DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of people who insufferably know what they’re talking about. Consequently, reasonable and open-minded skepticism is called for here. On the other hand, the gods themselves enjoy inflicting heinous devastations upon those who disagree with me.
(About a 10 minute read)
Like most folks familiar with the term “spiritual enlightenment” — or simply “enlightenment” to many of us — I harbor some opinions about what it is, what can cause it, and what enlightened people are like. If anything distinguishes me from nine in every ten folks on this issue, it’s that I’m not in the business of arguing my opinions, of trying to more than explain them.
That seems to me rare today — an age in which even the least proselytizing among us far too often channel the ugly self-assured certainty that most radio talk-show hosts use to mask their ignorance when wrestling with subjects too profound for them — that is, nearly every subject they tackle, except sometimes the latest weight loss product they pitch.
Now that I’ve foolishly indulged myself in ranting against something I myself will never be able to change about radio hosts, please allow me to foolishly indulge myself in discussing what it means to be spiritually enlightened.
But note: I’m being quite serious when I say I don’t know what I’m talking about. My purpose here is not to sell conclusions and beliefs, but to provoke thought and — hopefully — beyond thought, mystery.
I’d best start, though, by defining my terms. To me, spiritual enlightenment is something that comes about through a very specific and singular kind of experience. I call it, “The Mystical Experience”.
There are, so far as I know, about sixteen different kinds of experiences that people commonly call “mystical”. The mystical experience is only one of them. However, it seems to me the only one of them that can reasonably be said to bring about spiritual enlightenment.
The experience’s sin qua non — it’s hallmark — without which it simply is not the mystical experience — is a sense of oneness. That is, a sense of all things, including oneself, becoming in some way just one thing, so that to see a tree, or to hear a bird, during the experience is to see or hear oneself. Or, as an old poem by a Zen master put it:
I look at a flower
Suddenly the flower looks into me
Or, as another master in his own right, Robert Plant, sings in Stairway to Heaven, “When one is one, and one is all…”
Without even one genuine experience of that sense of oneness, it seems to me nothing has enough power to sufficiently transform us that we might be considered enlightened. Not the teachings of sages, nor the authority of holy scriptures, can substitute for the actual experience itself — an experience that is as rare as a free spirited person, and as uncontrollable as a spring breeze. It does not come to many — perhaps merely to 100 million people out of the seven billion alive today — and it cannot be forced to come about, not even apparently by drugs.
So, if the only way to enlightenment is both rare and uncontrollable, how important can it be?
Perhaps the Buddha gave the best answer to that question centuries ago when he described enlightenment as an end to unnecessary suffering, which to him included such things as the suffering brought about by emotionally clinging to things.
In other words, there’s not much personal reason to want to become enlightened if you don’t mind the normal day’s worth of anxieties, depressed moments, fears, unsatiated desires, and possibly angst. Many of us don’t.
But are there other reasons one might — or even should — seek enlightenment?
One I hear a lot about — even from some enlightened people — is that enlightenment remarkably improves how one treats others. Depending on who does the telling, enlightened people tend to be more compassionate, more loving, kinder, more patient, more honest, etc in their dealings with others than non-enlightened people.
I myself happen to believe that, but I know I could be wrong about it, given that I myself am unenlightened even compared to Teresums, who — were it not for me — would really be in the pits when it comes to being enlightened.
But a caveat here: Just because enlightened people might be more compassionate, loving, etc. should not be taken as evidence they are more likely to be activists of any sort whatsoever. That is, I seriously doubt many enlightened people are, like the Buddha or Jiddu Krishnamurti, concerned with reforming either individuals or societies — with bettering them.
The enlightened people we hear about may be that way, but most days, I suspect that most enlightened people are quietly enlightened. Probably, they don’t even mention to their best friends that they harbor some horrible conviction they might be aware of the world in an usual and rare way.
Something else I hear a lot about is the claim that enlightened people possess some kind of vast, god-like knowledge of the universe or cosmos, such that they might know even of that teenage ant who is at this moment furiously masturbating on a leaf blade in a galaxy far, far away. A variation on this belief is the notion that, while they do not actually possess such knowledge, they were shown such things during the mystical experiences that brought about their enlightenment — it’s just that they have more or less forgotten most of what was revealed to them.
To me, that’s all salesmanship. People say such things to encourage others to seek enlightenment, not because they are true. Yet — I’ll be the first to confess I’m just guessing, based on my experience that extraordinary claims are usually not true claims. For all I really know, that could be true.
In my view, enlightened people do not even know for sure whether a god or gods exist. That is, despite that their experiences seem to them “realer than real”, and despite that the sense of oneness is at the least, very close to a sense of deity, there are solid epistemic reasons even enlightened people cannot know for certain any reality beyond themselves exists — just as none of us can.
We are each of us unable to escape from solipsism, despite most of us hate solipsism.
But that leaves an exception: What of those enlightened people who report the existence of a god — a god that is not beyond the self, but in some sense is the self? In that case, the objection that we cannot know what is beyond the self becomes moot.
I find that a semi-compelling argument. It’s only flaw is it relies on logic alone, rather than on logic checked by observation. Indeed, when we do check it against the observations of numerous mystics we find that even mystics who have experienced what they say “can only be described in the same language as one uses to describe god”, sometimes remain agnostic or atheistic about whether a god really exists. So I don’t think we can properly take as conclusive any reasons some mystics might give us for supposing the existence of deity.
Another consideration here is to point out the two wrenches in the works. That is the two caveats that must be stated whenever one asserts — based on the accounts of enlightened individuals themselves — anything about the nature of enlightenment.
First, it seems very likely there are different degrees to enlightenment. Moreover, those degrees might not correspond to the number of mystical experiences someone has, but rather reflect something else altogether.
For while all mystical experiences are profound, the truth might be a moving target — something that is ever changing — such that each time you have an experience, you are changed in a new way from the last time.
But who believes such a thing? Well, I didn’t come up with it myself. I am basing my view here on what Jiddu Krishnamurti has said about such experiences — for what the account of a quite possibly enlightened person might or might not be worth here.
Second, I think we should recognize that human nature is highly subject to various biases that distort our thinking. The actual experience of enlightenment, the mystical experience, is not likely a distortion in any normal way or sense because it is beyond thought, but any comments about it, any interpretations of it, that a mystic might arrive at after the experience are very likely subject to our innate and acquired biases.
Put differently, some mystics are better observers than others.
The last thing I would like to mention here is the simply appalling notion that enlightenment imparts conceptual knowledge. If it did, then why has not someone — anyone — ever returned from an experience of enlightenment with the plans for a better public sewer system, or something along those lines — that is, something amounting to conceptual knowledge?
To be sure, enlightenment seems to impart knowledge, but mostly it seems to be the sort of knowledge that you know “in your bones” without ever really needing to know it consciously. And mostly, it seems to be knowledge of the self — the psychological self, the “I”, “me”, or ego. Knowledge of exactly what creates the self, how it functions, what it does to us and to our ability to see the world as it really is.
Questions? Comments? Rude insinuations that I’m about as enlightened as a turnip in a kitchen blender? Generous offers to share your fleas with me? Poignant reminders my mother expected much better of me?
Feel in need of some good old gratuitous outrage?
Nothing quite gets the juices flowing than Uncle Paul’s insufferable opinions on things he knows nothing about, so here’s a fine selection of just a few of his many blind and ignorant posts on mysticism, enlightenment — along with some hearty recipes for his infamously tasteless deep fried mac and cheese: