What comes to mind when you think of enlightenment? Saints glowing with divine radiance? Gurus with unfeasibly long beards chanting incomprehensible mantras? Endless do-gooding and lots of smiling? Floating on a cloud of bliss while dispensing otherworldly wisdom?
Enlightenment is often seen as a one-off event that changes your life forever. Darkness is banished and you spend the rest of your days bathed in light and goodness.
Many people chase enlightenment thinking it will solve all their problems and make them a better person, or a more powerful person. But this is a fantasy, a typical ego trip and a perfect example of the kind of self-deception that must be overcome if you want to awaken. Let’s bust a few myths…
“The very thing that we call the realization is that there is nothing to be realized. The realization itself is of nothing. Literally, it is nothing. Nothing is attained, nothing is realized, nothing is gained. This is absolutely true. You gain absolutely nothing from such a realization. What is the realization? The realization is that there is no self that can realize anything. There is no self. The delusion is that there is a self.” – Dennis Genpo Merzel Sensei
Ten Myths about Enlightenment
1. Enlightenment is a Peak Experience
A peak experience is when your consciousness suddenly flashes up to a higher level. You get a glimpse of beauty, joy or unity and all is right in the world. They are wonderful, liberating moments and you can train yourself to have more of them. But a peak experience is not enlightenment. The clue is in the name.
Enlightenment is not an ‘experience’. Enlightenment is Being.
2. Enlightenment means No Thoughts
There is a great debate over whether you must stop thinking in order to attain enlightenment. Many believe that to be Awake means to be in a permanent absorption state called Samadhi, and never think ever again – not even to write your shopping list. Some claim to have no thoughts, but this is hard to believe when they seem to have no trouble talking and using language. While satori or awakening may involve a period of cessation of thoughts, that doesn’t mean you will never think again.
Thoughts are not the problem. Your attachment to thought is.
3. Enlightenment is Self Mastery
Some forms of meditation involve visualising things to clear the chakras or shower the body with a cleansing light. Or they use the breath to manipulate energy and forcefully raise the Kundalini. There is much focus on self-improvement, healing and mastery, and an avoidance of darkness and negativity. While some of these practices may be beneficial, they can become a hindrance. After all, who is the self you are trying to improve?
You will never master your self. You have no self.
4. Enlightenment is Instant
Technically, when awakening happens, it can only happen NOW, in this moment. So in that sense, it is instant. But to fully integrate the truth which is revealed in that instant, much work must be done. Many people believe that when they have experienced an initial awakening – called kensho or stream entry – they have become enlightened. They have not. The real thing, while instant from a certain perspective, unfolds as a process.
Enlightenment happens NOW, but integration takes time.
5. Enlightenment means No Problems
This is the ultimate fantasy – that if you attain enlightenment you will have no more problems. All your dreams will come true. You will live out your days wrapped in bliss and unending happiness, like the Dalai Lama on ecstasy. You will glow with health and vitality, and never get sick or suffer physically – not even a paper cut. Do you really think you can live forever? More importantly, would you want to?
The end of suffering doesn’t mean the end of problems or pain.
6. Enlightenment means being Spiritual
This one causes a lot of confusion. Many people believe that to be enlightened means becoming a ‘spiritual person’ – in other words, a nicer version of yourself. You will smile a lot, do spiritual things and wear spiritual clothes (whatever they might be). You will never get angry, never swear, and never upset anyone. You may even believe you should be celibate (overrated, if you ask me 😉 ). It’s true that negative traits will tend to fade over time, and you may become calmer and ‘nicer’ as some of the rougher edges are sanded down. But you will not become a bland nobody (unless you already are!).
Enlightenment is more about wholeness than piousness.
7. Enlightenment is the End of Personality
Following on from the last myth, many people believe that if they attain enlightenment they will lose their personal identity. Upon awakening you realise there is no such ‘thing’ as a self, but there is still a collection of traits and habits that express themselves through the body in time and space. Shinzen Young says there is an ‘activity called a personality.’ But it is not the personality that becomes enlightened. The ‘I’ doesn’t awaken; the self is seen through.
The deeper the realisation of No Self, the freer the personality becomes.
8. Enlightenment means Becoming a Guru
Another ego trip. After awakening many people believe they must now become a teacher and share their new found wisdom and insight. There’s nothing wrong in spreading the truth around, and the more the merrier, but there are other paths. You don’t have to be a guru, or a Seer, or some kind of Christ-like martyr or saint. Most of us have incomplete knowledge and are not fully enlightened anyway – even gurus.
Enlightenment means accepting what you are.
“There are no enlightened people, there are no enlightened teachers. No one. There are only those who have realized this and those who have not.” – Dennis Genpo Merzel Sensei
9. Enlightenment must be Transmitted
This is a carry-over from the days of respect for authority and power, when the only way to gain access to the teachings was via an institution, tradition or lineage. Many still believe that awakening can only be conferred on a disciple by a Master, or that you must have a guru who will demonstrate your True Self. Many still travel to India or Tibet, as if enlightenment were impossible anywhere else.
Teachers are important as guides but they do not give you the Truth.
10. Enlightenment gives you Superpowers
This is my favourite. How I wish I had superpowers! But alas, the extraordinary powers – called siddhi – are beside the point. There are those who have displayed abilities that go beyond what we might call ‘normal.’ The Bodhisattva vows include admonitions against using any powers that may manifest, such as telepathy or remote viewing. But they also warn that failure to use the powers to prevent evil doings by another will result in karmic penalty. Needless to say, most of us probably won’t have to worry about this. I can certainly live without that level of responsibility.
There is nothing exceptional or extraordinary about enlightenment. It is who you are.
“The Way itself keeps moving. That is what the Tao is, movement, change, flux like a river. You have to move with it. You cannot stop and build your little pool some place alongside the river. That is where you get stuck and you become stagnant, dead and lifeless. When you really throw yourself into that river, there is no control, no safety and no security. You are flowing down the fast river. You have to really let go. It does not help to try to grasp or clutch at every branch or at every stone. Then, you are truly alive and truly free. You are the Way itself.” – Dennis Genpo Merzel Sensei
Next: What is Enlightenment?