Don’t be afraid of the dark. This is something we are admonished about as children when the unknown looms large and threatening in the shadows of the night. On waking in the light of the morning, shadows retreat and fears dissipate. Light is revelatory: it shows us the reality of things that we can only guess at when we are in the dark. In Zen Buddhism, the concept of Satori signifies awakening, understanding and seeing into one’s true nature. The common translation of Satori captures all three: enlightenment.
We typically think of enlightenment as showing us something important, as when we have a sudden insight, gaining knowledge or wisdom as a result. Enlightenment is popularly understood as a state of mind that brings ultimate peace and harmony to our psyches but lesser known is the perspective that enlightenment is achieved by rediscovering the state of mind we are born into before self-awareness is honed. Over time our minds are molded according to the ways of the world, its expectations for us and the places we assume in it. As our lives play out, our challenge is to shake off these constrictions and make our way back to our true nature. Life, in all its convoluted demands, does not make this easy for us and we may often feel like we are groping in the dark just trying to make sense of ourselves. Still, we have flashes of enlightenment along the way that help guide us back to who we have always been.
Sincere relationships are beacons in the dark. We see our true nature reflected in the people we love when they express unbridled emotion. We share our true nature when we can enjoy being together without the need for words. We feed our true nature when we can trust and be trusted despite our faults and fallibilities. One of the most important relationships we can cultivate is the one we have with ourselves, learning to be comfortable with our own company. To achieve this, we must suspend our inner critic, experiencing the things that happen to us without letting them define us, accepting the process of life and showing ourselves the same compassion that we would show to those we love best.
Accepting the process is especially important when we train. Training requires us to constantly build ourselves up from the bottom, setting our standards higher with every goal we reach. There are times when the ongoing challenge can seem more like a struggle that leaves us feeling self-conscious and uncomfortable, falling into destructive patterns of stressing over our performance, comparing ourselves with others and worrying about how our teachers and peers must perceive our shortcomings. It is easy to feel like we are not good enough when our abilities are far from where we want them to be. When such feelings grow unchecked, they can diminish our self-concept, hinder our progress with unfounded limitations and make us feel as though we are stumbling in darkness rather than building skills.
We experience enlightenment in our training whenever we learn to do something that we previously didn’t think we could. To facilitate such learning, we need to set aside expectations, quiet our mental commentary and let experience play out in us. If we remain diligent in our practice, a light bulb eventually goes off somewhere in our muscle memory and we soon find ourselves moving in ways we once couldn’t fathom as naturally as if we never had to learn in the first place. Letting things happen outside of our habitual awareness, in the dark of our subconscious where mind and body convene, is sometimes the solution that eventually wakes us up and shows us our true potential. This potential is like a torch we carry inside, continuously lighting our way along the budo path.
Life is a journey that often does its best to distract us from our true nature but there is always a way back. Sometimes we have to let go of what we think we know, leaving the spotlight of self-awareness, and plunge into darkness to rediscover the authentic light in us. When this happens, don’t be afraid of the dark. Recognize it as the precursor to enlightenment.