The Trouble with Enlightenment

“I cheated on my wife with her best friend.”
“I married a man I didn’t love for his money.”
“I raped a woman.”

It was the first day of my first personal growth workshop. We had entered a darkened hotel ballroom and were handed a blindfold and led into circles, eight people on the outside, eight on the inside, facing each other. Blindfolds in place, we stepped towards the person opposite us, drew close and whispered in their ear the thing we had never before told anyone, the thing that most haunted us in the middle of the night, the most shameful thing we’d ever done.

We repeated our confessions to each person in the opposite circle. Eight times to eight strangers.

“I gave a child away for adoption when I was nineteen. I was too irresponsible for birth control and too selfish to raise her.”
“I cheat people in my business.”
“I beat my children out of frustration with my life.”

Anguished sobs filled the room.

Eight times we whispered. Eight times our confessions were witnessed. Eight times we heard whispered back to us: “I sincerely and completely forgive you.”

Then we switched places, forgivers became confessors, confessors forgave.

Sixteen confessions, sixteen forgivenesses. A wrenchingly powerful healing, part of the work of the late, great Debbie Ford.

One confession I heard that day was markedly unlike all the rest:

“I don’t meditate enough,” a woman sputtered through hiccupping sobs. She was as filled with shame and remorse as the liars, the cheaters and the abusers.  I considered that she was making it up, but her anguish was real. She was truly in a lot of pain.

I now know pain like hers is not uncommon. Many of us that are drawn to personal development work expect ourselves to think and act like the Buddha at all times. Anything less than that kind of perfection is bad, wrong, and deserving of remorse, regret and self-flagellation.

In my coaching practice, clients routinely say things like:

“Good mothers never yell/lose their tempers/want to get away from their kids/etc.”
“You can’t be spiritual if you are jealous/don’t meditate enough/make a lot of money/have ugly thoughts about your boss/etc.”
“It’s shallow and wrong to want a big house/designer clothes/a prestigious job/etc.”

These statements are all coming from perfectly lovely people who are engaged in the business of being human and who believe their intolerance for themselves and their desires and behavior is a necessary step in their path towards self-improvement.

When you cross perfectionism like this with a quest for “enlightenment” you get a perfectly miserable person, someone wracked with hiccupping, shamed sobs because they don’t meditate enough or ate a bag of Skittles or yearn for a new BMW.

What that aspiring meditator didn’t get that afternoon, and what we all need to keep in mind is that growth and wisdom never means abandoning acceptance and faith in where we are right now in our process. In fact, the first thing we need to ditch in our quests to be wiser and kinder and more fulfilled is our impatient and intolerant drive to be enlightened and wise.

Being human is a messy job. We have conflicts within us. We make the same mistakes over and over. We intend to skip dessert, walk outdoors every day, and meditate regularly. Then we don’t do it. We want to be spiritual and embrace noble values and we also want designer shoes and to look hot. We yell at our kids when we’re tired, even though it violates our intentions and well-considered principles.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do better, to be better, to show up more nobly in the world. In fact, it’s extraordinary and it’s admirable. But when we are judgmental and intolerant of the way we are right now, the unimproved, “as-is” version of us, we suffer needlessly and actually postpone our growth process.

It takes time to change lifelong habitual behaviors, an open mind to understand why we continue to avoid doing the things that will help us move forward, and a curious, experimental process to grow into fuller, richer versions of ourselves. Sometimes it takes insight we don’t yet have. Sometimes it takes a metaphoric two-by-four upside the head.

It always takes acceptance of where we are and where we’ve been.

And that was ultimately the point of Debbie’s brilliant work. We are all imperfect and will continue to be. We’ve all done things we wished we hadn’t. We’ve all lied, cheated, manipulated, abused, at least in our minds if not in the world. We’ve all had ugly thoughts about ourselves and others. We’ve all coveted material goods. We’ve all treated people badly and we’ve all made promises that we haven’t kept.  All of us. We may as well admit it.

When we make ourselves wrong for being human, we become intolerant and ashamed of that part of ourselves. We hate these parts of ourselves, we disown them and pretend they don’t exist by shoving them out of our conscious awareness. Jung called it our shadow.

Then, as Jung said, “What you resist, persists.” The very act of hating, denying and hiding parts of ourselves gives them more bite, more power over us. We stay disappointed in ourselves. Our inner voices grow mean and scold and chastise us. We are unhappy and frustrated. All of the energy we use in this inner struggle with ourselves keeps us stuck.

Sometimes we see our problem everywhere else. We project our shadow onto others, and fixate on their imperfections. We’re intolerant of those who just won’t meditate enough, or do whatever it is we are hiding in our own shadows. We know what’s wrong with them and exactly what they need to do to get their act together. Then we beat ourselves up for being too judgmental.

This all diverts our attention and energy from what’s essential and true and good about being human, and about being just plain us. If we can just admit it, admit we’re imperfect, we’re good to go. It’s actually a big relief. Our inner voices of scorn and derision can take a break. We are more authentic, more self-accepting, and kinder. More present. Our energy is liberated in that spaciousness and we can consider our options in each moment. We can do better when we are not locked into battle with ourselves.

It takes courage to stand tall and admit we are imperfect. It takes courage to forgive ourselves. It takes courage to be vulnerable. This was the point of the exercise in the hotel room.

Yet this is how we become whole. Whole humans who can look with curiosity and self-compassion to accept what we see, find what we can learn from our feelings and thoughts and behaviors and desires, and from there, find our path towards doing better.

So let’s set our sights on being whole, being fully who we are in this moment, and admitting that we are humans—sometimes magnificent, sometimes messy.

And that’s perfectly okay.

10 thoughts on “The Trouble with Enlightenment

  1. Melinda Bossard

    Terry, your blogs always seem to come at just the right time in my life. I so appreciate you sharing your wisdom with me and your loyal fans. Thank you!

  2. Pat Bergeron

    Awesome, Terry! Thanks for reminding me that I am human just like the rest of us! Your presentation at the Continuing Education teleclass was inspiring as well. Love and hugs!

  3. Bana Babic

    This article has allowed me to become aware of some parts of my shadow and accept them while reading, which has sent me into a state of deep peace, love and gratitude. Thank you, Terry, for sharing your insight with us. Beyond words.

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