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.”
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!
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.”
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!