Many popular books and authors today like to present the idea of enlightenment as if it were a recipe for chocolate cake. Their titles contain promising messages of ease, simplicity, shortcuts, and delicious returns. In such books, enlightenment can be construed as a secular version of “heaven”—an idealized state of existence, once reserved for mountaintop monks and ascetics whose life was devoted exclusively to meditation and holy living—but now, with just a few simple steps, can be achieved in our modern hedonistic culture, and with minimal fuss of effort. You can’t blame the authors or their publishers for jumping on the social bandwagon of self-indulgence that advocates getting something for nothing, our right to instant gratification, and our short attention spans. Sadly, however, the popularity of such self-improvement books with diluted messages only indicates that we still have a long way to go to be truly liberated from our thinking habits, to be truly “enlightened.”
Simply explained, enlightenment as it has been taught for thousands of years in Eastern philosophy, means liberation from being thought-identified, to being observer-identified—freedom from our thoughts. When we learn to observe our thoughts without being identified with them, we discover our true nature: we achieve “enlightenment.” And sure enough, one of the most effective ways to achieve an experience of this state is by quieting the “monkey mind”—that stream of unbridled chatter that constitutes the majority of our thoughts—through meditative practices.
In the mid-1700s, the Western world went through a period known as the “Age of Enlightenment” (a.k.a. the Age of Reason). Although there were differing perspectives of what this meant and how it was to be effected in society, the primary purpose was to advance society from superstitious thinking to scientific and intellectual exchange. Perhaps the most relevant perspective of that time to today’s enlightenment messages was the French philosopher Immanuel Kant’s assertion that the Enlightenment was, "Mankind's final coming of age, the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance and error." The Age of Enlightenment was relatively short-lived, and by the late 1800s it was replaced by Romanticism, a movement with emphasis on emotion, and against rationalism and empiricism.
From this truncated history of the transformation of thought, we begin to get a glimpse of the developmental immaturity that Kant speaks to. The emancipation of human consciousness is still an early work in progress, and my guess is that it will continue to be for a long time to come. And while there are no shortcuts to “illumination,” a clear understanding will eliminate struggle and encourage the infinite growth in consciousness available to us. In this vein, I offer the five common misperceptions about enlightenment:
1) Enlightenment is a goal to move toward. Actually, enlightenment is a process. Being engaged in the process of cultivating our thinking is itself what is enlightening. Keeping our “eye on the prize” distracts us from being in the process, and we expend much wasted effort when we are focused on the horizon for our goal, rather than on the direct experience of the immediate steps being taken. In modernity, we have lost our ability to appreciate that anything worth doing well takes time.
2) Enlightenment is a static end result. Actually, enlightenment is the practice of awareness, and it is the practice that illuminates our mind. With sufficient practice, when this awareness becomes habit, we can legitimately make some claim to experiencing enlightenment.
3) Enlightenment is a problem-free state of existence. Actually, problems are a dynamic tension of life, and the unexpected and undesired events that punctuate our lives will occur regardless of how much we meditate, or learn how to be in the moment, or harness our thoughts. What shifts, however, is our reaction and response. When we learn to cultivate the Observer mind, our ego’s meanderings or rantings still move through us, but we retain our equanimity.
4) There are shortcuts to achieving enlightenment. Actually, there aren’t. Which is not to say that transforming our thoughts has to be arduous, distasteful work. The practice does, however, require commitment and effort. All things of lasting value, especially gaining a spiritual understanding of one’s true nature, require time, patience, and nurturing.
5) Achieving enlightenment is a solitary, self-serving undertaking. Naturally, all self-improvement starts with the individual, and we are each responsible for our own growth and maturity. Still, the maturation and liberation of consciousness collectively is imbued with a sense of urgency, as we witness the pressing and accelerating rate of change in all spheres of human existence. Given that human thinking is producing massive fluctuations in the evolutionary system by having profound effects on the physical, spiritual, and social environment, how we think is of supreme importance.
Julie Clayton is the Reviews Editor for New Consciousness Review, a showcase for books and films about spirituality and inspiration, new science, self-help and enlightened living at http://www.ncreview.com. Julie is also a writer and developmental editor for new consciousness books, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.