The paradox of enlightenment

…is that ultimately there is nothing “you” can do to become enlightened. You, yourself, in fact are the obstacle to enlightenment; an ego stubbornly clinging to the illusion of self. But if you ignore the whole subject of enlightenment and do nothing, you never become enlightened. So how does one become enlightened?

Are you talking about in Buddhism? What religion or philsophical tradition of enlightenment are you focusing on?

By reading the SDMB, of course…

Seriously, your contention is only valid if one accepts the underlying premise that we are “an ego stubbornly clinging to the illusion of self.” Lots of (meaningless) mumbo jumbo there, certainly.

The path to enlightenment is reason. The success of such enlightenment depends on the mind doing the reasoning.

Of course, if you are going to get all Buddhist on us and start talking Enlightenment about some sort of spiritual meaning “deeper” than what science can bring us, you probably need to clarify that up front so we can address the irrationality of such views.

You’re using one extremely narrow meaning of “enlightenment.” If you were really enlightened, you wouldn’t do that.

What is this business of enlightenment? Some state of knowledge, satisfaction, whatever which is vastly different from and superior to that which most people ever attain? Why do you think there really is such a state?

The Eastern goal or state of “Enlightenment,” (Nibbana, Nirvana, Samadhi, Satori, whatever you want to call it) is not irrational or “spiritual” or supernatural or beyond science. It just refers to a real state of consciousness (which has been observed in laboratory conditions) in which the perception of “self” transcends what might be called the “ego” and becomes more universalized, more objective, etc.

It’s difficult to articulate in simple language without sounding all cryptic and pseudo-mystical but the most earth-bound way I can describe it is to say that your sense of your own consciousness becomes reoriented. There’s realization (or at least a convincing sense of realization) that the center of consciousness which we perceive as our “self” – that constant, babbling, internal monologue that never stops – is not really the center at all. We only have the illusion that it is. There is another broader, more objective, and completely detached sense of consciousness which underlies what Eastern mystics call the “ego” consciousness. The ego level of consciousness is the one with all the emotions and the fear and the desire and whatnot. These are distractions from the pure, unemotional, blissed out “Buddha consciousness” which is always just there underneath it all.

This state of mind actually exists. I’ve experienced very brief glimpses of it. A lot of people have had some sense of it while on hallucinogenic drugs (they might chracterize it is as “God consciousness” or having a “God within”).

There is a paradox in pursuing this state of consciousness in that the only part og the mind which WANTS to experience it is the very ego consciousness which we are trying to transcend. Pursuing a method to rid ourselves of it is self contradictory. Alan Watts uses the analogy of trying to see your own eyes or bite your own teeth.

A lot of Eastern teachers and texts will tell you that the experience is essentially spontaneous and can’t be forced. You can’t make it happen (at least not the first time) but you can do things which will make it more LIKELY to happen and that generally involves removing distractions and practicing self-awareness (meditation).

I’m starting to ramble a little but my point is that the Eastern concept of “Enlightment” does not necessarily involve any woo woo beliefs or claims (some schools have supernatural trappings, others don’t). It’s beyond dispute that consciouness can be altered by meditation and other techniques. “Enlightenment” just refers to a particular altered state which feels very profound and joyful while you’re in it. While a lot of people do attribute magical or supernatural explanations or associations to it, they are not critical to the experience itself. I believe in nothing supernatural or “spiritual” but I have experienced altered states of consciousness which I think are close to what gets described by Eastern mystics.

Diogenes the Cynic, what you describe is what I experienced once intensely – with little glimpses at other times. I’ve used labels and you haven’t. You were wise not to. It’s really futile anyway.

This state of mind is what I call the “spiritual.” That doesn’t mean that it is supernatural or “woo woo.” It’s just my label.

I am really glad that you have described your understanding. Just remember how hard it is to describe and that others who may come across to you as pseudo-mystical may not have your gift with words.

Sorry about the defensiveness. But there it is. My ego is back in town.

The laboratory experiments are of interest to me. Do you know if there are links on the internet or can you recomend some reading?

What ** Diogenes the Cynic** said. I was hard put to describe exactly what I wanted to ask about.

That’s simple, you stop being “you.”

Well, it’s simply said, anyway.

You can not find enlightenment unless you look. But you can not find it by looking.

Well, it sounds awesome and mind-blowing and cool and all, but when a person is in God Mode, can they accomplish anything tangible, like telekinesis or inventing a new rechargable battery or thinking up a way to make universal health care work perfectly? I mean, I’m sure one can get a serious rush by freebasing, but it doesn’t exactly allow one to master feats of incredible dexterity or mathematical acumen. I’ll hazard a guess that the automotive engineers at Toyota don’t get their ideas by journeying within.

And you might be wrong. That would depend of what you mean by “journeying within.” Lots of ideas come to people when they manage to be quiet and use their imaginations or pay attention to what they dream or be mindful or what they are doing.

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity began when he tried to imagine what things would look like if he could ride on a beam of light. Don’t your ideas come from inside your head? Where do automotive engineers get their ideas? Do they pick them up from the sidewalk?

Another thing about enlightenment is that you can’t know what caused your Enlightenment. Was it the trip to Tibet, the long talk with my grandfather, or day I sat by the lakeshore? And you can’t know when you will be enlightened either. So it could be right after returning from Tibet, three months, even ten years.

Yeah, and Isaac Asimov wrote that whenever he got stuck on a problem, he’d go to a cheesy spy movie that would distract his conscious mind just enough to let his subconscious kick ideas around (he describes this in detail in his essay “The Eureka Phenomenon”). He didn’t bother delving into issues of Nirvana, to him it’s just noting one aspect of how the human brain works. To some it may feel all groovy and spiritual and touched-by-God and whatnot; to others it’s no more mysterious than “sleep on it.”

Wow, cool! A cynic that listens to Alan Watts. I pretty much agree with what you said. I like Alan Watts a lot too.
I’ve heard what you said about meditation being equivalent to self-awareness, spoken by other practitioners. Especially by Buddhists, some who claim that the only way to combat hypocrisy is through self-awareness and that is through meditation. But can one be self-aware without meditation? Or is it that if you’re self-aware, then that’s automatically a meditative state so the two terms are synonymous?

As to the OP, the way that you wrote it, the way would be to diminish the ego. How one does that depends on the person’s beliefs and is the journey of life, if that’s what you believe.

You seem to be implying that paradoxes are rare and unusual occurrences. But in my mind, most of life is paradox. If you try too hard to sleep, it becomes elusive. If you try too hard to find love, it too can become elusive. When you try to quantify and obtain happiness, it often becomes more difficult to obtain. So why should enlightenment be any different? I think the best we can do is try to get out of our own way.


I was just watching Nova ScienceNow where they were talking about the purposes of sleep. Some scientists believe that sleep processes memories in such a way that the events of the day get processed through sleep. So by losing sleep, one can lose understanding of the events and therefore wisdom. The concept of enlightenment might be tied to that.

Which misses the point of “enlightenment” entirely.

Accomplishing something tangible is somewhat antithetical to the search for enlightenment, and seems completely at odds with the destination. The conscious mind, to the delight and dismay of many, is capable of incredible feats of calculation and imagination. These things are tools to, if not survive, then flourish in the right-in-front-of-you world. The concept of enlightenment comes (at least in Eastern Philosophy and as Diogenes noted) as a reorientation from what you think you know, to what you don’t know you don’t know. Everything becomes nothing, and nothing everything.

It sounds, as many might say, a bit woo-woo, left of center if you will, however (as Diogenes points out) there is no denial of the existance of the state. Whether that state is anything more than brain chemicals, is, and I suspect always will be beyond our knowledge. What is within our grasp however, is the path to seek the state.

If it is through sitting zazen (meditation) if it is through them labors of daily chores, if it is through walking, it seems to matter not. The path decides when it will be taken and how. If you seek it, you will never find it, as Gonzomax points out, it can only be found by looking, but by looking, you will never find it.

Here are two sayings:

Before a person studies Zen for enlightenment, mountains are mountains, and waters are waters; afer a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains, and waters no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains, and waters once again waters.

Everything is based on mind, is led by mind is fashioned by mind. If you speak and act with a polluted mind, suffering will follow you as the wheels of the oxcart follow the footsteps of the ox. Everything is based on mind, is led by mind, is fashioned by mind. If you speak and act with a pure mind, happiness will follow you, as a shadow clings to form.

Perhaps that will not help, but it wasn’t meant to.

What is a “pure mind” and what is a “polluted mind”?

Er. . . thanks?

Doesn’t that just boil down to the mind being able to temporarily mess itself up, with no need for additional chemical agents? If anything, the enlightened monk’s continued need to eat, drink, and breathe casually demonstrates that mind alone is insufficient to sustain life. I’m prepared to be convinced otherwise by a demonstration of a still-alive yet non-breathing, non-eating, non-drinking enlightened person. Unless enlightenment=death, that is.

That is a question to which you already know the answer.

Somehow I doubt that. One person’s “pollution” is another’s light entertainment.