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Dear Spiritual Seeker: Fully Human & Fully Awake

Dear Spiritual Seeker,

There’s a story about the Buddha - that shortly after his enlightenment, he was met on the road by a man who was clearly awestruck by the Buddha’s peaceful radiance.

Assuming that he was some kind of celestial being, the man asked him, “Are you a god?” The Buddha replied “No.” The man tried several other guesses, but each time the Buddha said “No.”

Finally, the man asked, “Well, what are you?”

The Buddha replied simply, “I am awake.”

For spiritual seekers like you and I, we are walking the path of awakening. But what does it mean to be truly awake? If waking up means to discover a perfect peace and a perfect love within ourselves, we may feel ourselves a long way off from perfection. Our lives, both personally and collectively, might feel more chaotic and uncertain than ever before.

How do we find enlightenment in the middle of such a mess?

The truth is: the only place to find enlightenment is in the middle of a mess. Waking up doesn’t mean we stop being human beings living complicated lives on a very complicated planet. It’s not about blocking out our emotions, never being angry or depressed, or being oblivious to the problems of the world.

In the Zen tradition, a buddha that feels nothing, thinks nothing, and experiences nothing is called a “stone buddha” - like the buddha statue sitting in my backyard garden. In fact, I have buddha statues all over my house and I treat each of them with reverence - but our goal is not to become like a statue.

It is to become fully human & fully awake.

These two states - human & awake - are not in conflict with one another. On the contrary, they are complimentary states of being.

When you are experiencing heavy waves of emotion, when you feel confused or lost, you have not failed at being a spiritual person. You have not suddenly become a failure at spirituality simply because the messiness of life came knocking at your door.

The wise spiritual traditions of the world remind us that “messiness” - in the form of change, uncertainty, suffering - is part of the fabric of the reality we find ourselves in.

Taoism teaches us, of course, about yin & yang - the ever-alternating, ever-balancing energies of light & dark, joy & pain, fortune & misfortune. The wise person doesn’t plant their feet on one side of that equation and demand to stay forever in the light, in joy, in good fortune. Instead, the person living in accordance with the Tao walks the fine line balanced between yin & yang, accepting all as it comes, at peace within themselves.

Our inner peace doesn’t grow from the assurance that everything is always going to work out in our favor, that we will never suffer, that we have transcended all forms of messiness. True peace arrives when we realize we have within ourselves the capacity of a buddha to move through all forms of messiness with grace - with kindness to ourselves and others, with the wisdom that no matter how intense the suffering feels, it too shall pass.

This grace, kindness, and wisdom actually give us permission to feel what we’re feeling - without shame, without the fear that it will overwhelm us.

That moment, when we can be fully with what is - without judgment, without fear, but greeting it with grace - that moment is a taste of being fully human & fully awake.

So you do not have to wait for the messiness of life to disappear before you wake up. In fact, if that is what you’re waiting for, you’ll be waiting for a long time. But enlightenment is not some far-off event in the future. Enlightenment is right here, now, in this moment, when we greet our life fully, just as it is.


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