Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: August 2012
In the last newsletter I wrote over 4,000 words on enlightenment, perhaps more than you ever wanted to read. But I think most of us, and I mean HSPs in particular, hope very much that humans can evolve beyond the species’ present scary form, and perhaps enlightenment is the glimpse of what that might be. Hence it can be an interesting topic for us, the “priestly advisors.”
For those of you who are still with me, let’s review. I said in Part I that there are enough overlapping descriptions of enlightenment from many different personal and cultural perspectives that it does seem real. But rare. Many teachers have tried to help others attain that state, usually through some form of meditation. In spite of all of these good efforts, no method or teacher has had a very high success rate.
Some have concluded that maybe having the goal is the problem: The enlightened live in the eternal present, so we should try to do the same. That you become enlightened or are enlightened when living in the moment has never quite made sense to me, as everyone has to think about the past and future to survive. (I think what is meant by being in the “now” is what I described last time, that enlightenment involves a part of one’s self, a non-personal-self, that is witnessing everything. That witness, definitely for want of a better term, has an eternally now quality.) To me having the goal of enlightenment is all right. We simply need to understand it better and see that more of us arrive there, and given our interest in such matters, HSPs might be just the ones to help.
Sudden or Gradual
From all that I have read, there are two experiences of becoming enlightened, sudden and gradual. The sudden cases are clearer and give us a sense that there is a core aspect to enlightenment [see Part I) in spite of the wide variety of descriptions of it. But the gradual awakening may be more common, and perhaps gives rise to the greater variety of experiences, as the gradual version grows in different “soils” of cultures and personalities and takes on aspects of those.
If you meditate, you know about the gradual kind of enlightenment. After a good meditation, and especially after a meditation retreat, you notice that there is a background of silence to everything. Then it fades. But if you persist, it lasts longer and longer, with less and less that can disrupt it. I have posted a blog post about the two main types of meditation approaches, “Practice Makes Perfect” and “Water the Root,” so I will not go on at length about these, except to say that both appear these days to suggest that you do not need to become a recluse or monk to become enlightened.
It is my sense, too, that diligent practice of meditation by anyone, whatever one does the rest of the time (if it isn’t too stressful), does lead to gradual awakening–that is, more frequent experiences of deep inner silence, bliss, or witnessing of activity. It is less that it gradually dawns, but that it comes and goes according to how rested we are. Sometimes we feel enlightened, sometimes decidedly not, but over years we will notice it has grown. (About aging, my early teacher, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, referred to “riding the tiger”: You have to age, but if you are becoming more enlightened with every passing year, you are making excellent use of aging.)
Even a sudden enlightenment does not seem to be quite permanent. Stress can override it. John Wren-Lewis, whom I discussed last time, said his sense of it faded when he was concentrating on something, as if it went behind a screen. It also left him a few times during certain moments of extreme suffering. Descriptions of “cosmic consciousness,” the first stage of enlightenment (see Part I), say it can be overshadowed by stress during the day but recovers during the night. The higher states beyond this are apparently more permanent. To me, all of this makes enlightenment more human and achievable.
Reasons for Optimism
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was extremely optimistic about anyone being able to become enlightened, even while carrying on with a normal life. He insisted that everyone should be able to have 200% of life–all the spiritual and all of, well, the rest. But he also said “Capture the fort–highest first–then you have control of all the rest of the territory.” “First to the bank, then to the market.” “The farther back you draw the arrow, the farther forward it shoots.” So according to him, you have to make meditation a very high priority, doing it for twenty minutes twice a day. Not much compared to 24/7 in a monastery.
Maharishi was of the Water-the-Root philosophy (see my blog): Do a little something and then enjoy the trees branches, leaves, and fruit. He also liked the metaphor of dipping the cloth in dye–dipping the mind into the Absolute, or as close as you could get during a deeply restful meditation–and then fading the cloth in your daily activity. That was it. He really did have a novel idea. To him, the historical nemesis of meditators, thoughts (“monkey mind”), are simply not a problem. The mind will naturally go to pure consciousness because it is so blissful. It is also the deepest possible state of rest for mind and body, since the mind is no longer even thinking, but experiencing pure awareness. Why then do we think so much in meditation? Dipping the mind into deep rest means the body will be able to rid itself of the effects of stress, which is a physical activity, and at least in the brain this activity is experienced as thoughts. So we are dragged out of our desired state, but thoughts are just part of the process, part of a cycle into deep rest and out into some mental activity.
In short, we all desire enlightenment, and if we can get rid of the stress, we’ll go there. You can see that if you get stressed about not being enlightened it could get in the way, but with this approach there is supposedly no reason to worry about it.
The other major type of meditation methods, sometimes called the Practice-Makes-Perfect approach, would be those involving observing one’s thoughts or breathing in order to develop the ability to witness one’s behavior. They have also evolved into simpler, more streamlined methods such as Mindfulness Meditation. So although meditation has been around for a while, it may be that the methods have improved so much that, although it will take a few more decades to see a number of people becoming enlightened, it will happen. There do seem to be quite a few more people claiming to be enlightened than twenty years ago.
The Relation of Enlightenment to Virtue
TM is what Bob Forman was doing when he became enlightened on a course for training TM teachers in 1972. I commented on his book, Enlightenment Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up to Be, in Part I. Even after his extraordinary experiences permanently altered how he saw the world, he was not yet calling it enlightenment. This is because he was still as anxious, depressed, and shy after he became enlightened as he was before. He even confessed to petty shop lifting before, and did not give it up immediately afterwards, but a little later. Realizing that enlightenment is thought of as perfection and enlightened teachers as perfect beings, Forman was hesitant to confess about his experience until he was 64. That was a long time to wait. But he knew he would be dashing our fervent hopes about perfection, in ourselves or anyone.
One could argue that Forman’s experience came prematurely. Forman’s life did improve dramatically, and much of his book is about that process, but it was definitely not immediate. At least he could say that he was certain that his permanently changed brain was the reason. For example, a company made a $27,000 accounting error made in his favor. He tried to return the money but they insisted they were right. He consulted a lawyer about keeping it and was told it was okay. He suffered about it briefly, knowing it was not really his yet being told he can have it. It was a lot of money to him. But finally he chose to put it in an account by itself and wait. Having done this, he felt that his life was his own again. It was simply the most effortless option–to do what was right for someone else, “to be bigger” (p. 121). Eventually someone from the company called, voice trembling. Forman said, “I know, I know,” and “It’s yours. Take it.” (p. 120).
Instead of saying that Forman was enlightened when he was 25 and grew into it, you could also argue that, given his emotional health and behavior, he was not really enlightened on that day. That is, we could save our definition of enlightenment for true human perfection. We should know the tree by its fruits, perfect behavior. However, then we have the problem of who decides what is perfect behavior. In some traditions, supposedly, a guru having sex with a woman disciple would be seen as generous, helping the woman towards enlightenment. Further, an enlightened person could act strangely or even “immorally” and in fact be doing the right thing from a long-term perspective. This argument, however, still leaves room for a great deal of rationalizing of immoral behavior, just one example being Rajneesh’s peculiar behaviors. Although many people vilified him, quite a few attested to his extraordinary presence and undeniable powers, but it appears that they went awry somehow.
The Fine Print on the Enlightenment Label
Part of the explanation for the misbehavior of some who appear to be enlightened may be found in some “fine print” about the enlightened. Even in the highest and most permanent state of consciousness, according to the Vedas, the classic Indian texts, 25% of the fully enlightened person is still in the relative world. That 25% allows us to still act. Or rather, having a body allows us to act, and the body, I would argue, cannot function without its memories, culture, and instincts. Every culture has different standards of behavior. Every brain has had unique past experiences–including the delights of petty shop lifting.
More telling, in my opinion, is the permanent presence of the human instincts for ranking and linking. Enlightened teachers have favorite companions–they still link like any primate, even if able to remain detached at a higher level of their mind. And like any primate, they are aware of their rank and power, using it for the most part for good, but if they are not aware of the risks, they can be given too much power by their adoring disciples, sometimes these days including well known scientists and public figures. At the top of the respect pyramid, they can easily slide into agreeing that their needs are more important than others.
The ranking instinct is always with us, driving us to rise in rank in order to have more power and influence, for our own good and that of those close to us. It is kept in check by social pressure: Those at the top are supposed to use their power for the good of the group. Those who acquire power and do not use it for the good of the group are shamed or banished. But that requires their being in a social group that will do that. I recall one comment on the misbehavior of gurus in the U.S. was that they were far from home and not being watched over by their mothers! Or anyone else from their culture who could have stepped in and shamed them. Their followers certainly weren’t up to it. They had the idea from a culture they did not understand well that these enlightened teachers are surely perfect. It seems natural to hope that someone can be perfect. It means any of us might become perfect, too, or at least finally receive some perfect guidance. But from another perspective, that could be called nonsense.
Perfections Do Not Add Up to Perfect
My hunch is that somewhere along the way from shamanism to Patanjali and Buddha (see Part I), it became necessary to set up some standards about how one used the sidhis or “perfections” (again, described in Part I). We know that shamans were capable of injuring others in a variety of ways. Patanjali and Buddha, however, took matters a long step forward by insisting that the goal be something higher than magical powers, and perhaps for that reason taught that living a virtuous life is essential in order to become enlightened–enlightened as we all wish it to be. In the Vedic tradition Patanjali set down the five abstentions–injury, stealing, lying, sensuality, and greed–and the five observances–cleanliness, contentment, self-control, studiousness, and contemplation of the Divine. Buddhism has a similar list: Right view, right intention, right speech, right action, and right livelihood (each spelled out explicitly). Although they said that one must behave in these ways before one could become enlightened, in fact sudden enlightenments, or gradual ones outside of the right cultural “container,” may well lead to powers being used for the wrong purposes, especially if possessing them makes the enlightened person feel superior and therefore entitled to behave like a jerk.
It seems that it would be correct to say that without a community to enforce values, which is how humans have always stayed moral, enlightenment under most circumstances still nudges a person towards ethical behavior, gradually but surely, but not always or perfectly. As Forman says, the effortlessness of the silence “seems to beckon quietly, towards the less conflicted, towards the smooth, towards what seems right in the larger sense… towards something like the golden rule… which leads to effortlessness.” However, “no matter how much silence we carry, we still have to decide…. The push of silence is more like a nudge…. And even with the cosmic nudge, alas, we can still choose to be an ass or a saint” (p. 121).
What Can We Hope For, What Can We Do?
So then what is enlightenment good for? A lot still, I think. It looks to me like the enlightened are better able to see the big picture, ego removed, and are less (75% less?) if not completely detached from their personal needs, usually desiring to help all humans, all beings, all of creation. Even the most unscrupulous seeming yet powerful gurus appeared to think they were helping us. It is really the only thing left for them to desire, usually. Anything that would help humans be less self-centered, more able to see the big picture, has to be good for our species. And we certainly need something. Further, I think HSPs can really contribute in this area. We can have a good sense of what’s real and what’s fake or when an enlightened person is on track and when he or she is best ignored. (Even Maharishi once said that if he was acting crazy for some reason, his followers shouldn’t do what he said.)
As HSPs, our sense of things is not perfect. In fact, we are especially influenced and perhaps biased by our own past. But perhaps we can still do a little better than others. A great many non-HSPs are flocking to enlightened teachers, which is probably a good sign. And we are probably staying away! The subject generates strong feelings, pro and con, as a sort of “cultural complex.” But if we have something level-headed to say about it, perhaps we can be helpful. For example, whether we explore higher states of consciousness for ourselves or not, we can suggest that enlightenment probably is some type of real phenomenon and speak in favor of a continued sorting out of ways to know who is enlightened and of the best methods to develop higher states along with developing the whole person (including developing an awareness of how power can corrupt anyone). We can maintain some optimism about success along with less naiveté about what enlightenment is and isn’t. In short, as “priestly advisors” we can be prepared to speak intelligently on the subject.