I feel Nirvana is as close as we could get to a fully perfected first choice for the word laundry, as it might be the hardest word ever to keep clean. I cannot wash the word “Nirvana” by explaining it to you clearly, no one can explain it in words, not even the few people who are said to dwell in it, and that may be why it gets so dirty. This is a recurring theme among the many words in the contemplative space that gesture at related things: mindfulness, embodiment, “presence”, even happiness, but no word has this problem as badly as Nirvana does. Most of us just know it is even cooler than Kurt Cobain, and much cooler than having weeds in your winter beans.
What I hope to suggest is that Nirvana might not be as silly a thing as it can seem, though trying to understand it is silly.
But first a word about how words get damaged. Words are sort of like tools: they were designed to be very good for certain uses and their usefulness sometimes gets degraded when they are used for other things, getting broken or having unhelpful things stuck to them in the process. A shovel, for example, doesn’t really get dirty, because it is meant to get dirt stuck to it. If we get a shovel full of laundry detergent, we would want to wash it before doing gardening, though. The less sense we have of a tool’s best use, and the more that we, or others, think of it as sort of a magic tool, the more likely it is to be used in ways that lessen its usefulness. The tool will be used to impress people and sell weird things, and few will be able to say what precisely is misguided about this behavior.
Nirvana, has been thought of as “Buddhist heaven” so its emotional associations are something like “exoticness-squared” to westerners. It is just a word that sits awkwardly on the wall for the most part until somebody takes it down and plays with it to have fun or make a fashion statement.
But really, it is said to be what arises when one totally extinguishes emotional attachments, including to concepts. The ability to totally enter let go of attachments is rare, that is what earns a person the title “Buddha,” but many practitioners feel they get something like a fleeting glimpse of Nirvana’s clarity and joy. Buddhist teachers approach Nirvana differently than Christians priests approach heaven, typically speaking little about Nirvana, given its prominence in perceptions of Buddhism. I think I can wash the world a little by communicating my humble understanding of why real familiarity with Nirvana might be so elusive, even if it is actually possible.
It makes sense that Nirvana is impossible to clearly describe to anybody who has never completely let go of all the attachments, even if Nirvana is a real thing. Many things need to be seen, directly, to be really understood. If Nirvana were real, speaking about it to a person with no direct insight into it could only create, in that listener’s mind, a sort of metaphor that draws on something the listener has experienced. The experience of describing color to the color blind is one example. The same is true of speaking about skydiving to a non-skydiver — we get them to imagine something based on their past experience. But that person just has to jump out of a plane with a parachute to find out for themselves what skydiving is like. In contrast, a person would have to let go of any conceptual expectations about Nirvana that the description of Nirvana created in order to enter into Nirvana itself. So maybe it is understandable why not much is said about it, and why few people actually enter into it.
However, we all know the joy of being quite content with what is, of not having many thoughts in mind, but being immersed in the beauty of now. So maybe, we can relate to Nirvana through this more common, but still rare, experience. We can see there is something interesting about not being caught up in concepts, but it’s best not to dwell on imagining what this is like, because then we are creating an expectation. It seems more useful to relate to the elusiveness of Nirvana through the elusiveness of beauty. If you go outside and pick the nearest cloud out of the sky, and try to see the beauty in this cloud as deeply as you’ve ever seen the beauty in any cloud that you’ve ever seen, you’d probably fail very badly. You will be occupied with finding your expectation of beauty in the image of the cloud, not with just letting the cloud fill up your awareness, which is what happens on the way to experiences of beauty. Failing to let go of attachments is like that, which might be the most profound thing I can say about Nirvana based on my own experience.
Even if meditators believe attachment is unwise, our minds, like others, tend to acquire attachments to things that are very pleasing, and the idea of Nirvana is pleasing. More mundane kinds of happiness, like contentment and beauty, are also impaired by our attachment to them. This can be frustrating, but rather than just giving up on cultivating our appreciation of these things, contemplative tradition suggests being fully aware of and accepting our attachments and expectations, this is the best way to get a clean look at the truth behind “spiritual words.”
Much of the text here appears in my forthcoming book, “Collective Wisdom in the West: Beyond the Shadows of the Enlightenment” published with Perspectiva Press.