By John Pendall
Enlightenment is not a logical affair, it’s a visceral, emotional one.
This is the point that many misled (but well-read) Westerners fail to see clearly. Logic and emotion aren’t mutually exclusive, but just like how Moscow and Washington DC occupy different sides of the same planet, logic and emotion occupy different parts of the same mind.
Understanding announces itself as a subtle intuition—there’s a feeling of pieces falling into place. This can last anywhere from a few seconds to several days or even years. Logic and reason do play their parts during this act of the performance. Connections are made, patterns are spotted, and misunderstandings are corrected.
As this phase progresses, you’ll notice some profound intellectual insights and have some astonishing (but superficial) experiences. This is where a lot of us get sidetracked. We go off chasing this or that insight, but in time we see that it didn’t really amount to anything. Then, there’s a sense of something rising up inside you. It’s often noticed during quiet moments or in-between states like when you’re getting ready for work or reaching for a roll of toilet paper. You might feel it bubble up when you’re stuck a stoplight, watching cars pass by with your car reflected in their doors, windows, and rims. You might even find yourself intentionally delaying something you feel to be inevitable because, well, you’re afraid that enlightenment is going to be extremely inconvenient for your work and social lives.
But that pushing it aside actually fuels it even more because disregarding it is part of the process. Sensing a pending awakening but choosing to set it down is what makes that eventual experience (and all such experiences to follow it) genuine because then it comes unasked for and unsought.
No matter what, it does come; as inevitable as a healthy seed forming into a sprout. It rushes out like the breath and, in a flash, you see that it didn’t rise up at all, that it’s always been there. That feeling, that glorious indescribable feeling has been present throughout your entire life.
After that, the intellect takes over again and starts to fill in the blanks, but none of that filling can be taken seriously, nor should our rationalizations be taken as outright nonsense; that’s another extreme. When you feel enlightenment, you see that it includes both itself and everything that isn’t it. These cognitive explosions change over time; they become longer lasting and much more subtle to the point where they become synonymous with day-to-day life. If someone’s entire life is a stream of enlightening experiences we call them “Awake,” which is kind of a silly term really because it makes this whole thing seem far more confrontational than it really is.
We can read into the word awake too much. It’s a descriptive word that describes how enlightening insights make us feel. They make you feel like you just woke up from a long, restful sleep following 40 hours of shit at work. Some people make awakening into a complex philosophy, setting it up as the antithesis to delusion, but that isn’t the case.
Delusions are just as present in Buddhas as they are sentient beings, it’s just that Buddhas recognize them as delusions. That doesn’t mean all of our baggage suddenly vanishes anymore than a cluttered room becomes uncluttered when you switch on a light. In fact, it might look even more cluttered at times now that you’re seeing everything out in the open. But you realize something else too: the room is a lot bigger than it seemed. All of that clutter is just clumped up in one spot, but around it there’s plenty of room.
I’ve perceived my mind differently ever since an enlightening experience a few weeks ago. All of the aspects of myself that seemed contradictory now live in perfect harmony because now they all have enough space to romp and play in; they aren’t piled in on top of each other, held hostage by my limited awareness.
If you have a dim light that only reveals 10 feet of a room and you’ve never ventured into the shadows, then you might think that the room is only 10 feet and then try to fit everything into that radius. That’s what causes all of our problems; that’s what causes all these identity crises Buddhism addresses. But there’s room for everything in here. And now that frustration isn’t bumping elbows with equanimity, it’s no longer quite as, well, frustrating. I let my anger shout and shake its fists because, at the same time but dozens of mental miles away, undisturbed equanimity is sitting in quiet equipoise. There’s Mara, getting drunk and rocking out to Lamb of God on the South Pole, and a Buddha listening to Chopin to the North.
With ample room for expression, my anger is a pale ghost of itself. Even when I say, “Fucker!” after encountering something irritating, it feels more like an act than an actuality. It’s like I’m an actor playing the part of, “Angry Guy,” during those moments. This didn’t happen overnight, mind you. I had to work with suppressing and dealing with my anger internally for a few years before letting it back out into the open.
During that time, my anger didn’t change at all, but my mind did; the surroundings that encompassed my anger changed. Now my anger’s like a lion who feels calm and at ease on the savanna but who was previously psychotic while trapped in a zoo. Even though he’s back in the wild now, I have him chipped so that I can keep tabs on him.
Through my entire life, I’ve struggled to tie myself together, to forge some kind of solid identity out of all these opposites. I’m no different than anyone else, just a more extreme version. We’re all in this together to some extent; all of us trying to balance our various roles, goals, fears, loves and hates. We’re all looking for that ever-elusive center.
Have you ever felt that? That instinctive pull backwards? That quiet call in our minds that says, “Come back home, come back to yourself.”
That’s the beckoning to awaken that every sage of every practice has felt throughout the millennia. It’s part of what being human is all about, that longing to return to someplace we’ve never been before. Just like enlightenment, that call is a feeling. Also like enlightenment, we could dump a whole truckload of rationalizations on top of it. Why do we that anyway? Why do we always have to explain things to ourselves? Why can’t we just experience them? I think it’s because we not only have the natural urge to explore, but also to map out places we’ve explored so that we can get back to them again.
We experience something and then we ask, “Why did this happen?” The truth has just fuckin’ happened, but that isn’t even a remotely satisfying answer. So we play connect the dots and develop an approximate road map to Bodhi. Not only that, but we jot down its features, like an explorer noting the characteristics of the lands she or he passes through.
But these characteristics of enlightenment aren’t enlightenment anymore than, “A huge, colorful gorge,” is the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon is your reaction to seeing it as well. When you hear people talk about their initial visit to the Grand Canyon, the first thing they mention is how awe inspiring it is. They don’t say, “Well, first off, it’s a big hole in the earth somewhere in Arizona.”
This is something a staunch materialist could never understand about Buddhism.
This sells them—and the Dharma—short. Not only that, but then they go on to convince others of things that they have no understanding of. They speak with dead words that have no trace of themselves in them. Their confusion spreads quickly because reason is far more digestible than feeling. It’s easier to give someone a book about Everest than it is to pick up Everest and plop it in front them. But that’s what the Buddhadharma demands of its students, so that’s what I also demand of myself and my peers.
When I ask someone to, “Show me the Dharma,” I’m asking for them to be themselves—to be the beautiful, disgusting, happy, miserable, loving, spiteful people that they are. I’m asking them to turn their dissonance into a singularity and then let it explode into all parts of their minds, revealing how truly spacious, free, and harmonious they really are.
This is my sole passion in life.
I live to have my mind blown and to blow others minds in reciprocation. Because I only see things clearly when my intent is to help others see things clearly. I’ve never been very useful to myself.
Editor: Dana Gornall