To understand what we are even talking about, we need to dive a little bit into the murky waters of the term “enlightenment.”
We all have a picture of it in our minds.
We may think of meeting God, being equanimous in the face of impending disaster, having a clear view of ultimate reality, knowing the future and the minds of others, being a happy person who is free from anger and anxiety, having instant access to blissful states of mind, or to Nirvana. Perhaps we think of immortality, omniscience, and omnipotence.
We might call someone enlightened, for transcending their own petty interests and acting for the good of something bigger than themselves. There is even something called enlightened self-interest, whereby someone, or some group of people, act(s) in line with both their own long-term interest and the welfare of others, foregoing some highly seductive short-term gratification. And then of course, there are the literary, scientific, and philosophical overtones of the term, which have been so important to the intellectual history of the West that historians in their infinite wisdom imagined it warranted not just a capital letter, but its very own historical epoch: the Enlightenment.
So, lots of different connotations. But what is enlightenment, exactly?
First off, it’s good to understand the differences between terms that are often used interchangeably, and where they originate. Enlightenment itself is not a literal translation of the spiritual goal of any path or tradition, but is a Western invention. As such, it can refer to many goals, but does not point precisely to a specific one. Let’s take a brief look at the different traditions, so we have a little bit of a background as to what is generally considered to be the goal of life.
Views on Enlightenment in Buddhism
Let’s start with Buddhism. Buddhists generally favor the term awakening, as the honorific Buddha actually means the awakened one. Not only that, but the tree under which the Buddha sat when he reached his realization has been renamed the bodhi tree, after the momentous event that occurred beneath its branches. This bodhi (awakening, not the tree) is the actual goal of the Buddhist path. It flows from a desire to transcend suffering, pursued in a particular way.
In many texts in the Pali Canon, the Buddha talks about sickness, old age, lamentation, and despair as being the inevitable companions on our individual journey through this life, and how to deal with the suffering that flows from them. Mental development (meditation is another word that is rarely used in Buddhism, and, like enlightenment, represents another Western invention) leads to wisdom, which at a certain point produces the unbinding of experience, and the cessation of suffering.
This is the interpretation of awakening of the Theravada school of Buddhism, which is not much in dispute. Rather, in other schools of Buddhism, this potential for such individual awakening is acknowledged, but superseded by a desire to help others reach awakening, as well. Not being a closed canon, Buddhism has generally been relatively open to the discovery of new paths to the same goal, or even new goals, and nowadays, paths and methods abound.
Despite this open canon, it remains valid to summarize Buddhism by citing the four noble truths: 1 there is suffering, 2 suffering has a cause, 3 that cause can be taken away, 4 through following the eightfold path. This is not some article of faith that must be memorized, but a way of investigation that should be practiced and applied to every minute aspect of your daily existence, for awakening to occur. A fully awakened person is no longer plagued by the three causes of suffering: desire, aversion, and delusion, and is free.
The contemporary religion of Buddhism consists of much more than the direct search for awakening through mental development, as such is mostly the preserve of monastics in the different Buddhist traditions, with most lay people being expected to serve the needs of monastic institutions. When you are making merit thus, you are in essence investing in your future awakening, even if it may take you several more lifetimes. Needless to say, this is not something the average Westerner is looking for, and so not just the practice of making merit, but also the concept of reincarnation is by and large ignored in the West.
Buddhism in nearly every local context maintains a colorful pantheon of deities, demons, planes of existence, as well as magic, alchemy, astrology and nature-worship. All of these play a definite role in adherents’ day-to-day religious experience, whereas Western practitioners generally stick to meditative practices. Also, the traditional insistence on morality is largely bypassed, while the West focuses instead on the tool of mindfulness, even to the extent that it is sometimes used to help military snipers kill more effectively.
Views on Enlightenment in Hinduism
There is no one overarching doctrine that all Hindus must adhere to, as there is in Abrahamic faiths. Nevertheless, four concepts are deemed relevant for living a good life: dharma – your purpose, calling, or duty – artha – the pursuit of material wealth – kama – the pursuit of desire (as in the well-known kama sutra) – and moksha – liberation from the cycle of rebirth. These four goals are to be pursued simultaneously, and in a balanced fashion, never denying one’s impulses in any one of these realms, just to pursue another. Doing so, one gradually works towards self-realization.
As is the case in Buddhism, when contemplating moksha, suffering is a central concept, and it results from the cycle of reincarnation. You can be liberated from this interminable cycle by pleasing, serving, or knowing God, and also by seeing through the ignorance of the human condition.
Many Hindu philosophies believe that humans have a soul (Atman), which is quite distinct from human personality traits, perceptions, memories, or other changeable attributes. Atman is that which never changes, but which is free to experience the entirety of the changing cosmos. And then there is the essence of God, called Brahman. There is vigorous and long-standing debate on the relationship between Atman and Brahman, with some Vedantic schools of thought saying that they are always and already the same – therefore adhering to a monist view – and others, who say that Atman and Brahman can approach each other, perhaps even join for a time, but in the final analysis, they are not the same.
Many, many, other view points are put forth, and unsurprisingly, all of these schools and philosophies have developed their own paths and goals. Throughout, however, moksha remains a central concept, and the jivanmukti – the liberated soul – is the end goal of many of these paths. The jivanmukti has seen through, and can no longer be fooled by the illusion of separation, and is an overall saintly person, radiating kindness, humility, and peace, while practicing non-harming.
The idea that there is no fundamental difference between the individual soul, and its divine source, has been influential in the Western adoption of Hindu beliefs and practices, for instance in several forms of yoga, the chakra system, and the practice of self-inquiry. But other Hindu perspectives on absolute truth and their practices are tolerated equally well.
Less readily adopted in the West are the myriad rituals of reverence for household gods, known as puja, the stage-of-life rites prescribed in Hindu texts, and the practice of pilgrimage. Neither is the system of castes and colors observed, or tolerated, within contemporary Western culture. There is no worship of cows, rivers, or mountains, and none of the traditionalist emphases on vegetarianism, on the sequestration of menstruating and childbearing women, on recitation of ancient epics, such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, or on the many practices that ward off evil spirits and/or enlist benevolent ones. The central concepts of karma and rebirth are generally omitted, and so is the integral importance of dharma, artha, and kama.
Selective Shopping for Enlightenment in a Global Religious Marketplace
In a sense, Westerners have been shopping selectively in the catalogues of the world’s religions, lifting out yoga, breath work, meditation, and certain metaphysical perspectives. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with this, unless you happen to agree with the ideology of cultural appropriation, which we will leave beyond consideration here.
There is a danger, however, of fundamentally misunderstanding what is being pointed to, when employing a pick and mix strategy from the storehouse of the world’s religions.
Essentially, the Western world view is a linear one, whereas the Indic perspective is more cyclical in nature. This axiomatic difference alone, when not taken into account, serves to create confusion and further misunderstanding.
And now we need to ask what we mean when we are discussing enlightenment. Are we referring to the Buddhist notion of bodhi, which culminates in Nirvana, and are we now a Buddha or an Arhat? Or are we talking about ourselves as a jivanmukti, having seen through the apparent separation with Brahman, and having full access to the completeness of the moksha experience?
It may be becoming clear that there is really no one common interpretation of the enlightenment concept, and things are about to become even fuzzier. With the advent of the art and science of psychology, and the increased reception of Eastern spirituality, Western people have begun to color in this concept of enlightenment in all sorts of ways.
Western Perspectives on Enlightenment
Enlightenment Among the Romantics
In Western contexts, enlightenment can have several connotations. It can have the distinctly Romantic association with bypassing the faculty of reason, and shifting one’s primary way of knowing to more holistic ones, such as intuition or being at one with nature. As The Oracle counsels Neo in the movie The Matrix:
“Being The One is just like being in love. No one can tell you you’re in love, you just know it. Through and through. Balls to bones.”
What is pointed to here is a deeper sense of knowing, that includes but far supersedes the rational capabilities that were so lauded during the period of The Enlightenment. This concept of being enlightened then becomes a Romantic’s tongue-in-cheek reference to the perceived limitations of the Enlightenment period in Western history.
Enlightenment in Psychology and Theology
Within Freudian psychology, the word enlightenment is sometimes used to describe a person’s breakthrough insight into their deeper self structures, sometimes referred to as one’s “true self,” which is invariably at odds with one’s social, or “false self.”
In theology, words like awakening, illumination, and enlightenment are alternately associated with religious revival movements, with an individual touching the divine component of inspiration, or with an insight into some supposed common metaphysical core to the world’s religions.
Enlightenment in the New Age
Throughout the decades since the first tentative reception of Eastern philosophy in the West, Eastern and Western perspectives have become intermingled in new syncretic forms of worship, philosophy, or, often, individual transcendent experience, with their intended outcome often being called enlightenment. Rajneesh/Osho, for example, combined Western psychology with Eastern philosophy and practice, and with free sexuality, to arrive at personal liberation, which often had more to do with escaping one’s childhood traumas than with moving beyond suffering.
The term New Age was coined to lump together many such attempts at syncretism, itself gradually giving way to even more of an emphasis on the personal search for meaning. That search is no longer about what God, meaning, the truth, or enlightenment actually is, but more about what such things, such concepts, mean to you. In essence, then, modern Western spirituality has arrived at a roundabout journey of self-discovery, looking for the meaning of life in concepts that primarily make sense to you, and whose conditions can only be satisfied by you, in a process I sometimes call the Am I Enlightened Yet Circlejerk. One needs only to lurk a while on the Awakened subreddit to get a sense of what this is about.
This fits oddly well with such ancient concepts as the self-created veil of ignorance a seeker must penetrate and see through in order to at some point merge with Brahman, or to attain Nirvana. Note the active verbs to penetrate and to see through. Gone is the Abrahamic focus on the fallible human’s need to await God’s grace, in order to be saved. Gone, too, are traditional emphases on austerity, patience, seclusion, selflessness, devotion, and sacrifice. Instead, the emphasis lies very much on the agency of the seeker, who needs to find, climb, summit, and descend the mountain, in order to resume their daily existence, now newly enlightened/liberated/awakened – forever changed, yet still the same. Perky Zen aphorisms, such as “before awakening: chop wood, carry water; after awakening: chop wood, carry water” help to strengthen such an intensely personalized view of the spiritual search. As does, of course, the pervasive narrative of the Hero’s Journey, in which an individual is reluctantly yet inevitably set upon their personal quest for heroism.
Has My Ego Death Experience Made Me Enlightened?
So, there are many, many different meanings for the one term “enlightenment.” It is therefore a good question to reflect back onto the questioner. What do you mean when you ask “Am I now enlightened?” Are you referring to an irreversible liberation, not just from suffering during this lifetime, but from the cyclical nature of life itself? Are you talking about a more expansive sense of knowing, including sources other than reason? Is it an awakening to a deeper, more wholesome part of yourself? A catharsis regarding some childhood trauma? Or something yet different?
Now that we have investigated the murk surrounding the term, we can perhaps start to answer the question.
Let’s say you are asking whether you have now attained to the end of the spiritual path, by experiencing what you did during and after your psychedelic ego death experience.
Your ego death experience has shown you that there is more to you than you previously believed. It was a transitory experience that may have led to a period of what is generally called afterglow, but even that afterglow fades, sooner or later. What is left is often not much more than a fond memory, some new insights about life, and perhaps a kinder, more understanding disposition towards adversity. This does not mean that the experience of ego death itself was not life-changing, intense, or even harrowing. It often is; it’s not called ego death for nothing.
So your ego death experience gave you a glimpse of something. A freebee, of sorts. Now, the real work begins. The above-mentioned spiritual traditions discern between many types of realization. For instance, in Zen Buddhism, there is kensho, a deep, but fleeting insight into what is often translated into English as “one’s true nature.” What is exactly meant by this varies between Mahayana Buddhist schools, but in the Zen tradition, it describes the lack of inherent existence of every phenomenon. (As an aside, you can see how this might be confused with a more Western conception of the “true self,” as described above…)
In Theravada Buddhism, also, there is a graduated path, in the context of which such a glimpse may lead to the attainment of the first of four stages of Awakening, called sotapatti, or stream entry. A lot can be said about both of these terms – kensho and sotapatti – and you could easily lose yourself in a rabbit hole of investigation into either of them. I don’t mean to get into this much at all, except to demonstrate that for many hundreds of years, scores of monastics have made a careful study of such exotic states of consciousness, approaching the subject like scientists, conjuring systems, mental maps, and entire vernaculars to discern and describe the relevant mental factors, causes, and conditions that pertain to these experiences.
The point of this digression is to demonstrate that glimpses, such as the one you may have caught, have been experienced and recognized for a long time, in diverse circumstances of spiritual practice, and that the consensus appears to be that they do not equate to the fruit of the entire path – not by a long shot. Instead, they are generally regarded as the beginning of walking the path in earnest. Almost like an initiation.
From investigating these practices, the experiences to which they lead, and the way these experiences are framed in their traditional contexts, it seems to me that we in the West generally lack the sophistication to discern between glimpses of enlightenment, and the real thing. We lack the deep insights into the causes and conditions, the different mental states, and different types of knowledge, that are helpful when making these types of distinctions. We are unfamiliar with the conceptual structures that have been developed over the centuries to classify these states, and consequently maintain a rather unhelpful binary outlook on the realities involved.
This is how we are able to naively ask this question, “am I now enlightened?” after catching a tiny glimpse of some previously unforeseen dimension of reality.
So, if you are asking whether your one ego death experience has bestowed upon you the end-of-suffering, end-of-reincarnation, the-end-goal-of-human-potential type enlightenment, then probably the answer would have to be “no, it’s very unlikely.” It is possible that you have had a glimpse, which can be pried open with time, to allow more and more of your life to become colonized by this new way of seeing. Perhaps, in time, you might advance to full sagehood. But it is unlikely that one transient experience jolts you into it.
Several well-known proponents of the use of psychedelics have also commented on this. Ram Dass, for example, who had been involved with Timothy Leary’s psychedelic experiments in the late sixties, opined that whereas psychedelics can show you something, they cannot make you into anything, and that trying to use them for that goal was subtly damaging on a “psychic level.” Similarly, Alan Watts:
“Psychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs are no longer necessary or useful. If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away and works on what he has seen.”
Instead of being catapulted into a stable and permanent spiritual enlightenment, it is more likely that you are jolted into a condition where you might feel like you’re liberated, one moment, and completely lost – trapped – in your old life, the next. We will talk more about this in new blog articles in the coming months, and of course in the Life After Ego Death book, which is all about this condition, and how to move beyond it.