I’m in the here and now, and I’m meditating,
And still I’m suffering, but that’s my problem.
Enlightenment: don’t know what it is.
— Van Morrison1
Enlightenment. Don’t have it; haven’t seen it; can’t imagine it. Wouldn’t know it if it hit me over the head—or on the shoulder, jikijitsu-like. Don’t know what it is.
Reputedly, enlightenment “fixes” people. That seems appropriate, because I’m certainly broken—all the way down. But the hopelessly broken is not a candidate for repair. And I really don’t want to be put back together. Although it occasionally chokes my heart, brokenness is welcome to me in this world of suffering and failure. The liberation I want is not from the brokenness, but from the constriction. And I know where that liberation lies: it’s when I fear to feel the broken edges that I choke. But that’s my problem.
Enlightenment? Not here; not now; not for this writer. This fellow is a fraud; a shameful absurdity; a corpse preening in a mirror; a mirage obsessing over human error, fuming over intractable facts, shivering over survival. It seems that even we walking dead want to walk a while longer, look as good as possible, be admired for tricks like playing dead. At least, we want such things when we think we’re somebody. What is my original face before my parents conceived me? This I am even now: nihil sub aeternitatis specie.2 But I forget. Brokenness can do that.
And this brokenness does, indeed, go all the way down. Unlike the estimable Leonard Cohen, alchemical hero of my cohort, I’m not singing “Hallelujah!” Let the Lord of Song be serenaded as he will; the spirit groans within me as I wait with the creation for the revelation of the children of God,3 weak and broken though they be. Groaning and longing don’t appeal? I understand; “I don’t expect that you should follow me.”4 To borrow Eliot’s words, I “wait without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.”5 Hopelessness has few friends.
Enlightenment eludes me, but endarkenment: that I know. It is my spiritual condition, a kind of seeing in and by the dark. Maybe it’s the other side of enlightenment; maybe it’s a synthesis of enlightenment and ignorance; maybe it’s madness. In any case, one doesn’t get it by taking thought, nor does one get it by not taking thought;6 one simply opens one’s eyes in the unity of light and dark, good and evil, life and death, yes and no. So it’s all the same to me? No, it isn’t; perhaps if it were I’d be enlightened. But it’s all “not-two”7 to me, and that makes all the difference. I can’t rest in half-measures.
And so I rest in endarkenment, simultaneously seduced and repelled by the dark beauty of our Darwinian world. Or, I should say, I unrest here: I cannot “say ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace.”8 It may be that “all manner of thing shall be well,”9 but not yet, not now. Life is suffering,10 and the end of suffering is the end of life: surely, no satori could switch off all pain sensors, confer immortality, or take the anguish of the world from my heart. Life is suffering, and the less suffering I bear, the less deeply I live—and the more other creatures bear for me. Where is the light in that? What spirit would move me so? Yes, “I’m in the here and now, and I’m meditating, and still I’m suffering,” but that’s not my problem.
Endarkened here and now, I am a failure as a Buddhist; degodded long ago, I have failed at Christianity as well. I belong nowhere, a solitary broken heart who wanders through life working and writing, poorly but never poorly enough, from a longing to love. Understanding that, I no longer hope for enlightenment; I want only to become ever more faithful to what I am—to be better attuned to not-twoness, more courageous in accepting brokenness, less limited in offering love. Those who feel a similar longing will know what I mean.
1. Van Morrison, the title song from Enlightenment (1990), an excellent collection. (Excerpt punctuation provided by me.)
2. “Nothing from the point of view of eternity.” Quoting the Latin phrase here probably qualifies as Spinoza-abuse; it’s lifted from Prop. XXXI of his Ethics, where he uses it in a very different way.
3. See Romans 8.
4. Justin Hayward, “Shame,” from The View From the Hill (1996), another recommended collection of songs. “Shame” seems to express a sense of the “not-twoness” mentioned later in this essay.
5. T. S. Eliot, “East Coker.” From Four Quartets, first published as a collection in 1944.
6. See Eicho (1429-1504 C.E.), Zenrin Kushu.
7. See Chien-chih Seng-ts’an (d. 606 C.E.), “On Believing in Mind.”
8. Jeremiah 6:1: “They have healed also the hurt of my people superficially, saying, ‘Peace, peace!’ when there is no peace.”
9. Julian of Norwich.
10. The Buddha’s “First Noble Truth.”