Top 10 Misconceptions about Enlightenment
Enlightenment, Satori, Moksha, Nirvana... many names for the one non-describable state of reality. If there's one thing we consistently find across human history is humanity's attempt to transcend the mundane state of being. A desperate search for purpose and an undeniable sense of emptiness leading to the pursuit of happiness.
I've been seeking after this illusive state of being for now over three decades, practicing literally every religion and spiritual tradition known (and unknown) to man. I've studied numerous scriptures, met more teachers and gurus than I can possibly count. I've been teaching about consciousness for over twenty years now, leading hundreds of classes, workshops and retreats. After teaching for a couple of years, it became apparent that most spiritual seekers look for something that has nothing to do with enlightenment. The common thread seems to be an attempt to escape life or a struggle to capture divinity in a box for personal or material gains. Anything to avoid pain and gain pleasure. A futile attempt to transcend and escape the human condition and attain a divine, unearthly state of being.
Here are a few of the most common misconceptions I've encountered while walking my own journey.
#1 – Enlightenment is a state or a destination you can reach, attain and achieve.
The deepest implication of this statement is that enlightenment is not found here, now, where you are. It implies that you need to take some kind of action, do something in order to reach or attain it. It means that it is something you lack, and can work for, take some kind of action to get from point A to point B. You don't know calculus, but if you go to school or a teacher who does, you can learn and change the state of not knowing into knowing. In other words it's an additive experience, from zero to one. This misconception leads directly to misconception #2:
#2 - You can't reach Enlightenment without a teacher; a Roshi, a Rabbi or a Guru.
Since our foundational misconception is that Enlightenment is something we lack we have to approach someone who has obtained it, reached or attained that state and can give, share or transmit that state to us. I recognize this misconception as the basis to suffering within the spiritual world or outside of it. The understanding that someone else has ‘the' answers you seek. That by putting the responsibility on someone else's shoulders you will reach the happiness you pursue. Most teachers would equate the need for a spiritual teacher to the studying of any subject matter. The example that is often given is of the fact that in order for you to learn to play the piano you need to find a teacher. Is it possible but highly unlikely that just by dropping your fingers on one you'd miraculously know how to play a concerto. But following that logic implies, again, that enlightenment is a something, a kind of knowledge you're lacking and need to work on and practice. Of course, again, it implies it is something you don't have or can't access on your own.
#3 - You have to suffer in order to get Enlightened.
Before I go on, I would love to point out that we could replace the word enlightenment with ‘happiness' or any kind of ‘spiritual betterment'. The phrase ‘no pain no gain' is often used within spiritual traditions. ‘You have to pay the price' will say the guru. How do you expect to receive everything if you're not willing to give everything you've got? – Again... implying that enlightenment is an additive experience. Something you lack and need to work for. That this happy state you're seeking requires a deep sacrifice and the enduring of pain. If there's one thing certain in the world of duality, of names and forms we all share is that we encounter challenges, suffering and pain. Enticing us with the promise of the cessation of that experience is the best salesmanship there is.
#4 – Enlightenment requires a dedication to a spiritual practice or teaching
Putting aside that again, this misconception implies enlightenment is something you can work for, don't have and need to invest time in order to achieve; implying that enlightenment is a result of spiritual practice opens the door for that state of being to be dependent on a method, a tool, an instrument of knowledge that is held in the hands of someone else. Whether that be the practice of Yoga, meditation, chanting or prayer, sitting in silence or becoming vegan. In other words if you practice anything in order to be enlightened you are actually implying that the method, the practice, the technique is more valued than your perceived goal. That without this training that state is unattainable and cannot be reached. Sadly this misconception also leads to spiritual competition – my practice is better than yours, my guru is stronger, my kombucha is purer and my Kundalini is higher... or if you'd like, the exact opposite - your way isn't the right way, that mantra of yours doesn't work, your guru is fake.
#5 – The state of Enlightenment means transcending the ego, thoughts and feelings.
This idea basically means that if you have a headache, the best way of handling it would be to cut off your head. More than any other misconception, this one has caused more harm than any other. Leading most seekers towards guilt, shame, self-hatred and the declaration that spiritual practice just isn't “for them”. We all think, feel and experience the world through and by our sense of self, the I. Any attempt to destroy, demolish or negate this innate existential circumstance will lead to a deep sensation of suffering. In metaphysical terms you are attempting to collapse a black hole. To reach the source of light without allowing for any shadow to exist. Light and darkness, happiness and pain, thought, feeling and silence are nothing but implications. They imply one the other, their existence is not the obstacle, not your enemy. If the state of enlightenment would mean having no thoughts, no feelings, no ego, you'd find enlightened beings completely still and stone like. Having no say and no expression whatsoever.
#6 – An enlightened being should have no sense of humor.
Since we misconceive the state of Enlightenment to be a state of stillness, of silence with no emotional or cognitive resonance, the obvious conclusion would have to be that an Enlightened being would be literally dead serious. If you notice the depiction of most saints and enlightened masters throughout time and history they are solemn and grave. Unmoving, untouched by the material world. They have transcended our mundane reality. They are unaffected by our daily affairs and are only here to remind us to leave our worldly dealings behind. This concept leaves no comic relief, no place for comedy, poetry and art. It leads us to accept the state of Enlightenment to be a sentence to be carried and something to strive and work for.
#7 – Enlightenment is impossible for most people to attain.
You never hear of a saint going to the bathroom, exploring their sexuality or watching the Simpsons. You never hear of a saint puling out a fist when stuck in traffic or banging on a vending machine. The saint can do nothing more than sit on a jeweled throne while imparting their timeless message to the world. Feeding the poor or meditating for months under a tree. There are two sects of Jainism, which differ on the argument whether Mahavira was celibate or had a wife and daughter. They both agree that Mahavira never perspired. Yeah... obviously not, he was a saint. We want our saints to be otherworldly. Having mystical and non-human feats of behavior. That allows us to stay behind. To aspire to an impossible state of being. To treat this desired state of being as an impossibility and leave it somewhere in a distant future. Since I do get upset, I do perspire, go to the bathroom and watch the Simpsons, how can I possibly consider being or even becoming enlightened?!
#8 - Once Enlightened you will have and display mystical powers.
Producing scared ash and jewelry from your palms, astral travel and telekinesis are but a few of the mystical powers you should expect once you attain your Enlightenment. Until then... you're not there yet. You are just a regular dude like anyone else. You need more books, more workshops and retreats. Keep purchasing your way up the Enlightened ladder. Once again, this misconception implies nothing more than - you are not there yet. You need to work and pay the price. You're a mere human and your inability to manifest mystical objects, levitate or foresee into the past or future mean that you have yet to attain the desired state of divinity you've been seeking. Go back to step #2 and find a pilot guru to take you there or up the ante and practice more!
#9 – Once Enlightened there will be no challenges and life will be piece of cake.
Since Enlightenment has been marketed as the end all be all for every form of suffering, the mere attainment of this state would obviously mean no more rent, the immediate recognition by society and the joining of disciples for you to toil around. Every day would look like a VIP visit to Disney World, free meals and a red carpet to your private jet, taking you from lecture to lecture, imparting your wisdom to the undeserving world. An uneducated look at masters of the past implies this extreme perspective of deserving service, gold and sexual favors. Sadly, the history of enlightenment and spiritual teachings is filled with misconceptions, hardship and profound suffering to the lowly unworthy followers.
#10 – Since an Enlightened being has transcended their ego; they are just, kind and would hurt no one.
I believe this misconception is the worst and the most destructive of all. The idea that Enlightenment makes you “better”, angelic and good willed; that an Enlightened being has worked and suffered for it and thus deserves your undying devotion and acceptance is the most demonic and dangerous of any other concept in the realm of spirituality. This idea allows gurus and spiritual teachers to take advantage of their willing disciples. Taking the guise of “god works in mysterious ways”. You cannot understand the ways the Enlightened beings work for your benefit and thus you should turn off your sense of discernment and common sense. Whatever the Enlightened being does is right, just and is done on your behalf. I've met too many “Enlightened” beings throughout my life that hold on to this misconception and will do anything in their power to convince you to let down your guard and accept their infinite grace and mercy, calling themselves your ever well wisher only because they have seen the light or experience something that apparently, you do not.
I could probably keep going for hours, as there has been no other field of human exploration as abused and exploited as Enlightenment has. Most teachers would recite the words of earlier masters, exclaiming this state of being cannot be explained in words yet go on to write books upon books. Many teachers would tell you there's nothing to be taught yet invite you to their workshops, seminars and month long retreats.
What if... just if... enlightenment was the awareness that you have already arrived. That you are actually sitting in the target, where you are aiming for. What if I ask you to look around your room and look for the door. Look at it, is it there? Yes, it is. Now let me ask you, do you see the space between you and the door? – No? You have to, if you don't it means it's either not there or that it is so close that you can't actually see it. Yes? Then what is it that you're seeing? Seeing space isn't something “actual” for you to see...
What if the state of Enlightenment would be the moment you'll recognize the presence of the space between you and the door. It has always been there, but you were focusing on the door and not the space. The epiphany of being aware of the space doesn't make you special. You don't see anything others do not. To attribute mystical powers to your ability to see the space is ridiculous. To demand that others treat you as royalty because you are aware of the space is outrageous. What if Enlightenment is truly the awareness of your capacity to focus on your ability to be aware? You have never been unaware, or non-existing, your existence in duality implies that you can conceive oneness, and your ability to forget your connection to the whole is actually the state of being you have always desired to experience?
Life as we conceive it to be is a set of implications. Black implies white, beginning implies end. Enlightenment implies unconscious darkness or choice-less forgetfulness. To remember implies you can forget and to have forgotten implies you can remember. What if... just if, everything is just perfect, just right in its imperfection. That you, as you are have nothing to reach and aim for other than the recognition of where you already are.
It isn't coincidental that almost every enlightened being in the history of mankind responded in the same way to their moment of awakening – a deep rolling laughter; exclaiming the disbelief of not being able to see this before. The space between them and the door. What if Enlightenment would mean nothing more than you being a hundred percent you? Unedited and unfiltered. If to become Enlightened would be a result of you gifting yourself back to – your self.
If you know that one-day, as all Enlightened beings have, you'll look back and laugh... Why wait?