What is “Enlightenment?”

What does it mean to be enlightened? My husband and I were arguing about it the other day.

Okay – after writing that down and looking at that statement again, I laughed to myself out loud. What an absolute JOY to be arguing about enlightenment! Of all the trivial things we could be discussing, we have a heated argument about the credentials of transcendence.

Back to the subject at hand: What is enlightenment? What does it mean to have this label or state of being?

Is it the long, painstaking acquisition of some mysterious body of knowledge?

Is it the emptying of yourself to transcend this ordinary life?

Is it necessary to spend years “in the wilderness” or temples in order to achieve it?

Is it necessary to swear off your family, friends, life possessions and trivial pursuits in order to claim it?

I don’t feel that detachment from reality or the act of “acquisition” is the real answer.

As my honorary grandfather Mel (over at Melting-Pot Dharma) might perhaps say, it is recognizing the Buddha within. It is seeing the connection, rather than the detachment, of the world around you.

Some of us need the temples and wilderness to know this, and others do not. But in recognizing the divine that is already there, and working to keep it top of mind, THAT is enlightenment in my opinion.

I was discussing this with my husband, who (I think) holds in the back of his mind that “enlightened” ones of high regard will have physically worked and put time into developing this title. But do they? Where do we get this assumption? And why do we demand these qualifications to this kind of title? Is it because we have such high expectations of this level of “achievement?”

I think my husband might think this, in part, because he has spent years studying Shaolin Kung Fu. He has put in his time. Almost 13 years of time.

To him, the discipline and practice is what makes you the master, the teacher – and in a lot of ways, we see other “enlightened” ones as teachers, or expect them to be. Masters of some kind. In Kung Fu, if you put in the time, effort, and dedication you are rewarded with opportunity to teach others and to be an example to others. This comes with – and is expected of – the titles and degrees.

So it goes with our modern society. We like to see teachers, self-proclaimed “experts” and masters as having the necessary credentials in order to lay claim to the designation (i.e. licenses, graduate school, years in the wilderness, years in the temples, etc.).

But when applied to spirituality, and awakened-ness, I think this is slightly a flawed assumption.

Credentials are conditional, and the state of so-called enlightenment is not conditional. It is like an unconditional love. It exists without any presumption or prerequisite.

It exists because life exists.

Recognizing it does not take work and time in the human sense; it only takes desire and openness to see beyond the material and spiritual borders we ourselves have drawn. Whether that takes years or minutes should not affect your “enlightened-ness.”

You do not need credentials to know divinity; to know God.

But I do agree with my husband that in order to teach this “knowledge” you need to find your proper credentials, the ones that speak to you. You need time to sift this out. Find your footing. Relax into the role if that is what you are after. Build trust with the world on your viewpoint.

But to be an “enlightened” person doesn’t mean you are going to teach, and it certainly doesn’t mean you claim to be an expert or a master. You just are, and are eternally becoming.

To me, to be awakened is to realize the interconnected-ness of all. That separation is an illusion. That there is a divinity within us that we don’t have to strive for or work to achieve – only to yield. Because it’s already there in its imperfect perfectness.

After discussing this with my husband, and tearing up a bit (as I usually do when talking about interconnected-ness), we both ended the discussion with a thoughtful “Hmm.” The best way to end a discussion…a little open-ended.

Do you really need to empty yourself to transcend this fleshy existence? Enter into the void that is above and beyond humanity?

I don’t believe there is some magical transcendence of reality, or the emptying of the Self. I don’t think there is some divine void above humanity.

It is within humanity.

Love it with all your heart.

*

In the end, isn’t Enlightenment just another label, another set of constructs that we set upon a preconceived notion of our most ideal selves?

What is your ideal state of being? Mine is love;  infinite love, and I try to always keep it at the forefront.

Husband, thank you for discussing these themes with me. I love you to the cosmos and back ❤

“Je suis Tu”

Is the only way we know our world through relationships? Is this how we “know” anything?

In light of the Paris attacks, I am reeling. Not just because of my mushy love of the French language and culture, not just in reaction to the use of blatant violence, and not over the seething hatred that caused it and is now being amplified throughout the nations. No; I am reeling because of the gaping hole it has exposed in our relationships with the greater world.

An attack on western ideals from an “other” that is vehemently against them leads to an outpouring of sentiment, anger, fear and grief from all the western world, especially the United States. But these same events in Middle Eastern countries does no such thing. No outpouring of grief or anger. No flag profile pics on Facebook. Why not? We’re all human, right?

I know the horribly simple answer to that question could be that those countries are always war-stricken. They are always fraught with violence, so it is not new news. Our mortal hearts cannot bear to be burdened constantly, 24/7, with the atrocities that are committed worldwide on a daily basis. It is just too much for our hearts to handle, so we have to push some of it away. We have to ignore it in order to live our lives.

But I think this is only a partial answer.

When we heard that people were indiscriminately mowed down by gunmen at a concert, walking down a sidewalk, or eating out at a café, we were able to envision ourselves in their shoes.

That was OUR concert.
That was OUR favorite café.
That was OUR stadium game.

It hit home to us how real this threat was when we could imagine ourselves in these instances we know every day and see them interrupted so maliciously. So viciously.
So personally.

But what about Beirut? The war torn communities of Syria? Iraq? Boko Haram? Myanmar? These places are remote and perceived as foreign. We in the ensconced west cannot mentally picture ourselves in the daily life or culture of these places. We cannot relate to the experiences and daily routines there, so we are hard-pressed to find a way to personally empathize with those places and their people. We cannot imagine ourselves in their shoes without great effort, and without a great tearing down of cultural walls. We just don’t have the tools for intimate knowingness of these places unless we take the effort or visit there.

“It’s always violent there.”
“There is always unrest there.”
“There is nothing I could personally do about those places, so why waste time worrying about it?”

An easy wave of the hand to push these places out of mind. These are people of different religions and ethnicities that we cannot easily fathom relating to. Outside of our bubble of known experience.

But they are human. Just like us.
They were shaped by their society and environment. Just like us.
They were born to mothers and fathers who wanted the best for their children. Just like us.
They were kids once, too, with hopes and dreams and the want to play. Just like us.

How can we build empathy for foreign places when their daily way of life and culture is so different?
Perhaps just by recognizing the cultural barriers in place, so that we can then try to take them down. It occurs to me that only by noticing the mental and imaginative walls we build can we acknowledge them and start to dismantle them. By mentally ignoring them away we only reinforce them.

**

The French language has two different words for having knowledge, or to know something: ‘Je connais’ is used when we are familiar with a person and place and have created a relationship with them.

“I know my Mother.”

‘Je sais’ is used in expressing factual knowledge or something you have learned, as the things you learn in school.

“I know how to tie my shoe.”

I feel that it is time for us to create the English equivalent for ‘Je connais’ when referring to knowledge of the world around us. For us to be able to say we don’t just know about the world, we have a knowingness of it. We are familiar with it. We have a relational interaction of the world.

A relatable, empathetic knowingness. How do we achieve this? I’m not sure. I just hope and pray and act in love as much as possible. Maybe it will make a dent.

Je suis Paris? I am not just trying to relate to one city, one culture. I want to strive to relate to all possibilities. All people.

Je suis Tu. I am you.

Defined vs. Undefined

I always try to take everything in with a grain of salt. I don’t like defining anything or jumping to conclusions, especially moral conclusions, and in that way I feel that I am somewhat of a rare bird among the populace. What I’ve inferred in my life is that we, as humans, feel most comforted and in control of our lives when our world is defined – when we have a grasp on the controls, how they work, and the process that we need to follow.

In this way, becoming an adult is extremely difficult. We are no longer children being told what is expected of us, or the right path to walk. Being an adult is learning to interface and make choices and decisions every day that impacts this “defined human experience” that we have been laying, brick by brick, over the centuries. Building upon what we know from our past, putting each step in front of the other, layering in our understanding from that of our forefathers and foremothers.

Making these decisions everyday is tiring and draining. No wonder we cling to belief systems or social constructs to provide us with a welcome relief of not having to question every little step we make!

I am one of many that indeed loves a defined process (especially at work!) and loves knowing that I need to do X to achieve Y. Or that in doing Y, you will also achieve Z, and so on. Like a workbook.

But life does not give you the equations; we do not receive any workbook, apart of the ones we give our selves. We only figure things out as we go, in our experiences and by building off the experiences of those who came before us.

But what if we are building off of experiences and stories of our past that are not true? That are fruitless? Clinging to constructs that are not sustainable or beneficial to our well-being?

What if we are processing our lives, day in and day out, in automaton-mode, making decisions and placing our steps in front of us because that is what we have been told to do – like when we were children – because that is what our mothers and fathers did?

In this way, I see that much of humanity finds solace and happiness and peace in defining their world. In creating a box of rules of which they operate out of conveniently and pleasantly, and then finding family and friends whose personalities and ideals also fit the box. They continue on with their lives in enjoyment and happiness because things are “figured out” and “in place.” They feel safe and happy because their values and morals are justified and supported, and therein their choices in life are also justified and supported.

But I do not think life is that cut and dry. Black and white. Light and dark.

I think it hurts us to build the boxes in the first place.

I feel like I am a minority in a majority that does not like to define things these days. That enjoys the grey between the lines and the possibilities that lie there. That is always skeptical, but passionately curious nonetheless. I figured this out for myself a few years back, and in this idea of “undefined” I found my own convenient and “pleasant” truth:  That in defining things, and assigning them this or that, we put up walls. We start building the box around us and inviting only this person or that person into our box by default, until there is no way out. We box ourselves in; and in doing so, if someone were to question our box and why we were in there, we would shiver with indignation. “How dare you insult my box! My box keeps me safe. It helps me to define the world. Of course I need it!”

I want to strive everyday not to put worldview or religious boxes over my head. I do not want to have  everything defined and neat and orderly.

If we keep putting boxes over our heads, when we run into other boxes we will not know how to relate to anything outside of our own box. We won’t know how to live a limitless life because living within the defined boundaries is all we’ve ever known.

If we stay in our boxes, we will perceive everything outside our boxes as a threat to our safety and destruction of our self-concept. Thoughts or people or ideas that differ from our defined constructs will be treated as a threat to our safe and happy life.

Can we live without the boxes? Can we reach beyond the constructs of our understanding to realize that we built the boxes in the first place, and that we can also remove them?

Is “definition” in itself really just an illusion?

 

Fear: Shutter of The Heart

Is Fear the most dangerous thing of all? Does it really serve a good purpose, or is it hiding the true reality? The thing I find myself fearing is fear itself, and what it’s doing to us as a culture, as human beings.

What do we do when we live in fear? We shut down. When we act from fear, we literally process information in ‘life or death’ terms and activate our ‘fight or flight’ response in the body. This mechanism exists to keep us safe and keep us alive. But in doing so, our immune system shuts down. Our brains turn off. Creativity drains away. Infinite possibilities evaporate. Open arms and hearts close up, barring entrance from anything or anyone suspicious. We process only that information which benefits the situation and the final ‘fight or flight’ decision. Only that and nothing else. Why would your brain waste precious energy in a life and death situation trying to be creative and open-minded? Doing so might cost our life!

Yet even with all the life-saving functions, we were not meant to live in fear ALL of our lives – only for small instances where we needed to outrun someone with a club, think fast on the road, survive an encounter with a bear, or save a loved one from scary situation. But the fear response, and what it creates and does to us, cannot possibly benefit us if we are living it every moment of every day. A dark cloud looming overhead. This emotional force was designed to save our lives in short bursts, not to be endured for an extended period.

What a toll this fear is taking on our health and our hearts. Constant fear certainly will not nurture our souls so we may grow and evolve as humans.

It seems to me that fear cannot inherently exist where there is love. Real, infinite love. If you are operating out of love, you have no fear, only confidence of the moment and the person or situation in front of you. Fear accomplishes nothing; Love accomplishes everything.

Without fear, I really do think we can see things as they really are – and not through the lens of darkness that fear creates. What illusions might we be seeing that we are interpreting as real? That are only shadows from a deep fear in our mind?

Who plants the seeds of those shadows? How can we remove them, shine the light to reveal their true nature and source? Will an open heart reveal them, lift them from our shoulders?

Fear puts words into our mouths that are not our own. Fear ignites motivations that stem from false truths. Fear paralyzes us, but tricks us into thinking we are doing great things and protecting the common good. Fear does not encourage us to think outside ourselves and our own interest. Fear shutters our hearts and minds from infinite love.

External Meditation

The other day I had a great opportunity to attend a talk by Dr. Amit Sood, a professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, Chair of Mayo Mind Body Initiative, and a former TED speaker. The talk was to center on ‘training your brain to be happy.’

Initially, I bristled at the subconscious suggestion that I needed to WILL my brain to be happy. I was pretty happy already, right?

The talk was brilliant and won me over from my initial hesitation, mostly because he focused not on changing your life and making it happier and better through goal-setting, affirmations in the mirror, and using your willpower to propel yourself to a happier and better state of being. Not a bit of that was mentioned.

The message was instead focused on being a more compassionate and present person, and that in building relationships, more thankfulness and more love, therein you will find the happiness you yearn for. True contentedness. He had little tips and tricks for doing so throughout the day, like focusing on 5 people in your life that you are grateful for in the morning before getting out of bed; trying to notice something new everyday to keep curiosity alive; and practicing “Kind Attention” in your awareness of other human beings rather than “Judgmental Attention” – which is our base mode, the mode of sizing everyone up and geared towards the survival mindset. In practicing “Kind Attention,” you wish others a silent internal “I wish you well” rather than fall back on your automatic judgment processing.

All of this requires conscious effort, of course, since if left to it’s own devices, our brains are hardwired not for happiness and peace, but for safety and survival. Your brain does not care if you are happy, only that you are alive. We alone can drive our lives and our brains with intention.

At the end of the talk, there was a question from the audience regarding meditation, and whether or not this also serves as an effective tool in creating more happiness and peace in our lives. Dr. Sood acknowledged that he had practiced meditation, and advised patients to do the same, but that finding the time for this was difficult in our modern lives. He even noted that His Holiness the Dalai Lama told him he often could not find time to meditate!

He then noted that his small tricks, or habits, of focused attention throughout the day on love, gratitude and compassion for others WAS meditation – but  an external meditation as opposed to internal. He noted that instead of focusing on emptying the internal self of external worries and extraneous thoughts, he would rather focus his active attention outwards on love, wisdom and relationships. He then noted that in our modern times, we have more perceived internal threats than external, so it is easier for us to focus externally.

Is the internal self within so daunting and scary? I guess for many it is, and that instead we can spend small moments of focused thinking ruminating on compassion, kindness, gratitude, acceptance, forgiveness and love instead of the strange stew of random thoughts that enter our brains when on zombie – or ‘default’ – mode throughout the day.

I had never before heard of the term ‘External Meditation,’ but to me it sounds very similar to how I think and compose some of my writing while walking to and from work every day, and also of reflective journaling and stream-of-consciousness writing. Setting the intention, and letting the thoughts wander and flow in that one topic. Kind of like a waking meditation. Source Point was a blog entry that I originated in my mind while walking to and from work one day, thinking about whether or not all people are one with God. (I know, what a topic to think about before work!)

After letting the term ‘External Meditation’ really sink in, I have fallen in love with it. Set the intention on more love, wisdom and building relationships with others, and we will not stray from our desire to be truly happy and wholehearted humans.