison. It was an irreversible paradigm shift and a radical falling away of everything I had believed about enlightenment. It was not just another interesting experience which a miserable seeker called Mike had, but the collapse of Mike and all of his miserable seeking.
The immediate consequence of this was that the existential seeking which had defined and motivated my life, fell away, and I no longer felt the need to engage in spiritual practices, read books or visit teachers and Gurus.
I suddenly understood that what had eluded me for so long had been right in front of my face the entire time:
This it is.
This is god, awareness, consciousness or reality, right here right now. This staggering realisation extinguished the desire for more exotic spiritual experiences, since all experience was reality, I was always in the right place.
Everything I had ever read or heard about enlightenment suddenly made sense and the Zen Koans I had previously agonised over, now seemed childishly simple. The event left me like a silent animal, unified with everything around me, merged with the sounds of the seagulls, the froth on my coffee and the big Issue seller in the street. The cracks in the pavements brought tears of joy.
It was all here, all now, and all so simple.
Months later I wanted to confirm what I had realised and so picked up my dog-eared copy of “I am That” by Nisargadatta Maharaj – who was something of a spiritual hero to me – and began to read through the various dialogues he had with seekers in his 80’s Bombay attic room.
It all made sense and I could relate to everything he was saying from his side, rather than casting myself as the confused and desperate seeker he was speaking to.
But then I read something which evoked a tight visceral pang of self-doubt. Suddenly I didn’t know what he was referring to, I couldn’t connect to his experience, I felt unmoored, lost. As I continued to read I experienced a flip-flop of confident affirmation and heartbreaking self-doubt.
It became apparent that there was much more to reality than my precious slither of awakening.
As with all insights and realisations, my experience of awakening has changed over the years, especially since having children. At first this was confusing and worrying, especially because I had been deeply influenced by certain contemporary teachers whose awakening appeared to put them beyond the need for any further practice, inquiry or exploration.
They were, as they had declared, “Done.”
For me to admit that my awakening was still happening, threw me into self-doubt. Was I as “done” as I had originally felt? Or was there more to “Do?”
And, of course the answer was both.
Awakening reduces you to zero. This why it is not something the mind wants, it’s something the heart yearns for. You thought you were someone but you’re not, you’re no-one and no-thing. And yet the flip-side is magnificent: you are also everything.
But of course, it doesn’t end at the beginning, the beginning never really ends, as new flavours of insight pour though the mind and gradually soak into the heart. It’s a becoming which never becomes anything, a path where each step is the goal.
The fact that insights shift, change and mature is extremely important to appreciate, otherwise we will grasp at a certain experiences and feel confused when they change or disappear.
I often meet people who have had a fleeting taste of enlightenment and tell me how it didn’t last. “I had it, but then I lost it” they say, feeling frustrated and deflated. But actually, both the insight and the fading tell us something about reality. Each moment is an insight, an unveiling, no insight lasts, no moment lasts, no person lasts.
Why then should a momentary realisation stay fixed and permanent?
These too come and go, endlessly. Savour them, chew them, but don’t try to keep them in your mouth.
I was later heartened to discover that even Nisargadatta, whose words are like spears of thunder, almost arrogant in their blazing self-confidence, changed his mind towards the end of his life, and spoke of how everything he had previously understood now seemed inconsequential.
This about-turn is not unusual. With awakening, both absolute self-confidence and absolute doubt are familiar flavours. Everything ends and everything begins.
Mindfulness Teacher Shinzen Young also reports how his own teacher, the 100 year old Zen Master Sasaki Roshi (who was also the teacher of Leonard Cohen), changed his teaching style over the last 30 years.
This tells us that awakening is not what we imagine it to be. It is not just a one-hit lightning strike of unassailable, unshakeable understanding. Yes, it is the end of seeking, the end of being a separate person, but the start of another process, a new adventure, which has endless terrain.
As with the parable of the blind men and the elephant, let’s not get stuck holding the trunk or tusk declaring that we have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Let’s not proclaim “I’ve got it” from the roof tops in case it has passed by the time we climb back down.
Instead, let us enjoy the insights and realisations our practice yields, but stay wide open, as no-one, knowing nothing. Let’s allow life to dance through our infinite spaciousness, tasting it and knowing it, but not grasping at it, as some ultimate truth.
We know, and we know that we don’t know.
We then live in a profound state of unknowing which is vivid, focussed and alive, rather than filled to bursting with remembered answers, stale realisations, and recycled wisdom.
This is how we stand our groundless ground.
We trust the insights that affirm “this is it, you’re already here, already free, already home” and the doubts which whisper “keep going, don’t stop, there’s more, more, forever more.”
Not stopping and not starting. Here and now, yet always unborn. Almost as beautiful, as the cracks in the pavement.