Robert K. C. Forman, Ph.D
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From Enlightenment Ain't What It's Cracked Up To Be:  My friend Tom Duffy, a meditator of forty some years, is an outrageously hammy and charismatic leader of the New Hampshire-renowned rock and roll band, “Effengees: Like a Garage Band only Louder.” Effengees’ gigs are paroxysms of rhythm and humor and power, times to dance like no one is watching.  It’s where you can belt out “Mustang Sally” and “She Loves You Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” as loud as you please and drink and stomp some feet. I’ve seen as much joy at Effengees events as I’ve seen on any meditation weekend. It’s probably not as life altering, but gad, those nights are a hoot!

I sat next to a Soen Sa Nim, a Korean Zen Roshi. I’m quite fascinated by Korean Zen and she seemed lovely sitting there, hands primly folded, head shaved, pressed silver robe. I sat down next to her. I asked about her kids, her Soen center, where she got her robes. She responded, earnest, slow voiced and monosyllabic. It was like chatting with a wall. I never learned where she was born, what she liked, whether she was divorced. And I never saw her smile.

After a little while, I gave up. Soon after, a student wandered over and sat on the floor, literally at her feet. Suddenly she was all low register voice and stately Zen rhythms. She actually seemed relieved. Now she could play Roshi.

Knowing that a student or two was there may have cramped her style. And no doubt chatting like that was my way. But honestly, I wanted to shake her and shout “Gad, lady! What good is all that sitting if you can’t play? This is an Effengees party! Can’t you stop being the Roshi? Come on, let’s boogie!”

We spiritual types can take ourselves soooooo seriously! Christians, Hindus, Buddhists: we can be so earnest! Can you even picture Maharishi, Muktananda or, oy! Pope Benedict getting down loud and happy with the Effengees? (I could see Deepak Chopra maybe, or Ram Dass before his stroke. If he’d lose the robes I’d bet the Dali Lama could do a mean bunny-hop!) Most of us spiritual folk, and especially us guru or priestly types, seem too into the act, all sober in our sobriety. It’s like we’re protecting our self-appointed “Obi-wan” roles. This, it seems to me, is not emotional adaptability. It’s garden variety attachment, just another identity.

This picture that there’s only one right way to feel or to be—serious, deep voiced, kindly—is a spiritual blunder of the first order. Enlightenment today has to include spreading our arms wide to the multifarious gallimaufry of human emotions. It’s silence plus that we’re after, the full bodied freedom that stretches from head and intellect to heart and love to crotch and pig-sex to foot and stompin’. I want to be awake, for god’s sake, to pain and joy and love and loss and boredom and not-knowing: the plenipotent catastrophe that is a whole emotional life.

What makes this spiritual?


Make no bones about it. This is profoundly spiritual:  the unrepentant openness to it all makes it so.  Flowing without any effort whatsoever, being without walls, is the very mark of the spiritual!

True spiritual freedom is able to be deep and serious and funny and raucous and thoughtful and effective, each when the time is right. It lives unhindered wide open to the paradox of being a human. It’s the freedom to move, to flex and bend without a sinew’s resistance that makes this spiritual: effortlessly appropriate under any circumstance. Silence calls us to hold whatever comes, utterly without effort. It knows that “To everything there is a time, and a season for everything under heaven,” and does not resist the seasons’ changing. Lord let me love that old rock and roll music and the meditation cushion and the alive melancholy of mourning and the graceful small of a woman’s back.

Don’t get me wrong. This enlightenment-plus I'm after is not some return to a teenage dance-till-you-drop hedonism. Most of us have known how to dance since we were kids and learned to screw long ago, though perhaps not as lovingly as we might.

No, what I think we’re after is fluidity, a fully labile emotional life, one that glissades effortlessly from noisy through quiet, down through up, raucous through sober. That Korean Zen teacher actually does have something to offer. It is real and deep and worth discovering. Most of us are not terribly able to connect. Most of us run away from our depths, and cannot fathom what she lives.

Today’s summum bonum includes her depths; it is the throbbing core of the spiritual life.  But it also includes the tears that well up only from unabashed love and the belly laugh that comes only when a life issue is fully resolved. It is awake to it all without hindrance, flows as the silence flows—to laughter, to looking deep at someone’s heart, to loving when the lights go dim, to weeping over loss, and to dancing, gettin' way down, when the beats crank up. And in the midst of it all, it is as non-resistant as the wind.

From my Enlightenment Ain't What It's Cracked Up To Be:  A Journey of Discovery, Snow and Jazz in the Soul.