Full Enlightenment? A Manifesto
Full Enlightenment and Other
A Manifesto for 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
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
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 unravelling, 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
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 unravelling of resistance happens through our
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.
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 not ultimately end in
something less than satisfaction, of course it will, but who said that you
would 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
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
He said something like this:
"Listen to you: ‘Am I enlightened?’ How would you
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
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 sugar coating it ultimately means
trusting Life while still being honest about how hard and confusing it can
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
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
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
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
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 probably 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
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
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 where there is
"failure and success".
And something else also happens...
We find ourselves falling into the silence of being where there is no
idea of failure or success.
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.
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
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
To the degree that this teaching is a path of attainment, it will
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
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 be better or your awakening deeper.
Maybe another way saying this is the 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
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
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 Uncondtioned 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
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.