Enlightenment: Possibilities and Limits

Ever since my late teens, when I first read The Way of Zen by Alan Watts, I’ve been trying to get my head around the concept of enlightenment.

Of course, any competent Zen teacher will tell you that such an effort is futile — like trying to scoop up an ocean with a spoon.

Enlightenment experiences are both noetic and ineffable, as William James described them in The Varieties of Religious Experience. They carry the force of revelation and yet cannot be captured words. 

As Zen master Huai Jang put it, “Anything I say would miss the point.”

So right from the beginning of our inquiry into enlightenment, we run into a wall of mystery:

  • If we can’t say anything definitive about enlightenment, then how can we experience it?
  • How can we tell the difference between someone who is enlightened and someone who is not?
  • Why bother with enlightenment in the first place? How do we benefit?

I’ve spent decades searching for answers to these questions. And what I discovered is this: Enlightenment is both more — and less — than I originally thought.

On the one hand, enlightenment holds the possibility of something infinitely precious, such as:

  • Equanimity in the face of death
  • The end of suffering (nirvana)
  • Unconditional serenity — the “peace that passeth understanding”

At the same, it pays to think critically. 

Enlightenment has limits. It won’t necessarily change our behavior, make us more successful, or even more kind. 

In fact, it’s possible for people described as enlightened to be unethical business people and sexual predators.

But first — what is enlightenment? Though trying to contain the experience in words is impossible, we can at least offer pointers, hints, and analogies.

Your mind before thinking

In his autobiography, In My Own Way, Alan Watts described how enlightenment is cultivated in Zen practice:

It continues, in its own way, the general practice of Buddhism, which is to free the mind from its habitual confusion of words, ideas, and concepts with reality, and from all those emotional disturbances and entanglements which flow from this confusion. Thus the ego, time, the body, life, and death are all viewed as concepts having neither more nor less reality than abstract numbers or measures, such as inches or ounces.

If someone asked me to describe enlightenment in 10 words or less, I would say: Enlightenment is the world before words.

The function of language is to carve up the world into separate and discrete entities. Language makes distinctions. It organizes our perception by pointing to differences between things: self versus other. Past versus present and future. Positive versus negative. Pleasure versus pain.

But distinctions exist only in language — that is, when we’re thinking or talking. At the level of pure sensation — seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling — no distinctions are found.

Seung Sahn, the Korean Zen master, made this a cornerstone of his teaching. He described enlightenment as “don’t know” mind:

Throw away all opinions, all likes and dislikes, and only keep the mind that doesn’t know…. Before thinking there are no words. “Same” and “different” are opposites words; they are from the mind that separates all things.

The primary distinction that seems to recede during the experience of enlightenment is the separation between subject and object, or self and other.

Deepka Chopra described this to Robert Lawrence Kuhn, host of Closer to Truth, the PBS television series. In an episode titled What is Enlightenment?, Chopra says:

Enlightenment is the experience where there’s the dissolution of every boundary….The air is your breath. The earth is recycling as your body. The rivers and waters in the ocean are your circulation…. I in fact am the universe localized in space and time as this particular impermanent object.

Coming to your senses

In the same episode, Gino Yu, a professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, describes enlightenment as presence.

By this he means immersion in sense impressions, which cannot take place if you’re thinking: “It turns out you’re either present or you’re in thought, but you can’t be in both places at the same time.”

Buddhist psychology expands on this insight. For example, Zen teacher Steve Hagen  describes four levels of mental experience:

  • Perception — awareness of our moment-to-moment experience without any effort to describe it or change it
  • Sensation — seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching, on a continuum from pleasant to neutral to unpleasant
  • Conception — the realm of thinking and language, which divides perceptions and sensations into distinct categories
  • Intention — the realm of motivation, moving toward pleasant sensations and away from unpleasant sensations, which hardens into longing and loathing, greed and hatred

Enlightenment is returning to the levels of bare perception and sensation —  before thinking takes over during conception and intention. 

At the level of pure perception, there is just one unbroken stream of sensory experience that we meet with unconditional acceptance.

Present-moment completeness

In an academic paper about the est Training, Werner Erhard and Victor Gioscia point to another aspect of enlightenment — a sense of fulfillment that does not depend on time or external conditions:

Each of us has experienced moments in our lives when we are fully alive — when we know — without thinking — that life is exactly as it is in this moment. In such moments, we have no wish for it to be different, or better, or more. We have no disappointment, no comparison with ideals, no sense that it is not what we worked for. We feel no protective or defensive urge — and have no desire to hold on — to store up — or to save. Such moments are perfect in themselves. We experience them as being complete.

Dean Ornish, M.D., echoes this idea in his book about reversing heart disease:

At the end of a meditation, when you are feeling more peaceful, stronger, and happier, remind yourself that these feelings came about not because you got something you thought you needed, or because you fooled somebody into thinking that you are worthy of his or her love and affection, but rather because you simply quieted down your mind enough to experience what we all have, all of the time, if we just remember.

This is something I’ve experienced many times during savasana, the foundational pose of hatha yoga. And all it took was the patience to lie still, relax, close my eyes, and come to my senses.

What enlightenment is not

Given all of the above, I once concluded that enlightenment is a panacea — a final solution for human suffering.

Alas, it is not. Fairness demands that we add some significant caveats.

Enlightenment is not necessary. People can live rich and meaningful lives without any interest in enlightenment. You could, for example, dig in to the robust scientific literature about happiness and positive psychology and find many beneficial practices. 

This literature does not necessarily contradict teachings about enlightenment. It does, however, proceed in a different direction.

Enlightenment cannot be proved. This experience falls outside logic and conventional standards for evidence. 

We might look to a person’s behavior for clues to enlightenment. It seems only logical that an enlightened person would be calm, kind, and wise, right?

And yet enlightenment has many stages. It is not a linear process. At any moment, a person described as enlightened might regress into immature behaviors.

Do you think you’re enlightened? Then notice how you behave when you go home to visit your parents.

Also notice how gurus respond when they get stuck in a traffic jam. 

Enlightenment does not guarantee ethical behavior. This is a key point. The number of examples that I can offer makes my heart ache.

Consider the sheer number of spiritual teachers who engaged in sexual misconduct, including sex with students. A partial list of those who most affected me includes:

If meditation is such a liberating and powerful practice, then how are these stories possible?

That question is more than I can answer in this post. For now I will refer you to Sex and the Spiritual Teacher: Why It Happens, When It’s a Problem, and What We All Can Do by my friend Scott Edelstein.

Above all, remember: Genuine insight, decades of spiritual practice, and unethical behavior can coexist in the same person.

Be discerning. Don’t put any teacher on a pedestal. And keep your clothes on.