Five (more) Barriers to Enlightenment

Here’s follow-up post regarding the way we many of us think about enlightenment, and how this line of thinking also keeps us trapped. Here are some more common beliefs that block us from direct knowing:

1. Enlightenment is “good,” “blissful,” “more evolved,” etc. Yes, liberation results in a profoundly positive mode of life as compared to being ruled by conditioned impulses and moods. If this were not true, there would be little motivation to seek.

But the point is that any conceptual understanding of enlightenment is mistaken. We can talk around Truth, but we cannot explain it, and whenever we’re busy thinking about “how it is,” we’re pushing it away. The mind is happy to do this, for it allows it to remain comfortably in charge.

Many people describe a bliss state that follows their awakening moment, but such feelings are not everlasting. All emotions are transient; this is a rule that does not change after we awaken. So if you’re hoping that awakening will get you into some state of perma-bliss, you’re in for a surprise.

Depending on what you’ve read/heard/seen about enlightenment, the click itself may actually may result in extreme confusion and nihilism. After all, your entire reality has flip-flopped, and you feel like you can’t go back. Maybe you didn’t even go looking to awaken. Suddenly, all the rugs that held you together are pulled out from under you. There’s nothing to stand on, nowhere to get to for comfort, no illusion of safety to be found anywhere in the world.

What does the ego like to do with this? Go on and on about how awakening is badass and gritty and hard (to the ego, it is certainly all of these things!). Then, at some point, because we feel we understand so much without trying (indeed because this thing cannot be tried for), we go on and say that the whole spiritual journey results in being “more evolved.” (In reality, there actually is no difference between one who is “enlightened” and one who isn’t.)

Being a human and having an ego, I have certainly fallen into the trap of believing this. A threatened ego will grab ahold of anything—even its own dissolution—to try and build itself up. But whenever we tell ourselves such stories, that’s really all we’re doing: Telling ourselves stories. None is more or less story than another, and neither is more or less “right” than another. There are words that point to the Truth, but ultimately everything that exists on the level of the thinking mind is equal. We only mistake some content for being “better” because it appeals to our egos, our sense of being “more” of something (evolved, right, compassionate, wise, intelligent, etc.) than others.

This whole “more evolved” thing is becoming a very popular idea, but we must remember: The state we dwell in when we are awake is one that it is timeless and changeless. It is the source of evolution itself we learn to move with. The source does not evolve; it simply is. Therefore we do not merely become “more evolved” versions of the people we once were. In fact, we eventually must drop the idea of ourselves as “a person” at all, because this sense of being “a particular person” in and of itself sets the stage for suffering.

The ego thrives on fancying itself as better than others, and it is even happier to wrap this inflation up in a new “oh this is spiritual therefore it is humble” packaging. But how can we be humble if we believe we are “more evolved”?

We must be mindful of sneaky, ego-appealing words if we yearn for Truth and freedom. Calling ourselves spiritual does not make us “more evolved.” It only makes our minds as grasping and falsely identified as anyone else’s, though perhaps in the know about chakra alignment.

However, there are individual paths that are growth-oriented (changing harmful habits, treating ourselves better, dwelling in presence, etc.) and there are paths that ensure stagnation. An individual can evolve and notice these positive changes, but what we’re ultimately getting at is moving beyond this construct of “me.” Enlightenment is not about our little selfhoods. Self-improvement may be a side effect of this work, but it is not the goal. For no matter how much improvement is done to the ego, the ego remains small and limited. This ensures ongoing confusion and pain. So, while “you” can certainly evolve, this “you” must ultimately be seen for the illusory construct that it is.

2. You are not enlightened. We shouldn’t lie to ourselves: Deep down, we all know if we are free or if the mind has us in its grip.

But really, “enlightenment” is just your most basic state of existence. To be and experience life without constant thought is your natural way of being. In this state, the mind is a tool no different from the fingertips I’m using to type up this blog post. When we need it, it is there and used without difficulty. When we don’t, we don’t pay much attention to it. Just as we do not allow our idle fingertips to pinch our own skin or other people’s, we do not allow our minds to abuse us and/or others through constant judgment. And we certainly don’t get caught up defining ourselves as our fingertips, no matter how useful they are.

What I am describing is not the average mode of operating. Even when our thoughts are killing us, we usually do not question them. The mind can be so seductive, and if we pay attention, we notice the way it is constantly luring us. All thoughts are like a passing mist we become fascinated with and attach ourselves to. Ever more troubling, some of the most seductive thoughts we have are those we think can make us free of this never-ending, unwelcome seduction!

This is all a trick, and the mind must be seen for the trickster it is. I witness my mind taking over innumerable times a day, and even then my mind sometimes manages to fool me into false beliefs. There is a phase, perhaps a long one, that we go through where the mind tries to jump in and tell us how we’re doing everything wrong with our lives, or “wasting our time” with this inquiry, thereby discouraging us from freeing ourselves.

The mess we’re in is as follows: We inherit many stories from our families, nations, and cultures. When we unconsciously build these stories into ego-identities, they become very uncomfortable to question or let go of, because losing one’s identity feels like death. We glom onto the popular belief that endless thinking is necessary, or even worse, that it is “the only way to be.” We fall into the trap of believing that thinking can solve all problems, even though it very often does the opposite. For a very long time, humans have collectively sought to solve each new problem the mind creates with a new mind-created solution. Do we see the insanity in this? We are trying to use the thing that made the mess to also clean it up.

This other thing—”presence,” “being,” “spiritual liberation,” “moksha,” “nirvana,” “enlightenment,” etc.—is with you at all times, ready to be rediscovered. It never left. It is just being covered with thoughts we stitch into grandiose stories about who we are and what we “must do.” These stories breed fear and keep us largely unconscious of what exactly is going on here.

Enlightenment is here with you, and you are already it. We only need to uncover it instead of constantly piling delusion on top. This uncovering it is not something you have to work endlessly at. You do not need to jump through anyone else’s spiritual hoops, meditating for years and years, to become what you already are. Just see what’s in front of you (not what you think about what’s in front of you) and take it from there.

3. Someone or something can “enlighten you.” Freedom is not something that can be granted to us by another individual. This very premise—that others can “make us” free, or “make us” anything—is the very essence of enslavement. It means that on a psychological and spiritual level we are beholden to others, that we allow the external world to dictate our feelings.

Freedom is not about being able to do what you want at any given moment. If this were your situation, you would still be in bondage to your own desires. Liberation is an internal experience that is always with you. If it could be given or taken by someone or something outside yourself, it would not be ultimate freedom. This thing can never be given, never be taken, and never goes away.

4. That people who are enlightened don’t experience anger, sorrow, fear, or [insert “bad” emotion here.] Often we imagine some kind of cross between a psychopath—utterly detached from their emotions and those of others—and a loving prophet. Here you designate a lofty, unreachable category of human for yourself, not to mention a type of person you may not even enjoy being. See what you’re doing? Creating yet another elaborate story about what “enlightened people” are like, and even more painfully, comparing yourself to them.

Humans are humans, and yet again, we place “enlightened” ones in a separate, higher category from “ordinary” humans. Paradoxically this is true, as the lived experience of being awake results in freedom rather than bondage, and we know which of these is the true form of existence.

However, we do not become emotionless. Anger rises, we are aware of this anger, but we do not become this anger. Thoughts arise, we are aware of these thoughts, but we do not buy into our thoughts. Heartbreak, loneliness, and despair may come upon us, but we learn to notice their fleeting nature. We then resume with awareness. Emotions simply lose the power to suck us in and convince us we really are them. The various stories these feelings compel us to roll around in fall away easily.

Delusion is like this: Every little thought has the power suck you in, get you to fixate on it, and become increasingly small. (Whether the thought pleases or displeases you, it is still going to be very small.) Enlightenment is like this: You know what and who you are at every moment, and the thoughts and emotions roll off of the presiding, pure awareness that you are.

The other concern with this line of thinking is that, in striving to be awake, we inevitably begin to feel bad about our very human feelings. The logic goes like this: We know we want to be enlightened, and apparently enlightened beings don’t get mad. So, when we do get mad (and we will), not only do we suffer from the pain of anger itself, we suffer because we think we are “unenlightened” for feeling this anger.

Comparing yourself to a “perfect enlightened being” is really just a wonderful way to tumble into neurosis. Perfection is a human construct, and even Christ Jesus and the Buddha did things their followers can explain away because they are blinded by this notion of their “perfection.” There was that time Jesus cursed a fig tree for no apparent reason, and that time he got all pissed and violent with those money-traders in the temple (understandably so). The Buddha—before he was “the Buddha”—abandoned his family to pursue enlightenment.

We should be clear on this: These were people who realized the Truth, and their radical acceptance of all beings is what sets them apart from those who dwell in delusion. However, they were not “perfect” if we judge them by any kind of normal human moral standard. Perfection and God are both beyond morality, because morality is a nothing but a mass of ideas. This is to say that yes, of course realized beings are “perfect,” but in reality, everything is already perfect, including you. This may offend our common way of seeing the world, where problems seem to be everywhere. But when we see reality we know this is true, and that it is only the mind that says otherwise.

5. Life’s problems will cease to exist once we’re enlightened. Let us examine what makes something a “problem.”

At any given moment, it’s actually our choice to see something as a problem or not. Do not misunderstand what I’m saying here: There are many situations in life that require action. If we regarded our whole planet as a piece of ourselves (this is our actual situation, by the way) everything would be effortlessly attended to or left to be. But, with pure awareness, you don’t have to label so many things “problems.” We don’t have to believe it’s a problem that we don’t have a lot of money. We don’t have to believe it’s a problem if we’re single. We don’t even have to believe it’s a problem if we’re starving to death. (Again, it feels important that these words not be mistaken: It is unnecessary for anyone on this planet to starve to death, and poverty and hunger in the modern world are created by collective delusion we each have the power to see through.)

But do you see? Every situation is absent of quality until the mind assigns it one. So it isn’t that all of the “problems” go away, but that it gradually (or suddenly) becomes up to us to decide what’s actually problematic, rather than immediately assuming that everything mildly (or even tremendously) troubling is a problem.

Because everything can feel weird post-awakening, you’re likely to face more problems before you face less of them. If you don’t know you’ve awakened, you may try to create new suffering for yourself because suffering is just so much more familiar. You might act in ways you don’t understand. You may need to change a lot of things about your life, and explaining your need to change these things might be impossible. (You are under no obligation to explain yourself to anyone, by the way. It is enough to say “I just have to do this.”)

And your loved ones may surprise you with now non-loving they can be when you cease to behave according to their desires and expectations. Those around you may get upset if you realize that your job, marriage, friendships—or even your entire way of living—are way more dishonest and/or unhealthy than you were able to see before. Not everyone will support or accept these changes. It triggers something in us to see people change their lives, and this trigger does not always feel so good. In response to the stirring of discomfort, they may lash out at you, or, more commonly, quietly judge you.

In time this will settle. But certainly (and especially not at first) you will not become free of “problems.” You will gain the power to decide what’s a problem and what isn’t. Nothing about the external world changes, but your orientation to it does.

There are many more false beliefs about enlightenment, and I may write about them in the future. For now, we just need to remember that enlightenment is never a state we “reach” or even “attain.” There’s nothing to do or strive for. Just be.

– Lish