An excerpt From Betsy Chasse’s Tipping Sacred Cows
Available at Your favorite Bookseller.
“Betsy’s writing makes you feel like you’re chatting over a glass of wine in your living room with your girlfriends. She is raw, open, honest, and hilarious as she tries to figure out what the hell to make of this life. Tipping Sacred Cows is an emotional journey of self-destruction and discovery, and you’re rooting for her through the laughter and tears like you would a best friend.” – Jenny McCarthy – Co-Host The View
Enlightenment Says, Huh?
Ionce sat on a plane next to a young Buddhist monk. We struck up a conversation, and I learned he was traveling home after being in Burma for several years. He was originally from Laguna Beach and had left his silver-spooned, surfboarded upbringing for a simpler life. He had decided that seeking con- nection to his higher self and being free from the trappings of his consumer-driven life was the way to go.
We were sitting in coach, stuffed in with people travel- ing home, traveling toward vacation, traveling for work, and
traveling to visit. Traveling toward and from—that is what we were all doing—and because people traveling on planes share this simple commonality, there is that instant connection where we look around and say, Hey, look, we’re all in this together, and form an insta-tribe. Which apparently equals permission to share stories with strangers.
The young monk was smooth shaven with a smooth, bald head, and perhaps owing to the abundance of smoothness, he could have been any age between twenty and forty. His conge- niality was positively evangelical in its sincerity. It made me want to be him or do whatever he was doing to achieve such an isn’t-life-wonderful glow.
When the captain’s disembodied voice announced we had reached our cruising altitude of thirty thousand feet, the monk apparently felt that we were elevated enough for him to talk about his spiritual journey. He shared his stories of fasting for enlightenment, trekking through the Himalayas for enlightenment, and spending months in silence, seeking the wisdom of the cosmos (for enlightenment, I assume). I was pretty impressed; I can’t sit in silence for ten minutes, let alone for months at a time. He emanated a feeling of pure love and sereneness (plus congeniality), and he had that little monk laugh as if everything were funny. It said, “I am truly living in bliss.”
As the plane landed and the rest of us zombies—the shuffling masses lost in an illusion the monk seemed to have risen above—dug at our feet for our collection of material com- forts, I half expected him to float off the plane, never touching the ground. Anticlimactically, that didn’t happen. Instead we said our good-byes, and he ambled away, high-top Keds peeking out from under his robes.
I made my way down to baggage claim, following the arrows that pointed vaguely in a general direction—you know, like when it could either be pointing toward the escalator or the hallway that continues past the escalator. Those vague markers that point toward several choices when all you want is one clearly delineated, correct path toward your luggage, are about the most annoying things in an airport. Just tell me exactly which way to go, please, so I can get the crap I need to continue on with my life. And, yes, there is a possible analogy to be made there, but not yet, as this was before I knew enough to notice I was in the middle of a metaphor.
The baggage claim areas in airports are always interesting places to watch people spaz, just a little. First, you never know if you are at the right carousel because the scroll board isn’t updated by the time you get there, so you have no confirmation that you are actually where you are supposed to be. So there you are, standing next to a nonmoving conveyer belt, surreptitiously looking at everyone around you to see if you recognize anyone from your flight. Second, there is the anxiety of waiting for your luggage once the conveyer belt has started—what if it didn’t make the plane? But really, there is an odd limbo-ness in bag- gage claim; it is both a destination and a stopover to a later destination. Limbo indeed.
There I was, a zombie, standing in limbo, looking around surreptitiously to see if I was with my plane-tribe, and there he was again, the smooth monk, standing with a cart and waiting for his luggage. It dawned on me that maybe it was odd for a
Buddhist monk to be waiting in baggage claim, because wasn’t not having stuff kind of the point? Then, rousing from my zom- bie stupor, I watched the utter absurdity of this little man fighting gallantly to pull not one, not two, but three Tumi suit- cases off the conveyer belt. And these weren’t the imitation Tumi either. These were designer—steel, with the four wheels that go in all directions. Very fancy for a monk. Hell, they were fancy for me and everyone I know. The moment totally tickled my irony bone.
I watched, delighted with the incongruity, as he muscled the luggage onto his cart and headed for the door. I gathered my fully realized, and fully cheap, Walmart duffel bag and headed for the curb myself. And there he was, yelling into a cell phone: “Mom, I told you I was landing at three today, not tomorrow. God dammit!”
I decided I could take trekking through the Himalayas off my list in my search for enlightenment, because clearly it wasn’t hiding there.
The monk’s stories about his spiritual journey to find enlightenment and my own journey to baggage claim and what it illuminated in a different way made me think about my own enlightenment in general. Could I really do what I thought enlightenment meant? Could I really walk away from everything in my life just so I could live in perpetual lightness and bliss? I couldn’t imagine my kids thinking an orange robe was enough clothing, a shaved head was a good look, or that eating only one bowl of soup once a day was awesome. Would it be worth it? Was it possible to be enlightened and still have a life? What was enlightenment, and did I want it?
I find that sometimes getting back to the basics, digging down to the core of a concept and gaining clarity about its meaning, helps me know exactly what it is I am seeking so that I may actually find it. In order to do that, I think it’s important to understand the origins of the terminology, to figure out where the philosophies and ideas came from and what their original meaning was. If I understand what it really means, then I can decide if, in fact, it is really what I seek.
Not unlike modern organized religions, much of modern Western spirituality has been pulled from many different sources. People have pulled a little from here, a little from there, so that our sensibilities can accept and make sense of spirituality in the lives we live, which are vastly different from the lives of the people who originally undertook such noble paths. I (proba- bly) would not be willing to go through some of the practices the ancients’ schools of wisdom used to put their young disciples through. Think pits of snakes and starvation. Just say no.
Many ancient schools and traditions had very specific prac- tices and steps to guide followers along the path. Now, with the hodgepodge of mix-and-match spirituality, it’s easy to become lost in the quagmire, falling deep into the rabbit hole. This can sometimes be a good thing, but often we just end up more lost and confused, frustrated at ourselves and the world around us. Mainly because we’re not even sure of what we’re looking for or if we really want it.
A lot of the time, when we take our firsts step onto the “spir- itual” path, when we ask those first questions, the idea of enlightenment is held out before us as the illustrious piece of cheese at the end of the maze. It seems like the pinnacle of all we are searching for, and we spend our lives wandering through corridors, salivating, endlessly turning from one hallway to the next, the smell of that cheese driving us forward. Once you’re enlightened, you’ve arrived! But . . .
What is enlightenment?
Etymologically speaking, the English word enlightenment is actually a word with other word elements hooked on: en, light, en again (a different meaning from a different root), and ment. We can kind of follow the course of its arrival and attendant meaning into our modern Western understanding by starting with the word light.
The root of enlightenment comes from a very old (think Dark Ages) noun form of the word light. We find it in the Old English word leoht, which is related to the Old Saxon and Old High German word lioht, which more than likely had congress with the Goth liuhap, all of which mean brightness, radiant energy, luminous, and beautiful. Not that anyone was focusing on light in the Dark Ages, but I digress.
From there, our Dark Age word makers hitched on an en, to get lighten, which started as nian, and also originated from Old English usage. En/nian was a word bit whose sole point of exis- tence was to be added to a noun or adjective to make it take action, making the noun light into the verb lighten, and so light gets to shed light upon, illuminate, and brighten. Apparently, at some point between the first and fourteenth centuries (I’m guessing 1066—think the Norman invasion of the British Isles), this verbing of light did not conceptually say what it was trying to say strongly enough, because the word-intensifier en from the Old French was added. En had been pulled into the Old French from a previous relationship with the Latin in, which means in or into. And so en and lighten became BFFs.
We have now arrived at enlighten, which is really a way of saying “to seriously shed light, super-duper illuminate, and hella-brighten,” which is pretty cool. And it’s actually double cool because structurally, the preposition-ness of the Old French en/Latin in, meaning in and into, infers the idea that we are inside or moving inside the action of shedding light upon something. It is the sense of being inside it, not just acting on it, that intensifies the meaning. Being inside the action means we are entirely being the thing we are doing. Deep.
The figurative sensibility of enlighten was further developed while still in its Old English form inlihtan, and it came to mean “to remove dimness or blindness from one’s eyes or heart.” This shift into symbolic meaning was more than likely from the truly epic connection made by the Church between godliness and the concept of light.
At some point, as Old English swung into a more modern version of itself, the word enlighten met up with a renewed interest in the teachings of the old philosophers—you know, Plato and other contemplative dead dudes—and the action of removing dimness to illuminate became a “something” to attain, a “someplace” to be. So they added the suffix ment, from the Latin mentum, which indicates that the word it is attached to is now a result or product of the action it used to be. In short, the noun light became the verb lighten and then to intensify it, it became an even stronger sense of the verb by becoming enlighten and then it was shifted again, and the verb once more became a noun as enlightenment was born. We went from something that is to something that does, then back to some- thing that is, but with more panache.
But I still have no idea what that something is, even if it is cooler and improved.
In the Western New Age or New Thought movement, the words enlightenment and enlightened have been thrown around more than a football on Thanksgiving. Everyone is talking about it, everyone’s looking for it, but do you know anyone who has actually found it? Yeah, me neither.
I admit it: I got caught in the frenzied search for that illustri- ous hunk of cheese, reading every book and walking over every coal, thinking that one day I would suddenly go poof and ascend into masterdom, levitate magically into the realm of the gods, and hang out with the other enlightened, cool people. I’ve done a whole slew of random and even bizarre things in the name of becoming enlightened. Sadly, the “random” and “bizarre” part of that is not hyperbole. I’ve spent hours blindfolded, walking a football field and searching a fence as I looked for a card on which I had previously drawn a picture. The picture was sup- posed to represent what I wanted to manifest in my life, so if I wanted a Rolls Royce, I drew a picture of it, and if I miraculously found my card after hours of searching blindfolded, I should be able to walk out into the parking lot and find my fancy new car—spoiler alert, I never found the card and the new car never happened. Clearly I was failing at this enlightenment thing.
In my search for enlightenment, I’ve also spent weeks walk- ing around telling myself over and over again that I am six feet tall and beautiful, but nary an inch showed on me (except maybe on my hips). I would close my eyes and sit listening to subliminals about how I was not my body and I could soar into the deepest realms of the universe, only to be woken up by my then three-year-old pounding on my face with her new plastic hammer toy, shouting “No sleep, Mama, no sleep!” That’s right, honey bear, I am a no-sleep mama. And nope, no endless uni- verse there. Somehow I couldn’t make the connection between living my everyday life and ascending into the stars. There was a huge disconnect. Shocking, I know.
Today, the word or idea of enlightenment has more meanings than a porcupine has quills. After every seminar on the subject I attended, every book I read, every type of meditation and practice I attempted, the concept still eluded me. Why? I asked myself. Why can’t I be enlightened like everyone else?
We know what the word means, but do we actually really know what enlightenment is? Is enlightenment actually some- thing we can achieve, and is it something we should be seeking?
After years of study and many fireside chats with friends and gurus, I have come to realize that the concept of enlightenment from every form of study shares a common thread woven into myth, just as the stories told from culture to culture have similar themes and characters.
Many interpretations of enlightenment speak of complete surrender, a letting go of attachments to all that you believe in, even love, because you should love everything. They speak of a closeness to God, a complete sense of peace, like watching that guru on the stage all blissed out and smiling all the time—until you see them lose it at the airport over their seating assignment.
Some people suggest Transcendental Meditation as a way to find enlightenment. Others say that living in a cave in the Himalayas is the only way to true enlightenment. They believe that giving up all connection to the world is the only way to truly find your way back to the light. The definitions of enlight- enment run the gamut from realizing your true self to creating balance in your life, and all the way to suddenly, with a grand poof, ascendance from this plane on to the next plane of mas- tery. It seems every belief has its own path to enlightenment. Now we’ve just got to pick the right one.
So I began a quest to understand the true meaning of enlightenment, because if I was going to walk around blind- folded in a field for six hours looking to manifest it, I had better know what it was.
I suppose when one begins a quest they should start at the beginning, but even that’s an arguable point over cups of kom- bucha with friends.*
The idea of enlightenment is as old as the hills, and many ancient philosophies and practices talk of enlightenment, although they used different terms. Enlightenment became the word of the day because of its resemblance to the word Bodhi and the German word Aufklarung, used by philosopher Immanuel Kant in his 1784 essay Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment? Kant said, “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.”1 Which pretty much falls in line with what the Buddhists and Hindus meant when they used the words Bodhi, kenshō, and satori—all basically meaning to have woken up and understood, or to know one’s true self. Basically, to be enlightened means we finally grew up!
In Buddhism (and I use that term loosely as there are multi- ple versions of Buddhism with different ideas about reaching enlightenment: so many roads, so many tunnels, so very con- fusing—sheesh), the idea is that one attempts to reach nirvana, Buddhahood (or enlightenment). Reaching Buddhahood means a full awakening and liberation from the attachments of our reality, instead of simply having insight into and certainty about it, or understanding it, which is a very Western idea of enlight- enment. It’s more than that. It’s the big ah-ha! moment. It’s being free once and for all from all the people, places, things, times, and events that have kept us chained in the prison of our suffering (and, in case you did not know it, we are all suffering).
Reaching this state of being takes years of practice and com- mitment and ultimately a total annihilation of self. Wow, that’s quite the undertaking, and for me, something that seems utterly impossible. I mean it sounds great in theory, but who has time for total annihilation of self and grocery shopping? Because if that is what reality is about. How does a person truly seek enlightenment and live at the same time?
In the West, the idea of enlightenment has taken on a very romantic and, quite frankly, self-serving notion. There’s some- thing twisted about that. For millennia, enlightenment existed in the East as a noble, selfless goal; a few centuries in the West, and we’ve turned it into a romance story involving ourselves.
For most Westerners, the idea of enlightenment isn’t about reaching total annihilation of ourselves and thus relieving our- selves of our attachments, ending the cycle of reincarnation, and moving onward into the next realm. As a Westerner (and if you were born in a Western country, you’re pretty much stuck
being one), I’ve got to say that that seems a lot to ask for. I doubt most us are really willing to give up all of our attachments, and I wonder if we should.
Enlightenment in the Western sense is really about gaining an insight into our true nature, an expression of a transcendent truth about who we are, a transcendental state of total accept- ance and connectedness beyond the reach of any expressed language. Basically, it’s an indescribable feeling of overwhelming love and connection to ourselves and everything known or unknown.
So, there is enlightenment (total annihilation of self) that means that you (I) have to be willing to let go of everything.† Then there is the kind of enlightenment reached through an understanding of self. If the choice is between annihilating it or understanding it, I think I’m going with understanding it. That’s attainable. That’s something I think I can eventually do. No annihilation needed here, thank you very much.
Many people speak of moments in their life when they have felt enlightened, when they had that ah-ha! moment. It’s called an enlightened experience. I can remember moments in my life when everything felt so perfect, so connected that I couldn’t even remember whether or not I existed. I was eternal. Moments when I experienced the totality of everything.
I remember once going camping and looking up into the night sky. I was in love, life was good, and the stars shone brighter than I’d ever seen them as they cruised the Milky Way. I didn’t know if it was because I had a hot guy with me, a great glass of wine in me, or it was just one of those moments where everything felt right. Even the unknown didn’t matter. But later, on the way home as I hit the smog-ridden freeway, the feeling was gone, and boy, did I want it again.
Like any good drug, once a moment of enlightenment hap- pens, we begin to attempt to re-create that experience, and with every attempt it seems to get further and further away. Thus the eternal hunt through the maze for the cheese. The seeking becomes the endgame, and when we are seeking, we aren’t really being.
Enlightenment isn’t just associated with letting go of self or gaining knowledge of self—it is also associated with getting connected to our inner awesome; i.e., our divinity or our con- nection to it, depending on which belief path we are traveling. We see this in most ancient philosophies (yet another common thread) where the idea that we are divine beings full of love and light and everything that is “good” is a principal premise. It is said that divineness is already within us. So if we already have it, why, then, are we seeking it? It’s truly a redundant question like, Do you have DNA in your genetic material? Erm, yes?
When I ask some of my favorite great minds about the idea of seeking enlightenment, they often say the same thing. My favorite is Austin Vickers, who told me, “Seeking enlightenment is like having a carrot on a string in front of you. It’s attached to your head, but you think it’s in front of you. Why would you seek something you already have? You’ve already experienced the whole love and light thing. You came here to experience the opposite, so that you could then appreciate the experience of fully loving, fully being in joy, even when it sucks.” Okay, I added the word sucks. Austin wouldn’t say sucks, but that’s what he meant.
Maybe living with my feet firmly planted on the ground is divineness in action. A perfect example: Buddha. It’s not like everything in Buddha’s life was all lotus flowers and green tea. Sometimes he felt pain and sadness. And man, did he fully feel it. He held still and allowed himself to be present in that moment, and in that space he was able to understand how joy- ful, how awesome it is that we can experience the full extent of the emotions of an experience. He understood how amazing it is to be alive and to know both joy and sadness, to have loved so deeply that the loss of it hurts. He also knew that love is both constant and impermanent. Enlightenment isn’t some- thing we strive for; it is something felt in the moment. It’s really just perspective. Can I see every experience in my life, even when it sucks, as a gift? Maybe not right then and there. Right then and there, I allow myself to feel angry, hurt, or embarrassed; later, after I’ve had time to gain perspective, I can see it as a gift.
The original concept of enlightenment, when splayed out for us to really see, requires us to be willing to let go of everything in our lives and see that it has no impact one way or another. But that’s not me. Sometimes I cry, and sometimes I yell, and often I flail. That is me. Why annihilate the self when the self is what we have been given? There is a reason the cheese is so stinky. It wants to be experienced, felt in every corner of our olfactory glands. I mean, why have the sense of smell if we aren’t going to use it?
That’s what I’ve come to realize. I became addicted to the seeking. I became so desperate for that hunk of cheese that I forgot to look at the walls of the hallway, to enjoy the art, to see out the windows (that were even windows!). I needed to read that newest book, or the old one. I needed to make sure I had all the data so when enlightenment struck, I would know. I kept telling myself I didn’t have it and I needed to get it.
So I’ve let go of seeking enlightenment. I’ve let go of judging myself for not being spiritual enough, for allowing myself to feel the way I feel and to experience life. When people ask if I’m on the path to enlightenment, I respond, how could I not be? Aren’t we all? Unless, of course, you’re asking if I’m attempting to kill off parts of me, the gifts I’ve been given to experience this life—then no. I’ll keep those. I like them; they keep things interesting.
I’ve replaced my quest for enlightenment with acceptance of my life where it is, even happiness about where it is. I know— it’s hard to be happy when things aren’t going the way I want, when life is hard and I face struggle. Acceptance doesn’t mean I’ve given up. You’ll find I say that a lot in this book. I often have to remind myself of it. Struggle is part of life, and if we got everything we wanted all the time, we wouldn’t be able to gain any wisdom, to shed any light of understanding about ourselves.
Ultimately, I believe that is what Buddha and all the other spiritual teachers meant when they spoke of enlightenment. Nirvana is when you know yourself. You know peace and con- nectedness both when it’s easy and when it’s hard. It takes practice and patience and love and forgiveness. Don’t worry if you don’t master it in a year or two. For most people, it takes at least one lifetime and probably more.
Now that’s pretty enlightened, if I do say so myself.
* Info dump! Rumor has it that kombucha supposedly originated in China where it was said to have magical powers to help a person impressively live forever. It made its way to Russia and then the West, bringing with it the awesome reputation of being the best detoxifier of the body and mind in the world (according to its marketing and PR team). Currently, kombucha can be found being carried around in large glass mason jars by those recov- ering from all-night dance parties out in the woods along the Oregon coast.
† Oh, and I do mean everything: the car, the boyfriend, the kids and the dog, the ego, the knowing, the being right or even the being wrong, and the best parking spot. We have to be willing to awaken to a space in which none of that exists and it all exists simultaneously and where ultimately we don’t really notice or care because we are simply just being, or maybe we cease being at all. Maybe we actually do go poof! I’d like to add some sparkles to that if it really is how it happens. Sparkles would add pizzazz.
Every now and then I come across something that makes me want to meditate on it. This is one of those articles that cannot just be read one time. I want to read it over and over because it has so many jewels in it. I can get my buttons pushed really easy so I have often felt very unenlightened. This article helped me to see other ways to understand myself.
I have learned that a lot of things that go wrong really do not matter. Dr. Habib also made a good point regarding this topic. We can ask ourselves, “Does what I am going through matter to my dog?” This question puts one’s situation instantly in perspective.
I agree with kristin, this is an article that takes good, hard contemplation. I reread it immediately after finishing it because it was so good! While doing yoga I think that I’m finding peace and bliss and all of that. But then yoga finishes and it’s back to my not-so-spiritual life. It’s hard to keep that spirit going, and sometimes I think that it’s just too complex for me!
Although I don’t study etymology, I liked learning where the word enlightened came from. I also agree with the rest of the people who have commented here that this article contains lots of gems to be dug up and must be read more than once. Who says there is only one way to be enlightened?
We don’t need to have studied anything to understand what enlightenment is, because it’s something that comes out from our heart straight to our understanding when we are prepared and work for that. Enlightenment is light, enlightenment is love.
I have only heard of the enlightenment where one gains a greater understanding of ones self. The annihilation of ones self is new to me. Every religion has its own means of finding enlightenment, but the commonality of them all involves meditation. You meditate to find enlightenment in ones self bringing you closer to your core or spirituality.
Maybe twenty years ago I started to be curious about the spiritual path, but there are so many different ideas out there that it’s easy to get confused. I really can’t say if Nirvana is when we know ourselves, but I do know that knowing ourselves is the way to go and only when we do so we can achieve that inner peace. Like you wisely say, it’s something to take at least a lifetime.