Enlightenment is a word one could say while karate chopping through a block of wood. Try it. Stress the –ment part of the word as the side of your hand breaks an imaginary board. It is the word ‘light’ made solid, secure and static by being squeezed in between a couple bookends. Simply put, it is a mistranslation. The suffix – ment is completely the wrong bookend for this particular expression.
The correct translation would be ‘enlighteningness’ because it is describing a state in flux, struggling and dancing between being a verb and a noun. I am going to tell you how I found out. Since no one has called my lecture hotline, 1-900-CALL-MEG lately and asked for my opinion (damn it), I am writing in the hope that someone may read my India story and agree with my perspective of what I believe to be the correct translation of a Sanskrit term that is very Western Mind Resistant, or at least get a good chuckle.
This story embodies the basic problem I have with the word enlightenment. The journey is the destination. Over and over I have met spiritual seekers who strive to attain the state of an enlightened being. They are drawn to me as if by some invisible magnet, and I too was once one of them. The first time I heard about the possibility of a place called enlightenment coincided with the meeting of one of the great loves of my life at 23 years of age. Before that, I had no thought about it. My spirituality was expressed in a form natural to me with poetry and song. When I met this sexy guy, I was living in a tent next to a river and I would spend hours a day just sitting on the rocks singing songs to nature. I was living the ideal life of a saint and I didn’t even know it. I really had no awareness about it at all. There was no mastery, no hierarchy, no progress and no saving the princess at the end of level 16. There was just gratitude and feeding the kangaroo mice. And no, I wasn’t a total stoner. But this man, he was a devotee of Swami Muktananda and he was very spiritually gifted. In him, I saw a great light and I fell in love. Eventually, I left the river and bought a car and rented a room and got a job. I had borrowed some of his books and learned about enlightenment, the Vedas and other aspects of Eastern Philosophy. There were many seekers in Sedona at that time. I wanted a magical and powerful teacher like my boyfriend and people in the community had that I could learn from. I decided to go to India, find a guru, get enlightened. Yeah, and then I was going to sprout wings and fly to the moon.
Bam! Well, that’s the sound of the car that rammed mine from behind that paid for my trip. I was so excited, I had visions of chai fairies dancing in my head. I saw myself meeting a cosmic guru that would teach me all the secrets of the universe and make me all powerful. Very soon I would be enlightened, enlightened, enlightened!
That didn’t last long. I arrived during the Indian monsoon. And it went downhill from there. Once during the trip I thought I was getting enlightened, the Sanskrit mantras I had been chanting for days on end took on a life of their own in my head. “Om Namah Shivya” pounded through me like an out of control freight train. It turned out I had a really high hepatitis fever. I didn’t kill that particular disappointing messenger, though it nearly killed me. Another near enlightenment episode occurred when a famous meditation teacher (Papaji) gave me shaktipat and a bruise when he grabbed my arm really violently. My mind stopped dead in it’s tracks and I was useless for the rest of the day. By the next day though, I was once again thinking about where I was going to get my daily macaroon supplement. I can laugh about it now, but at the time, this enlightenment stuff was serious business. I was there for one reason and one reason only, to get enlightened, following in the footsteps of the world’s great Rishis. I was a great mala wielding shark hunting for my prey in the sea of Samsara.
I met spiritual people from all over the world in that place all seeking the same thing. Funny thing is, enlightenment did not seem like a big deal to the locals and I lived there nearly a year. I even learned Hindi. Maybe because they had so many pilgrimage spots to get to in their lifetimes, the place called enlightenment was just another on the list. Then again, most of the locals I met either claimed to be enlightened or had a cousin who was. Honestly, they seemed perplexed as to why all the Westerners were so serious about their spiritual expressions. But hey, if you bought them a chai, they bought your game. Indians are very sport.
The best meditation teacher I had, Maharajji Sacha Baba of Rishikesh, would read the paper and discuss current events with villagers that wandered by while he had us meditate, and he asked everyday how our stools were.
He would shake his head in a circle all classic Indian like and say, “Stools solid today?” I liked him a great deal and cried the day I showed up for our sat Sang and he had fled higher up into the Himalayas to an unknown location. Another famous teacher I sat with, Anamalai Swami, who was one of the last living direct disciples of Ramana Maharshi, actually fell asleep during Sat Sang. It was great. All these stiff backed Westerners with their eyes closed meditating hard and feelin it and this little ancient guy in a loin cloth and glasses held onto his head with string and tape starting to tip over off his cushion. I met a good friend that day due to the hysterical uncontrollable laughing fit the whole scene caused us to share. We were bad. And shoot, now that I think about it , Yogi Ram Surat Kumar sat during his darshan and one way smoked with all his beggar gear in tow. And by the way, one way smoking means smoke goes in but nothing comes out. And I mean absolutely no smoke came out of him. He was pretty cool even though he mumbled a lot. Now, I don’t want you to get the idea that I am a snob about my yogas. At the time, I was as sincere as they come. In the midst of all these times was a woman who longed for moksha in a way that looked a lot like begging for mercy. That was the year tears became a regular part of my life.
I have never been a religious cynic. When I was 18, I wrote this limerick: There once was a cynic from Munich For atheism he bet his tunic, God sent down a bolt, gave the cynic a jolt, And now he’s a no tunic eunuch.
I am not sure what that has to do with enlightenment being more of a verb than a noun, but it still cracks me up. But truly, for those of you who have not had her company, India is a horse of a different color. But it was she that broke me. She broke my illusions. I could have sworn that the tiny dog with the broken spine that was dragging the back end of it’s body around was wagging it’s tail. The young boy that was eating cigarette butts off the oil stained ground, he was delirious with ecstasy right? All the little girls and women ravaged by polio, please don’t tell me that it was because the family could only afford vaccinations for the baby boys. The man that mightily beat the horse. The shanty towns, the blood running in the open sewers next to the hospital, the black rivers, the flies covering my meal. But the horror of it wasn’t what killed me. I slowly keeled over and bit the dust Hollywood style in the face of the insistent monstrous…..aliveness. India was a giant authentic smiling face no matter what. You know what I’m talking about. It was that smile that, even years later, still ruins my ego. It is dancing Shiva, reclining Vishnu and in-trouble Brahma.
Nope. There was no enlightenment for me. I cried all the time and I was sick. I lost 30 pounds in the first 30 days and stayed over 10 months. There was no snow globe from Enlightenment City to bring back home, no brownie badge and no princess.
But I knew something important had happened to me, I just couldn’t put my finger on it. It wasn’t until my 30th year that the swans found me and dreamed me into their school. One day, my Peruvian guide began a talk by telling us that we are not seeking consciousness in this school, but aliveness. That one concept reverberated through my being over and over , turning up and down, side to side, inside and out and it did the Hokey Pokey and it turned itself about. And I realized that is what I am all about. I have been driven to embodiment. That’s how I discovered the problem. There is no last stop at the end of the busline. There is no winning field goal. Whether on this field of play or on another, the game is constantly spiraling.
I got a D in linguistics but the nuns taught me well. Years of word roots leaves Catholic children with an unasked for legacy of understanding the meanings of words whether they want to or not. And when I was seeking enlightenment, I literally thought I would receive a trophy at the end of it with a gold plaque that read “Megan McKeon – Enlightened Being.”
I hope my point is getting clearer. The paradox slithers along the razors edge between journey and goal like that creepy slug in Apocalypse Now. Enlighteningness is a dancing (yes a dancing), between the masculine and feminine, rational and irrational, feasting and fasting, responsibility and freedom, chaos and order and between the creatrix and the created. It is eating life. Yeah baby, I’ll have mine extra crispy please.
I breathe a sigh of relief because the place called enlighteningness is nowhere but present tense here. Although, it is a very large word. In fact, it is so large I could eat it for dinner and still have leftovers. Hell, I could win a game of Creative Scrabble with it. And if that word has to change self-realization also must change to self-realizingness. Or we can just throw the whole thing right out and make up a new phrase. How about enlivening or soul-ripening? English is a spiritually inferior language but I bet you can come up with something better that the current options. For Goddess sakes, don’t take my word for it. Here’s a Rumi story which describes my point exactly.
When Rumi first beheld Shams, his beloved Other and his great teacher; Shams asked him a question.
“Who is greater, Muhammad or Bestami?”
Bestami was a legendary sufi master given to ecstatic merging with God, then crying out with mystical candor that he and the Godhead were one! Muhammad was the founder of their tradition, the anointed one, but his greatness resided in his stature as messenger of God. So who was greater?
Rumi gave the approved answer, “Muhammad.”
“But Bestami said, ‘I am the glory!’
Muhammad said, ‘I cannot praise you enough!”
As Rumi was about to reply, he realized that this was no seminary debate about the mysteries. In a dusty marketplace in South central Anatolia, he had come face to face with the mystery. When Rumi revived (he went unconscious), lying on the ground, he answered, “Bestami took one swallow of knowledge and thought that was all, for Muhammad the majesty was continually unfolding.”
(From the book The Illuminated Rumi)
For Muhammad’s approval, pick something that embodies us as continuously unfolding. Lord knows I have folded and unfolded so many times I feel like my favorite beach towel. Speaking of beaches, I have to go now because the surf is up. I just had my first surf last weekend and my friends said I was a natural. The first time I stood up, I came face to face with the mystery and then I fell and got a deep cleansing of my nasal cavity. Isn’t there a sanskrit word for that?