Once upon a time there was a leaf on a tree.
One fine day, the leaf became conscious and started to ask questions about itself and the meaning of life. It enjoyed the experience of being alive.
But here’s something you probably didn’t know about leaves – they can only see the colour green. So the leaf couldn’t see the branch it was attached to, or the main trunk of the tree. It thought it was just floating in the air, independent and free.
After a while, the novelty of being a leaf wore off and the leaf, who was on a lower branch of the tree, looked up and saw there were leaves that were higher up in the air, where they got more sunlight and had a better view of the world.
“I want to be where those leaves are”, the leaf thought to itself. It spoke to some other young leaves who told it that if it just wanted it badly enough, and was prepared to work for it, a leaf could move anywhere it wanted to. After all, those leaves somehow got up there, so why not us? We are just as deserving.
So the young leaf decided to work hard to improve its circumstances. It would focus all of its energy on moving higher up in the air. Now, sometimes, when it focused hard, the leaf could feel itself moving and thought it was succeeding. It didn’t understand that the movement was the result of the wind blowing. But other times when it focused hard, the wind didn’t blow, and the leaf was frustrated with its lack of progress. After a while, the leaf got depressed.
“Life’s not fair,” it would think. “I suck at being a leaf. I’m a bad, stupid, unworthy leaf. I don’t believe in myself enough. Nobody will ever love me.”
One day, it got talking to another, older, wiser leaf.
“You seem happy,” said the young leaf to the wise, old leaf. “What is your secret?”
“The secret, young leaf, is to know that you are connected to all other leaves by a tree,” said the wise leaf. “In fact, you ARE the tree.”
“What is this tree you speak of?” Asked the young leaf.
“It’s the invisible framework that connects us all and gives us life” said the wise leaf.
“But how do I get to be one of those higher leaves?” asked the young leaf.
“You are ALL of the leaves,” replied the wise leaf. “You are the entire tree. You are just one node of consciousness in the entire tree of life.”
“I understand that you are probably right in theory,” said the young leaf, “but how does that help me? How can I be happy?”
“Accept that you are the tree and enjoy the experience of also being a leaf,” said the wise leaf. “It won’t last forever.”
“But I can think fro myself,” said the young leaf. “Surely that means I am free to do whatever I choose.”
“Thinking and choosing are just chemical events generated by the tree,” said the wise leaf. “Like photosynthesis. Do you think you are free to photosynthesize?”
“No, but I’m not aware of the photosynthesis,” said the young leaf. “It just happens.”
“Exactly,” said the wise leaf. “You are aware of your thinking, so you think you are in control of it. But it’s really the same process as the photosynthesis. Both are just chemical events happening to the tree. Accept you are the tree, and everything will become clear and life will be simple, free from stress and anxiety.”
But the young leaf couldn’t see the tree, so it refused to accept what the wise leaf said. Leafs, like people, can only hear when they are ready to hear.
“If I accept what you’re saying, I would be miserable,” said the young leaf. “That would mean I’m stuck being a lower leaf. It seems like a defeatist, fatalist philosophy.”
“On the contrary,” replied the wise leaf. “Acceptance of the reality of things is the only path to permanent happiness and peace. Fighting against reality is a certain path to misery.”
But the young leaf was too caught up in its desire to be special, so instead of accepting the truth of the tree, it tried to escape its misery by drinking and binging Netflix, took up obsessively going to the gym, read a lot of books about having a positive mental attitude, eventually becoming angry at itself and bitter at the world, until it finally withered away and died and was replaced with a new leaf.
The tree smiled as the new leaf became conscious and started to ask questions of the other leaves.
“The whole world was seen as the divine activity welling up from the mysterious being of Brahman, which was the inner meaning of all existence. The Upanishads encouraged people to cultivate a sense of Brahman in all things. It was a process of revelation in the literal meaning of the word: it was an unveiling of the hidden ground of all being. Everything that happens became a manifestation of Brahman: true insight lay in the perception of the unity behind the different phenomena.”
‘A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam’ by Karen Armstrong
In other words – Brahman = the laws of physics, atoms, whatever you want to call the underlying fabric of the cosmos.
One of the problems with enlightenment is that most of the teaching about it we have inherited from the East. And most of the teaching from the East comes with hundreds or thousands of years of concepts that date back to a time when most people had little literacy, little education and certain very little science. So the terminology and explanations we get from teachers from the East (or people saturated in ancient teachings from the East) don’t get communicated in terms that make sense to the 21st century, science-literate Western mind.
But really – enlightenment isn’t complicated.
All enlightenment is, is the realisation, the recognition, that our self-concept – the idea of who and what we are – is false. It’s predicated on erroneous concepts. It’s never been true, never could be true, and never will be true. And we then need to adjust our self-perception with something more credible.
Despite what you’ll hear from many teachers, this process of seeing the errors with the old self-concept, CAN, DOES and MUST happen “in the mind”. The mind is that ONLY place where this self-concept can occur and it’s the only place where it can change.
The old self-concept that most people have, is that they are some kind of entity that is a) self-governing and b) separate from the rest of the universe.
But when we investigate that idea, we discover that it cannot be true. Our bodies are made of cells, which are made of molecules, which are made of atoms, which obey the laws of physics – therefore we are not self-governing. And those atoms are constantly coming and going from our bodies, and are interacting with the atoms of our surroundings, so we are no separate form the rest of the universe. What, then, are we? What should our new self-concept be?
If I contemplate those conclusions for a while, I come to the following further conclusions.
1. There is no particular thing I can point to, and say “this is what I am”.
2. And yet – I exist. If I did not exist, what is having these thoughts?
3. So some thing exists and yet is it no particular thing.
4. What is left? All things. Every thing.
5. Therefore I must be everything.
It also makes sense that if the atoms that make up ‘me’ (as in, the body I used to think of as me) come and go, then the atoms that are me now, were something else a few years ago. The atoms that were me a few years ago, are now something else. The atoms that will be me a few years from now, are currently something else. Which atoms are ‘me’? Obviously all of them. Which means I am simultaneously many things.
From there I consider that, according to physicists, atoms do not have a solid boundary. The nucleus of an atom is orbited by one or more electrons as a “fuzzy probability cloud”. Therefore, there isn’t even a hard boundary between the atoms that are currently me and the atoms in the air and furniture around me. If I could see at such small levels of detail, I would notice that my atoms blend into the atoms of the air and furniture. And the atoms of the air and furniture would blend into other atoms. And so on and so forth, until all of the atoms are blending into each other. The universe is comprised of atom soup.
Therefore what I am – what any of us, all of us, are – is the atom soup of universe. Which is, in other words, the universe.
There is only the universe. And I am that. And so are you.
We are the universe aware of itself.
The recognition of this – the new self-concept – is the first step of enlightenment.
The second step is the question: “So what does that all mean for how I live my live from this moment on?”