Illumination and Revolution

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    leaf in snowShirtsleeve weather of the previous few days suddenly shifted last night. Rain fell in the valley and snow fell in the foothills, just a few hundred meters above the city.

    Black filigrees of twigs, and the fractals of branches of a leafless oak grove in the parkland are set against a white and gray sky holding small patches of blue.

    Well layered against the cold, I sit for three-quarters of an hour at a picnic table overlooking the creek. Many runners, bikers, and walkers go by on the single lane park road on the other side of the stream, which has become a torrent of twice or even thrice its normal width and speed.

    The passive observation in the deepening dusk allows one to see the beauty behind the surface dreariness of the day. As darkness begins to descend, a nearly full moon shines through the foggy skies above the bare branches of the oaks and sycamores.

    Negating the observer in passive observation, life springs forth within and around one. The spaces between thoughts widen, the mind naturally quiets, and one finds oneself completely clear of content-consciousness. Such spaces and silences are the wellspring of insight and renewal in life.

    One has to allow the contents of the mind and heart the freedom to flow by, unimpeded by judgment and evaluation. Thought is a noisy, polluted stream that only is quieted and cleansed when its movement is undividedly and intensely observed as a whole.

    Meditation, to my mind, means taking the time to observe, without employing time to reach some self-projected goal. One then finds that the spaces between thoughts grow. Old and new emotions pour forth, and, in the undirected action of attention, are discharged.

    When passive observation negates the illusion of the separate observer, attention gathers its own momentum, and the mind spontaneously falls silent. Then the present is no longer overshadowed by the past. Therefore meditation entails effortlessly leaving the stream of content-consciousness, which is the past.

    Consciousness, as we usually know it, is a dense material that allows little light to pass through. Right observation ends the infinite regress of the observer, and allows attention to gather. Undirected attention then acts like a laser, burning all the way through the material.

    Short of illumination, the cumulative material of memory and the past seeps back into the spaces opened up by meditative attention. The mind falls back into the habit of thinking and associating–the ebb and flow of the past. But one is changed, and cannot completely go back to operating in terms of thought.

    What then, is illumination? As I tentatively understand it, illumination occurs when attention remains, without effort, relatively constant, so that the material of the past does not leach back into the spaces of the mind. Can an ordinary human being live in such a state of awareness and insight, which is not a matter of will, effort, or choice, but of seeing, being, and acting?

    I don’t favor Buddhist conceptions of illumination, since our linguistic and conceptual frameworks arise from the culture and times in which we live. Ours is a scientific age, and we need a new language for ‘enlightenment’ that is put in scientific, even neuroscientific terms. Besides, tradition, even Buddhist tradition, impedes illumination, and never ignites it.

    Buddhism is an Eastern tradition dating from the time of Siddhartha Gautama, who lived about 2500 years ago. Very little is known about the life of Gautama, and his teachings were first part of an oral tradition, not committed to writing until 400 years after his death.

    Though many pretend to take on a mantle of authority with regard to Gautama’s teachings, it is a false attitude, and not just because there is inherent uncertainty about the Buddha’s teachings. Authority where spiritual matters is concerned is utterly antithetical to learning and freedom.

    Just as transformation and illumination aren’t possible in the individual without self-knowing, so too a revolution in human consciousness is not possible without a sufficient number of individuals awakening.

    There have been many revolutions throughout human history; nearly all have been violent, and changed nothing essentially. Indeed, the basic course of humankind has not changed since ‘modern humans’ first emerged in Africa about 100,000 years ago.

    Now, like no other time in history because of globalization and technology, a psychological revolution can ignite. And it certainly needs to ignite, if greed, power, conflict, and fragmentation aren’t to render this beautiful planet unlivable for the living and future generations.

    Martin LeFevre
    [email protected]

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