Essay #5: What is Enlightenment?

Closely connected to the old guru model of pursuing wisdom is the notion of enlightenment.  One of the main reasons why 20th century seekers so easily gave away their freedom and power to a guru was because of the ultimate promise of enlightenment.  “Sure, I’ll put up with this questionable arrangement now because it will eventually result in the most magnificent reward imaginable.”  No, it won’t.  Remember that I devoted 24 of the best years of my life with total dedication to a spiritual path that promised enlightenment.  It didn’t happen, nor would it have happened if I had devoted another 24 years, and then another.

Yes, many contemporary teachers still claim to have achieved enlightenment or, as often happens, allow their followers to claim enlightenment on their behalf.  This occurs for several reasons, one being that if you dedicate your life to a set of teachings through a guru, and then this guru or someone else with spiritual authority decides that you have now attained an enlightened state, it’s very hard not to believe it.  Another reason is that the guru model attracts people with narcissistic tendencies; they will choose to believe they are enlightened whether anyone bestows that attainment upon them or not.  Still another reason is that it’s great for business.  Imagine how few followers would be attracted to a teacher who says, “I’m actually not enlightened, but I want to try to lead you to enlightenment.”  Yes, of course many spiritual teachers will allow the claim of enlightenment to be made on their behalf!

However, this essay will argue that for the 21st century pursuit of wisdom, enlightenment has to be understood as a misleading term and therefore a misleading goal.  Let’s begin with an eye-opening book written in the late 1990s by Mariana Caplan titled Halfway up the Mountain: The Error of Premature Claims to Enlightenment.  Dr. Caplan did us the great service of exploring what most of the Western spiritual teachers at that time, many of them believed to be enlightened, had to say about enlightenment.  Along the journey of 522 pages of text, we learn that enlightenment may be as simple as “a relaxed mind” (p. 40) or “the realization that you know nothing” (p. 45) or “freedom from the spiritual path” (p. 48).  Remarkably, we also learn that those who are enlightened “suffer immensely” (p. 52), that those who are enlightened “will always be making mistakes” (p. 454), that “enlightenment is only the beginning” (p. 483), that “anybody who is enlightened is kind of ordinary” (p. 488), that enlightenment is being “completely responsive to reality” (p. 504), that “enlightenment is living right here, in life, as it is” (p. 517), and finally Dr. Caplan’s own conclusion in the very last paragraph that enlightenment “is nothing, non-existent, an empty term used by those who aspire toward something beyond the ordinary while those who are truly liberated simply encourage others to live deeply and fully and with compassion in this moment” (p. 521).  All of this sounds suspiciously like the actual experience of enlightenment, based on descriptions by those who are believed to have it, is no different from the experience of being human.

Yet the concept of enlightenment from its beginning as moksha in ancient Samkhya and Yoga philosophy right through the 20th century guru teachings clearly meant transcending the human condition.  When Dr. Caplan uses the words “truly liberated” in the last quote above, she is referring to moksha, which we learned in the third essay means attaining the ultimate goal of being free from the human condition.  Yet the very spiritual teachers she refers to as truly liberated tell us that enlightenment means being willing to be human, while Dr. Caplan herself concludes that enlightenment is nothing.  How can we reconcile these glaring contradictions?  By realizing that the actual state of what many call enlightenment is not what we were led to believe it is.  It does not mean transcending the human condition or attaining the Self-realization of oneness with God or becoming perfect in any way.  In reality it just means being willing to be human and present with what is.  This goal can be reached without a spiritual path or a spiritual teacher, and I suspect that most of us reading this essay have already more or less reached such a modest goal.

What about those who have breathtaking mystical experiences?  Is this enlightenment?  In the 21st century pursuit of wisdom we can certainly give people credit for their mystical experiences and be glad for them, but this makes them no more special than the rest of us, just as having a mind-blowing experience with a psychedelic drug does not make anyone more special than the rest of us.  We are all of us pretty much in the same boat regarding enlightenment: most of us already have it to a greater or lesser extent in the sense of how willing we are to be human, and none of us will attain it in the sense of being godlike.

But what about those who have special powers?  As many of us have experienced in one form or another, paranormal phenomena are real and accessible to some.  If a guru can “read your mind” or know mysterious things about your past or future, does that mean she or he is enlightened?  Actually, many skilled psychic readers can do that, often better than any guru, and even some magicians can do it as well.  The pursuit of wisdom definitely includes exploring the mysterious potentials of our minds and the universe itself, but having access to paranormal powers does not make one enlightened.  In fact, any spiritual teacher showing off powers to indicate enlightenment should be avoided as dangerous because the more we grow in wisdom the more we realize that there is no enlightenment and that powers should never be used in this way.

What can be valid regarding enlightenment is the idea that as we grow toward greater wisdom some of us will be farther along than others.  Yet even this understanding of enlightenment—that some of us are “more enlightened” than others—is misleading because no one progresses smoothly toward greater wisdom in all areas of life.  We all have strengths and shortcomings in our journey toward our highest potential.  Someone who appears enlightened in some respects will for sure have major flaws that may be hidden.  That’s why it’s never beneficial to relate to someone else as though they are enlightened; it can trap them as well as us in false expectations and possibly encourage shadowy behaviors.

Also, the somewhat true notion of different stages of spiritual development can easily invite us into the endless game of pigeonholing everyone we know, and even those we don’t know, into their level of consciousness.  This is the potential detriment of teachings that otherwise may be of benefit in the pursuit of wisdom—Ken Wilber’s integral theory, for example.  Ranking people into hierarchies of spiritual development is a misuse of wisdom because it ignores the reality that we all have strengths and shortcomings at all stages of development, that we are not the judge of others, and that we cannot fully know what ultimate state of consciousness other people should be evolving toward as they explore their own potential.  Hierarchical rankings of other people’s level of consciousness place the person doing the ranking into the role of God, and these hierarchies usually end up as a glorified caste system of spiritual development, with the creator of the system perched securely on top.  In the real world, beyond clever conceptualizations of spiritual hierarchy, the least valued person you know may be more highly developed in some aspect of life than the most highly valued person you know.  We really don’t need to concern ourselves with what level of consciousness other people have; our hands are full enough just working with our own development, and the humility of not judging others is an essential condition for our own development.

For all of the above reasons, the concept of enlightenment is misleading, and the goal of the pursuit of wisdom in the 21st century needs to be understood not in terms of enlightenment but in terms of realizing our full human purpose and potential.  That is a tangible goal worth pursuing!

The next essay explores what our full human purpose and potential may be.

Caplan, Mariana. Halfway up the Mountain: The Error of Premature Claims to Enlightenment. Prescott, AZ: Hohm Press, 1999.

© 2015 Gary Stogsdill