The question of enlightenment is so fraught with projection and tradition that it is almost impossible to use the word without getting caught in the web of interpretation. To some degree, the question boils down to the difference between goal and drive.
Goals are everything to some people, little to most people, and necessary but secondary motivations to a few. No subject brings the matter of goals into greater relief than the question of enlightenment.
It’s unfortunate the Enlightenment philosophers chose that word for their intellectual renaissance, since anyone who thinks and writes on the subject since has to differentiate between western philosophy and the eastern spirituality in using the word.
The word ‘enlightenment’ means a very different thing in the Eastern tradition out of India. Even before Siddhartha, India had a long tradition of concern with inward matters. Indeed, whereas the West, beginning with the Greeks, turned outward and increasingly materialistic, India remained inward, both to her spiritual benefit and to her economic and technological stagnation.
Now the poles are reversing, as the West founders at the limits of materialism, consumerism, toy-tech, and expansionary growth, while the East adopts American-style capitalism and individualism.
Avatars of enlightenment (tongue firmly in cheek) of the non-intellectual variety are the proverbial fish out of water in this culture. But just what is enlightenment?
To my mind illumination is an event that one cannot seek, but for which one has to do enormous amount of spadework to prepare the ground. Enlightenment is not a goal, but one has to have tremendous drive to ‘attain’ it. That’s a paradox, not a contradiction.
One cannot say what enlightenment looks like, because then people would use the calculating and comparing mind to try to reach it. Or, as many have already done, convince themselves through ideation and projection that they are enlightened.
But as far as a loosely held definition, to my mind enlightenment implies the irrevocable ending of the dominance of thought (words, images, memories, conditioning) so that one lives in an imperfect state of attention and insight in the present.
Put simply, enlightenment, whether for a moment or forever, is a state of direct and timeless perception of what is. Though enlightened people never think of themselves as enlightened, there is the question of irrevocable breakthrough.
These matters are incredibly subtle, and exploring them one can’t settle on anything. But the difference between goal and drive can be elucidated.
Making a goal of enlightenment means that one has an idea and image of it, an end in mind of which the person is usually unaware. As an antidote to this tendency, this is a good question to ask oneself at the beginning of taking quiet/observing time: Do I have any goal here? (Honestly asking of the question reveals one’s hidden motives and negates goal seeking.)
A drive, as I’m using the word, is without motive. Many philosophers and psychologists say that action without motive isn’t possible. But is the seed of the Sequoia that pushes up through the soil and rises to a hundred meters and more into the sky driven by a goal and motive?
Just as all creatures are imbued with the survival instinct, all living things intrinsically have within them a drive to attain their highest potential.
Despite or because of the fact that many people are settling into comfortableness with man’s darkness, knowing not, except for entertainment purposes, what self-made cataclysms await us, indeed are already upon us, it’s urgently necessary to have an insight into the spiritual potential inherent in human beings.
The word ‘individual’ actually means ‘undivided person.’ To the extent we are self-knowing, taking total responsibility for what is within us, and thereby (because all of human history is enfolded within us) for the entirety of man’s past, we grow into genuine individuals, true human beings.
Many people, especially the highly educated, maintain with all the superficial certainty that knowledge and experience confer that this is it, that there is nothing more than material happen-chance going on with humanity, and that ‘man is the measure of all things.’ But it that was true nothing would drive us to reach higher, outwardly or inwardly.
We have progressed far as a species, but only outwardly. Despite extraordinary human beings like the Buddha or Jesus, we haven’t grown at all inwardly, but are the same barbarians we were when we emerged as modern humans from the caves along the coast of southern Africa.
The question is: Are we finally ready to make a conscious leap to being human beings?