Playing with Enlightenment

By Mark Johnson (excerpt from “Life as Play“)

It is difficult to discuss enlightenment in general because enlightenment means something different to everyone and because it is paradoxical. Most people think enlightenment is a peaceful, blissful, formless realm beyond the manifest world and outside of space and time. This is only partially correct because it is a paradox.

It is paradoxical because enlightenment includes duality and is simultaneously beyond it.

A lot of people who study Eastern religions are busily quieting their minds and emotions and are waiting for “enlightening” to strike. This is what the Buddha and Shankara taught and what I meditated on for almost 20 years. I have friends who are professional meditators. They can sit without a single thought appearing in their minds for hours at a time. However, I have rocks in my backyard that can do the same thing. Is this the apex of life on this planet? The Oneness as Emptiness is only part of the story. The manifest realm is also an expression of the great Oneness. Our task now is to figure out how best to manifest that ground of being in the evolving, material world. We must merge the transcendent with the immanent.

The analogy of the Ocean with its waves is the best way I know to describe the paradox of being both at the same time. Waves provide a good analogy for people because each wave has a discernible, separate existence. Each has a unique size, direction, speed, and shape – and they make a lot of noise, just as I do! There is also no real separation between them and the totality of the Ocean.

So, imagine yourself as an average wave rolling along, minding your own business, and some guru wave tells you, “You are the entirety of the ocean, and you can experience yourself as such.” All you have to do is meditate your ass off, become a vegetarian, and take up Tai Ji, or, if you are the trusting, devotional type, you can surrender to Yahweh, Jesus, or Allah.

So now they become a seeker with a mission! A wave in search of wetness! Nothing like a little meaning in life to actually get a person to do something other than consume stuff to compensate for that endless dark pit of need in the middle of one’s chest. The fanatic edge that sometimes comes with a little meaning in one’s life can drive a seeker for several thousand lifetimes; in spite of a few setbacks such as exhaustion, depression, and the sneaky feeling you are wasting a lot of time.

Some people start wave hopping to find the wetness, and others start perfecting their own wave to get wetter than the other waves. What keeps that cycle going is the fact that every time someone gets weary, another spiritual teacher comes along with the perfect technique for experiencing wetness, and off they go again until they finally drop. And then, “POW,” a moment of unity consciousness.

If you stop striving for wetness in order to succeed in experiencing it, it will not work. You have to stop everything, which includes stopping everything. That is why not too many people actually do it. It is scary to surrender everything you think you are and allow the great Oneness to continue running the show.

Some of the best “strivers” I have ever met are the Zen folks. They tirelessly scale that “enlightenment” mountain going straight up the slopes, while most people meander around the well-worn paths, smelling the flowers and eating the strawberries at every turn.

You would expect the Buddhist religion to turn out a lot of enlightened individuals every year, wouldn’t you? I didn’t find that to be the case. So, what is wrong with this picture? The more a wave pursues its own wetness as a goal, the further away the wave gets from being its wetness.

As I mentioned before, the tendency to take up spirituality as a cure for your psychological problems is called “spiritual bypassing.” You try to bypass all your problems with the magic bullet of meditation. It sounds good and looks good and actually works to some degree, but without doing the foundational psychological work along the way, nothing much is going to change, in my opinion.

Too many people and meditation teachers in particular, honestly think every problem can be solved with meditation. If you are out of work and depressed, and your guru tells you to meditate more, it is probably time to get another teacher and to find a job.

On the other hand (there is always another “on the other hand” when dealing with paradox), I often see people busying themselves by digging into their childhood traumas in self-help workshops or with their psychiatrist or therapist. Those “archeological digs” can sometimes lead to greater insight into why we do what we do, but far too often, it is simply another expression of narcissism.

I had a client who washed her hands a hundred times a day and knew exactly why she did it, but she still could not stop. I sometimes think some folks would be a lot better off if they spent their day helping people in a homeless shelter instead of incessantly talking about their problems.

The most common expression of narcissistic behavior I see is the incessant striving for enlightenment. The deep reason you don’t make much progress even after decades of meditation and self-help workshops is that you are doing it for yourself. When people take the focus off themselves for even a short time, they find their personal problems miraculously dissolving. That’s due to their no longer giving little obsessions the energy needed to perpetuate. Try it. Don’t think about yourself for an entire day and see what happens.

Let’s say that while indulging in narcissistic pursuits, a person accidentally experiences a spiritual awakening. After all, even a blind squirrel will find an acorn occasionally. It is like a wave briefly glimpsing itself as the entirety of the Ocean. You think you have arrived! But then, the memory fades, and you are back identifying with your old familiar ego/wave again – warts and all.

What good is a spiritual awakening if the wave that experienced it is distorted after experiencing itself as the Ocean? This is often what happens. This means the person must continue to work hard on psychological evolution in order to sustain the awakening. Your personal evolution will continue smoothly if you allow it to happen naturally and don’t force anything with your obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

This means:
It is more important to be integrated and authentic at whatever stage you find yourself than to hotly pursue enlightenment with a distorted and desperate psyche.

About Mark Johnson:
Mark Johnson is a semi-retired Tai Ji and Chi Gung instructor and healer. He continues to judge Tai Ji tournaments regularly, serves on the Advisory Council to the National Qigong Association, and leads Daoist retreats to China and Tibet yearly. He sells his Tai Chi for Seniors video and other instructional DVDs through his online company. Mark has studied and practiced Eastern Philosophy for over 45 years and has apprenticed with some of the most prominent Vedanta, Zen and Daoist teachers in the world. He has been a member and research subject at the Institute of Noetic Sciences for nearly 15 years. You can learn more at https://daopublishing.com/

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