There Is No Such Thing as Enlightenment
I once heard the spiritual teacher (of Advaita, Non-duality) Francis Lucille tell his students (who he would rather refer to as “friends”):
“Would you rather be enlightened, or happy?
Would you rather be enlightened and unhappy, or unenlightened and happy?”.
While I laughed and thought this very insightful, part of me also was taken aback: it sounded like he was denigrating or downgrading the goal of enlightenment and self-realization, or saying (mere) happiness was the same thing. And wouldn’t enlightenment make you happy? What are we doing listening to this teacher and attending satsang (and meditating and having dialogues and reading and seeking and practicing…) if we aren’t going to become enlightened? It would be like taking golf lessons and being asked “would you rather learn to play golf, or be happy?” We take lessons because we want to be better golfers, and think that will make us happier. We’ll enjoy golf more, beat others, improve our game, not look like a fool, have bragging rights…whatever.
My ego was really annoyed. My achievement-oriented, not-good-enough, not-there-yet self was really pissed. Who is this guy to take the rug out under the great things I will become if I reach what is pursued here and drop the self, blow up like an atomic bomb and show everyone… I mean, what the fuck am I doing here?
And what about human potential? Create greats works, have a high-flying career, be a big person, be famous, rich. Why are we here on Earth? To get more stuff, win over the competition? Get love, find love, achieve some great thing? Have a comfortable, secure life with a family and house and shit? More sex, cars and travel.
I previously titled this article “Is Self Realization for You?” and later added the sub-title “On Beyond Enlightenment”. However I think the title “There Is No Such Thing as Enlightenment” is more provocative, and also more true. While “Is Self Realization for You?” might attract those with a self-improvement agenda or point of view, or are curious about Self-realization, or new to the concept, I am not trying to cater or pander to an audience. And while “On Beyond Enlightenment” would of course go along with the theme of this blog or book, the concept of enlightenment itself is already so loaded, I didn’t want to burden myself (or the reader) with double tasks!
Indeed, if you are reading about this topic, have found this article, you might be one of those people who think they want to become enlightened, or are curious about the topic and why other people talk about it, or have been searching and seeking it for a long time. Or you might have been reading this blog or book and stumbled across this article (there are no mistakes).
Synonyms for “Enlightenment”: Awakening, Self-realization, Illumination, ultimate Freedom. Sometimes it’s said someone had an “epiphany”, or is a self-realized, or Realized “master”. Or God-Realization, a God-Realized Master. Omnipresence. Omniscience.
Who am I to talk about this topic? What is my authority, my street cred, who am I to know? What is my reputation? Who am I? All the reputable and recognized masters or teachers or sages or whatever you call them, have some kind of story, had some kid of awakening or self-realization or enlightenment experience that we hear or read about. We hear something happened to make them who they are. They did things and had experienced, or an experience, then started teaching or writing, or people started noticing and talking about them. Is that what you want: to be noticed, appreciated, approved, esteemed, highly regarded, to have people coming to you with questions, teach them, help them, help the world?
Or do you simply want to be happy all the time, existing in bliss? Or all or some combination of the above? What’s missing?
What if someone—let’s say it’s you, to make it more personal, and bring it home—were to become what you consider to be fully Self-Realized, completely or highly Enlightened (however you define or see that), but you lived in a shack in the mountains, and no one ever hears about you and you write no books or do no podcasts and were never seen on YouTube. You lived out your simple existence, going to the stream for water, eating your simple meals, shitting in the woods, and humming as you strolled through the mountains? Would that be enough for you? No?
Well then you are in trouble (so to speak…). Why? Because you’re wanting. And you are expecting. And you are looking outside yourself. And you are believing yourself to be a separate entity, a person.
If someone says they are awakened, or are enlightened, then they can’t possibly be. If someone else says they are, can they be? If someone talks about an experience they had where there was a total loss of the personal “I”, and freedom, or awakening, or death of the ego it might be interesting and worth seeing what they might be pointing to. But if someone says they are a sage, they can’t be. If I label myself as a Jnani or a prophet, I am not that.
It’s like saying “I’m the humblest man on Earth.”
Ordinary happiness, just as in what’s normally called “love”, is conditional on, dependent on, what’s happening: what someone does or what I do, our behavior, my body, other bodies, this mind or this world. If my mate plays around and I find out they’ve been making love with someone they met in a coffee shop and not telling me, then they announce it’s over and I have to move out, I might react, might have a change of heart, might stop loving them. My feelings, my “love” will go up and down like a roller coaster, as has theirs. If I discover I won the lottery one day, and am elated, then the next day discover it was all a mistake, my happiness will go up and down like a yo yo. They are all experiences. They are experiences for me, that “I” seem to go through.
Is self-realization an experience? Yes and no. Yes in that we are talking about it now: how can I write and how can you read about something if it’s not part of experience? But who or what goes through the experience: that is what is at stake here. It’s often been mentioned (in spiritual circles, or if you read or listen to talks about non-duality, enlightenment, and so forth) that since enlightenment is the realization that there is “no one home”—that there is no such thing as a separate entity anywhere in existence, and that you do not exist as a person, as a body or a mind, that it’s just a belief and an illusion—therefore there is no one to become enlightened in the first place. Therefore it’s a contradiction, or paradox, to say “I am enlightened”. It’s like saying “this sentence is a lie”.
The fact is, there’s nothing in it for you: you the ego, you the “small self”, you the separate self – whatever you want to call the self that most of us run around believing ourselves to be. This seems like, sounds like, a very strange fact, an odd idea. How can “I” not be there for an experience?
The “you” you normally think of as you, won’t be there if you awaken. Strange idea…
“The sound of one hand clapping” is an old Zen saying, a koan, a funny thing.
So does that mean I have to “die while I’m still alive”? Yes, in a sense. But no, in another sense. There was no one to die in the first place. In fact death does not exist, at least not as you thought and imagined it. So even a false self can’t really die, anymore than a sentence can, except by stopping here.
If that sentence only existed in someone’s head, and they never wrote it down, and they forgot it, did it ever exist? Where do thoughts go when they die?
How can one want something that amounts to one’s non-existence? It sounds suicidal, foolish, crazy.
There is nothing in it for you, and everything is in it for “no ones”: for those ready and willing to realize they are literally no one and no thing. But this is just playing with words, thought concepts.
Why would someone want nothing? No one wants nothing. Everybody wants something. And many people want to “be someone”, and almost everyone thinks they are someone.
The hard thing for many to fathom about the teaching of non-duality and similar wisdom paths leading to (supposed) Realization of the Self, is that it’s not for the body-mind, the sense-mind. There are benefits to one’s life (in the long run – in the short run things can get worse if it brings up subterranean thinking that needs to be seen), but they’re more like side-effects.
If you supposedly experience “bliss”, in a state of self-realization, and it’s not for or of the body, then how can you experience it? It seems like a contradiction or a paradox.
To briefly mention some “side-effects” I’ve noticed for the author: an improvement in health over time so one can be an instrument of the universal (until the body gets ready to be dropped), better rapport in relationships and a sifting out of good from bad friends, less neediness, more harmonious and enjoyable business dealings, clarity of thinking, loss of stress, an intensified appreciation of beauty, the perception of an “undeserved” love that is staggering and humbling, the perception of the extraordinary in the ordinary, the gradual or sudden dropping away of bad habits, less need for being entertained or for fruitless socializing, an increase and serendipity and insight.
However, don’t expect this. Expectation keeps you from finding what you want. Don’t expect anything. Yup, another paradox.
Why does expectation chase away that which one is looking for? Let’s say you were a flower, and wanted to attract a butterfly, and you had special flower-powers and were able to move around – maybe a mad scientist created you and you had muscles and nerves and feet and eyes and you could run about in the world. So you’re sitting there as this special flower with special powers of movement, and you have a magnificent new flower bud, and you see a butterfly flitting around you. You want the butterfly to pollinate you. Would you chase after it and try and grab it? No, the butterfly would run away. You would open. You would open that flower bud, and relax. The bee is looking for you. There’s no reason to chase it. As an open flower, the butterfly is all about finding you. No problem. Total cooperation and harmony, if allowed.
Happiness is your true nature, and you are not chasing it so much as it is pulling you in. The friendly pollinating butterfly is coming to you. The flower and the butterfly are one thing, one movement. There’s nothing to fight. Nothing coming towards anything. Nothing and nothing. Nothing happening, anywhere.
And the crazy thing is, the funny thing is, as adults we have learned to run away from happiness, in the process of trying to run to it.
“The winds of God’s grace are always blowing, it is for us to raise our sails.” ~ Sri Ramakrishna
Maybe you’re already “there” and don’t know it. Stop fighting. Stop trying. Relax.
So back to “what’s in it for me?” What’s the point, if you can’t go into this journey and expect something in it for one’s personal life, or for someone – what’s the point if it shows you “I don’t exist” or there are no such things as separate entities, and I discover I’m not a body or a person? “That sounds like a major loss to me!” I can hear someone saying. Almost like a kind of death. Indeed, it is sometimes called or explained as an “ego death”. Sounds very dramatic, scary even…
It sounds like there’s going to be this big explosion, like a mushroom cloud, a flash of light, and “Boom!” your self is gone, you light up like a Christmas tree and the top of your head blows off, and a big crater is left on the top of your head, and you’re left wandering the streets. Then you’ll go and just sit in a cave, because you don’t care anymore, you found your bliss, so you quit your job and left your family and wear a loincloth, sitting in a lotus posture with your eyes rolled back into your head…
“How will I function!” without a self.
Pretty funny huh.
It’s not quite like that.
Unfortunately spiritual teachers promote the idea of some big event happening, some dramatic opening. They will have a story about an experience. They may explain that it didn’t happen in time, that it was a timeless event (another paradox), yet in hearing this or reading it, how can the mind not picture it as a something and a some-when for someone?
If we aren’t at peace or totally happy with our lives, naturally we think we want or need to change something or get something. Changes happen in time. Changes happen for objects, for people. Getting things, whether they are physical objects or relationships or ideas, or states of mind, happen in time and space.
Are you really giving up something worth holding onto, and are you really not gaining anything? What are “gain” and “loss”? It depends on your perspective. To put it in gross physical terms, if you had a cancerous growth on your face, you’d want to lose it (even if you loved it in the process, as some mind-body therapists might implore us), unless you were so dis-identified with the body at a late stage that you didn’t care, you would consider that loss a gain. Or, if you were given an opportunity to gain a million dollars (and you weren’t on your deathbed, where it wouldn’t matter), you’d consider it a gain. Psychologically, if we had old hurts, resentments, pain, anger, or any negative energies, you’d think we would want to give them up. That loss would be a gain, psychically speaking. But in fact we can find it very hard to let go, even when we believe we want to or are ready to. This is a strange quality of the human experience: that we can seem to want so badly to hold on to what seems to be painful and hurtful, such that we can’t let go.
“On the path you never give up anything, you just take on more and more of what you really want until you have the All.”
~ Lester Levenson, Keys to Ultimate Freedom
Have you ever tried to argue with a depressed person – in other words, discuss what they think their problems are, when you can see they are small problems or don’t exist now at all? They will fight you tooth and nail to hold on to what they see, what they believe.
Why is this? Because it is attached to who and what we think we are.
A bridge that may help you see the connection between the strange human perversity that enjoys suffering, that holds onto negativity from the past, that seems to want or need drama and conflict, and become addicted to things–behaviors or substances for example (that hurt us physically and socially)—is the repetitive nature of thought and identity.
Indeed, how can one have a fresh thought, a creative idea, a new outlook, or be present with a loved one or a beautiful scene in nature if the thought-machine is running you?
The point is, all beings want to be happy, because we have the seed in us of knowing who or what we really are, but that seed is revealed and grown in discovering we are not who we thought we were (as strange or as funny as that can sound). Or, another way of putting it is that self-realization is not what we thought it was. We were looking for something that was for us personally, or if we are a little more selfless (or trying to be, or think of ourselves as), that would benefit our family or group or nation or culture or humanity itself…
“What is politics? It’s a mechanism of force and control. In a society where everyone loves everyone do you need politics? If you want to help the world, help yourself grow, and you’ll do far more than you could by being involved in politics.”
~ Lester Levenson, Keys to Ultimate Freedom
…Or at least a better a state of mind. But our state of mind is constantly shifting. And people die, relationships end, children grow up, families fall apart, move away, dissipate, are forgotten; objects decay or are lost or broken or thrown away or sold. Species come and go – even the human species is undergoing change; and in any case, no one knows if Homo sapiens will survive, or if it does, in what form. Eventually the solar system will blow up when the sun does, or burn up when the sun expands into a red giant. Maybe humans will move out in to the stars, and be a different kind of species. No one knows. To a god this would all happen in the blink of an eye. Time is relative.
Why is it so important to see what changes and what doesn’t? Because it gives you a clue as to what’s illusory and what’s real. On the surface it may appear that a flickering, moving, waving candle flame is as real as it gets, for indeed if you put your finger in it, it will be very painful and burn your flesh. So from the Western scientific, materialist perspective, even something as ephemeral as a candle flame or the ionized invisible gas in a fluorescent light or in outer space, or the trace of a quark particle in the bubble chamber of a collider, is absolutely real and objective. It exists independently of your thought of it, your experience of it, or in fact anyone’s experience of it. The proverbial tree falling in a forest that no one hears, is getting yet another sounding here…
This may seem like esoteric philosophy, or something to argue in a chat forum on FaceBook or at a debate club at college, but in fact it bears fruit if you consider it closely: what is always present, regardless of circumstances or state of mind? What is always here? You are. Your presence, your awareness, your consciousness. The fact of your existence, your being-ness: it is the common factor in the entire span of your life. That which is aware, even in sleep, in dreams, or when in deep sleep, even if not remembered, even if the content of the awareness does not seem coherent, is your primordial awareness.
So who are you?
Are you your body, your names, your fears and desires? Are you what you are perceiving, or what is perceiving? If you assume it’s your brain, look again.
This question not only has implications for your mortality, it suggests a way to love and how to be happy.
Because this “happiness” of what we are (I put it in quotes because it’s not the “happiness” as normally thought of or advertised in the media, or assumed in most thinking and discussions) is not personal or human or a mental state – it’s not passing. It’s not passing like all things of the mind and body are, all normal experiences of daily and nightly life seem to come and go. Even thoughts come and go. People come and go. The body changes. There seem to be stable objects in our lives, like houses and cars and rocks and mountains and trees, but those are constantly appearing different and over time weather and change and die or dissolve or crumble or blow up or burn down or rust. So as solid permanent separate objects they exist only as a concept in our mind, and concepts too cannot be held but must be picked up again, repeated, or written down. But even when written down, what is written down will dissolve, not last. Even digital material must constantly be be transferred, repeated, re-written in new media. Ancient libraries lost many books to fires or natural processes.
Should we be sad about all this, be in despair, about the ephemeral nature of life and the world and ideas? If we look to the world, “All is vanity and a chasing after wind” as the famous quote from Ecclesiastes puts it, remarking on the vanity of human life.
But there is the experience of beauty, love, and truth, in the human experience. These are not in objects if we look: the beauty is not in nature, because if we look at the same object again, at another time or another state of mind, we don’t see it, or if another person looks they don’t see it or see it differently, and our experience of that beautiful mountain changes every time and every moment. But we continue to have experiences of beauty. Beauty is always available. Beauty is available even if we are not experiencing it at any given moment. It is there in potential, even if veiled by or in the present moment. What is it veiled by? That is a very important thing to discover.
We have experienced love, but it too seem to fluctuate, come and go, depending on the moment, the person, the object, the animal, the situation, the state of mind… But we all have had moments when the veil of appearances seemed to lift, and we felt something timeless. Then the mind came in and tried to claim it, and the experience of love vanished like the wind again. The mind tried to attach it to a person, or an object or a situation, or even a beautiful place. So we return to that person, object, situation or place, and it may be there, or may not – there does not seem to be anyway to possess, hold onto, guarantee, or control the love. No insurance policy will protect it. No arrangement will secure it forever or even tell us if we can trust it will be there the next day, or hour for that matter. Something could change. Loss happens. Loss may incur suffering and spur us to look deeper, or to seek solace in any number of ways: new relationships, drugs, business pursuits, nature, hobbies, projects… The new object may be God. But religion and God or based on something out there, or somewhere, maybe a different plane of existence, or a separate state or entity we are wanting to reach or be in harmony with, or a right set of beliefs. These too come and go, since they are projections of the mind, or made of thought.
We have seen some truth, but then questions come in. Whose truth is it, is it a relative truth: will it be different for someone else? How do I know for certain if it’s true, or what to believe, or who to believe? What’s real? These are questions philosophers worry about, and most of us don’t, or feel we can’t spend the time on them, or have the interest to go deep into them. We either rely on others for answers, or have some answers we hold, even if they are unconscious, that we think are good enough for us, at least for the moment, while we get on with living, enjoying and suffering, desiring and fearing. We all have a philosophy of living, at some level. These question are the the meaning or source of, and point to the truth of “The unexamined life is not worth living”, and “Know thyself” of Socrates (c. 470 – 399 BC) and the ancient Greeks.
Socrates also said “I know that all I know is that I do not know anything”: the original and most classic of skeptical statements, but also a statement pointing beyond the relative knowledge of the mind, and the humility inherent in wisdom. Another wise Greek, even earlier than Socrates, Parmenides (born c. 515 BC) contrasted “the way of opinion”, with regard to the world of appearances, in which one’s sensory faculties lead to conceptions which are false and deceitful” with that of permanent, immortal Truth: “Being is and non-being is not.”
I think it’s interesting that so many philosophers, teachers of wisdom, and sages through the ages have converged on the same truth expressed in different ways in different eras in different languages: Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”, which in the original Latin or French, and in the context of which it was made reads more like he is pointing to Consciousness and the pure fact of existing—that is, Being—rather than Thought, for he was pointing out how this present experience could all be a dream or a hallucination created by a demon (the modern version of this is that I could be a simulation in a computer somewhere, like in The Matrix). In which case, what do I know for certain? Simply that I exist, even if I do not know the ultimate nature of “I”. And to know that I exist, don’t I have to be conscious? I certainly have to be conscious to say it, or discuss it in an intelligent manner. No computer has or I believe will ever, discuss philosophy in any more than a surface, mechanical, repeated way.
The statement that “that which changes is an illusion and that which is eternal is real”, is more than a abstract or technical philosophical statement. It has enormous implications for what one values, for what one thinks is important in life, for where one places one’s energies and sets one’s priorities. The question of “how to live” is as old as mankind, and was what I was obsessed with after graduating with a philosophy degree (which was useless for telling me how to be happy, how to find love, or what to do with my life).
What is there to hold on to? Nothing. Only this. Only freedom. Only what’s real, which cannot be described.
Can one name the eternal?
The entries in this blog are an ongoing exploration into this eternal mystery, the formless and form-full reality we seem to inhabit. It’s looking squarely at the paradox of life: I both exist and do not exist!