What is enlightenment?
Growing up in Western society, I thought enlightenment meant the Age of Enlightenment, the 18th century philosophical movement that was based on the rationalism that affects so much of the way we in the West think today. So when I first heard of enlightenment in the Hindu and Buddhist sense â€” in the context of the Beatles rushing off to India to find inner bliss in the sixties â€” I was, to say the least, a little sceptical.
Ordinarily, I now think of enlightenment as the truth, as finding the truth. However, since we cannot be sure of the truth except as we individually see it, the scope for what it means may be quite wide. We do see many words written but they vary widely, and those who appear to have arrived at enlightenment do not put it into language. Could it be that enlightenment is a constant component of our lives, one of the components of the universe? That we have only to dip in and out of it according to how conscious we are at any time?
I used to say, rather vehemently I admit, that while we were on this earth we should stay here and that floating off into Nirvana was a waste of this life. During my time as a travel editor in the seventies and eighties, I was told that enlightenment in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions is the condition of revelation that brings eternal peace to the striving believer. It was also explained to me that this condition separates believers from the rest of humankind. Sitting in my self-cooked pot of hot oil, I couldnâ€™t imagine eternal peace. Nor did I wish to be separate from my mates. Today, after years of wandering in and out of temples around the world, staying in ashrams and just sitting with people on their way to transcendence, I am constantly fascinated by the different versions of, and paths to, this state.
Enlightenment is one of the hardest things to measure. Since so few people have actually arrived there, and it is a condition which cannot be put into words, the mystery goes on. Itâ€™s said that the Dalai Lama, for instance, is an enlightened Buddha, but he has never said so; he talks about kindness and happiness: â€œMy religion is kindness.â€
In Jainism, as another example, you cannot reach enlightenment unless you are a man, which makes it a very long journey for women because they have to keep coming back to this world until they are good enough to be a man and then they have to go on with more lives until enlightenment comes. What could there be in enlightenment that is barred to some? If the state exists, it has to be contained as energy, so itâ€™s probably available to all or none of us.
What, then, might you be heading for and how could you get there if you are in pursuit of transcendence? What might you want to be transcending? Are you being too extreme in your ambitions? To me, the issue tends to be a bit black and white: to be enlightened or not to be enlightened. Are we enlightened, for instance, if we destroy the place we live in? What is the use of bliss if our fields are polluted and our world energy is depleting? If we are going the way of enlightenment, where do we want to stop? Do we want a sense of it, without floating in ecstasy off the planet? Do we decide this first or just take some steps and stop when we think we have gone far enough â€” if we can?
Itâ€™s worth taking a moment to look at the current view of where we have come from, as scientific view melds with philosophy and theology on theory about the beginning of the universe. Current physics says we must have evolved as one of many universes, otherwise how could we be here? Theology has a greater god behind the creation. The evolutionary mystic, Teilhard de Chardin, said enlightenment is a state of unity toward which everything is developing. Rupert Sheldrake, author of The Rebirth of Nature: The Greening of Science and God, wrote: â€œIf the word and spirit of God are imminent in the realm of nature and imminent in the creative process, then God must be evolving along with nature.â€
Know the choices
When we think of enlightenment for ourselves in this context weâ€™d be wise to look carefully before we start trying to levitate. In our time it doesnâ€™t make sense to take on a discipline holus bolus and run with it. Itâ€™s important to know the choices. To do anything else is just camouflaged laziness, surrender of personal intellect and power. Itâ€™s also arrogant to choose one way and believe it is the only way. One of the biggest challenges of our time is to work out how all these disciplines and beliefs fit together. Were we able to do so, we might either decide that the answer itself is enlightenment or we might not want to transcend at all, the understanding being sufficient in itself.
In this questing, we might ask whether believing in, say, The Big Bang, is just as enlightened as believing in the spiritual significance of the suffering of Christ. We might wonder whether enlightenment has to have any religious basis at all. Certainly it doesnâ€™t have for yogis; it is, for them, a philosophical process. We might wonder whether enlightenment can be found within any tradition or structure that plies us with rules and ways of behaviour. Can we be enlightened, in the rational sense, and not accept the yearnings of humanity?
Joseph Campbell, the great expert on myth in the 20th century, tells the story of his visit to a guru during a trip to India. Not being a guru follower, he wasnâ€™t sure what to ask and settled on: â€œHow do we deal with all the violence and mayhem in our world?â€ The guru answered: â€œWe accept it.â€ Campbell agreed. This acceptance is an enlightened viewpoint; fighting against what is will not get us anywhere, and ignoring what is keeps us withdrawn from the reality we seek.
I remember feeling very enlightened, clear-headed and in touch with the whole world when sitting on a mountainside high above the snow line behind the Annapurnas in Nepal. Then there was my disappointment when I came down the mountain to Kathmandu and allowed myself to be cross over something that wasnâ€™t happening smoothly. It was such a letdown. Had I had a glimpse of the state or was it just the serotonin in my system, rising up, making me wildly joyful at the glory of the mountaintops so close to expansive skies? Or was it both and were they related? Probably, although I couldnâ€™t prove it.
In Byron Bay, a couple of years ago, a group of Tibetan monks spent the week making a mandala, a piece-by-piece picture in coloured sands, worked with fine, focused, meditative detail through tiny-ended brass cones. Here was a concentration of action that brought me a profound peace. The first day I fell asleep watching them at this contemplative pursuit. They also sang their healing, from-the-heart chants twice a day, as liberating a sound as one could hear.
As they played soccer on the grass outside the hall at lunchtime every day, I took in the infectious laughter that seemed to gurgle up from deep in their bellies. Each day when I left them, the world seemed a better place. At the end of the week I was joyful and laughed a lot more, and as I write about it now I can feel the bottomless sense of peace the experience engendered in me. To me, this was enlightenment. I was enlightened by association.
In some way, enlightenment is a constant state; as we humans move through time it may be that we just change the words and the beliefs around the idea. We could call it an ongoing stream of consciousness about the world we live in. At any time we can choose to enjoy the state of clarity and joy that is a part of it. We can just sit down for a few moments and notice how conscious we are, day to day, of what we are doing and why.
Education of the heart
If we choose spirituality as a way to transcendence, we would do well to remember yogi T. S. Krishnamacharyaâ€™s simple â€œControl the breath, focus the mind and direct it to the heart.â€ Just listening to the beat of your heart in your chest and then combining it with the sound of your breath in your chest takes you to your primal state. Gandhi believed firmly in the â€œeducation of the heartâ€ whereby we learn to actually feel what love is so we can think and grow from the heart.
At the bottom of my heart I know I am OK and the world is OK. At this point of quiet I have a link to and understanding of transcendence. The stunningly worthwhile challenge is to live from that quiet point in the heart all the time without losing the commitments and fascinations of daily life.
Meditation to reach an enlightened state can be a problem unless firmly placed in the full context of life. As we rise to bliss without the grounding of the heart, body and soul, we may drift off into that bliss and mistake it for enlightenment. Nor is this the same as the mystical experience, which is where many of our most extraordinary leaps come from. The mystical experience is much more powerful than a bit of bliss on the high. I often have some of my best ideas as I near the end of my yoga practice, at the point where I have cleared my bodyâ€™s cells and connected with the lifespring in the heart.
â€œThere is nothing you need to do in order to be enlightened,â€ says Thaddeus Golas in The Lazy Manâ€™s Guide to Enlightenment. He notes that this is Buddhaâ€™s belief too. Having spent many difficult years trying to do it the hard way, Buddha gave up and sat under a bodhi tree, fell asleep and woke up enlightened. Another comment from Golas I have always liked is: â€œEnlightenment doesnâ€™t care how you got there.â€
There are no rules on the way. If we are looking to live an enlightened daily life we would do well to look for the sacred or divine in the small things of our lives and in the people around us. We might have compassion for ourselves and our struggles, and for the struggles of people around us. The hair shirt idea is that we believe we have to suffer to be accepted. If we accept ourselves in all our complexity and divergence, we understand the mysteries of our world.
One day in the Sri Ramanashram in Tiruvannamalai, southern India, while eating a delicious five-curry lunch on a banana leaf on the concrete floor, I talked to a thirtysomething American. I had seen him sitting erect in the prayer hall for hours at a time, back upright, hair tied in a knot on the top of his head. He was, he told me, on the way to enlightenment and had been in India doing this for 10 years. He also told me about some of the difficulties he was experiencing at that time and how hard it was. Sitting there, happily drinking the delicious hot sugary cowâ€™s milk, taken from the very spoilt cows behind the Ashram, I felt he was taking the long way around and that he had forgotten it is such a privilege to just be alive.
Traditionally, the Chinese have climbed many mountains in the pursuit of immortality. The lofty retreats in the five sacred mountains of China developed in the Taoist tradition and then, as Buddhism came over from India, took on Buddhist aspects, finally amalgamating into hybrid forms of the two paths. There is a good story of the man who painted a picture of a yellow crane on the walls of one of these retreats and then disappeared into it to fly away to immortality. The Chinese belief is that if they climb these mountains their encounters with spirits and forces will help them on the journey. It isnâ€™t that they expect their bodies to last but rather that they want their eternal life to go on.
For the Sufis of the Mevlevi order, who are the whirling dervishes, their whirling brings about a trance state, which is their path of enlightenment. In the trance state they are at one with â€œthe one God, that is Allahâ€. Today, they get together every year in December in Konya, in Central Turkey, for a whole week of whirling. The Sufis also have a marvellous book called The Subtleties of the inimitable Mulla Nasrudin, which has quirky stories about enlightenment. One of my favourites is about the time Nasrudin was kneeling by water and trying to make more yoghurt by adding yoghurt to the water. When told it wouldnâ€™t work, he replied, â€œBut what if it might?â€ Enlightenment, it is clear to see from this short tale, doesnâ€™t come to a closed mind.
Practically speaking, if we are trying to transcend, our plan is to subdue and transcend the brain, that one-and-a-half to two kilograms of gooey pinkish-grey matter. Since the brain is arguably the most complex thing on the planet we are taking on quite a task. Already the brain is three times bigger than it was when we first walked the earth and each generation adds about 150,000 brain cells. Around a million items of information are stored. Itâ€™s quite an ambitious task to change the path of this powerful driver.
In the yoga tradition, working with yogic breathing (pranyama), withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), a strong intention (dharana) and meditation (dhyana), for instance, we go into deeper and deeper states. We go quiet and then quieter. We slow the body/mindâ€™s systems and then we slow them some more. If we work in a disciplined way, towards holding more inner quiet in our lives, our life force grows stronger. We move into a place where we sense our own energy, the vitality of our own cells, as well as the vitality of the energy around us. This must be a part of enlightenment, this absolute knowing of all as energy.
The Buddhist Tantra tradition, as practised in Australia at several centres, focuses on a quick way to enlightenment. Meditation and chanting are done in classes and workshops in a clear, serene and down-to-earth atmosphere. They also teach vajrayana yoga tantra, which they refer to as The Highest Yoga Practice of Heruka Body Mandala and claim is a powerful method of accomplishing full enlightenment in this lifetime.
What does reaching enlightenment mean? Actually being there? Could it possibly mean knowing everything? In the large part of the brain we donâ€™t know about, is there, already wired, all this knowledge? I like to think so. It looks, though, like it will take us a while to find out. Perhaps we are all wired to eventually be enlightened, whatever we do. In everyday terms, we have some bliss and then we have some despair; we have some understanding of truth and then we are lost in a morass of confusion. We have war and then we have peace. We make discoveries and we forget lessons learnt. The way of enlightenment now, I believe, lies in quietly bringing together all our current knowledge, allowing it room in us and observing lightly what can be done with it for our today and tomorrow. This way of enlightenment â€” allowing ourselves more light in our lives â€” is pretty simple stuff, really.