It’s a profound truth that ALL you need to do to realize enlightenment is to breathe in and out. It’s equally true that if you forget to do this, enlightenment will be the least of your worries. Take it from the expert, who broke his arm while riding a bike and talking on a cellphone…… at a Zen meditation retreat. Once you’ve read all the hidden spiritual secrets passed down from the masters in exotic corners of the world, then you can get on with the real business of enlightenment; paying attention, breathing, living, loving, caring and serving, right where you are.
It’s easy to get sucked into hoity toity spirituality, as if knowing all the right moves in all the right places and saying all the right words to all the right people will somehow fast track your enlightenment. That stuff is a distraction from the real work of being real and available right where you are.
It’s also easy to get lured into personal development on the false premise that it will make you a better person. Wrong! Enlightenment will just make you an honest person, which will shine all sorts of light on that fact that you’re not as righteous as you think you are.
There is only one measure of enlightenment; awareness, and awareness is no picnic in the park. Think about the demands of awareness. It makes you see things you’ve spent years hiding away from yourself; like your tendency to judge and criticize, and your deepest feelings of self loathing, and maybe scariest of all, your responsibility for the intense suffering in the world. That’s right, you read that correctly. Awareness is a wake up call- it’s not the terrorists, or the politicians, or your parent’s responsibility to end the suffering, its YOURS.
We usually stop at the luke-warm version of enlightenment, “I take responsibility for all my thoughts, words and actions, except the ones that are everyone else’s fault.”
No, take full responsibility. EVERYTHING that arises is coming out of your awareness. There is nothing other than your awareness. So from that perspective, you are responsible for everything that arises. Your awareness reveals that you are connected, all the way back and all the way forward, from east to west, north to south. No action is isolated, and no person is separate from the whole, so taking responsibility for yourself IS taking responsibility for the whole, and taking responsibility for the whole IS taking responsibility for yourself. This is a challenging thought.
This doesn’t mean its your fault that extremists and deranged people do awful things. It’s not about fault lines. It means that putting the world back together, piece by piece, is ALWAYS your responsibility. Be so busy caring for others that you have no time to stop and congratulate yourself on being a nice person. Just keep doing the next right thing, and if you become a nicer person along the way, which you just might, whatever nice looks like, then great.
It’s like this simple but powerful story.
A young girl is badgering her father who is trying to read the paper. He becomes so exasperated that, in a fit of desperation, he tears a picture of a map of the world out of the paper, cuts it up in pieces and sets the girl the challenge of putting it back together again. Much to his surprise she comes back to him quickly with the map all in place. The father asks her how she put it together so quickly. At this point the girl turns the paper over and shows that the other side has a picture of a man on it. “I put the man together,” she said, “and the world came out all right.”
It can be a blow to the ego, but enlightenment has very little to do with self improvement. It’s all about compassion for others. It’s about stretching outside of yourself, caring for people you like and those you don’t like, people who deserve it and those who don’t deserve it. It’s about doing it when you feel like it, and doing it when you don’t. As The Dalai Lama said,
Today, more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of Universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life.
As long as there is something you can do to address problems in the world, you can take responsibility. And there is ALWAYS something you can do. Therefore you can ALWAYS take responsibility. Along the way, you might take an occasional personal inventory and realize that all the caring has put you at least somewhat back together; not necessarily nicer in a conventional way, certainly not perfect, but honest, battle scarred with compassion, and with the blood, sweat and tears on your hands that is the true measure of enlightenment.