24. A Starter’s Guide to Enlightenment
Hi there! Welcome to the Journey On podcast! It’s great to have you. I’m Dave Schmelzer.
This week, we’ll start really small and then go really cosmic, as you might have picked up from the title of the podcast. So if you’re the sort of person who’d enjoy some practical tips, you’ll very much get that for the first two-thirds of the show and then you can go on your merry way. But if you’re the sort who likes big-picture context for the things we talk about here, that last third will be heaven for you.
So we’ll start off with a story from me which will tie into what it looks like to, like, really do the kind of journeying spirituality we talk about here, where we learn to start off by observing our inner and outer world rather than jumping to interpret it--which we’re told we’ve been largely fruitlessly doing our whole lives. We’ll talk about what that looks like and how that helps and we’ll take a brief look at some context Saint Paul gives for the wisdom of that choice. And then we’ll go just a bit deeper with it, looking at how that can seriously help us figure out who we actually are in a way that will free us from ways we’ve defined ourselves that, now that we think about it, have made us a whole lot more unhappy than happy.
And then, in that last third that I’ve talked about, I’ll look at how Jesus takes this practice to a cosmic level in John’s gospel and I’ll offer a, to me, fascinating perspective on the spiritual journey that might even help us understand how these things are the key building blocks of what perhaps the Eastern tradition calls Enlightenment.
Okay! So is that ambitious enough for you? I hope so. And it makes for a choose-your-own adventure experience. We aim to please here at the Journey On podcast!
Before we launch in, let me mention as I do each week that I help lead some pretty delightful, encouraging online groups along these lines that perhaps you’d enjoy checking out. We have one on Wednesday nights at 9pm Eastern time and another on Sunday nights at 6:30pm Eastern time. You’ll have a chance to connect with great, like-minded people from around the country and beyond. We’re also getting near the end of our first-ever six week Starter Group for people who are looking for a way into this spiritual world right from Ground Zero and, I’ve got to say, it’s been pretty great, at least for me. So let us know if that’s something you’d enjoy should we do another Starter Group sometime soon. For information about how to get connected for any of this, email email@example.com.
Okay! Kick us off, Ryanhood, for A Starter’s Guide to Enlightenment.
As a young adult, I was pretty emotionally guarded, likely as a result of childhood trauma, so that left me really even keel.
But I think as a part of God’s work in me, I slowly got more in touch with stuff I’d buried, so that meant that I started experiencing mild depression--or at least moodiness--as more and more of that stuff got accessed.
For the first few years of this, I’d wake up feeling low, which, again, was a relatively new experience for me. So I’d immediately try to figure out why I was low. I was in graduate school at the time, so maybe I was stressed out about an upcoming test. Or maybe I’d had an iffy interaction with someone the previous day and that was leaving me feeling the way I was feeling. Or maybe it was something else.
My big insight like four years into this was quite an aha moment:
I wonder if I’m bummed out because sometimes I get bummed out. I wonder if that’s the only explanation that makes any sense.
Now at this remove, as I’ve mentioned, I have other guesses about what was going on--connected to God making it safe for me to feel stuff, which meant some dark and stuffy rooms in my spirit had to be opened. But at that point, I certainly didn’t have access to that insight.
My experience has at least strong echoes of a biggie contemplative insight that I think is not obvious to many of us, at least in the West. Which is that spiritual and emotional growth largely comes through noticing what’s happening inside of us rather than figuring it out.
So you’ll run across sayings like: If you understand, things are just as they are. And if you don’t understand, things are just as they are. As if figuring things out is overrated.
I recently read a story from Jack Kornfield in his book The Wise Heart about a cardiologist whose dad’s brain was destroyed by Alzheimers but then, just before the dad died, he had a moment of utter lucidity that--to this doctor--was inexplicable by any scientific standard, leading him to write: Much of life cannot be explained; it can just be witnessed.
That is a contemplative insight that puts a little more spin on the ball as we consider mindfulness.
So let’s go to an insight from Saint Paul on this from Romans 12.
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2)
Paul’s appeal is that the way our mind gets transformed is not through figuring it out, but through observing it. As if our urge to figure everything out is our attempt to keep in control in a way that actually fights the transformation Paul is describing--a fundamental transformation that leads to our mind getting renewed and, as a bonus, to knowing God’s will for us in a way that Paul says we’ll like.
So let's think more about the upside of this.
In the West, we typically believe that the way to find happiness is to change our circumstances until they’re happy. But the great teachers pitch something really different than this, saying that our relationship with our inner world--largely through attention--is our best bet. It’s not about what we think about; it’s about how we think. With the thought that learning how to think in ways that produce love, generosity and mindfulness will build the life we’re looking for.
So how do we work this idea?
- Try to notice earlier on when you’re feeling bad.
- Move quickly to mindfulness rather than explanation. Get behind the waterfall.
What are you feeling?
Where in your body does that feeling show up?
If you can let it go, do.
If not, ask yourself whether you can handle being mindful of the hard emotion? “No problem. It’s just x.”
Of course, to be alive is to be vulnerable--trying to figure everything out is our primal way to fruitlessly try to avoid feeling vulnerable. And I’ve discovered the power of this notice-rather-than-figure-things-out approach in my present vulnerabilities. So sometimes I’ll feel free-floating anxiety or even oppression. Until I get mindful of it, I’ll subconsciously work to not have to feel that discomfort by recontextualizing it or trying to put it out of my mind. Then, still pre-mindfulness, I’ll find my mind wandering as it looks for an explanation of why I’m feeling bad, just like I did in my graduate school days. But I’m getting quicker on the mindfulness front.
Mostly, having become curious and attentive about those emotions, they significantly lessen. Other times, less so, but now I’m on the scent and I’ll find myself saying, while behind the waterfall, “Oh, it’s just… x hard emotion.” And I’ll notice that I feel it physically with a little pressure on my jaw, say, and maybe mild pressure on my right temple. And then I’ll forget about it and move through my day. And it’s definitely true that I then experience these emotions consequently less. And what we get is a little snippet of what the psychologists call flow which turns out to be Paul’s renewing of our mind. And perhaps is a taste, just in that moment, of Enlightenment.
Along with this, not uncommonly, the moment I’m curious and attentive about whatever emotion has brought me down, I’ll immediately notice a positive emotion as well as if it were hiding just behind the hard emotion and I’ve spotted it in a way that, when I was subconsciously battling the negative emotion, I couldn’t pull off. So I’ll--using our welcome language--say, welcome dread and then immediately welcome hope, which I’ve just seen poking its head out. This raises interesting questions about identity in ways that the great spiritual teachers say is really helpful and which can’t come any other way.
So in our current moment, I’ll feel vulnerable as I read about how the coronavirus is raging in my state or in the country and maybe I’ll feel frustration and outrage as I vent about whoever the villains for why that’s happening come to mind. But when I’m doing well, I’ll get behind that waterfall as well. Who am I in that emotion? Am I the guy who’s angry at the miscreants who I identify as causing the virus to spread? One teacher, on this subject, argues we need to “be the knower, not the owner.” We, for instance, can do this when we’re criticized. We can get huffy or miserable, but with less identification, perhaps we laugh.
As we do this, we’re not denying or rejecting our experiences at all. We don’t get rid of anything--the experiences are the same. We just stop identifying with them, calling them “me” or “mine.”
This targets that, as we move towards attention and curiosity more than towards figuring things out, we realize we play lots of roles in our life. So I’m a man and white and straight and a father and a husband and a son and a brother and a teacher and a sports fan and a person with a set of political opinions. The more we understand that insight--that we play roles--the happier and more successful in those roles we’ll be. If I play the spiritual teacher role when I need to play the father role, there can be static. So I don’t want to over-identify with any of them; I want to live as consciously as possible in them in real time.
Here’s a picture of this, again from Jack Kornfield:
A woman’s daughter gets pregnant and becomes a mother at seventeen. The older woman identifies herself as a bad mother who let this happen to her daughter. The grandchild is born and she is beautiful. The woman lets go of all the judgment and becomes an excited, loving grandmother. Now this is her identity and redeems her life. But then her daughter moves away. She identifies herself as a person who is always abandoned or betrayed.
Being curious about and attentive to our emotions, we’re told, helps us let them be without them defining us in a way that will keep us from growth and freedom.
So, say, in a Black Lives Matter conversation, I absolutely need to consciously play the role of a white man who’s benefited from privilege. But then later in my day, I’ll need to invest in the role of being a loving dad playing volleyball with his daughter or a spiritual seeker exploring some new truth. So which one of those is the real me? The contemplatives punt to that as being a false lead. Roles and the self-image we take in them come and go.
One famous contemplative had a stroke which left him in a wheelchair with severely diminished use of language, yet continued along in his role as a spiritual mentor. He said he could do that because he was never his mind or his body or even his previous skillset. He could offer what he could from whom he was in the present moment.
When kids become adults, healthy parents need to drop the role of helping manage their lives--or so I’m told.
So perhaps I’m the one who has the pleasure of noticing rather than figuring out my world, who then discovers God transforming my mind and then being able to approve God’s good, pleasing and perfect will.
Okay! Here’s where we go cosmic. Consider yourself duly warned!
And we’re going to start with how Jesus gives all of this some fascinating attention in John’s gospel.
I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him everything he is doing.
Jesus isn’t trying to guess what his Father is doing--he’s curious and attentive and the Father shows him.
And then he interprets the upshot of that a few chapters later.
I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. Learning how to experience the renewing of our mind through curiosity rather than figuring things out empowers us to experience the one-ness that Jesus has with his Father--which apparently then makes us one with all others who are also doing this.
So how, exactly, is this so? Why is this choice the key road to what Paul calls renewing our minds and what Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, calls purifying our hearts so we can see God and perhaps what some Eastern sages would call Enlightenment?
I think of a mashup of some fascinating perspectives that perhaps you’ve heard me mention in other settings.
A French philosopher named Paul Ricouer gave it the fancy-schmancy name The Second Naivete. Combining it with a perspective from the American psychiatrist M. Scott Peck has been really interesting for me. Let me quick run through it before I link it to the things we’ve been talking about here.
First naivete--living in the Garden of Eden, etc.
So let’s think about this for a moment.
Camping out at the Gate and living in Critical Distance are both all about figuring things out, about applying what turns out to be our very small and wrong perspective on what’s happened to us.
Whereas taking the journey around the whole sinful world with Jesus as our guide requires us to let this perspective go and just pay attention with curiosity rather than trying to tame our unruly inner and outer worlds, trying to wrestle them to the ground, by figuring them out.
This is not, of course, to say that we never gain perspective on anything. Of course we do, but often as a gentle gift from God.
I think one way to tell the difference is through noticing our unhappiness. Camping out at the gate and sitting in Critical Distance are both combative, unhappy ways to live. But the benefit they bring is a false sense of controlling our unruly reality.
Enlightenment, transformation, renewing our minds, flow--are the things we get as we take the journey with Jesus. And, as a throw in, Paul tells us that we get to “test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” We learn what God wants from our lives, and presumably what will be the key that will fit the lock of who we actually are. That seems pretty great. If all goes well, I’ll have more to say about that side of things sometime soon.
I’ve hedged my bets, you will perceptively note, by calling this podcast A Starter’s Guide to Enlightenment.
So presumably that would say that enlightenment can’t happen without this, but there still might be more to be said. Of course there’s plenty to be said, I’m sure, that I know nothing about so couldn’t hope to say it. But even with what I do know there’s more to be said. As perhaps you’ve heard me say, classic Christian spirituality--to say nothing of the spirituality from the rest of the world--gets divided into three parts: contemplation, relationship and asking. The latter two of those clearly have more of a role to play in the big picture than we’ve talked about here. But perhaps, for one short podcast, this is enough to get started with.
So, just for today, why don’t you give some attention to being the knower, not the owner and see where that gets you.
That’s it for this Journey On podcast! Thanks for taking the journey with me! I can’t wait to be back with you soon.