O Books, 2011, 216pp.
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
At the beginning of his book, Forman points out that: “the thought that you can be utterly ego-less , that you can remember to attend to your thought processes often enough to change them, that your guru is utterly egoless, that your everyday life is or will be complete and entirely easy and that these are or should be our goals, has been a damaging fantasy, at best, and counter-productive at worst…it is high time that we turned around and looked squarely in the maw of our own daydreams.”
So when our daydreams about the attainment of some spiritual nirvana are smashed, what then? There is a well-known Sufi tale about a man who searched far and wide for treasure only to discover, after eventually giving up what he had decided was a hopeless search and returning home, that the gold was in fact buried under his own hearth. Why do you suppose this tale has endured for centuries, in many forms? Probably for the same reason that the most famous and oft-quoted lines in all of T.S. Eliot’s poetry are those ones about returning, at last, to the place from which you began but knowing it for the first time. This resonates deeply with all of us because our souls know that the story is true.
However, there are no short cuts. Like Ulysses, we must all make the journey in some form or other before we can fully return to ourselves. Only by undertaking the search shall we ever find the gold. Only when we have searched for spirit in all the exotic places do we discover that true enlightenment, like the treasure beneath the hearth, is hidden in plain sight. For what we shall eventually discover, as this author has, is that the most profoundly spiritual life of all is lived right here, where we are. And the most profound spiritual questions are those posed to us all through that life by experiencing what he calls, “the sweaty ambiguity that soaks the fabric of everyday life.” By living deeply into every moment of the wood-chopping, water-carrying life of ordinariness, with all its puzzles and challenges, we learn the lessons we are here to learn. Our significant others become our most significant teachers, our everyday dilemmas our hardest homework. The enlightenment we thought we were after is – as this book’s whimsical title informs us – ‘not what it’s cracked up to be.’ True enlightenment turns out to be something else entirely.
Forman’s story traces his own search, from his first taste of Transcendental Meditation in 1969 and his rigorous training with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi 1971, through his exploration of many other spiritual pathways to his contemporary experiencing of what he calls ‘soul jazz.’ It also includes a vivid account of his own internal changes, including physical ones such as the bizarre ‘unzipping’ sensation he felt as more and more areas of his bodymind exchanged chatter for a peaceful silence. These gradual changes, although they seemed to happen unexpectedly, would almost certainly not have taken place had it not been for those years of training and the ongoing practice of meditation. For as one of my own favourite spiritual teachers is wont to say: “Enlightenment is an accident, but practice makes you accident prone.” Forman has not only had 40 years of personal practice but also vast experience as a teacher of others and a skilled therapist. I love his quirky writing style, his gentle, disarming manner and his vivid language. I admire the fearless, open honesty he displays and his willingness to embrace paradox and stay with the ‘sweaty ambiguity.’ I thank him for sharing his story in such a simple and fascinating way. The book is simple and its teachings are profound. It is a gem and I highly recommend it.