The mythology of enlightenment follows a well-known script: our hero, usually jaded from wasting their time in frivolous pursuits, realizes that there must be a path to a better, more fulfilled life and so embarks on a long and arduous pursuit of “enlightenment.” This journey is often physical as well as metaphorical: often the hero visits far-away, exotic lands, studies with mystics, gurus, and sages (and encounters scoundrels and charlatans along the way), spending years before finally achieving the goal and attaining an almost god-like state of enlightenment.
What if it weren’t that hard after all? What if the rest of us mere mortals, rather than despairing of ever reaching the exalted state of enlightenment, instead thought of enlightenment in a different way: as a practice rather than a state, as a way of continually making steady progress toward a more peaceful, joyous, contented life rather than chasing a daunting state of perfection we may never achieve?
A few days on a motorcycle through the beautiful hills and hollows of West Virginia, with time on and off the bike to reflect, gave me some time recently to think about what I call “instant enlightenment:” techniques to create enlightened states in the moment, that allow us to practice mindfulness and invite wonder, awe, peace, and joy back into our lives. On a motorcycle, things can happen pretty quickly so you need to be focused and careful – you can’t really take your eyes off the road to stare at a beautiful mountain and reflect deeply (as you might if you’re a passenger in a car). So I began to think of more time-effective ways to invite mindfulness, noticing, and reflection more quickly (and safely) from the back of a motorcycle. I came up with the following simple 6-step process that combines a number of techniques from Zen Buddhism, mindfulness, and positive psychology into one “intervention” that can be used multiple times a day, whenever you have a few minutes and want (or need) a moment of enlightenment.
Step 1: Notice
Instant enlightenment begins with simply noticing, drawing your attention to something that catches your senses. It could be a beautiful scene, the sound of a bird trilling, the smell of a rose. It could also be something that you might initially perceive as negative, a minor annoyance or frustration, that invites your attention. Whatever it is, begin by noticing it. And on a motorcycle, there’s plenty to notice: as Robert Pirsig said in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you are really in the scene on a motorcycle, fully immersed in the landscape through which you’re riding and not merely observing it passively through a windshield as though watching a TV screen.
Step 2: Accept
Follow your initial moment of noticing by fulling accepting what it is you are noticing – embrace it, accept it for what it is, and don’t try to push it away, change it, or resist it in any way. Let it happen and be with it fully. I remember one day’s ride, up the switchbacks leading to the top of Reddish Knob (https://dwr.virginia.gov/vbwt/sites/reddish-knob/), during which I was by turns anxious and exhilarated by the constant hairpin turns. Rather than push away that feeling of anxiety, I decided to fully accept it as a vital part of the experience and noticing how, rather than detracting from that experience, it served to heighten my awareness and make me feel truly alive.
Step 3: Savor
If you are fully accepting what it is you’ve noticed, you can now begin to go deeper and savor it. Try to experience it as fully as you can. If you’re looking at a beautiful mountain, notice how the sunlight lands on it, lighting up that Eastern flank, and how the trees are dappled by the sunlight. Use all your senses if you can to experience it fully, and sit with that experience as you immerse yourself in it, drinking in every aspect of it and enjoying it as much as you can. Even negative experiences can be savored: I often noticed my hands numbing or cramping after hours on the motorcycle, and I directed my attention to them, noticing where exactly my fingers, palms, and wrists were hurting, tingling, or numb. I sat with the pain, letting it be and letting myself experience it, and unexpectedly the pain lessened, the cramping became less severe, as I fully embraced the experience and relaxed into it.
Step 4: Share
An old Swedish proverb tells us that “shared joy is double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.” So, if at all possible, share what you are noticing, accepting, and savoring with someone else and increase your joy in the experience. When on the motorcycles, my wife and I communicated through Bluetooth headsets and so I was able to share something I noticed with her quickly and safely without distracting either of us from our riding. Sharing often enhanced our experience and allowed us to enjoy it together.
Step 5: Be grateful
Cicero said that “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” Gratitude has been shown in numerous studies to have enormous positive effects on health and well-being (e.g., https://www.mindful.org/the-science-of-gratitude/), and it doesn’t take much effort to reap those benefits. In the context of our instant enlightenment practice, simply expressing gratitude for the experience that you’ve noticed, accepted, savored, and shared will further deepen your experience by making you feel happier, calmer, and more connected. If you’d like, write down your gratitude in the evening or the morning as part of your gratitude practice, or even just say out loud how grateful you are in the moment (Kurt Vonnegut used to tell the story of how a family friend taught him a lesson in gratitude by often exclaiming “if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is!” whenever he was enjoying an experience, no matter how mundane).
Step 6: The 3 Rs
Finally, you can enhance and extend your moments of instant enlightenment at any time by using the 3 Rs:
- Remember: at any point after the experience, recall it and let it enlighten you again. Remembering will also help you strengthen the neural pathways to that memory, allowing you to more easily bring it to mind in the future.
- Reflect: adding reflection to your remembrance can help you to relive the moment and help you to experience once again how you truly felt. As you reflect, you can call to mind other experiences and create even more powerful connections among memories, making it easier for you to create instant enlightenment for yourself as you continue the practice.
- Repeat: do this practice as many times a day as you can, and let it become a habit, creating more moments of instant enlightenment in your life.