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 …

It takes dedication to cultivate the inner space of openness that allows the allowing. Without a commitment to regular practice (meditation, yoga, martial arts, prayer, chanting, journaling, lectio divina, nature walks, service, contemplation, alter devotion, or countless other disciplines), it’s hard to set the conditions that make allowing, openness, and spontaneous insight possible.

Maintaining a balance between effort and non-effort is a mindset, an internal stance of faith. It takes a willingness to put in the time on the zafu, at the dojo, in the reading chair, at the writing desk, on the yoga mat, in your evening prayers, trusting that something is happening even when progress is not apparent. We are working to shift the nature of our being, which can be tediously slow. It grows like a plant, imperceptibly day to day, but always spreading its roots below and shooting its tender leaves out and up.

And when the conditions cohere, something happens, and we are taken by a serendipitous moment of wonder, beauty, kindness, or heightened perception that seems to come out of nowhere. By accident, you might say. Our awareness expands to a richer texture, our scattered thoughts drop away, and we remember who we are in the larger context of our true being. These moments come more often and more deeply because of the commitment we have made to attend to the care of our soul day by day by day.

Whatever spiritual practice feeds your inner fire, keep to it. Find a way to fit it comfortably into your daily routine, as ordinary as brushing your teeth.

*Roshi Robert Aitken was one of the early Western teachers of Zen Buddhism after World War II. The quote above is often attributed to him, though he said in an interview he was paraphrasing early sources. No matter, the wisdom endures just the same.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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