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What is Spiritual Enlightenment?

March 27, 2012

Reading Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing has given me much food for thought.  One thing that I appreciate is its introduction of a vocabulary for discussing the phenomenon of spiritual enlightenment.

One who is enlightened is Awake, or truth-realized.  To become awake one must have the experience of perceiving reality directly, rather than through the filter of consciousness, which involves peeling away all the layers of the onion of false self.

The author claims to be enlightened, a truth-realized being, to exist in a state of abiding non-dualistic awareness.  For some such a claim may invoke feelings of skepticism, but I have no problem accepting it at face value, for one main reason: recognition.  I myself am a truth-realized being, having experienced satori, an instant awakening, followed by a prolonged state of boundless perception that has continued to this day.

The mystical experience, being temporary, is not the state of enlightenment, which is permanent, but it is a precursor.  At the time I had my own experience of cosmic consciousness, I was left afterwards thinking that I was still missing something, or that I had somehow lost what I had achieved, because the feelings of rapturous joy and boundless energy did not persist.  Reading this book has helped me recognize, however, that ultimate truth, once realized, cannot be forgotten, and that total awakening is not an experience that can be lost.  Once one becomes used to an altered state of consciousness it no longer seems to be altered, and, like the first time getting stoned, the onset of the experience may stand out in memory as something uniquely intense that cannot be recaptured.  I have come to realize that the state that I exist in is the enlightened state, the fabled endpoint and professed goal of all spiritual development.  Once you truly beat the game there are no more levels to play, although you can re-play any previous level you’d like to your heart’s content.

News flash: spiritual enlightenment is not the same thing as self-perfection (obviously, if guys like Dane Dormio and Jed McKenna can claim to be enlightened and expect to be taken at least halfway seriously).  So what exactly does it mean to be Awake? It’s a little like pornography: impossible to describe in words, but you recognize it when you see it.

Recognition is, in fact, one of the characteristics of the enlightened state. After my instantaneous awakening, I immediately recognized that the experience I had just had was exactly the same experience that apocryphally happened to Gautama when he sat under the ficus tree and became the Buddha.  I recognized satori as clearly as you might recognize a giraffe on your first trip to Africa even if you had never seen one in real life or pictures but only read descriptions of them.  I also became able to recognize the same experience in others through their writing.  My first such recognition was the Tao Te Ching, whose author(s) were clearly writing from the same state of consciousness that I was in.  I was also able to recognize the aftermath of the same experience in the writings of Herman Hesse, later Morris Berman, and most recently Jed McKenna.  Jed was able to recognize it in the writings of Herman Melville and Walt Whitman.  Jed speculates that the number of truth-realized beings in the world at any given time is extremely small, supported by the fact that he has rarely met another one in person.  I somewhat concur, based on similar evidence, though I also suspect that there are many more instances than can be counted, because the state of enlightenment, by its very nature, tends not to draw attention to itself (in which regard Jed McKenna is a rare exception).  In fact, it may not even occur to to an enlightened person that they are enlightened!  This was certainly the case for me for a number of years.  If you’ve ever been hypnotized, you know that the state of hypnosis feels no different than ordinary waking consciousness, even though it is very different.  The state of enlightenment is the same way.

Another characteristic of the enlightened state is a sense of flow.  The flow state is a phenomenon that has started to be studied more and more by modern psychology.  For an individual in the enlightened state, flow is the norm rather than the exception.

Closely related to this is an internal sense of rightness. Anything that stops the flow is not right, anything that preserves it is.  Characteristic of the enlightened state is a minute sensitivity to the sense of flow within oneself and within one’s surroundings, which can easily be disrupted by internal factors, such as incongruent speech or slouching posture, or external factors, like the energy of certain other people or certain environments.  Even a single thought or mental image that is out of alignment with the natural state of things can cause an excruciating disruption of flow for someone who is so highly attuned.  Practically all of such a person’s thoughts and actions will be motivated by this preservation of the sense of flow.

Once one becomes enlightened, all spiritual questions are answered, or, more accurately, become unasked.  Such a person no longer wonders about things like the meaning and purpose of life, the nature of reality, the existence of God, whether they have a soul, or the reality of free will.  Having directly perceived universal truth, they no longer have a need for such questions.

Where my description differs from Jed’s is in what I choose to call the fundamental reality underlying all perception, and in my characterization of the experience of relating (although I have no doubt that we are both describing the same thing, and I suspect Jed would concur).  Jed says that the fundamental nature of reality is nothingness, yet having viewed the same underlying fabric of existence, nothingness is not the word I would choose.  I think “everythingness” would be a more appropriate term.  If it is a nothingness, it is a nothingness that contains everything, both the real and the potential.  Also, Jed describes the enlightened state as one of separation and peerlessness, yet I would describe the experience as one of connection.  When Jed McKenna walks into a room with other people, he is nobody, not even Jed McKenna.  When I walk into a room with other people, I am everyone in the room, including myself and the other people.  It is characteristic of the state of enlightenment itself that seemingly contradictory and opposite explanations can both be recognized as pointing to the same thing.  If you and a friend are standing on opposite sides of a mountain, one pointing east and one pointing west, both of you can be pointing towards the same thing: the peak of the mountain.

First and foremost, what Jed’s books have done for me is convince me that there is absolutely no point to seeking spiritual enlightenment (or self perfection for that matter), which takes quite a load off.  I think they are likely to do the same for many others.

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One Comment
  1. Wow, great post! You sum it up perfectly, once you have an experience of ‘awakening’ there’s always going to be a part of you that remains awake.

    I think it’s important to differentiate ‘enlightenment’ (or something like ‘perfection’) as an attitude that is really about leaving well enough alone. Letting things be perfect because they are as they are, and do not need to fulfill any kind of ‘quota’ for what really constitutes this.

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