Many people, if we think of enlightenment at all, see it as an end state. We’ve finally arrived after so much time of practice. It is something that once achieved, is done permanently and we’ve reached at the end; the destination. And if we practice certain methods, we will be enlightened too.
In India I saw sadhus who stood on one leg for the majority of their lives, or stood with one arm permanently raised to hasten their enlightenment. I witnessed all kinds of self-punishing practices that were supposedly the ticket to getting off the wheel of death and rebirth. I saw all manner of deprivations, including the naked nagas, up in the sub-zero temperatures of the Himalayas. One one level it is admirable to show sincerity and deep desire to be free. Yet, on another level, it is very body-centered and unnecessary for attaining the deep peace of really living in the present moment.
People also see enlightenment as a state in which all our problems are permanently solved and we will never feel pain, fear, or suffering again. And so we will sit in the lotus position for twelve hours a day, chanting, thinking that this state will bring us into emotional. freedom. The more difficult the positions and practices, supposedly the better. It sometimes becomes a situation of spiritual one-upmanship. “I sat and chanted for 18 hours straight.” “Really? Well, I did it for 20 hours!”
All this self-immolation and punishment centers on the idea that we can bribe the Universe through certain acts and we will finally feel safe. That’s not what enlightenment is. Enlightenment cannot be defined in one sentence but it is about being conscious, in the present moment of the beauty and grandeur of the Universal energy at the core of everything that is physical and non-physical. Enlightenment is about living in the Now, and taming the wild monkey mind that anxiously hurls into the future or depressingly focuses on past hurts and failures.
Therefore, people can carry on with their entertainments according to the cultures in which they were indoctrinated—this is holy, this isn’t, this will lead to enlightenment, this won’t—but it has nothing to do being in a state of Now-ness no matter what we are doing or not doing. If we think that doing something now is going to bring us enlightenment in the future, we are missing the point altogether. We chastise ourselves for not meditating enough or properly and feel like failures because “everyone else seems to be able to do it.”
Pursuing enlightenment has become a tourist industry, with people going to far-flung regions to take ayahuasca or visit remote temples to make sacrifices. That may make people feel they are doing something to achieve enlightenment, but usually it wears off and they are back to their anxieties and self-doubts, self-comparisons, and hoping one day they will “arrive.” Enlightenment is not a state at which you arrive and it’s all free sailing from then on.
It is a constantly evolving deepening that we cannot influence through trade-offs, public display of spirituality, or wishful thinking. While we are in the physical, we will all feel pain and suffering. Enlightenment is not about pain-free euphoria. People have been trying for that for centuries and it has worked its way into major opioid epidemics. Being in a drugged-out trance in hopes of escaping the ups and downs of life is not enlightenment, though it masquerades as such.
No, pain is still there, no matter how enlightened any human is. But it hinges on how we view pain. How we hold it in our consciousness that makes the difference between enlightenment and mere suppression. Suppression is like holding our hands over a child’s mouth so she won’t cry—instead of alleviating her pain. Enlightenment is holding the pain in a state of presence, understanding that “this too shall pass,” It is also understanding that no one in the physical form is exempt from suffering, therefore, not taking pain personally—as if we are singled out to be picked on because of something we did or didn’t do.