Many of you know I host various philosophy and well-being discussions groups each month throughout the Raleigh-Durham area. You can find us here.
At our lunch meeting last week, we had a wide-ranging and robust discussion on enlightenment, presence, and the relationship between sacred experience and the connections between people.
Building upon these threads, I don’t know what “enlightenment” means. How do we get there? Often, we tie it to self-transcendent or mystical encounters. These are among the most significant experiences of our lives. They add a magnificence to our everyday. Through them, the barriers of time and space melt and we see that we are connected to everyone and everything. At the same time, they allow us to become inextricably aware that our lives are finite and small, fleeting and limited. Yet we are comforted. It is as if we had found our home.
But as astonishing as these experiences are, I want to resist the transcendent miraculous. Resist it, if it becomes nothing more than mystical thrill seeking, or if it does not bring us closer to real people. I have grown skeptical of an enlightenment that leads us away from the deep, heart connections with those other sentient creatures throbbing and present within the reach of our exhales. Doing the laundry. Standing in at line at the DMV.
When lifted to that transcendent plain, people may feel more altruistic and prosocial and loving. But would they be more likely to sign up to volunteer, or to help a stranger pick up the packet of papers she’d dropped? Some studies suggest, they are not. The oxytocin released in moments of awe, it seems, promotes bonding but not action. Elevation does not release us from the hard work we must do for our souls.
When looking for “enlightenment”, I am not interested in what google or the gurus say, nor in the official doctrines of the various faiths. Too often language, especially sacred language, interferes with our experience of a life that is rich and full and holy. Too often terms like “God” or “grace”, “providence” or “soul”, only summons our baggage and assumptions, rather than connecting us deeply with a truth about what it means to live in the world.
So what does enlightenment look like?
I have a few ideas, but no illusions that they are complete. My hope is that you will share this article with your friends (in so doing, bringing you each closer together) and that all of you will discuss and comment and add to this dialogue below.
Enlightenment it seems, would require the insights, truths and affect gleaned from those moments of sacred self-transcendence. But at the same time, it would embody everything that is contradictory and beautiful and hard about living a life thick with compassion and forgiveness. Blessed are the merciful, as they say.
It would presuppose a sort of psychological maturation: That sense of clarity, cohesion and peace about oneself, one’s relations, and where we fit within the vast, immeasurable spaces. There would be comfort in the ambiguous and unknown. And encounters would be moments of presence: deep and intimate and brave.
If there is a such a thing as enlightenment at all, it must have at its core an ever-evolving humility, because it could never be about one’s self or ego. Its expression would be seen when bringing the best out of loved ones and strangers and friends, when helping them reveal themselves as miraculous and holy.
And the enlightened one would be deeply flawed; flawed in that way that softens one’s own heart.
There would be no need to accept a sort of cosmic-conscious energy we sometimes call god. But it would require giving oneself over to something, maybe that something we glimpsed in those moments of sacred self-transcendence.
And anyone worth enlightenment could never be so proud or hard or vacant not to weep at the suffering on this earth. And yet they would know joy, fully and deeply. They would live their lives in ways that showed a profound love for the world, as if living were an invitation to rejoice and to play.
© 2017 John Albert Doyle, Jr., All Rights Reserved.
Reference Haidt, J. (2006) The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. Basic Books. New York., pp. 197-8.
The Same Parents by Tony Fischer/Flickr made available via a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.
Encounter by astrid westvang/Flickr made available via a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-No-Derivs 2.0 Generic License
Strip Photos of a Man and Son Playing by simpleinsomnia/Flickr made available via a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License, and modified here by John Albert Doyle, Jr.