Dodgy word: Enlightenment. In new agey circles, it’s touted as the ultimate goal of all those expensive retreats and meditation seminars, or those long years spent in monkish self-denial, sequestered with books and DVD’s on the million and one programs of self-improvement. It’ll take you a while, decades maybe, but eventually it’ll come – the realisation – the enlightenment if you like – that enlightenment itself cannot possibly come from an accumulation of “stuff” – be they methods, or secret knowledge, or special Yoga mats.
It’s like trying to put a fire out by throwing petrol on it.
You’re only going to make things worse.
This is not to say enlightenment is a foolish aspiration. Indeed it’s the one noble thing, consciously or unconsciously, we’re all moving towards – the one noble goal in the whole confused mish mash of human endeavour. But what is it? Well, I think I’m coming close to a definition of it now – which isn’t the same thing as becoming enlightened of course – but anyway: so far as I can work out, it’s a state of mind, a way of seeing the world through fresh eyes, eyes born anew out of a rare state of grace.
Some people are fortunate enough to be granted glimpses of it, but their grip is tenuous and the vision goes away, leaving them amazed, but they also bounce off it into a kind of wilderness where they’re left doubting the validity of their experience. They wonder if they weren’t deluding themselves, they wonder if they weren’t suffering from a self-induced psychotropic hallucination. I count myself among their number – temporarily amazed, then self-doubting, and all I can do now is study the words and the curious aphorisms of those who have gone before me in the hope I’ll be granted a clue, one reliable signpost on the outskirts of the forest, that will allow me to navigate my way safely and securely back in. But those aphorisms can be hard nuts to crack – like: “The way that can be named is not the true way,” according to Lao Tzu’s enigmatic opening of the Tao Te Ching, which makes me wonder if looking for a signpost isn’t a waste of time anyway – and I should just plunge right in.
For those gifted individuals who have permanently attained this state of mind, there is no sudden recoiling to an aftershock of doubt. They have all the time in the world to be absolutely certain what they see, their enlightened vision, is true. They don’t need to believe in it because it’s not about belief. It’s about experience, and knowing.
But knowing what? Well, putting it crudely, it’s knowing that our true selves are already perfect, that they don’t actually need improving in any way, and that our true self is immortal. Such an insight as this has a transformational effect on the psyche. It doesn’t change the world before our eyes, but it makes us infinitely more compassionate in our dealings with it. And instead of everything causing us pain or confusion, and seeing nothing out there but an existential waste, we see instead the wonder of the universe and the meaning of it in everything. And the meaning of it is the universe awakening to a knowledge of itself through us.
It sounds good, doesn’t it? A good way to live – and I’ve often wondered why, if such a state of mind is real, then why isn’t it better known? After tens of thousands of years of human evolution, why haven’t we all attained this delicious state of grace yet? It’s suspicious, perhaps? What’s even more suspicious is the enlightened ones us tell us theirs is not an exclusive club, that you don’t need a million dollars to join, that we can all achieve this state for free. So why aren’t we signing up in droves? Well, it might be free, but it’s not easy, and the difficulty lies in what we most identify ourselves with.
Have you ever heard the phrase: I don’t know who I am any more! Or how about: I need to know who I am, or I need to find out who I really am, or I need time to discover my true self – I’m sure the angsty characters in my novels have all uttered these corny lines at some point, but there’s nothing profound in them – indeed they are all meaningless. The path to enlightenment is littered with the bodies of those who were looking for themselves.
In his book “The New Earth” Ekhart Tolle tells us: If you can be absolutely comfortable with not knowing who you are, then what’s left is who you are – the being behind the human, a field of pure potentiality, rather than something that is already defined.
Does that make sense to you? The being behind the human?
Most of us spend our lives seeing an image of ourselves, unaware that it’s an image reflected back to us from the mirror of the world, and we’re unable to differentiate between that image and the person doing the looking. When we sit down to meditate and we’re barraged by all those inconvenient thoughts, and we tell ourselves: No, I don’t want to think about that right now – who is the silent watcher of those thoughts? Who says I don’t want to think about that? The silent watcher is what’s left when we can be absolutely comfortable in letting go of everything else.
The true self is a form of awareness, it’s a realisation of our self both in and of the world and crucially, a realisation of the psychological nature of reality. The only difference between stuff and thought is the frequency at which energy vibrates, because energy is all there is, the conscious energy of the cosmos. It’s this realisation that enables us at last to take the unimaginable vastness of the universe, to make sense of it, and pack it into William Blake’s grain of sand – no – into less than a grain of sand – into nothing.
So why can’t we do this? What’s stopping us? With all those self help books out there why hasn’t any one of them delivered the key? Is it because all this talk of conscious energy and the psychological nature of things is bunkum? Possibly, though I’m inclined to think we have to reckon with the possibility that it’s not. So again: what’s stopping us?
Well unfortunately the self help industry is no different to any other part of the material world. It’s become integral to the way we actually live and is therefore, paradoxically, of no use whatsoever to anyone really trying to help themselves out of their existential wilderness. All economies – even those that were once the most ideologically opposed to capitalism, are now rushing to embrace the ultimate opium of the peoples – not, as Marx said, religion – but just stuff, material stuff. And in this respect, even new-agey pseudo spiritual stuff is no different to the fatuousness of designer footwear.
You think it may be just the thing you need to fill that hole in your soul, this new material thing, but having made your purchase you realise it isn’t. So the next time you’re looking at those sexy new training shoes, or that seductive new-agey book, and considering handing over your plastic for it, ask yourself who gains here, and what part of my self wants it?
One of the most difficult things to grasp on this mythical road to enlightenment is that we are not our thoughts, or our memories. Sure, we can all think things through and come to conclusions based on a mixture of logic, experience and intuition – that’s how this piece of writing is coming together. But it would be wrong of me to conclude that it defines the part of me I call my unique self. Twelve months from now I’ll probably have forgotten what I’ve written here, while the self I think I am will still be with me.
I look at pictures of myself as a child, and I can no longer remember what I was thinking or feeling at the time the picture was taken. I recognise the likeness, but if thoughts or memories are anything to go by, the person in that photograph no longer exists. Yet here I am, self evidently still around, still gathering memories which will likewise fade over time.
And as we grow older, this habit of forgetting intensifies, the conversations we had thirty years ago, even the relationships we shared all fade to a ghostly transparency. But does their loss render the self we think we are any smaller? No. Do we wink out of existence when we can no longer remember our first kiss, or that first magical time we made love? No.
Could I lose all memory, all faculty for logic and reason, and yet retain the awareness of my self as an individual being?
The answer, say the enlightened ones, is yes. Indeed, we can go further: it seems we are happiest when we can let everything go. We become our truest self when can forget the false self we think we are. The road to enlightenment therefore is not a road at all, not journey, not a search. It’s a moment of awareness, and it’s a letting go. Then we wake up to the dream of the world, instead of being unconscious to it. And we discover a more lucid way of being.
How can I let go, you ask? How can I afford to float off into a self-indulgent contemplative bubble? Sure, it would be great. Instead of taking it up the ass every day at work, I’d like to do what my instincts are telling me: tell the boss to shove it. But if I don’t get paid, I don’t eat, I lose my house, and that contemplative bubble isn’t going to keep me and the kids very warm when we’re sitting at the side of the road. Enlightenment’s fine for a monk sitting in a cave with no rent to pay. But in the real world?…
Okay, okay I get the message.
It’s no use saying the world is just a dream, that our purpose is to wake up to that fact. The world is as it is and letting go doesn’t mean dropping out of it. Enlightenment is useless if it can’t help the needy and the oppressed who are already entangled in the guts of the world-machine. And is the world that bad, if it’s technologically sophisticated enough to feed such a staggering number of people, and still allow them time to contemplate their place in the universe?
No. Enlightenment is about living consciously, of seeing everything there is to see in objects, in people and in the events of our daily lives. And if we can all live, consciously, then the world will become an infinitely better place.