The human mind creates its own reality. Everyone deeply and intimately knows this fact; we live with it thousands of times daily. Our minds are continuously giving birth to new thoughts that can last little as a split second or as long as many minutes. Some of us experience selective mind states for hours, but usually these mental states are continuously interrupted by brief excursions to various other realities that we create.
Even as one reads these words, one’s mind may be focused, but it is likely flitting from here to there, partially engaged in assimilating these words, but also scanning ambient sounds and visual experiences, physical feelings of the body, tactile experiences, a wide range of emotions, movements of the digestive and pulmonary systems, and noticing that just reading these words automatically sets the mind in motion through suggestion and association.
No matter how much we attempt to control our minds, our thoughts seem to have their own “agendas,” so to speak. This apparent independence of the mind becomes exceedingly clear when one learns to meditate and discovers, when trying to concentrate at home or on a retreat, our minds simply will not cooperate with our instructions (or even pleas) to be quiet and steadily focused on a single object, such as one’s own breath.
It seems ironic at first, and then devastating, to realize that our very own minds will not be harnessed by our steadfast, reasonable, logical, rational arguments to “stop making noise and pay attention!” It is ironic that while we want our children to be obedient, we usually cannot get our own minds to obey our simplest directives for any significant length of time.
However, with patience and constant repetition, we can in fact make progress with our own minds, usually slowly, and we can indeed discover a gentle calming of the mind. As this happens, something quite fascinating begins to arise. We gain a new ability to notice the inner dimensions of this mind of mine, how it moves, what excites it, what distracts it, what seduces it, and we literally see with an inner vision the workings of the mind on an entirely new level.
Some people refer to this apparent new level of consciousness as “mindfulness.” In fact, it is not really new, it is in fact a crucial intrinsic faculty of our consciousness; we simply fail to recognize the subtlety of mindfulness whenever we are distracted, which is most of the time.
When our lives are busy and our minds are multi-tasking, engaged in dozens of different activities throughout each day, we experience a wide spectrum of moods and emotions, from uncomfortable experiences such as anxiety, frustration, anger, sadness, and so forth, to delightful feelings like joy, satisfaction, happiness, pleasure, etc.
Most of the time we live in a somewhat neutral zone, simply going about our lives without wide swings of feelings, but always on the edge of a hair trigger that can snap us instantly into a powerful pleasant or unpleasant response. This reaction can result from a simple little event or engagement—especially if it pushes a primal “button,” which seems to be hard wired into a reservoir of which we closely identify with strong feelings. Often we snap so quickly, we don’t even have the time to consider with our rational minds what just happened and this can often lead to behavior that upon reflection we deeply regret.
In other circumstances, when we are relaxed, laid back, moving more slowly, a similar event could occur and we would not necessarily strike in a knee-jerk reflex, but might have the time and inclination to ponder whatever just happened and what could be an appropriate response. This is when mindfulness, which is a natural part of our wisdom mind, can ruminate, so to speak, on the situation. We are not talking here about a lengthy delay, or excessive analysis—unless that is what is called for—but rather that the mind normally operates at lightning speed.
When overwhelmed with too much data and distracting tasks, the potential mindfulness is smothered under diverse activities of the mind and this can lead to unwholesome activities or reactions. But in a calmer, more relaxed state, it has the time it needs, only a few seconds, to consider either a skillful response, or simply dropping the matter altogether and cutting it loose. This is known simply as Letting Go.
In the 60’s there was a cultural “revolution” in many parts of the world that was marked by a significant uptake in mind altering mostly illegal drugs. This played out in the music of the times, a shift in sexual attitudes, and an interesting experiment introduced by President Jack Kennedy called the Peace Corps in which young people were encouraged to experience a wide varieties of cultures all over the world.
One of the dramatic effects of the Peace Corps program was the integration of East and West on many levels, one of the most significant of which was the access and interbreeding of spiritual teachings. This process of long distance access to other cultural teachings actually goes back thousands of years, to Greek and Roman times, when teachers followed armies or caravan routes to learn and to share what they knew. The human spirit of these kinds of communications shows up everywhere in recorded history.
Indeed, even the decade prior to the sixties, there was a strong Zen influence saturating the Beat Generation, for example. Thus when the broader teachings were offered in the sixties and seventies, there was fertile ground already prepared for their growth. And grow they did, in an accelerated way, especially Buddhism so that now a large number of people have read about these other cultures in thousands of texts published in English for the past forty years. Fundamental beginner and advanced previously unavailable teachings,
Buddhist suttas and texts, Hindu stories and chants and Sufi poetry and a wide variety of wisdom school teachings have been offered the general reading public. And, as I have described in other works, teachings in Kabbalah, hidden for over a thousand years, were made more accessible, as well as secret Tibetan teachings of esoteric material from the Mahamudra and Dzogchen schools.
It should not surprising then that many teachings that were not so easily transmitted in earlier times became popular for anyone could read on their subway ride to work, or listen in their automobiles to cassettes, C.D.’s, and now mp3’s.
However, as with all things that become mass marketed with glossy covers and simplified explanations, there is a process of acculturation which seems to be phased. First the material is treated as fringe matter, with strange words and difficult concepts, only for wierdos and dropouts. Next, it becomes faddish for the younger generation to engage in things that their parents may have rejected.
Then that younger generation becomes middle-aged, and the new younger generation couldn’t care less. At this point in the cycle there is so much material available, it is often confused, contradictory, from overly simplistic to exceedingly arcane.
In this burst of spiritual activities, retreat centers, ashrams, meditation teachers, yoga, along with and mixed in with spas, weight reduction gyms, health and natural food addictions, body treatments, and lots more, all have made available new life styles, some of which have much good, useful and healthy, while others are questionable. This cornucopia has helps many people touch upon a wide variety of experiences from mild to mind altering, which has left many confused as to what spiritual experience is all about, what can be expected, what can be sought out, and most important, do any of the practices lead to worthwhile results?
All along, the promised result of dedicated and careful life choices has been the hope for enlightenment—a tricky subject. Nobody really knows what it means. Monks in certain traditions are warned that they will be excommunicated if they discuss or describe their level of self-realization. There are always a handful of people who will bow down to someone who claims to be enlightened, but the majority of experienced spiritual seekers will assume the claimant is simply lying, confused, or trying to start his or her own religion.
The quickest way to fall out of grace in the world of spiritual exploration is to suggest that one is enlightened. (Except for those inevitable few who want and need to have a self-proclaimed avatar, or otherwise enlightened being.)
On the other hand, these very same spiritual seekers, who make up hundreds of thousands of people in our times, have often worked devotedly with practice techniques that result in a wide spectrum of experiences that suggest they are on a path to something unusual, with the hope that their experiences contain the seeds of—should we whisper it—the E word. “Wow! I felt so great. This has got to be IT! Doesn’t it?”
Suzuki Roshi, in his popular book: ZEN MIND, BEGINNER’S MIND, a book that is a “must have” in any serious meditator’s library, makes it clear on one end of the spectrum, that once one assumes the correct posture on the cushion, the very first time one begins to meditate, that very sitting done by the beginner, is enlightenment itself. This is it. Period. He also goes on to emphasize this teaching in the global statement: “There is no Nirvana outside of our practice.” End of story.
On the other end of the spectrum, prepare yourself for ten thousand lifetimes, for that is how long it can take to achieve enlightenment. Some say one can do it in this very life, if one takes monastic vows and renounces everything and everyone in his or her life, which for some is a very appealing choice. Others, like Krishnamurti, said essentially that one simply needed to understand the truth about enlightenment, and then one could, “Just do it!” But when Krishnamurti died, even thought by that time he had many thousands of dedicated students, he lamented that nobody understood his message.
Still, with all the discussion or hope to achieve enlightenment, nobody knows for certain what this means. It is clear in the Buddhist model that one is no longer encumbered by greed, hatred or delusion; that one no longer struggles with desire, revulsion, doubt, restlessness, or sloth and torpor; that one completely understands the implications of impermanence, no-self identity, and the suffering that results from any of these things. The suttas suggest that the Buddha and thousands of his followers were enlightened, but in our times, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find, for certain, an enlightened being—even though there are some “winks” of projection or assumption that certain teachers have achieved that level, even though none of them are allowed to talk about it.
There are two additional words that are synonyms for enlightenment: one is to be “awakened,” and the other is “realized..” Each of these words has a suggestion of the meaning built in. There is a “light” experience in enlightenment, a primordial light of consciousness, the light of creation (“let there be light”), which is not a physical light like that of the sun, but a primordial light of consciousness which esoterically is what the entire universe is built upon. Getting to that light, and having it purify and clarify this being would be a wondrous thing. So, enlightenment would be something like living in the purity of the clear consciousness.
Awakening means to come out of the slumber of our confused lives. Awakening is often associated with light. The metaphor of light and darkness goes well with that of wakefulness and sleep. One of the foremost and most popular modern spiritual teachers is Adyashanti, who lives in California. In his book, THE END OF YOUR WORLD, he stresses the idea of “spiritual awakening” rather than enlightenment.
He points out that awakening can come quickly, but often comes in spurts, and that moreover it often is not sweet, and mellow or blissful. Rather, awakening can arise with emphasis on growth and the necessity of cleaning up one’s act. As he says: “As we become more conscious, we begin to see that there are consequences…to everything, and they get bigger and bigger…” so that we discover in many ways that turn out to be “…not in harmony with what we know is true.” So, in this context, enlightenment is not the end of the line but often the beginning of a transformed life that realizes the continuum of ongoing careful and skillful behavior.
I tend to be drawn more to the idea of realization, a realized being. To realize is to discover something that may have been sitting all along right in front of us. It is not something new, and moreover it is not something flashy, like a bolt of lightning that strikes us. Indeed, it is ordinary, easily missed. The paradigm for this idea comes out of the biblical story of Jacob, who has a dream that is well-known of angels going up and down a ladder (Jacob’s Ladder), and after his visionary dream, he exclaims: “God was here and I didn’t realize it! How awesome is this place!” Thus, this statement becomes the archetypical response to the inquiry: What is realization? And the perfect response is: "THIS IS IT."