Do You Have to Crawl Throught the Desert to get Enlightened? - Goodlife Zen

Do You Have to Crawl Throught the Desert to get Enlightened?

A Zen student asked me recently, “Why does it take so long attain enlightenment? Do we have to crawl through the desert to get there?”

The problem of ‘attaining’

If you think of attaining something, the world breaks into two: on one side is the person who is striving to attain something, and on the other is the object that he or she is striving for. But the experience of awakening is the reverse: It is a moment of total intimacy where the boundary between ‘self’ and ‘other’ is dissolved.

To taste awakening, we have to let go of ‘gaining’, as we walk further and further into what is unknown and unknowable.

Awakening can happen in a sudden burst, or it may sneak up on you over time. You may experience a moment when there is just the call of a bird, or the flush of the toilet, or a word heard in passing–and nothing else. That moment fills the whole universe.

Each experience is different. But most experiences have two aspects in common. One is a preliminary sense of gathering, the other is a final sense of deep familiarity.


Often there is a sense that spiritual energy is gathering as someone moves closer to awakening. In this process of gathering, people will often come up to the edge of the precipice, and, instead of taking wing, they will shrink back in fear. Each person has their particular pattern of backing off. One person will quickly retreat into intellectual thought, whereas another will find a pressing emotion to attend to. Anything, but anything to get back to what is safe and known!

If this happens, please don’t berate yourself. What it means is that you are not yet ready to hold and live the experience. Your dance of stepping forward and shrinking back is your own particular process of gathering.


The second aspect of awakening is a deep sense of familiarity. It is like meeting a long-lost friend and realise that he or she is non other than oneself. It is as if we fall into our own arms and exclaim, “What took you so long?”

I recently came across the following poem by Shail Gulhati called ‘Zen’ that includes the lines:

is the art of arrival
to a place
where you have always been.

What does it take to awaken?

Two factors are especially important. One is a strong spiritual aspiration. The other is regular, dedicated meditation practice. It takes time and effort to finally realise that what we seek for is already there – has always been there since before time began.

Robert Aitken says in his book The Gateless Barrier:

People sometimes ask me, “How long will it take?”
My answer is: “No time at all!”
“But, I have been doing zazen for ten years-why isn’t anything happening?”
Exactly: nothing is happening, though your realisation of that fact may be evolving.

If awakening is your aspiration, keep on walking, keep on knocking. Trust the process.

The poet Rumi said:

Keep knocking, and the joy within
Will eventually open a window
And look out to see who’s there.


About the author

Mary Jaksch

Mary is passionate about helping people create a happy, purposeful, and fulfilling life. She is the founder of GoodlifeZEN and also the brains behind, one of the biggest blogs for writers on the Net. Mary is also a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

Leave a comment: