Western people (myself included) discuss the idea of enlightenment as an “awakened” state. What are we waking up to? It’s a strange thing, to tell people to shun attachments and then go on being attached to a state that one has yet to achieve. The person who thinks about enlightenment never achieves it. It’s a paradoxical end to a spiritual philosophy. Seek and ye shall not find.
The goal isn’t to move to something new but to achieve a prior state, a simpler and purer way of being. In this sense, Zen practice is a return to childhood, revisiting a time when every experience was new and life was lived in the present. Picasso said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Returning to a simpler state is a far greater test of mental discipline and mindfulness than to continue the process of complication, development, and acquisition.
Western society’s development represents this false progression. In a weird way, it also explains why the 21st-century mind is so distracted, psychologically ailing, and chaotic. Everyone is obsessed with the cult of ideological and technological progress. We must keep building on the old stuff, making what exists a more efficient and ergonomic version of what came before it. But why?
Imagine a small quaint village next to a giant techno-futurist urban landscape. The village is 3 stories high, the urban landscape 300 stories. Progress leads us into chaos and complexity despite the fact that base human needs have never changed.
We can learn to stop obsessing with progress and work on enjoying the here and now, and in a certain sense regressing to a simpler way of thinking. Life is not a means to the ends of a greater future. It’s something to be embraced in the present moment, a simpler experience rather than an experience convoluted by abstract concepts.
Following this train of thought, meditation allows you to return to that simpler state. It is the act of staring into that which existed before you, and that which will continue to exist after you. It’s a sort-of embracing of the void. Your mind tries to fill the void with trivialities and worries at first, but over time these chaotic frivolities fade into the background. What you’re left with is your true self, what you were before you fell asleep. Waking up is simply returning to the state before sleep. It’s a circle, not a straight line.