I’ve been so busy writing lately, I feel like I’m letting readers down on this blog, so let me share some thoughts about “enlightenment” I’ve been having.*
* Note: I should remind old readers and newer ones that a lot of the words we have to use to try to talk about the mind are difficult to clearly define and used in different ways by different writers, so I put such words in quotation marks when I first use them. We use the rough, ordinary meaning in general, but someday, hopefully, we can speak a lot more clearly.
Recently an esteemed colleague, Stephan Schwartz, renaissance scholar and parapsychologist, responded to someone’s relatively abstract and traditional ideas about enlightenment on a parapsychology discussion list we belong to. He began with
>I have known four people in my life whom I thought had a measure of enlightenment,<
This meshed with my own thinking and studies of consciousness, and I wanted to reinforce his using a term like a measure of enlightenment. As a transpersonal psychologist (but certainly not as someone who is “enlightened”), I’ve read and studied many traditions and teachings about what enlightenment is, and there’s a lot of variation.
Some traditions use enlightenment in what we could call an absolute sense, that (a) there’s some particular “state” of being/consciousness that is the highest possible condition that a human can attain, (b) it is permanent, and (c) because it transcends all the particulars of various cultures, it’s qualities are universal. In some sense it doesn’t matter whether you live now, in the 1400 ADs, in the 500 BCs, as an Indian, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Tlingit shaman, etc. At a deep and profound level, enlightened people are all the same. Cultural background will still show, such as in the language you, as an enlightened person speak, myths you draw on to teach in a particular culture, etc., but you’ve reached the Absolute Peak of Possibilities. A frequent analogy used in what we might call the all-or-none approach is that there are many paths up the mountain of spiritual growth, but once you reach the peak, you’re there, it doesn’t matter how you got there. Lesser spiritual accomplishments may be recognized in the path, but full enlightenment is all-or-none.
My best formulation to date, to continue with that analogy, is that there are several mountains, several peaks, several kinds of huge accomplishments all called enlightenment. And it’s hard for those of us down in the swampy valleys of unenlightened delusion and suffering to notice, much less really understand, the differences. But insofar as the field of transpersonal psychology tries to study and understand the higher reaches of human nature, we need to distinguish these. Different methods may lead to different peaks. A training method that is excellent for climbing to one kind of peak, e.g., may take you in circles instead of the climbing it could facilitate on another mountain. And as to whether some of those enlightenment peaks are “higher” than others… I don’t think we have enough knowledge yet to clearly differentiate these varying forms of enlightenment.
For a person who has started out with much suffering in life, of course, and often invested enormous effort and suffering in trying to attain what they and their local spiritual establishment thinks is enlightenment, the experience they have or the “place” they climb to can feel like a wonderful state, and be considered an all-or-none attainment. Part of this feeling would be based on the fact that it is truly incredible and wonderful to have attained this kind of enlightenment! Part of it may be a kind of contrast effect. In my normal state, e.g., I usually believe there must be much better ways to think, feel, perceive, love, etc. than what I do, and I seek “spiritual growth.” When I’ve been ill for a few days with the flu, by contrast, the first day I wake up and I’m well…Wow! I can think so clearly, I can act, nothing hurts, I feel so good, what a wonderful state of consciousness I’m in! Then I quickly adapt back to my usual baseline…
So when Schwartz speaks of
>a measure of enlightenment,<
I think he’s being quite accurate. Not something absolute, but occurring to various measures, various degrees.
He goes on to elaborate,
>In all four cases what made them stand out, made me think of them in that way, was the nature of their beingness, their character, their presence….(snip)…Religion was cultural, but not the right frame of reference in which to see these people. They each had a measurable effect on the reality around them. Headaches would go away, flowers in bud would bloom. One felt better being near them. It was easier to make the life-affirming choice with them around. They were also recognized for this special beingness by the others in their community, people talked about it, only it came out as respect, again not in the context of religion. <
My own hopes and fears, or perhaps my perceptions and biases, run the same way, it’s the actual living style and the way it may affect other people that would lead me to credit someone with spiritual advancement (although I can imagine some enlightened people who have no obvious differences we can perceive). In the organized spiritual traditions, there tend to be more specific criteria, “If person P has had experience X, then they are enlightened.” Maybe, but perhaps the effects of experience X wear off after a while. There have certainly been cases where I think some people were “enlightened” in the sense of having the criterion experience, but over time it faded, or was altered by ordinary human needs. By that time, though, they may have become overly attached to the status of being considered “enlightened,” they had followers who were attached to their leader’s enlightenment, so the leader then acted like he or she was still in that special state. With mixed effects, perhaps continuing to inspire some people in a useful way, perhaps building a house of cards in other ways leading to great suffering when it collapsed…
Some spiritual systems would say the only thing important about enlightenment is to attain it, everything else you do is a waste of time. I’m not so sure of that, and think enlightenment is important enough to try to study and understand from many perspectives, including parapsychogical ones. It may be related to psi manifestations, for example. Indeed in some systems, an enlightened person is expected to prove they are enlightened by producing “miracles,” some of which may be considered as various kinds of psi phenomena. In Roman Catholicism, e.g., a person being considered for canonization must have produced one of more miracles in his or her life, as well as acting and teaching in ways which are consistent with Church doctrine. And two miracles must be associated with the perspective saint after his or her death, when a Catholic has prayed to him or her. That requirement of miracles makes things very tricky, but we won’t go off on that now.
So there’s something, or perhaps somethings, out in the far reaches of the mind, what I’m vaguely calling “enlightenment” here, that can be incredibly powerful in its effects on people so it can’t be ignored. But let’s be cautious in what we think we know about it. Perhaps we should generally use the term “relative enlightenment,” rather than the unqualified “enlightenment,” to remind us of these considerations.
I will also note that it’s quite possible that, to a genuinely enlightened person (whatever that means), what I’ve written here may well be proof that I’m really confused and unenlightened on this subject… but I mean well… Remembering to be careful not to be too carried away by my own thinking is an important part of my spiritual path…
Artwork by John Forrest Bamberger, Magnified Stream and Transferring Into Enlightenment