What’s Enlightenment?

‘Enlightenment,’ like all words, has myriad meanings. In a modern, Western context, it’s most often used as a synonym for such terms as wisdom, kindness, generosity, compassion, altruism, maturity — all the good stuff — or else as a reference to the historical period by the same name. In an Eastern or New-Age context, the word has a much more esoteric flavour, being charged as it is with all kinds of religious/mystical/metaphysical connotations, ranging from claims re human omniscience to the origins of the universe. Underneath this variety of meaning and association, however, there is something to which this word points that is at once far more profound and yet so self-evident it’s hard to see it how it’s ever overlooked — something that can be realised directly by all, in every moment.

In a Buddhist context, the term Enlightenment is used to denote one who has undergone a certain psychological/spiritual awakening. Indeed, the word is a western translation of bodhi, Sanskrit for the knowledge/wisdom/intellect of a buddha — one who is “fully awakened”. Interesting as this piece of etymology might be, it doesn’t, however, get us any closer to understanding what Enlightenment actually is, if it indeed be anything at all. We’ve simply traded one word (enlightenment) for another (awaken).

Now unless we assume that humanity’s most sophisticated contemplative traditions are entirely deluded, then we must conclude that there’s surely something that they’re all pointing to. But what? What is it, in other words, that an “awakened one” actually awakens to?

The essence of Enlightenment, the kernel of Truth that it points to, I’m sure, is an insight into what it’s really like to be us. Odd though it may sound, most of us, it seems, are fundamentally confused as to what we actually are, that is, what it is in fact like to be one of these strange carbon-based bi-peds wrapped in skin we call “human”. See, most of us most of the time, walk around with a sense that we are a locus of attention, a “self” inside our heads, a thing that lives behind our face, between our ears. This thing that we take ourselves to be, this self, is the protagonist in the drama of our lives, the subject to which experience seems to happen. It is this sense of the way things are, this phenomenological point of view, that is, as the Buddha and others have claimed, the primary source of psychological suffering. Fortunately, as a variety of contemplative traditions and individual testimonies assert, it’s an ultimately mistaken sense of things, an illusion that can be readily dissolved through deliberate effort/effortlessness, or, if one’s so daring, by way of pharmacological intervention. What introspection/contemplation ultimately reveals, is that there is no such rider on the horse of consciousness, no self that can suffer, no subject to which experience happens, and instead, that there is only awareness, awareness that is already and always perfectly open, unobstructed, clear, luminous, and present. In the Dzogchen lexicon, our original nature — our ordinary mind — is the Great Perfection. The Great Tragedy, in contrast, is that we too often fail to recognise it.

To be sure, this is not an aesthetic nor a metaphysical claim, something that must be taken on faith. Rather, it’s an entirely rational proposition, an insight that can be verified empirically by any and all, right here right now, in the diamond eye of the present moment. If one simply shifts their plane of focus such that they realise there is only what IS, that where one’s head supposedly is there’s only the world and its happenings, one can see firsthand that mystics and sages throughout the ages have been more than mere crackpots; that without even trying, in a single moment, one can find the definitive answer to all their spiritual inquiry.

There is an obvious paradox at play when speaking about Enlightenment. For the insight that the term Enlightenment refers to — the ‘intrinsic selflessness of consciousness’ — is a fundamentally non-conceptual, experiential one. It’s an insight, after all, into the way consciousness is prior to concepts, prior to thought. But yet in speaking about Enlightenment — in attempting to “point it out,” as it were — we are forced to use the tools at our disposal — the tools of thought — which happen to be conceptual in nature. As always, we must do what we can with what we have. Ultimately, however, the paradox can be wrestled to the Ground. Insight into the way consciousness already is can be — and readily is — gleaned through conceptual instruction, or at least instruction that makes use of concepts. In the same way that language and concepts may be used to instruct the performance of a physical practice such as yoga — a practice that is itself independent of concepts — so too may we use language and concepts to affect a reorientation of one’s mind. This is all to say that although there is indeed an epistemic chasm that separates the conceptual map of the phenomenological terrain from the terrain itself, we can use the former to bridge the latter, with some degree of reliability. But while conceptual instruction may be used to shift one’s awareness in the direction necessary to taste the innate flavour of mind, it’s again important to emphasise that the concepts that refer to the flavour are not synonymous with the flavour itself. Hence no amount of conceptual rumination will ever bring one closer to this most essential truth of our condition. Even if one can realise, intellectually, that there could be no possible space for a self, neurologically or otherwise, one cannot simply think their way to Enlightenment. Enlightenment is an experience, after all, not a concept. Accordingly, Enlightenment can prove, with great cosmic irony, to be an extraordinarily frustrating non-conceptual concept.

Our default state of mind is to be lost in thought, to be thinking without knowing one is thinking. Moment-to-moment we are being swept along by the river of experience, identified with the interminable current of thoughts and feelings and emotions. Given this situation, the game most of us are playing with our lives is one of attempting to steer the river of experience away from all the shit stuff — the shame, the embarrassment, the anxiety, the anger, the depression — towards more pleasurable, less turbulent waters. In this vein, we spend all our energies attempting to architect the circumstances of our lives such that they support our well-being and stave off suffering. We seek to cultivate meaningful relationships, find a “soulmate”, build enjoyable and fulfilling careers, have and raise kids, go on fun holidays etc. Now of course not all of our attempts to architect our lives are equally wholesome or effective at producing and sustaining well-being. Quality relationships are not, as a rule, of a piece with a diamond ring. And yet all such efforts follow the very same logic. That is, that our well-being must be contingent upon the existence of certain external circumstances — that our flourishing in the world is conditional upon the nature of our relationship to particular objects in the world, whether people or things or other. While it’s surely possible to realise truly impressive levels of well-being by way of playing this game well, it’s also an incredibly difficult and elaborate game, one that is, in the end, prone to disappointment and dissatisfaction. For things in the world are, by virtue of their impermanence, ultimately unstable and unreliable sources of well-being. Even the most successful in this conventional game of life will, given enough time, find their house of cards crashing down. For that is simply the way of things. People come and go. Emotions arise and pass away. Empires rise and fall. Fashion goes out of fashion. Beauty deteriorates. And death gets us all.

While it’s easy to despair in the apparent morbidity of our plight, such despair is, in light of the underlying fact of the matter, neither necessary nor warranted. Though it’s true that the contents of consciousness are intrinsically unsatisfactory objects of well-being (by virtue of their transitoriness), the context of consciousness — the very condition of consciousness itself — provides us with a truly nourishing foundation for flourishing in the world that is both infinite and ever-present. The intrinsic qualities of consciousness — bright, blissful, spacious, emptiness — are non-diminishing and always with us, an inexhaustible well of good vibes should one learn/choose to draw from it.

Enlightenment, when it’s all said and done, is nothing but the experiential recognition of this state of affairs, the quality of our original nature. The project of awakening is, accordingly, the process of becoming increasingly stable in this recognition, of learning to live more and more from this place of awareness — as awareness itself. This process is a practice, the practice of “non-dual mindfulness”, and while there is an element of linearity to the path — a gradualness associated with stabilising in the recognition of our true nature — complete freedom, the sweet nectar of Enlightenment, is available in every moment; not deep within, but right on the very surface of mind. HERE. NOW.

This is the rub of Enlightenment: the discovery that consciousness is, in some basic sense, already perfect. If one is skeptical, and one should be if one hasn’t tasted it for themselves, then the only thing to do is see for yourself. Experiment with mindfulness. Look for the one who is looking. Try and find your head. Take psychedelics. There’s a variety of rich traditions that have developed methodologies for gleaning this insight — look to them.

A peripheral detail within the subject of Enlightenment is just what, if any, point of finality there might be to the project of awakening; what it means, in other words, to be a buddha. See, it’s claimed that it’s possible to become so stable in the recognition of one’s true nature that one could never lose sight of the fact again, that one can become “permanently enlightened” or “fully cooked”, so to speak. At this point of ultimate fruition, thoughts are alleged to be like thieves entering an empty house — there’s no possibility, at such point, of being entangled with one’s thoughts, for one is always resting as awareness itself. Whether or not this is in fact a legitimate end, it’s certainly conceivable that such a state of mind is realisable, though in the end there’s hardly anything riding on it. The important point is that we have the capacity to be far more enlightened than we otherwise tend to be. And that’s enough.

As powerful as the Enlightenment project is, it doesn’t, however, undermine the value of our more conventional efforts to create meaningful lives — it merely shifts our relationship to such efforts. What Enlightenment ultimately has to teach us is that our satisfaction with life has less to do with the particularities of our external circumstances, and all to do with how we’re connecting to the eternal present, the plane of focus from which we live. The quality of our lives is not determined, as we tend to assume, by the quality of objects we relate to, but rather the quality of our attention moment-to-moment. The key to psychological well-being is not ‘out-there’, as it were, but latent in the intrinsic quality of our minds. Recognising this fact is the pinnacle of the Enlightenment project, but it’s only the beginning of the far grander project that is Life. Once one recognises their essential nature, and begins to train in it, the question becomes, What to do with all this Life? This is where the rest of it comes in. How, for instance, given this recognition, ought one to relate to other human beings? What ought one to do for work? For fun? And what about love? The project of Life entails integrating the Enlightenment insight into the fabric of our lives, of suffusing the details of our existence such that they reflect the awareness of how things really are, such that they reflect the Truth. The fun of Life is in playing with these details, of fitting them to our unique personalities and the particular needs of whatever world we happen to occupy. That is living.

Far from being mutually exclusive, the project of Enlightenment and the project of Life are synergistic. Being grounded in the Reality of one’s own mind by no means necessitates a life of renunciation, as the caricature of spiritual life might have one believe. One will not, by implication of the Great Perfection, feel compelled to head for the caves or swear an oath of celibacy. Rest assured, Life will remain up for grabs following the realisation of one’s true nature. If one likes rock-climbing before glimpsing the selflessness of consciousness, one will, with all likelihood, continue to like rock-climbing. Nor will one all of a sudden develop a sudden affinity for astrology or dream-catchers or reiki massage. Rather, the more one acquaints themselves with the truth of their condition, simply, the less one is inclined to act from a place of ignorance, to be driven by the unwholesome qualities associated with the sense that one is a self, a thing seperate from the world and distinct from others.

An interesting fact about our underlying condition is that it’s synonymous with certain generically positive qualities of mind — bliss, peace, equanimity, tranquility, love, kindness, compassion — while antithetical to traditionally negative qualities, such as greed, anger, anxiety, embarrassment, shame, self-hatred; for such qualities are intrinsic to the sense of self that Enlightenment cuts through. While these positive qualities are not the essential point of mindfulness, it’s a welcome fact that such qualities become increasingly concentrated in our minds the more we train ourselves in this recognition. Our minds become increasingly healthy — again, in some basic sense — the more we are connected to the underlying truth of our no-selves. The healthier our minds, the healthier our actions in the world. Thus the more Enlightened we are, the more enlightened our lives tend to be/appear.

Against this background, Enlightenment can be thought of as a sort of stage of psychological development. One might go from having a sense of self to a healthy sense of self, to no sense of self at all; or from dualistic to non-dualistic mindfulness.

Another topic to do with Enlightenment is its connection to ethics. While the relationship between recognising one’s original condition and ethical behaviour in the world is less than perfectly unequivocal, it seems clear enough that non-dual awareness at least tends one towards more ethical conduct, that it reduces, at the very least, the propensity for unwholesome action. Whatever the actual relationship between the two, there’s been enough gurus — gurus whom surely had legitimate insight and whom may have even been reasonable well stabilised in said insight — whom behaved so atrociously in the world so as to undermine the notion of any entirely straight-forward connection. What we can conclude from this is, again, that there is more to living an examined life than cutting through the illusion of the ego. Just as Enlightenment won’t automatically render us a gifted poet or a talented mathematician, there are other pieces to living a self-actualised existence that do not simply follow from the recognition of what we really are. An explicit ethical framework is, it seems, one such piece. Given this, it’s not surprising that mindfulness/meditation has historically been taught within an ethical context. Buddhism, for instance, has the eight-fold path; yoga, the 8 limbs. This is as much an acknowledgement of the necessity of conceptual infrastructure, as it is a pragmatic aid to mindfulness. It is, one can imagine, rather difficult — albeit surely not impossible — to practice mindfulness when one is killing and stealing by day. Explicit notions of right and wrong can thus be viewed as a kind of support for the practice of meditation, a complement to it.

As a matter of fact, most of us will spend most of our time lost in thought. Even if we’re intentionally punctuating our experience with non-dual mindfulness, a great deal of our lives will invariably be spent identified with discursive think. Thus it matters what kinds of thoughts we tend to think. It matters what ideas we tend to have in mind, what we tend to believe about ourselves and the world, what we consider to be right and wrong. More than that, though, our successful engagement with modern life requires of us certain skills and abilities — skills and abilities that extend beyond clear perception of the way things are, as a matter of experience. Enlightenment, contrary to its popular framing, is not the end-game, but rather the starting point. Once one gets it, the question becomes, Now what?


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