Monday, November 12, 2012
What to do if your brother-in-law is enlightened? - The world's longest blog article. Apologies in advance for being a nerd.
What is enlightenment? How to achieve it? Is it easy to do? What is nothingness?
Any resemblance to any living “brother-in-law” is entirely coincidental.
Since a large number of people on this planet have a brother-in-law, it seems to me that it is about time this important subject be squarely addressed, for, given the large number of brother-in-laws on the planet, there must surely be quite a number who consider themselves “enlightened.” In fact, recent studies have shown that there is a veritable epidemic of enlightenment occurring in the population of brothers-in-law. I feel it is my duty to take on this subject straight up.
Notwithstanding the current pandemic of enlightenment in this group, there have always been some in every age and culture who consider themselves enlightened and who, moreover, consider any and all religious or spiritual doctrines, practices, or promotion as, to quote P.G. Wodehouse, “bilge.” Some, using stronger language, shout “poppycock!”
True devotees everywhere and in every age are plagued by at least one know-it-all scofflaw and self-described enlightened brother-in-law. Since presumably your gentle nature and your firmly held beliefs preclude you from knocking the ‘ol buster off (and putting him out his misery while saving civilization from this blight upon humanity), this article may offer you some solace and alternatives.
Perhaps you are plagued, as I have been, by one such who, while adamantly rejecting any label, would easily fit into the target range of the dreaded “nondualist.” These blighters fancy themselves godlike and omniscient, gazing down upon creation and its creatures with a sardonic and all-knowing hauteur. Their disdain and dismissal of practices such as meditation, dogma, ritual, prayer and the like is, well, “absolute.”
And what makes his assertion that religion is unnecessary (and, in fact, worse than unnecessary) so clever is that there is a some level of truth here. Starting with the well known evils and disadvantages, prejudices, and narrow-mindedness of religion and its practitioners and representatives, there is the deeper truth that in the nondualistic state of consciousness there is no longer any distinctions of “I or Thou” or ego or separateness. In the state of Oneness, there is only Consciousness itself! It almost absurd to spend a lot time describing the state because by “definition” this state is beyond words. Still, for my purposes and I hope for yours too I will use these words as synonyms or markers and these include Oneness and God. Other terms (and there are many more) include Self-realization, samadhi, satori, nirvana, heaven, or mystical marriage (etc. etc.). (Keep in mind that users of these terms may well make distinctions among them.)
In the tradition of Vedanta, the scriptures of India, and among yogis (rishis, masters, etc.) the attitude of our nondualist is the approach to God (or Oneness) called gyana yoga. A modern Christian who approaches God as the “Cosmic Ground of Being” might similarly be called a gyana yogi. So, too, a Buddhist who refuses to describe the ultimate state as any-thing at all except perhaps as nirvana.
As Krishna notes in the Bhagavad Gita, this approach, however, is austere to an extreme (like being a spiritual stoic) and comments that the path to the Absolute should be walked only by a few advanced souls for it is “arduous” for most embodied beings. Easier for humans is to approach the Unapproachable through the “I-Thou” relationship. To be a true nondualist one must deny the very existence of all objects in the field or sphere of duality, including one’s own body, emotions, thoughts and so on! Rare and difficult indeed! For those who attempt it prematurely (and that includes, in my humble opinion, just about everyone who does) they seem to fall into a pit of self-delusion. Those attracted to this path are, admittedly, those who possess a keen and sharp and discerning mind. In the attempt to cut off the report of the senses and emotions (too soon), the mind can drift and pretend to establish its own alternative reality. The consequences, as any amateur psychologist can tell you, are disastrous for as Krishna also notes in Bhagavad Gita, “suppression availeth nothing.” The sphere of the mind is far vaster and more labyrinthian than that of the physical cosmos.
Our aspiring nondualist might even, with a sarcastic grin, quote sages who say, of enlightenment, that “it is, and, it isn’t!” In this they pretend to be deep and profound, hoping by this koan to stump you into submission. Our nondualist will mock all forms of spirituality as tainted with duality and thus doomed by their opposite! And, again, there is some truth to this. One who emphasizes devotion in an unbalanced way may become fanatical, for example. One who emphasizes ritual or dogma may become dogmatic, and one who treasures selflfess service may become restless and disillusioned.
Hiding behind the pretense of nonduality may impress a few, but enlightenment is not a put up job. Yes, it is that an enlightened master can make himself appear very ordinary to ordinary and materialistic people but those of refined consciousness will always catch his scent! It is absurd to claim enlightenment but to have no noticeable traits of an expanded consciousness.
Still, we must confess that enlightenment is unconditional and it expresses itself uniquely in each soul who achieves it. Swami Kriyananda once asked an enlightened yogi why he didn’t seem to have any disciples or conduct any ministry. The yogi’s simple reply was, “God has done what He wants with this body.”
Another feature of the state of Oneness is that it exists independent of any efforts to achieve it. Will power or mental power or affirmation alone cannot command it. But the scoffer mistakenly concludes that any effort to achieve it is futile, and that any effort to share “the path to it,” is nothing but self-serving propaganda. Pointing to the many shortcomings of religion and religionists, and their all-too-human representatives, he claims to have “proof.”
In this we encounter yet another of mankind’s existential dilemmas: how can the ego transcend itself? Can any action ever be other than in self-interest? Is anyone who strives for salvation or seeks to help others towards the same goal simply self-deluded because he or she is so plainly NOT (yet) enlightened himself? Is there a way out of this conundrum? The relationship of spiritual growth to effort and even to grace is so difficult to establish objectively that it is not difficult to look at all the religious craziness that abounds and dismiss it all as useless. Add to this the overpowering satisfaction and relief it offers to the ego which can rise up and shout, “I told you so!” “I’m perfect just the way I AM!” “I don’t have to do a thing!” But is it true?
Human life is not worth living if we abandon the nexus between action and consequence. The law of action and reaction has its metaphysical counterpart in the law of karma. Problem is, the nondualist proclaims, leaping into the breach, action only produces reaction and it never ends. Or does it?
Sleep may be the opposite of activity, but yogis claims that Oneness is achieved through the state of breathlessness -- a state that doesn’t produce death to the physical body. “Be still and know that I AM GOD” says the Old Testament. To admit a nondual state is, itself, logically even, to yield to the affirmation that there exists a state of being, of consciousness that has no second, no dual, and that this state is transcendent of duality.
Other great spiritual teachers and scriptures further proclaim that from this state of Oneness is manifested the whole of creation itself. This cannot be proved logically, they admit, but only realized in the state itself. By definition, moreover, this would have to be the case.
The power of Oneness holds the key to our imprisonment in the body and ego. “It takes One to Know One.” It has been both a universal precept and an easily observed fact in the history of the spiritual giants of planet Earth that each soul, imprisoned, is eventually awakened from its delusive dream of duality and separateness by the influence, wisdom, and compassion of another who has already awakened from the dream. Thus the power of the myths such as the prince and the pauper. We are all royalty but we find ourselves paupers and have forgotten our true nature. Someone or somehow we must awaken from this error, this nightmare of mistaken identity.
This, too, is the meaning of the famous story by Jesus Christ: the Prodigal Son. A true guru (known as a “Sat” guru, or savior) comes in every age (measured in thousand or more year increments) to re-awaken the forgotten memory of our Oneness in those souls who, during that time, are ready and “have ears to hear” (as Jesus put it repeatedly). Such a One also has the power to attract and completely liberate those who have incarnated in that time and place in readiness to ascend.
But the pseudo guru of the Big Easy to Oneness is not finished yet, for he also has the testimony of some spiritual teachers (and seekers) who quote scriptures such as I AM THAT I AM (Old Testament), or, “Tat twam asi” (Thou art THAT! - Hindu scriptures) to bolster their claim that no personal effort is needed for we are already enlightened and only have to realize it.
This claim, though misplaced, nonetheless has its source in the truth that the state of Oneness both preexists and coexists with material reality. Out of Oneness, out of nonduality, and out of God has come creation’s duality. (Out of the One, comes two; from two, three!) Nonduality (God) is both the source and sustainer of duality and at the same untouched by it. This is as deep and profound a truth (and mystery to our duality-bound intellect and body-bound sense experiences) as any mankind has intuited. It is taught in various ways in every great faith and metaphysical tradition. On its basis, some have falsely concluded that we can simply declare ourselves “free” and thereby be proclaimed “enlightened.” But again I ask you, is it so? And if it is, how do you we know it’s true? Are there are any proofs of enlightenment?
Given that religion will always have its share of frauds and flawed human beings (as we find in all human endeavors), and given that there are ignorant and superstitious people who practice religion out of fear, suffering or for ego or material gain, it’s not so difficult, if so inclined, to conclude along with Karl Marx that religion is “the opiate of the people.” When one has a taste of nonduality and in relation to it, it is true that all spiritual efforts and beliefs seem unnecessary. If one achieves enlightenment and it is a permanent beatitude, well, why argue? But the mere contemplation or passing experience of Oneness does not thereby render one exempt from the challenge and effort needed for purification of ego consciousness in order to enjoy the permanent blessing of soul freedom. The coexistence of nondual and dual states of consciousness (and passing back and forth between) can give rise to pride and self-delusion.
In fact, this is a commonly reported challenge to spiritual seekers even if they never use these somewhat dry and technical terms. Swami Kriyananda, my teacher, has pointed out that in the last stages of liberation the final test is that of pride--in this case, pride in the very real lofty heights of vision and power granted to the soul before it merges into the stream of Bliss forever. The Christian analogy is the temptation of Christ during which Satan shows to him all the earth and offers him dominion over all things if Jesus will worship him, Satan, Lord of Creation. Jesus says, simply, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” The test of pride is both the soul’s first and last temptation.
And because many people, including your brother-in-law, may have in fact had some peak experience of a nondual or nonverbal reality, it tempts one to so declare the inadequacy and unessential need for self-effort, religion or spiritual activities or beliefs. If well read, our scoffer might quote Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita who (like Buddha centuries later) who decried the common reliance upon Vedic rituals and prayers in substitution for the effort to seek God as the sole reality.
Is all spiritual striving and sharing, therefore, simply a delusion, like your brother-in-law avers?
There’s a corollary to this line of false but egoically convenient reasoning. The corollary is the long standing appearance of the teaching of emptiness. The state of the void or emptiness is indeed a state of consciousness. It includes trance states or states induced medically or otherwise. Every night in deep sleep we enter the dreamless sleep state in which yogis say we touch upon our soul nature as Bliss. Yet far from being unconscious, when we awaken from a good sleep we are aware that we slept well (or not), having entered this important and essential state. Yogis have long used comparisons to sleep to hint at higher states of consciousness. Unfortunately, in sleep we cannot progress spiritually because enlightenment by definition is a higher, more aware state.
If all things are a manifestation of consciousness, this must include rocks. Rocks don’t appear especially conscious. Therefore, we can conclude that in this relative world, consciousness itself is relative but that unconsciousness, taken literally, is impossible.
But some clever scoffers aver that emptiness is de facto the state of enlightenment. This is convenient because it, too, absolves the scoffer of any guilt, remorse or need for effort or right action. This false teaching is well rooted in that agnostics, atheists and materialists believe that at death we disappear and no longer exist. Hard to argue with the obvious physical evidence (or lack of it) supporting this point of view. But in this article I don’t want to get into the afterlife issue, not for fear, but it’s a much bigger topic. In this article I want to focus on enlightenment as a present state of consciousness while living in a human body. I am only saying that the lack of belief in an afterlife is another point of view that would seem to support the idea that enlightenment is a state of emptiness.
This concept of no-thing-ness is, however, a valid teaching because, as a state of being, it can be experienced by meditative efforts. But is it enlightenment? Emptiness is a feature of and typically associated with Buddhistic teachings, though it appears throughout history and in human thinking. But it is flawed, both logically and intuitively. For no one, except perhaps a suicide, seeks permanent loss of consciousness. Survival is the most deeply rooted instinct to be found anywhere in creation. If it is false then the creation itself is false. And yes that teaching is common, too, but we are not here to discuss whether the creation is true or false. A useless debate. We can simply say that it is impermanent so far as our experience of it is concerned. We can say that intrudes impressively upon our senses and our thoughts, and, indeed, even our dreams. Whether anything is, ultimately, “real” begs the question and no doubt pleases mental midgets but not true seekers who, in the end, want practical results to their sincere seeking.
Let us therefore say that the creation is false in the sense of always changing, alternating between opposites and not absolute in the sense that Oneness, pure Consciousness, and God are unchanging and eternal. Whether or not the creation is self-perpetuating is also a “relatively” useless question for midget minds and dry hearts.
Returning now to emptiness, my teacher (Swami Kriyananda) has put it so well with his tongue-(firmly)-in-cheek: Commenting on the Buddhistic belief that the end of suffering and the goal of life is to achieve the void, he says, “No wonder that in that tradition they came up with the concept of Boddhisattva: one who postpones his enlightenment to help others. Seeking no-thing-ness is more likely to prompt a request for a rain check from what amounts to an act of suicide. Who would aspire to no-thing-ness? Why, moreover, would one who achieved emptiness feel such deep and abiding compassion for the sufferings of others?
That emptiness is in fact a state of consciousness and can be experienced is not worth denying. Many great spiritual teachers so attest to it. Most express this state as a steppingstone, a way station to the goal. But if the price to end suffering is to end consciousness as we know it, well, hmmmm, I think most of us would want put in a request for that rain check.
Like Frank Sinatra sang, “Is that all there is?” Hardly: saints down through ages don’t exhibit love, compassion and joy as aspects of an enlightened consciousness “for nothing!” The “nothing” that is real and true is the dissolution of ego, “nothing” less. But when ego is dissolved (or expanded into Infinity--either image works for the sake of describing the indescribable), the result is the one thing all beings seek: pure, unconditioned Bliss. Not a loss of consciousness but Consciousness itself. Satchidananda: God is, and we are, and we seek immortality (Sat), unbroken Self-awareness (Chit) and Bliss (Ananda): Ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-new Bliss.
Our survival instinct isn’t present for the sake of mere survival. We survive that we may live; we live only as we are self-aware, and we seek to live to enjoy living. The ancient teachings of India, including the adi (first) Swami Shankycharya, in seeking to dispell the growing atheism among the adherents of Buddhism, declare that God is Sat-Chit-Ananda: ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-new Bliss. This is the nature of absolute reality and is the eternal promise and striving of all creation and of our souls.
But no matter how cogent your response to the scoffer is, be prepared for his “ultimate defense strategy.” When shaken, he will deploy his golden parachute of silent nonduality to dismiss your explanations as born in the “captivity” of duality.
Putting the scoffer aside, smug in his inertial blanket of theoretical nonduality, I do think he does us a service by helping us clarify some important questions. The effort can highlight for us both the limits of intellectual discovery and the potential for the intellect to point us in the right direction when used wisely. But, like Moses who could not enter the Promised Land because born in captivity (duality), the intellect must be set aside. Only the heart can “know” and can enter into God (Oneness). “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.”
So I see at least three useful inquiries offered to me by my (self-proclaimed) enlightened brother-in-law:
1. What does it mean to be enlightened?
2. Are there any objective signs of an enlightened consciousness?
3. What, if anything, can I (as ego) do to transcend ego and achieve enlightenment?
Human life would be insufferable if we didn’t have the intuitive wisdom that we can improve our lives and that we can discover what is true (whether it be in respect to material, psychological or spiritual matters). The intuitive knowledge and common shared experience that intention and attitude markedly affect a person’s actions (and that one’s actions reflect one’s consciousness) is fundamental to the human experience.
Many sages, saints, poets and ordinary people have attempted to describe the indescribable state of nonduality. “Nonduality” is a coldly rational word and I prefer “God” or, at worst, Oneness. But it would the height of folly to “mince words” when describing God!
I suppose that many humans, indeed, perhaps most, have had some peak experience in their lives. In every field of human activity you find beginners, experienced people, and “masters” of their art or craft. This, too, is fundamental to the human experience.
So, therefore, it is not unreasonable to presuppose that enlightenment, too, has its stages of progressive development. You might object along rational lines saying that an experience of nonduality must surely be, by “definition,” the same for everyone. That may be logical but it defies the testimony and experience of human beings. Love, too, might be said to be the same, but in fact it isn’t. There are degrees of depth and feeling.
Paramhansa Yogananda was once asked if there is an end to striving (in achieving enlightenment). He said, effectively, that there is no end but one goes on into endlessness. What else, after all, would “Infinity” suggest?
John Paul Sartre may have declared himself “radically free” to act from his own inner creative impulse, unaffected by outer circumstances but in this he betrayed both common sense and truth. Nothing about his life, should you be so unfortunate to study it, suggests the truth of his self-declaration.
True saints may indeed have “seen” God but each and everyone of them are unique and their lives, examples, and message was surely conditioned by, because appropriate to, outer circumstances and the needs of others. Always appropriate to the circumstance is the wise one.
What can enlightenment possibly mean if it isn’t life changing? It may be that it transforms each person uniquely but states of anger, jealousy, lust and dishonesty are not aspects of an enlightened consciousness. This is not only common sense but it is, in fact, the testimony of the lives of thousands of souls who have been recognized as having a desirable and elevated state of consciousness worthy of being called enlightened.
I won’t attempt to go further and speak of the “miracles” performed by saints for I know those cannot be “proved” although a sincere study of their lives and the testimony of credible witnesses may prove surprisingly persuasive.
In the Bhagavad Gita, the disciple, Arjuna, in fact asks his guru, Krishna, “What are the signs of the one who has achieved liberation?” In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, he describes numerous signs of enlightenment which demonstrate power of nature and power over life and death. But again, such things are beyond the experience of most people.
“He who says he knows, doesn’t. He who says he doesn’t, doesn’t. He who knows, knows.”
I have purposely avoided attempting to define enlightenment. I would have to quote my guru and others who are Self-realized and consistent in their roundabout descriptions. But I cannot speak of it from my own experience. But how can I “know” who is Self-realized. We can point at the blue sky above, but until we can fly, we remain earth bound.
It is foolish to buy into the clever and ego-affirming dogma that enlightenment is easy of attainment; that it costs nothing (in terms of effort or discipline); that it eschews the need for religion, spiritual teachings, prayer, meditation, or a spiritual teacher. Such assertions will always be made by some but simply examine their lives and see with what degree of non-attachment, even-mindedness, inner peace, compassion and wisdom do they conduct their lives? Their philosophy is simply a state of self-delusion, for it comforts and coddles the ego and excuses it of any meaningful effort, devotion to anything greater than themselves, or grateful, compassionate service to others. In Oneness we see all life as a part of ourselves.
In the duality of human life, we have the opposites but this does not mean that anger is just as valuable as love. We find greater happiness in love than in hatred. They may be opposites but what separates them from Oneness is the link to ego desire and involvement. Love connects and unites; hatred, separates.
Peace and love draw one closer to Oneness because the ego-active principle is soothed and smoothed. As we express more and more virtue and self-less-ness we become calmer and stronger in ourselves. At the center point between opposites is the still state of Oneness and while logic dictates that the opposites should be equal as well as opposing, goodness brings us closer to ego transcendence than evil.
But there is a catch, for “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” As long as even our goodness is ego-centric and ego-affirming, we are still caught and the pendulum of duality will, in time, force us back. Only when we consciously give ourselves to God with love and self-offering can the power of grace (of Oneness, of nonduality) meet us halfway to draw us ever deeply toward the still point within. Only when we consciously surrender into Oneness with an open heart can we enter, and, when we are ready, remain, in that beatitude.
So don’t let your scoffer brother-in-law get to you. Disdain and contempt is difficult to bear, but only by the ego. Instead, consider it a glorious path to God. Meet disdain with love and even-mindedness. Indeed, feel but compassion, for a dry, loveless heart and overly intellectual mind has no room, no appetite for God, no chance for true happiness. Like one used to eating stale cheese, the armchair philosopher substitutes his cleverness for truth and, in time, finds the harvest but a bitter fruit of stillborn emptiness, devoid of happiness.
Be of good cheer! The truth shall make you free!