I have a little theory about enlightenment. If you were all alone in an alternate universe (population: you), you could get enlightened quickly, if you set your intention. Your life would be greatly simplified. There would be no border disputes, no angry divorces, no revenge narratives starring Clint Eastwood. Facebook would be extremely boring, with a total of 0 friends to keep tabs on. Voyeurism would be dead. It would be a clean and simple universe, free from the messy entanglements that other sentient beings bring along with them. Here’s the reason I think enlightenment would be simpler in this impossible universe: whenever any stuff came up, you would immediately know whose stuff it was. The mechanics of working with your karma would become obvious. You would learn the rules of your own mind quickly.
It would also be much simpler if we lived in a universe where other people’s actions were completely predictable. How easy would life be if people always did what we expected them to do or, even better, what we wanted them to do. One movie often held up as a contemporary Buddhist narrative is Groundhog Day. In this movie, Bill Murray’s character is forced to relive the same day over and over and over again, until he figures out how to be a decent and helpful human being, and until he learns a lesson about love. It’s considered a Buddhist narrative because of the cyclical experiences that Bill’s character faces. Stuck in a time loop, he goes through one day’s confused moments again and again, until he figures out how to do something different, how to shift his reactions to situations as the day’s events become more and more predictable, literally like clockwork. In that sense, it’s quite a Buddhist narrative indeed, with the day’s repetition being an allegory for samsara, the cyclical patterns of karmic confusion that cause us to commute over and over and over again through the same schemes of behavior.
With apologies to Bill Murray fans, Groundhog Day is a Buddhist narrative only in the most idealized sense, because the hero can always predict that everybody else is going to do the exact same thing they did on the previous “today” each time he sees them. This predictability of others’ behavior would make our journey of self-awareness much easier. But experience isn’t ever a perfect circle, and neither is samsara. The same moment never happens twice, people never do quite exactly what we expect them to; it’s just that our karmic patterns tend to condition fresh moments with a hauntingly repetitive familiarity, a been-there-done-that feeling of commuter’s dissatisfaction. Samsara is cyclical, yet never a perfect circle.
Stepping onto this path, you are confronted very quickly by the untidy and complicated reality of other human beings. We can never escape our relationships. For many of us, difficulties in relationships are what launch us onto the path of self-awareness to begin with. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche likes to call this realization—that the path of awakening isn’t just a personal journey but a shared one—the “great switcheroo.” At first we think the path of coming home to our own awareness is all about “me.” There’s no shame in practicing for reasons of self-care. This is the initial reason that almost everybody I know has taken up a meditation practice, to learn more about ourselves and to get some respite from others, a chance to reflect, in isolation from our relationships.
However, we are quickly forced to realize that it is impossible to isolate ourselves from our relationships. Our universe is structured relationally, and therefore our state of mind—our very sense of who we are—is constructed in terms of our relationships to other sentient beings. With this realization, the journey necessarily evolves beyond just “me.”
Ethan Nichtern is a Shastri, a senior teacher, in the Shambhala tradition. He is a senior teacher in residence for the NY Shambhala community.
Excerpted from The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path with permission.