This post was originally titled “10 Barriers to Enlightenment,” but it ended up too long. The other five will come at a later date, most likely next week.
Each of the following mental positions are easy to slip into. But the truth is that nothing stops us from experiencing our basic, “enlightened” state aside from our own fastidiously held beliefs and thoughts. This brings us right to belief #1…
- There are barriers to enlightenment. Go ahead and stop reading this post. Just give up the idea that anything stands between you and liberation, because it is only that: An idea. Ideas and thoughts, no matter how persuasive, are not ultimately real. They seem very real when we sincerely believe in them. They can take hold of us and drive us into mad behaviors that manifest in the physical world, but that does not make them real.
The only stumbling blocks to enlightenment exist within the mind and nowhere else. This is why we train in continuously watching our thoughts, ideally before these thoughts turn into words and behaviors that will exacerbate the cycle of suffering.In reality, there are no barriers to enlightenment. The only barriers are the ones we imagine and continue to energize with thought.
2. “Enlightenment” is a special thing only for certain special people. This word—“enlightenment”—is so loaded that I almost don’t want to use it. And yet, if we avoid using it, it becomes this “word that cannot be uttered,” thereby becoming just as elusive and mysterious anyway. But that’s just the thing: Fetishizing enlightenment is part of the problem. When we do this, we treat it just like any other thing we might desire: A spouse, a piece of cake, a beer, a cigarette, a job, a college degree. Because “being enlightened” is not a special power or a thing to possess, but simply your true state of being, it cannot be wanted. Desire can exist only for things you don’t yet have. Enlightenment is not like this. You have it, your friends have it, your parents have it, and no one ever didn’t have it. (Using the word “have” is actually incorrect, because it makes Truth into a thing to possess, and it is not that.) Turning it into something very big and special reserved only for “certain” people is yet another delusion.It also creates a false hierarchy—”those who are enlightened”—and us mere mortals. This is not to diminish the value of our teachers, but we must recognize that holding others in extreme reverence can blind us from realizing our own selves. The responses we feel towards others reflect and draw out elements that exist within ourselves. Therefore, the good energy we experience in the presence of teachers is a drawing out of the light that’s already there. They are not “giving” us anything other than their true being, which is your true being, which is everyone’s true being.
3. It takes “thousands and thousands of lifetimes” to become enlightened. I once had a therapist tell me this. (I did not see her many times after she made this claim.) This is a common belief that quickly disintegrates when we really look at it, just as many spiritual beliefs do.
First, how do you know you haven’t already lived thousands and thousands of lifetimes? If we’re accepting this level of mystery about the whole thing, why can’t this be “your” 10,001st lifetime and that this is the one you’re going to wake up in? Furthermore, why can’t that moment occur right now?
Secondly, to my knowledge, the Buddha himself never said anything of the sort. (Any Buddhist scholars, feel free to correct me.) Awakening—becoming free of suffering—is the explicit “goal” of the noble eight-fold path, even though when we approach enlightenment like a “thing to get,” we will always miss it (see above.) Nowhere did the Buddha say that it took special credentials or many lifetimes to awaken. Also, the way we often think about this whole “multiple lifetime” thing is off the mark, but I won’t get into that here.
There is just no grounding for this idea in any text, and more importantly, you will not find it in your direct experience. Logically it makes no sense. It requires a lot of delusion in order to accept it in the first place. Do you truly remember living any other lives? Are you sure these are not mere imaginations? Doesn’t the “multiple lifetimes” concept require as much blind belief as anything else, and furthermore, what is the “you” that is supposedly continuing through several lives?
It is important to proceed as if this, right now, is our only lifetime, and that this is the one enlightenment exists in.
4. The “I” is an enduring, separate entity. This pernicious belief is the one we cling to at all costs. It is the most difficult one to let go of, and the construct the mind tends to serve at all costs: “me, “mine,” “I.”As soon as the “I” is threatened—in our society, this is usually when someone argues or disagrees with our opinions—we spring into action as if we were dying. This is a serious affliction that must be dealt with and watched carefully. We act as though our beliefs are limbs that are being hacked up. We feel on an emotional level as though we’ve been injured if we are made wrong. It is only this sense of ego that can be injured in this way, and it is only the ego that goes seeking such intellectual battles.This is enslavement at its finest. The “I” is so entrenched that we cannot engage in discussions without feeling our hearts race and anger start to rise. We cannot talk about our “beliefs” without becoming frustrated. This small notion of “I” keeps us trapped and limited in ways we are not even aware of until we see through it.
To be sure, this what “enlightenment” is ultimately about: Becoming free of ego, free of the limited “I.” We very understandably fear the loss of this “I,” and yet it is the thing that must be relinquished in order to walk through the door to freedom. Try to locate where this “separate self” is. Try to find where you are not connected and/or a part of everything else. Try to discern how much of you would need to be “replaced” with something else (say with synthetic body parts or a damaged mind) before “you” were not “you” anymore. The more we play with this idea, the more obvious it becomes that it is nothing more than an idea.
That’s all the “I” has ever been. Realizing this wholly results in that great “extinguishing.” This can be very relieving, though it is usually preceded by much fear.
5. There’s a specific, “right” path that can get you to enlightenment. First: There is nothing to get to. It’s right here. Take off the thick lenses of thought and belief and here it is, just where it’s always been. (I freely admit that I, too, wear thick lenses of thought, and that I am not always skilled in dis-identifying from these thoughts, especially when they’re paired with strong emotions.)
The Buddha’s path is a kind of “fake it til you make it” program. It is enlightenment which results in our notions of “morality” rather than the other way around. When we understand that we are in no way separate, it is only obvious to strive to be good to each other and the entirety of the Whole we belong to and are. When we see what’s true, no one has to enforce or overthink this.However, encouraging people to “be good” (via the noble eight-fold path) in order to attain enlightenment achieves two things: It encourages people to stop behaving insanely in the external world, even if they are still insane on the inside. This is positive. It also cultivates the consciousness of the seeker to handle it better when enlightenment does arrive. Things tend to go smoother if you’re already living in accordance with compassion, kindness, and love.
Example: A man who poaches endangered animals for sport, regularly uses drugs and alcohol, and is married to his third trophy wife would likely experience a rude awakening. (It’s possible that he would have a clean break into liberation and change his ways easily. However, due to the level of delusion such habits are built upon, and the way these habits are built into his ego identity, there would likely be some amount of resistance.) Much about his way of life would fall apart before his eyes. This thing would likely wreck him, even though it would be exactly what he needs. (I suspect that the level of intensity certain people would face if they were to wake up is precisely what keeps them from doing so. I am sure many powerful people in this world fight hard to remain unconscious, though of course, they are also unconscious of this…) On the other hand, a person who already prioritizes detaching from the mind and living with kindness—and who knows that awakening is possible—will have likely a much smoother time.
Ultimately there is no “path” to enlightenment, just like there’s no “path” to being made of flesh and blood. This is just how it is, whether you’re aware of it or not. Avoiding or denying enlightenment—which is what we habitually do—is unnatural, and yet we keep doing it. We keep insisting we want it, and yet keep on denying that it is True right now.
The path is just right here. We just keep coming back to right where we are. We keep watching our thoughts as they cover our light. At some point, without trying, we stumble upon ultimate Truth.