[This is the 11th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]
In the aftermath of movement politics, California was teeming with seekers after truth. More than a few political activists had replaced their concerns about social justice with a quest for personal enlightenment. I was skeptical but intrigued by rumors of a state of consciousness promising clarity of mind and perception.
I knew a number of high achievers in mathematics, physics, politics, and the arts, and I wanted to know if attaining enlightenment would be helpful in such fields. If enlightenment is indeed a state of exceptional lucidity, it ought to affect the quality of the work done by those who’ve attained it.
To check this out, I read widely (e.g., Jesus, Lao-tzu, Mo-tzu, Huang Po, Nisargadatta, Wei Wu Wei, Shunryu Suzuki, Hubert Benoit, John Levy, Erwin Schrödinger, Thomas Merton, Dalai Lama, Virginia Satir, Franklin Merritt-Wolff, Martin Buber, Atmananda, Joel Kramer, Robert Powell, Alan Watts, Heinrich Zimmer, Ramana Maharshi); and I attended talks, seminars, workshops, and retreats with a variety of teachers and gurus (including Jean Klein, Douglas Harding, Walter Truett Anderson, Jean Houston, Chögyam Trungpa, Gyalwang Karmapa, Ram Dass, Werner Erhard, Vimala Thakar, J. Krishnamurti, Muktananda, Carl Rogers, Fernando Flores, George Leonard, and Joseph Campbell).
I got to know several gurus personally, as well as some of their advanced students privy to what went on behind the curtain separating the novices from the gurus. How did these presumably enlightened masters act when they were not functioning in their role as spiritual leaders in front of a group of devoted followers?
Getting a close look at several individuals who were advertised as enlightened led me to conclude that there’s a lot of hype and hypocrisy in the business. A good many of them, not unlike a fair number of academics I’d known, seemed to me to be in it primarily for the lifestyle.
Many gurus are treated like deities and hold absolute power over their devotees. As “enlightened beings” they’re accountable to no one, and their foibles, appetites, and excesses are given a pass. Of course, there were some teachers who, as far as I could make out, lived exemplary lives. But lack of transparency and accountability ensnare leaders of all types in corruption, and spiritual leaders are no exception.
Fraud is a stranger to neither science nor religion. Its presence invalidates neither, but its ubiquity warrants skepticism. What I really wanted to find out was whether there were claimants to enlightenment who, unlike ordinary people, actually pass their days in a state of bliss and clarity. And, if attained, does enlightenment persist? Are the enlightened more creative subsequent to attaining satori, to use the Zen term for enlightenment? Are they kinder, wiser, or more creative than the unenlightened?
None of the teachers I asked gave unequivocal answers to these questions. Nor did any of them unambiguously exemplify the supposed benefits of enlightenment. Many identified with traditional religious rituals or techniques, and saw their job as grafting these onto contemporary American culture. The language of enlightenment tended to be esoteric, obscurantist, and elitist, and the teachings attracted more credulous dabblers than credible seekers.
In the end, I concluded that while certain people do attain an unusual degree of insight into the workings of the mind, their default consciousness did not seem different in kind from that of other extraordinary individuals who made no claim to enlightenment and indeed were skeptical about the idea.
During quiet moments, when our current identity is withdrawn, “off duty” as it were, we can see ourselves as nothing special no matter how grand our public persona, or nothing shameful no matter how lowly our social status. We just are what we are, unburdened of opinions, free of judgment and guilt, released from striving, perhaps inclined towards empathy, perhaps not. We take things in, and we witness ourselves doing so. We see the world whole and are not separate from what we behold. We may experience euphoria, or just tranquility.
Regardless, neither euphoria nor tranquility lasts. Presently, when the world calls us back to the ho-hum of everyday life, we have to assume a working identity because not to have one is to have no way to participate in the life game. Even gurus who style themselves as having no identity are assuming the identity of someone who fancies himself or herself to be egoless.
I’ve come to think that the eradication of ego is no more workable than doing without the other pillar of being—the body. Rather than downgrading either, it’s better to give them both their due by maintaining them in good working order. Take care of the body, and it’ll support your identity; take care of your identity, and it will support your quest.
In my quest, I did not come across anyone who could be said to dwell in a state of permanent enlightenment. No doubt, some gurus experienced bliss, but it was intermittent, as in other people.
The term enlightenment is sometimes used to denote the knowledge of the insubstantiality and malleability of identity and sometimes to refer to an experience of the insubstantiality of self. Knowledge may last, but an experience can’t be bottled. In this regard, enlightenment is like happiness: treasured all the more for its intermittence.
Enlightenment practices, not unlike mathematics and physics, are often obfuscated. A few centuries ago, reading and writing were such rare skills that possessing them set people apart. In the same way that literacy has spread, so too will people everywhere become conversant with experiences of enlightenment, recognizing them as the unmoored feeling of pivoting from an old model (which may range from a single belief to a personal identity) to a new one.
[All twenty posts in this series have now been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]