When during one of our regular walks she spoke to me about a novel by Niall Williams she had just read, entitled ‘This Is Happiness’, my friend Janet did not know that I had started a blog about enlightenment and liberation. I have not yet read the book myself, but this coincidence seemed synchronistically meaningful to me as I felt a lovely resonance between us. This apparently very well-written novel seems to be about what I am addressing here in non-fiction form.
The desire for liberation
The desire to feel better and get to better places in our lives is deep and pervasive, causing strong motivational strivings that take many different forms. Common to all those strivings is the role of our imagination with its idealized visions of possibilities not yet realized. Throughout our lives, we invest enormous energy into turning those strivings into tangible results, and for the most part, these improvement projects give us some satisfaction that sweetens our lives.
However, we all know that these desires and strivings are never quenched and keep us indefinitely wanting more and more. Each time we have met a newly perceived need, the arrived-at-promised land turns quickly into the deficient and disappointing make-due land we need to improve again. And so it goes, cycle after cycle until our death. During this process, idealized images, ideas, and conceptions keep us hopping along like the carrot dangling in front of the donkey. When it comes to finding rest, peace, and equanimity in our lives, these idealizations pull us in the wrong direction following an addictive path towards never-enough land, which makes it impossible to get grounded.
Am I enlightened? A play in three acts.
Act 1: If I say I am, I embarrass myself. If I am not, based on what authority do I write about it?
Act 2: Unless you are evangelically compromised and undiscerning, you will have doubt about anyone’s claim to enlightenment. The problem for you and saving grace for me is that you cannot possibly tell, whether I am enlightened or not, because you will never live in my skin. If I really were, you could never tell anyway, because we would both assume that you are blind and I am clear, and the blind cannot see the truth. Whether I am or am not, how would I really know? To be sure, selling enlightenment is a lucrative business indeed because it takes advantage of people’s insatiable thirst for liberation from suffering, and their propensity to project their own disowned power and authority on an idealized hero of their choice. That’s why gods, tyrants, and saints are so popular!
Act 3: If I claim to be enlightened, or try to teach you how to become enlightened, consider I might do better teaching you how to find a unicorn. Enlightenment is just not what we may ever think it might be. So why not dispense with this notion of enlightenment?
What is (enlightenment) … unendarkenment?
Peruse the page in Wikipedia on enlightenment, and your head will start spinning. There are as many views on enlightenment as the square root of the number of people on this planet multiplied once by itself times two. Does that not tell us something? Notions that are attached to this phenomenon called enlightenment are non-duality, no-self, liberation, non-suffering, awakening, understanding, oneness, absolute, emptiness, Buddhahood, perfection, infinite compassion, wisdom, and skill – just to name a few. The aim of this blog is to cut through this jungle of confusion and make a very simple point: It is all much simpler and less glamorous than we think, indeed so simple as to be too simple to easily grasp! What complicates everything is the way our mind works without us knowing how it works. To get down to real effective business in this matter, we have to unendarken our view of reality.
The world of nouns
The word ‘enlightenment’ is a noun, and its attached cognitive notion refers to a thing or a mental state. Nouns point to objects we can possess, and mental states are psychological places we want to own or reach. By thinking in nouns, we find ourselves in mindscapes that present a static world to us. You either are or are not enlightened (a state you either possess or not). If you are not enlightened, you want to become enlightened (you are here, enlightenment is there, and you want to find a way of getting from here to there). Once you are enlightened (more accurately, you believe you are enlightened), you have the illusion of having arrived, and you possess the holy grail that will allegedly cause you eternal bliss.
Much like buying a new house, isn’t it? The old house is here, the new, better one there, you find ways of getting from here to there, and once you are there, you have happily arrived as the new owner. We call this mind function the problem-solving mind – a very useful mind function, but only then when it does not tyrannize and monopolize our way of meeting reality. The problem is that for most, it does and causes untold suffering.
The web of connotations attached to nouns
The notion of enlightenment conjures up many imaginative forms of permanent bliss and final liberation from pain and suffering. Once we have it, so we think, life is a perpetual breeze and we are finally, constantly happy – finally arrived in the kingdom of heaven. Because no one ever finds themselves in that state, or if they do, it never lasts, yet our mind constructs such a psychological place, our problem-solving mind gets busy. It imagines that place to be somewhere else than where we presently are, it also imagines the place we are now as a hell to escape from, it then compares the place we are now with the imagined heaven we allegedly could be in, and then busily tries to problem solve how to get from here to there. It does that repeatedly, obsessively, and obstinately, even when sooner or later it becomes clear that the imagined heaven is like the mirage of an oasis in the desert – constantly retreating further the closer you think you get to it, leaving you eternally thirsty.
Deconstructing the noun
Reality is just not made of nouns or objects. What we perceive as objects are useful sensory approximations. The ball you kick is usefully seen as an object you can manipulate and kick into the goal. In reality, the ball, like anything else in this universe, is energy flow. Some energy flow is obvious as when we deal with electricity or watch a river flow, some much less so as when we touch a rock. But no matter how we slice it, nothing in this universe is static, permanent, or motionless. Everything is energy flowing, creating flow patterns that arise out of pure potential, taking shape as a dynamic and ever-changing form for a while, before dissolving again into pure potential.
When it comes to our minds and how we view ourselves as organisms, bodies, and humans, the mind’s bias toward constructing a world of objects needs to be recognized. To meaningfully live in this world and survive as an organism, we need to create order in the chaotic, aimless flow of energy at the base of everything. The mind does that by parsing the energy flow into manageable energy chunks that have a reasonably stable life span, such as the perception of a ball for example, and these parsed energy chunks can then be manipulated in more or less predictable ways. We can plan a holiday in the future, knowing with statistical (not absolute) certainty that we have a reasonable chance to get there and enjoy ourselves when the time comes, even though foundationally reality is radically uncertain.
This statistically relative certainty is good enough for daily living and survival, although not necessarily to thrive. We routinely experience unsettling breakthroughs of uncertainty in those black swan events, when three days before the planned holiday someone dies of a heart attack or the plane to the holiday destination crashes. We are then forced to remember that certainty does not exist and that the only game in reality town is uncertainty. Everything, absolutely everything, is impermanent energy flow, coming and going, causing us to fear uncertainty, yet also making growth and transformation possible. In other words, those useful approximations created by the construction of nouns and objects, turn out to be much less useful when it comes to finding happiness, decreasing suffering, and searching for liberation. Understanding the way we construct reality and particularly our view of the human mind, requires the more sophisticated and reality-based notion of flow, process, and verb instead of static, thing, and noun. Not that static, thing, and noun don’t exist as an approximation, but rather that the foundations on which to base our lives cannot be certain, solid, and permanent – it is radically uncertain, flowing, and impermanent.
The implication is that being grounded in flow and process, which means being grounded in reality rather than flights of fantasy, reveals a most puzzling and simultaneously liberating insight – there is no place, state, or destination somewhere else at a future time to ever be found, discovered, or reached. If there was, given that everything is fundamentally impermanent flow, it would be already changed and gone the moment we reach it, and we could never own it, hold it, or dwell in it forever. We can then relinquish our worry about getting enlightened since there is no such state to be permanently had. Instead, there is only the journey without a goal, the journey of noticing improvement described in one of my blogs. Ground yourself in the foundational reality of impermanence, change, and transformation, and you will lose this painful obsession with inadequacy and having to get somewhere you are not. The imaginary place of enlightenment that does not exist gets replaced by the real process of unendarkenment.
Reality and fantasy
There are people who chase enlightenment the way others chase twisters. They are motivated by its promise of liberation from suffering. That promise is linked to fantasies about enlightenment and its absence of suffering, which are devoid of any sense of the reality of non-suffering. Fantasies are ultimately just thoughts connected to emotions they engender, therefore constructions of the mind, and very often disconnected from reality. Unwittingly, we chase Santa Claus believing that fantasy is a reality to be discovered, even though time and again the glass of milk and the plate of cookies remain untouched when no magician gets involved. Barking up the wrong tree, the chase becomes the thrill of a promise that never gets fulfilled. That thrill can sadly sustain the chase for a whole lifetime, leaving us empty-handed and disappointed. Let’s not take that route!
Pain is not suffering
Without understanding the difference between pain and suffering, we can never understand what the promise of mindfulness is all about. Having a body with a sentient nervous system to regulate our energy flow, we are bound to make sense of reality and be guided to survive by having to regulate pleasant and unpleasant experiences. The more extreme unpleasant experiences become, the closer they get to our definition of pain. Pain is unavoidable and an integral part of living.
Needs that are not met create unpleasant states and drive the organism to fulfill them, causing in turn pleasurable satisfaction for a while when they get fulfilled. The more seamlessly embedded in nature an organism is, and the more rudimentary the organism’s capacity for self-reflection is, the simpler the formula for successful survival is: Follow what’s pleasant and avoid what’s unpleasant, and you will be fine.
Ours, however, is an organism capable of self-reflection. We can think about thinking and about our experience of the world, thereby through imagination also creating worlds that do not exist. That capacity is hugely powerful and enabled the development of our human civilization. Through imagination, we evolved from stone age hunter-gatherers into creatures using cell phones to communicate at great distances. Keeping in mind that nothing was brought to us earthlings by extraterrestrial beings from another galaxy, ask yourself where the cell phone was thirty thousand years ago, and it is awe-inspiring to contemplate the fact that the cell phone arose purely through our use of the imagination. In David Bohm’s terms, the cell phone existed then as part of the implicate order of things, and we managed to slowly bring it into the explicate order of reality.
This power of self-reflection has a negative side. Our capacity to imagine what does not exist also applies to narratives about our lives, particularly negative ones. As Mark Twain once said, “the worst things in my life never happened”. We may have an unavoidable pain in our right thigh, and if we just experience that pain and nothing else, it usually remains very manageable and only tolerably interferes with the enjoyment of our lives. However, if the pain causes us to spin doomsday scenarios that it must be cancer and our life is ruined, then the unavoidable pain gets enhanced by a secondary, avoidable, and optional cognitive-emotional elaboration, which not only worsens the unavoidable pain but adds on top of that a whole lot more pain that is largely disconnected from reality. That additional unnecessary pain our self-reflective mind creates is entirely optional and called suffering.
When we talk about liberation, we don’t mean liberation from unavoidable pain, but from avoidable suffering that the mind superimposes on the pain. The cause of suffering lies mostly in our defenses against acceptance of what is, whether we like it or not. Our resistance to what is, and our act of getting into our own way cause the kind of rope burn suffering is all about. The final equation can be put this way: Pain + resistance to pain = suffering. Decrease the resistance to pain, and suffering will decrease. The promise of mindfulness is all about that.
Let’s start with an anecdote as we ask ourselves what enlightenment is and why it can be liberating to be interested in it. Here is a Zen master’s definition of enlightenment:
‘Enlightenment is the realization that there is no difference
between enlightenment and non-enlightenment.’
Interesting, isn’t it? The Zen master implies two things: (1) Who cares about enlightenment given that it is an imaginary, non-existent place constructed by the mind? (2) If we drop out of our mind’s constructions, and down into the reality of living, we realize that everything is flow, process, and endless evolution without a goal and that what we are really left with is a constant process of skill improvement as sailors on the ocean of life. We stop chasing an endpoint and instead start cherishing the endless process of inquiry, discovery, and creativity that allows us to notice improvement, a process better referred to as unendarkenment. Whatever our thoughts may be about and re-present like a menu representing the meal or a map the territory, we then remain grounded in how reality presents itself as the meal or the territory we are directly embedded in – the timeless process of energy flow arising and passing.
Awareness and relationship to experience
When you only have a bicycle, you can experience transportation and its world only from the bicycle perspective. You will work very hard at creating as many varied bicycling experiences and adventures as possible, but they will always be bicycle experiences. If you own a bicycle and a car, that increases your experience options, and if you imagine having access to boats, trains, helicopters, airplanes and rockets, you are suddenly able to see the world from many different perspectives. It dawns on you that how you reach your destinations becomes more important than the destinations themselves. We are biased toward the misunderstanding that the promised land resides in a particular set of experiences, and then we chase experiences for liberation. Not so. Experiences, as transient and impermanent as they all are, can never provide liberation from suffering. Chasing after experiences, whatever the means of this chase are, like psychedelics, for example, will never reveal the quiet, stable peace and serenity independent of circumstance we so fervently yearn for. Only through our attitude and relationship to all experience, and realizing what that is, can liberation occur and our suffering quiets down.
What is the nature of this relationship to experience? This is a very complex topic I cannot possibly exhaust in this short blog. We have to explore two avenues – one is the question of who or what is relating to experience, and the other is what this process of relating refers to.
The first question is often taken too simplistically, and one assumes that “of course, it is me who relates to experience”, without giving a second glance at who ‘me’ really is. When we look deeply into that question, ‘deeply’ meaning not only conceptually, but as a whole body-mind experience, it becomes quickly quite clear that all we find are further experiences. In other words, the ‘I’ we are trying to understand immediately dissolves into further experiences that are not ‘me’ the moment we try to examine it. The observer is just nowhere to be found, despite the fact that we have the illusion of being the observer. When this discovery hits us as a realization, what we thought was a relationship between ‘me’ and experience dissolves into a web of interactive energy flows that have no weaver. The unfolding universe we observe and the observing ‘I’ are exactly the same. We are the unfolding universe knowing itself, and the unfolding universe knowing itself is, among many other manifestations, us.
The second question about what process constitutes this perceived relationship arises from resolving the first question. Once we realize that we are the unfolding universe knowing itself, it becomes clear how fundamental awareness is to reality. The unfolding universe knowing itself is just a special case of something even broader touching on timelessness in limitless space – an energy flow with a center everywhere and a circumference nowhere. Our true identity is then revealed as this timeless movement and eternal change from pure and unimaginable potential to identifiable patterned manifestations and back, somehow all steeped in incomprehensible awareness with its powerful force for transformation, healing, and love.
In human beings, the arising of patterned energy flow manifestations simultaneously creates a duality, which arises from focusing non-dual awareness in the form of attention that moves from a subjective center towards a whole range of objectively perceived centers of energy flow. Upon closer examination, the subjective center of energy flow always turns out to be as varied and manifold as the many objects of its awareness, throwing us again right back into the fundamental insight about the non-duality of reality. In this way, awareness and its focused manifestation we call attention, non-duality and duality, pure potential and impermanent manifestations, the universal ‘me’ as the unfolding universe and the individual ‘me’ observing the unfolding universe, all are a mysteriously sacred dance we need to learn to dance in order to decrease our suffering in a fundamentally stable and reliable way. What that does to our conditioned patterns of behavior, both physiologically and psychologically, is a systematic unlearning of rigidly predictable pathways of illusory knowing, often accompanied by full immersion in nothingness, followed by a creative expansion of new pathways of insight that ceaselessly connect with each other in vast new webs of awareness.
Coda on mindfulness meditation
No goal, just a journey, and a thousand-year one at that. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to change, nothing to solve, nothing to achieve, and nobody to be. Just noticing improvement.
Zenkei Shibayama (1894-1974), the overseer of the large Rinzai Zen Nanzen-ji branch of temples, once said: “There is a common saying [in Japanese Zen], ‘Miso (bean paste) with the smell of miso is not good miso. Enlightenment with the smell of enlightenment is not the real enlightenment.”
And so, a wise old Zen master, very near death, lay quietly on his mat with his eyes closed, all his disciples gathered around. Kneeling closest to him was his number one disciple, a long-time practitioner who would succeed the old man as head of the monastery. At one point the old master opened his eyes, and lovingly gazed at each and every one of his disciples assembled in the crowded room. Finally, his glance rested on his successor, and he managed to speak his last words to the man: “Ah, my son, you have a very thorough knowledge of the teachings and scriptures, and you have shown great discipline in keeping the precepts. Your behavior has, in fact, been flawless. Yet there is one more thing remaining to be cleared up: you still reek and stink of ‘Zen’!”
Once through much effort you have internalized the scaffolding of proper mindfulness technique to meet the immense complexity of the human mind, you can trust that like the experience of a seasoned sailor on life’s oceans, or an accomplished musician with her instrument, it will effortlessly carry you through the worst storms and weather patterns with the reasonable success of meaningful survival. You can then let go of the preoccupation about whether you are ‘doing this right’, freed to fully give yourself to the most rewarding task there is, the creative exploration of human possibilities for healing and ceaselessly grow towards ever larger spaces of wisdom.
If you believe your teacher is enlightened, wake up and look for the disowned authority you project onto your teacher. If your teacher believes he or she is enlightened, run for the hills. Your belief will preclude the possibility of waking up to realize the deep nature of reality. If instead, your teacher is a log on fire that sets your belly on fire, getting you to sweat in practice and inspire you to be the explorer of your own mind, proceed, as he or she may just be undarkened enough to have relinquished much suffering and have the ability to be of great benefit to you, although you would never know it.
Copyright © 2022 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.