I am always surprised these days when I hear a companion use the word “enlightened”. I shouldn’t be, because “enlightened” hasn’t been struck from the lexicon for being insensitive, uncool or old-fashioned. It’s not that the word has lost its punch, it’s that my understanding of the word has moved on.
In my early days of spiritual curiosity, I understood enlightenment in the way most Age of Aquarius seekers did, as a sudden, indelible, pop-goes–the-weasel transformation into all-knowing sagedom. My hope was that I would enjoy such a transformation eventually if I just kept meditating, reading how-to manuals by famous adepts, and projecting universal grooviness to get myself in shape. After the blessed moment of transcendental relief, I would walk in unshakable clarity all the rest of my days. Uncertainty, discomfort, and foot odor would be banished to memory.
What a nice idea…
In my early twenties, after a period of hit-and-miss searching, I was initiated into a meditation that I would practice devotedly for about a decade. This meditation was powerful and real. I was completely enthralled by it and by the guru who taught it. I loved the people I met in that community, and do to this day. At a certain point though, it seemed to me that in the conventions of that practice, the only valid goal of meditation was bliss. If you weren’t experiencing bliss, you were somehow screwing up. It’s significant that this lightbulb popped on right around the time I turned thirty. As I collected more scrapes and bruises from life experience, it was dawning on me that bliss was not life’s only valuable or educational condition, and that a constant state of bliss was maybe, just maybe, not in the cards. (!)
These realizations led to changes in my practice and my life. I began to invite the energy of emotion more into my meditation. I began to meditate to be in the world, not to escape it. I avoided anything that smacked of the spiritual marketplace, having had a snootful of that realm. These changes took place a long time ago, longer ago now than my lifespan was at the time I made them! In the years since, I have not had one pivotal insta-piphany, I’ve had many of them. Meditation works. Perseverance furthers. I don’t fixate on “enlightened” anymore. I’m okay with “enlightening”.
Reflecting on my years of listening rapt to a man I regarded as supremely awakened, I mused that what the world needs is not more spiritual rockstars to idolize, or followers to support them, but more “enlightened regular people”. I saw more mindfully inhabiting an everyday existence as a noble goal, and I set about joining the ranks. I know others who made the same choice, for the same reasons. Omniscience and an aura of golden light are not required. We just need the driver of the tow truck, the nurse in the E.R., the teacher in the classroom, the cop on the beat, and yes, the guy painting your house, to cultivate presence, empathy and awareness of a larger world.
That world is still in flames. Suffering is immense, and we are more aware of it than ever. At the same time, I honestly believe that more people are seeking and finding deeper truth and authenticity than ever before, in their own lives, in their own ways. I am banking that this will help turn humanity in better directions. I honestly can’t think of anything that would help more.
The danger of foot odor persists, however.