People say enlightenment is beyond words, that the feelings we have when we begin to follow a belief and let it change us can’t be communicated.
This is true, and yet we all have the same brain. We all have the same experiences. If it’s something capable for people to experience, then there may be a way of communicating it.
I am finding that nirvana and samsara are not two states that are opposed.
We often think about nirvana or true happiness as a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. And, while it may feel that way, the caterpillar always had the potential to turn into a butterfly by its own internal dynamics.
In fact, nirvana and samsara are two poles of our experience. They are two opposite points on a continuum.
We have a butterfly mind and a caterpillar mind.
Nietzsche, although he rejected many aspects of spiritual insight that I believe are valid, said it very well—
We are a rope stretched from animal to superhuman.
In Buddhism, it is often said that the Buddha mind is intrinsic to all of us. We all have the Buddha mind within us, right there, nascent, ready to come out.
It goes beyond this, however. We all have moments when we automatically, by no work of our own, achieve the Buddha mind.
Nirvana is just those moments where we are filled with love, where we are at our best, when we are noble enough to hold the door for someone else, when we are kissed by a special person we love and we then share that enthusiasm with others.
Maybe there are realms of thought and consciousness that we may experience in other ways, but the real insight is to realize that those realms are no greater than Earth.
I recently heard Anam Thubten, author of No Mind, No Problem, say that this world is the highest paradise. This world matters.
Our religions should never make us feel that this world is somehow a pale imitation of something greater, even as they guide us to find the magical. There may be other planes of existence or thought, but this one still has substance.
As long we’re living in this cosmic house, we might as well take care of it.
Samsara is just those moments where we are lost, confused and angry. We don’t know the way out. We have thoughts that we can’t escape. We hold onto pain and don’t know how to let it go. We know we are carrying a weight but it seems invisible and we can’t find the straps.
We seek in panic.
Everyone’s experienced both within some admixture.
I have worked with tremendously hurt people, and even they knew what nirvana was like, even if they may have forgotten through the veil of darkness.
Anyone who’s done cognitive-behavioral therapy or worked on changing a habit knows that it is a trajectory of improvement. We confront cognitions, create metaphors for our issues and for the solutions and then implement those cognitions with behavioral changes.
That is all Buddhism is. All of the esoteric elements, all of the religious rituals—they all boil down to a trajectory of habits.
But those habits are not merely designed to have us cease smoking, or recuperate from a trauma, or conquer depression. They are designed to make us loving, caring beings who are active agents of change. It is a method for producing heroic, capable, confident, humble people.
There is a Japanese management idea called kaizen, or perpetual improvement. Robert Maurer has taken this idea to apply to ourselves as well as to organizations.
With what we’ve learned in mind, we can see that there will be one set of practices to work internally, making ourselves happier, and then another set of practices to work externally, taking what we’ve learned and applying it to the world.
This may all sound theoretical, but it has an immense implication.
We often communicate an idea that implies that enlightenment is the highest goal. Once we have achieved liberation from pain, the work is over.
In fact, that enlightenment or liberation from pain is just the first staircase. There’s a whole new set of work awaiting us, leading us up another, different staircase. Many of the lessons we learn from the first climb will help us; many will not.
When we have that much love, happiness and meaning, we find ourselves naturally wanting to bring it to others.
When I took my bodhisattva vow, which I personally think of as my superhero vow and my knightly code, I found myself facing infinitely more learning challenges than I ever did when I was merely working on myself.
Being freed from the need to work on my own happiness has been the hardest part of my life.
Working on our own happiness has a discrete trajectory. It ends at some point. It is based on our capabilities, on claiming our intrinsic right as people to happiness and fulfillment.
But being a superhero…that doesn’t end.
I have spent much of my life having fun, indulging the desires I had to enjoy myself. I played video games, I argued with people on discussion boards, I hung out and smoked weed. I taught myself things that interested me and was continuously learning and absorbing like a sponge.
I always wanted to be a superhero. I always wanted to help others. And I have always tried.
I have always been there for my friends, and for anyone who needed me. I was proud when I volunteered, when I did activism, when I tried to communicate to people in a better way. I have been privileged (although at the time it often felt like a curse) to have metaphorical broken birds come to me and allow me to give them some comfort.
Yet I always kept a part of myself hidden. I came to realize that someone as gifted as me often wants to keep that last little bit of their potential held back so they never have to face something they simply can’t do.
When I mediate, I no longer work on my own happiness. I’m happy every single day. Even in my darkest moments, I dance and sing.
My mother pointed this out to me some months ago when I was going through one of the roughest periods in my life. She told me that, as much as I claimed it hurt, I was singing loudly and smiling.
My meditation is working on finding every untapped resource I have to be of use to others. It is about dealing with the despair of seeing so much darkness and being awash in it.
Think about all the things that we could learn that could be useful to others.
We could learn accounting to help other people with their books. We could learn programming to design software that would aid others. We could learn psychology to heal their minds and medicine to heal their bodies. We could learn sociology and political science to craft policy that would aid others.
We may even find ourselves thinking about radical new societies that would alter many of the fundamental institutional problems that we have. We could learn how to write, as I have learned and am still learning, in order to communicate vital ideas.
We could do research in any number of fields that would push the boundaries of human knowledge. We could learn how to paint paintings, write poems, and craft sculptures. We can be bodhisattvas when we repair cars (though of course we would need to have attention to our environment) and we can be bodhisattvas when we engineer buildings.
And these formal skills are only part of the puzzle. We also have to develop, every single day, our affective capabilities. Our minds are like muscles, and our work is like going to the gym, even when we are happy. Even if we can bench 500 pounds, we must keep striving for 550.
In other words, to be the superhero I would want to be, I would have to spend 100 lifetimes learning new techniques. I would need to have 100 occupations.
Every single day, I am learning new ways of communicating ideas. I am learning new techniques to help people who are hurting. I am learning new ways of inspiring others. I am learning means of educating. I find myself reading books in fields as diverse as education, psychology and mathematics.
I struggle every day to try to find new truths that would aid others. I struggle to find scientific, empirical, philosophical, and spiritual truths that can dispel illusion and promote truth. I try to find alternatives to our current social and personal problems.
I want to say things that are original. That requires hard intellectual work, and that work will never end.
If I am going to remain true to the precepts of my bodhisattva vows, I will never once in my life be able to stop learning or stop working. I do not intend to retire.
And I suspect that will be true of every single other person who intends to do good. I suspect that each of them will have the same experience. I only speak for myself because I can only truly be accountable to myself.
If you are currently striving for liberation from pain, I do want to say something that may sound strange:
This is actually a magical time.
It is a time where you are stripping away everything that doesn’t matter, all the illusions that have entered our minds from our society and from inaccurate cognitions, and finding something wonderful.
There is absolutely an end to that process, at least at some level of resolution.
There will come a point where you will be free from pain. Like chains that you’ve broken free from, the pain will still be there, but no longer impeding you.
Even better, like those chains, the pain is actually a tool. Our negative emotions are all tools for us to use.
But there’s never an end to the process of being a better human.
What helped me was thinking about it like this:
My superpowers will never stop growing.
And that’s a wonderful feeling.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Karissa Kneeland/Editor: Emily Bartran