SUMMARY: The importance of having the right beliefs in order to attain spiritual enlightenment is grossly over-emphasized both in Western and Middle Eastern cultures.
(About a 5 minute read)
I have a friend who, in my esteemed opinion (esteemed by me, at least), is going about it all wrong. By “it”, I mean spiritual enlightenment, of course. She’s going about it all wrong.
Not that I myself am an authority on spiritual enlightenment. The closest I ever came to it was that time I saw Terri’s breasts in the moonlight. My friend — who is not Terri — has never shown me her breasts
despite incessant hours of begging on my part and hence, I don’t know yet if she’s a reincarnation of the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, Guan Yin, or not. But even if she is, she’s going about it all wrong.
My friend, you see, is a good Westerner, and though she’s been interested in spiritual enlightenment now for two or three years, she’s been making the same mistake of so many good Westerners in that she’s focused — totally focused — on arriving at the right beliefs about enlightenment in the hope that arriving at the right beliefs will help to bring it about.
Westerners, along with people from the Middle East, have a tendency to do that, I think. Our religions emphasize belief as a path to salvation, so naturally we assume that beliefs have something key to do with anything spiritual.
But to me — because I’m admittedly crazy as a banjo strung with knitting yarn — that’s just not so. To me, beliefs are like maps. They can be guides, but they are not what they represent. A map of a mountain trail isn’t a mountain trail. And to totally focus on coming up with the right beliefs as a path to enlightenment makes as much sense to me as building the perfect map of a mountain trail in the hope that the map will someday turn into the trail itself.
For instance, my friend tries to meditate, but what she’s really doing is practicing deep, trance-like contemplation. Her priest innocently recommended it to her as a “meditative” technique. But meditation is very different from contemplation most places in this world.
Contemplation means you try to control your thoughts in order to think more and more profoundly about some topic or subject, such as the infinite nature of a god. There are several kinds of meditation, but they all seem to have in common the notion of merely observing your thoughts — without trying to guide them or hold onto them.
The goal of contemplation is greater conscious awareness of something. The goal of meditation is the stilling of consciousness. That is, the idea is to bring about a cessation of all that chatter that normally goes on in your head as incessantly as a seventeen year old boy’s and girl’s incessant professions of love for each other. In the stillness is the possibility of enlightenment.
Eastern sages, and people who have been informed by them, will tell you that beliefs, thoughts, worldviews, etc are neither the means nor the goal of spiritual enlightenment. Alan Watts, for instance, said, “Zen…does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling the potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.”
Pema Chõdrön states, “It’s a transformative experience to simply pause [consciousness] instead of immediately fill up the space”.
Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “To be a religious man, one must destroy everything— destroy the past, destroy one’s convictions, interpretations, deceptions — destroy all self-hypnosis — destroy until there is no center…Then you are a religious person. Then stillness comes. Completely still.”
And Pema Chõdrön concurs, “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.”
Even Meister Eckhart, from the Western tradition, says, “If you wish to be perfect and without sin, then do not prattle about God. Also you should not wish to understand anything about God, for God is beyond all understanding. A master says: If I had a God that I could understand, I would not regard him as God.”
And Rumi, another mystic, but from the Middle East, states, “silence is the language of god, all else is poor translation.”
My friend has made the mistake of assuming that, if she can only find the right things to believe in, she will as a consequence attain spiritual enlightenment. Her emphasis on beliefs is — in my enormously esteemed opinion — misplaced. A cultural artifact of being a good Westerner or a good Middle-Easterner. Beliefs can be useful in a limited way — as maps — but they are nothing that will magically bring about a transformative experience.