“The experience of working with the body unlocks memories and images and emotions that become fuel. This fuel creates a fire in us, a fire of all the vivid and intense pain held by the previously rejected aspects of experience. That pain is a fire that gradually burns up the structure of the ego – it is a visceral inferno . . . According to the early tradition, enlightenment itself is when the fuel is all used up. Awareness, no longer tied up in evasionary tactics, is set free and liberated to its full extent.” -- From “Touching Enlightenment” by Reggie Ray
I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a lot of fuel, baby, just stacked up like firewood waiting for a winter storm when there’s nothing better to do than write and drink tea and stoke the fire. And then watch it burn.
There’s something comforting in all this, in the idea that enlightenment is a state of being that even the minimally self-aware can work toward over the course of a life. That it’s not just about meditation, deprivation, or nourishing the body on intellect alone. Not saying those are bad things, or that they don’t help the process, but they are also things most people don’t do, whereas the unlocking of memories and emotions, the experience of pain – these things come to us unbidden. It’s almost as though enlightenment is inevitable, if you just live long enough, or you make the tiniest effort to pursue it with however many days you have in this body.
“To truly enjoy life, to see yourself and others in fresh ways, you must be willing to let go of the stories that keep you tied to the past.” -- Linda Kohanov
From my new perch in the Tehachapi Mountains of southern California, I’ve officially joined the ranks of Billy Collins’ Window Watchers. Clouds as big as the mountains across the valley from my house roll past my windows, their hulking forms blocking out the farmland below, their slow turning and constant shifting a welcome distraction. From the silence. The work. The burning of fuel and letting go.
In the same article, “Touching Enlightenment,” Reggie Ray writes,
“For me, and for many people I know, there is a kind of divine intervention that arrives at our doorstep and calls us back to our body. This can take many forms: injury, illness, extreme fatigue, impending old age, sometimes emotions, feelings, anxiety, anguish, or dread that we don’t understand and can’t handle. But at a certain point we start to get pulled back into our body. One way or the other, something comes in, sometimes with a terrifying crash, and begins to wake us up.”
I literally woke up about four months ago and found myself fully inhabiting my human form. It hurt enough to leave me giddy. I sucked tequila straight from the bottle in an effort to self-medicate. I stopped eating when food just lodged in my throat. Suddenly there was no room for what I should do in my life, only what I could do. My ego was completely at the mercy of my physical self. Ray continues,
“When we operate in a disembodied state, we tend to understand the experiences of our life as random, relatively insignificant, and boring. We go to great lengths to try to find something interesting or significant in our life. The more boring and gray everything gets, the more we look to sex or violence or mind-altering substances or anything that can give us some kind of rush--anything to break through the phenomenal boredom and general meaninglessness of our existence. We may find ourselves thinking, “Next week I’m going to this great restaurant where maybe I can have a meal I actually enjoy,” or “Next month I’m going on vacation and maybe then I will be in a place that will actually catch my attention and mean something,” and so on.
According to the Yogachara teachings of Indian Buddhism, the problem with our life does not lie in the individual circumstances or occurrences of our day-to-day existence. It’s not that they’re inherently meaningless and boring. The problem is that we make them meaningless and boring; because we are so invested in maintaining our own sense of self, we actually don’t relate to anything in a direct way. Unwilling to fully live the life that is arriving in our bodies moment by moment, we find ourselves left with no real life at all.”
No real life at all. This is exactly where I found myself when I came to that November day. A commuter since 2004, I sat in traffic and pretended it was meditation. I diligently worked in my cubicle and told myself it was meaningful, all the while counting my accruing vacation hours and planning events for the unknown date at which my real life would begin. I was absent in my primary relationship, and I was in the midst of a long stint of Not Writing.
Reggie Ray reminds us that in traditional Theravada meditation text, we are invited to touch enlightenment with our bodies – not to see it with our minds. He says that “The phrase from the early text, when understood fully, implies not only that we are able to touch enlightenment with our bodies, but that we must do so--that in fact there is no other way to touch enlightenment except in and through our bodies.”
I wish I could have recognized all the Not Writing for what it was: a full-scale retreat from life, and from my body, through which all the sensations of life are translated. But now here I am, building my own fires and sifting through the ashes, 16 pounds lighter, my own boss at least half the time, letting the shards of life pierce my new skin each day and once again Writing.
As painful as it is to endure the papercuts and puffy bruises of unrequited love, and however awkward the unlocking of the body may be at times, I wouldn’t give it up for anything. My sense of self was my prison. Now I don’t know just who I am, but at least I am set free, at least I am starting to understand that enlightenment is something we can touch.
Enough window-watching, I’ve got firewood to stack.