Nirvana, bliss, paradise, enlightenment… what would that be for you? Yes, you. And not on some ethereal plane, but in the life you actually have, right here, right now. Better yet, what would it be like if your career and life as a lawyer was enlightened?
I watched a group of 30 North Dakota lawyers answer that question for themselves earlier this week. (Well, not exactly that question, but a series of questions that got to the same point.) They wanted less stress, more peace, more freedom and autonomy, more meaning, satisfaction, fulfillment, purpose. If that’s not enlightenment, it’ll do until the real thing comes along.
I did the same workshop for a group of non-lawyers last Saturday, and the responses were the same. They’re always the same, no matter the audience. We all want these things, but few of us feel we have them.
Does that mean enlightenment is unattainable? I don’t think so. These are universal desires; why would we all keep wanting what we can’t have? Surely evolution would have knocked this foolishness out of us long ago.
Assuming it’s possible, how do we get there? It’s simple, really: learn to live on the other side of ego. Here’s the Einstein version:
“The true value of a human being can be found in the degree to which he has attained liberation from the self.”
Or if you prefer a more enigmatic quote from a more spiritual source:
“Enlightenment is ego’s ultimate disappointment.”
–Chögyam Trungpa, Tibetan Buddhist, Founder of Naropa University
By ego, I mean the dynamic organizing principle that gives our lives psychic shape and physical expression. Psychologists tell us ego is fully formed by age 4; after that, it acts like a gravitational center, drawing our experiences into orbit around itself, defining for us what’s normal and what’s not, what’s safe and possible and predictable and what isn’t. Ego gives us our sense of self, creates boundaries that differentiate us from others, lays down our foundational beliefs and habitual behaviors. It creates and sustains who we are, what we do, and what we have. Ego accounts for how we make decisions, our likes and dislikes, our areas of competence and ignorance. And a whole lot more.
We need all that to survive in a scary world. Until we don’t anymore, and we realize that, for all its usefulness, ego hasn’t given us what we really want – freedom, fulfillment, and all the rest. That’s when it’s time to learn to remove ego as the gravitational center of our lives.
Simple? Yes. Easy? No – not because it’s complicated, but because we don’t know how to get there from here.
We can learn. Honest. But before we start, it’s good to heed some practical advice:
“The road to enlightenment is long and difficult, and you should try not to forget snacks and magazines.”
-Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith
More next time.