(About a 9 minute read)
When I was at university, I met a woman two years older than me who seemed to me at the time to be so psychologically healthy that I had not expected people could be that “together” before I met her. She changed not only my ideas of psychological health, but a number of my ideas of what people were and could be.
One day, she and I were talking when the topic of enlightenment came up. I had only recently heard of the idea and I told her I wanted to find out if it was true.
“Oh, it’s real”. she said, “And it’s my life’s goal to attain it.”
I didn’t know — and I didn’t ask — how she knew it was real. The idea was so new to me that I had scarcely heard any evidence for it at that point. But I did realize she was a very rational person and most likely had reasons she considered solid for believing it existed.
At that time — about 40 years ago now — you could have carried nearly the entire Western library of scholarship and science about enlightenment around in one or two backpacks — had today’s ubiquitous backpacks been invented back then. It wasn’t hard to have read just about every secular source available in English on the subject.
Today that is quite changed. Over the past twenty or so years, the number of scientific and scholarly publications about enlightenment has exploded. One huge factor in that has been neuroimaging technologies — such fMRI and PET scans — that allow scientists to explore what goes on in the brains of people recalling mystical experiences — which are so closely associated with enlightenment that some people call them “enlightenment experiences”.
Historically, mystical experiences have been relatively rare. Out of the seven billion people alive today, it has been estimated that perhaps only 100 million have had even one such experience. But enlightenment has been even rarer.
Both mystical experiences and — in all likelihood — enlightenment are ubiquitous. There is not a culture on earth that fails to have evidence that at least some of its members have had mystical experiences. We can presume that some have been enlightened too. But knowledge of mystical experiences and enlightenment is not uniformly distributed across cultures.
Historically, those things have been much better culturally known to Easterners than to Westerners. The East has rich traditions regarding them dating back thousands of years. But the concept still isn’t familiar to many Westerners. The science moves on, but the public does not keep up with the science — if they know of it at all. What, then, is enlightenment?
Like so many things that have had myriads of people comment on them, there are several different views about precisely what enlightenment is. In that regard, enlightenment is a bit like love. Everyone familiar with love seems to have an at least slightly different way of describing it. So too, enlightenment.
Yet the core idea seems to be this: There is a rare but attainable kind of awareness, brought about through one or more mystical experiences, that — among other things — involves an end to unnecessary emotional suffering and deep, final insights into certain aspects of human nature, especially the nature and functioning of our psychological self.
The notion there might be different kinds of human awareness startles some Westerners, who have never heard the notion before. Typically, it gets worse when they ask what enlightened awareness is like. Then they are told what it is like cannot be communicated to them — it is so radically different from anything they themselves have ever experienced. Often enough they go away puzzled and suspicious both. “How can anything real be beyond communication?”
In the first place, awareness is not the same thing as consciousness. There are bacteria that are aware of light and can respond to it. But they are certainly not conscious. That is, they are not aware of themselves as being aware of anything.
In the second place, consider this: Quite recent developments in the neurosciences have led some scientists to speculate that we are almost within reach of machines capable of reading thoughts. Suppose such machines are developed and eventually put to use reading the thoughts of wolves.
Wolves are obviously aware, but would you expect to read thoughts in any way similar to ours? In fact, if wolves do not possess consciousness, then their “thoughts” might be unrecognizable to us as thoughts — their awareness might have little or no symbolic content (all human thoughts are fundamentally symbolic).
But if that’s possible, then it should not surprise us that — if humans have at least two basic forms of awareness — one of them might not be describable in terms comprehensible to folks who have only experienced the other form of awareness.
Another concept familiar to most Easterners — but not to some Westerners — is the notion that much emotional suffering is unnecessary and can be eliminated. We think, for instance, that our months or years long grief over the death of a close friend or relative is both necessary and inevitable. But this is not always true.
When Jiddu Krishnamurti’s brother died unexpectedly at an early age, Krishnamurti was nearly paralyzed with grief — for twelve intense days. He then suddenly and completely ceased to grieve.
What most of us don’t realize is that we tend to do things on the psychological level that cause us to prolong our feelings — both negative and positive. This prolonging inevitably creates a great deal of unnecessary suffering, usually along with at least somewhat dysfunctional behavior that can lead to even more suffering.
An enlightened person does not prolong his or her feelings. If something distresses them for a bit, they bounce back as soon as it has passed. Nor do they needlessly do anything to feel what they are feeling more intensely than is necessary. Simply put, they might emotionally suffer — as Krishnamurti did — but not unnecessarily.
It is easy enough to describe or explain the “mechanics” of a mystical experience. What cannot be adequately communicated to someone who has not had one are the contents.
Mystical experiences come about when normal, everyday consciousness comes to an abrupt end while some kind of awareness or experiencing continues. Normal, everyday consciousness is a form of awareness in which the world is divided between self and non-self. I see the racoon passing through my yard, but I do not perceive the racoon as “me”. Instead I perceive it as “not-me” — not my self.
Once consciousness has ended, the awareness that replaces it perceives everything as in some way one. That is, there is — at the least — a feeling of oneness. The racoon and I are now seen or sensed as in some mysterious way the same thing.
That sense of oneness is accompanied with an extraordinarily overwhelming feeling that it is real. “Realer than real” some folks who have experienced it say. The feeling is almost absolutely convincing. Time and again, mystics return from their experience with the conviction that they have had an insight into “the true nature of reality”, and that reality is actually one.
Most mystics — but not all of them — also believe upon their return that they have experienced god. Usually this is god as they never thought of him before. There is a distinction to be drawn between a religious experience and a mystical experience. The religious experience is an experience of some figure from the pages of one religion or another, such as Jesus Christ, Allah, or Vishnu. The mystical experience contains no reference to any religion. If and when a mystic experiences god, it is not God than they experience.
Last, there is usually much other content to a mystical experience. Such things as a feeling of bliss, infinity, etc. But those things don’t really concern us here. What does concern us is the fact that most mystics discover, beginning soon after their experience, that they have at least some surprising new insights into certain aspects of human nature.
Mainly these are insights into the psychology and functioning of the self. And the insights do not take the form of an intellectual understanding of the self. They are more like how you would understand that a tree was hard if you accidentally stumbled into it and broke your nose. You would not need to think, “Oh my! That tree was hard.” to realize at that point that it was hard. You’d have a “feel” or “sense” of it being hard even if you didn’t consciously think about it at all.
In the same manner, mystics have a sense or feel for the self — at least to some extent — that they did not possess before.
Following either a big enough mystical experience, or at least following enough smaller such experiences, mystics arrive at a state of enlightenment.
Most people say that by that time, their awareness has been permanently changed. They are no longer conscious in the normal, everyday sense of the term. Instead, they at least have one foot in consciousness and one foot in the new awareness. This stage — enlightenment — is often called in the East, being “awakened”.
A lot of myths tend to grow up around famous enlightened people such as the Buddha. For instance, it is nowadays sometimes said the Buddha was omniscient. But the earliest Buddhist texts explicitly deny that the Buddha was omniscient. Nevertheless, he is surrounded by that and other myths about him and enlightenment these days.
Science now supports in many ways the description I have given of enlightenment. For instance, people who have had mystical experiences have had their brain functioning scanned while they were told to focus on recalling their experiences. The scans have revealed that when recalling their experiences, their brains function differently.
Areas of the brain associated with, say, distinguishing between self and non-self are suppressed. Other areas associated with our sense that something is real light up, super-activated. And so forth. Basically, the science is confirming much — but not all — of what has been said about enlightenment in the East for thousands of years.
To recap: Enlightenment is a rare but attainable kind of awareness, brought about through one or more mystical experiences, that — among other things — involves an end to unnecessary emotional suffering and deep, final insights into certain aspects of human nature, especially the nature and functioning of our psychological self.
There are, of course, all sorts of variations on that core theme.