There is an interesting bit of phraseology that I hear in many spiritual circles. Someone will describe an incredible experience that they once had; a beautiful synchronicity, a powerful opening, a deep realization, a moment of profound peace. Whatever it was, they will describe it with a kind of sadness and longing, exclaiming that they have taken up spiritual practice in order to return to that moment, to that experience. “I have to get back there” they say. “That was IT! That moment, that experience, THAT was enlightenment, and that’s what I need to aim for!”
While my heart goes out to them, and I understand the tendency of the mind to want to hold onto an experience; striving to return to a past moment or experience is the exact opposite of enlightenment. Enlightenment itself does not live in any one particular experience or state of mind. It does not live in yesterday or tomorrow. It is not something that one ‘achieves’. There is nothing to get, and nothing to lose. Therefore, the whole ‘I got it, then I lost it’ argument is an absolute impossibility. You ARE it, always and without exception. It’s the mind that says otherwise – but even that’s a bit of a misnomer.
What we are really talking about here is whether or not we are comfortable enough with our own understanding to relax into the ever-changing flow of life? Can we release ourselves into the slipstream of the unknown, without grasping or clinging, without desire or aversion? Can we recognize that it is in the coming and going of our ordinary, every-day experience, that enlightenment is found? Yes, beautiful, incredible, miraculous experiences can and do arise; but they are here to serve as triggers and reminders, not to be held up as the quintessential expression of spiritual perfection.
Teachers, gurus, and the like, love to play ‘the enlightenment game’ with spiritual seekers. Not out of contempt or malice, but out of our own genuine understanding that the seeker will not listen. Or rather, cannot hear what we are pointing at because the mind is so heavily clouded by its concepts and ideas. So, we use notions like ‘enlightenment’, as a fisherman would use bait on a hook. It serves as an invitation to explore your own inner world until everything that we tell you to do fails you. In fact, I like to tell people that “I am here to fail you into yourself”. That’s my whole job as a spiritual teacher.
One of my teachings is very much centered on ‘honoring your own journey’. This is of crucial importance as we read through ancient texts, listen to modern day teachers, and compare our own experiences to theirs. I often say that ‘if you follow the journey of another, you will indeed find yourself lost.” I emphasize this point because the very idea that ‘the quintessential enlightenment experience’ even exists is a source of profound suffering for those who continue to seek it; hoping, praying, and meditating their way toward it – never quite getting there because there’s no ‘there’ to get to.
So the seeker strives until they have a particular experience, and then they strive to hold onto it or return to it; often getting flummoxed by the fact that they’ve lost it. But how can you lose what you always already are? How can anyone, other than you, steal your enlightenment? And even if you suddenly find that it somehow went missing, can you take a breath and remind yourself that this too is it? Perhaps, in taking a moment to relax into what’s present, you may just find it again, right in the same place that it’s always been. Do this enough times and maybe you’ll come to accept that it’s always HERE!