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Chapter 8 - Discovering Your Own Key

You wake up one morning and discover fresh bruises and scratches on your body. What’s worse is you were alone all night so no one else could be to blame. Did you sleepwalk? Did you fall out of bed? No, you would have remembered that. There is no logical explanation for what has happened, so you try to put it out of your mind. But a few days later it happens again. Same circumstances, same type of injuries. It becomes clear that you must be injuring yourself even though you have no memory of doing so. What would you do to resolve this problem?

There are two basic approaches you can take. You can try to find some way to prevent hurting yourself the next time you fall asleep or you can attempt to become an insomniac. Though either approach would solve your problem, they aren’t equally feasible. Becoming an insomniac might work in theory, but it isn’t practical as a long-term solution. Taking steps to stop hurting yourself while still getting a good night’s rest is your only true option. It would be foolish to try to become an insomniac. Likewise, it is just as foolish to attempt to become a “psychological insomniac” by seeking a permanent state of enlightenment.

Again, enlightenment is nothing but an experience. It comes and goes like any other. It is impossible to keep oneself in the heightened state of awareness that is the hallmark of the enlightenment experience. Nor, should we want to. This is the discovery that changed my life.

Under my old understanding of enlightenment, the experience I had in August of 2000, though profound, was just another sign of failure. Since it didn’t last, I hadn’t yet reached the exalted state of “true enlightenment.” If I had left it at that, I would still be looking for someone to show me the way to the Promised Land. Instead, when I came to see enlightenment as an experience and not a permanent state, I realized I had already found what I had been seeking; I had experienced enlightenment, there was no doubt about it. And though the experience soon faded, I realized that it was only natural for it to do so. With this one insight, what others might have had me believe was a failure, became one of the most important events in my life.

I suddenly saw two major problems with our attempting to achieve permanent enlightenment. One, like becoming an insomniac, it wasn’t practical. No one, regardless of what they might tell you, can maintain an unbroken state of higher awareness. Something will eventually distract them from their bliss. Something will draw them out of their detachment and require their participation in life, even if it is nothing more than a pesky mosquito buzzing around their head. And two, if we really stop to think about it, most of us wouldn’t want to be in a permanent state of higher awareness any more than we would want to be in a permanent state of anything. Why? Because even though many of our troubles stem from being in lower states of awareness, so do most of our joys.

The greatest moments of our lives often occur when we are “lost” in the activities of life. We lose ourselves in everything from books, movies, and conversation, to sports, love, sex, and war. We literally have no self-awareness during many of the greatest moments of our lives. Our focus becomes so intense, our awareness so narrow, that we become “attached” to the situation. Without this attachment, that is, without our “unenlightened moments,” these experiences would be impossible. Ultimately, if we are to maintain access to the most joyous moments of our lives, we must also risk experiencing the darkest ones as well. This is true of every man, even the enlightened one.

So what sets an enlightened man apart from others isn’t that he never falls into a lower state of awareness. He does. In fact, he spends much of his life in just such a state as he goes from one experience to the next. What separates him from others is that, when his awareness is at its peak, he marvels at the insights he finds inside that fine but narrow window of enlightenment, and every so often, is able to remember them once the experience has gone.

This is all well and good, but what if you haven’t yet had an enlightenment experience? How can you find your own source of wisdom if you have yet to experience the detachment that is required to generate it? The bad news is, until you’ve had such an experience, you can’t. The good news is, no matter what you may have been led to believe, you have already had many such experiences, any of which you can use to generate more in the future. The only problem is you overlooked these experiences because they didn’t look like the magical images we have come to expect. Recognizing these experiences is the first step to tapping into your own source of wisdom – your own source of enlightenment.

An enlightenment experience doesn’t have to show up with a pool of heavenly light falling on your head, harps playing in the background and swirls of incense in the air. An enlightenment experience can look very ordinary, can occur in the most unlikely of places, and can be easily missed if you don’t know what to look for. And what is that? The “jolt” of a new perspective.

Earlier I asked you to remember a time when you experienced an unexpected, sudden and dramatic change in perspective. I asked you to do this at the beginning of the book rather than at the end for one reason - to demonstrate that as long as you are looking for enlightenment as it is traditionally described, you aren’t likely to recognize it when it does, in fact, show up. Consider, if someone had asked you prior to reading this book to name a time when you were enlightened, would you have selected the one you did in this exercise? Probably not. And even worse, you might not have been able to select one at all thinking you had yet to have a true enlightenment experience. Not recognizing the potential in your own experience is what has driven you into the arms of gurus and other experts in the past. Now that you have identified an enlightenment experience of your own, you have something on which to build and create more such experiences in the future.

Still, to harness this power an important distinction must be made. The power of the experience you identified lies not in the new understanding that you acquired, but in the period in between understandings. That is the moment of enlightenment.

If you recall the night I woke up and experienced my life in an entirely new light, you can see the very qualities of the experience I have asked you to remember. It was unexpected, it was sudden and it was dramatic. And it was these qualities that gave me the “jolt” of enlightenment. For the briefest moment in time I was in a psychological freefall as my old way of seeing life gave way and a new one had yet to take hold. This freefall was the core of my enlightenment experience, not the hour of bliss that followed. During that hour I became “attached” to the idea that my life was a gift. What a wonderful attachment. But that’s not enlightenment. Enlightenment is that moment between perspectives when everything you were just certain about is now up for grabs and your future is wide open.

Sounds a bit blasphemous in light of what we have been led to believe about enlightenment, doesn’t it? Where are the fireworks? Where is the chanting and the meditation? And where is the guru to take all the credit? Nowhere. There is only you and a “jolt” of enlightenment and that is all there needs to be. Until you recognize this, you will always be chasing the elusive and illusive notion of enlightenment that is always just a book, seminar or guru away. But if you stop chasing the fantasy long enough to consider the power of your own experience, you may be surprised at what you find.

Imagine that sitting before you is a mysterious old envelope. Something about it strikes you as familiar, but you can’t recall what it is. You gently open the envelope and discover a delightful collection of long lost photographs from your past. There you are riding a pony. In this one you’re squinting with a forced, toothless grin in your third grade class picture. Here’s one of you and your best friend before he moved away and you never heard from him again. There are some photos of your old family vacations and even one of your first car. Nothing particularly earth shattering, but they do bring back warm memories. Though the pictures themselves are old and faded, some even out of focus and cracked, you hardly notice; it is the memories they evoke that count.

Now imagine the same envelope sitting before you. This time when you open it, it contains not faded old pictures from your past, but recent, crisp, full color photos of overseas vacations, black tie affairs and romantic getaways. They are the kind of pictures that take one’s breath away. Each picture is in and of itself a work of art, the kind of picture you might find in a gallery somewhere. There isn’t a person in the world who wouldn’t find these photographs to be of higher quality and more valuable than the first ones. Not a person in the world that is, except for you. You see, these new photographs aren’t yours. The beautiful, smiling faces within them belong to strangers. The exotic places where the pictures were taken are unrecognizable to you. And the beautiful memories they contain belong to others.

No matter how beautiful the new pictures are, no matter how desirable others may find them, they cannot compare to yours. The pictures from your past may be cracked, faded and out of focus; they may be of “ordinary” events in “ordinary” locations, but the memories and emotions they stir in you are strong. They are your memories based on your experiences and that is what gives them their power. We wouldn’t think of trading our own cherished family photos to someone else for new, more exciting photos of strange people and unknown lands. That would defeat the purpose of the photos themselves. Why then, do we routinely hold the experiences of others to be more beautiful, meaningful and profound than our own?

I assure you that, if you strip away all the flowery descriptions and heavenly explanations from the enlightenment experiences of others, you will find a common core: a sudden, dramatic and unexpected shift in the way they saw the world. Nothing more, nothing less. Sound familiar? Perhaps like something you may have once experienced?

No matter how ordinary your experience appears to be in light of those you may have heard about, no matter how insignificant it may seem next to the “miraculous conversions” of others, it has the one vital element that the others do not: it is yours and that is enough.

You see, in the face of an unforgiving reality, we often reach for help. We tend to hold others above ourselves and often respect their wisdom and intelligence more than our own. While there is nothing wrong with this approach, there is a source of help that can topple all others. And what is that source? Remembering. Remembering that we have faced an unforgiving reality before, and that in an instant, it crumbled before us and left us with a new understanding of our world. And when we can remember this, we can leave the gurus behind.

Remembering that your understanding of the world can change at any moment isn’t always enough to make it do so. But it is enough to generate the doubt that is necessary to begin the process. When we doubt, we begin to question. When we question, we begin to uncover new ways of seeing the world. And when our absolute certainty in our current perspective gives way, we are free to adopt the way of seeing the world that best serves our interests.

Still, there is one obvious question that must be addressed. Where’s the so-called bliss of the enlightenment experience? After all, the promise of bliss is what makes enlightenment the ultimate carrot of mankind. Except for the sexual orgasm, this state of enlightened bliss may be the most sought after experience of mankind. If there isn’t necessarily always bliss involved, what’s the point in pursuing it?

Perhaps you didn’t feel blissful during the experience you identified in our exercise. If not, how could this experience truly be referred to as enlightenment? Because, again, enlightenment is simply an experience and experience is subjective. What thrills one person may frighten, bore or even seem irrelevant to another.

As long as you equate enlightenment with bliss, you will likely be searching for a very long time. Though you may in fact feel bliss during the experience of enlightenment, it isn’t the defining characteristic of the experience and it isn’t always a part of it. If, on the other hand, you hold the notion that “detachment” is the core of the enlightenment experience, you will no longer need others to show you the way, for these experiences are common. You need only recognize the experiences when they occur.

Now What?

It is at this point in a book that a teacher summarizes his philosophy and lays down the correct course of action for his students. In other words, he gives you “the answers” to life’s great mysteries. And the acceptance of these “answers” as gospel is what causes his students to trip up before they’ve even left the gate. It is here that I will break ranks with the “gurus” and “masters” of the world for I will not leave you with answers, but questions. Questions that, if you will ask them regularly and seek your answers only from within yourself, will lead you to more powerful answers than anyone else could ever offer.

These questions will look familiar because I mentioned them earlier. There are three of them. What else could it be? What else could it mean? What else is happening?

They are perhaps three of the most important questions you can ever ask yourself when you’re faced with confusion. Each of them helps open up a specific area in which we often become blind to the world.

“What else could it be?” helps break up the notion that the things in our lives have one, and only one, correct identity.

“What else could it mean?” helps reveal alternative meanings for the circumstances, events and symbols of our lives.

And “What else is happening?” literally broadens our awareness in any given moment.

This last question is particularly important as it runs counter to the unconscious question that drives virtually all human behavior. And that question is, “What happens next?” This is the question that holds our attention from moment to moment. What happens next? What happens next? This is the question that we seek to answer virtually every moment of our lives. Entertainment, news, gossip, the stock market. Everyone wants to know what happens next. And while this question holds “our attention,” it is the other question, namely “What else is happening?” that often holds “the answers” to our problems. This is the question that will reveal our blind spots and open up new possibilities in everything we do.

Again, these are questions you must ultimately answer for yourself. How other people would answer these questions is irrelevant to your enlightenment. It doesn’t matter what they think. It only matters what you can reveal to yourself by questioning the world around you.

Though it is commonly thought that great wisdom comes from studying ancient scrolls, long-dead poets and celebrated martyrs of days gone by, there is just as much wisdom available in the day-to-day circumstances of our lives. In fact, the everyday events of our lives may in fact be the greatest source of wisdom we can discover. Why? Because this source of wisdom doesn’t come with convenient how-to instructions and centuries of experts proclaiming its authenticity and validity, but rather must be uncovered, translated and celebrated by no one but ourselves. In discovering the wisdom available to us in everyday life, we must learn to question, learn to see, and ultimately be strong enough to accept the lessons we learn on our own authority.

In parting, I want to remind you not to expect others to congratulate or support you in learning and practicing the ideas in this book, especially not those who benefit from the social order you are currently involved in. The more you begin to rely on your own interpretations of reality as opposed to those given to you by others, the more of a threat you become to those who benefit from your current state of affairs. When others feel they are beginning to lose control over you, it is only natural that they will try to discourage your efforts to change. They will point out consequences to your actions that you haven’t considered. They will explain where your logic is mistaken and how your new thoughts are inconsistent with your past commitments. And more often than not, they will have a point. What they say will, to a degree, make sense and that is what will make it so tempting to give in and revert back to your old understanding of reality.

Whether you do or not, is not as important as what you learn from the contradictions and conflicts you will face. Resist the temptation to take the easy way out. Sit with the discomfort long enough for the lesson to become clear. As the eighteenth century English poet John Gay once said, “When we risk no contradictions, it prompts the tongue to deal in fiction.”

Perhaps it’s time to take that risk and speak the truth. Your truth. The magic you’ll find within will eclipse anything you can discover listening to anyone else.

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