What Is Enlightenment?

One of the first things that people notice when they embark on the spiritual journey is that there are many seekers and only a few “enlightened” beings. To me, the only possible explanation for this mismatch, is not that “enlightenment” is so hard to find but that we tend to look in the wrong places for it. And I think the reason for this is that the Eastern cultural context makes it sound much more exotic than it actually is. In this post I would like to look at the question of enlightenment from a more Western perspective and thereby de-mystify and clarify it a bit.

Let’s start very basic.

The French philosopher Albert Camus once said that the most important philosophical question is to whether to commit suicide or not. Or in other words: what is it that keeps us going? Why not just quit life? I would posit that the answer to this question is “meaning”. The surest way to get a suicidal depression is by convincing ourselves that life is meaningless. An the best way to spark enthusiasm is to find a reason to live for.

The question that now arises is: what is “meaning”? Meaning is where our bliss is, and bliss is when we feel most genuinely alive. To feel alive our senses need to be attuned to the immediacy of what is going on (“now”), they need to be receptive. The more we are stimulated sensually, the more our being is enlivened and the more gratitude we feel for being alive. When the “doors of perception” open, life reveals itself as the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” that it is. The senses are the gates to the kingdom of heaven.

What competes with the immediate reality of “now”, is the symbolic, representational reality of the mind. The mind is where we abstract the world, where we leave what actually “is” and enter what we think about what “is”. This ability is of vital importance for the survival of our species but it does not provide “meaning”. A reality of ideas has no “juice” in it. It is an empty shell that cannot touch our being.

So, then, how do we “get out” of our minds? The short answer is: by not getting “into” it. We get into our minds whenever we do not accept what “is”, that is, when we try to exercise (conscious) control, when we judge or when we think about the past or the future. All “enlightening” practices, therefore, in some way or other have something to do with the relinquishing of control, the suspension of judgement or discrediting the belief in a better past or future.

As I have written in this blog a few times before, we cannot accept what “is”. We cannot enlighten ourselves. Trying to accept is like trying to let go by grasping. The only way to accept what “is” is to trust and to fall in love with what “is”. So, the only reason we cannot be “here, now”, cannot find “meaning” in life, is because we don’t trust and love it unconditionally. Solitude, silence, meditation, chanting, rituals, psychedelics, etc. have been used for millennia to develop this trust and fall more and more in love with what “is”.

So, to be enlightened is to be a lover of life (or to be “intimate with all things”, as the great Zen Master Dogen put it). Such a person lives for life’s sake and not for any particular purpose. Life becomes its own purpose, just as the lover’s sole purpose of life is to be in the presence of the Beloved. When life is loved unconditionally there is no point in changing it, and so, all striving ceases. This marks a new beginning.

In the same spirit, Albert Camus’ answer to his own philosophical question was: “live to the point of tears”.

“The on-going WOW is happening, right now.”
~Speed Levitch

Transcript of a fantastic video clip (click here) from the movie “Waking Life” featuring Speed Levitch:

On this bridge, Lorca warns: life is not a dream. Beware, and beware, and beware!
And so many think because then happened, now isn’t. But didn’t I mention, the on-going WOW is happening, right now!

We are all co-authors of this dancing exuberance, where even our inabilities are having a roast! We are the authors of ourselves, co-authoring a gigantic Dostoevsky novel starring clowns!

This entire thing we’re involved with called the world, is an opportunity to exhibit how exciting alienation can be.

Life is a matter of a miracle, that is collected over time by moments flabbergasted to be in each others’ presence.

The world is an exam, to see if we can rise into the direct experiences. Our eyesight is here as a test to see if we can see beyond it, matter is here as a test for our curiosity, doubt is here as an exam for our vitality.

Thomas Mann wrote that he would rather participate in life than write a hundred stories. Giacometti was once run down by a car, and he recalled falling in to a lucid faint, a sudden exhilaration, as he realized at last, something was happening to him.

An assumption develops that you can not understand life and live life simultaneously. I do not agree entirely, which is to say I do not exactly disagree. I would say, that life understood is life lived. But the paradoxes bug me. And I can learn to love, and make love to the paradoxes that bug me. And on really romantic evenings of Self, I go salsa dancing with my confusion.

Before you drift off, don’t forget, which is to say remember. Because remembering is so much more a psychotic activity than forgetting. Lorca, in that same poem, said that the iguana will bite those who do not dream. And, as one realizes, that one is a dream-figure in another person’s dream: that is self-awareness!

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The Antidote to “Civilization Dis-ease”

This time I want to write about two different mythologies. Probably the two fundamental mythologies of mankind. Which one of them is dominant influences our collective values and behavior. I call the first mythology “Original Sin” and the second “Innate Goodness “.

“Original sin” is a mythology of fundamental suspiciousness of (mother) nature. It therefore posits that the innermost nature of mankind is ruthless and egoistic. To control the “inner”, a system of imposed morality and law & order is established and enforced. Rationality and self-restraint are highly valued character traits. The heavens are ruled by a masculine, omniscient, monarchical, supreme judge who has the power of ultimate punishment. Because humans are natural born sinners, they are in constant need to (im)prove themselves. Thus, work ethic is high, “doing”, efficiency and functionality is emphasized and there is a fetish of progress. This explicit orientation towards purpose and the future fuels desires and anxieties which motivate humans to create highly complex and sophisticated civilizations. Because always living for the future excludes the possibility of ever arriving “there”, civilization dis-eases like ongoing dissatisfaction and cynicism become prevalent. And because constantly doing something for a specific purpose prevents relaxation, a feeling of being caught in a rat race makes humans seek for meaning.

The anti-thesis to efficient but meaningless “Original Sin” is the mythology of “Innate Goodness”. Once we change the assumption of nature being untrustworthy, the whole mythology reverses itself. If there is reverence for (mother) nature, there will be the belief that the innermost core of a human being is gentle. Intuition and spontaneity are therefore the best ways to “control” behavior, not imposed morals, laws or a strict, fatherly God. Yielding and letting go are highly valued character traits and there is no need to (im)prove anything because the universe (including all humans) is already “perfect” (in its imperfection). Pain is completely unnecessary for gain. Thus, as opposed to a work ethic humans will have a strong life ethic. Efficiency, functionality and progress are not emphasized but “being” in accord with nature is. This explicit orientation to purposelessness and the present moment leads to deep rest and relaxation. There is a sense of “never not there” which brings natural joy and, thus, meaning to life.

I see these two mythologies as expressions of the primordial principle of Yin and Yang. It is therefore not surprising that Yin mythologies usually come out of Yang dominated societies and civilizations (think of Taoism as the anti-thesis to Confucianism, Buddhism as a movement of discontent with Vedic Brahmanism or the Hippie/ Human Potential movement as a dissociation from Consumerism). Whenever Yin and Yang get out of balance, even on the largest scales, there will be a natural corrective movement.

From that follows that neither of these mythologies constitute the Truth. Both comprise half the Truth. There is as much benevolence as cruelty in the universe. While the Yang mythology deals with our lower three Chakras (which are important for survival), the Yin mythology addresses the upper three (providing meaning). When they are in balance, the middle Chakra, the heart that embraces it all, opens. As this happens, we become a “whole” human being, transcending “good” and “evil” to settle into equanimity, compassion and sympathetic joy.

The very fact that so much of us are interested in spirituality shows that we have understood that a lack thereof makes us unbalanced, lopsided human beings. All societies need spirituality, but not of the “doing”, goal-oriented, self-improvement kind. That will only reinforce our Yang tendency. What we really need now is more love and respect for ourselves, and I think we are about to wake up to that.

“The truth of Zen, just a little bit of it, is what turns one’s humdrum life, a life of monotonous, uninspiring commonplaceness, into one of art, full of genuine inner creativity.”
~D.T. Suzuki

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The Trick Of The Trade

I have written on this blog much about (self-)acceptance, letting go and surrender to “what is” as the key tenets of spirituality. At the same time I have tried to convey the point that acceptance, letting go and surrender is not something we can do, force or bring about. There is no way we can help ourselves on the path to enlightenment. In fact, the very trying is what makes it completely unfeasible. We have to trick ourselves into it somehow.

Because that is so, any spiritual method, in one way or another, tries to undermine the “ego”, that is, our reflex to control and manipulate our experiencing of “what is”. Therefore, I have tried to show you either that there is no separate “you” (wisdom about life) or that the world exactly as it “is”, the full catastrophe, is perfect (love for life).

This time I will try to synthesize these two positions, the position of (non-dual) wisdom and (dual) devotion. I will do so by trying to prove that the “we” (the “ego”) has no control whatsoever over our experiences and that this is no problem at all. To me, this is the ultimate trick of the spiritual trade.

Let’s start with our five senses. Do we have control over the experience of seeing, touching, hearing, smelling or tasting? No, we don’t. Our senses can’t be shut down (only blocked). Even if we are not conscious of hearing, touching, seeing, smelling or tasting (because we may not pay particular attention), unconsciously the gates of perception are always wide open.

Let’s now consider thoughts. Can we not think of a pink elephant while we are reading this line? No, we can’t. Thoughts constantly arise from the depths of the unconscious. We have no control as to what thoughts arise at what time. Can we stop thoughts? No. Since the “we” is itself a thought, “we” trying not to think thoughts just creates more “we” thoughts (thickening the illusion of a solid “we”). Stopping thoughts is as impossible as licking our own tongue. Try and you’ll notice it will just create motion in your mouth. A thought (the “we”) can never control another thought (it can only replace it).

What about feelings? Feelings are regulated by thoughts which are the mental precursors to physical sensations: when we have “good” thoughts we feel good and when we have “bad” thoughts we feel bad. As stated above, thoughts arise from the unconscious and are uncontrollable. Hence, we have no control over our feelings either.

What all this proves is that just as we cannot be spontaneous on purpose, we cannot influence our sensory perceptions, thoughts and feelings. We cannot want to be spontaneous because both, spontaneous and unspontaneous acts always happen spontaneously, that is, without our implicit consent! Likewise, we cannot want to change our experiences, because they always happen no matter how we feel about them! Think about it.

And it gets even more interesting as we delve deeper into the subject. As we understand that thoughts determine how we feel and that we have no control over our thoughts, the “we” is naturally inclined to try to change how we were conditioned by our parents and society (our “judges”) to interpret our experiences. We know, that if we reject our experiences, we suffer. So, we may think: “Let’s accept it all, “good” or “bad”! Let’s surrender to everything! Let’s go with the flow!” Of course, though, not controlling is as much an “ego”-trip as controlling since any intent to do something about our experience is a total denial of “what is”. Trying to accept and surrender logically implies a stance of non-acceptance and non-surrender. No matter where we turn, there is no way out of this “double bind”. Whatever option we chose, controlling or not controlling, we can only go wrong. “We” are trapped.

At some point (for some after many, many years of struggling!) it will hopefully dawn on us that there is nothing “we” can do: no controlling thoughts and feelings, no “be here now”, no “going with the flow”, no letting go, no surrendering, no (self-)accepting, no (self-)improving, no spiritual method, no absolutely nothing at all that will work to “advance” on the spiritual path and find peace of mind! Of course, having truly realized this IS the ultimate disillusionment, the death of the (imaginary) “ego” that the spiritual path is all about!

To know that nothing can be done to change one’s experiences coupled with the wisdom that the universe, with its interplay of light and dark, is perfect in design leads one directly into the hands of (self-)acceptance and surrender. There is no more grounds for objecting to anything! All is, and has always been, as it was supposed to be! And even if we wanted, it couldn’t be changed anyhow because the “we” is (just another experience and therefore) absolutely powerless. There is no need and no capacity for change, ever.

In reality, all that “is” is this divine “No-thing” experiencing itself through itself. We are the container and the contained. We, the universe, move(s) through ourself. With this realization, the dis-ease with “what is” in this present moment ceases and we leave our futile struggles to find salvation in the future behind. And this is non other than the most natural human condition. Or nothing special, as they would say in Zen.

“Unless you make tremendous efforts, you will not be convinced that effort will take you nowhere. The self is so self-confident that unless it is totally discouraged it will not give up. Mere verbal conviction is not enough. Hard facts alone can show the absolute nothingness of the self-image.
~Nisargadatta Maharaj

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List of Sevens (3): Truth-Sharing Hollywood Movies

My picks in order of release date:

1. Star Wars (1977)
Contemporary variation of the perennial mono-myth of the hero venturing into the unconscious to integrate his “dark side” to become a whole human being. Movie series strongly influenced by the works of mythologist Joseph Campbell and psychologist C.G. Jung.

Excerpt from “The Power of Myth”, a fascinating 6 part PBS Series featuring Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers. For the time being, you’ll find the episodes on veoh.com

2. The Breakfast Club (1985)
Mixed bag of high school kids in detention painfully find out that below there superficial personas they all share the same fears and desires. A great tale about the origins of kinship and compassion.

3. Groundhog Day (1993)
Comedy about a man who gets stuck in time and re-lives the same day over and over again until he learns that surrendering to “what is” and embracing every single moment is the path to his own salvation. Eastern philosophy in a nutshell!

4. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Counter-culture celebration of cool laziness that manages to say a lot about the game of being human without saying much at all. The way of the “Dude” poignantly epitomizes the fact that life makes most sense whenever it does not need to make sense.

5. American Beauty (1999):
Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic close up look at people supposedly living the suburban American-dream but who lost the most valuable thing in their lives: the ability to see the miraculous in the mundane.

This is one of the most famous movie scenes ever.

6. The Matrix (1999)
Man awakens from a dream-world infused into his consciousness by a mechanical society to become the “One”, that is, his own authority in life. Eastern symbolism meets Western science-fiction to illustrate the transformational process of individuation.

This is a 15 minute excerpt from a TV show called “Philosophy And the Matrix”. The whole show is also on Youtube.

7. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)
Couple tries to erase their memories of each other after a painful break-up to be able to get on with life, only to realize that such a procedure means losing the reminiscences of the most intimate moments they’ve experienced in their lives. A movie that in a beautiful way reminds us that love and pain go together, that one derives its meaning from the other.

…and one more…

The Game (1997)
Bored business-man agrees to participate in a mysterious recreational “game” that is so realistic and thrilling that he loses himself completely in it and is awoken out his illusion and subsequently reborn only as he lets go of everything. A wonderful parable on how the universe operates through the human species.

This is the end scene of the movie. Spoiler alert!