When my father was alive, and I was much younger, he and I would have long conversations about what, exactly, was meant by “enlightenment.” I remember at one point he gave me a wonderful book about a woman who called herself the “Peace Pilgrim,” and who simply walked wherever the road took her, for 28 years. She walked for a purpose, and while her routes may have been random, her intentions were not. Nevertheless, collectively, as a culture, we call people that do things like that “crazy,” but of course they are far from it — if we must indulge in our propensity to compare everything, then it is we that are crazy, settling for a life of drudgery, normalcy, and routine, and they who are sane, alive, and without fear. It is someone like the Peace Pilgrim who I think sets a good example of what we might call “enlightened.”
Maybe a useful definition might be one who has a freedom of spirit, and who is in touch with the kernel of awareness that is completely liberated from distraction, ego, and fear — those things that keep us locked into a daily dialog with dread. It’s a bit naive to think that the enlightened person feels no pain, and is only happy all of the time. Happiness, I think, is more of a natural condition of freedom, of enlightenment, but it not impervious to pain and suffering. It’s just that the enlightened person experiences suffering with the same clarity that they experience everything else, and so they are more alive than the rest of us even then.
But there are subtle degrees, and every once in awhile, if you keep your eyes open you stumble upon someone who is living in this enlightened state right before your eyes, and in the most unlikely of places. I don’t remember this happening for about the last twenty years or so, so it’s worth writing about, since it happened today.
Today I took a certification exam, which is delivered by a company named Prometric, a gargantuan network of tiny and not-so-tiny testing centers spread across the globe like so many grains of salt. Some of these places are really tiny — they are found in Community Colleges, strip malls, in the lobbies of office buildings — all over the place. Today’s exam was delivered in the local Community College, and after thirty-five minutes of conversation with the proctor there — a middle-aged woman who worked part-time there — I felt that I was immeasurably enriched simply for being in her presence, such was the energy that she carried around with her, and which she had no trouble expressing. She absolutely loved her part-time, low-paying job, and gave it her all, to the point at which she had used her design skills to create a set of blueprints for the complete redesign of the center itself — a generous offer that the college, or Prometric, or maybe both, took her up on. They move into the new building in January.
With just a few simple words she changed my way of thinking about teaching. The limit I had naturally imposed on myself with respect to teaching these technical courses, once I get the Microsoft Training Certification, was that I would limit myself to teaching things that I myself was an expert in. This sounds like a fairly sensible idea, and it could actually work from a practical standpoint because I do have a lot of broad and deep experience in this industry, but she pointed out that what was bringing to the classroom was much more than the dry, procedural knowledge of the subject matter — it was me, my energy and personality, and the ability to help people open up to the material, which in my profession, can be dense, abstract, and impenetrable at times. And it is indeed my gift for analogy and communication that makes me a good teacher, and not necessarily what I know. Besides, as she pointed out, the Curricula is set, particularly for the Microsoft Courses — it’s the art of interpretation and delivery that makes the difference, and is why everyone doesn’t simply lock themselves up in a room with a book to learn what they need to learn these days.
But it was the few simple words that she left me with, and delivered in a manner that made me feel the importance of the idea that really stopped me, because I had not heard them so simply expressed in a long time — it was the simple fact that after all of the years she had been alive, and all of the things she had learned, she felt that the only place it made sense to spend time was the present. Neither the future nor the past held much use for her. It w as only the present where she felt most alive. She mentioned God and Blessings a number of times in that relatively brief conversation, but I must say, I don’t think Dogen himself could have said it better.