“Enlightenment:”  The Absolute Peak of Possibilities or Many Magnificent Peaks?

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






  1. Esteemed Dr. Charles Tart,

    Just some quick comments. You state:”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.”

    There certainly exists a lot of baggage concerning the term. The easiest way I know of explaining what enlightment is, and its gradual nature is the following:
    Imagine the body is a container. Consciousness is water. Enlightment happens when water flows into the container – a glass for instance. From this metaphor we can extract some characteristica.

    a) a person can become enlightened for very short periods of time – as is the case in Transformational Experiences and most transpersonal experiences. The water can flow out of the vessel just as fast as it flowed in. This way, experiences of “enlightenment” can have lasting effects, even though they were very short in themselves.
    b) enlightment is gradual – it can be stronger or weaker. Maslow’s Peak Experiences are indeed “low level” enlightenment experiences.
    c) enlightment is directly related to consciousness “levels”. We might term it consciousness quotient in a body. The higher the CQ of a person is, the higher the water level in the vessel is.
    d) the vessel can, of course, carry lots of water permanently. Some religions/spiritualities refer to this criterion as enlightenment, which is why they postulate it is a permanent state.

    There is so much to say, I don’t even know where to begin. Perhaps to some criteria that allow for a high “water” level. Generally, we already know that the human body posseses “defense mechanisms”. Nihilism, Projection, Compartmentalization, Repression, etc. We could reframe the function of these mechanisms to “Awareness Reduction Mechanisms”, for this is how they operate. They protect the psychological integrity of the body by reducing, deviating, consciousness by selection of acceptable contents of conscientization. Consciousness does not like to experience bad stuff, so it is only natural that the psychological system is built in a way that reduces exposure to painful experiences. Thus, all in all, awareness is reduced. With awareness reduced, consciousness is reduced, for awareness is one of the main characteristics of consciousness. This is why we are blind. This is the difference between an “enlightened” person and your usual, every day consciousness. This is no good news, I guess. This would mean that we all, are in permanent use of our Awareness Reduction Mechanisms, for if they were not there, we would get enlightened by default. In a perfect world, this would indeed happen. “Enlightenment” would be a natural and normal outcome of becoming an adult. But not in our world. The reason for this is complex, and I cannot go into detail here. But generally speaking, we are forced to use these Awareness Reduction Mechanisms due to our toxic socialization process that we all endure. Begining with age 0, in fact, even prior to birth, we are subject to constant stress. Way too early, we are stripped of our genuine self esteem, and this has some horrendous consequences for our spiritual development. Lacking genuine self esteem, and under constant assault, we lack the strenght to fight back, and eventually, our body goes into a semi-permanent fight or flight mode, that makes awareness reduction mechanisms necessary even for the most basic functioning. With this circumstance in place, it is no wonder that almost none of us are capable of maintaining a high level of water in their container. For this container is pierced by hundreds of small holes, that leak the precious “juice”, due to the circumstances we live in. One could meditate a gazzilion years without significant effect due to this circumstance. For even if the meditation, or drug endows one with a high level of consciousness for a time, if the container is peppered with small holes, consciousness will flow out quitely, and the standard every day consciousness level ensues. The theory I base my statements on is a holistic theory, that incorporates psychology, sociology, economy, politics and spirituality.

    Kind Greetings,
    and thanks for opening my eyes with your comments on the (im)possibility of research in the field of parapsychology and transpersonal psychology. Even though it is my deepest hearts desire, and surely the deeper reason why I am here, the time seems not to be ripe. Thanks for everything.

    1. Many good ideas in your comments, thanks! I would agree to automatically think of “enlightenment” as all-or-none or as permanent probably creates much confusion. I like to think of it in terms of moments or actions and degrees.
      Aldous Huxley, I believe, was one of the first to speak of the brain as a “reducing valve,” we need to deal with a limited situation here in Earth space/time, to have too much information flooding in would just confuse us…

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