“Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.” — Zen Kōan
During the recent successful launch of my book “Chasing Marigolds”, a friend who was introducing me and my book, made reference to the classic children’s book “The Little Prince”. She remarked that my book had reminded her of Antoine De Saint-Exupery’s famous novella which was written in 1943.
As I hadn’t read it since my children were young I was inspired to re-read it and watch the animated film version on Netflix. The film is beautifully illustrated for children with vivid graphics and joyful music but clearly explains the concept of enlightenment that the author was trying to articulate to his audience.
For those of you who have not read the book, the story is about an aviator who crashes his plane in the Sahara Desert and is visited by a strange little prince. The aviator is pleased to discover that the little prince has no trouble understanding his abstract drawing of an elephant inside a boa constrictor or a sheep concealed inside a box. As a child he had shown these drawings to adults and they just “didn’t get it”.
Although “The Little Prince” is only about 90 pages long, it introduces some interesting characters who all offer gems of wisdom to the prince as he courageously pursues his adventures across several planets. One character known as the ‘railway switchman’ describes the travellers on his train as pursuing nothing at all as they are asleep. Only the children are pressing their noses against the windows and know what they are looking for.
In “Chasing Marigolds” I write that in order to find enlightenment, one doesn’t need to seek a guru in an ashram. You can find enlightenment out of a bus window if you are observant and travel with an open mind.
Another character known as ‘the rose’ says that we must endure 2 or 3 caterpillars if we are to become acquainted with the butterflies. In my book I write about dualities in Tantric Yoga where one needs to first understand sadness in order to know happiness. In the same way we do not fully understand life until we have become acquainted with death.
While the little prince is in love with the rose, ‘the geographer’ in the story tells him that flowers are not worth recording because they are ephemeral. The little prince replies, ‘the stars are beautiful because of a flower that can’t be seen’. The rose was connected to the sunrise and it is only with the heart that one can see rightly. In my book I described my fleeting moments of happiness in life and my marigolds as bringing me ephemeral moments of joy. In my opinion any moments of joy are well worth recording, even if they are ephemeral.
Another character known as ‘the fox’ says, ‘to forget a friend is sad’. When the little prince suggests that it is lonely in the desert, the aviator replies, ‘it is lonely among men’.
In my book, “Chasing Marigolds” I remind readers to ’embrace life with all its uncertainties, to cherish the joyful times and the wonderful people who make them possible’.
“The Little Prince” is a journey of enlightenment seen through a child’s eyes but can be understood by people of all ages if they are willing to keep their eyes and hearts open.
My friend described “Chasing Marigolds” as a journey of wonderment looking backwards but also forwards on the path to enlightenment. In her words, ‘This book articulates that there is no age barrier to adventure, learning and love, no experience you can’t have if you want it bad enough. Excuses hold us back, courage takes us forward.’
So what is enlightenment? Antoine De Saint-Exupery writes about most adults being caught up with ‘matters of consequence’ and what they consider to be ‘essential’ things in their lives. It is only with the heart that one can see what is really essential as it is invisible to the eye. What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well like an enchanted house that hides a treasure. What gives them their beauty is something that is invisible. One cannot find it looking with the eyes. One must look with the heart.
In order to understand enlightenment it is sometimes easier to first examine what enlightenment is not. Over the years I have learned that no matter how many books on wisdom you read or how many courses you attend on enlightenment, you cannot achieve it in the same way you would gain a degree. I have attended many yoga retreats, questioned gurus, meditated for hours while kneeling on gravel, fasted, purged and practised yoga for many years. While you may become wiser and more knowledgeable, you cannot learn enlightenment.
The nearest analogy I can find is that it is like waiting patiently in a butterfly house hoping that a butterfly will land on you. Although you may have placed flowers and nectar in your palms, it is usually the moment when you look away that the butterfly will choose to gently land on your shoulder. Enlightenment appears when a person is ready. It is often at the moment when you are least expecting it.