Full Enlightenment?

…and Other Disappointments: Getting Real and Sober

Often people wonder about or ask questions that are a variation of this basic theme:

“How can I trust that this is really the highest form of enlightenment? What if I’m barking up the wrong tree here? What if the experience that you offer is not it? Sometimes I’m incredibly frustrated with the mistakes I’ve made spiritually. I’ve wasted my time following paths that did not leave me with the restful satisfied life that was promised. I feel foolish because I’ve been deceived in the past, how can I be sure that I won’t be disappointed again?”

Do you ever wonder about this yourself?

It’s a good question.

There are three related issues here: The notion of “full enlightenment”, the limits of what a teacher or teachings can give you and most importantly the ultimate nature of disappointment itself. Because of all of the ideas and assumptions we have around all this I will be repeating myself a lot here, saying the same thing from a number of different angles to flush everything out.

As I see it Awakening has two aspects…

There is a way in which awakening is an end. Awakening to the unconditioned is the end of seeking, of looking for answers to questions produced by thought. You are home without concepts. Full stop.


There is a way in which any form of awakening is just a beginning, and “full awakening” is an ever-receding horizon. As conditional human beings, as Souls, as the activity of the unconditioned there is an unraveling, an unfolding that brings the conditioned into more and more transparent resonance with the unconditioned, through the embrace and surrender into the recognition of limits. In this sense Awakening is not an event, but a continual process.

Every human life is filled with disappointment. The awakening life here is getting real about this and knowing that through embrace of this situation, an embrace that cannot be forced or willed; surrender can happen. Deep trust and the unraveling of resistance happens through our disappointments.

I want to be clear that the only thing that I actually have is a Deep Trust In Being, and that’s all that I’m pointing to in all this. That finally is all that the spiritual life is about. That trust produces every virtue that is usually associated with spiritual living.

Awakening to (and as) Unconditional Being

By doing your own Self-inquiry and examining the difference between that which changes and that which does not, one can discover oneself as Consciousness which is free of all concepts including notions of failure or success. Looking and finding your non-locatable existence (or is it locatable non-existence?) is the essential core and foundation of awakening. This can be an ongoing experiential exploration producing ever-deepening confidence in your freedom as Consciousness. We are all already free as the infinite, and totally at rest as That. This is my nature as it is yours, even if you do not yet have full trust that this is so.

Awakening to (and as) Conditional Being

On the other hand I am the finite body/mind/soul personality, regardless of how transient and unreal that ultimately is. I am never merely what conceptual thought says I am, but at any given moment there can be an experience of being a particular set of conditions and limits arising in (and as an apparent modification of) Unconditioned Being. In other words I appear as a limited conditional being, who is deepening trust by both embracing and surrendering as that limited reality.

As a conditional being trust and surrender happen through my efforts to make life better, which bring about either failure or success. Both failure and success very naturally uncover the sense in which the conditional is not enough. So the kind of surrendering that I’m speaking of here is not the result of attaining something, but of losing illusions about life through actually living it with a willingness to be at the effect of it’s limits.

The Caterpillar Analogy

If I think of myself as a thousand-legged caterpillar in a race, in a certain sense the race is over when the first legs cross the finish line. However in another sense there are whole parts that have yet to cross the line.

Whether we think of the finish line as awakening as Consciousness or as the second birth or as the white heat or any other mature stages of the process, this analogy seems to apply.

There are whole parts of me that are showing up at the first stage, even though a whole lot of me is clearly down the pike.

There are parts of ourselves at various stages of this process at all times and I expect that we die before the last legs go over the finish line.

And yet the race is won, and even more so as each leg goes over.

Deepening Trust

Usually when folks hear me speak about Deep Trust they think in terms of letting go rather than holding on, surrendering rather than resisting, trusting rather than doubting, no-effort rather than effort.

There’s a subtle but important difference here. I’m talking about a sort of “tantric” trust, one that includes its opposite. “Deep Trust” trusts the entire process of both surrendering and resisting, both trusting and doubting, both letting go and embracing.

To my friends who speak the language of “letting go” I would say this: after you’ve let go of whatever you can let go of, you will probably notice that you still have something in your hands. If you feel you don’t have any desire at all then I suggest that you look more closely. Whatever that is, embrace it and live it.

I’m not suggesting that pursuing your desire will in itself ultimately end in satisfaction, of course it won’t. The pursuit of desire is simply not sufficient to satisfying desire, the next one will be waiting in line. We cannot escape this most human of situations.

Awakening and deepening trust happen in the midst of our human situation for those of us who have hopes and fears.  If you can let go of hope and fear in all of your life, then by all means let go of all hope and fear. But if you find that you still hope for something and fear something else, even after all your efforts of “letting go,” just embrace it and go with it rather than being in denial about it. Live it out; it’s yours to live.

Trust continues to be developed through the disappointments that arise from both getting and losing what we desire. There is an often-difficult honesty with ourselves about what our experience is around this.

This process frees energy and attention that was stuck trying to avoid experience and releases it into a profound feeling of deep connection to life and a simple unconditioned awareness of it. This connectedness is often experienced as a current running through existence that can be a source of nurturance and well-being. It can also be felt as a heat of feeling and it doesn’t necessarily make life any easier.

So yes, awakening can be disappointing. In fact if you choose to embrace this tantric fire then disappointment must be seen as your ally, even your friend. Seeing disappointment as your ally, you appreciate the soberness it brings. Rather than believing “a path” can save you, you see that soberness “saves” you by keeping you real. That’s all I can promise you, and in fact I really can’t even promise that because you must do this for yourself. But it is my experience.

I certainly can’t say that this is not a “wrong tree” for you, and yet there still may be something here for you. You may be ready for more honesty than you thought you were.

Being “Really Enlightened”

The question was, “How can I trust that this is really the highest form of enlightenment?”

I remember the first of my teachers with whom I experienced Transmission. It was about twenty-five years ago; I was living in New York City and just getting by, living hand to mouth driving a taxi at night.

My teacher at the time was someone who studied with several teachers from both eastern and western traditions, but his appearance and manner were anything but the typical spiritual stereotype. He was a tall stocky white guy with a Jewish background who spoke with a refined but obvious Brooklyn accent. And while he went to an Ivy League school he still had a New York attitude and understood working class sensibilities. Fritz Perls himself had trained him in Gestalt Therapy; he had lived in India for five years and had been on the faculty at a well-known Tibetan meditation center in Berkley.

I came to him mostly to work on “my psychological stuff”, but I was also attracted to working with him because of his spiritual background as well. While he required me to meditate and read a couple of books, during our weekly sessions we hardly ever spoke about consciousness. Mostly we talked about daily life, my mother, and my anger.

During what was the second or third session something strange happened. While sitting there talking about my day at work I noticed that I could quite literally see him more clearly than anything else. It was like the pixels that made up his physical body were more densely packed and more clearly defined. I shifted how I was sitting and moved my head slowly from side to side, blinking my eyes to clear away this visual distortion. It continued unabated. Not only that but it got worse and I began to see something else. On hot summer days sometimes you can see “waves” that radiate off of the streets, a kind of “mirage” and now I was seeing them radiating from his body. “This is weird,” I said out loud. “Well, I’m a weird guy,” he said calmly. “Let’s get back to your work day”. At this point the room seemed filled and I began to feel something. “I’m seeing energy coming off of you,” I told him. He said, “Energy is just a thing, an object; like the couch or the chair; just get back to the conversation about work”.

The whole thing was absurd; this was the first time that I experienced such a thing without any intent or trying on my part, and apparently no trying on his either. No drugs, no meditating, no chanting, no breathing exercises, no nothing. I was having a totally mundane conversation with him. As I tried in vain to ignore what was happening and talk about getting stiffed by another taxi fare, I noticed that I was changing. My breathing slowed down, my voice became deeper and more deliberate and I felt a warm sense of well-being. While I could feel everything, I was somehow watching myself unaffected. I was seeing myself in exactly the same way I was seeing everything and (I later noticed) everyone else, through an “objective”, quiet, equal seeing; an equal vision. This was no therapy session and it was more than I had dreamed possible. I had read about such things, but this was the first time I had ever experienced them myself in my own body, right here in New York, with a Brooklyn Jew no less.

I couldn’t help myself, I blurted out, ” Are you enlightened?”

While the exact language eludes me, the heart of his answer has never left me.

He said something like this:

“Listen to you: ‘Am I enlightened?’ How would you know?

If I believe that I’m enlightened even if I’m actually not, I could say, ‘I am enlightened’, and you wouldn’t know if I was or wasn’t.

If I truly am enlightened and for some reason I think it’s important for you to think that I’m not enlightened, then I could say to you ‘No, I’m not enlightened’ and you wouldn’t know.

And If I am enlightened and I say to you, ‘Yes, I am enlightened’ then you still wouldn’t know just because I say so.

So why go there? Pay attention to your own process, that’s all that you can know about. All that you can possibly know about is your own enlightenment. Even if I were the Buddha himself, if you are not getting anything from being here with me then this is not where you should be. On the other hand, if you are receiving something for yourself, if you have some benefit from being here then that is all that is important and this is where you should be. ”

We’ve long ago gone our own ways, I’ve studied with many other teachers and now I also teach, but I’ll always remember those words.

I like to tell this story often; I repeat this because it’s very important; it’s a kind of key.

You are The Guru

Don’t overlook the obvious. You cannot give over responsibility for yourself to anyone else. Make good use of your teachers and respect the guidance that you allow yourself to make use of. Also remember that no one can relieve you of your responsibility for your life so be careful of those who imply that they can.

Today we live in a world in which we are exposed to many traditions of spiritual awakening. There are obviously many examples in world history of great spiritual realizations. The understanding of enlightenment is different in different schools and traditions. Even when someone is a realizer in his or her school there is no guarantee that that particular form of enlightenment is THE form of enlightenment. You know: “The Super-duper bestest of the best, Highest of the high, really truly enlightenest enlightened twelfth stage supreme state of the really truly truest awakening”.

I remember when I lived in New York that there used to be something written on most of the boxes of pizza-to-go: “You’ve tried the rest, now try the best”. Of course everyone says and may very well believe that their brand is the best. Just saying it doesn’t mean it’s true, and how would anyone check such a claim?

Can you be at peace with the possibility that you don’t have the means to validate what the highest form of enlightenment is? That it may be more important to be yourself than to be the Buddha?

Coming to terms with our past without sugarcoating it ultimately means trusting Life while still being honest about how hard and confusing it can be.

Again: “Sometimes I’m incredibly frustrated with the mistakes I’ve made spiritually. I’ve wasted my time following paths that did not leave me with the restful satisfied life that was promised. I feel foolish because I’ve been deceived in the past, how can I be sure that I won’t be disappointed again?”

Making use of the guidance we receive and respecting it does not mean we always agree with everything that we’ve learned. Even when we find the need to leave a teacher or school, I feel it’s in our best interest to honor that we were led there to learn what we did. Being clear about how we differ with something we previously were involved in is not the same as dishonoring it. It’s important to honor our own past and our own inner source of guidance. Regretting how we’ve lived our lives is easy enough to do, but it’s helpful to consider that we were only always doing the best we could with what we knew at the time.

That said; let me be clear here, it’s true that sometimes we can find ourselves rightfully angry. It’s certainly helpful to be honest about wrongs that were done to others and even ourselves in the name of spirituality. There are things in life that are not as they should be, to not admit this is lying and candy coating real suffering. We may have experienced pain in the face of exaggerated claims made and promises not kept. And yet, if nothing else our bitter experiences lead us to listen more deeply to our own needs and intuition.

It is often just this honesty about what is painful, disappointing and terrible that makes life worth living in the midst of it’s suffering. The honesty about how false it all is ends up being its truth.

So when we look at the world and say, “Where is life’s heart? How can life be so cruel?” THAT is life’s heart, it is Life’s Heart that is actually expressing this pain and outrage through your body ( as you) and you are that Heart. So speak it loudly and clearly and allow yourself to be sobered by what you know.

Not just with spiritual teachers but also throughout all of life there are grave disappointments and let downs. I’d like to suggest that at the same time that this discontent has been happening, events themselves have always been conspiring to point us to that which is trustable underneath everything that isn’t.

So this is the paradox that I’m always having to come to terms with: I find myself trusting life through and in the midst of circumstances that are un-trustable.

Life is the Goddess of Creativity through Desire

“What if I’m barking up the wrong tree here?”

How it looks to me:

Life can be a disappointment, but it’s just you and Her, and it seems that She only offers imperfect trees, one after the other. For me the question is not: “Is this the right tree?” but rather: “Is this tree you find yourself with now yours to bark up right now?” Of course it’s natural that as soon as we discover that it’s the wrong tree we run to the next apparently better one… even as we begin to have the sneaking suspicion that they’re all not-quite-right. So although we move on to next “better” tree we know that it will not be enough. Do we then stop barking? Well, yes and no.

We no longer bark thinking we’ve found the big “IT”. But you know, dogs…they just love to bark, it’s just in their nature to bark. Dogs just can’t help but want the prize that they imagine must be hiding up in that tree, they can smell it…almost taste it.

This tree is honest in a way that many others are not, and that makes all the difference in the world. This tree has a sign on it that reads, “This tree and all others are a disappointment, so you can relax as you bark, because ‘IT’ isn’t here either”. Relaxing as you bark, you find YOURSELF, not “IT”. But even then you find that it’s your nature to bark.

Life is by nature not perfectible, it will never be “right” except for a moment, and then it changes. Knowing this does not take away the urge in life (or us) towards perfection. This is the nature of evolution.

Whether we want a better car or we have a burning fire for deeper surrender to The Source of existence, life in form is always about going beyond… It’s never enough. When you find that everything lines up perfectly, you can be sure of one thing… it won’t last.

All of life is the continuous result of this untrustworthy process, isn’t that reason enough to trust it? The truth seems to be that we only trust life when we have no other option. I don’t find that I have a choice here; I end up trusting life more than I trust my ability to track if life is trustworthy.

It seems to me that Life is a living Goddess. Like any living being she shows up in ways that I often don’t anticipate, but no matter what choice I make, no matter what road I take, she is always my only partner.

Of course, it must be said (even if this late in the essay) that while fulfilling any particular desire is ultimately not satisfying, who can deny the amazing beauty in all of this? The awe inspiring unfolding evolution of nature and all the achievements of humanity that have arisen through desire. Our futile attempts at lasting satisfaction is an astonishing fountain of creativity. Life uses impossible yearning to create the whole thing!

Just suppose the government funded a huge project to invent a time machine. Suppose that it failed in that endeavor, but along the way discovered the cure for cancer and invented thousands of new forms of technology. Who would call that a failure? Only those who wanted a time machine and were focused on that desire being fulfilled. Everyone else would be in gratitude for the accidental side benefits. What if the government actually knew that time travel was impossible but holding it out as a possibility was the means it used to inspire and create?

Every desire leads to the next thing to do, even if it ends up being “the wrong tree” in terms of our original intent. The benefit of pursuing our desire and getting disappointed is not the life we wanted (but did not get) but rather it’s this life that has actually unfolded. As John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Appreciating and even loving this life for the fireworks display it is, for the vulnerable flower it actually is (despite what we wished it would be); is devotion to Her (as She is).

Disappointment: the door to What Is

So by all means if you think you see a better tree, go for it! This path is not one that demands exclusivity. There is really no need to limit yourself, bark wherever you are moved to.

Expecting anyone to be able to tell you that you are not barking up the wrong tree is only trying to avoid the facts and makes you susceptible to exploitation. Of course you’re barking up the wrong tree! That’s all we ever do, it’s all we can do. The limited nature of manifest existence is made up entirely of wrong trees. As Suzuki Roshi once said: “Life is one mistake after another”. The biggest mistake is to think otherwise.

Our Infinite nature as Freedom, Consciousness, Buddha nature, Atman or the Self is free of all this. We are free of fulfillment and nonfulfillment, pleasure and pain, loss and gain. When attention or awareness is unconditioned by thought and simply dissolves into The Context of what is, our sense of separateness is gone and we are equally distributed everywhere. This knowing of our freedom can remain even when the sense of separateness returns and the thinking mind is back telling us “what is what”. The more we return to bath in the waters of unconditioned awareness where nothing is a success and nothing is a problem the more we become aware of ourselves where none of this is an issue.

At the same time, even by hearing such a statement we (in our sense of limitation) may find that we will not be able to help but make this freedom a goal, and the barking begins. Pursuing that goal may seem to improve our lives, as we get “closer and closer” to being “completely at peace”…or not.

Whenever we do refine our lives it is in the relative finite realm of human limitation that all improvements are made (spiritual or otherwise), and the sense of progress will be followed by another sense of limits.

As the Infinite no improvement is ever necessary.

In the realm of change and improvement nothing lasts. The limited will never reach the unlimited so it will always end in “not quite good enough”. Disappointment wears away hope and fear and leaves us simply here. Being simply here without hope or fear, we once again find we are always free.

Disappointment is not a wall but a door.

The more that we pursue our desires and dreams the more we feel the way “it’s not enough,” even if we fulfill our dreams. The more we become disenchanted with our plans the more we relax into what “just is”, even as we’re cooking up the next plan. The more we relax into what “just is” the more our nature as unconditioned freedom seeps through our life and we find ourselves simply Being, even in the midst of doing.

We can’t rush this; it takes it’s own time and it’s pace can be trusted. Besides, we have no choice.

The deepest “letting go” can’t be a mental decision

Can we stop all doing? We cannot “make a decision” to “not do doing” that won’t also be a doing “not doing”. If we decide to “not seek improvement” and think we are better off for it, then we would do well to notice that we are once again doing something (doing “not doing” and making an effort at not making effort) to improve our situation.

There is nothing wrong in all this effort at no effort except that there is a new danger of slipping back into failure/success mode. Now it’s failure/success at “not-doing”. So we could get stuck yet again failing (or even worse, succeeding) at doing “not doing” so that the practice of “letting go” becomes a new attainment to be lost.

The so-called alternative that I’m suggesting here is to simply see the dilemma and live it. We cannot help but to do what we feel will improve our situation, even though we know that ultimately it will fail to satisfy us altogether.

In a certain sense you can say that this recognition can relieve us of the burden of having to find (or pretend to find) fulfillment in life. It can also relieve us of the sense of having to get things right according to some notion of perfection. Ironically, it frees us to just live.

We notice how we pursue our sense of what is most auspicious and pay attention to how we feel, and notice our expectations and how they are met and how they are not.

And something happens…

We creatively embrace the activity of our human nature.

And something else also happens…

We find ourselves falling into the silence of being where there is no idea of failing or succeeding.

In other words…

We relax into the whole enchilada and it unfolds through us and as us in a way that is beyond us.

And that’s it.

This “Way”

I am not suggesting that this is the true path.

I am also not suggesting that it isn’t the true Path.

I’m suggesting that for many of us it is our truth.

For many of us this is the only thing we find we can do.

We have given up on finding the right tree and have come to feel that there are only trees, period. Actually it’s not that they are wrong trees or right trees, it’s just that they are always a disappointment if we expect fulfillment from the outcome. Every endeavor to improve our situation never quite meets the mark. This is the nature of things and there’s nothing wrong in all this, including the feeling that there is.

We don’t give up living; in fact we embrace it. We don’t stop the effort to improve our lives in whatever form we feel is most useful and we can even have fun and excitement doing it. We find that we have no choice but to bark, because that’s what dogs (and people) do. Ever notice how much fun dogs have barking up those trees?

We may know that we will never reach perfection and full satisfaction with any of our efforts, but we continue our activity as long as we still have any hope (or fear) related to what we are doing because that’s where the juice is. If we find that life itself has exhausted our hope and fear around what we were doing, we find we no longer have energy to pursue that desire, so we don’t. In essence we become helpless devotees of the Goddess Life, in love with her juice, having no desire when she withdraws her juice. The result is a life of creativity.

Can you call that an attainment or “letting go”? Well, yes and no. It’s not the kind that you necessarily claim as a point of pride, unless you want to…

We get better and better at a hopeless task. We come to a brokenhearted humility and a Deep Trust in being through barking up so-called wrong trees, and that makes this the right tree for those who are drawn to it.

Making efforts to improve your life takes on a very different quality as you realize that nothing in life is enough, whether it is a “worldly effort” or “spiritual effort” that you use, even the effort of “giving up the effort” will not be enough.

For many people, realizing that all paths or non-paths lead to this is both a great disappointment and a great relief.

It’s not that we’ve been doing it wrong; this is just the nature of existence.

To the degree that this teaching is a path of attainment, it will disappoint.

To the degree that this teaching is a way to sober-up out of dreams, both worldly and spiritual, it is simply an honest pointing to our condition and situation and a way through.

There is paradox here that is very hard to put to language. Underlying all of this is a deep acceptance of the entire process of your own unfolding, including all of your non-acceptance.

It is deep trust in Life itself, including all of your mistrust and doubt.

Another angle at this is an understanding of three things:

1) That none of your effort at a better life can give you freedom, so it will not be enough.

2) That trust in Being (as life is) is freedom now.

And (here’s the paradox)…

3) Trust in Being includes trusting that your effort to improve yourself will play it’s part in the unfolding of Being, so don’t cut yourself in half by denying your desire to make your life better or your awakening deeper.

Maybe another way of saying this is that there is no salvation through works, salvation only comes through faith, but faith without works is dead….

There it is

So no, as a teacher I will not and I cannot guarantee anything about this. I just share my experience, that’s all.

Even when we are awake to our unlimited nature, which is absolute completeness, we are also simultaneously awake to our limited nature and that human limitation longs to be fully lived out as well.

Whether we live a life of spiritual desire or worldly desire there is nothing wrong with the innate preference to make things better. Making things better is the intelligent, healthy and natural thing that body/minds do.

Certainly it is sane and healthy to pursue better relationships, a healthier body, a more secure financial situation and a more authentic integrated experience of being in the world. There’s nothing wrong in this.

Certainly refinement of the ability to “let go”, “accept’, “be detached”, “be present”, “drop the mind”, “be vigilant” or “be aware” are sane and healthy habits to cultivate. Yet they are also forms of effort; the desire to change things and make them better, even though they are more subtle “spiritual” things. There’s nothing wrong in this.

When there is effort there is the potential to attain or fail, everything is temporary and every attainment will be lost. There is nothing wrong in this.

Even “letting go of attainment” is in this category when it is an effort to improve things by “letting things be”. The path of “no path” is a path and “not seeking” can then become a form of “seeking” that is sneaking through the back door. Rather than kidding ourselves and creating complications in the mind it is better to just understand all this.

This life of limits is never enough, it can always be better and our heart yearns to change it and bring us closer to freedom, peace and contentment. As we look to change our conditions and make them “just right” we are looking in the dimension of change where things will never be enough. Sill, it is our nature as conditioned beings that we cannot help but make these efforts, which can bring us closer, but never close enough. There is nothing wrong in this.

Is this a dilemma?

No, it’s just the way things are.

The nature of the conditioned is continual movement toward the unconditioned through it’s endless desire to be (more) free and this never ending approach ( and never reaching) is what it is.

As far as the Unconditioned nature of Being, there is never any need for freedom for the unconditioned because it is freedom itself.

These are the two dimensions of Being which is an absolutely Non-dual Onlyness.

There it is…

Is that Disappointing?

Can be, but not when it’s lived, then it’s sobering. It wakes you out of dreams and fantasies.

Freedom, peace and contentment are not the result of efforts; they are simply the truth of our nature as unconditioned awareness that is present despite (and in the midst of) our efforts in the midst of conditions.

Our experience of the conditional becomes more and more transparent to and resonant with the unconditional. This happens as our resistance to the experience of the limits and conditions is broken down and we are no longer resisting being what we appear to be…

What a paradox!

What a relief.

Full speed ahead.

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