Wise Words – Enlightenment Happens by Accident

 “Enlightenment happens by accident. Practice makes you accident-prone.”

Robert Aitken*


There is a natural paradox stitched into the fabric of spiritual practice – it requires both effort and non-effort.

We have “goals” on the spiritual path, but we hold them loosely. We want to be more conscious, enlightened, and open to the sacred experiences that crack the facade of our outer shell, but we know these can’t be reached by willful pursuit. The achievement-oriented skills we’ve learned to use in the outer world don’t work in the inner world. Trying harder makes us, well, hardened, and less open to receiving. Holding the reins too tightly keeps the horse from moving freely.

Our awakening comes in spurts, unexpected flashes sprinkled over time. By accident, so to speak. Spiritual growth is not a linear process. It is subject to our care but not our control. It’s more like preparing a field and waiting to see what sprouts. Things progress below the surface if we cultivate an openness to spontaneity, a receptivity and close listening that allow the alchemy to work at its own pace.

And, on the other hand …

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I’m Not a Very Good Mystic

I’m not a very good mystic.

I spend most of my time absorbed by the tasks and routines of the day. I would call this my ordinary state of consciousness, where I am focused on my perspective as an individual, moving through the world as a separate being. Periodically, something shifts my state. It could be a passage I read, even a single word, like “grace” or “love.” It could be a comment I overhear about someone’s troubles, or a patch of color that catches my eye from a flower bed or a shaft of light.

In these small moments, I shift into an expanded consciousness. My senses widen and I drop into a more vibrant world. I feel the current of life pass through me as everything becomes unreasonably simple and clear, and I remember I am part of something larger. The shift sometimes feels abrupt, leaving me amazed at how I could have been satisfied with the shallow perception that filled my attention just a moment ago. I wonder, “How could I ever leave this more expanded, peaceful, connected space?”

But leave it I do. I am usually pulled back into ordinary reality fairly quickly.

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It’s the Small Things That Support a Steady Practice          

There’s a funny thing that happens when I sit to meditate. 

All by themselves, my hands find a familiar spot at my waist, one atop the other, turned upward like an open cup, middle fingers nested together at the first knuckle, the tips of my thumbs barely touching, as if they could lightly hold a piece of paper.

I read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind when I started to meditate years ago, and that was how Shunryu Suzuki said to place your hands. Now, my hands take this position automatically, almost unnoticed. When I sit, this habit sets a quiet mood. Subtle signals to my brain remind me to relax and open.

This is one of the quiet advantages of keeping a routine in our practice. Our minds like the familiarity of patterns and will draw cues from repetition. Small routines work better than willpower in maintaining a spiritual practice. Setting up an environment that nudges our behavior is more effective than grit.

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The One Thing That Starts My Day on the Right Foot

Like most people, my day is a patchwork of multiple and conflicting desires. I want to have a vibrant spiritual life, but I want other things too:  I want to care for my family, I want to spend time with friends, I want to respond to my work and professional obligations, I want time to read.

Truth be told, I also want to eat chocolate, snack on peanuts, take naps and relax in front of the television (just for fun, not always something artsy or profound). In addition, I need to contend with the daily chores of life that support all the rest.

I’m busy. And it’s easy to get caught up in the small details of the day. So how do I make time in my schedule for the things that enliven my spiritual life?  A key element is having a consistent structure for how the day begins. It does not have to be elaborate or time consuming, you can start with ten minutes and if you find it useful, build up from there. I know that for me, the first activities I do after waking set the lens for the whole day. Let me share some ideas with you here.

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Find Stillness by Developing the Witness

They say that the Buddha’s first instruction was, “Relax.”  That makes sense.  It’s hard to learn something new when your body and mind are tight.  But on many days, relaxing seems impossible.  Urgent concerns and conflicting demands weigh me down.  Small packets of worry accumulate throughout the day braiding strands of tension across my neck and shoulders, pulling the muscles into knots.

“Be still.”  There’s more advice from the Buddha.  That makes sense too.  It’s hard to stay clear when you’re surrounded by noise.  But on many days, my mind is a rolling jar of marbles, a jumble of clattering voices competing for attention.  If I slow down, I’ll drown.  Wishing for stillness seems like a distance fantasy. 

The qualities of relaxation and stillness are more than ways to reduce stress.  They are steps to connecting with yourself at a deeper level.  At your core is a natural stillness that is not dependent on outer events or psychological dynamics.  When you settle into your true self, you find that relaxation and stillness are not competing with the demands of life, they help you contend with the demands of life.

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Use Silence to Engage Boredom

I check in at the front desk and fill out some paperwork.  “Have a seat Mr. Sphar.”  I sit down in the far corner of the waiting room.  I immediately feel the urge to reach for my phone.  For what?  To check email?  To scan the news?  To browse the internet?  No, those are all just vehicles for what I’m really doing – escaping the feeling of boredom.  That is what my stimulation-craving mind desperately wants to avoid.

I sneak a glance at my phone.  I’m torn.  Should I pick it up, or not?

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Conscious Coffee – A Simple Morning Ritual That Opens the Whole Day

I don’t know if the Buddha drank coffee.  I like to think that he did.  He would have taken it black, nothing added to the bare experience.

Some mornings, I take the time to pause and enjoy my coffee as bare experience.  I feel the weight and warmth of the cup, I savor the subtle aromas rising in the steam, I take a breath of air with the first hot sip and as it warms my throat and chest, I sense a gentle satisfaction flowing through my body.  Then I pause again to look up from my cup and the world seems grounded and fresh. 

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