I know what you’re thinking: “How could there be anything beyond enlightenment? That’s stupid.” And I agree with you. As far as that goes. But what is the “that”? What is this enlightenment thing, that so many seem to want or are intensely interested in, or think that some teachers have, and go to them to solve their problems, for life guidance, healing, and consciousness raising, lifestyle improvement, bragging rights, or God know what.
If someone says “I became enlightened when I was 21 years old”, or “I am enlightened”, be careful. Persons cannot be enlightened. Bodies cannot be enlightened. Minds cannot be enlightened.
What is enlightened? Only Enlightenment is enlightened: what I AM is as the totality: reality which cannot not exist, cannot not be “enlightened”, is infinite light, intelligence, awareness… Only that. Only this. No other. There is no other.
So indeed, there is something to enlightenment… in a sense (or non sense!).
It is not something to go after. Such an endeavor will keep it away. Such an endeavor is assuming you don’t have “it”, are already separate. It’s a paradox (or more accurately, a seeming paradox, since to the limited mind Truth will always be paradoxical). What is the resolution?
I offer these notes and reflections.
In a nutshell, enlightenment is simply knowing who one is. Or more accurately, what one is: the direct experience of that, whatever that is. When I use the word “that”, I do not mean to imply an object, but that is how our language generally works: subject and objects, time and space.
Indeed, what is meant by “knowing”? If what you are is the total field of unknowable knowingness, it cannot be contained in the illusion of the mind, the self. It cannot be known in the usual sense of “knowing”.
From the perspective of the mind, enlightenment cannot be explained. It can be experienced, but not in a way that the mind understands as “experience”. Experiences come and go. Enlightenment does not.
It’s also known as “liberation” or “awakening”. So we hear ignorant phrases like “He’s an enlightened master”, and gullible seekers flock to hear their words.
So it seems something is going on out there, so we will want to look at this whole thing a bit.
Some teachers have defined enlightenment in a more practical or operational way: for example as “happiness”. Fair enough, since what’s the point otherwise: would you rather be enlightened or happy? And that is a distinguishing quality—permanent imperturbable happiness—and it is what all beings are looking for in their seeking. Whether they are seeking for spiritual enlightenment, or the objects of consciousness (relationships, money, love, fun, status, etc.), they are seeking happiness, and they may have a glimmer at some level that pulls them forward towards what they are, which is inherent happiness and freedom.
One potential problem with this enlightenment-as-happiness definition however is that it can be confused with the sort of happiness that most seeking is about: happiness through something (persons, places, things…), including spiritual seeking, including enlightenment. In other words, there’s still a someone wanting something, even though it seems to be an elevated wanting. It’s the same game in another form (perhaps even more intense, if subtle). The ego at large again…
To shed some light, let’s first take a little detour, on this topic called “spirituality”. Usually spirituality—for example reflecting on God, or an activity like reading the Tao Te Ching—is considered a more or less separate realm of life activity. Maybe it’s something you look at when a loved one dies, or you are potentially facing imminent death, or when you experience intense suffering after a loss, or are wracked with depression, and no one can help and you are on your knees praying. Or something to do on Sunday, or after work, or at a meditation group… in any case it’s kind of “out there”, and not too practical, not too “real world”, not getting down to business, not a day-to-day ordinary thing. It’s more along the lines of vacations, hobbies, weird pursuits, special interests, esoteric ideas, and so forth. It’s not a part of daily life; it’s not working, shopping, taking care of the kids, or shooting basketball or having a cup of coffee or brushing the teeth or going to the bathroom or shooting the bull with the boys over some beers (nothing wrong with any of these).
Or is it?
My “Enlightenment” (sic)
When a Zen friend (that’s what I called him anyway; he was a natural non-dualist) asked me one day “WHO ARE YOU?” when I was 55 years old, and even though I’d been studying philosophy and psychology and spirituality for decades, and practicing mindfulness every day, among a myriad of other things I’d tried, it hit me pretty hard. It was like a stun gun to the mental apparatus. There was something about the way he said it, the energy behind it, where it came from, that was extremely powerful. Like a thousand-watt laser gun to the ego.
He also said “If you want love, give love”. This also was a pure energy zap. This zap was to very the root of self, one that shook the whole tree, the whole assumption of separation that had been operating in subterranean fashion.
The next day what unfolded was the realization that “Thought” (or “mind”) as forming what we experience, covers all, and by the same token, “spirituality” covers all. Is not separate. How could it be? If “spirituality” means anything at all, it has to cover all. How could it be. It was purely self-evident. It is not just some part of life. This is so simple and obvious it’s difficult to state in words.
To state it from another angle, there is not some separate practical and material realm or “real world”. That’s just a belief or habit of operation we are used to. Something we learned.
In any case, something woke up. At the very minimum, a seed was planted (along with the experience of absolte reality I had when I was 21, and managed to cover over with thinking!). You could say “I” woke up: the “I” in what is traditionally called “I AM”, or Consciousness with a capital “C”.
This is all a story of course: all such tellings have to be stories because they are about the past, the past being thought, a memory, about a body or person, which ultimately is a fiction. But people want to hear, want stories; humans are the story-telling animal.
But all these stories are ultimately nonsense, perpetuate illusions, or inspire, or do all kinds of things, but aren’t absolutely true, and are even less true than simple statements about being in the present, because stories can facilitate the illusion of time and past being real, and the whole “kit” of the body-mind-world fiction. But that’s OK.
Waking up is simply being what one is, rather than identifying with illusory creations. To state positively what one is is hard, or impossible, since it isn’t known via that (non-real) mind, the same mind used to communicate, conceptualize, think, sense, be players or characters in life-as-action. Thoughts don’t think (read that carefully, a key point; meditate on it!): it’s Consciousness doing mind-stuff, and “mind” is a concept to gather all this stuff, this activity together under a label.
You could say “what we are is the detached Presence-Consciousness of both: consciousness and the contents thereof”. It’s the awake alive self-knowing screen on which life plays, or seems to play out. Yet it is also the Unknown. But all this is already saying way too much. Like using a chainsaw to grow crops. It won’t get you there. What will get you there (here) is to *stop thinking*.
These questions and assumptions, images and stories about enlightenment play into all sort of ego tendencies (the ego itself is s tendency: the habit of being a person, a belief to be separate), especially for Westerners with big egos: the tendency to have an expectation, to feel one is not good enough, to be goal-oriented, to compete, to compare to others (what others?), to be thinking about the future and the past, to try and get something, gain something … at least have a theory, something to hold onto.
“What was the ultimate truth he [the wayward Zen monk] found? He realized that there is no ultimate truth. There never was an ultimate truth. There is no realization, there is no ignorance, there is no universe, there is no world, there is nothing. Everything just is.” – Robert Adams
The Mythology of Enlightenment
So in a larger sense, the idea of enlightenment is a big barrier to enlightenment. People think the top of their head will blow off, they’ll light up like a Christmas tree, and all of the past and all their problems will just flush out, explode into space and that’s it. You are now the New Buddha… then you become a teacher, sitting up in a chair while the masses gather at your feet ask you questions (throwing money and sex at you like Osho), and you bless them by touching their head, “Yes my child, you are now healed…”
We think enlightenment will make us really special.
It’s the opposite in fact. You’ll realize how completely un-special you are. How beautiful life is without a person in the way to see it all. What an absurd joke it was to consider you you.
They have an image of a saintly person. The reality is, I’ve seen world-class spiritual teachers fly off the handle, react passionately. Sure, it comes and goes quickly, but from the outside, what appears to be a human body also appears to sometimes have human reactions. And we’ve all heard of the gurus with tastes for sex, drugs, and money and power that they indulge in, to the detriment of followers. Are they the exception? Are they the bad gurus? Is crazy wisdom real wisdom? What does it mean?
It means no one is finished when they are in a body, and it also means some teachers have had huge openings, but then unconscious patterns get the better of them.
All in all, this points to the fact that you need to stop worrying about others, about teachers, gurus, students, paths, and find your self. How much time do you have left in a body? What are you spending your time on? What are your priorities? That will show what you believe, what you trust, what you hold as valuable and worth “worshipping”. Are you at peace, fully happy, experiencing expressing love, clarity, beauty? Only you can answer that.
And, no one can give you enlightenment. They can only set up road maps, give you feedbacks, warnings, pointers. Why? Because it’s an inside-out job. No one can reach inside and pull out your blocks, your reaction patterns, your beliefs. No one can take away your free will (Thank God). Your willingness and interest are yours and yours alone.
And, since no one, except some very rare beasts indeed, really know what Enlightenment is, or how to find it, or what Consciousness truly is for that matter (or care really deeply about the question – they just want the goodies), you can just redefine it then imply or claim you have it! Wallah!, you’re in business as a teacher, guru, or consultant.
But joking aside, enlightenment is a non-event. Think of it more like an uncovering, like you had this zillion watt light bulb buried under the furniture and blankets. Somehow the blanket got pulled off, or you tripped over it, or it burned through, and there is it, the light that was there all along. “How silly of me”. It could come with an incredible feeling, or it could be very subtle, practically unnoticed “at the time”. (I know this goes against orthodoxy and desire and wanting of specialness, but it needs to be said).
I remember driving home one day from a lovely meditation and dialogue with a “satsang” group. It hit me, as I was sailing down the freeway towards home, that everyone, all these beautiful souls in that room, were “gurus”. Even though they didn’t know it. They all assumed they were lacking in some way, needed something, were not enlightened, could get something from a teacher or the activity of spiritual practices. It was a humbling thought. And great gratitude was felt: to have all these teachers!
You can fool yourself that you’re not enlightened, and you can fool yourself you are. Take your pick. But with some clarity you see it’s not actually something *for a person*. It’s a non-event for a non-person in non-time.
Or, “How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Play” (paraphrasing the subtitle of one of my favorite movies, “Dr. Strangelove, or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”)
Once it’s been uncovered, the fact you are this light, this love, this presence that’s always shining, always on because it is the one reality, then the rest is the un-doing of tendencies, habits. The habits of getting angry, or having reactions in the mind-body of fear, tension, the various neurotic tendencies we accumulated though childhood, adolescent and adulthood, when we were fooled into thinking we were separate, an object among objects, needing objects, and so felt consciously or unconsciously the need to defend that, to be aggressive, or escape. Habits of judging, jealousy annoyance, addictions to wasteful energy activities. All on behalf of a seeming separate self. We started taking life seriously, because that’s what everyone else was doing.
Life is not serious, yet we must act as if it were. Life is not real, yet it is real-as-totality. Like so much in “spirituality”, it’s contradictory to the mind, a paradox. We exist within this stillness, yet there seems to be motion. Life seems to be change, flow. So what are we then?
50. Jesus said, “If they say to you, ‘Where have you come from?’ say to them, ‘We have come from the light, from the place where the light came into being by itself, established [itself], and appeared in their image.’
If they say to you, ‘Is it you?’ say, ‘We are its children, and we are the chosen of the living Father.’
If they ask you, ‘What is the evidence of your Father in you?’ say to them, ‘It is motion and rest.'”
But if you really look at it, how could there actually be, anywhere in existence, a separate entity? Whether you look at it as vortices of energy, or plays of light in Consciousness, or any image at all, life is a constant miracle. Stop believing. Just Be. How hard can that be?
You can slow down the mind through practices, or the mind can slow down and quiet down through understanding. They go hand in hand. With greater understanding you will see the value in a quiet mind, and with a quiet mind you will come to appreciate an understanding of life.
So am I enlightened? Is some teacher or person enlightened? The question only means something within the context of one’s understanding. And that understanding may be totally wrong. Notwithstanding that the concept itself is flawed. And, there is no absolute answer. For anyone. “Mu”
My favorite definition of enlightenment is: “Enlightenment is knowing you are not enlightened”. It has that wonderful paradoxical logical quality of “This sentence is false.”