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!