Enlightenment is a polarizing subject. One of the real challenges when discussing enlightenment is people tend to get wrapped up in searching for truth, not realizing that truth is subjective and abstract. We’re uncomfortable with the idea that truth can be subjective because we have a deep inner need for our truth to be the same for everyone around us. Conflicting information is often met with a raging argument defending our point of view as if it were the Holy Grail. Part of the enlightenment process is realizing that much of what we experience with our senses are just models of the world around us. In science, models are used to research and predict outcomes. A cake recipe is a model representing the process of making a tasty confection. Follow the recipe precisely and the model predicts what the cake will look and taste like. Deviate from the recipe and the outcome varies. Some models lead to a tangible goal; others to an outcome that cannot be verified. If you follow the Christian model, for example, the predicted result is your soul gaining entry to Heaven after you die. This outcome cannot be objectively verified, so the person who decides to follow the Christian model must take it on faith that he/she will receive the predicted outcome. The problem is that, in this case, the model itself continuously shifts what one needs to say/do/believe in order to receive the predicted outcome, causing some people to reject the model entirely.
This is common. The person who screams “pseudoscience!” and rejects anything that falls outside the atheist model is really no different from the person opposite them screaming “blasphemy!” and rejecting whatever doesn’t fit their religious model. Add in each person’s individual schema that attempts to impose its own limitations on what each model is supposed to represent and you can see how things can get complicated in a hurry. Richard Dawkins and Rupert Sheldrake are both scientists, but their individual schemas cause them to vary wildly in their interpretation of what’s allowed under that model.
For some, meditating to achieve enlightenment is a model with no predicted outcome because what it means to achieve enlightenment is never clearly defined. This is often the case when the model becomes political in nature; the predicted outcome becomes either unverifiable or deliberately hazy.
The cynic might say the true predicted outcome for all religious models is make the church/temple/synagogue rich at the expense of the true believers it claims to serve. And we’ve definitely seen plenty of examples proving that assertion has a ring of truth to it. I tend to think that this actually represents a fundamental flaw in the models methodology: the cake recipe is missing key ingredients and/or crucial baking steps. As time passes, the cake that no one can replicate becomes mythological in nature as the model continually fails to provide the predicted outcome. People still flock to the model, faithfully believing that somehow, somewhere, the predicted outcome will become real. You see this quite often in martial arts circles, which have stories of a long-dead master who achieved enlightenment and was capable of incredible physical feats. The school he left behind supposedly has all his teachings, but the fact that no one else has achieved the same level of power is a strong indication that the cake recipe is incomplete.
In many ways, the only real way to evaluate the efficacy of a model is to research if the predicted outcome can be replicated. The field of Chemistry, for example, is based upon the assumption that our model of the elements, the Periodic Table, can accurately predict what elements are found on Earth and how they interact with each other. The stability of this model has led Chemistry to being considered a “hard” science; that is, the predicted outcomes are damned predictable and can be replicated consistently. If a model cannot produce consistent results, it’s considered unreliable.
One of the key points of confusion when discussing enlightenment is attempting to ascribe objective qualities to what is essentially a subjective experience. There are no quick and easy answers when it comes to validating internal experience, as any psychologist knows. Let me give you an example: at some point when following the Hoshin path of running the energy orbits to awaken Kundalini, most practitioners end up seeing intense visions of a female spirit who corresponds to descriptions of the Hindu Goddess Kali. There are at least four different explanations for this (assuming the practitioners aren’t simply making it all up):
- Kali is a real goddess/spirit who is attracted to the energy the practitioner is generating.
- Kali is an archetype/program residing deep in the human subconscious that is activated at a certain level of development.
- Something else is happening that we currently have no real basis for understanding.
- Some combination of the previous explanations.
It’s easy to see how a foolish person could take this experience as a sign they’ve been chosen to receive the Dark Mother’s wisdom and form a cult around themselves. The wise write the experience down in their journals and move on with life. Communing with goddesses is a very powerful experience, but generally speaking, it won’t help you pay your electric bill. It’s not even something you can talk about around the water cooler if you value your job (and if you take offense at the notion that Kali might appear to someone who isn’t a strict devotee of the Hindu religion, all I can do is shrug. You try telling her she’s doing it wrong).
The metaphorical nature of mystic experiences makes research difficult. Aspects that should be taken literally are considered symbolic. Stories that were written as parables end up being taken as literal history, despite a lack of archaeological or historical verification. The term “I saw the light” is often used to indicate an abstract realization (”I was a sinner until I saw the light and got myself to church!”). It actually refers to a very specific phenomenon that indicates the meditator is either getting close to or has achieved enlightenment. If one pays attention to the phosphenes behind the eyes, they’re usually a mix of blue, purple, or green. Running the energy orbits will make them start to swirl and explode like little nuclear explosions. Eventually, the colors will start to burn white. The bright white light tends to be sporadic until after the Kundalini experience, after which it becomes so bright and consistent it sometimes interferes with sleep. Notice that most of our metaphors for a spiritually awakened person are light-oriented: enlightened, illuminated, etc. There are persistent stories in occult circles that the magickal lodges of turn-of-the-century Europe were connected to a hidden “white” brotherhood (the “white” did not refer to skin color or ethics, but to the bright “astral” light adepts were said to have awakened) that possessed secret knowledge. Now, I tend to dismiss the stories of such groups ruling the world as paranoid right-wing fantasy, but since I know the white light experience is real, it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that a group with this knowledge would keep it secret to avoid being imprisoned or put to death for witchcraft.
Cognitive psychologists use computers as a model for the human brain (note: they’re not saying the brain IS a computer; it’s just a useful model for research purposes). As Robert Anton Wilson observed on more than one occasion, most people behave like badly programmed robots. Whether you believe nature or nurture has more influence, the fact remains that people erroneously believe they have little or no input over their own development. “That’s the way I was raised!” is a lazy excuse for refusing to deal with problematic behaviors as is “That’s how all good ____ believe!”.
The process of deliberately examining and choosing what you want to believe and which models work best for you was referred to by neuroscientist/philosopher John C. Lily as metaprogramming. To go back to the cognitive metaphor, people treat their brains like an off-the-shelf laptop computer; they think they’re stuck with the software the machine originally came with, no matter how inadequate it may be for their needs. The Metaprogrammer understands how malleable our brains are and customizes things accordingly. The human brain is ritualistic in nature; it likes to repeat patterns. This generally accounts for the robotic, zombie-like behavior of the average man; they’re running patterns that either developed randomly or were installed by outside sources. Those patterns eventually harden into a schema, which dutifully filters out information not conforming to the patterns.
There’s a growing movement in physics called bio-centrism that believes we live in an observer-created universe. Evidence for this lies in the old Zen koan, “If a tree falls in the forest, does it still make a sound?” The answer (spoiler alert!) is no, it does not. The tree DOES create a sound wave, but with no ear drum to convert that wave into a signal than can be interpreted by a brain as a noise, no sound is produced. Sound happens in our brains, not in the in outside world. The same dynamic happens with all our senses. We constantly receive signals that our brains organize into what we believe is the “real world”. But under this somewhat bizarre model, nothing exists outside of your perceptions.
Suggestions For Evaluating Models
Evaluate predicted outcomes – before you sign up for anything, find out what the end result is supposed to be. When I went to college, my predicted outcome if I followed the model was that I would end up with a degree. There’s at least one internationally recognized spiritual organization that purports devout practitioners will eventually learn how to levitate. They’re not getting my money until I see a demonstration. A guitar teacher should be able to play a few songs for you. A martial arts instructor should be able to demonstrate how they can kick your butt three ways from Sunday. The end result doesn’t have to be something tangible; if the outcome is inner peace, are there people who consistently achieve this state? Can they describe what it feels like and what impact it’s had on their lives?
Step back and see the patterns – When I was growing up, elementary schools had huge signs everywhere admonishing us to Stay to the Right! when walking down the hall. That pattern is so deeply ingrained that grocery and department stores have observed that all foot traffic moves from right to left. They’ve learned to put items that people tend to run in and grab (like milk and bread) to the far left of the store. Most folks won’t go straight to the section they need – they’ll follow the right to left pattern, making it more likely something else will catch their eye. Haven’t you noticed we all tend to tell cashiers, “I only came in for one thing” as they ring up $100 worth of purchases? Walk into any store, immediately go left and see how you feel.
Notice the Illusion – assume that bio-centrism is true and that nothing exists if you’re not looking at it. Try to imagine that your bathroom, spare bedroom, closet interior, etc. do not exist if you’re not currently observing them. Try and see if you can grasp that “reality” is limited to what you can perceive. Pick an object and stare at it with the attitude that you want to see it as pure energy and not whatever you’re perceive the object to be.
Let’s make it more interesting: in some video games (particularly first-person shooters), movement is an illusion. The player never actually moves, the gaming world moves around them. This is true even when playing multiple players. Assume reality operates under the same principle and that you’ve never moved in your entire life, reality has moved around you. Walk around your house with the attitude that when you move your legs it’s triggering reality to move around you and that you’re staying in one spot. See how long it takes to give yourself a nice headache with that one.