The Examined Life

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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Thursday, February 28, 2008

What is Enlightenment?

At first I thought it might be a little presumptuous of me to attempt to address the question of enlightenment. However, what I realized was that all human beings are in touch with this experience at some level. The presumptuous part is thinking I can actually describe something that defies description. The fact is we are all "enlightened", we just don't experience it or know it most of the time. We are all too busy thinking we are unenlightened to notice when we and others are experiencing enlightenment or acting from an enlightened place. I am hoping maybe I can throw a little "light" on the subject here.

So, what is enlightenment? Here is my two cents on the subject. Enlightenment is discovering that you already have everything you need, that there is nowhere you need to get to because right where you are at any moment is where you need to be. Enlightenment is realizing that this is not only so now but it has always been this way.

Enlightenment happens in one and only one moment, the eternal now. It must be this way because we cannot know the future and the past no longer matters. In this eternal moment of now we know we lack nothing because we feel and are alive. We can remember the past and we can imagine the future but we can live in neither; we can only live in the now.

When we feel the power of now we become fully alive and present, we are enlightened, we are filled with light. All the so-called mistakes and failures of the past melt away and the fear of the future ceases to exist and we are filled with the joy of feeling eternal and without bound.

But alas, enlightenment turns out to be a temporary state because we must renew it every moment. We must remember and trust that we can do this and we simply forget. When we experience enlightenment we know we are more than our bodies and even more than our thoughts. Indeed, when we focus our being on our bodies or thoughts the experience of enlightenment immediately eludes us.

Enlightenment is being "The Watcher". As the watcher we stand watch with our being. We see and experience everything without judgment and without the need to act. From this place, our choices of action are infinite. When we choose to act from this place our actions are without deliberation or analysis and with a sense of absolute determination and commitment. We may later conclude that our action must have been instinctual or based on an intuition because this is how we explain away the power of something as unfamiliar and radical as taking an action from a place of pure choice and free will. Making these kind of choices is an enlightened way of being and acting.

Often enlightenment occurs to us spontaneously out of seemingly ordinary circumstances such as a walk in nature on a spring morning. Many people have reported a shift in consciousness when they first view the Grand Canyon. In these circumstances we immediately identify with the vastness of the universe that spreads out before us and at once experience a profound sense of being minuscule and insignificant at the same time. No wonder at this experience defies description, leaving us standing mute and in awe. We desperately want to hold onto these enlightened moments but it is that very feeling of desperation that pulls us away because the desire to hold on takes us out of the moment. To experience the now we must look with the eyes of a child, without thought, not understanding where the experience stops and we begin. Indeed, in this state, we are one with all that is; we are enlightened.

When we operate from the past or with consideration for the future we put ourselves in a state of stress. This is not a bad thing per se but a fact that needs to be considered in relation to our happiness. There is no question that science, which operates typically with rigor, has given us much. But existentially we are responsible for making the choices that create our lives individually and collectively. We like to pretend this is not so and blame or circumstances and others for limiting our choices. When we make choices based on the past we get the results that we got in the past. There is nothing wrong with that but we cannot legitimately expect something new when we allow the past two create our future. When we make choices thinking we can consistently predict the future it becomes quickly obvious that this is not only false but stressful. Neither of these approaches to life are enlightening or uplifting.

Nevertheless, the fact is, we do have to live in this world and science tells us that the past is a pretty good predictor of the future. But this is only so because we collectively believe that it is so. The trick is in the choosing. We can choose to live from an enlightened place, a place in the moment without fear and without expectations being ever excited about what life will show us next. This is a delightful non-stressful way of being, going with the flow, rolling with the punches. The question is, will we remain awake to the fact that we always have this choice and began to live our lives from this powerful place rather than allowing circumstances or the will of others to control our lives?

So, enlightenment is not about knowing anything. It is about experiencing who we already are and always have been. Indeed what we "know" actually interferes with our ability to be in an enlightened state. We were born into an enlightened state and we slowly begin to talk each other out of it. Eventually we all agree that only certain "enlightened beings" have access to this rare way of being which is virtually unattainable for ordinary people. Nothing could be further from the truth. To add insult to injury, we, as a society, then proceed to spend billions of dollars on books, videos, guru's and I'll include churches to get something we already have.

We all know what it is to feel enlightened. We know how it feels to act from that place. What we have forgotten is how to be in the moment. We always have the choice to act from an enlightened place. We have forgotten and denied that we have this choice. We owe it to ourselves to remember. We have a moral obligation to remind each other that we are all enlightened beings. We have the ability to re-create our world for ourselves, for our children and for all sentient beings if we would but remember and choose to do so.

Friday, February 01, 2008


I recently looked back at my life and I saw how I had agonized over so many decisions, trying to make the "right" decision. The lesson for me was to learn about "impermanence". This is a term Genpo Roshi uses to describe the way reality is. I was treating all of my decisions like they were carved in stone. Granted some decisions have long-term consequences but I was treating all of my decisions as though they were "permanent" and I had huge concerns that they would be the "right" decisions forever. I finally got that this is a recipe for unhappiness and ultimately a life of misery. So why did I do this? Well there were a number of dumb reasons; the biggest was that I just wanted to be "right”. Another reason had to do with "looking good" to others.

So what if I take a contract that doesn't work out? All I need to do is just do my best and move on, learning what there is to learn. Forget about what others think. This is not a failure. To my huge surprise, when I take responsibility regardless of the outcome and have done my best people love and respect me for it.

So what if I start a relationship that only lasts a few months or weeks or even days? Again, here too, all I have to do is be honest about who I am and take responsibility for what I do. I get now that there is so much value in every experience. When I offer to be in relationship with you, I am just offering to do my best in every moment I spend with you. I don't know what the outcome will be. I know there is something valuable in the experience of relating to you if we are willing to put having that experience beyond looking for the "right" result and accept life, as it truly is, "impermanent".