By Robert K C Forman
Enlightenment does not always live up to the textbook definition of the term, says Robert K C Forman
On January 4, 1972, at four in the afternoon, on a nine-month-long meditation retreat, I went through a spiritual shift. Who or what I was shifted: I became as if separate from whatever I did, said or even thought. It was a shift I couldn’t miss. My sense of who I was became what they call “universal consciousness.” It turned out to be permanent.
Just to give you a sense of what happened, suddenly nearly all of the background noise in my mind just stopped. Behind every moment of thinking, seeing or hearing, there had always been other, fainter thoughts, odd snatches of music, hints of feelings, errands I shouldn’t forget, half-formed sentences. But the endlessly burbling background chatter suddenly disappeared.
Oh, I still thought. That was the confusing part. Maharishi, our guru, had told us about gaining a perfect focus, a mind without any thoughts at all. So this shift could not be the “silent mind of enlightenment” for which I, like everyone on the retreat with me, had been waiting. And what I thought about hadn’t changed. What stopped was the inarticulate mutterings, the endless half thoughts beneath my thinking. It was as if behind the movie of my mind had been scrims behind scrims of thoughts, dimmer movies I could barely make out. But that afternoon it was as if the light shifted so that the front scrim became opaque and suddenly I was watching just one movie. For the first time in my life, I was thinking only one thought at a time.
The second effect is harder to describe. If you had asked me before that afternoon who or what I, Robert Forman, was, I probably would have pointed to somewhere on my mid chest and said, “I’m here, me, Robert!” I’d be trying to get at some vaguely localised sense of a self that I suspect we all have. I, me, Robert,
|What makes a life spiritual is its range, not just its inner shifts. The more alive you are in the more ways, the more flexibly you live. And vice versa. The truly spiritual can flow any-emotional-where, without any hesitation whatsoever|
was in there – somewhere. But once that last strand fell into silent openness, my sense of who or what I was instantly changed with it. I was now in some strange new bottomlessness. Or rather it, the vast openness, was now me. Strangely enough, there was nothing Robert-ish in this new sense of myself, for the bottomlessness has nothing to do with this particular guy, Robert. Everything I did, thought about, ate, laughed at, even my anxieties, were now encountered by or from within this strangely endless translucence. “I” was now this “It,” this weirdly characterless yet infinite openness.
What on earth was this weird new way to be me? It would take me some 10 years of regular meditation, graduate work in religion and study of the Hindu and Buddhist scriptures before I came to my understanding of what had happened to me; what began that afternoon was at least a good chunk of the very enlightenment that the ancient texts had been describing and that I’d been pursuing.
The reason I struggled to understand it, and why I’m telling you this, is that what had happened to me wasn’t at all like what enlightenment was cracked up to be. It didn’t make me happy. It didn’t end the worries and fears that had led me into the spiritual path to begin with. An infinite silence at my core, yes, but I wasn’t better off in any obvious way than I might have been.
Sometimes enlightenment just isn’t what we expect, and it’s certainly not what I was after. I’d dare say it isn’t what any of us on the spiritual path who live post modern, post-Freudian, post true-believer, sexually active, mortgaged lives actually are after either.
Harvard scholar Jeffrey Martin has been studying subjects who report enlightenment. Very little of how they are in the world, he says, is unusual. They often maintain their addictions, their mental disorders, their racial and gender biases, and so on. He finds virtually no differences in their personalities.
Enlightenment, moksha, nirvana, Christ Consciousness, means something very specific. It points to an experience in which part of us thinks and feels and acts. But a second half remains
|Lord, let me dance to that old rock and roll music and sit comfortably on the meditation cushion and weep with melancholy when I lose a loved one and think creatively with my buddies and love the gentle curve of a woman’s back, each at the right moment. And all on the settled groundwork of the Vast Infinite|
untouched and at peace. Whatever we do or think, the active and noisy part of us is “silently witnessed” by that second half. That second part of us remains aware of, or “witnesses” the active part of our lives.
Don’t mistake this for an emotional disconnect, by the way. It’s more a deep sense of remaining peaceful and unchanging while changes take place around us. There’s a lightness that comes with this shift, a sense of freedom in what we’re about that it seems to foster. It is as interesting as it is valuable.
But by itself, it isn’t enough. That’s what I discovered and what Martin saw. It doesn’t make us good at our jobs, it doesn’t even make it clear which job we should do. It doesn’t help us be a good wife or husband. It’s a sense of spaciousness, of freedom, yes, but it’s not a personality transplant.
What then is what we complex modern folks really are after?
What healthy spirituality should facilitate isn’t just a shift in structure, but a complete life. It is full-bodied freedom, lived in every corner of our everyday lives. Freedom does not mean having only a free inner Self. It means whole, complete and full-bodied life. It means being able to love and think and have wonderful sex, each in their moment.
Non-resistant to conflicting emotions
What we’re after is to be utterly non-resistant to joy and pain and love and loss and boredom and knowing and not-knowing: wide open to the whole cornucopia that is a whole life.
What makes a life spiritual is its range, not just its inner shifts. The more alive you are in the more ways, the more flexibly you live. And vice versa. The truly spiritual can flow any-emotional-where, without any hesitation whatsoever.
Real spiritual freedom can go deep and serious and funny and raucous and thoughtful and can plan with a spreadsheet, happily, each when the time is right. The free can play alone, play with another and play in a work group without holding back.
|Dr. Forman is a meditator of 40 years, |
and a tenured professor of comparative
religions, specialising in religious
experiences around the world. He
is also trained in psychotherapy
and is an interfaith minister.
Real spiritual freedom lives wide open in the juicy paradox that is being a multi-dimensional human being. Lord, let me dance to that old rock and roll music and sit comfortably on the meditation cushion and weep with melancholy when I lose a loved one and think creatively with my buddies and love the gentle curve of a woman’s back, each at the right moment. And all on the settled groundwork of the Vast Infinite.
Such full-bodied freedom includes the tears that well up with unabashed love, the easy smile that comes from a fully resolved conflict, the silence that can only be known by being it, and laughter, real belly laughter at the rabbi, the priest and the minister who walk into a bar. And in the midst of it all, grounded in the sacred, it is as non-resistant as the wind.
What I am envisioning is “enlightenment plus” if you will.
It means we’re effortlessly appropriate under any circumstance—on the settled ground of spiritual awareness.
Now that’s a spiritual goal worth pursuing!
This article is an excerpt from Enlightenment Ain’t What it Is Cracked Up To Be: A Journey of Discovery, Snow and Jazz in the Soul
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