For most of the history of Western civilization, the concept of spiritual enlightenment was virtually unknown to Westerners. Spirituality was primarily confined to Judeo-Christian religious institutions, where authority figures in charge of churches and synagogues indoctrinated individuals about “proper” behavior and the “proper” worldview. Only to a few intellectually and spiritually adventurous Westerners, such as William Blake and the American transcendentalists in the 19th century, were willing to look Eastward, beyond the institutional dogma of the West.
Then, with the counterculture movement of the 1960s, all of that began to change. As cultural authority and traditions were questioned and uprooted, religions from the East, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, began to influence spirituality in the West. As we moved into the 21st century, words like “aura,” “guru,” and “yoga” had all become part of common parlance. And the word “enlightenment” — used in the spiritual sense — is now bandied about with ease, being applied to politics and products as often as it is to actual spiritual practice. Now, we have a popular TV show and a computer program named “Enlightenment,” a line of snack foods called “Enlighten,” and TV ads and other advertisements that play off New Age paths to enlightenment.
The problem with that, of course, is that the deeper meaning of the concept becomes cloudy, and the sacredness of it gives way to the profane. So, what then is enlightenment, in the purer spiritual, esoteric sense? What exactly is being “lightened,” and what is going on within the individual when enlightenment occurs?
The precise definition of enlightenment is elusive since real understanding can only come through direct experience of it. But many teachers have done their best to provide an explanation, which varies greatly among disciplines. Perhaps Lao Tzu offered the simplest definition of enlightenment when he wrote in the Tao Te Ching, “Knowing others is wisdom. Knowing yourself is enlightenment.” This statement reflects one aspect of achieving enlightenment about which all Eastern practices agree: enlightenment always involves some fundamental shift in self-concept. Enlightenment is not about knowing how to live a good life or about knowing religious precepts. Rather, it means letting go of one’s false, worldly identity in favor of a truer, deeper perception of self.
Many spiritual teachers narrow this down to the fundamental struggle between ego, the sense of individual identity gained through socialization, and the “true self” or the soul, the self that transcends the limitations of the earthly body. The ego is problematic because, as Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard states, it engenders “ … a distorted vision of reality that makes us think that what we see around us is permanent and solid, or that our ‘self’ is a real, autonomous entity. This leads us to mistake fleeting pleasures or the alleviation of pain for lasting happiness. Such ignorance also makes us attempt to build our happiness on others’ misery.” Thus, ego is at the root of human suffering, and overcoming the ego, both individually and collectively, is the key to lasting peace and happiness.
Although the process of enlightenment ultimately leads to a blissful state that is free of suffering and desire, getting there is not a painless process — one that many teachers compare to dying. Transpersonal psychologist Stanislav Grof described it this way: “There is no fundamental difference between the preparation for death and the practice of dying, and spiritual practice leading to enlightenment.” Enlightenment is a “death” because all the many attachments of the ego must be surrendered and released, as inevitably happens to all of us upon physical death.
For a few, dropping the ego happens instantaneously, but for most this is excruciating because becoming enlightened undermines everything the ego holds dear: personal pride, social status, financial wealth, individual accomplishment, and so on. The self that is left over is the self that exists beyond the confines of the physical body, an essence that continues beyond time and space. It is a self that has no separateness from the rest of the universe, and thus is not subject to the weaknesses and desires that come with a life focused on the physical body. As Eckhart Tolle defines it, “To know yourself as the Being underneath the thinker, the stillness underneath the mental noise, the love and joy underneath the pain, is freedom, salvation, enlightenment.”
Ilchi Lee, the founder of the Brain Education mind-body method, suggests focusing on one simple question to help redirect the mind toward this more authentic self: “Who am I?” As a youth, he had experienced great difficulty in school and struggled to find meaning in his life as a young adult. Amid his turmoil, this question — “Who am I?” — kept nagging at him. He found some social stability in a job and marriage, but this still was not enough. The question kept haunting him because he knew that societal status could not offer any absolute answer. All these identities were clearly temporary and artificial. Asking this question relentlessly and honestly led ultimately to his realization that his true identity was something far beyond his physical life — that he existed as pure energy in a state of oneness with the universe as a whole, and that every other human being did as well.
Significantly, becoming enlightened is a process of stripping away anything that is inauthentic and false — not a process whereby a person gains anything. As Zen teacher Joko Beck says, “Enlightenment is not something you achieve. It is the absence of something. All your life you have been going forward after something, pursuing some goal. Enlightenment is dropping all that.” This can create a major tripping point for seekers who “pursue” enlightenment, grasping at the achievement of what they see as a higher spiritual level relative to that of others. Caught up in this mindset, the “spiritual” ego easily takes hold, and “enlightened being” becomes yet another false identity that is worn like a mask, hiding an underlying motivation to appear superior to others.
Being enlightened is ultimately just being. It is a humble state in which all the pretenses of identity have simply been dropped. Our load is lightened because we have dropped the burdens of false identity, which leaves us free to be who we really are. That’s why many spiritual teachers insist that you already are the enlightened person that you seek to become, even if it feels like your life is full of conflict and struggle — all that stuff is not really you. Zen teacher Adyashanti writes, “If you strip it of all the complex terminology and all the complex jargon, enlightenment is simply returning to our natural state of being. A natural state, of course, means a state which is not contrived, a state that requires no effort or discipline to maintain, a state of being which is not enhanced by any sort of manipulation of mind or body — in other words, a state that is completely natural, completely spontaneous.” Interestingly, versions of this same enlightenment process, this process of stripping the ego away, have also always existed in the margins of Western traditions, too, through mystical traditions like Christian Gnosticism and Jewish Kabbalah.
Regarding identity, we humans are in a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, we have incredible brains that allow for amazing levels of self-awareness and for the ability to create meaning from our experience, which in turn help us to form our complex social identities. Yet, our brains can also perceive the futility of our earthy identities since, as the old saying goes, “You can’t take it with you.” Many in Western society now embrace the concept of enlightenment, perhaps because the emptiness of materialistic identity is becoming painfully clear. Underneath our drive to succeed and to accomplish, there is a longing to return to the proverbial Garden of Eden — to a simpler state of peace and harmony, a state of oneness with the universe — a state also known as enlightenment.
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