Enlightenment has many definitions. I like to imagine it as a process, occurring through many discrete experiences of awakening. Accumulating increasing moments of clear comprehension, freedom from the elaborations of assumptions, beliefs, emotional residue, and projection over time seems more accessible and realistic to me – after all, most forms of human development are are gradual and continuous. Living mindfully and practicing bare attention in meditation can help free us from obsolete constructs and clear away illusions little by little, one at a time. Our formal practice provides a personal laboratory, relatively free from contaminants, where we might more easily cultivate this skill of clear seeing. Alignment with inner and outer reality can be fine tuned through the practice of mindfulness.
When the mind is still, tranquil, not seeking any answer or solution, neither resisting or avoiding – it is only then that there can be a regeneration, because then the mind is capable of perceiving what is true; and it is the truth that liberates, not our effort to be free. – Krishnamurti
I’ve had a number of folks tell me they’ve experienced a profound sense of disillusionment because of things that have been revealed over the last number of years. Some have even become estranged from family and friends because of it. This could be an incremental path toward greater enlightenment – they are experiencing a new understanding emerging inside them every time they think about or see them. Yet, it can only be so if it’s perceived clearly. It’s easy to feel as though other people or the world has changed – that something outside of us is fundamentally different. But really, only what is inside us has changed.
Circumstances have forced us to awaken to truths that have always been there – a veil has simply been drawn back. My friend Cathan says it’s like the top of the refrigerator that you’re too short to see, so you don’t bother to dust it. I imagine enlightenment can be like the morning sunlight pouring onto your countertops and floors at just the right angle that clean is revealed to be an illusion. When we find ourselves asking, “How could this happen?”, rather than going on assumption and “pondering others“, some questions we might ask ourselves are:
- What allowed us not to see what was there all along? What beliefs about the world and assumptions about the people we know and love might have obscured our vision?
- What gets prioritized in our allocation of attention? What tends to be in the foreground in our lives, what do we leave in the blurry background, and what is left out?
- What stereotypes do we hold about people who hold certain beliefs?
When we begin to ask these questions, we start to realize that all too often we have been looking for clues outside of us that reside inside. We trade the convenient illusion of simplicity and certainty for the reality of complexity and multiplicity. We start to understand how our preferred interpretation of reality impacts us, our relationships, and our actions in the world. We realize that the further we are from reality, no matter how difficult or unwanted, the more we suffer.
The standard definition of being enlightened is “having or showing a rational, up to date and well-informed outlook”, “freed from ignorance and misinformation” or the “full comprehension of a situation”. I suspect it’s a more mature way of relating to the world, since someone who is enlightened no longer relies upon dogma or authority alone for guidance. Instead they have engaged in critical thinking that allows them to challenge old constructs, including hierarchies that no longer serve the greater good.
Immanuel Kant said, “Enlightenment is [humanity’s] emergence from [our] self-imposed… inability to use [our] own understanding without another’s guidance.” He said, “Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large part of [hu]mankind gladly remain minors all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance. That is why there are only a few [people] who walk firmly, and who have emerged from nonage by cultivating their own minds… A revolution may bring about the end of a personal despotism or of avaricious tyrannical oppression, but never a true reform of modes of thought. New prejudices will serve, in place of the old…” Philosophical thinking on enlightenment was revolutionary at the time, in that it questioned authoritarianism and led to social reform in the Western world.
Mistaking Miswanting for Enlightenment
As we’ve explored in a previous blog post, human beings are vulnerable to miswanting, a term coined by researchers Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson describing the tendency to inflate how much enjoyment and satisfaction we think the objects of our desire will bring us as well as how devastated we will be if we don’t get what we want. The pursuit of enlightenment can sometimes be a form of miswanting, when it allows us to see ourselves through an unrealistically favorable lens, to elevate ourselves above others, or to avoid certain realities that we don’t prefer.
The term spiritual bypassing was conceived by John Welwood to describe the use of spiritual practice as a way to avoid what is unwanted. When we use the practices to reify our most cherished ideas about ourselves and to distance us from what we find unacceptable, our problematic mental habits just become further entrenched. We shut off any checks and balances – any chance of corrective feedback – that might actually further us on our path.
I’ve observed, especially on social media, a kinder, gentler form of stonewalling or a loving “talk to the hand” response to hard questions or disconfirming views within spiritual circles. For example, when inaccurate or distorted information about vaccination or social justice concerns is respectfully questioned, the questioner is met with a conversation smothering hug emoji or the directive to “be blessed” – essentially spiritualese for “be quiet”.
These types of responses that effectively shut down dialogue are sometimes just well-meaning, but avoidant maneuvers intended to keep the peace or to maintain an atmosphere of positivity. But we can recall Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech referencing Autherine Lucy’s expulsion from the University of Alabama, “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious“, in which he describes the kind of peace that is purchased at a great price. He calls this the “peace of escapism… peace that fails to confront the real issues of life… peace that makes for stagnant complacency.”
Interestingly, 85% of stonewallers in heterosexual relationships studied in psychologists Julie and John Gottman’s Love Lab were male and this has been attributed to the fact that male partners, who are often those with the most power in our society, can actually benefit from strategic withdrawal from conflict. In same sex relationships, the power tends to be in the hands of the person who wishes to maintain the status quo, while the person who desires change has less power (more research is needed with other types of partnering relationships and I suspect stonewalling works this way other advantaged identities and groups). So though these responses may be well-meaning, spiritual stonewalling essentially becomes a power play. The problem is, these suppressed and unaddressed realities continue to unfold behind the scenes, creating more suffering for everyone.
At its extreme, this near enemy of enlightenment is a way to deny inconvenient truths. Almost always, at the root of denial is short-sighted self-dealing in order to protect preferences, cherished ways of life, identities and ideologies that serve to maintain an advantageous status quo, self-empower or self-enrich. For example, those of us working in the field of health and wellness can find ourselves subtly or not-so-subtly elevating our own “wares” and discounting or discrediting other approaches in reaction to unexamined esteem or financial needs, greed, or hubris. We might rationalize and defend misguided actions by denying a preponderance of evidence that threatens our individual desires.
Failing to connect with our true intentions can have enormous personal and collective costs. For years, the former CEO and president of the now-bankrupt Murray Energy fought against federal mine safety regulations aimed at reducing the debilitating disease. Yet later in his life he filed an application with the U.S. Department of Labor for black lung benefits that he said he got from working in underground mines every day for 17 years. Then Murray told NPR in October 2019 that he had a lung disease that was not caused by working underground in mines: “It’s idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. IPF, and it is not related to my work in the industry. They’ve checked for that, and it’s not — has anything to do with working in the coal mines…” Unacknowledged self-serving intentions become the shifting sands beneath crumbling foundations.
Denialism is such an important source of harm that it’s illegal in some countries. It’s what allowed tobacco companies to keep marketing cancer causing products as safe – even to children. It has allowed the world’s greatest polluters and poisoners, like big fossil fuel companies, to keep on damaging, polluting and poisoning the Earth and its beings. It has emboldened perpetrators and excused the complicitous of crimes against humanity. The founder of Genocide Watch, Gregory H. Stanton said,”Denial is the eighth stage that always follows a genocide. It is among the surest indicators of further genocidal massacres. The perpetrators of genocide… deny that they committed any crimes, and often blame what happened on the victims.”
This is why humility is such an important attitude to cultivate – essential along the path of enlightenment. A more humble response to rebuttals we don’t have factual answers for might be to say, “That’s interesting, I’m going to explore that.” Humility and goodwill on both sides of a disagreement can accomplish so much more than entrenchment and dismissal. After World War II, a small, grassroots reconciliation effort in Germany, fueled by the wisdom that in order to prosper, there must be acceptance of responsibility, forgiveness and ongoing work toward unity, spawned incredible post-traumatic growth. History shows us that legitimate and enduring power-with (rather than power-over) arises out of trust, rather than coercion, deception or intimidation.
We can also learn to accept a certain amount of discomfort and messiness, uncertainty and inconvenience in this experiment of being a human on planet Earth. Even the wisest among us don’t have all the answers and make mistakes. We all probably move in and out of moments of enlightenment – recognizing that we are works in progress can help us be more compassionate and humble. Relating with others and communicating compassionately across difference can be hard, but it’s not optional if we’re to share this world in authentic peace. A dedicated practice of mindfulness can help us in this hard work through:
- Cultivating patience, which makes space for deep listening and observation of the unfolding of experience
- Greater awareness, which leads us to challenge biases and assumptions
- Defusing from our thoughts and feelings, which helps us recognize the impersonality of experience
- Being open to opportunities for awe, which allows us to experience ourselves as just one part of a vast web of existence
- Increased compassion and decreased reactivity, which enables us to embrace the inevitability and the necessity of mistakes in living our lives authentically and fully
What about the difficult cases? If we’re on a spiritual path, how should be respond when we encounter someone who has a demonstrated a repeated pattern of causing harm? It may feel like a challenge to persistently respond with compassion, especially in the face of consistently unskillful behavior. The first thing we can do is reconnect with the universal truth that everyone suffers, probably especially those who are “behaving badly”. One rule of thumb is to take a 1,000 mile view and remember that harmful strategies, over the long term, tend to lead to much misery for the perpetrator. History has shown that the mindful attitudes of patience, non-judgment, wise trust and compassion take effort, but bear more fruit than apathy or hatred. And we can remember that setting healthy boundaries with kindness can be a skillful means on the path to enlightenment.
Holley, S. R., Sturm, V. E., & Levenson, R. W. (2010). Exploring the basis for gender differences in the demand-withdraw pattern. Journal of homosexuality, 57(5), 666–684.
Neborsky, J (2015). Other Nations Could Learn from Germany’s Efforts to Reconcile After WWII. John’s Hopkins Magazine.