Everyone has heard of enlightenment, but most people don’t care enough about the topic to study or practice it and probably couldn’t even give you a coherent definition of the word. I’m not a genius or a spiritual guru. I’m a poor white trash kid from Texas, but I spent thousands of hours studying and thinking about enlightenment, and I came to some novel conclusions. In order to fully appreciate their meaning, you need to understand why and how I tried to teach myself enlightenment in the first place.
I have an identical twin brother, and we were born two months premature. My twin was born healthy, but my heart was underdeveloped. So I spent most of the first year of my life in and out of the hospital surviving a series of near death experiences. These factors forced me to be lucidly conscious of my mortality and the surrealness of existence for long as I can remember.
I believe the sensory deprivation I experienced in the hospital during the formative weeks of my development wired my brain to adapt to solitude, stillness and quiet. This may be where my INTP personality type comes from. Either way, I’ve always been an introvert who enjoys spending time alone thinking, writing and working on long, tedious projects. So my temperament and life situation predisposed me to pondering philosophical questions.
I wasn’t raised rich, with every education opportunity money could buy, but the small Texas towns I lived in had old fashioned, strict, rigorous schools. So I received a solid understanding of science, history, English and critical thinking skills. I was also put in “gifted and talented” classes from the third grade where I was encouraged to think outside the box. These two education styles shaped how I approach philosophical questions.
Growing up in the Bible Belt, I took Christianity for granted, but I didn’t really practice it until high school when I made a conscious decision to accept Jesus as my savior and devote my life to being a Christian. Then I applied all my skill sets to proving the Bible to be the true word of God, but within a year I found so much evidence that the Bible is mythology, I wrote a book on it.
After losing my faith I plunged into existential despair and read as many religion/philosophy/self-help books as I could, searching for new insights into the riddle of life. I found the ancient Eastern religions and philosophies like Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism the most interesting.
The concept of enlightenment in particular appealed to me. I already knew enlightenment existed, but my deconversion gave me new motivation to take it seriously. I’d lost the need for faith or salvation, but I still needed purpose to strive for, and enlightenment made the perfect substitute. It offered a way to become more than I am without having to surrender my life to a mythological deity invented by a primitive tribe to justify their culture.
When I was a Christian, I reasoned that if connecting with God was the best thing we could do, then we should do it. Now I reasoned that if a man has the potential to reach a higher state of mind, then he should, not because God commanded us to, but because it offers the most benefit to the individual. The cost/benefit analysis simply adds up.
I wanted to make the most of my life on a personal level, and I wanted to justify my existence on a philosophical level. To be completely honest, I also thought achieving enlightenment might give me some kind of super powers. So I approached the study of enlightenment with childlike enthusiasm. To my surprise, my zeal dissipated into disillusionment as I found at least five holes in traditional theories of enlightenment:
1. There’s no agreed upon definition of what enlightenment is.
Hindus, Buddhists, Zen Buddhists, New Age gurus and thousands of other groups have different definitions of enlightenment and instructions to achieve it. There’s no test you can use to prove which definition or methodology is the true one. Ultimately, it’s all one big pile of stuff people made up. Some schools of thought claim enlightenment can’t be labeled or bottled, because that’s the point. It’s beyond words. That idea is vague to the point of being useless. If it does mean something, skeptics can’t disprove whatever it means, but proponents still can’t prove it’s true or disprove anyone else’s theories either.
2. You can’t prove a higher state of mind exists at all
10,000 years of religion and 200 years of psychology have proven if you commit your mind to connecting with Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, Vishnu, a higher level of consciousness, a parallel universe or Elvis, eventually you’ll find something that feels real to you.
There’s no scientific evidence that a spiritual-level higher state of consciousness exists at all, and the burden of proof doesn’t lay on the skeptic to disprove its existence. The burden of proof lies on the self-proclaimed gurus of the world to prove their “higher” state of mind isn’t just a subjective experience that satisfies their subconscious desires, but it’s impossible for them to do that. So their personal testimonies are hearsay.
3. Every self-proclaimed authoritative source contains evidence of lack of authority
Any Hindu Yogi will agree that you can’t put Om in a test tube, but when you look at Hinduism on a whole you’ll find text-book signs of mythology such as an oppressive caste system, astrology, scientifically unsupported statements about the nature of the universe and animistic deities. New Age books on enlightenment are just as baseless. When a belief systems contains inconsistencies, absurdities and culturally relative idiosyncrasies, it casts doubt on its authority on any subject.
The authority of a book doesn’t come from who wrote it, how long its been around or how many people believe it. Its authority comes from how rigorously its conclusions have been vetted. If you want to learn about the human mind, then study psychology, not mythology.
4. It’s unlikely that our design is flawed
Some theories of enlightenment claim your average state of mind is inherently flawed, and enlightenment is achieved by eliminating or escaping your base state. Advocates of this school of thought point to stress and crime as evidence that we need to eliminate some part of ourselves. Being a self-loathing Christian, I latched onto this idea quickly and held onto it for a while, but studying astronomy and anatomy led me to the conclusion that it takes less faith to assume our minds work correctly, than it does to assume our minds are cosmically/spiritually flawed.
I don’t know if there’s an intelligent creator, or if the universe came into existence by random chance. I don’t know why or how humans came into existence, but I do know that the universe is designed to behave very specifically and elegantly. Subatomic particles, atoms, molecules and solar systems are ingeniously structured to snap together in powerful and predictable ways.
It can be no more of an accident that humans exist in this universe than it is for stars or planets. The amount of forward-thinking it would take to design a universe that can rearrange itself from nothing, into to an expanding gas cloud, that condensed itself into rotating galaxies full of planets that sprouted sentient beings is staggering.
The complexity of the human body is magnitudes greater than the complexity of the planet that germinated us. Our bones and muscles are a series of levers, counter-levers and pulleys that are positioned to anticipate the need to use opposing forces to create a system of tensegrity that can hold a body upright and perform acrobatics. Humans beings are still years away from designing a robot that can move as nimbly as a human. We’re even farther away from creating a computer anywhere near as powerful as the human brain. We don’t fully understand how the human brain works, but so far we haven’t found anything arbitrary about its design or functions.
If water is supposed to freeze at 32 degrees Celsius and light is supposed to travel at 186,000 miles per second, then the human brain is probably supposed to do exactly what it has been meticulously designed to do by a force infinitely more “intelligent” than a hermit who probably can’t even tell you what the pancreas does.
5. I can’t make a categorical imperative out of devoting one’s life to meditation
If everyone who has ever existed, spent their entire lives meditating in monasteries, we would never have discovered the Periodic Table of Elements. We’d be fighting wolves with clubs and entertaining ourselves around the camp fire by making up fantastic, mythological theories to explain what lightning, wind, and the sun are. That’s not the perfection of the human experience. That’s a wasted opportunity.
I can’t tell you what enlightenment is, or if it even exists. I have a theory that I try to apply to my life. It could be wrong in all or part. Take what you can from it. Leave the rest.
Enlightenment is like love. It’s a feeling, a state of mind, and an action at all once. You can be in love, and actively love someone. You can’t put your finger on it, but everyone’s lives have been revolving around this intangible force for as long as humans have existed. There’s no definitive book on love, but millions of books have been written about it.
Love is a feeling of attraction between people. Enlightenment is the feeling of existing. It’s how it feels to be awake and conscious of your own individuality. The experience of being you is mind-fuckingly fluid. You slip in and out of states of consciousness constantly. In a single day you can experience sleeping, waking, rushing, resting, fearing, loving, fighting, reminiscing, meditating, obsessing, planning, day dreaming, problem solving, memorizing, fantasizing, hating, hurting, regretting, celebrating, hungering and giving up.
Each of these states of mind exist, because our brains evolved to use them to solve real world problems. Devoting your life to holding onto or letting go of any one of these is throwing the baby out with the bath water and sabotaging your opportunity to fulfill your all-around potential. The key to experiencing the most ideal reality is to master every facet of your mind and become the best You that you can be. Through fulfilling your potential, you’ll achieve as much clarity as humans are designed to achieve. You won’t become a higher form of life. You’ll just be more mature, which is profound enough.
You are your reality. Everything you experience is defined by what’s in your head. In order to live in the best mind-space, you need to do at least 7 things:
1. Learn science.
The universe is a big, scary place, but we can study nature and figure out why things happen. Having a basic understanding of science will give you more peace of mind than turning your brain off and ignoring the mysteries of the universe.
Science also gives us the power to create reliable shelters, warm clothing, mass-produced food, medicine and space ships. These luxuries empower people to live more comfortable, meaningful lives than sitting on a mountain training your mind to ignore the cold.
With understanding comes peace and empowerment. Ignorance confuses and disempowers us. So if you want to maximize your mind, the first thing you need to do is learn science.
2. Learn problem solving skills.
Everything you ever do will require you to solve problems. The better you are at solving problems, the better you’ll be at navigating life. The weaker your problem solving skills are, the less control you’ll have over your life. The more you master the art of problem solving, the more effortlessly you can stride past the obstacles that stand between you and your goals. This is a far more effective way of achieving peace of mind than clearing your mind and convincing yourself that your problems don’t exist.
3. Learn psychology.
You are your mind. If you ever hope to cope with your existence, let alone maximize the experience of being you, then you need to understand how your mind works. Studying psychology will teach you why you have so many different states of mind and how to control them. Mastering your mind will bring you more peace and fulfillment than denying it.
4. Define and refine yourself.
The universe doesn’t need us. We don’t serve any practical purpose outside of ourselves. Nothing would be lost if we disappeared. Yet the universe went through almost 14 billion years of trouble rearranging itself to create the conditions necessary to create us. If we were supposed to be nothing, then the universe would have made us nothing. I believe throwing away your identity defeats the purpose of existing in the first place. I believe you’re here to be you.
Studying science, problem solving and psychology give you the tool sets to accomplish whatever goals you have. The morality of an action is determined by how much it helps/hinders life achieve the most important goal, and the most important goal is to become the best you that you can be. To do that, you need to define who you are, who you want to be, and then create/execute a plan to improve yourself.
5. Meditate and smell the roses.
Psychology classes can prepare you to be yourself, but the world off-campus is a brutal place full of idiots and sociopaths with agendas. You’ll be pulled in every direction, and every aspect of your mind will be put to the test. If you never spend any time in solitude, focusing your mind inward, exploring and feeling what it is to be you, then the world will force its definition of you onto your mind.
You don’t always have to sit in a quiet room and clear your mind to feel at one with the universe. You can find moments during the daily grind to stop and smell the roses or to take a deep breath and just be. Schedule time in the evening to stop and marvel at the stars.
If the drama of life is too overwhelming, then turn your mind off for 15 minutes to experience the peace that comes from quietly being one with the universe. Once you’ve centered yourself, pick yourself back up and resume your quest with renewed focus.
6. Do what you love.
Existence isn’t just something you passively experience. It’s something you do. Being a unique individual isn’t only accomplished solely by sitting in a room exploring the space behind your eyes. It’s something you do. The way you actively “be” yourself, is by doing what you love.
Doing what you love will bring you more peace and fulfillment than suppressing your passions. Those passions aren’t unnatural. Nature put them there. Nature gave you the freedom to express, enjoy and validate yourself through doing the things you love. If you’re not doing them, then you’re just letting life pass you by.
Solitude is an important tool in the quest to refine yourself, but if you were meant to be alone, then you would have been the only person to ever exist. If you want a transcendental experience that is more real and powerful than words can describe, then host a dinner party at your house and invite all the most important people in your life. The joy you’ll experience while communing with your loved ones will bring you closer to “God” than cutting yourself off from the world.
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