Waking Up in Time

Enlightenment - A New Way of Seeing

If being right is your goal,
you will find error in the world,
and seek to correct it.
But do not expect peace of mind.

If peace of mind is your goal,
look for the errors in your beliefs and expectations.
Seek to change them, not the world.
And be always prepared to be wrong.

Being able to experience reality as it is, undistorted by our hopes and fears, is often referred to as “enlightenment.” The reference “light” in this word is usually thought of in the sense of illumination. A mind that is enlightened is said to be an “illumined” mind. It is a mind that has “seen the light,” or sees things in a new light.

There is, however, another sense of the word “enlighten” that is equally appropriate. That is “a lightening of the load.”

The heaviest burdens in this life are not our physical burdens but our mental ones. We are weighed down by our concern for the past, and our worries about the future. This is the load we bear, the weariness that comes from our timefulness.

To en-lighten the mind is to relieve it of this load. An enlightened mind is a mind no longer weighed down by attachments; it is a mind that is free.

Being free, it is a mind that is no longer so serious about things -- it takes things more lightly.

Could this be why enlightened people often laugh and smile more?


A Shift in Perception

From either perspective -- that of illumination or that of lightening the load -- the essence of enlightenment is a shift in perception. It is a shift from seeing the world through the eyes of concern, to seeing without judgment; seeing what is rather than what ought to be or might be.

Enlightenment is waking up to the illusions contained in the belief we have been fed with since birth; the belief that whether or not we are at peace depends upon what we have or do in the material world. It is discovering for oneself, as a personal experience of life, that whether or not we are at peace depends upon our perception and interpretation of events.

This alternative way of seeing is to be found at the core most of the great spiritual traditions. It is, for instance, the very foundation stone of Buddhism. As a prince in a wealthy kingdom, the young Buddha -- Sidhartha, as he was then called -- had everything he could wish for in the material plane. But, like many of us today, he realized that wealth and luxury do not in themselves remove suffering. So he left the palace and set out determined to find a way to end suffering. After six years of studying with various ascetics, yogis and other holy men, and learning many practices and mental disciplines, he was little nearer his goal. Then one day, sitting in meditation, he had a realization that caused him to wake up -- and hence gain the name “Buddha”, which simply means “the awakened one”.

He summarized his insight in “The Four Noble Truths”, which might be paraphrased as:

1. We all experience suffering in some way or another -- mental, physical, emotional, spiritual.

2. Suffering is self-created. A consequence of our desiring things to be other than they are.

3. It need not be this way. We have a choice as to how we perceive the world and live our lives.

4. There are systematic ways to set about changing how we think and perceive.

Parallel sentiments can be found in Christianity. The phrase, “Sinners repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” is often interpreted as an admonishment to be sorry for the day of judgment is coming. But if we look back to the Greek texts we find another possible interpretation.

The Greek word that we translate as “sin” is amartano. This, as Maurice Nichol pointed out in his book, The Mark, is a term derived from archery and mean to have missed the mark, to have missed the target. The target we are each seeking is inner fulfillment, but, imagining this will come from what we have or do, we aim in the wrong direction, and so “miss the mark.” It is this fundamental error as to how to find happiness and peace of mind that is our “original sin.” The word translated as “repent” is metanoia, which means a transformation of mind. So “sinners repent” can also be translated as “those who have missed their target, and not found happiness in the world around you, change your thinking” for what you are looking for lies very close by, within you.

Nor is it just religious teachers who have proclaimed this truth. The Greek philosopher Epictetus, living in the first century AD, made one of the most succinct and powerful expositions of this wisdom when he wrote, “People are disturbed, not by things, but by the view they take of them.”


Choosing to See

In principle, we can make this shift of perception at any time we choose. Whenever we are caught up in trying to make the future the way we want it to be -- which, in one way or another, is most of the time -- we have the opportunity to look at things differently. Rather than wondering, “How can I get such-and-such so that I can be happy?” we could ask, “Even if I were to get what I want, would I then be at peace?” And, “If I do not get what I want, can I still be at peace?”

If there is a willingness to look at things differently the answers to these questions are nearly always “No” and “Yes” respectively. Then, having let go of our anxiety about the future, our attention is once again free to return to the here and now.

That much is easy. The difficulty comes in remembering to stop and ask. It is in this that we need practice. And for most of us the aspect of life that offers us the most opportunity for practice -- and where we most need help -- is in our personal relationships. For it is here that we come up against some of our deepest conditioning and some of our strongest judgments.

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