When Elizabeth and I started practicing, we were both heavily influenced by the book Three Pillars of Zen, in which the idea of enlightenment was one of the main themes. Many of us who read this were left with the idea that we had to try to become enlightened—meaning, that through our hard efforts we would have a miraculous breakthrough from our normal way of perceiving reality, thus achieving a permanent change in our state of being. Enlightenment was viewed as a state that would relieve us of all anxiety and distress, and moreover, that it would be a permanent state of wisdom and freedom. Thus the emphasis in practice, whether through koan study or concentration on the breath, was to achieve a special state of mind—in other words, to feel, and to be, different in a significant way.
It’s good to ask ourselves whether the hope of enlightenment motivates us, even in subtle ways—like expecting a breakthrough experience to relieve us of our difficulties. And if enlightenment is not part of our motivation, does that mean our practice is primarily about getting rid of anxiety and distress—with no greater sense of things?
One of the things that many of us did learn was that it was certainly possible to have opening or so called “enlightenment experiences,” where it was clear that all is one, or that all is love. But it was equally clear that these moments of insight rarely lasted very long, nor did they have a significant residual effect. In other words, the experiences were not permanent, nor did we change very much from having them.
Some people found this very discouraging, and once the magical promise of practice was gone, they left practice altogether. Some of us were fortunate enough to see through the illusion that we brought with us to practice: namely, that if we practiced long and hard enough we would be free from difficulty permanently. This illusion, which is so typical of our tendency toward black or white thinking, has to be seen through before real practice can take hold. Genuine practice is never black or white; it’s almost always based on paradox, such as the fact that while everything is a mess, all is still well.
Practice is also lived in a world of continuums and change, where nothing is permanent, including enlightenment. In fact, rethinking the idea of enlightenment, it makes much more sense in terms of a continuum—or perhaps we could say “gradual enlightening.” This highlights the gradual nature of awakening, rather than reifying it as a permanent state.
What does gradual enlightening actually mean? First, it means becoming increasingly free from the attachment to the prison of our persona, with its deeply ingrained conditioned patterns. This is why practice has to focus, in part, on awareness of our individual psychology. This means bringing mindfulness to our thoughts, to see where we’re stuck in rigid beliefs about ourselves and about life. For example, everyone has some version of the belief that they’re fundamentally not enough in some way. For some this may take the form of “I’m unworthy.” For others the belief may be “I’m flawed.” But whatever form it takes, it will certainly dictate how we feel and act, and until we see it clearly it will guarantee our unhappiness. Becoming free of such deeply believed thoughts is one of the key steps in the process of gradual enlightening.
Likewise, we need to see through our deeply conditioned emotional reactions, and the behavior patterns that come out of them. Again, this is sometimes viewed as the realm of psychology, but working with our anger and anxiety, or working with our addictions and escapes, is not just a psychological process. It requires meticulous mindfulness and unrelenting honesty with ourselves. And the fruit of this work—as we become increasingly less dominated by our anger, anxiety and the many related unskillful behavior patterns—is freedom from the burden of our conditioning. This is part of what it means to become more awake.
Apart from freedom from being caught in our personal psychological conditioning, gradual enlightening has another key component. This is where we gradually become free from our very limited bubble of perception. Normally we think we see reality, but what we see is our own subjective perceptions, filtered through all of our associations and desires, as well as through language and conditioning. We create this bounded world to survive and make sense of things, yet, when we live only in our bubble of perception, only in the solid world of fixed boundaries, we are cut off from the totality, the mystery of our being.
This is why we cultivate awareness of physical reality—to gradually open into a wider and more spacious awareness. Starting with mindfulness of the breath, and then increasingly opening out of our limited bubble, we can perhaps have occasional tastes of the vastness. As the curtain of separation lifts, we begin to understand that we are more than just our thoughts, or just our body. And as this understanding gradually develops we begin to experience, within ourselves, the connectedness that life truly is. The lifetime process of deepening this understanding is an essential aspect of gradual enlightening.
A third aspect of gradual enlightening is the long process of becoming free from living with a closed and disconnected heart. When we begin practice we are normally so caught up in our separate self—with all of our stories, complaints, entitlements and desires—that we can rarely get in touch with the love or appreciation that reflect our true nature. This is why we cultivate awareness of the heart, including emphasizing the importance of living from gratitude, loving kindness, and compassion. The cultivation of these qualities takes time, and it requires that we work with all the internal barriers that get in the way. Yet there is nothing more satisfying in practice than dropping our self-centeredness and learning to live from kindness and the open heart. As much as anything, this learning is part of the process of gradual enlightening.
Part of the path is to leave the myths and over-simplifications about enlightenment behind. At that point the three-fold path of gradual enlightening can begin: first, becoming free of identification with our persona; second, expanding out from our limited bubble of perception; and third, no longer living from a closed and disconnected heart.
edited from Living Authentically: Waking Up From Complacency and Fear