It’s like this:

One day, you are born.

From your community, you grow up and acquire all sorts of ideas about who you are. You are taught what to think and how to act. And because everyone else around you shares those ideas (or some variant of them), you forget that they’re just ideas. You are conditioned to the point where you don’t even recognize your own conditioning. 

On top of that, you have your own particular, individual habits and behavior that your parents bequeathed. As a child, you absorb and imitate everything around you. Unable to reflect on whether your parents’ coping mechanisms are conducive to happiness or not, you replay these particular patterns throughout your life with coworkers, friends, and lovers.

 

Sometimes, it reaches a point where you get fed up with the ways in which your unconscious behavior generates suffering and you decide to do something about it. So you begin to examine your mind. You start investigating reality to see if it’s really the way you thought it was, or if your mind is actually interpreting life through its own projections and fantasies.

The trouble is that the inertia of the past is very strong, so even if you work diligently for years to change these patterns, it can seem hopeless. It sometimes feels like no matter what you do, you never make any real progress, since the demons of anger, lust, and greed always find a way to invite themselves back in.

It takes a long time for a freight train to stop, and even longer for it to start again in a new direction. 

This is why, when it seems like nothing will ever change and you begin to lose your faith in the whole process, it’s important to take refuge in the tools that spiritual traditions offer us.

For me, this generally takes the form of the Buddhist refuges of Buddha (the potential each of us has for enlightenment), Dharma (the teachings that point us there), and Sangha (the community that supports this journey). But I’m not always steadfast in this commitment.

To be completely honest, I have serious doubts and reservations about many Buddhist claims. This tradition, like all traditions, makes very bold assertions about the nature of consciousness. I sometimes think that all the talk about enlightenment is BS, that belief in reincarnation is ridiculous, and that karma is just a more exotic way of getting us to feel guilty for our “sins”.

When I trace the source of my doubts back, however, I realize they are all rooted in impatience. I think that because the teachings haven’t led me to the place I thought they would lead me by now, there must be something wrong with them. Expecting freedom/liberation/enlightenment to come after a week, a year, or even a decade is like pulling the emergency brake and expecting the train to stop right away. 

I find it helpful to remind myself that it’s easy to focus on the outcome of the Buddha’s path instead of the process. I like to hear about enlightenment, but overlook what it must have been like to struggle with no guarantee of success for 6 years, as Siddhartha did. And imagine: if it took Siddhartha six years of relentless effort to become a Buddha, how much longer it will take the rest of us! 

It starts little by little, by cultivating a resolution to live in line with Truth and by immersing yourself in the teachings and community that will help you. When we start focussing on compassion, generosity, and other virtues, this sows seeds that will germinate later. By tending our little plot, nourishing it and keeping intruders away, eventually our efforts bear fruit. Or to use another metaphor, the quarters you put in your car’s ashtray everyday slowly accumulate and become something truly valuable.

All work is done to bring you back to yourself, to the natural, open, and free place you have within yourself.

When described as “freedom”, “liberation”, or “enlightenment”, it seems like something magical, mystical, and impossible.We have to be careful not to replace our previous conditioning and ideas with new ones that are equally restrictive. What all those terms refer to is perhaps much more simple and basic: to the flame of wisdom we have within us that will lead us, and those around us, to flourish.

And it truly is good news to know that when correctly applied, a train’s brakes will inevitably lead it to stop.