enlightenment

When we think about becoming enlightened we generally think about spirituality, meditation, and radical freedom from problems, worries, and death. This is exactly the meaning  of enlightenment in Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shamanism, and mysticism, whether it is Eastern or Christian, Jewish, or Islamic. However, you may have noticed a problem with this way of thinking about enlightenment: it’s a moving target. The harder you work to become enlightened the more it evades you. It’s rather like that famous paradox proposed by the ancient Greek Zeno: If you run toward a goal, because every distance can be divided, you are always half way there.

There is another, far more basic problem with the concept of enlightenment: it separates the spiritual from the mundane, the sacred from the secular, and the holy from the ho-hum of everyday life. It also implies some final state of perfection, while life shows us only processes in fluid motion, with no static, ultimate, final, and unchanging state of any kind.

One of the purposes of Integral Deep Listening is to help you to attain enlightenment, and it begins by re-framing this exalted and challenging goal in a way that makes it realistic and attainable. What is enlightenment but a process of waking up? Instead of falling asleep and sleepwalking through your life in your addiction to your habits, enlightenment is the process of successively realizing, “I have a body, but I am not my body; I have feelings but I am not my feelings; I have relationships, but I am not those relationships; I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts; I have a sense of self, but I am not that self.” What is enlightenment but the grand arc of evolution expressing itself through the progressive stages of human development? Are not both forms of awakening? And who or what is awakening? Is it an evolving creature or a developing child or life itself, using embodiment in those forms to become conscious, to wake up to itself?

Depression is a good example of the opposite of enlightenment. Associated with inner darkness and gloom, we feel depressed when we feel helpless, hopeless, powerless, and overcome with grief we can’t seem to shake. When we are depressed enlightenment seems as far away as daylight does to a prisoner chained in the bowels of Plato’s cave. What to do? Thinking happy thoughts merely makes you a contented prisoner; it doesn’t free you from your chains or move you into the sunlight. Busying yourself being helpful and useful makes your imprisonment meaningful; it certainly is a more “enlightened” approach than simply sitting there, stewing in your own juices. Still, the question remains, “What, if anything, can I do to free myself from my chains? What, if anything, can I do to move toward the light?”

Think of depression as you so fused with victimization and powerlessness that it defines you. Instead of thinking and knowing, “I have feelings, but I am not my feelings,” your feelings are defining who you are and limiting who you can become. When you are depressed, you are stuck or fixated at the evolutionary level of identification with your feelings. Life cannot wake up to itself through you because you have not learned objectivity. You have not learned that “I have feelings, but I am not my feelings.”

A good way to learn this lesson is to look at some component of depression that shows up all the time in your daily life. For Carla, it was irritation. She allowed her dog, traffic, co-workers, bosses, men, goals, her looks – just about everything – to irritate her. The result was that she was controlled by her feelings of irritation. The more irritated she felt, the more powerless she felt. The more powerless she felt, the more depressed she felt. What to do?

integral Deep Listening teaches that you cannot change what you are not aware of. You will definitely change whether you are aware of something or not; however, you will not be a participating co-creator, nor will you have any reason to expect you are magically going to change in healthy, productive ways if you just “get out of your own way.” This common New Thought phrase implies relinquishing your responsibility in waking up. No one but you gets to choose what you are aware of, or whether you are aware or not. If you go into the deep slumber of your routines, habits, and addictions you will not be magically transformed from an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan. Consequently, your first responsibility if you want to become enlightened is to become aware. Integral Deep Listening calls this “waking up;” I’ve written a book by that title that takes you step-by-step through that process.

To overcome her depression, Carla needed small, bite-sized, ways to wake up out of her daily feelings of irritation.  This was done by giving her the homework assignment of asking herself throughout the day, “On a scale of one to ten, how irritated am I choosing to feel right now?” The purpose of this game was to make Carla aware of her mood so that she could objectify it. Instead of being her feeling of irritation, she could be an observer of those feelings. The result would be repeated experiences of recognizing that she was not her feelings of irritation. This is a functional, useful definition for Carla of both spirituality and enlightenment. It is both more functional, in that it gets results, and useful, in that it restores her to a position of choice and power within her life, than doing something more commonly considered to be spiritual and leading to enlightenment, such as meditating.

It did not matter what number Carla scored herself in her degree of irritation; the game was simply a means of leveraging her out of her chains deep underground in Plato’s cave. What matters was for Carla to wake up more often and more quickly, so that instead of staying irritated about a work situation for months, it would only be for days; instead of staying irritated about a boyfriend for days, it would only be for hours; instead of staying irritated at her dog for minutes, it would only be for seconds; instead of staying irritated at herself for getting irritated (!) for seconds, Carla could wake up when she started to move toward the feeling of irritation. She would feel it starting to arise and wake up. Now she was at a choice point. She could now think, “Do I want to go there?” How long do I want and need to feel irritated about this before I decide that feeling irritated is a waste of my precious time?”

Waking up in such a way brought Carla to a choice point. She found that the feeling of irritation was not her enemy or a barrier to enlightenment. Instead, it  functioned as a wake-up call, as an indicator that there was something out of balance that needed her attention. She now could make a choice: “Do I say something to this irritating co-worker now or at break, when there’s no one around?” “How can I learn to discipline my dog without getting irritated by it? Do I need to take her to a puppy training class?”

Notice that this is exactly the same process that occurs in meditation. You progressively learn through experience that you are not your body, your feelings, your thoughts, or your sense of self. How do you learn to do this? Meditation is a process of constantly waking up out of identification with sensations, mental images, feelings, and thoughts by first becoming aware of them. The point is, you don’t have to sit down in a quiet place and repeat a mantra to do this. You are doing this practice all the time, in that every second is a choice point in which you either stay asleep in a zombie sleepwalking mode or choose to become aware that that is what you are doing. It is much more important that you practice waking up when you are irritated or feel stuck than it is that you sit down and do whatever you call meditation. Why? Because life itself does not make that differentiation. It does not distinguish between times of meditation and times of not meditating; it does not distinguish between spiritual and secular, purity and impurity, sacred and profane. If your goal is to be awake all the time, then you want to infuse the light of life into the dark corners of your everyday life, not try to escape from life by entering the cave of your mind.

As Carla practices this simple process, she slowly wakes up, step by step, day by day, out of her depression, because she finds herself irritated less frequently and with lessening intensity. As a result, she not only makes better decisions, but finds that when she does sit down to meditate she ahas much greater success. How do I know? Because this is how I learned to leverage myself out of a worse addiction to irritation and sleepwalking than Carla or you have. If it can work for Carla and me, it can work for you. If you decide to experiment with this approach to becoming enlightened, please share your experiences. What works for you? Where do you get stuck? Your experiences will help the rest of us. More than ever, the world needs you to wake up.