Enlightenment and Connection

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.

Image Credits
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.



  1. Who we are, what we know and also believe are at the center of our actions. Knowledge and belief are majority of the time about our experiences, and form the medium—the mind—that defines the nature of our relationships with other people and the environment we find ourselves in.
    When aboutness ceases, the direct experience of reality happens. This point in human life is liberation from the skewed and biased aspects of one’s self-consciousness since anything about anything is according to our take—the acquisitions that (about which) we continuously rely on.
    The state of freedom from the mind’s relativistic reality symbolically characterized and filtered is illuminating; revealing the “true” nature (“the Truth”) of our and everyone else’s (ontological) being. This is Enlightenment.
    “…and ye shall know the Truth, and The Truth shall make you free.” (Hz. Jesus)
    The “directly experienced” knowledge of the Truth (without any mediation) is to the ultimate degree unifying since the experiencer feels the ground of be-ing on which all stand and share immediately, including their self (with Grace).
    The concern about thrill seeking for enlightenment is valid. However, any seeking is a mediated act that will, by definition, keep one distant from the unmediated purity needed for illumination. Seeking intended for an end (or means to justify an end) is of such nature that is unfit for the pure Nature of Be-ing (God) to be acquired. In other words, there is mismatch between the way of getting something and that something needing its own way of being received. During our last meeting, I presented the SIRDS as an example (page 92 of my book “The Unrelative Truth”) to demonstrate how unseeking process for seeing the 3D picture in the 2D pattern is necessary.
    The path to purity is through empathy and compassion, kindness and fidelity, justice and objectivity. It is no simple easy task to gain those virtues (while playing the “thrill” game). It takes a living with the goodness you suggested, in the way: “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.”
    Love and peace.

    • Thank you Can. I appreciate the insights, honesty and heart you have been bringing to the discussions. The unseeking process you mention reminds me of a couple of similar quotes, from different traditions: “If you think you understand God/Tao/Brahman, you don’t understand.” I couldn’t agree more that the path is through living a life radically committed to virtues such as those you mention: empathy, compassion, kindness, fidelity. With deep gratitude.

  2. By the way, in relation to the quote “If you think you understand God/Tao/Brahman, you don’t understand,” I found the need (featured in the book) for a new word: “instanding.” It replaces understanding (of cognition) when it comes to directly experienced form of “unmediated” knowledge acquisition specific to the spiritual realm of be-ing. Instanding has zero aboutness.
    Thank you.

  3. I enjoyed this discussion at the last meet-up!

    I think this is the quote where I first heard the term ‘spiritual thrill-seekers’: “We need to overcome our cultural aversion to ecstatic experiences, but we equally need to overcome the strong attachment to ecstasy. Otherwise we become spiritual thrill-seekers, denigrating the everyday and unprepared for the pain. As Kornfield puts it, ‘after the ecstasy, the laundry’.”

    (Or as Alan Watts puts it, ‘When you get the message, hang up the phone.’)

    The quote is from this post on Jules Evans’s experience at a 10-day Vipassana retreat: http://www.philosophyforlife.org/vipassana-retreats-oasis-of-rapture-or-torture-camp/

    Jules Evans also interviewed an astronaut who believes we need to take our politicians into space so they can have the type of life-transforming ecstatic/mystical experience he had: https://youtu.be/KE-PUTVULFg

    • Thanks Justin. It was a rich discussion. I don’t know if you recall I also brought up the Kornfield quote, without realizing Evans used it too. This all tied together nicely. Now if only we can figure out a way to have our meet up discussions in space, too. (space would be rough, but maybe during a hike in the woods)

    • That’s definitely it, Justin. What is the point of that seeking? A great quote. If we seek these experiences, let’s have it illuminate the nitty gritty work of living!

  4. Edith Wharton said “There are 2 ways of spreading light: to be the candle, or the mirror that reflects it.” Thank you for being a candle in this world, Sean! I feel blessed to know you.

  5. Nice post brotha. It brought to mind a Buber quote I came across cited in some other reading recently:

    ‘Some would deny any legitimate use of the word God because it has been misused so much. Certainly it is the most burdened of all human words. Precisely for that reason it is the most imperishable and unavoidable.’ from I AND THOU p. 123

    So, I think that while language can be a blunt, imperfect, and imprecise instrument, and no real substitute for direct experience, it is also one of the best tools we have and can be used to further us along in our understanding of the sacred and holy. And so I would be willing to take a stab at a definition of enlightenment, which seems to agree with both Can and Jesus, based on his response. I think that enlightenment is simply a realization of a true nature and fundamental reality.

    Thanks for starting this discussion

    • Thanks Joe. I got thinking about this whole thread because of a Buber quote. I talk about it here. And I agree with you completely about the limits and wonderful possibilities of language. That is what I love so much about poetry. It is a way to try to express the inexpressible using a language that does not carry with it all of the old assumptions.

      And I also agree that enlightenment involves the “realization of a true nature and fundamental reality”. But I think the point of the Buber example I wrote about, and this recent post, is sometime we can miss aspects of that reality (in the guise of other people) when we are embraced and enamored in the mystical.

  6. Pingback: Instanding Enlightenment – UNRELATIVITY

  7. A couple thoughts:

    The Enlightened for Sean 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.(1)

    I would add an emphasis of profound love for the self as part of that world, a self which one has co-constructed with that world as an object of love, but as a concept also to be transcended in the same breath.

    Enlightenment for me is an always vacuous concept but nonetheless one I will lay a kind of (re)claim to whenever I can honestly say that I’m living without pride, shame, fear, repression, doubt, & insecurity driving my actions more often than not, as my coach (2) describes it. It’s not something that one falls terribly short of like the Divine Perfection. It’s an achievable goal. This ends up being not much like what the popular conception is currently but it’s one that I think can jive with Sean’s definition.

    …This feeling of power and god-ness is one I’ve had before. I have had spiritual experiences (5) before of the Spinozan oneness. For me, the major one at age 16 was indeed transformative for a time, compelling enough that I tried to re-create it for the rest of my time as an evangelical. For about a month after the event, as I basked in the afterglow of transcendence, I felt powerful: through the lens of my religion, I became extremely confident (in a way) socially and finally embraced the controlled aggressiveness of football with an intensity I’ve never again managed; the experience flipped a confidence, motivation, pain/obstacle tolerance threshold that was indeed like receiving divine power. Yet as the experience faded and with no tradition of contemplation to speak of in evangelicalism, I was left to my own devices and soon chased after the fading feeling. A backfire effect enusued as I became the type of “spiritual thrill seeker…unprepared for pain and denigrating the everyday” that Jules Evans describes. My junior year of high school that followed was easily the worst of my teens as this everydayness that was now beneath me ceaselessly hurled normal teenaged challenges at me. My hope is that when the next one of those experiences comes along, I can enjoy the energy, embrace the sense of temporary invincibility, and channel it in productive, everydayness-affirming directions of nobility.

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