Bridges 8(1/2): 135-141. Spring/Summer 2001.
"I Don't Need To Get Enlightened"
I don't feel, now, it's important to get enlightened. I can do plenty of good just like I am.
The reason I meditate is so as to be better able to be what I already am; to make more of what I already have -- for the benefit of others. I don't do it to get enlightened.
It's a wonderful and sufficient feeling, this sense that I already have more than enough, that I live in abundance. I don't really need more. I don't need to grab more enlightenment for myself. I don't concern myself with enlightenment. I give up so many things. I'm happy to give that up to. Do without. I find always, I have more with less.
I don't have a lot to work with. The great joy for me is to do what I can with what I have. The steps I take in my day are small and meager ones. But they make everything sparkle!
These days, I take such a great joy in not wasting anything -- I, who have wasted the most of my life. I recycle every bottle cap, every tatter of plastic wrapping, so that nothing will be discarded that people have put work into and that still might benefit the lives of others. When I go down to the basement to drop off the recycling, sometimes I see clothes, books, or records that one of the other tenants has thrown out beside the garbage. I take these up, like precious valuables, and tote them down the street to the second-hand store operated by the Salvation Army. On one occasion, I was on the point of stepping into that store with some folded green cloths, when a woman on the sidewalk stopped me. "Oh," she remarked, "Can I have those?" She'd seen I was about to give them to charity. From her voice, I could tell she knew to value these items. Maybe they were linen or there was something special that I didn't know. I couldn't tell.
With a big smile I handed them to her. It made me feel I'd saved something important, and put it in the right hands.
"Thank you!" she beamed, making off with her treasure.
Another time, I was already inside the store, setting down some plates and platters. "You don't want that one?" a woman standing nearby incredulously inquired of a large blue and white patterned platter, as if it were some sort of valued antique.
"Would you like it?" I offered. It's such a treasure, as everybody knows, to be able to be generous.
The woman almost grabbed it out of my hands.
"Do you want any of the others?" I inquired, pressing my luck.
"No!" she snubbed the worthless stuff. I got the feeling this woman was one of those specialty connoisseurs who poked around in thrift shops for rare finds. I watched her as she fled the store, jubilant with a bounty she hadn't even had to pay a penny for.
I find, these days, an immense value in every tiny thing. There is nothing that is not priceless. The smaller the thing I esteem, the greater seems its value. Little sparks of joy or awe or wonder, for example. I don't waste a one but savor each greatly when it makes its appearance. I let it wash through me to transform my whole day -- my whole life. Just an instant of transcendent glory suffices. No! It more than suffices. Because it doesn't just transform me, but everyone and everything around me with its splendid light! There is abundance everywhere.
I take great satisfaction in not taking too much for myself. In the office where I work evenings, sometimes the consultants ask me to order meals for them. "...and order something for yourself, Bill," they offer generously. For the first few years, I made a point of trying out all the fancy things they themselves ate. But then it became an even greater privilege to just order something small and inexpensive, but sufficient and nutritious. Sautéed spinach, for example, or broccoli rabe. A mere side order. The pleasure is making do with less, and limiting myself to what is most nutritious. It's a different kind of pleasure, to do something like this, and offers a more subtle and lingering satisfaction. I sometimes see in the consultants a certain sated disgust when they tote the unfinished remnants of their meals to the garbage bin. I know that feeling. I used to have it myself. Now I walk over to the sink and scrub down my aluminum foil tray and deposit it under my desk in a bag I take home every few weeks and deposit in the recycling in the basement. When people all over the world are going without food, it feels so much better to make do with less. I feel I've made profitable use of my day when I'm able to accomplish something small like this. My feeling is that if I leave the big problems of the world, like poverty and hunger, to the experts to solve, nothing ever gets done. But to the extent I myself conduct my small and unimportant life in such a way as not to cause those kinds of problems, then I feel sufficient to the task. I feel I am living a life of consequence. I am advantaged.
It is such an inordinate blessing to not ask for more when I haven't used what I already have. This is true for every single aspect of my life -- including, and especially, those minuscule sparks of light that strike my heart now and again. I don't need or require a major blast of enlightenment. The tiniest and faintest flickers more than suffice to illuminate!
To see for the first time the way I "clamp up" when confronted with something -- how incredibly important! Or, to become aware how bored I am, or unappreciative, or how little I tend to notice -- I cannot overestimate how significant it is to perceive such things about myself.
To become aware that my perceptual apparatus is filthy -- to get a glimpse of the degree to which prejudices and acquired viewpoints clog and clot my vision -- this is all I need. Spontaneously, a process sets into play that makes the mirror pristine again. I only needed the small thing, to glimpse the fault. The big thing happens of itself. A fault is automatically corrected that I myself couldn't have done anything about. I needed only to take the small step possible to me for the big one to happen.
This is my great discovery, what everybody who's thought about it has realized long ago: There's nothing to do. It all happens of its own accord, the instant I see things as they are.
I don't even have to try to see things as they are. Because this seeing is always happening and it's natural. I only have to notice. If I can be aware of tiny instances, moment by moment, I reap such a huge reward, I uncover such a boundless treasure. The blinders fall off by themselves, like scales from a growing bud. I can see this happen. I can delight in the process, which is as natural and as ubiquitous as flowering itself. The moment I see that I am flowering, like everything else, then the static definition I have of myself dies away. For just an instant I take a magic step into reality itself, out of the fiction I have constructed for myself and usually restrict myself to. There is no reward greater. Bill Gates doesn't earn as much in a year, with all his zillions of dollars, as I do in just an instant when this happens. I am rich in what matters. Why would I need more than this?
I don't need complete enlightenment. A panorama, for me, would probably be a waste. A pinhole suffices. Just a glimpse! And these glimpses are not so rare after all. Certainly the most stupid person on earth has them all the time. Only, the poor bastard isn't aware, doesn't pay them any attention. I find if I only pay attention, I always catch one sooner or later. Or rather, I am there open and naked for it to catch me, and take me. It's inevitable. The more it happens, the more faith I have: it is the main happening in this life of mine. It is what my life is about and has been about all along.
I can read on and on about enlightenment in books. I can take classes, attend lectures. It's all to no avail! But then, the moment I stop -- when I meditate: I realize at that instant what is happening to me when it happens. I see for myself -- what's been there all along; only that I've stopped seeing it. It's nothing different than what I knew as a child, what every child knows -- all of reality glimmers with the sparkle of a wondrous magic. Yes! I don't have to get enlightened because enlightenment is already there all around me. In the nature of things, it exists as their basic substance. Just as soon as I get some of the pollutants out of the way, it shines through. There's nothing I have to do except maybe clean up my act a little bit.
Meditate. Exercise. Work. Care. These are the things I do. Maybe most important is to care.
I don't have to try to be careful. Just to care is enough. When I care, my work is full of caring. Then I am careful in everything I do because I do everything with reverence, even the tiniest act. The other day I saw a screw lying on the street. Without thinking, I picked it up. When I got home, I put it in the recycling. This tiny piece of metal that some miner dug out of the deep earth, wasting his lungs in the process, and his life: this effort won't be thrown away. Enough metal in that screw to make braces for a child whose teeth are crooked. I felt I had participated in a wondrous happening. A glow descended over everything. Poverty, unemployment, war, ignorance, hate, fear. The world has many problems. Environmental destruction, urban sprawl. What to do? I saved a screw.
I've come to feel it's so important not to pollute my body. I don't eat butter. I don't put salt on my food. I try to stay away from sweets and alcohol.
The whole universe is my body. It's in my care. My responsibility is huge. How much it matters the way in which I do the smallest thing. Einstein perceived relativity while shaving. How important it is to learn to shave like this!
Kekule perceived the nature of the benzene ring while boarding a bus. He was pondering a dream he had the night before about a snake biting its tail. Can I get on a bus the way he did? Can I dream like that?
I feel to the marrow of my bones how essential it is that when I do something -- however small or insignificant it may seem -- I do it in a way that matters! The ordinary events already happening to me, the commonplace acts I'm already doing but not paying attention to: everything is contained in these! Everything is already there! How significant each little one is. How essential it is to do every single thing with the fullness of love and care, so that I bring the whole of myself to the task. The reason is: in this way I will certainly encounter myself at some unexpected juncture, and in a way I never realized was possible. What I am will shine through like a glimmer of ecstasy and then vanish as quickly as it came. It is an encounter -- when this happens -- always for the first time, never the same twice. Like love at first sight, it catches me up in its glory and re-organizes my entire life.
In that instant, I see what's real -- and give up searching for what's already present. My eyes brim with tears of appreciation and shame. I desire to make use of myself. I want to serve. I cease being interested in getting enlightened. It doesn't matter anymore. I know there is so much I can do just as I am. My joy is in devoting myself to the task of spreading out to everything and everyone I touch what little light I have -- not in grabbing more for myself.