Ep. 198: WTF Is Enlightenment?

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I don’t know about you, but when I first heard the concept of Enlightenment during my Buddhist studies, it pictured that it would be this epic moment that would happen after years (or lifetimes) of practice. I imagined it being like in the Matrix, where I’d finally see the “code” to it all, and never unsee it. I’d fuse with the Universe in One Big Realization. 


But the longer I’ve been practicing, I’ve realized that it’s likely not like that…at least most of the time. There are likely myriad types of enlightenmentS (plural) that we can experience (more on that below). 


And then I think about, “Why even bother?” I used to think it was to enter into a permanent bliss state. But now think that the reason we are on this path, and even have a desire to seek enlightenment at all, is so we can remember who we really are – our Buddha nature, which we all have. 


As we remember our Buddha nature, we become aware of the paradox that’s present – remembering the mystery and magic of our incarnation as a human with Buddha nature … and also remembering there is a mundane aspect to the human experience as well. We pay bills. Reply to emails. Eat and poop. 


And paradoxes like this are everywhere on our path, right? Self and selflessness. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Love, care, and be kind… and also don’t get too attached and be able to let things go. 


Embracing these paradoxes is actually a very deep wisdom in its own right, which is why paradox is present in most mystical experiences (e.g. during deep meditation, altered states experiences with entheogens or breath work, spontaneous insights in a forest…). After all, something as complex as the Universe can’t be boiled down to just black and white, right and wrong, this way OR that way. 


Another of these paradoxes is that spiritual awakening – aka enlightenment – happens both suddenly and gradually. So yes – it is like the Matrix. AND it’s not so much like the Matrix. 


Buddhadhassana used the phrase “everyday nirvana.” In every moment we are able to be present without grasping, resisting, trying to change what’s happening in that moment. That itself is its own moment of nirvana. So it can look like that. 


It can come in simple moments, like walking in a forest or sitting on a beach, or when we sit in meditation, and there’s a sense of not struggling or trying to make things different. There’s just a beautiful sense of insight and spaciousness. 


Maybe we see a tiny flower while resting in the shade at Joshua Tree or as we lie on the tundra in Alaska, and it starts to feel like we’re a part of it all. A deep embodied knowing of that truth. 


And sometimes the insight is with suffering or pain. This is why it’s so important to sit even when we get activated. We feel not just the pain of our life but of the people around us and the world, and it can be overwhelming… but it can also become window into heart opening. 


Tears of the Way, as Jack Kornfield has said. 


Our tears can happen because we see pleasure AND pain. Gain AND loss. Joy AND sorrow. And we can accept the reality that both must exist in order for us to exist. We see it all as not just our pain, but THE pain. The pain of the interconnected world, of which we are inseparable from. 


I used to also think that once somone had an experience of enlightenment, such as these moments of everyday nirvana, that it would last forever. But the reality is that these everyday nirvana moments usually don’t stay. They’re provide glimpses that give us a connection to something eternal and timeless…but like everything, have an impermanent quality to them as well. 


The paradox is that while it’s often fleeting, we can also develop factors of enlightenment. Calm, concentration, steadiness, joy, mindfulness….As we cultivate these, they hold steady and are the foundations of enlightenment that allow it to take root. 


As we move through the world with caring attention, and sit and walk and become mindful, all these qualities grow, and little by little, our capacity to not get hooked by our emotions hand to let go gets deeper. 


We have an identity shift from our ego-centric adolescent self to the soul-centered self that’s rooted in spacious consciousness and mindful awareness that’s clear or calmer. 


We respect and accept the mundane and the suffering that comes with our humanity, but we don’t over identify with it in that way. 


Since there seems to be different types of enlightenments that come from different moments and experiences, there isn’t one perfect description of it. This is helpful because it invites us to have a broader acceptance of the ways that we all uniquely open along our own paths.  

I believe this is why the Buddha sought his own path and why he encouraged us to do the same. 


To be Rebel Buddhas. 


One of the most beautiful descriptions of this timeless awakening is the four divine abodes (brahmaviharas): loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. These are all qualities of the awakened heart that are available to us when we have this kind of insight and can embrace the paradox of what IS. 


We feel each of these grow as we practice and have insight. Our heart grown more tender, stronger, and more expansive. 


We begin to see the mystery of incarnation differently, and have the capacity to hold paradox. 


We are in awe of…simply being in our Buddha nature. 


What makes a juniper tree? 


What is love? 


How is it I feel that tree is caring for me? 


It’s all a part of the dance of the awakened heart, that brings us to the paradox of our interbeing and our own personal uniqueness. 


We are nothing because we are everything. 


Here we are, incarnated in this time, in this way, in this body, given these gifts which we need to bring to our people.  


It’s both personal and universal – and we can’t deny either our Buddha nature or our own unique journey. 


To sit in the midst of it is such a privilege; an honor.  


And yes, it can be hard AF. And that’s okay.  


What better thing is there to do, anyway? 


You will learn: 

// The role of accepting and living in paradox in enlightenment 

// How there is more than one type of enlightenment 

// How we can achieve enlightenment in everyday moments  

// The importance of building up a foundation for our insights to be sustained through practice 

// How enlightenment can change our view of ourselves and the more-than-human world 

// Why enlightenment has many types… and why that’s good news for each of us 



// Episode 82: How to Live in Polarity 


// Episode 82: Vulnerability & Lovingkindness 


// Episode 107: Equanimity in Everyday Life 


// Check out Freedom School – the community for ALL things related to freedom, inside and out. Plus, we have entire months devoted to wisdom and compassion. Learn more at JoinFreedomSchool.com. I can’t wait to see you there! 


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