Shedding Light on Enlightenment
May 17, 2014 § 3 Comments
What it isn’t
Enlightenment; it’s a word that holds near-mythical connotations. It summons the image of beings that have transcended ignorance and suffering, having achieved a state of pure bliss and harmony. We imagine a moment of clear, brilliant clarity that changes everything about our lives and our perception of it. The very concept is so muddled by contradictory ideas coming from a range of sources that all we think we know is that it’s something special and obtainable, but only very special people who put in the utmost of effort to obtain it ever do.
You know what? We buy into it. Even if we didn’t even know the word ‘enlightenment’, we strive towards achieving some state of ultimate self, void of suffering and unhappiness. Hundreds of thousands of us – as the booming spiritual self-help industry can attest – buy into this idea of enlightenment. We spend a small fortune on books, videos, even courses and workshops, all promising information that will provide a unique perspective, change our perception and improve our lives in one way or another.
The truth is, we have Enlightenment wrong. As a concept, it has very ‘conveniently’ warped into something that fits our Western, postmodern values; it is something we lack that we must strive to obtain, and once we do, we’ll be happy (not just happy, blissful even!). It has become another carrot on a stick. The New Age movement holds, perhaps, some of the blame. Because it was not a unified movement, it drew upon such vast sources of information and practice, often entirely contradictory and, at times, of questionable nature.
Carnegie’s ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ was a huge proponent in self-help, and his solutionist style filtered down into the New Age movement with ease. It appealed to people who were vulnerable and lacked self-esteem, as well as an answer or a solution. Combine this with Eastern spiritual teachings and a bit of mystical quackery for good measure, and you have a dangerous (and very profitable) cocktail.
What is ‘it’, then?
The irony of it all is that while self-help is fixated with appeasing the emotional ego, Buddhism is entirely about being released from it. Adding layers to ourselves, to our egos – is comforting; it’s a convenient distraction that nearly all of us partake in our whole lives. We view enlightenment through the same distorted lens; it’s another conditional in our life – if we obtain ‘enlightenment’ we’ll suddenly become or feel A/B. Our search for what we think ‘enlightenment’ is becomes another distracting layer we add to our constructed sense of ‘self’, or who we think we are.
“1: The self, especially as contrasted with another self or the world” ‘Ego‘ Definition, Webster Dictionary
Enlightenment, according to Buddhism, is simply a state of nondual (not two, i.e. not separate) awareness marked by the absence of suffering brought about by desire. When you compare that to, for example, “repenting for man’s original sin”, it seems pretty damn mature and intelligent. Truly, we are all trying to ‘reduce’ our suffering, but usually through ill-informed, selfish means; usually avoidance, self-delusion and following one’s simplistic desires. Read Buddhism’s Eight-Fold Path in overcoming suffering. You may be surprised by how sane the advice is.
From the moment a child is born, its experience is defined by how its environment is different from itself. It gains awareness of itself as a ‘separate’ identity, developing a personality that is defined by its experiences. From a ‘local’, human perspective, we are indeed separate entities. This perception of separation is a simple biological survival mechanism. Evolution wouldn’t have quite worked out if we humans believed, in the face of say another apex predator like a lion, that we were at one with it…things would certainly have played out differently! Thinking that a separation exists has been, and continues to be important for our animalistic survival.
However, if our very thoughts and therefore our sense of identity are simply products of advanced evolutionary neuro-activity, our perceived ‘separateness’ is entirely an electro-chemical illusion. When one strips away these layers of self, what is left? Buddhism calls it ‘consciousness‘, others call it energy. Eckhart Tolle, from the video above, calls it stillness. Defining it really isn’t all that important, however. To simply understand and embrace that everything is made from ‘it’, that all apparent separateness is an illusion, is at the heart of enlightenment. These concepts are not all spiritual, either. Many quantum physicists are exploring non-dualism as a scientific concept. Consider Einstein’s point below:
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” –Albert Einstein
The similarity between what Einstein is saying and what Buddha taught thousands of years ago is astounding. Oneness/nondualism are true, spiritual or scientific, it is no matter. So, what is the state of being enlightened? Personally, I don’t see enlightenment as an ultimate ‘goal’, more a realisation of truth. We can be ‘more’ or ‘less’ ignorant of this truth, but nothing else. We can practice meditation, mindfulness, and become more self-aware, compassionate for others and develop inner peace and tranquillity, or we can choose not to. Simply, take responsibility for your experience and your suffering, because you have the ability to deal with it if you so wish. The illusion of self and separation will always exist to some degree; that’s a simple fact of where we are in our evolutionary journey. It’s up to us how much we allow ourselves to invest in it.