In our lives, we will experience what feel like instantaneous realizations; these ‘ah-ha!’ moments of insight, understanding, and awareness can happen in a split second. These peak, intense experiences are so important to our journeys of growth and our paths through life, but there’s also an importance in the time spent integrating, metabolizing, and deeply embodying those moments of realization so that they can be applied throughout every moment of our lives.
Instantaneous awakening occurs because of one’s long-term relationship with their practice
One of the reasons I’m particularly drawn to this topic is because I grew up in a Zen Buddhist monastery, and there are a lot of Zen stories that have to do with the lightning bolt of realization. They all have to do with some young monk practicing the teachings for years and years, and then one day seeing something like a pebble hit a bamboo stalk, and suddenly attaining awakening. A similar idea is that of a student studying with a teacher over time, and the teacher one day saying the exact right thing that sparks awakening for the student. Essentially, there’s a lot of stories that speak to students or practitioners experiencing total awakening, apparently, in an instant.
Personally, I tend towards desiring the slower burn, or the deep integration of one’s learning that takes time and effort to achieve.
What I think people often miss in their interpretations of these stories is that they all happen in the context of long-term relationships with one’s spiritual practice, or one’s personal growth, and through working with a teacher over a long period of time. In every one of these stories, there’s the regular, continual, mundane practice being performed each and every day (often a very boring form of meditation, or sweeping, bowing, raking, or washing dishes) until one day when the awakening “suddenly” happens. So even though the stories themselves speak to the lightning bolt moment of awakening, they happen within the context of the greater time spent working through practices and connecting to a teacher and immersing oneself in the long-term, daily practice of each lesson.
There is a quote within the American Zen community: “Enlightenment is an accident; practice (meditation) makes us accident prone.”
I think this gets lost in the current culture. For example, a lot of online marketing promises results in a very short amount of time – almost faster than you could believe is possible. I do believe insight can absolutely strike us in an instant. But what nurtures the ground of awareness to allow for an insight to land? What it takes to actually integrate that insight into our lives, and to metabolize it such that we can truly embody it over time in different circumstances with different people in our lives – this takes practice; regular, consistent practice, over time.
Possessing insight about something does not mean you are ready to address it.
I tend to think about this in a few different ways. One is that there really can be value in a retreat experience or an intensive where you do a deep dive into practice, or where you’re up against yourself. It’s like a pressure cooker. Different insights can happen in the crucible of this kind of container, and we can access different parts of ourselves. These moments can shift things internally such that, in some way, we truly will never be the same. At that point, there is no going back. We’ve seen the realization, whatever it may be, and now we can’t unsee it.
However, what I’ve seen consistently from people I’ve worked with is that many times people will have an awareness and think that’s it. They’ll think, well, I understand it, or I saw a new possibility, so now it will change. This isn’t wrong, but it’s not the complete truth either.
Having an awareness about something within yourself does not mean you are ready to change or shift it, and it certainly doesn’t mean it will necessarily shift immediately. In fact, it’s often 3-10 steps down the path. There’s an important in-between part, which is found in the space between seeing the habit, or understanding where a response comes from, but not yet having the mechanisms or the tools you need in order to actually create new behaviors consistently.
Embodiment takes weaving and metabolizing these threads into our lives over time.
One of the possibilities that might happen is you may begin to see every place in your life where this habit or response occurs. Once taken out of the retreat experience, or whatever environment you were in when you had the awakening, you’ll realize you haven’t had the time to fully integrate this awareness into something you can embody in your relationship with your parents, your partner, your children, or your coworkers. You haven’t yet found the way to embody this awareness in a deep way over time in such a way that you can properly respond in any particular situation.
What I do to combat this is working with people over time, and taking small and consistent steps, to tease out the threads and then find a way to weave them back into the beautiful tapestry of your life. I hope that all of us will be alive for a long time from now, and hopefully, whatever insight or awareness we have right now will have years to be put into practice with ourselves, with other people, and with different aspects of our lives.
At different points, we may find ourselves asking, didn’t I already deal with this? Didn’t I have an insight about this last week? Or last year? Why is this still coming up? When people have this experience, they often think they are broken, because they ‘just can’t get it (right)’. This is not the case at all! It simply takes time; time, and consistent practice. Very few things can truly change in an instant – and actually be changed forever. There are many things that we can have a new awareness or insight about in an instant, but it takes time to metabolize and embody that awareness to turn it into new ways of being and responding.
Supporting yourself with a community
One of the things that is most helpful in this process is to have a community of people that can see you throughout the process over time and help you remember where you were at different parts of your process. People who can say, I have seen you, not only in a 360 degree view right now, but also over time, and I can see how these threads weave within the long term path of your life.
We could call this the journey of transformation, or of personal growth, but in some ways it’s just the journey of life. If we’re lucky, we get to grow in the process, we get to have teachers to show us the way, and we get to be part of wonderful communities to walk this path with us.
Think of it like this: we start this process at the base of a mountain. We start walking around the mountain, because everything is new, and exciting, and it’s easier than going straight up. But we’re not just going around, we’re also going up, in a spiral. And there will inevitably come a time when we hit something that looks very similar to the spot we started at. A lot of people will hit this spot and feel hopeless, because it feels so similar to what they already worked through. But what they don’t realize is, they aren’t actually in the same spot. They’ve been going up incrementally with each step around. So even though you’re at the same spot in terms of longitude, your latitude has changed.
If we don’t have people who have known us over time, we can convince ourselves that we’re in the same spot (and even get stuck there, or end up going back down the mountain!). But if we do have a good community of people who have been there for us and supported us over time, they can remind us that we have been going up as well. And that our perspective has actually changed since the last time we went this way around. This community of positive reinforcement and clear reflection is what gives us the stamina to keep going on the next circuit around the mountain. And the more we walk this path, the more we’ll be able to do this for ourselves and others as well.
I truly believe that this process takes community. Whether that is a cultivated, created container of community, or whether we have that community in our lives naturally, or whether it’s a bit of both – we need people who can offer a true reflection of ourselves from all perspectives, and who have witnessed us over time. These are the people who can remind us of every struggle that we’ve gone through on this journey around the mountain, everything we’ve overcome, every place we’ve rested, and every way we’ve fortified ourselves. It both makes the journey more beautiful and gives us the stamina to keep going.