Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What is Enlightenment?

I've been thinking a lot about enlightenment lately. Primarily, I've found that I've been spending more and more of my time living in the moment instead of fretting about the future or the past. This isn't to say that I don't spend time doing both, but just that I've found that a useful antidote to both is to focus on the "here and now".

The result has been a significant improvement in the quality of my life. While time seems to go by faster and faster, paradoxically, the individual moment I inhabit seems to have expanded dramatically. People often remark on how time seemed to go on forever when they were young, but now it seems to go by more and more quickly. I always ascribed this fact to the idea that an hour of a young child's life is a greater fraction of their lived experience than that of an old person. But now I think a large part of that experience might be the fact that children are forced by their circumstances to be little more than potentiality----they always have to wait until some adult deems it is the "right time" for whatever they want to do.

In this clip we see that Homer is actively engaged in all the different aspects of getting to the amusement park, whereas the children are merely passive passengers who can do nothing more than wait. I think that this has a lot to do with the experience of time. If you are a passive person without any engagement in your life, time expands whereas if you are actively engaged, it shrinks.

This is an insight that has really made a big change in my life. When I remember it, it allows me to avoid the ennui and dread that use to fill many hours of my previous life. Ennui, like Bart and Lisa, who were forced to passively sit in the back seat and wait for life to arrive. And dread, like during my episodes of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when I was consumed with terror over what might happen and guilt over what already has. By focusing on the individual moment in time that I am inhabiting now, I am able to avoid both aspects of Hell.

What this experience has got me thinking about recently is what "enlightenment" could be. All religions seem to have some sort of mental state that at least some of their followers are seeking. Buddhism is probably most famous for its pursuit of Nirvana. Daoism has its equivalent in Ziran. I belive that Sufism has the concept of "An" (although I cannot find a supporting link.) And Christianity and Judaism has Shalom.

Please note, that I am not suggesting that all of these experiences are exactly the same. It might be that they are, but in any event, the cultures that they arise from are different enough that even if they are all the same, the languages used to express them are sufficiently different that they each will have different nuances. Moreover, it might be that the experiences themselves are culturally mediated in such away that there are differences between them. The key point to understand is that Buddhists who are enlightened, Daoists who do manifest Ziran, Sufis who experience An and Christians and Jews who do live in Shalom would all get along with each other far better than with their co-religionists who do not understand or emphasize these concepts in their particular faith tradition. For example, a Sufi who manifests An will get along better with a Jew who lives in Shalom than with a member of the Taliban or al-Qaida. (Which is probably why the Taliban recently attacked a Sufi shrine with a bomb, killing many worshipers.)

The experience that I have been having lately is nothing earth-shattering. It is really very mundane, actually. But it is something that I treasure and it does make life a lot easier. It is also somewhat hard to explain. People go through life on the assumption that all words and experiences can be explained. This is an important and useful assumption. Most of the time things can be explained. And most of the time when someone cannot explain something and expects us to accept it "on faith", it is usually because they believe something that is unjustifiable. As my Daoist teacher once said, "if you can't explain yourself, you usually don't know what you are talking about".

But sometimes people cannot understand something simply because they haven't had the experience. Someone who has been blind from birth simply cannot know what colour is all about. In the same way, I don't think that enlightenment or Ziran or Shalom can be understood by anyone who hasn't really tried to live their life in a certain way. Please note, that the difference in being able to understand the experience of enlightenment or Ziran doesn't come from some sort of wild, extra-ordinary experience, but rather from a lot of time spent thinking about what it means to be alive. It's more like moving ten tons of gravel, one shovel at a time than about shoving your fingers into a light socket and getting an instantaneous jolt. (This isn't to say that there aren't life changing moments, but my experience is that they are very rare and usually come about because of previous mundane effort.)

I don't think that enlightenment or Ziran or Shalom is anything all that special or weird, but it does make it an "undiscovered continent" to people who haven't really tried to understand their life. And in the presence of a vacuum, people start to insert all sorts of speculation about what they could be like. And because fame and power are not things that come from manifesting enlightenment or Ziran, the guys who know the least often end up teaching the courses and writing the text books. And if you can't understand exactly what someone is talking about until you do the exercise yourself, you are going to be at a real disadvantage when it comes to shopping around for a "do it yourself" manual. And when you do make some headway, you may find yourself smacking yourself on the head and thinking "That's what its all about? Wow, if I'd known then what I know now, I wouldn't have wasted so much time chasing blind allies."

Think of this post as a suggestion of a road map. I might be fooling myself, but I don't think I am. It's up to you to figure out if I can be trusted or not, though. Obviously very few people do, which is why I don't have hundreds or thousands of subscribers. And therein lies the rub. To read the map of where you want to go, you pretty much almost have to be there already.

One last thing. I came across this Youtube for a "Daoist Rap" and I simply couldn't let it pass without sharing----.


baroness radon said...

Love the Dao rap!
And interesting post.

Anonymous said...

Due to character restrictions, this comment is in 2 parts.
1st part: I would disagree with this statement: "It's up to you to figure out if I can be trusted or not, though. Obviously very few people do, which is why I don't have hundreds or thousands of subscribers." I know what you mean, but it's not logical as written, and it conveys yourself in a worse light to new (and old) readers than you probably intend. It implies that hundreds or thousands of people "out there" do know about you, have judged you untrustworthy, and therefore made the choice not to subscribe or visit your blog. It implies that few of the people who know you well enough to make this judgment have decided to trust you. When actually, it would appear to me, having never seen or heard of your blog before now, if you don't have many readers, it's probably because not many people "out there" even know your blog exists.
I spent quite a bit of time in the last 2 months looking up Taoism/Daoism on the internet, but I did not come across your blog, as far as I remember. It is only by chance that I saw a link to to your site today, at the bottom of a Huffington Post article on Taoism. (It was in the little section that I think is thrown up by a search engine and changes each time the page is viewed; your site was not specifically listed by the author of the article in his reference section.) I usually don't read the H.P. or follow their links, but I did this time. 'Cos I'm an intelligent city-dwelling hermit too. :-)
I agree with your thoughts about politics and human behavior in a previous entry. It's very depressing, even when one has low expectations, because even those are usually dashed.

Anonymous said...

2nd part: About the experience of the passage of time, my undergrad degree is in psychology, and I think that aside from the different experiences and expectations of children/adults (passive lives/active lives, new to many experiences so they seem more novel and attention-worthy/used to many experiences so they are habitual and go under the radar, looking forward to most things and experiences in life/probably living in the past or in a la-la land to escape the dull present, and so on), it's been shown that as people age, their sense of time passing changes because their brain is less "with it" and the cells/neural connections/whatever sort of "black out" for micro-seconds, making everything that is actually noticed seem to be speeded up. I'm explaining this terribly -- but I don't remember the scientific words for it, so I hope you can see what I'm getting at. The older the brain is, the less it actually can pay attention to everything, due to its biological structures' slowing down, so time seems speeded up because adults as they age are biologically perceiving an increasingly lessening proportion of their experiences/sensory inputs -- on top of all the other reasons why adults pay less attention to the "present" flow of life than children do.
There is also another idea out there, less "scientific" and more "woo-woo", that time IS indeed speeding up lately and that lots of people are actually feeling that things are going faster than would be expected. Jonathan Cainer, an astrologer from the UK, talks about this sometimes on his site. I do sort of feel that my experience of time passing seems to have speeded up much more than I would have expected in just these last few years, but since I've also been biologically aging, of course, I don't know how much that accounts for it, and I haven't come to any conclusions. All I can say is that if my perception of time continues to speed up at the rate that it has done so far for the rest of my years, if I am fortunate enough to have a normal lifespan, pretty soon it's going to feel like I've blinked and it's over! And I do already live in the present and even try to be "in the flow" (which tends to slow down the perception of time) much more than most people I know.
Anyway, this is getting long; mainly I wanted to express appreciation for the few posts that I've read so far, and encourage you to keep writing and thinking.