I had an email from someone recently who tells me he has been with several popular teachers who stress the notion of permanent enlightenment and who seem to suggest that they have reached a place beyond the gravitational pull of human conditioning, a place of unending awakeness—like a caterpillar that has permanently and irrevocably transformed into a butterfly. The email describes this person’s reaction to these teachings: “I feel sadness, disappointment. It seems that it is like being a caterpillar who has many tastes of butterfly-ness, a few quite pronounced, but discovers there is a powerful inner condition that keeps him primarily in slowly evolving caterpillar form.” Sound familiar?
I spent many years caught up in this story, feeling the same sadness, disappointment, frustration and sense of failure. On the one hand, there was often complete clarity and spacious, open, unbound presence. There was a seeing-through of the false self, and a realization that awareness is ever-present, that Here / Now is always here. There were deep and vivid glimpses of how it would be to embody and live from complete emptiness and openness, entirely free from all the heaviness and constriction of sticky thought-forms. I could taste the freedom. But then that would all be clouded over again by caught-up-ness in the story of Joan and all the things that went with that—depression, anxiety, dissatisfaction, restlessness, defensiveness, anger, addictive and compulsive behaviors, and so on. Compared to those Golden Winners who told the Butterfly Story, I seemed to be a second-rate spiritual loser, a wannabe butterfly who just couldn’t make the grade.
At some point, I began to notice that this story was all about me. I also began to notice that it was a story. And I saw how that story instantly created the seemingly-real appearance of permanent things, conditions and states, a picture that didn’t match my observation of how life actually is. I began to see how this story plugged into old patterns of self-doubt and giving away my own authority—putting other people up on pedestals and then feeling that I was unworthy, insufficient, lacking and imperfect. I noticed that the teachers I trusted most deeply, the ones I considered most awake, did not tell the Butterfly Story. These trusted teachers were honest in acknowledging that they could still be swept up in delusion, and they emphasized Here / Now, the present moment, the ownerless awakeness that is not mine or yours or theirs to possess. They undermined self-centered stories of lack and the search for personal perfection rather than reinforcing it. Eventually, my belief in the Butterfly Story got thinner and thinner, the ability to see it as a story when it popped up increased along with the ability to let it go rather than following it, and its grip on me gradually fell away. Not because I turned into a permanent butterfly, but because I saw what a ridiculously seductive and deceptive story this is. That story IS a form of delusion and suffering. Teachings that reinforce the Butterfly Story have become one of my major pet peeves.
I’m not denying that some people are more stabilized in awake presence and less caught up in delusion than others, nor am I denying that some people have sudden, dramatic awakenings or that for some there seems to be a lasting shift in which they remain grounded in awake presence, more or less free from the gravitational pull of the dream state and never again lost for very long in delusion or confusion. One person who apparently had this kind of sudden and lasting shift is Eckhart Tolle. He seems very genuine and credible to me. I have no reason to doubt his story, and his awakeness is plain to see. But to his credit, he doesn’t say that this kind of awakening is typical or necessary or better than a more gradual awakening, and his whole teaching emphasizes Here / Now and constantly undermines the story of lack or the search for perfection. So it is possible to have a dramatic and lasting shift and not teach in a way that promotes and feeds the Butterfly Story in other people.
Because for most of us, transformation does not happen that dramatically or that permanently, all in one explosive moment. For most of us, it is a much more gradual process with occasional peaks and valleys and many plateaus and backslides, in which we seem to get it and then lose it again, often many times in the space of a single day or a single hour. Sometimes we are completely 100% awake, and sometimes we are caught up in the me-story. Does this fluctuation ever completely end? Is it totally absent even in people such as Eckhart Tolle? (I doubt it). And even if it seemed that this fluctuation was completely gone at some point, how could anyone know with certainty that it might not be back tomorrow? And most importantly, why do we care? Does it help to think (or obsess) about how we compare to others or to ideals of perfection, and to focus our attention on what we presently lack but might one day attain? Does that thought-pattern enlighten us or sink us deeper into delusion?
The Butterfly Story is one of the most popular versions of the me-story amongst spiritual folks, either the “I am a butterfly” story that some tell themselves or the “I am still just a miserable caterpillar” story that is more common. Another popular me-story is the “I got it, then I lost it” story. Can we see that these are stories? Can we see how they instantly reincarnate the mirage-like “me” and the mirage of linear time, the two core delusions? And to whom do these stories matter?
Isn’t it only from the perspective of the imaginary me that it seems terribly important how “I” compare to the others or to some ideal and whether “I” am a butterfly? From the perspective of the whole, everything is included and none of it is personal. It is all the movement of life, the unfolding of consciousness, a never-ending Self-realization that is not mine or yours. So when we find ourselves caught up in the Butterfly Story, can we perhaps notice that this is a virtual reality occurring in the imagination, a creation of smoke and mirrors (i.e., thoughts, images and sensations), a mental movie…and that it all centers around “me”? How real is this “me”?
And what is aware of this story? What is seeing all this? Can the seer (or the seeing) itself actually be seen? Are we really a caterpillar, encapsulated inside a separate bodymind, peering out at an alien universe, desperately trying to turn into a butterfly? Or is that just a movie that has captured the attention? Can you begin to see what a joke this is?
As people, we all have different weather conditions—different genes, different neurochemistry, different nervous systems, different personalities, different childhood experiences, and we’ve all been through different degrees of trauma. No two of us are exactly alike. We all encounter different experiences and face different challenges as we move through life. Some of us have what Eckhart Tolle would call a heavier pain-body. The inner weather is stormier, the gravitational pull of negative conditioning is stronger, the ability to rise above all this is weaker. These kinds of differences show up on brain scans as well—people struggling with addictions often have very different brain patterns from people who easily resist such temptations. These things are not personal. They are the results of nature and nurture, the infinite causes and conditions that bring forth each moment, just as it is.
Our suffering comes from identifying this self-image, this imaginary character at the center of the virtual reality called “The Story of My Life,” as what we are. In fact, this self-image is always changing (positive one moment, negative the next), and this bodymind person to which it refers is more of a process than a thing, and this process is completely interdependent with the whole universe—no person (no bodymind) can exist apart from the whole—life is actually one, seamless, undivided whole happening. The separations are notional like the lines on a map between different countries. The person is an activity of the whole universe, and each person contains the whole universe. This activity we call a person is only a small part of what we truly are. We are the wholeness of being that includes the person and the awareness beholding it all—the indivisible, all-inclusive, unborn, deathless unicity from which nothing stands apart.
But we forget. Attention gets swept up in the story of being little old me, the lost caterpillar. Or in some cases, we get swept up in the opposite story of being ME, the Enlightened Butterfly! Either way, this is delusion. Enlightenment is simply seeing delusion as delusion. Not once and for all, not yesterday, not someday, but NOW.
The wholeness of being, aware presence, Here / Now is never not here. Only IN the story do we SEEM to be somebody (a separate, persisting entity) who is “getting it” and then “losing it,” a caterpillar who hopes to one day be a butterfly. In awakeness, there is no owner of awakeness (or of delusion), and awakeness has no problem with caterpillars, pain-bodies, stormy weather systems, or moments of delusion. These are problematic only from the perspective of the me who takes it all personally as “my” success or failure, my identity. Awareness accepts it all, beholds it all, allows it all to be as it is, allows it to come and go. Awareness is not bound or encapsulated. It has no owner. It is the groundless ground, the no-thing-ness of everything, the freedom at the heart of every moment. It is what Here / Now IS.
I still experience depression, anxiety, dissatisfaction, restlessness, defensiveness, anger, addictive and compulsive behaviors, and many moments of being caught up in the story of Joan. I am often lost in delusion. Many of the finest and most honest teachers will tell you exactly the same thing, because the more awakeness there is, the more clearly delusion is seen, and the more subtle the layers of delusion that come to light. “Delusions are inexhaustible,” as the Buddhist chant says. There is no end to delusion. And the good news is, delusion is not some terrible enemy. It is the mud that nurtures the lotus, the grit that creates the pearl. Our darkest struggles are often the greatest source of our love, compassion, humor and wisdom. Darkness and light, up and down are inseparable polarities in the dance of life, the wild ride with all its twists and turns that seems to be forever going somewhere but is actually always Here / Now.
What has changed in my experience is not that I no longer experience darkness, but that I’m no longer chasing after the myth of permanent enlightenment or bemoaning the fact that I’m still human. I’m not saying there is no enlightenment, only that it isn’t personal and it’s not a permanent attainment. There continues to be a natural interest here in seeing through delusion, clearing up what is confused, and waking up to the joy, love and freedom Here / Now. But it is a never-ending process, a never-ending Self-realization. And I know the answer is not “out there.” It’s right here. And I know beyond a doubt that it’s not about “me” crossing the finish-line and becoming perfect. That very idea is itself delusion.
Would I like to be as free from the gravitational pull of the dream state as people such as Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti seem to be? Happily, that question no longer seems relevant or meaningful. In once sense, yes, my greatest aspiration and deepest vow is to be awake. Not to be awake forever (for I recognize that as delusion), and not to be awake like somebody else—because each of us is a unique and perfect expression—but to be awake NOW. Am I sometimes making a choice, not yet fully conscious or avoidable, to sink back into delusion and compulsion instead? Yes, that would be one way to describe what happens here (and for many other people).
But I see that this pull into the dream state can only undo itself in its own time, and that what matters is this moment, not some mental fabrication about how I rank on the spiritual ladder of success (how I compare to Eckhart or Adya or Ramana or Jesus or anybody else). And who knows, maybe by not being a spiritual gold medalist, I am able to offer something to others that the gold medalists cannot offer. Because not every Olympic athlete wins a gold medal, no matter how hard they train or how dedicated they are, so if we see this as a race or a competition, and if what matters is winning the gold, it’s a set-up for failure and disappointment. But if we can enjoy the event itself and simply do our best, moment to moment, we actually have a better chance of “winning,” and when we don’t win, it’s perfectly okay. Recognizing my True Self as the larger event and the unbound awareness beholding it all, I am all the winners and all the losers and the Whole Show, and I am that which is here prior to the show and that which remains long after the show is finished—and so are you! And what is that? THIS: Here / Now.
So if the story of being a caterpillar longing to be a butterfly grabs you like a good movie and takes you for a wild ride through the darkness of despair and discouragement, maybe you will stop and wonder, is this movie for real? Am I really a caterpillar (or an athlete in the spiritual Olympics, or somebody on a long journey)? Am I really lost? Is anything really lacking Here / Now?
As Toni Packer once said: “Enlightenment? How lethal it is to attach a label. Then you become somebody. At the moment of labeling, aliveness freezes into a concept. ‘My enlightenment experience!’ To be alive, fully alive, means flowing without hindrance—a vulnerable flow of aliveness with no resistance…Without needing to think about ‘myself’—what I am, what I will be. Our craving for experiences is a resistance to simply being here now. It’s such a relief to realize we don’t have to be anything.”
I’m also reminded here of Kabir, who said of the Holy Reality at the heart of everything: “Kabir saw that for fifteen seconds, and it made him a servant for life.” His focus was on the blessing of what had been given rather than on the sorrow of what was missing. He was seeing the glass half-full rather than half-empty—living in gratitude for the extraordinary gift of even a brief glimpse rather than bemoaning the fact that it lasted “only” fifteen seconds. Kabir celebrated the dance in its entirety. He didn’t need to personally be a gold medalist in order to sing his ecstatic songs and live in service to what had been glimpsed.
Waking up doesn’t take time. Nothing is really in the way. The problems and obstacles are all imaginary. The Spiritual Olympic Games are imaginary. The caterpillar is imaginary and so is the butterfly. The “you” who seems to be one or the other is also imaginary. It is only a mental image, a passing thought, an old story. Instead of thinking about “me” and what “I” lack, what “I” don’t have, is it possible to wake up right now to the simple fact of being present, being aware, being Here / Now? THIS is where the juice is (the enlightenment, the Holy Reality, the light, the joy, the freedom).
We can’t grasp the light. We can only BE it. And we can SEE (and see through) what seems to get in the way. We can see the caterpillar story as it pops up, and we can question, is this story really true? Is the one at the center of this drama even real? That doesn’t mean we pick up the opposite story that “I am an enlightened butterfly.” It means discovering what is beyond all the stories, what is beholding the stories, what is present right here, right now, unstained by any story but not separate either…this awaring presence, this shining light, this radiant open heart, this undeniable awakeness that is right here, most intimate, and everywhere, inescapable, all-inclusive.