By Cherryl Duncan
Leo Burnett, a famous American advertising executive, said, “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.” Quoting this advertising guru as a prelude to my piece on enlightenment makes me smile at the irony, which for me is another way of saying “the humor of the great mystery,” because I was one of those people who gave up my job in advertising ten years ago to pursue life as a full-time yoga teacher, and yet here I am, quoting the great advertising guru Leo Burnett.
In any event, I think his view on reaching an incredibly high goal like enlightenment paradoxically brings me closer to enlightenment, or at least closer to something that isn’t a handful of mud.
Anyone will you tell you that if you practice something consistently and passionately, forsaking all other distractions, you will most likely succeed, or at least become very very good at this thing.
I say, true! Except for the enlightenment principle (that may or may not happen in this lifetime). The enlightenment principle I refer to here is the one made famous by the historical Buddha: the state of being where one is free from all suffering, has a complete understanding of the nature of reality, has seen the interconnectedness of all things, and therefore acts with unwavering selflessness.
I can honestly say I am nowhere nearer to enlightenment than I was 12 years ago when I started practicing yoga. I gave up pretty much everything to follow this path: my job; earning any kind of real money; time spent meditating, searching, debating, retreating, and studying different forms of the same thing including Buddhism, Sutra, and my own psyche.
I took it as far as my logical and even sometimes my illogical mind (and body) could stretch, and what I came up with was more awareness, more insight into the nature of my mind (but not reality, because who can really claim to have a handle on that?), a more compassionate heart, an ability to really empathise and connect with others, an incredibly stretchy body, health and vitality, and, I would say, an above-average ability to concentrate.
But enlightened? No.
And when I look around at my fellow yogis, they don’t seem any more or less enlightened than me—and that includes ALL of the teachers I’ve had, many of whom have been practicing a lot longer than I have. And yes, I know the convenient argument all too well, the one that goes “You have to be enlightened to see an enlightened being.” Like I said, convenient.
That’s not to say I haven’t met charismatic, clever, disciplined, wonderful people, but free of their suffering? Free from their egos? Having a complete understanding of the nature of reality? No.
I can, albeit somewhat reluctantly say, some of the kindest, most evolved people I know don’t even practice yoga.
Maybe the Buddha was enlightened. Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he was just a guy who said some really wise things on how to be happy and feel free. Maybe people wrote what he said down wrong; maybe they got some bits right. Maybe he did sit down under a tree for a profoundly long time until he was enlightened, and if he did, and that’s what it’s going to take, then can we just acknowledge that, and relax the goal a little bit for people doing other things in their lives like creating, earning money, and having relationships, even if said people are pretty serious yoga practitioners?
I don’t know about you, but the pressure is starting to feel, well, what’s the opposite of enlightened?
How about we find out what enlightenment means for us individually? How about we stop beating ourselves up if we aren’t perfect or vaguely enlightened within ten years, twenty years, or even on our deathbeds? Maybe there’s a way to relax the enlightenment principle a little bit so we can get onto the business of actually living. And while we’re at it, can we stop talking about it casually in our yoga classes as an actual, achievable goal?
So what am I aiming for then? I still say aim for the stars, but with a bit of sense, a lot of curiosity and a profound appreciation for something just a little better than mud.