My Struggle with Enlightenment
I think that my writing is at its best when I address, as directly as possible, what is alive in me, which includes where I struggle. My writing becomes a way of publicly reflecting on things. Knowing that you would read this incentivized me to make it as clear and truthful as possible. In the process of producing this article, I have read it many times. That process has helped me to make more sense of my story. I hope for a beneficial byproduct: that it may help you too.
In the summer of 2001, finding myself with what many would consider an ideal life, I realized that material success had not quenched my suffering in the way I had assumed it would. This started a search for something that I called “enlightenment,” something that I construed as an end to personal suffering. I was particularly interested in ridding myself of what I had labeled “anxiety.”
This was not my first push for the truth. When I was roughly eight years old, I picked up a book on meditation and started reading it. Immediately, it was recognized that “this is way too complicated. It’s much simpler than that!” Around that time, I also had a very strong conviction that if I could build a device that enabled one eye to look directly into the other eye, then a state of ecstatic bliss would be entered. Somehow, even then, I seem to have known what I would consciously discover nineteen years later.
In my early 20s, after graduating from university and starting to work, the focus of my attention turned from developing my professional skills back to searching for deeper meaning. I read the whole bible from cover to cover, and I also read a very thick book about Tibetan Buddhism. I forced myself to read those books and I found them to be immensely boring, arbitrarily complicated, and essentially devoid of any meaning.
At the end of the summer of 2001, at age 27, in my perfect but unsatisfying life, I found myself in a class where I was taught a very basic form of meditation. Over the next four months, I sat to meditate every day for fifteen minutes in the morning and fifteen minutes in the evening.
In December of 2001, while meditating, the fundamental nature of reality was revealed. This is what has been called the Absolute, Tao, Oneness, Non-Duality, God, Ground of Being, or Brahman. It’s not understandable by the mind, and it’s not explainable with words. I have attempted to write about it elsewhere and I won’t even try to explain it here. Its essence informs and pervades everything that I write.
A week later, it happened again. I write that it happened because I didn’t make it happen. All of myself was retracted into a singularity, and then, pop: all that was left was the unmanifest absolute, everything that includes nothing.
There was an illusion that Duncan had disappeared, but that was just because the absolute had been taking itself personally. The individual misconstrues what appears to be happening as being about someone. Absolute freedom includes the freedom to be trapped in individuality; absolutely everything must include separation.
During that second sitting, separation was seen through again and again and again. First whole (as absolute), then separate (as relative), then whole again (as absolute), and so on. This repeated seeing revealed what separation is from the perspective of wholeness (which is perspectiveless) and what wholeness is from the perspective of separation (which seems like a single perspective).
After that final time that I re-appeared, along with the rest of manifest reality, I calmly got up from my cushion and went downstairs for dinner. Because of the perspective change, everything was now different even though everything was exactly the same. It was known, without any doubt, that everything that is apparently happening is that. There’s nothing else it could be, because there is nothing apart from that.
Until recently, I doubted that the individual had been seen through, partly because I thought that my life would be somehow different than it is. However, as I write this, it is clear that the individual has been seen through because separation is seen through, and the individual is separation.
About seventeen years have passed since those awakenings. During those seventeen years, I’ve been through a lot, including divorce, several relationships, re-marriage, international relocations, family problems, a PhD, therapy, quitting working, starting working again, depression, anxiety, fear, loneliness, hopelessness, contentment, travel, anger, struggle, happiness, love, and sickness.
Also during those years, I seemed to be searching for something. I joined a spiritual community, I traveled to sit with a guru in India, and I went on long meditation retreats; I meditated for many thousands of hours. Even though it was known that there was nothing to find, Duncan seemed to keep on searching.
I kept finding myself, literally and figuratively, sitting at the feet of “teachers,” teachers who didn’t seem to have the first clue about what they were supposed to be talking about. For example, I found myself irritatedly listening to sermons about a supposed enlightened guru who claimed that “this world is a dump and I can’t wait to get back to the astral world.” There’s nothing wrong with being completely deluded, but I get deeply irritated when that bullshit is peddled as some kind of self-realization.
Let me address that point now. What we call this world is everything that appears to be happening. Take a look around. This is the absolute, apparently ever changing in appearance. It is whole and complete and there is nothing other than this. If this shows up as an “astral world” then it will be no more or less perfect. The idea that there is someone who can leave “here” and go “there” completely misses the point. Even if there was an individual “you” (which there isn’t), wherever you seem to go, all you’ll find there is the same absolute perfection, because that’s all there is.
I found myself asking this particular supposed guru what I should do with my life. He told me to, “Seek God.” The irony of my both my question and his answer is not lost on me. It’s simply unfathomable. It’s like I was insisting on stabbing myself in the eyeballs with scissors just to reveal how functional my retinas are.
There’s nothing wrong (or right) with peddling delusion, whether it’s as a coca-cola advertisement showing “happy” people drinking liquid sugar or as a man with a beard and orange robes promising bliss, but for some reason I get especially irritated by the latter.
For a long time I struggled with this. Why was I subjecting myself to this? Why was I playing this game of pretending to be a student, placing myself below fake teachers who were obviously less free than me?
Since I got up from the cushion in 2001, it was known that all of this was essentially meaningless, an insubstantial story. It was known there there was no real death because there was nothing that could die. The utterances of saints and sages that would have previously seemed like impenetrable nonsense were immediately comprehended in all their simplicity.
Actually, it’s more accurate to say that there had been a dropping away of certainty and understanding. The only true wisdom is not in understanding. I remember realizing that I am a fool, but not understanding what that meant.
In an attempt to make sense of what had apparently happened, I told a “teacher” about the awakenings. That teacher told me that I couldn’t have experienced that, revealing that she didn’t know that no one experiences it. She told me that if I had experienced it, then I would be a “saint.” She told me that I couldn’t be a saint because I didn’t walk like a saint, because I didn’t talk like a saint, because a saint’s marriage would not be falling apart, and because a saint would not have had the shitty childhood that I had had.
Of course, all of what she said is complete nonsense; liberation has nothing to do any of those things. By the way, Saint Francis, whom she revered, was beaten as a child, like many of us were.
Increasingly, I have seen that none of that drama was about what I truly am, nor was it related to the revelation of wholeness. What was happening was just what was happening. There was no one who had any control over it. There was no one directing it.
Looking back, there did seem to be changes in the character called Duncan. After the awakenings, it was always felt that the character called Duncan was surrendered and devoted to what is writing these words. Duncan has been offering himself to this truth. As that is heard, tears are coming out of these eyes. One day, Duncan went to Yosemite National Park and he kneeled down and put his head to the ground and wept. He had no idea why that was happening, and he still doesn’t.
I remember being very driven. I always had lists of projects to complete on the weekend. After I got up from the cushion, I was no longer interested in those lists. In the following weeks, my wife-at-the-time asked, insistently, “It’s Saturday, what are we going to do?” I replied, “I don’t care. What do you want to do?” None of that really mattered anymore and that was the beginning of the end of our marriage. She told me that she wanted to be with someone who was “normal.” That was very hard for me, but since then I have learned increasingly to let people go.
Over the years, there seems to have been a gradual integration of the wholeness. The character of Duncan seems to have gradually felt safer to let go, to not worry so much, and to trust that nothing is ever really going happen.
A few months ago, I found myself searching on the internet for people with similar stories to mine. I stumbled upon the YouTube channels of several people who speak eloquently and clearly about what I am writing about here; and there was clear recognition, finally, that someone else knows what I have been living with for all these years. Since then I have been voraciously listening to and reading these authentic messages of liberation. I feel so much comfort in these words produced by other bodies.
Hearing these other perspectives, and referencing them back to the unshakable knowing of wholeness, seems to have led to a deepening of my understanding of what happened to me, and has led to me appreciating and discovering things that I hadn’t noticed before.
For example, awakening sometimes involves the imagined perspective of being centered inside the body suddenly and surprisingly collapsing while engaging with the world; the veil is dropped while the eyes are open and the senses are functioning. Then it’s suddenly seen that the self is everywhere and/or that the self is traveling through the self. Often, this is accompanied by bliss (or fear or confusion) for weeks, months, or even years. Usually, finally, a working pseudo-self re-contracts in the body.
It didn’t happen like that for me. It seems that perhaps that process completed while my eyes were closed and while there was no perception at all happening through my senses. As I look around now, what those revelations refer to seems to be clearly present, but it’s totally normal. It’s normal simply because what seems to be happening is normal.
I am still able to harbor doubt about whether there is enlightenment or liberation because there are infinite ways for the mind to try to undermine it. Libration is too simple for the mind to grasp.
- “Yes, but what if I’m bullshitting?”
- “Yes, but what if I’m a charlatan?”
- “Yes, but what if I’m misleading people?”
- “Yes, but what if this is spiritual bypass?”
- “Yes, but what if this is just my ego?”
Witness the irony of the illusory self, in an attempt to reify itself, worrying that maybe it’s tricking other illusory selves. Meanwhile, when the concepts drop, non-separation is still all that is. Separation is always just wholeness appearing as separation. Doubt is always just wholeness appearing as doubt. All that is continues to write these words; there’s nothing else that could write them. These word are also it and it is also what’s reading them.
Having said all of that, perhaps there are more realizations to come. I welcome that.
I recently heard about three questions that helped a woman realize that enlightenment was already present:
- What does it mean to be enlightened?
- What does it mean to not be enlightened?
- What is the difference?
Answering these questions fills me with an indescribable zing, and the responses cannot be fully encapsulated in words, but I can report that, for me,
- To be enlightened is to know that there is only non-duality.
- To not be enlightened it to not know that there is only non-duality.
- There is no difference between these two.
As I write this, that last answer feels like a silent gong the size of everything being struck by nothing. More tears are coming now and I’m shaking.
In fact, non-conceptually, everything is enlightened because everything is being-knowing itself non-conceptually as the wholeness. It’s only humans that are able to pretend to not be separate from the natural and all-pervasive enlightenment by imagining that there is separation. The individual creates a never-ending story about trying to escape from itself into the wholeness that it already is.
I’m looking forward to sharing this article with my therapist.