Defining ‘Enlightenment’

‘Enlightenment’ can mean many things to many people. You can become enlightened about a particular situation or person, a manipulative tactic, a solution to a problem, and whatever else you may become aware of for the first time. Assorted awakenings or realizations about various things might be considered forms of enlightenment, greater insight or increased awareness.

More typically, enlightenment tends to represent some inner personal experience leading to a heightened state of consciousness of one form or another. Some consider ‘enlightenment’ absolute, ultimate and final. You are either enlightened or you’re not. It’s a definite, clearly discernible end-result, sometimes based on specified criteria. Others believe it comes in steps and stages without end, some are more enlightened than others, repeated ‘enlightenment experiences’ lead to deepening experientially-based knowledge over time and the process has no end.

Many people of diverse ages and experiences confidently teach others about the nature of enlightenment; what it is, how you can achieve it, how they achieved it, or that they haven’t quite fully achieved it themselves but they’re ‘close enough’ to be able to teach others how to acquire some profound revelation they haven’t yet reached themselves.

I’m reminded of the four-to-eight year software development projects I’m familiar with that were 90% done for the three years before they were abandoned due to budget overruns. The programmers on these projects also seemed very confident and willing to teach you about software development in spite of their inability to achieve completion on their own projects.

Enlightenment opposes ignorance, offers ‘the light of awareness’, the bright side of our conscious natures. It typically focuses on something ‘eternal’ or ‘perfect’ and shuns ‘the illusion’ of everyday reality. Enlightenment is often promoted as the transcendence of ‘normal awareness’ and any trace of ‘an ego’.

Eastern Sagacity

One very common variety of enlightenment is the generally Eastern and specifically Buddhist type which results in the elimination of desire, dismissal of the importance of the temporary ‘10,000 things’ which take up most our attention in the impermanent space-time world of duality—right and wrong, good and bad, light and dark.

Enlightenment or Nirvana leads to becoming one with all that is, transcending the ego, discarding the silly illusion of individuality and personal development and ultimately blending with the cosmic, universal totality that makes ‘the world of becoming’ obsolete—replacing it with the world of wholly self-sufficient ‘eternal beingness’. One realizes one’s permanent identity with all that is and perhaps the super-reality behind all this—the emptiness that allowed creation to come into existence in the first place—the great underlying nothingness from which everything that has come into being has emerged. Individual ‘selfhood’ finally becomes revealed as a passing illusion, nothing but pretense and assumption in the face of ‘ultimate truth’.

For human beings, however, there is nothing illusory whatsoever about the vicissitudes of time-and-space-bound living processes; the paltry and fleeting identities we have as uniquely individual men and women. Some may shy away from the struggles of the dance and focus only on the timeless elements where one can definitely find greater peace, yet this type of ‘enlightened being’ will not help straighten the twists and turns of social injustices, the cyclic risings and fallings of civilizations, nor the horrors of willfully inflicted harm, pain and suffering committed by those valuing power and domination more highly than our general welfare.

Some ‘advanced gurus’ claim that the ultimate form of enlightenment is turning your physical body back into light. Those able to do this take their leave of this earthly plane. One guru I listened to explained that he had done precisely this, to culminate his last seven incarnations. Wow! Now that’s ‘enlightened’ if I ever heard it. So if we accept his claim as true, his physical transformation into light not only didn’t change the world we live in in any noticeable manner (did you notice it?), it doesn’t seem to have improved him much either. He’s still trying to do the same thing yet again, for an eighth time, and teaching others how to do likewise. What’s the point and how many times is he going to do this before trying something else with his life? Of course, this is very generously assuming he’s not just blowing smoke to begin with….

Western Wisdom

I have often found fully ‘human’ beings more helpful, uplifting, inspiring and doing more to transform the world into a better place than some of the most ‘enlightened’, ‘spiritually advanced’ and supposedly ‘egoless’ gurus I’ve met.

With other ‘humanized’ people I typically feel an easy connection, a relaxed rapport, and a common concern and respect for life in general. Some Western gurus tend to make me nervous. They often seem quite powerfully invested in convincing me they know something I don’t. They have something to offer they insist I lack, typically without much serious investigation of me on their part, prior to asserting this pre-ordained conclusion they carry with great conviction.

Where this (sometimes erroneous) ‘conviction’ finds purchase, if not in an ego of some sort, remains difficult to imagine. They’re willing to teach me to become more like them—prices vary. That’s what they do. They attract and generate students, followers, devotees, aspirants—basically, ‘children’ who need or want to be parented and told what to do and how to be.

In another culture and another time this may have served some useful purposes yet today (2018) in our modern western cultures this seems impractical and even counter-productive. People need to become more creatively self-responsible, and less responsible to outer authorities—especially those benefiting from the dependence of their followers.

A more ‘Western’ view of enlightenment is somewhat different. As Immanuel Kant said:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! Have the courage to use your own understanding,”

This ‘courageous knowing’ can be viewed as stemming from the bright side of the human psyche, the ‘inner sun’ of living autonomy that gives life meaning, exuberance and interest. We need to recognize and accept that this side of the psyche exists. We need to incorporate ‘the light side’, just like we need to incorporate ‘the dark side’1 without succumbing to the temptation of throwing out or discarding any parts of ourselves, whether they’re our favorites or we love to hate them.

Mr. Kant said more which seems relevant here:

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large part of mankind gladly remain minors [children] all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance. They are the reasons why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor. If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on—then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me. Those guardians who have kindly taken supervision upon themselves see to it that the overwhelming majority of mankind—among them the entire fair sex—should consider the step to maturity, not only as hard, but as extremely dangerous. First, these guardians make their domestic cattle stupid and carefully prevent the docile creatures from taking a single step without the leading-strings to which they have fastened them. Then they show them the danger that would threaten them if they should try to walk by themselves. Now this danger is really not very great; after stumbling a few times they would, at last, learn to walk. However, examples of such failures intimidate and generally discourage all further attempts.”

If Kant’s characterization of the ‘fair sex’ seems a bit dated, remember he died in Prussia in 1804.

Genuine human beings strive to help the people and improve the situations they become involved with because they care about others, feel connected with them, and find gratification in authentic human contact—demonstrating the kind of character they believe makes the world a better place. They don’t thrive on teaching others to be more like them, they demonstrate the values they serve as they live their lives, trying to set a good enough example that others may emulate it in their own ways because they admire it and find value in it.

After a lifetime of training that you’re ‘nothing but’ your appearances, your status, your dress, your emotions, your personality, your possessions, your accomplishments, in a word, “maya”, the ‘ten thousand things’ making up the ‘world of appearances’, some people realize this is not true—it’s a sham, propaganda, arbitrary conditioning. Many people are able to experience themselves as some sort of a ‘witnessing presence’ that can never be demonstrated or proven to exist outside their own skins. ‘Pure being’ does exist, if only for those aware of it, and many experience this pure being as ‘eternal’.

This doesn’t make the outer world an illusion. It’s temporary and changing and the ruling ‘powers that be’ have grossly over-exaggerated the importance of these outer ‘things’, ‘appearances’, ‘possessions’ and such, in order to control the population and thereby dominate the superficial world they value. It is not, however, illusory. Only the propaganda about it is illusory.

‘They’ have at the same time discounted, suppressed, belittled and otherwise tried to eradicate the reality and importance of ‘pure being’, the miracle of our simply being alive—the fascination of having a conscious experience embodied as a living organism in time/space/matter. As a result of this and other factors, most people have largely lost their sense of being alive in any pure and ‘naturally magical’ way. The very existence of an ‘inner life’ has been carefully excluded from nearly all our educational and business enterprises and organizations. Ruling authorities typically don’t want the experience of pure and independent being to spread. They want to control it, give it out and take it away.

To Conclude with Some Sense of Direction

There is something to be said for ‘the power of detachment’—the ability to disconnect, separate your identity from pressing concerns, abandon your sense of yourself for just a minute or two, breathe and be still—in order to reevaluate and reassess your options and situations.

There are many processes that our ego consciousness makes impossible, shuts down or powerfully diminishes. ‘Channeling’ certain energies, like the flow of chi in martial arts, creating an inspired work of art, a healing dynamic in meditation or massage, may come to an abrupt slow-down or even a full stop if one clings to ‘this is me’ or ‘I am doing this’ or ‘I am so good at this’. To maintain these dynamics we do need to let go of our sense of ourselves, become open, empty and focus on the energies we’re working with absent self-reflection or taking the energies ‘personally’. These things seem true and have been verified by countless mystics, seers, visionaries, gurus and just about anybody who has ‘lost themselves’ in an absorbing work, hobby, or creative pursuit.

Yet an individual ego cannot be expunged or removed. No one can live successfully in this world without one. How many of those intent on transcending their ego have never fully developed one in the first place? Instead, they hang on to some sort of a group-ego, an ego based on traditions, teachings, cultural conventions or sets of conditioned reflexes—but no uniquely carved out identity of their own—no true ‘individuality’. Rather than getting rid of their ego, many people actually need to more fully develop one.

As human beings our physical organisms are extremely important, and so is having enough food, shelter and clothing and other ‘stuff’ that while definitely ‘maya’ is far from illusory. It can mean the difference between life and death. Even if we accept that ‘pure being’ will go on just as well after we’re dead as while we lived, human life and death are far from illusory.

We have to navigate the world of people ‘outside our vision’, ‘outside our skin’, in an intelligent, self-responsible manner or we will have profound problems in modern society. We need to accept that our personal ‘self’ is a valid part of being human that we must include and embrace. We’re striving for balance, to become more whole, integrated.

Some who become very ‘illuminated’, ‘ascended’, ‘clear’ or whatever type of ‘super-conscious’ state they claim to have achieved or even actually have achieved, remain quite unbalanced and do not help liberate and humanize the world. They can easily become more interested in gathering students and followers. More important than how enlightened we are is how humanely we behave, how we relate to others, how we treat the opportunity of human life in general.

Divine and human, timeless and time-bound, big Self and little self, light and dark, good and bad, conscious and unconscious—we include pure being, physical organisms, processes, doings, thinkings, dreamings, aspirings, longings—all of it. If we could learn to treat each other humanely, the world would be a better place. Nobody has to realize anything, transcend anything, or do any devotional practice besides just caring about other people and treating them with respect and kindness.

This does not mean that every single person is immediately worthy of your complete and unconditional trust. Some are not and the rest of us have our limitations. We can expect children to be innocent and naive. Adults need to develop better screens and filters for evaluating others characters, values and priorities.

In order to ‘get there’, to develop a humane character, some will have to go through whatever practices, realizations, experiences or whatever it takes. The fact that we’ve been so deeply programmed to believe we are ‘nothing but’ programmable machines or ‘stimulus-response mechanisms’ or ‘habit-driven personalities’ is a major obstacle in the path of many. Yet the denial or rejection of our bodily reality, personal needs and ego-personalities is a major obstacle in the path of many others. Disowning, rejecting, or rising above any parts of ourselves whatsoever, will continue to be counterproductive, no matter what particular ‘ideology’ or ‘set of ideals’ is responsible for the act.

Teachers and ‘initiates’ into new dimensions of self-realization have transformed their own worldviews and often hope they can use their insights to help others transform theirs. This, however, requires an individual quest. ‘Inner knowledge’ remains personal and unique. Experiential knowing cannot be given or proven to others. This takes time to realize.

If you can help someone connect with themselves then you’ve helped them in a way that may last. If you sell someone on connecting with ‘you’, pursuing ‘replicas’ of your own inner inspirations or revelations, then you’ve retarded their progress on their path of inner growth and development to whatever degree you’ve convinced them to follow you instead of their own inner light and their own inner darkness. Tough lesson.

We don’t need more enlightened beings nearly as much as we need more fully human beings who care deeply about others and actively take responsibility for the consequences of their beliefs and actions. Hopefully, as we continue studying various ‘enlightening gurus’, our euphoria for following them will wane. The more personally adventuresome era of human adulthood beckons…


  1. 1These three articles discuss incorporating the dark side:

A Vital Clarification about the Human Shadow:

Living with the Knowledge of Good and Evil:

Four Questions and Answers About the Human Shadow: