Today we will look at some of the ideas put forward on the topic of enlightenment by 14 thinkers informed by Integral, metamodernism, Advaita nondualism, or other philosophical perspectives. (These 13 thinkers and artists are presented in alphabetical order.)
1Adyashanti, Teacher at Open Gate Sangha
Adyashanti, author of multiple books including The Way of Liberation, is an American-born spiritual teacher devoted to serving the awakening of all beings. His teachings are an open invitation to stop, inquire, and recognize what is true and liberating at the core of all existence.
In speaking regularly with spiritual seekers, it dawned on me one day how addicted so many of them are to the power of charisma. They swap stories about how powerful this or that teacher is and compare experiences. They get a charge from it, many mistaking charisma for enlightenment. Charisma attracts at all levels: political, sexual, spiritual, etc., and it feeds the ego’s desire to feel special. The ego loves getting hits of power—it’s like a form of spiritual candy. The candy may be sweet but can you live on it? Does it make you free?
Freedom is not necessarily exciting; it’s just free. Very peaceful and quiet, so very quiet. Of course, it is also filled with joy and wonder, but it is not what you imagine. It is much, much less. Many mistake the intoxicating power of otherworldly charisma for enlightenment. More often than not it is simply otherworldly, and not necessarily free or enlightened. In order to be truly free, you must desire to know the truth more than you want to feel good. Because if feeling good is your goal, then as soon as you feel better you will lose interest in what is true. This does not mean that feeling good or experiencing love and bliss is a bad thing. Given the choice, anyone would choose to feel bliss rather than sorrow. It simply means that if this desire to feel good is stronger than the yearning to see, know, and experience Truth, then this desire will always be distorting the perception of what is Real, while corrupting one’s deepest integrity.
In my experience, everyone will say they want to discover the Truth, right up until they realize that the Truth will rob them of their deepest held ideas, beliefs, hopes, and dreams. The freedom of enlightenment means much more than the experience of love and peace. It means discovering a Truth that will turn your view of self and life upside-down. For one who is truly ready, this will be unimaginably liberating. But for one who is still clinging in any way, this will be extremely challenging indeed. How does one know if they are ready? One is ready when they are willing to be absolutely consumed, when they are willing to be fuel for a fire without end.
If you start playing the game of being an “enlightened somebody,” the true teacher is going to call you on it. He or she is going to expose you, and that exposure is going to hurt. Because the ego will be there, standing in the light of Truth, exposed and humiliated. Of course, the ego will cry “foul!” It will claim that the teacher made a mistake and begin to justify itself in an effort to put its protective clothing back on. It will begin to spin justifications with incredible subtlety and deceptiveness. This is where real spiritual sadhana (practice) begins. This is where it all becomes very real and the student discovers whether he or she truly wants to be free, or merely wants to remain as a false, separate, and self-justifying ego. This crossroad inevitably comes and is always challenging. It separates the true seeker from the false one. The true seeker will be willing to bare the grace of humility, whereas the false seeker will run from it. Thus begins the true path to enlightenment, granted only to those willing to be nobody. Discovering your “nobodyness” opens the door to awakening as beingness, and beyond that to the Source of all beingness.
Do not think that enlightenment is going to make you special—it’s not. If you feel special in any way, then enlightenment has not occurred. I meet a lot of people who think they are enlightened and awake simply because they have had a very moving spiritual experience. They wear their enlightenment on their sleeve like a badge of honor. They sit among friends and talk about how awake they are while sipping coffee at a cafe.
The funny thing about enlightenment is that when it is authentic, there is no one to claim it. Enlightenment is very ordinary; it is nothing special. Rather than making you more special, it is going to make you less special. It plants you right in the center of a wonderful humility and innocence. Everyone else may or may not call you enlightened, but when you are enlightened the whole notion of enlightenment and someone who is enlightened is a big joke. I use the word enlightenment all the time—not to point you toward it but to point you beyond it. Do not get stuck in enlightenment.
2Mariana Caplan, Author and Anthropologist
Mariana Caplan, PhD, MFT, is a psychotherapist, yoga teacher, and the author of eight books in the fields of psychology and spirituality that have been translated in more than a dozen languages, including the new Yoga & Psyche: Integrating the Paths of Yoga and Psychology for Healing, Transformation, and Joy (Sounds True, Feb. 2018).
The concept of the inner guru is one of the most deceptive of all the popular truisms. Though the term ‘inner guru’ refers to something ultimately real, of the many who believe themselves to be following their inner guru only a rare few are actually doing so effectively. A high degree of human and spiritual maturity is required in order to consistently and clearly hear and follow the demanding guidance of the inner guru, a maturity that is earned through years of spiritual practice and not from reading a spiritual book or from hearing a New Age freedom fighter proclaim the message.
The main reason that people turn to the inner guru is because they are lazy and essentially uninterested in genuine transformation. The outer guru – the genuine spiritual master – will undermine one’s ego and confront one’s falsity in a way that the inner guru never will. The inner life of the human being consists of a grand multitude of voices – many of them highly neurotic – and the ego is only too happy to give one of those voices monk’s robes and a soothing tone and call it the inner guru. Such inner gurus, also known as the ‘inner self’, the ‘wise elder within’, or the ‘deep self’, have been known to guide people to do whatever it is their ego desires (extravagant vacations for example, a new Ferrari, manipulating others for a ‘higher good’ etc.), always in the name of spiritual life. It is much easier to excuse our mistakes if we have been ‘guided’, thus dismissing personal responsibility for the outcome. If positive results come from the guidance, we become a hero for hearing and following the voice; if things don’t work out, we are simply a victim of the inner voice’s desires. Either way, we do not consider ourselves to be accountable.
A close relative to the inner voice is the notion of following one’s heart. It is true that one must ultimately follow one’s heart, and that the true heart doesn’t lie, but how does one know when one is hearing this heart? Most individuals have no idea what their heart is, and have neither felt it nor heard it speak. The majority of messages they attribute to their heart are, in fact, coming from their mind, though it may well speak lovingly, tenderly, and even ‘heartfully’.
When people are unaware of the quantity of ‘inner voices’ that exist within them (including the voice of one’s ‘heart’), and are uneducated regarding the ego’s tendency to corrupt any aspect of the personality it can in order to sabotage spiritual growth, they easily fall prey to the seductions of the inner guru. Ultimately, they cheat themselves out of the growth and transformation they once came to this life looking for.
Still another of the dangerous truisms rampant among contemporary aspirants is the catch-phrase, ‘It’s all an illusion’, and all of its derivatives. From the logic of the mind rooted in duality, if everything is an illusion, it doesn’t matter if we harm others or if we destroy our bodies with drugs and alcohol because our bodies aren’t real anyway. If life is but a dream, why not take everything we can get regardless of how many toes we step on to get it and how many others will have less because of our selfishness? If all is one, there is no good and evil, right and wrong, so why not cheat, lie, and steal?
Those who indiscriminately use these ideas taken from the ‘absolute reality’ fail to understand that the absolute reality in no way negates the relative reality. Nonduality does not cancel out duality. Those who truly understand (as opposed to having had profound but fleeting insight into) the esoteric principles of ‘the inner guru’, ‘all is one’, and ‘the teacher is everywhere’, never boast such truths in reaction to any challenge to their psyche or psychology. They are instead humbled by the majesty of the reality they have glimpsed, to the extent that it propels them toward greater service to, and participation in, the very real world that we all live in. As another Zen master said: ‘You can’t live in God’s world for very long; there’s no restaurants and no toilets.’
3Jeff Foster, Spiritual Teacher
Jeff was voted #59 in Watkins Mind Body Spirit’s 2014 list of the world’s 100 Most Spiritually Influential Living People. He has published four books in over six languages. His latest book The Deepest Acceptance was published in 2012 by Sounds True.
No future ‘event’ – no ‘energetic shift’ event, ‘collapse into boundlessness’ event, ‘popping’ event, or ‘final falling-away of the me’ event – is required to make seeking disappear and freedom appear. Because freedom never went away. If it did, it wasn’t freedom.
Some Advaita teachers say “well okay, it’s not a personal event for somebody, it’s a non-event for nobody“.
I see their point. But you have to be very careful here. Because however you word it, this statement seems to promote the idea that something has to happen before there can be freedom. And apparently, after this ‘happening/non-happening’, you’ll be liberated. Or ‘there will be liberation’. For ‘no-one’.
But however you reword, rephrase, and repackage it, it’s the promise of something in the future. It’s the old enlightenment myth updated and repackaged for a modern audience.
In the same breath, of course, these teachers will say ‘There is no future. I am not promising you anything. There is nothing on offer here. Already there is only Oneness.”
Of course, in the end, it doesn’t matter what these teachers say. Ultimately, it’s what you hear. …
And so, in the end, I could easily tell the story that I have undergone some sort of transformation. That I have awakened to my true nature, that an energetic shift has happened here, that I’ve ‘popped’ and the ‘me’ has fallen away.
I could tell all of those stories.
But who would tell those stories? And for what purpose? To be a ‘teacher’? To be an ‘authority’ on nonduality? To be a ‘special, enlightened being’. No, I have no interest in that anymore.
Undeniably, something has changed here. Something is different. These days, life is light. Simple. Without the seeking, there is nothing missing. There is only fascination, intimacy, love. Gratitude. Only life happening, in its richness and wonder. But I’m not talking about Jeff. I’m talking about life.
Years ago, like those Advaita teachers, yes, I probably would have said things like ‘an energetic shift has happened here but it hasn’t happened there’, or ‘liberation has happened for no-one’, or ‘there is nobody here but I sense there is still somebody there’.
I just can’t say these things anymore. The assumption at the foundation of these statements was seen through, and the statements shattered into millions of tiny little pieces.
In the end, you can’t even know that you’re nobody. Even that story, however beautiful, has to go.
Perhaps that’s the true ‘energetic shift’: when the illusion of the ‘energetic shift’ is seen through. But my goodness, how much longer will it take to see it? Isn’t now long enough?
Another way of saying it: the shift has already happened, so there’s nothing to wait for. Life is already complete, as it is, and everything is already included. Do you see?
4Hanzi Freinacht, Metamoderna
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of The Listening Society, and the upcoming books Nordic Ideology and The 6 Hidden Patterns of World History. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps.
With sloppy variables, no reliable measurements and no stringent definitions (even if the researchers do attempt to be stringent), the field is wide open for people to have just about anything in mind when they talk about “wisdom”. And people always seem to assume that they themselves possess wisdom, and that people who they don’t like don’t. The wisdom movement goes: “Yeah man! You like wisdom too? Me too! Let’s do it, y’all!”
Think about it. The concept of wisdom becomes a projection screen, upon which we can project pretty, wishful images. We can paint anything that feels good onto this “super-duper-variable”. The problem is that it would break down into a giant slugfest of disappointment and conflict if operationalized in society: people would have to start arguing about who is wise, really, and why, and what that means. And a lot of people would force a lot of low quality “wisdom” down other people’s throats. Or sell it to them by means of expensive consulting and motivational speeches. Wisdom, after all, is most often just taken to mean: “you folks should be more like me”. This way, wisdom is simply the speaker’s received wisdom.
So here’s my take on a narrower, stricter, definition. Wisdom is great depth, plain and simple. Nothing more, nothing less. So, the way I use the term, wisdom has to do with things like spirituality and transcendence but not really with being smart or “proficient at living a good life”. With this definition the answer is: yes, Eckhart Tolle is wise. To a highly complex but low-depth thinker like Richard Dawkins, Eckhart Tolle simply appears to be a fraud; to his enthused followership, he appears to be a sage. The truth is, quite simply, he has high state, great depth and relatively low complexity.
The first example person, Nelly (great depth, low state, low complexity), is also wise, even if she lives in a darker subjective world than Eckhart Tolle. They are both wise, but perhaps not very clever. What can I say?
With this stricter definition, the rural Mongol shaman, for instance, can be viewed as wiser than an average modern person. The same goes for the Tibetan nun. With the definition I propose, they can be called “wiser” simply by virtue of having greater depth. We are being specific about what we mean. And a psychologically healthy, complex thinker, who is of old age and at peace with herself is not wise, unless she also has great depth – even if the clichés hold that she “should” be wise.
All this lets wisdom be specific, measurable, and just one piece in the puzzle (rather than being a universal fix-it-all). What we might lose by making the term more narrow, we regain manifold by clarifying what we are actually talking about.
We might try another definition if you like, a more inclusive one: wisdom is the combination of mental health, high complexity and great depth. This might let Ashoka qualify as wise (assuming that he, as a successful ruler, was also a complex thinker). With this definition, people can be “wise” regardless of which symbolic code they have (so you can have a wise person in ancient India, even if he’s hardly progressive by modern standards). With this definition it becomes more difficult to answer the question of who is wise, but strictly speaking neither Nelly nor Eckart Tolle would be categorized as such. Ashoka might.
The devil isn’t just in the details. He’s in the definitions. And, most of all, he’s in the analytical distinctions: in the ability to tell one thing apart from another. To not mix things up. So before you preach the gospel of wisdom, please consult the devil. It would be wise.
5Craig Hamilton, Integral Enlightenment Teacher
Craig Hamilton is a pioneer in the emerging field of evolutionary spirituality and a leading voice in the movement for conscious evolution. As the guiding force behind Integral Enlightenment, Craig offers spiritual guidance and teachings to a growing international community spanning 50 countries around the world.
What I’m saying is that it’s possible to be truly free.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’m speaking about a completely different kind of human life than most of us have ever encountered.
This is not simply about “being in the now” or “loving and accepting what is in every moment.”
It is not about simply learning to connect with and trust in a “higher power” to guide us through life’s challenges.
Nor is it about simply accessing a more expansive state of awareness or being able to stand back and abide as the “witness” of all that arises.
All of these are good experiences to have and important capacities to cultivate. But I’m speaking about something more.
I’m pointing to authentic spiritual awakening in which the ego has been radically overridden by the Ultimate principle, by the creative force of the cosmos, by what the Buddha called “the roar of the timeless beyond.”
It’s a life in which our endless quest for self-fulfillment has been replaced by a passion to give our heart and soul to the awakening and upliftment of all of life, to bringing the Sacred into manifestation in this world.
In this ultimate submission to and alignment with the Absolute, the human being becomes a living, breathing force for higher evolution.
And this changes our relationship to being alive in unimaginable ways.
Experientially, we find ourselves in a state of profound receptivity and openness. A deep and abiding simplicity pervades our life, and an ongoing sense of flow permeates every moment.
We have let go of identification with the mind, abandoned any attachment to the self, enabling us to live as a transparent, vibrant vessel for the Infinite.
Amidst this profound openness, there is remarkable mental clarity at times, but there is no clinging on to that clarity. Insights come and go, but there is the knowledge that “I can’t hold onto any of this,” and so there is no grasping on to certainty.
But in moments when clarity is needed, it miraculously appears, integrating all of our knowledge and lived experience in a flash of intuitive knowing.
Spiritual experiences come and go, too, but there is no longer any clinging to ecstasy, bliss or love. We have discovered the source of all these things, and so feel no compulsion to cling to them.
More importantly, and contrary to popular belief, we awaken to a profound awareness of what we might call the heart of the cosmos. We feel, in a sense, for the Whole of Life.
We feel the pain of the whole and the joy of the whole as our own pain and our own joy. We become a seeing, sensing, feeling organ of the whole.
And at the center of our being is a burning passion for evolution and transformation, a calling to transform the world into an expression of the divinity we have discovered.
All of this may sound very big and beyond reach, but I want to make it clear that this is not a pipe dream drawn from ancient books. This is what it’s really like. This is really what’s possible for a human life—for your life—to become.
Now, just because it’s possible to awaken to this radically different kind of life does not mean that it’s easy. Indeed, what I’m describing is without question the most challenging endeavor a human being can undertake.
6Andrew Harvey and Karuna Erickson
Andrew Harvey is a British author, religious scholar and teacher of mystic traditions, known primarily for his popular nonfiction books on spiritual or mystical themes, beginning with his 1983 A Journey in Ladakh. He is the author of over 30 books including The Hope and A Guide to Sacred Activism.
Karuna Erickson is a devoted yoga teacher as well as a psychotherapist, practicing in both fields since 1970. The focus of her work is the integration of body, mind, heart, and spirit. She is the director of the Heart Yoga Center, a registered yoga teacher training school with the Yoga Alliance. She has trained yoga teachers for over 20 years.
All authentic mystical traditions proclaim with one strong voice: the aim of spiritual awakening is not merely to realize one’s own divine identity, but to serve all beings with compassion and a commitment to justice. The enlightened life is one that balances ecstatic inwardness with dedicated action; profound inner surrender with unceasing service to others.
A great Indian saint, Anandamayi Ma, once said, “Just as God is both utterly peaceful and utterly dynamic, so the being who realizes God is at once sunk in a calm that nothing can disturb and active with a love that nothing can defeat. It is so simple;” she added, “through sacred practice you breathe in divine inspiration, divine strength, divine peace, and divine passion. Then you breathe them out in acts of wise compassion. This is the real life all of us are called to.”
In these chaotic and difficult times, the union of grounded passion and peaceful joy in the body and heart that everyone needs to keep strong, creative, and inspired by love can be awakened by a spiritual practice such as yoga. A heart-centered approach to yoga unites an awakening into the luminous body with a meditative peace of mind. From this sacred marriage of body and mind, your heart will burn with the holy desire to see all beings safe, protected, and happy.
To stay connected to this natural desire of your heart, begin your practice by sitting quietly and noticing how you are feeling. By listening to your body and mind, you can choose whether you need a heating, awakening practice or a cooling, restorative practice.
When you sense that you need grounding or extra vitality, or if you’re feeling distracted, unfocused, or not present, an active, heating practice can help you return to the strength of your body and restore your energy, intention, and clarity. Strengthening yoga postures develop courage and stamina for the practical healing, creative, and transformative service you do in the world.
When you’re busy and not attending to the messages of your body, heart and mind, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, ineffectual, stressed, or burned out. Reconnect directly with your own source of inspiration with a relaxing, restorative yoga practice, bringing you to the place where the desire to serve others naturally arises.
Those who come to know and trust in the sacred heart, and act from its passion of compassion are Sacred Activists. Sacred Activists unite peace, strength, and courage with the holy desire of the heart to see justice established everywhere. They work passionately to see the poor housed and fed, the environment cherished and protected, and all sentient beings revered as divine, and so in turn experience the joy of service.
With bodies infused with the inspiration of the transcendent, and with mystical awareness grounded in the present moment, those of us who are responding to the call to serve the creation of a new humanity will be able to devote ourselves to service whole-heartedly without growing exhausted. Through our ever-deepening experience of the power of spiritual practice, we will find the strength and wisdom to serve all beings, and to live in deep peace and joy.
7Daniel Ingram, Unusually Hardcore Buddhist Teacher
Daniel Ingram is author of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha and a leading proponent of Buddhism as a practical path to enlightenment in this lifetime. Dr. Ingram also has an MD, a Master’s degree in Public Health, and a bachelor’s degree in English literature.
The last and perhaps most misunderstood of the Three Characteristics is no-self, also rendered as egolessness or emptiness. Emptiness, for all its mysterious sounding connotations, just means that reality is empty of a permanent, separate self. The emphasis here absolutely must be on the words “permanent” and “separate.” It doesn’t mean that reality is not there, or that all of this is illusion! Solidity is an illusion, permanence is an illusion, that the watcher is a separate thing is an illusion, but all of this isn’t an illusion.
Sure, all experience is utterly transient and ephemeral, but that is not quite the same as everything being an illusion. There is a habit of reading just a bit too much into things and coming out with the false conclusion that all of this means that there is some separate, permanent us. Reality is actually fine just as it is and always has been, but there is a deeper understanding of it that is called for.
Let’s talk a little bit about this concept and how the illusion of a self is created in the first place before we talk about how to use this powerful and profound concept of no-self in simple ways in practice. Some theory really can be useful to the practice, as all of it can be understood directly once one has some stability of mind and a bit of insight into what is mind and what is body, and when each is and isn’t there.
We have this notion that there is really a permanent “I.” We might say, “Hello, I am…” and be quite convinced that we are talking about a permanent, separate thing that can be found. However, if we are just a bit more sophisticated we might ask, “What is this ‘I’ which we are sure is us?” We have grown so accustomed to the fact of the definition changing all the time that we hardly notice it, but the point of insight practice is to notice it, and to see just what it is that we are calling “I” in each moment.
We may begin with the obvious assumption: we are our body. This sounds nice until we say something like “my body.” Well, if it is “my body,” that seems to imply that, at that moment, whatever it is that owns the body wasn’t the body. Suppose someone points to our toenails.
They surely seem to be “me,” until we clip them, and then they are “not me.” Is this really the same body as when we were born? It isn’t even made of the same cells, and yet it seems to be a permanent thing. Look more closely, at the sensate level, and you will see that moment to moment it isn’t. At the level of actual experience, all that is found is flickering stuff. So impermanence is closely related to no-self, but there is more to no-self than that.
Perhaps thoughts are the “I.” They may seem more like the “true I” than the body does. But they come and go to, don’t they? Can we really control these thoughts? Are they something solid enough to assume that they are an “I”? Look closely and you will see that they are not. But again, no-self is more profound than this.
There also seems to be something that is frequently called “the watcher,” that which seems to be observing all this, and perhaps this is really the “I” in question. Strangely, the watcher cannot be found, can it? It seems to sometimes be our eyes, but sometimes not, sometimes it seems to be images in our head and sometimes something that is separate from them and yet watching the images in our head.
Sometimes it seems to be our body, but sometimes it seems to be watching our body. Isn’t it strange how we are so used to this constant redefinition of ourselves that we never stop to question it? Question it!
This odd sense of an unfindable watcher to which all of this is happening yet which is seemingly separate from all that is happening, which sometimes seems in control of “us” and yet which sometimes seems at the mercy of reality: what is it really? What is going on here?
One of my teachers once wisely said, “If you are observing it, then it isn’t you by definition!” Notice that the whole of reality seems to be observed. The hints don’t get any better than this.
8Mooji, Satsang Teacher in the Advaita Tradition
Mooji (born Anthony Paul Moo-Young in 1954) is a spiritual teacher originally from Jamaica. Mooji is a disciple of Papaji, a devotee of the advaita and non-dual master Ramana Maharshi. He shares self-inquiry, directing his students to the non-dual Self by encouraging them to question who or what they are at the deepest level.
In truth it is not possible to become enlightened as you put it because no one is there as such to become enlightened in the first place. The firm recognition or realisation that there isn’t a ‘somebody’ in reality to gain enlightenment, and that there can never be an entity at any time, either now or in the future, to gain any such state, is what amounts to enlightenment. This direct realisation occur and become revealed, confirmed and convincing truth through the process of self enquiring. ‘Self-enquiry’, also called atma-vichara, is one effective means of exposing the unreality of the ‘I-concept’, or ego, ordinarily felt to be the fact of oneself, leaving the pure immutable Self as the single an perfect reality. This is the ultimate truth.
You ask: ‘Is there anyone who through attending Satsang has become awake’. This has already been addressed in my previous statement but I will further add here that there has been and continues to be the constant recognition of this fact that the ego identity is a myth, a fictitious character. That individuality as such is an expression of pure consciousness/beingness and not the fact or definition of that Beingness. That oneself remains behind as the witness or the noticing of the phenomena arising spontaneously in consciousness. That ones true self is formless and nameless presence only which arises or shines as peace, joy and happiness felt as loving contentment. When this recognition occurs within each individual point or expression of consciousness known as a person, that state is called ‘awakening’ or ‘enlightenment’.
You ask that I point out if there is such a person present here? In common language I will say a number of persons here have arrived at this point of clear seeing/being beyond mere intellectual or academic understanding or acceptance. However, the mental tendencies and identification aren’t instantly or completely destroyed and the ego-sense, posing as the seat of reality, though expose through enquiry as mere illusion, continues to appear; this is natural. The duty and challenge here is to repeatedly bring this I-individuality sense back into the heart/source whenever it arises and by training the attention to stay in the source, which is your true self, it gradually merges in the source and become the source itself.
Finally, who could the ‘I’ be who will claim ‘I’ve got it’ or ‘I am a realised person’. Who or what can be the possessor of enlightenment? Isn’t it the same ego ? Do you see my point?
However, some masters have indeed declared and affirmed themselves as the one pure, qualityless reality and have spoken so from pure, direct ego-less knowledge/conviction. This is also correct in my view and is most refreshing, authoritative and natural, so that we may know it is not possible to frame or limit the pure self by any human standard or logic.
9Joe Perez, Worldview Artist
Joe Perez is a Worldview Artist, Integral Visionary, Creator of Lingua-U, Translineage Mystic, Poet, Career Guy, Blogger, Whole Writing™ Coach, and the Author of Soulfully Gay and other books.
I’ve walked a meandering path without the benefit of a rock solid community with which to check my self-understanding against the nuanced terminology of a specific lineage. I’ve been on a path of spontaneity and worldview artistry and metalinguistic map-making and prophetic calendary and mythopoesis and even a wild sort of world shamanism at times … and while I have been influenced by Buddhist writers and have an important place for Buddhist spiritual warrior teachings in my worldview, my traditions are Abrahamic and indigenous as well as the esoteric Confucianism of Yang Hsiung and aspects of Wilberian and Jungian psychological theory; they have not usually conceptualized the human endeavor in terms of “enlightenment”, but in terms of “salvation” and “courage” and “nobility/virtue” and “hero’s journey”, as well as the sense that art and religion and philosophy are deeply intertwined and inseparable.
Since I haven’t had the benefit of a lineage teacher to tell me “yes” or “no” in my spiritual education, I’ve done a lot of work in the Integral Spirituality space where meta-maps of consciousness and formal assessments of level of ego-maturity by folks with doctorates and decades of professional experience have given me the “reality checks” that I’ve required.
So we’re having this conversation today about “enlightenment”, but it would be different if we were talking about whether my soul is saved, whether I am a hero of my own story, or if I feel myself in unity with my art. Those questions are no less poignant, though they are a bit easier perhaps because the question doesn’t presuppose a classical Buddhist or nonduality framework which can get problematic.
I meant to say, they’re problematic for me, and I’m not sure what to think about their usefulness for anybody else. I have difficulties fitting them completely into a Big Picture that fully resonates with me as truthful and a great way to talk about my life and worldview. I can’t rule out the possibility that “non-dual” refers to something outside my personal experience or to something I know by a different name — such as ternary consciousness. However, I think it may also turn out to be the case that these philosophies are flawed and will need to be evolved to continue to be relevant.
For some of the spiritual gurus who are working these days, it comes down to the fact that their teachings presuppose worldview-making maps that “spiritually bypass” huge swaths of the subtle realm. This leads them to offer various erroneous teachings, including the fallacy that language is a hindrance, or at best a pointer, to ultimate reality, which they say is empty or a void. But in truth, the Logos or Word is a constitutive element of reality and is never really banished from awareness. Not in duration, in any event. Language can become so subtle that it is no longer intelligible to the mind at ordinary or even superb functioning, but the mind can still enter into communicative union with the Sacred Words.
The more one listens to these teachers of enlightenment, the more one wonders if we aren’t in need of another Wittgenstein to untangle the ways that perhaps language has befuddled them. Some of them think there is “no self” or that they are “a nobody”, but the ones that make the most sense to me speak of enlightenment as “more than personal” or “true self + personal perspective (i.e., unique Self)”. Unfortunately, language has made it virtually impossible to speak of these post-egoic realities in a way that feels natural and is easy to understand.
That’s why I think we need a revolution in language, starting with a new spiritually-informed metalanguage that includes definitions for new parts of speech (articles, affixes, pronouns, etc.) on many different stations of life from pre-personal to personal to integral to super-integral all the way up. I’ve reserved 243 simple metawords in Lingua-U that could serve this purpose, based on my cross-cultural research into the Sacred Words of the Great Traditions as well as ordinary speech, and if we ever built them into our worldviews, many of the philosophical problems that gave rise to “no self” and “non-duality” might just disappear.
10Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, Psychologist of Religion
Dr. Peterson is a professor at the University of Toronto, a clinical psychologist and the author of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Jan 2018, Penguin Books). His now-classic book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, offers a revolutionary take on the psychology of religion.
[What’s your definition of enlightenment?]
There’s two elements to it. One is that you’re truly working to make things better. You can start with your own presumption of what better would be. I mean better.
Part of that would be that you are trying to decrease unnecessary suffering. That’s not all there is to it, but if you need an anchor point, that’s a good one. You should try to decrease unnecessary suffering.
You should tell the truth. Those are the two fundamental elements, I think. You’re oriented towards the good. And you continue to improve that orientation because you understand that your definition of good is insufficient and so it has to transform. But at the same time you try to speak the truth.
The truth issue is an interesting one. This is the proper way to understand faith. Faith doesn’t mean believing a bunch of things you know not to be true. That’s stupidity, that’s not faith. Here’s how to imagine it.
Imagine that when you’re talking to someone, you want something from them. You want their recognition. You want to dominate the conversation. You want to stand out. There’s a goal. You’re using it as a tool to obtain some end. Maybe you do that with your speech all the time; you’re always using it as a tool to achieve some end.
You see some extreme of this in the pick-up artist community. Their whole scheme is how to craft their words in a manipulative manner. It’s all acting, right? How to present yourself as a dominant male so you can attract sexual partners. It isn’t how to be a good man so you can attract women. It’s how you can present yourself falsely. I’m satirizing it to some degree because the community is useful insofar insofar as it gets men to stop being afraid of women, but forget about that for a minute.
That’s the use of speech instrumentally.
But here’s another way of using speech. You try to say what you think as clearly as you can. Period. And you let whatever happens happen.
The faith idea is whatever happens if you tell the truth is the best thing that could possibly happen. It’s a presumption. You have to make presumptions to move forward in life.
If being is good, then a truthful relationship with it is the proper relationship. And you might say, how do you know if the outcome is going to be good?
You never know, you never know if the outcome is going to be good, so you have to assume. There is a deep idea. I think it’s a core religious idea. It’s certainly extraordinarily well developed in Christianity. There is a fundamental moral obligation is to tell the truth. Period.
Well, people say, what about truths that hurt people’s feelings? You’re not supposed to be stupid when you tell the truth. You’re supposed to be wise.
This is a funny little anecdote to illustrate the point. You’re out clothing shopping with your girlfriend or your wife. She says does this dress make me look fat. What’s the answer. Well, no. Maybe that’s a white lie. Maybe it isn’t, maybe it is.
You say, I don’t answer questions like that. That’s the truth in a situation like that. A white lie…
There are levels of seriousness to being deceitful. Sometimes you tell a white lie because you can’t come up with a truth that isn’t more harmful. It’s still not right. It’s not optimal. There’s a truth there you could tell if you get it right. You just don’t bang out your stupid observations casually just because they happen to be accurate in that microcosmic moment. You have to be sophisticated when you tell the truth.
You have to be oriented towards the good in a fundamental way. You have to shake off your resentment of being in order to be oriented towards the good. That’s very hard because being makes people suffer, and so everyone’s angry about that. And if you’re angry you can’t be oriented towards the good because you’re out for destruction.
11Ken Wilber, Integral Theorist
Ken Wilber is one of the most widely read and influential American philosophers of our time. His recent books include Integral Buddhism, The Religion of Tomorrow, Integral Meditation, Wicked and Wiseand Grace and Grit.
Precisely because the ego, the soul and the Self can all be present simultaneously, we can better understand the real meaning of egolessness, a notion that has caused an inordinate amount of confusion. But egolessness does not mean the absence of a functional self (that’s a psychotic, not a sage); it means that one is no longer exclusively identified with that self.
One of the many reasons we have trouble with the notion of egoless is that people want their egoless sages to fulfill all their fantasies of saintly or spiritual, which usually means dead from the neck down, without fleshy wants or desires, gently smiling all the time. All of the things that people typically have trouble with money, food, sex, relationships, desire they want their saints to be without. Egoless sages who are above all that is what people want. Talking heads is what they want. Religion, they believe, will simply get rid of all baser instincts, drives and relationships, and hence they look to religion, not for advice on how to live life with enthusiasm, but on how to avoid it, repress it, deny it, escape it.
In other words, the typical person wants the spiritual sage to be less than a person, somehow devoid of all the messy, juicy, complex, pulsating, desiring, urging forces that drive most human beings. We expect our sages to be an absence of all that drives us! All the things that frighten us, confuse us, torment us, confound us: we want our sages to be untouched by them altogether. And that absence, that vacancy, that less than personal, is what we often mean by egoless.
But egoless does not mean less than personal, it means more than personal. Not personal minus, but personal plus all the normal personal qualities, plus some transpersonal ones. Think of the great yogis, saints and sages from Moses to Christ to Padmasambhava. They were not feeble-mannered milquetoasts, but fierce movers and shakers from bullwhips in the Temple to subduing entire countries. They rattled the world on its own terms, not in some pie-in-the-sky piety; many of them instigated massive social revolutions that have continued for thousands of years.
And they did so not because they avoided the physical, emotional and mental dimensions of humanness and the ego that is their vehicle, but because they engaged them with a drive and intensity that shook the world to its very foundations. No doubt, they were also plugged into the soul (deeper psychic) and spirit (formless Self) the ultimate source of their power but they expressed that power, and gave it concrete results, precisely because they dramatically engaged the lower dimensions through which that power could speak in terms that could be heard by all.
These great movers and shakers were not small egos; they were, in the very best sense of the term, big egos, precisely because the ego (the functional vehicle of the gross realm) can and does exist alongside the soul (the vehicle of the subtle) and the Self (vehicle of the causal). To the extent these great teachers moved the gross realm, they did so with their egos, because the ego is the functional vehicle of that realm. They were not, however, identified merely with their egos (that’s a narcissist), they simply found their egos plugged into a radiant Kosmic source. The great yogis, saints and sages accomplished so much precisely because they were not timid little toadies but great big egos, plugged into the dynamic Ground and Goal of the Kosmos itself, plugged into their own higher Self, alive to the pure atman (the pure I–I) that is one with Brahman; they opened their mouths and the world trembled, fell to its knees, and confronted its radiant God.
Shinzen Young is an American mindfulness teacher and neuroscience research consultant. His systematic approach to categorizing, adapting and teaching meditation, known as Unified Mindfulness, has resulted in collaborations with Harvard Medical School, Carnegie-Mellon University and the University of Vermont in the bourgeoning field of contemplative neuroscience.
I’m one of those teachers who’s comfortable with the “E-word”—perhaps because my very first teacher Okamura Keishin talked about kenshō and satori as realistic goals. I take the Zen notion of kenshō to be roughly equivalent to sotāpatti or stream entry. I tend to use the phrase “enlightenment with a small e” to refer to the depth of a person’s kenshō, i.e., the extent to which they have broken the identification with the mind-body process.
Of course many teachers avoid using the E-word. There are numerous and quite legitimate reasons for that taboo—not the least of which is that the general public tends to associate the word enlightenment with an extremely advanced stage of practice wherein one has deeply integrated kenshō with refinement of one’s humanity in terms of behaviors and relationships. I tend to refer to this latter attainment as “Enlightenment with a big E.”
Enlightenment with a small e comes about as a kind of paradigm shift involving the notion of self. That shift can occur rapidly or come on gradually. (I have talked about this a lot; see the resource list below.) According to Buddhism, the centerpiece of this paradigm shift is the shedding of sakkāya-diṭṭhi, the perception that there is a thing inside one called self. Historians of philosophy point out that a Buddhist-like notion that self is an illusory bundle of perceptions also arose in the West, specifically in the Scottish thinker David Hume, who is considered to be one of the founders of the European Age of Enlightenment.
Recently an article appeared in the Atlantic by Alison Gopnik conjecturing a direct historical link between Buddhist bundle theory and Humean bundle theory. The connection involves an amazing Italian Jesuit named Ippolito Desideri—perhaps the first Westerner to attain a thorough education in Buddhist scholastic theory (in the early 1700s!). So possibly there’s an interesting synchronicity between enlightenment in the Buddhist sense of that term and The Enlightenment in the historical sense of that term.