The word “enlightenment” is one of those New-Agey, mysterious words that I wanted to understand the moment I heard it. The more I heard about this vague concept of becoming highly spiritual, the more elusive it seemed to be. It was like trying to catch a butterfly: it kept flitting out of reach the more I chashed it. In an attempt to understand how each religion believes you become enlightened, I studied it, hoping to catch it. For six months I studied world religions; I even took a college course in world religion. But for me, an academic understanding was not enough. I also practiced each tradition in an effort to understand and experience them firsthand.
First I became the humble pupil of a Sufi Master who made me sit on a dirty floor and eat yellow rice with raisins as we stared at each other without speaking for a whole hour … yes, a whole hour. Next I joined a group of “progressive” Muslims, and did the whirling dance with taseled and devoted Sufis, quietly taking my place in the back row because I was a woman.
I fasted on Ramadon as a Muslim, until my stomach rang out with hunger.
I learned the Talmud's complex daily prayers, and purchased a prayer rug.
I bowed down to the East five times a day, praying with millions of unseen Muslims around the world. I learned from this that Muslims are a devoted and close-knit bunch, but were kind enough to include me.
Next, I tried Buddhism. I built a Buddhist shrine in my living room with statues, offerings and incense, and I meditated for hours … many, many hours. I was secluded and sequestered in silence like a nun, observing my own peculiar monkey mind until after months of intension meditation, it settled down to a dull roar. I studied The Buddha's life-reading so many books on Buddhism that I lost count. Lastly, I read about the Hindu Babas and gurus, and I learned to love them, too. I renunciated the world, and mammon … just as they had. I experienced a mystical state known as Samadhi after practicing transcendental mediation. Finally-something that had the power to whisk me away from my mind. At last! I was on to something … I could feel impending enlightenment.
Alas, it never arrived. After six months of sitting on hard floors, starving myself, praying, meditating, and renunciating, I was haggard. I yarned for a soft bed, a second helping, and the freedom to say “No!” to the 5am call to prayer. Reluctantly, I returned to my egocentric Westernly ways, nearly as confounded as when I began my spiritual journey. It seemed all my seeking had come to naught. Months after I'd put all the asceticism behind me, it occurred to me out of the blue, when I was not even thinking about it, how the Buddha had attained enlightenment! The illusive answer had been right in front of me all along … why had not I seen it?
The Buddha started out as a wealthy prince who lived in splendor and luxury, but he left his palace to wander the countryside in search of enlightenment. In an effort to humble himself, he was homeless-starving himself, flogging himself, and meditating unceasingly. A wiser ascetic came along and pointed out that all the severe denial and punishment hadrought him no closer to God than when he was still eating. I guess he could not argue, because Siddhartha, now emaciated, starving and near death, has inveighed and began to eat one grain of rice at a time, until he regained his strength. Having done all he knew to do to understand God and the nature of reality, The Buddha parked himself under a Bodhi tree. He said to God (paraphrased): 'I will not move until you show me the truth of who you are, and why we are here.' He realized that this might be the hill on which he'd die, but still, he vowed not to move from that spot until the answer came.
For the first time, Siddhartha sat still; he was not chasing enlightenment. For the first time, he was not chasing after God, but humbly asking God to come find him. For the first time, he was receiving and not “learning” God's attention. By sitting still, the Buddha was making a statement. He was admitting to the one truth he had avoided for so long: that God is unfathomable, and our limited minds will never fully comprehend the Divine . Under that tree, the Buddha washed a silent white flag of surrender, and admitted the truth: that he was a human, and God was God. He humbled himself., Admitting in silent resignation that God was unknowable, unfathomable. As he did, it is said that evil spirits came to oppose the Buddha, to attack and frighten him, hoping to move him from beneath the tree, his place of beautiful surrender. He blew out a single breath, and like a mighty wind … pop! The demons were demolished. The Buddha sat still even longer … humbled, small, and completely without answers-until enlightenment, that elusive butterfly, came to alight on his shoulder. The second it landed, he was the all-knowing man, and became what his name means: the awakened one.
The Buddha's secret? Enlightenment found him , while all his driving could not find enlightenment. I realized then I had made the same mistake as the Buddha in my zeal for spirituality: I was being searching for something that only comes once we are humbled, still, fully human … and surrendered. The day I discovered the Buddha's secret, I stopped chasing enlightenment. Now when asked about how to become more spiritual I recommend, as the Sufi poet Rumi said: “Let the butterflies come to you.”