What does enlightenment look like?

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Surprisingly, the answer to this question depends very much on whom you ask.

For a long time I assumed that everyone had the same understanding of what it means to be enlightened. It’s talked about so much, that it never really occurred to me to investigate what I actually imagined it to be. It turns out, there is no consistent agreement on what an enlightened or realized person is. Different traditions, generally grouped by geography, teach, and aspire to, vastly different things.

The outcome of the Western mystic tradition is strikingly different than the Eastern variety. (I’m not equipped to get into a proper comparison here. I just mention it so we have some starting point). Essentially, it is whatever you believe it to be.

So what do you envision when you think of enlightenment? What does it actually look like? And where do your beliefs come from?

I’m going to leave those questions for now, and we’ll come back around to them.

Remember how I wrote a few months ago that evolved beings don’t act like saints? The point of my post was that the concepts of goodness, virtue, and self-sacrifice are improper standards against which to judge our spiritual advancement. Holding ourselves to those standards hinders us from actual growth, because those images and concepts do not reflect the truth of the journey. Authenticity and self-love are not always in alignment with saintly ideals. Being kind is not the same thing as being nice.

When I wrote the original post, my image of a saint was someone pious, ever-peaceful, above reproach, humble to the point of being meek, quiet, virtuous, self-sacrificing, righteous, and proper. Just to make sure my perception wasn’t skewed, I looked up some synonyms for the word “saintly,” and that’s pretty much what I found. Well, in the last few weeks I’ve spent a great deal of time with the Christian mystics (who were later canonized), and my image of a saint was turned on its head.

The temperaments of these mystics do not fit the description of a saint at all. These are not gentle, passive, conflict-avoiders. They are not meek, nor virtuous, nor above reproach, in their respective historical contexts. These are fierce, rebellious, non-conformists, fighting for justice in very disagreeable circumstances, dedicated to their inner guidance from the divine authority within.

They are evolved beings. One would say ultimately so, having completed their mystical journeys and attained permanent unitive states with the divine. But they don’t fit the definition of a saint.

And yet they are, technically, saints…

How do we make sense of that? Are our images of saints misinformed?

Reading one account after another, I was shocked to discover that a more accurate description would sound kind of like this: infinitely courageous, driven, and determined. Strong-willed, self-assured, supremely confident in their missions, even when everything appears to be going wrong. Not quiet, nor meek, nor peaceful; they are fighters, and leaders, and forceful reformers, and self-less servants of the divine will.

Self-less here doesn’t mean self-sacrificing; and it does not mean without a self. Rather, that the egoic will is replaced with the divine will. All desire arising from the ego is dissolved, and a new source of desire arises from the spiritual forces at work. (It feels within like a weird foreign desire. It’s very confusing at first, because it is inconsistent with the you that you know yourself to be. There is no sense of sacrifice at all in the heart or mind, because nothing is being actively given up.)

Here are some quick examples of what these mystics are like: St. Catherine of Siena, at the helm of Italian politics, lobbied continuously and ferociously, sending angry letters to the Pope, pressing for that which the divine will demanded. She was later nearly assassinated in religious riots over power. St. Teresa of Avila left her career in the convent, and following her inner guidance, took on reforming the corruption of the religious orders throughout Spain; instituting new fiercely ascetic protocols which no one supported. St. John of the Cross was imprisoned and tortured for unflinchingly pushing his unpopular reforms; he later escaped from prison. Meister Eckhart (not a saint, but a prominent religious leader and certainly a mystic) was brought up on charges of heresy for his writings.

There are many many examples like this (probably better examples than the ones I’ve chosen here). But the point is that this is not the profile of a tender, obedient, soft spoken, holy person, above the human fray. These are portraits of passionate warriors.

When they aren’t working, the accounts portray them as laughing, and singing, and joyfully, sometimes ecstatically, composing poetry and other forms of art. They aren’t morose or serious. They are playful, and silly, and childlike in their daily lives. And those that aren’t bound by religious language, describe their love of God and union with God in very sensual, erotic ways. (Because their love and piety is not just a religious concept of faith or reverence. It’s an actual feeling of love, real love, with energetic experiences that are deeply sexual in nature.)

This is a very different image of enlightenment, and saintliness, than what we’ve been conditioned to believe. This isn’t the Eastern version of enlightenment. And it’s not the religious standard of a saint (even though they are technically saints).

It is another way… (a way that is rarely taught or talked about in modern spiritual circles).

There is a prevailing notion in popular spirituality that enlightenment, or spiritual evolution, looks and sounds a particular way. It is deeply influenced by the Eastern concepts (perhaps through the import of yoga, or Buddhism, into the West. I don’t know). It envisions a sort of complete annihilation of the person: no self, no personality, no feelings, no emotions, no thoughts, nothing at all. Consciousness united with the divine, divorced from the body, which sits motionless in a cave somewhere…

The breaking down of that concept is important, because the mystical journey does not necessarily follow Eastern trajectories. (Mine certainly doesn’t). And it doesn’t conform to Western religious ideals or standards either (the mystics don’t conform to saintly standards).

Evelyn Underhill makes the argument that the Eastern notions of realization, culminating in a passive life, is actually an incomplete mystical journey. The Eastern mystics attained transcendence, she says, but then got stuck there. The Western mystics, on the other hand, attained realization and the permanent unitive state, but then went further, bringing that will and energy into action in the world. It is an active life (post-realization), not a passive one. It is the living breathing expression of the divine will (through the union with the higher self) in the most intensely human way.

The tendency of Indian mysticism to regard the Unitive Life wholly in its passive aspect, as a total self-annihilation, a disappearance into the substance of the Godhead, results, I believe, from … a distortion of truth. The Oriental mystic “presses on to lose his life upon the heights”; but he does not come back and bring to his fellow-men the life-giving news that he has transcended mortality in the interests of the race. The temperamental bias of Western mystics towards activity has saved them as a rule from such one-sided achievement as this; and hence it is in them that the Unitive Life, with its “dual character of activity and rest,” has assumed its richest and noblest forms. Underhill, Mysticism p.398

According to Underhill, the Western mystics, with their extraordinary lives of real service, are the pinnacle of the mystical journey. They are what real enlightenment looks like.

You may think, my daughters,” says St. Teresa of Avila in The Interior Castle, “that the soul in this state [of union with God] should be so absorbed that she can occupy herself with nothing. You deceive yourselves. She turns with greater ease and ardour than before to all that which belongs to the service of God, and when these occupations leave her free again, she remains in the enjoyment of that companionship.

Hmmm. I’m not a fan of arguing about which tradition or school is more advanced or right (it’s sort of a pointless argument). But all of this resonates very deeply for me. Throughout the last year or so, I kept getting the inner sensation of passionate warrior, thinking there was something wrong with me. What an incredible relief to find a concept of spirituality that fits with my experience.

There have been times when I’ve been guided, by my higher self, to do and say things that didn’t conform to my images and judgments of how a spiritual person is supposed to be. I’ve been asked to send angry emails (when I wasn’t angry), or to confront someone about their behavior (when it didn’t personally affect me). These directions were contrary to my own sense of what I should do in the situation, and how I ought to act in general. And I couldn’t understand why I was being led in a seemingly opposite direction.

Even my spiritual friends (who didn’t fully appreciate what was happening within me) judged me for not conforming to this ever-peaceful Eastern standard. It took a long time for me to learn to trust this inner guidance. To understand that these were lessons for me, and lessons for the recipient. I had to become aware that my images and concepts of who I should be were limited and limiting. I was judging myself against these Eastern ideals, which needed to be reconsidered and re-evaluated. Finding these Western mystics, and an entirely new concept for realization, has been really comforting for me.

Holding oneself to false concepts and standards (spiritual or not) isn’t helpful. It only creates more inner self-judgment and turmoil. That’s why it’s important to become aware of these inner standards, and dismantle them. Each person’s journey unfolds before him outside of his conscious control. It’s not something he designs or chooses. Real spirituality is about finding and living in accordance with that path of truth, not conforming to standards of what one ought to be. As long as I held myself to these Eastern concepts, I was stifling the truth that was asking to be expressed. Reading about the zeal and action of the Christian mystics, I feel a lot more comfortable with what I’m being guided to do.

Let’s go one step further. In my view, the Eastern notion of a “no-self,” as the path and goal of spiritual practice for Western practitioners is a detrimental mistake. The Western psyche is not the same as the Eastern one. We are not raised or conditioned the same way. We don’t have the fundamental foundations of basic goodness inherent in the East; we all carry around loads of unworthiness and psychological trauma. (There is a famous story about Western Buddhist teachers asking the Dalai Lama how to combat this inherent unworthiness. And the Dalai Lama couldn’t understand the question because he had no framework or conception of self-loathing. He was shocked to learn that we hate ourselves…).

And so adopting Eastern standards and practices, when the underlying self is terribly fragile and wounded, can be psychologically dangerous. Lots of spiritual seekers (with deeply broken inner foundations) are on a mission to annihilate themselves completely, believing that this is what enlightenment means. They have no other concepts to hold as their role models for spiritual growth.

In the Western tradition, the path is different. It is a perfection of the self through and with God. In non-Christian language, it is the healing and liberation of the authentic self, the authentic personality free from ego, such that the higher self can be expressed and actually serve humanity at large. When the higher self is not being expressed, the human underneath is a joyous, strong, psychologically healthy, confident person of great integrity and courage. In this tradition, the annihilation of the ego self is not the annihilation of the personality. One can become self-less, by losing his ego, without losing his authentic self. The end goal is not a total annihilation, with consciousness separate from the body, living in a cave. It is an intensely active life, directed wholly and completely by the divine will.

“The doctrine of annihilation as the end of the soul’s ascent, whatever the truth may be as to the Moslem attitude concerning it, is decisively rejected by all European mystics, though a belief in it is constantly imputed to them by their enemies: for their aim is not the suppression of life, but its intensification, a change in its form. This change, they say in a paradox which is generally misunderstood, consists in the perfecting of personality by the utter surrender of self. It is true that the more Orientally-minded amongst them, such as Dionysius the Areopagite, do use language of a negative kind which seems almost to involve a belief in the annihilation rather than the transformation of the self in God: but this is because they are trying to describe a condition of supersensible vitality from the point of view of the normal consciousness to which it can only seem a Nothing, a Dark, a Self-loss.” Underhill, Mysticism p.159

It is through the self, by healing the wounding, dissolving the ego (not the personality), strengthening the authentic self, and balancing out its polarities, that the person is transformed and remade into the divine state. This must be done in accordance with psychological health, never in the suppression, bypass, or invalidation of emotional pain (as most Eastern practices teach). It is when this healing and transformation happen genuinely and organically, that the higher self can begin to move through, and permanent union can be achieved.

The big liberation is the liberation of the authentic self, from fear, and ego, and all the things that keep it confined. Ultimately, it is about learning how to be loving and kind, and real, empathetic and vulnerable, and intensely sensitive to the suffering of others. It is the inner courage and fortitude to be the person you actually are, in truth and with love. And then from that solid and stable foundation, to carry out the mandates of the divine will.

Back to my original query – what do your images of enlightenment look like? And where did you get those images?

I think looking closely at our internal standards of what enlightenment or realization means is very important. It informs our entire understanding of the spiritual process. What sort of expectations are we placing on ourselves and those around us? What are we trying to become? And how might holding on to those concepts limit the true expression of what we really are?

With this awareness, we can free ourselves of trying to fit into concepts, and choose our role models carefully and consciously, in alignment with our own experience. Reading these mystics properly (without all the religious dogma), they are excellent alternative role models for those whose journey doesn’t fit with Eastern traditions. My own preferences aside, it seems to me that the Western models are vastly safer and more effective that their Eastern counterparts.

 

PS. A small side note on saints not acting like saints – there is a period of time in each mystic journey of shadow integration. Its most severe expression happens during the purgative phases, when it feels as though all love is lost. I wrote briefly about this before. Each of the mystics writes about this very unsettling experience in their respective descriptions of the dark night. It’s a temporary condition where saints really don’t act like saints at all. They are turned into their polar opposite (forced to surrender to “sin”) for a period of time, until those aspects are wrestled with and integrated into a balanced whole. It is a complete undoing of all that pretends to be pious and holy, such that the spiritual or religious ego is dismantled.

 

 
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