The influential insight meditation teacher and psychologist, Jack Kornfield, reminds us that awakening is a process subject to the same conditions of impermanence and change as all other phenomena – no matter how profound the realisation might be, life goes on afterwards – presenting us with ever-changing challenges and joys. He writes:
Enlightenment does exist. It is possible to awaken. Unbounded freedom and joy, oneness [… and] awakening into a state of timeless grace – these experiences are more common than you think, and not far away. There is one further truth, however: They don’t last. Our realisations and awakenings show us the reality of the world, and they bring transformation, but they pass.
Of course, you may have read traditional accounts of fully enlightened sages in Asia or of wholly unblemished saints and mystics in the west. But these ideal narratives can be misleading. In fact, in the awakening of the heart there is no such thing as enlightened retirement.
Kornfield goes on to describe how many of those who have experienced profound awakenings have gone on to face the same situations and difficulties they encountered prior to their awakenings. The difficulties don’t necessarily go away. Indeed ‘awakening’, includes waking up to the daily challenges of life and to the frailties and biases of our own personalities. He mentions the Dalia Lama weeping when he realised that women needed more support and equality with men in his own community. He describes a male Zen abbot whose ‘painful relationship with his mother made it nearly impossible for him to guide the group of women who had become priests in his temple’. Kornfield also writes about the sectarian divisions that arise from time to time in Buddhist circles; the isolation that many teachers experience; and, the misuses of power, money and sexuality exhibited by some Buddhist teachers.
Insight, and the realisation of our true nature, are often accompanied by a heightened awareness of both the ecstasy and the pain – the soaring flight of joy and connectedness, and the crash-landing of depression and irritation. Kornfield makes a clear distinction between the idealised life stories found in Buddhist legends, and the reality of everyday life as manifested in contemporary examples. He writes: ‘Times of great wisdom, deep compassion, and a real knowing of freedom alternate with periods of fear, confusion, neurosis, and struggle.’ Hopefully, the benefit of experiencing awakening, unity and freedom, is that one is better prepared for what follows – able to handle the ecstasy and the daily grind with humility, compassion, stamina and resourcefulness. For awakening is also to open to our common humanity – to develop insight into the breadth of human experience as we live our lives, and to find peace and composure within the turmoil and the tranquility.
Kornfield refers to Pir Vilayat Khan, the seventy-five-year-old head of the Sufi Order in the West, who writes:
Of so many great teachers I’ve met in India and Asia, if you were to bring them to America, get them a house, two cars, a spouse, three kids, a job, insurance, and taxes … they would all have a hard time.
We all manifest foibles, quirks and distinctive personality traits. They are an intrinsic part of who we are. In meditation we can see into these traits, and acknowledge and accept them for what they are. Through insight and understanding we can learn to temper our more extreme characteristics and learn to develop or live with the rest. To awaken is to be mindful – to awaken from the sleep of delusion, misunderstanding and unmindfulness. In a sense there is no ‘after’ to awakening, because awakening is a process that continues throughout our life – an unfolding of awareness, insight and understanding – sometimes gradual, incremental and low-key, sometimes sudden, powerful and life-changing. It is important to maintain equanimity in relation to both the gentle illumination and the blinding light.
Buddhist practice, including the practice of mindful meditation, if they are to have any value and meaning, need to be practised within everyday life, rather than in trying to escape our daily round. Enlightenment lies here, in the tangled up-and-downness of day-to-day living – awakening encompasses both the pleasure and the pain, the ecstasy and the washing-up.
After the ecstasy, the laundry: how the heart grows wise on the spiritual path by Jack Kornfield, Rider, 2000.