This is an essay I wrote for some Advaita site a few years ago, and stumbled upon it again this evening while re-visiting that page. It is a long and detailed essay – not for the weak of heart or commitment. Yet, in my view, quite accessible and approach this question from a truly human-centruc disposition.
WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT?
In response to Andrew Cohen’s widely read, and generally excellent, magazine: WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT?, I felt that perhaps this question could be meaningfully approached from the perspective of SPIRITUAL HUMANISM.
For those who are not acquainted with my work in this regard, may I just briefly mention some of the core principles of SPIRITUAL HUMANISM relevant to the discussion of ‘What is Enlightenment?’.
SPIRITUAL HUMANISM is an approach to integral, holistic living founded entirely upon the circumstance of human life – and nothing else. SPIRITUAL HUMANISM is human-centric to its core. It regards human life, as it reveals itself from each living moment to the next, as the only basis from where we could allow for the non-dual simplicity of our natural condition to unfold. SPIRITUAL HUMANISM argues its case for the non-dual truth of life, not from a presumed eternal Ground of Being, but from the reality of human experience alone. It rejects the notion of some Substance of which human life is presented as but a temporary modification or manifestation, and rather suggests that human nature, freed from the self-created obscurations to the simple truth of our natural, non-dual condition, will reveal itself as whole, sane, loving, intelligent and effectively functional.
However, Spiritual Humanism not only takes issue with the Substance-based Brahmanical tradition. It also questions the insight of the Secular Humanist movement which believes that rationality and scientific materialism are adequate instruments to deal coherently and creatively with the complexity of human life. (For critical essays relating to both the Brahmanical Substance theory and the Secular Humanist notions, please visit my webpage: http://www.spiritualhumanism.co.za).
Whereas the spiritual traditions, therefore, present transcendental living in terms of something eternally Other than human life, the Secular Humanists are critically skeptical of the notion of anything transcendental, referring to all forms of transcendent experience as nothing but ‘altered states of consciousness’ which may serve some useful purpose, but which ultimately have to be verified by, and contextualized within, the rational, scientific framework. SPIRITUAL HUMANISM suggests that there is indeed a transcendent truth to be realized and lived, but that this truth is founded upon nothing but human life itself. What has to be transcended is the limited and limiting view of the separate self-sense in order for us to come upon that which is truly human and humane. Duality is of the order of the presumption of self. Non-duality is that which remains in each and every living moment when this self-projection no longer intimates itself as the core of our being. And this is to be realized and actualized in nothing but our human condition.
Freed from the baggage of conceptual and mere philosophical bias, SPIRITUAL HUMANISM looks at human life afresh and brings new and challenging insights, not only to how we function in relation to the challenges of life, but also, how we approach the question of integral living from a human-centric perspective. And it is with regard to this last question that we may attempt to give meaningful consideration to the question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’
To give coherency and substance from a humanistic perspective to the notion of enlightenment, it may be useful to remind ourselves that we will be entering new and somewhat turbulent waters as this notion has never before been described in purely humanistic terms. It may therefore be useful for us to put aside all preconceived ideas about what enlightenment might be or feel like, and discover with a new and open mind and heart, if there may indeed be a form of freedom from self which is founded entirely within the human condition. Throughout history our investigations in this regard have always fluctuated between either God or materialism. We were guided to accept either the materialistic viewpoint of science and rationality, or seek for the answers to life in some or other representation of the Great Other. And as enlightenment has never been an aspect of scientific enquiry, we were generally left with the religious/spiritual notions of this phenomenon. This deeply conditioned our approach to this matter and left us at the mercy of whichever philosophy might appeal to our prior conditioning or present state of anxious seeking.
SPIRITUAL HUMANISM suggests that there is no permanent state we could call ‘enlightenment’. Human life, because of its unique circumstance, is presented from moment to moment with new and varying challenges and it has to deal with these as best it can from both its conditioned and free disposition. We are so deeply conditioned and these pre-determined mental and emotional responses to the challenges of life have become such an integral part of our response-ability, that the notion of a permanent state of enlightenment could be seen as a somewhat unrealistic projection from within the dream which supports the separate self-sense. Despite what we have been led to believe, there is no clear state or condition which could universally be described as enlightenment.
Each so-called enlightened being manifests many diverse personal characteristics, and although many may make mention of feeling unified with some eternal Substance such as Brahman, Consciousness and so on, or feeling one with the Essence of Mind, God, or even life itself, these folks often exhibit qualities of response which are still very circumstantially influenced. So, if enlightenment is to be associated with perfect freedom from worldly circumstances, (such as we have been led to believe) then it would seem that such enlightenment has yet to appear on the face of the earth. Perfect freedom from circumstantial influence is simply a myth perpetuated by the spiritual traditions to lend support to its programs of strategic detachment from the world without appreciating that any willful detachment from the world is integral to the dilemma created and sustained by the presumed separate- self.
In fact, the entire notion of a perfected state has its foundation in the unsubstantiated idea of some Ultimate Truth which exists prior to manifest human existence and to which the latter can only aspire. The possibility of perfection of human life has its origin in the projection of the perfection of this Ultimate state. But as this state remains elusive and not clearly verifiable under all conditions as a sustainable truth of actual present experience – even by those who claim to stand in the presence of Consciousness, Brahman and so on – perfection within our living human reality remains little more than a comforting mental and emotional hedge against our inability to deal effectively with the problems and challenges facing us every day. Many past and present masters of ‘enlightenment’ have shown to have feet of clay. Life is not easy – even to those who present themselves to their followers as perfected ones.
The insight that SPIRITUAL HUMANISM suggests in this regard is that once we have left behind the need for our gods (in whichever form they have been presented) in our quest for integral, holistic living, the notion of perfection need no longer concern us. Enlightenment or freedom from self-created dilemma is true of us during those times when we are open to the intelligence and love manifesting from our deeper being. Although we may yearn and seek to have such freedom as an ongoing theme in our lives, the truth is that we are unlikely to stand free from all possible circumstances under all conditions. Human life is not, and need not be perfect as measured against some culturally, or personally, idealized norm of perfection.
Human life is an ongoing experiment in living. It challenges us in many different ways and our concern should rather be to investigate our responses to these challenges sufficiently in order to minimize the stress we put on the psychophysical being as a whole as a consequence of uninspected, self-centered living. Such realism will free us from the added stress of trying to live up to some kind of projected ultimate perfection. We need to become realists, not idealists. Enlightened moments are periods of intense reality where we are the circumstance which previously we abstracted as something we are in, and separate from. The true import of all human development is to discover a realistic foundation for sane, intelligent, loving co-arising on as many levels of our being as possible. We need to become fully human, not gods. The traditional notion of perfect spiritual Enlightenment is part of our idealistic heritage mistaken for revealed truth. It is empty of true experiential evidence and brings only guilt and disdain to the already fragmented self-state of which it is a manifestation. No doubt some individuals may enter into interesting and deeply integrated states of experience, but it would seem that these states suffer the dilemma of all other states – they are circumstantially influenceable, not perfectly free under all circumstances.
And as freedom is a term generally associated with the enlightened state, we could ask: what is freedom? Freedom from what? What kind of freedom does SPIRITUAL HUMANISM suggest is possible during periods of free being?
To answer this question we need to look briefly at the human condition as it functions in its ordinary pre-inspected fashion. Here we are immediately faced with five fundamental errors of functioning:
1) Unconscious conditioning. We have the ability to be conditioned and at this stage of our evolution it seems that we are generally vulnerable to becoming conditioned into all sorts of misdirected assumptions about life and living. The power of conditioned responses determines much of our interaction with life. In fact, we may not generally be aware of it, but each time we act conditionally, we enter into a state of self-hypnotism whereby we take on the form of the content of the conditioned response. Here no separation exists between ourselves and this state of self-hypnotism. Action from this perspective is mechanical and mostly fragmented and unrelated to the challenge at hand.
2) The unconscious association of attention and thought (in chapter three of SPIRITUALITY WITHOUT GOD I describe a process of inner debilitation I refer to as the Thought-Attention knot) which creates a reality of living experience founded not upon the directness of experience, but which is rather created and sustained by thought and attention. We are not only chronic thinkers (or conceptualizers) we are also most profoundly immersed in the world of thought. Through the illusory power of the thought-attention reality, we are so completely identified with our thinking processes that we generally cannot discern between that which is created and sustained by thought and that which is not. For instance, our metaphysical projections appear to us as real as any actual present experience. Our gods, and the religious and spiritual practices (including the notion of spiritual enlightenment) founded on these beings or presumed states of metaphysical reality are as real (and in many cases considerably more real) to us than any actual sense experience we may have. Whereas life as living reality is a process of ever-fresh present arising, we allow ourselves to be conditioned and controlled by uninspected ways of inner functioning which limit the revelation of our natural, non-dual, free condition.
3) The presumption of the separate self-sense. This could be seen as perhaps the most fundamental error we commit from moment to moment. The separate self-sense presents itself as the core of our being, whilst it is nothing but a creation of thought, given life and reality-status through the thought-attention knot. We are completely identified with this projection of who and what we are, and live our lives on the basis of this presumption. The separate self-sense could be seen as the essence of dualistic vision and the active functional component of all fragmentation – inner and outer.
4) The controlling power of thought over the entire spectrum of our emotional responses. Our emotions cannot discern between actual happenings and ‘happenings’ created by thought. As we think, so we feel. And this close working relationship between thought and our emotions is made possible through our lack of insight into the domination of thought over the entire spectrum of human experience.
5) Emotional conditioning which manifests as unrelated and disproportionate emotional reactivity. Here we notice a series of habitual emotional responses to all sorts of situations which could only be described as conditioned. Given a certain circumstance and we tend to react conditionally to these – reactions which have debilitating and deeply disturbing consequences on the coherent functioning of the entire psychophysical structure. As we seem to have this inherent capacity for emotional memory, it may not be correct to call this function an error. However, it is nevertheless something we do, and as such forms part of our ongoing dysfunctional dramatization of all present experience.
Between these five fundamental errors/dysfunctions we get established in a limited, fragmentary, disempowering, and altogether inhuman way of life which lacks intelligence, love, compassion and relational integrity. Through the subtle interaction between these we could say we are established in a profoundly unenlightened condition of self-contraction, most fundamentally characterized as a feeling of bewilderment, separation, alienation and unlove.
SPIRITUAL HUMANISM suggests that these are misappropriations of functions which could in fact be inspected through diligent self-observation, recognized for what they are, and gradually transcended. We need not suffer a mere series of functional errors. Enlightenment in a humanistic context could therefore be seen as sustained periods of freedom from the inhibiting and debilitating consequences of these misdirected functions. That is, enlightenment based on a coherent functioning of the many subtle instruments which influence our behavior from moment to moment, would naturally result in freedom from the ability to be conditioned; freedom from the thought-attention reality, freedom from the sense of self; freedom from the unconscious hold of thought over our entire psychophysical being and freedom from both our ability to be emotionally conditioned and emotionally reactive. (In SPIRITUALITY WITHOUT GOD I describe a complete path which may lead the practitioner, through insight and meditation, beyond these into a sustainable condition of non-dual, free being.)
But for enlightenment to become effective as a dynamic, living principle, it cannot only be described in terms of what it is not. Such a description of freedom from these unnecessary patterns of dysfunction needs to be complimented by some indication of what may result as a consequence of this freedom from our forms of uninspected living. We need to discover what happens to the being when these errors are sufficiently inspected and gradually transcended. What qualities could therefore be considered to be unique to the disposition or condition of free being we may refer to as ‘enlightenment’?
Enlightenment embraces all aspects of human functioning: its demand for pleasure and enjoyment; its need for relationship and relational integrity; the expression of our creative potential; the need for human love and warmth; the necessity of compassion and care for one another; the use of our deeper intelligence which is not based on conditioned reflexes; an open and free emotional response-ability; emotional equanimity; the correct and appropriate use of all forms of conditioning and, lastly, a quality of humaneness not generally associated with the self-serving, contracted, separate self-sense.
These are natural to our human condition. They cannot be created as some conceptual counter-mechanism and dramatized and displayed on the stage where the presumed separate-self goes through its daily dance of bewilderment. Freedom from that which obscures the manifestations of our natural disposition exists prior to all effort and doing and it may be important to realize that such freedom cannot be positively approached – it can only be allowed for. And this process of allowing without strengthening the very mechanisms which hold our self-limiting state in place, is the challenge human life faces. It is also the challenge any aspirant to enlightenment has to recognize as a subtle process of gradual self-transcendence founded upon clear self-observation, self-knowledge, insight and self-transcendence. Once the unfolding of our natural condition starts to establish itself in our daily functioning, the bodymind as a whole begins to resonate with the deeper intelligence associated with this condition and gradually assumes the form of love and intelligence inherent in the non-dual, free condition of being.
In such moments of clarity, and periods of openness of heart and mind, these qualities become self-evident as manifestations of the non-dualistic truth of human life. And as we gradually find our measure in the reality of these qualities of being, and leave behind the old uninspected ways of functioning, our lives become infiltrated and regulated by the expression of our natural condition. At first there may only be the rare moments of insight, clarity, compassion and care. Over time these moments become longer periods of sustained integral living. And perhaps, for some of us, such enlightenment may become the dominant force in our lives with only the rare and intermittent shift back into the limited world of self-centered activity. In time, and with diligence and regular, careful practice, our old ways begin to fall away by non-use. They may present themselves in our field of awareness, but they become a vague memory of something that once dominated our lives, but which now has lost its value and reality-factor. This is true self-transcendence.
At this point of our discussion the reader might sense the valuable insights Spiritual Humanism brings to the enquiry into the possibility of an enlightened condition. No mention is made of any ultimate Substance, God or spiritual path to be followed. The enquiry starts with the human condition and ends with the human condition. This is the only realistic way to approach the very human dilemma of fragmented living. Unless we address those aspects of ourselves which shield us from that which is truly human and humane, the longing for the ending of suffering through what we may project as enlightenment will remain just that: a projection within the creative potential of thought. There is no-one to merge as little as there is any Thing or ultimate Condition to merge into. What remains when the factor of separation and fragmentation has been transcended is not of ‘One Taste’, as some philosophers suggest.
Rather, when the inner disturbance of the separate self-sense comes to its natural dissolution, what remains is simply a condition where separation between experience and any form of present arising is no longer evident. Wholeness is neither One nor two. It includes the diversity of all forms of present arising. Wholeness and diversity are not inimical to one another. The experience of wholeness is not of Oneness. Rather in the enlightened, non-dual condition there is simply no self and therefore not-two. This is what the term Advaita means: not two. It is the philosophical mind, conditioned into the notion of the Brahmanical Substance theory that interprets ‘not’two’ as ‘One’. From this all sorts of mischief results. Not least what I have called the Neo-Advaitist movement which is nothing but philosophy. It takes the absurd position that because everything is already of one Substance, (including all human experience) no practice is possible, as any form of practice would only lead the practitioner away from that which they already are. This is thought elaborating on thought. It talks a mere imitation of enlightenment, but cannot deliver, as it does not address the vast complexity of that which obscures the presumed Substance they proclaim to be already the case. This philosophy leads only to confusion and further bewilderment while it presents itself as revealed truth.
We all have the ability to stand free in the disposition of love and intelligence. How we approach ourselves in order to allow for this freedom to become a real and dynamic force in our lives, will greatly determine to which extent our lives will become the living reality of such refined human qualities.
Freedom, like all forms of experience, takes place in the now. There is only one reality and that is the total, non-dual present circumstance. The enlightened moment is when the individual stands experientially as this present arising. In this moment his or her enlightenment is real and genuine. There is no concern for the next moment and in this condition of wholeness the question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’ loses its relevance.