There are few things in this world more boring than listening to two people argue about their respective enlightenments. Imagine if every time you went to the gym, you overheard your fellow gym goers bicker about which one of them was the most fit.
Furthermore, imagine if this bickering consisted of each person taking turns redefining the term “fit” as something even more impressive than the preceding definition, so as to once again find themselves on top of the fitness hierarchy. Each would declare that the other is totally deluded about what fitness really is, that their workout routine doesn’t actually lead to increased fitness (and is perhaps even physically harmful), and that only those who are actually fit can understand why their own conception of fitness is correct.
Welcome to the Enlightenment Olympics.
The truth is that spirituality can be complicated. It’s not quite as complicated as you would think given the endless conflicting testimony of meditators about what meditation is really about. What makes it complicated is the fact that it is, by nature, a subjective activity. We only have access to our own experiences, and while the various descriptions of what happens during intensive meditation practices can often converge, these descriptions have limitations – especially when it comes to this term “enlightenment”.
Enlightenment is not a technical term. Every tradition has its own definition, each of which varies along the naturalistic spectrum. To attempt to impose a universal definition of enlightenment is not only a project doomed to fail, it is also completely unhelpful.
The word enlightenment, much like the word “Buddhism”, is a relatively recent invention. Buddha translates more closely to “awakened one”, and awakening is often used synonymously with enlightenment, leading to even more confusion since enlightenment has connotations in other, non-spiritual contexts.
It may be helpful to stop talking about enlightenment as an entity. Enlightenment is hierarchical. It tends to serve as a placeholder for “the ultimate and final spiritual accomplishment”, which may or may not even be an existent or coherent concept. I would argue that “awakening” is a more useful term. It allows us to get somewhat more specific, so that the term can actually serve a practical function. If the goal of meditation is to become awakened, we can ask “become awakened to what?”
The way I like to think about awakening – and this is by no means the “correct” way to think about it – is more generic than any particular definition of enlightenment. To awaken to something is to clearly see that something is the case, through direct experience. It’s the jump from a conceptual model of something to a direct experiential apprehension of that something. An awakening requires no further conceptual elaboration; you’ve seen the way things are, and now you just know that this is the way things are.
That’s pretty abstract, so let’s consider an example.
As a human being, you have the ability to sit quietly and pay attention to the stream of thoughts in your mind. This is a fairly common application of mindfulness. After enough time of doing this, there is something you can notice about the nature of thinking. Namely, you can notice that thinking is not something you do, but actually thinking is an automated process that’s happening on it’s own. Thoughts appear seemingly out of nowhere, without us having to initiate them or guide them in any direction. We can’t predict what we’re gonna think next, and we can’t will a thought into existence.
When you read that last sentence, for example, maybe a thought popped into your head expressing agreement with the claim, or maybe you thought “this is a bunch bullshit!”. In either case, that thought just happened. Your head was moving from left to right as you read the words on the screen. The light from the computer screen hit your retina, and a series of electrical signals traveled through your eye socket to your visual cortex, after which your brain automatically translated the visual stimuli into linguistic meaning. And based on your previous beliefs about the way that thoughts work, a reaction happened. The thought that you “saw” was generated before you saw it. In the moment of thinking that thought, you were merely a subjective witness to what your brain had already done milliseconds before.
Perhaps you object to any materialist models of cognition, and don’t believe that this description of events is accurate. That’s okay.
Perhaps you have some basic understanding of neuroscience, and agree that this is roughly what the brain does on a regular basis. Cool.
This is sort of beside the point.
From an experiential point of view, we have precisely zero access to what the brain is doing at any given time. In this moment you are completely unaware of the electrical activity in your brain generated by the rapid fire of billions of neurons, each making thousands of synaptic connections. The misunderstanding about the nature thoughts that I care about is an experiential one, not a conceptual or scientific one.
I feel rather comfortable declaring that if you believe that you are the author of your own thoughts, that it is you who decides what to think and when to think it, then you are in a state of confusion with respect to how thinking actually happens in your experience. The sense of ownership and control in regards to thoughts is, simply put, a delusion.
It’s possible to “wake up” from this confused state. Knowing how the brain works is not enough, because recalling that “the brain unconsciously generates thoughts via such and such a process” is itself a thought. It’s a conceptual model of the nature thoughts, and thinking about this model doesn’t shake the sense that it is you who is thinking about it.
To become awakened in this context would mean to pay attention to your experience such that it becomes utterly obvious that thoughts happen on their own, at random, without you in the driver’s seat. So utterly obvious, in fact, that you can never be confused about it again whenever you’re paying attention (and paying attention is itself a skill which can be cultivated).
To awaken to the impersonal nature of thoughts doesn’t necessarily imply that it becomes impossible to have momentary instances of confusion, to forget that this is how thoughts actually work – although it may imply that. (Some people claim to have managed to completely get rid of thoughts altogether, which I remain agnostic about.) But it does become impossible to intentionally look again and still remain confused. Once you’ve seen it, you can always see it again. All you need is a quick reality check.
The impersonality of thoughts is just one experiential truth that one can awaken to. The more fundamental illusory nature of the “self” – a term that has itself been a massive source of semantic confusion and which would require its own lengthy post – is another such truth that can reveal itself as an awakening. So with impermanence, suffering, emptiness, or any endless number of insights into the nature of mind.
Using such a conception of awakening may make the meditative project more intuitive and practical. It also allows us to remain in a constant state of curiosity. Instead of holding on to an awakening and imagining that we’ve reached a state of perfection that is infallible and immune to delusion, we can always continue exploring, constantly questioning our assumptions and asking whether there is more that we can awaken to. We can let go of the fantasy of somehow escaping our humanity while simultaneously inhabiting this human body, which is bound by the constraints of causes and conditions.
There may be different methods for arriving at different kinds of awakenings, and some awakenings may be more powerful or impactful than others. Instead of arguing endlessly about who’s awakening is truly the “Big E”, we should speak openly about specific awakenings and methods for getting there. There’s no need to declare oneself superhuman; that’s the job of the cult leader. It doesn’t matter if there is one “Big E” or not, because if nobody agrees on what it is than few people are likely to achieve it anyway. What’s more conducive to building a better world is sharing with others the piece of the puzzle that you have discovered for reducing suffering.
This approach requires a level of balanced humility that doesn’t pretend that everyone is equally spiritually competent, or denies the existence of frauds, but simply acknowledges the possibility that others might have wisdom that we don’t, and is open to the possibility of learning from others as well as teaching them. Enlightenment then needn’t be an Olympic contest. Rather, as Kenneth Folk puts it, “enlightenment is a team sport”.