A Zen Buddhist monk once told me, “There are two types of enlightenment: the one that takes 20 years of practice to achieve and the one that happens instantly but it takes you twenty years to incorporate into your life.”
At the time I heard that, I wasn’t going to go for the delayed gratification plan. I’m no different from anyone else in this culture: I’m into fast results. So I wanted the instant enlightenment, and when that didn’t happen, I started to practice meditation. Now I’d like to find that Buddhist monk again and ask for my money back, because after 20 years of constantly being on some spiritual path or another, I haven’t become enlightened.
Maybe the problem is the confusion that I have (or we all have) about what’s meant by enlightenment. I always thought enlightenment was like waking up: you open your eyes, and there you are: awake to this new reality that you could barely fathom before from your dream state.
It’s not like I made up this perception about enlightenment. Just listen to Gopi Krishna narrate his experience in his book, “Living with Kundalini”:
Suddenly, with a roar like that of a waterfall, I felt a stream of liquid light entering my brain through the spinal cord.
Entirely unprepared for such a development, I was completely taken by surprise; but regaining my self-control, keeping my mind on the point of concentration. The illumination grew brighter and brighter, the roaring louder, I experienced a rocking sensation and then felt myself slipping out of my body, entirely enveloped in a halo of light.
It is impossible to describe the experience accurately. I felt the point of consciousness that was myself growing wider surrounded by waves of light. It grew wider and wider, spreading outward while the body, normally the immediate object of its perception, appeared to have receded into the distance until I became entirely unconscious of it.
I was now all consciousness without any outline, without any idea of corporeal appendage, without any feeling or sensation coming from the senses, immersed in a sea of light simultaneously conscious and aware at every point, spread out, as it were, in all directions without any barrier or material obstruction.
I was no longer myself, or to be more accurate, no longer as I knew myself to be, a small point of awareness confined to a body, but instead was a vast circle of consciousness in which the body was but a point, bathed in light and in a state of exultation and happiness impossible to describe.
If that magically happened to you, you’d conclude, “Wow! No way life’s going to be the same again! I’m effin’ Enlightened, dude!”
Gopi Krishna’s not the only one to give us that model. Read a biography of Krishnamurti, and you find a very similar description. And the examples don’t end there.
It’s a very compelling model, this description of enlightenment. But please, sir, where do I sign up for this? Do I have to work for it? Or could I just pull up to a Spiritual Drive-Thru and order that for five bucks and change?
Five bucks and change wasn’t what the folks at a successful spiritual organization charged when a friend took me to their meetings in early 1990. It was a lot more money. Weekend “intensives” that cost $300-$400 to attend were just the beginning. What I thought was interesting is that you sat all weekend, watched satellite transmissions of this particular group’s guru, and hoped to have a vision of the guru awakening your kundalini or performing shaktipat on you.
Let me back up. Kundalini is described as the spiritual energy dormant at the base of the spine, which, if awakened, rises toward the brain… and awakens you. That’s what Gopi Krishna appears to be describing in his experience. You get that rush and presumably you awaken to the transcendent reality of life, death, the universe, everything. Oh, yeah, you also have a few months of bodily discomfort till you either go crazy or master the flow of the new energy and come out on the other side as an enlightened being. Shaktipat, on the other hand, is described as the transmission of power from guru to student, again meant to awaken that presumed Kundalini and propel you to enlightenment (with or without your body freaking out).
Now, as far as this organization was concerned, if for some reason a remote (and perhaps imagined) interaction with your guru failed to awaken you, you could go to the headquarters in India, but that was definitely going to set you back more than the measly $300-$400 of the weekend intensives. It was like a lottery: for a small price you could buy a ticket (the weekend intensive) and hope you’re the lucky winner among millions… or, to really increase your odds, you can be one of the few (well, few hundred anyway) to fork over some serious cash and go meet the head honcho in person.
Color me skeptical, but even back then this smacked of greed to me. And while I can see that the nature of the universe is abundance and an enlightened person can be wealthy just by aligning with that nature, greed, on the other hand, didn’t strike me as enlightened. The amount of people packed into those “intensives” (which you were encouraged to repeat till, you know, you got “shaktipat”) and the accoutrements associated with the practice (books, posters, photographs, tapes, incense, candles, statues, altar items) suggested to my 20-year-old mind that this was a business, and a very lucrative one, and the greed seemed a little too secular to be headed by someone with any semblance of enlightenment. Lots of other people did not see this, and the guru in question continued to profit till things broke down with infighting for power and money.
Every spiritual group I have known, every sect, every cult – heck, every organized religion – is a variation of the above story. It may have earnest people, even good people; it may even have useful tools, rituals, practices and ideas, but whether they’re selling you salvation or enlightenment, in my experience it’s all a variation of the above story. I’m supposed to go practice their prescribed formulas (and buy the accoutrements) and then I’ll become… what? What am I supposed to look and behave like when enlightened? Does an enlightened person go through life in a beatific state? Always calm, always with wise pronouncements? If an enlightened person is hammering, and the nail slips and he hits his thumb, does he exclaim, “Ow! Fuck! Shit! Goddamn fucking nail!” or does he say, “The hammer smashed the thumb. There is pain. Now we shall expound on the nature of pain and consciousness”? Does he make spelling mistakes? Does he ever misplace things or forget to file his taxes? Or is he so above all these things that he never picks up a hammer, writes, or deals with money?
I still don’t know, after all these years. All these conjectures are usually accompanied by “rules” that people parrot with great seriousness, but they forget to add “they say” at the beginning of those rules. You see, “they say” there is such a thing as Kundalini. “They say” that it lies dormant in humans. “They say” that it can awaken. “They say” that it can turn you into an enlightened being when it awakens, and “they say” that you get assorted “siddhis” or supernatural powers as a result. But that’s a lot of things that “they say” – and I personally have never met anybody for whom this has happened and showed any plausible evidence. Sure, I once met an old Spaniard who told me a story more or less along the lines of Gopi Krishna’s, but he was such a bossy, demanding, pain-in-the-ass kind of person (and I say that as an objective observation) that perhaps he would’ve been better off not being “awakened.” And, for the record, Gopi Krishna went on to write a dozen or so more books after “awakening,” and some of those books are such moralistic finger-wagging written-in-rhymes tomes that they definitely compete with Mark Twain’s assessment of the Book of Mormon as “chloroform in print.”
Not to be disrespectful of him or his legacy, but wouldn’t an enlightened being be somewhat artistic, interesting, present ideas that challenge and engage us instead of repeating what just about every holier-than-thou dude and dudette in every religion, sect and cult says while boring the living daylights out of the rest of us? Only two conclusions can be drawn: (1) none of these people were enlightened or (2) they were, but enlightenment doesn’t mean you become an ideal human being. You know the Zen saying, “before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water”? Maybe they really meant it. “Before enlightenment, be a holier- than-thou, finger-wagging jerk; after enlightenment, be the same way, except also act like you’re the Chosen One.”
If one of those two conclusions applies and I’m not overlooking something, then it follows that there are no enlightened people as we conceive of them. There is no person who walks on water and is perfect, if for no other reason than my definition of perfect is going to be different from yours. There is no objective measure for determining enlightenment. Wisdom and capacity to love are probably pretty good indicators of an above-average human being, but I think that’s all we can aspire to be: above average. My ego’s not too thrilled with that one. It was kind of set on the supernatural powers part, and all it gets now is above average? To my ego, looking to nail the top-of-the-class spot in the classroom of life, that sounds like a “C+”. Bummer, dude.
If there is one model of enlightenment that makes sense to this brain of mine, it’s not enlightenment as a light switch but enlightenment as a dimmer switch. I’m certainly wiser in my habits, in my views, in my day-to-day skills, in my emotions, in my art, in my relationships and in my spirituality than I was 20 years ago – and wouldn’t you say the same is true for you? The people I’ve known, the books I’ve read, the experiences I’ve had, and yes, even the spiritual practices I’ve cultivated in two, three or four decades point to a “greater level of enlightenment” and this is all that I see evidence of. Granted, some people started farther ahead than you or I did – and just like to be an Olympic skater you have to have the genes, the parents, the money, the coach, the opportunities, the passion and the sheer work that go into it, someone else may have had the beneficial or adverse circumstances that catapulted the wisdom, love and brilliant a-ha’s that they now share with us from the world stage.
But I still think that came about by turning the dimmer switch higher. Even if you have a near-death experience that puts into perspective what matters and what doesn’t matter in life, there is the question of acting on that newfound awareness day-in, day-out. Maybe certain experiences skip a couple of levels in the dimmer switch, but that’s it – no magic, no tricks, no siddhis.
So, what do I make of Gopi Krishna’s experience? Do I think he and Krishnamurti and the other countless people through the ages made it up? Not at all. In fact, before I ever read any of them, I had the same experience when I was 19 and started meditating. As I closed my eyes, I really felt an upward movement toward my head and then a sense of floating in endless space – a sense that I was no longer bound by the four walls around me, or by my body. Any images that would come into my mind during those times seemed huge – extending in all directions for miles and miles. And it really did feel like I was much, much larger than anything in the physical world.
Being the driven, methodical person that I was at 19, I’d record in my journal how often this would happen, what my sense was of how long it lasted, what preceded it, how I lost it. Some days I’d get it, other days not. Eventually I lost the habit of meditating daily and I’ve been trying to regain it ever since. And yes, I do occasionally have that experience.
But I can tell you one thing for sure: it didn’t make me light-switch enlightened. Not then, not now. I know, because if the nail ever slips while I’m hammering, I do exclaim, “Ow! Fuck! Shit! Goddamn fucking nail!”
And we all know that blaming an inanimate object for your mistakes isn’t a sign of enlightenment.
Photo credit: Beni Ishaque Luthor