Waking up a little at a time. Making progress with love is a phrase Leela gave me in 2007 to replace enlightenment. Words that suggest a static state as the goal of the spiritual quest are misleading. The spiritual quest has no endpoint. There is always more progress to be made, more enlightened to become. Making progress with love was the theme of a website I wrote about the spiritual quest after I woke up a little in 2006.
The enlightenment fallacy is the widespread belief you can get enlightened or saved all at once. There's no such thing as enlightenment or salvation except by tiny degrees. The spiritual quest is not a thing, not a state. There are no fixed states. Making progress with love is ongoing, and everyone working to make their life better is part of it. It doesn't make life easier, it makes it more challenging. You have to give up old ways to have new ones. I had to give up all my easy outs. No booze, no drugs, no entertainment. I have to live life unanesthetized and undistracted to make progress. But it's the only thing that makes life worth living, that gives it meaning. Making progress changes everything, but slowly, imperceptibly. I don't notice it as it happens. My normal resting state right now would have felt blissful a year ago. The misery I inflict on myself with negative thought patterns is finally going away. Leela gave me the gift of inner silence. That's the only remedy for obsessive thinking. I call it a gift because it feels that way but it was actually the result of more than a year of dogged, sometimes unpleasant effort on my part. Then it was a blissful moment followed by six months of psychological torture so extreme I drove myself to the emergency room as soon as it started. I was afraid I was dying. What getting zapped or saved doesn't have in it is hard work, and the hard work never ends, and when I make progress it always feels like it's tearing me up inside, and it is. It's tearing old me down so new me can emerge.
Atman is Brahman is the classic Hindu teaching of nondualism, aka mystical union or oneness. I have the potential to make progress with love, to become more like god because I already am god. I just lost sight of that somewhere along the way. We all did. We have to lose sight of our oneness to make this an interesting game, a game worth playing. A game that requires an uncountable number of lifetimes to win, where winning is simply finding a deeply satisfying fulfilling life in the midst of this mess. That's a vision of heaven I can relate to, heaven right here. When Leela first insisted I contemplate Atman is Brahman I found it riveting but mystifying. It became a practice, a meditation: just consider the possibility. What if it were true? It became my new koan, and like all the koans Leela has given me over the years it's been fruitful. As I contemplated nondualism, my experience of it morphed from bewilderment to acceptance to growing appreciation. The experience of oneness is no longer something I find only in transcendent peak experiences. It's a simple practice: seeing all this as not different from me. There is no other. Instead of having to grapple with all this, simply seeing that I am all this.
The wisdom of the moment. Attention is my secret to making progress with love. I make progress any time I turn away from thinking and pay attention to the present moment inside and out. If my head is full of thinking I can't be present because the mental noise demands my attention. But if I'm paying attention and present in any moment, I gain the wisdom of that moment. Every moment has wisdom. This is a vast topic I can't write about. I'm not trying to keep any secrets. Attention is wordless; it can't be spoken or written of. All these stories taken together are about attention.
Honest self examination. What I'm working on in these stories is a crucial element in making progress: brutally honest self examination. Looking at my whole life for what it is and isn't and pulling no punches with myself. No human life is a pretty picture if you look at it this closely, this unflinchingly. Making progress with love is no fun. It's never comfortable. I have to find my own weak areas then hit them especially hard, going overboard if anything in owning up to my own self delusion, my own pettiness and meanness. Exposing all the things I would rather not see about myself in broad daylight. All the things I drank to hide from. It's no wonder winning the game is such an unpopular option.
Contend and become. That was the name of the second website I wrote, back in the day. I thought I knew what it meant back then but I didn't. I was deluding myself. Contending means whenever an unpleasant sensation or feeling arises inside me I don't try to escape it or even ameliorate it. I turn to it, dive into it, struggle as hard as I can to grasp it, to understand what it's about. That includes physical pain of all kinds. I'm perfectly willing to use painkillers if I can satisfy myself that I know why this hurts and painkillers are the right answer. I err on the side of bearing pain and discomfort until I'm sure. That's the kind of gumption required: no easy outs. No slacking off until it's genuinely time to rest. As TH taught us, just because you're out of one kind of energy it doesn't mean you're out of energy.
Headroom. There's no shortage of headroom on the spiritual quest. Enlightenment and words to that effect make it sound like a one-time deal: roshi whacks me on the skull and Hey, I'm enlightened! Waking up is another phrase used to name the goal. It's even worse. I think of waking up as a one-time deal because that's how I experience it: I was sleeping then I woke up. Enlightenment and waking up work fine to express the goal if I understand the process. Enlightenment means having a little more light; waking up means waking up a little more. The advantage of making progress with love: ongoing spiritual work is built in. Making progress implies no endpoint.
Progress with love focuses my attention on love. That's another reason it's a better term. The wisdom I've gained is my personal connection to Leela. She is all of this: the universe, the world, all of time and space, whatever you want to call it. Calling it love makes it real in human terms: everyone longs for love.
Falling. Making spiritual progress feels a little like falling in love. Making progress connects me with the playfulness of the world. That's what separates making progress from the dreary and laborious formal meditation practices spiritual teachers would have me do. I don't listen to them. I have to find my own way to make progress. Playful spiritual work connects me with love. My longing for love is the foundation of my spiritual quest. Spiritual work feels like play, like falling in love. It's the fullest expression of falling in love. If it doesn't feel at least a little bit like falling in love, I'm on the wrong track.
Not blind faith. As I study how my life has unfolded, I keep discovering how much of my life has been a gift of love. Every good thing that has ever happened to me, and every good thing I've ever accomplished, has been the work of wisdom. I haven't done any of it. It has all been the unfoldment of love in my life via guidance from Leela. Thinking of it as my own accomplishment mires me in the ugly sin of pride. To go on from here Leela demands I have faith in her, in love. Deeply informed faith founded on the overwhelming evidence that love has always taken care of me. I have to have faith love always will. My faith makes it possible for me to step up to the seemingly impossible demands of love.