[This piece originally appeared in my column "A to Zen" in the May/June 2015 issue of Unity Magazine and is reproduced here with permission.]
The lotus flower is a powerful visual metaphor for spiritual enlightenment. Rooted in the mud beneath the pond, the stem rises up through the water, breaking through the surface and blossoming into startling beauty. To the casual eye, the exquisite refinement of the lotus blossom seems superior to the muck at the bottom of the pond. But in contemplation we come to know that there is no hierarchy between the mud, the water, and the rarefied air – each proves to be an essential environment for the unfolding.
The lotus blossom is not an alien visitor from a transcendent world. Its vibrant color and delicate form are simply an expression of the root, hidden deep beneath the mud at the bottom of the pond. Sure, the flower gets all the attention. But where would it be without its formative period? Our analytical mind divides the process into parts and stages, even imposing preference for one stage over the others. But the fact remains – each stage contains all the other stages. We are witness to a seamless unfolding not of sections, but of an indivisible unity.
Enlightenment, it turns out, is our natural, innate state. But in the depths of gestation, it’s easy to forget our original nature.
In the Indian traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism the lotus stands as a wordless lesson – we are all on the way to our fullest realization, and our highest manifestation exists already within us in embryonic form.
Awakening is not becoming something we’re not – it’s becoming what we already are. Our dawning realization is a birth process – we are all at once the mother, the midwife, and the newborn. And as with childbirth, there is little to be done other than to ensure that optimal conditions exist within which the natural process can unfold on its own.
How then can we give birth to our highest, most fully-realized state? By what steps can we become more empowered? A lotus plant can live for thousands of years. We don’t have that much time.
Here’s a shortcut that could save you years of needless searching: Empowerment is not acquiring power you did not previously have; empowerment is uncovering power you had all along. You don’t need anything. You only need to remove obstacles. We become who we are, wrote Meister Eckhart, “not by a process of addition, but by a process of subtraction.”
In the great hero myths of all cultures, the hero finally uncovers his or her power when all of the stultifying comforts – misunderstood as supports – are stripped away. It is only by dying to our previous stages of existence that we are reborn into our newly revealed authentic expression.
The obstacles to our empowerment are many. It’s naïve to ignore external conditions like poverty, violence, trauma, and the debilitating stress they cause. But where we can often do the most immediate good is by claiming our freedom to assert new thoughts in response to these vexing conditions. In his landmark book Man’s Search for Meaning Victor Frankl noted that among his fellow inmates at Auschwitz, the ones who survived all shared a common characteristic – they imposed meaning where there was none. Out of the depths of their being they mustered the will to live and a genuine optimism despite unbearable conditions.
In Camus’s analysis of the Greek myth of Sisyphus we see a similar theme. Sisyphus had been condemned for eternity to roll a large rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down while he slept. Every morning he rose to commit the same futile task. Yet Sisyphus overcame the absurdity of his existence through a sheer act of will. He could have succumbed to the apparent meaningless of existence, but by his willingness, courage, and perseverance he transcended his fate.
Empowerment is an inside job. It begins with a decision. “Once you make a decision,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “the universe conspires to make it happen.” What if our awakening were inevitable? What if the end was already assured and we had only to attend to the means? What if our limited thinking is the biggest hindrance to our empowerment?