Religion & Spirituality

The illusion of Enlightenment

The concept of 'Enlightenment' is, in my opinion, simply an ideal, like the Christian notion of 'Saintliness' based on beliefs and values of Oriental origin. This idea underwent a radical transformation as it began to be adopted in the West, particularly during the 1960s under the influence of a huge influx of very diverse philosophies and religious practices as well as an exponential increase in the use of psychedelics. Leaving aside for the moment the notion of the 'awakened spiritual master' or Guru and whatever people in the Orient have traditionally believed, I am more interested in the reasons why notions of 'spontaneous spiritual awakening or liberation' hold such a powerful appeal for many Westerners. In my opinion this question cannot be detached from questions about Western society and culture itself. Thus it is my contention that the appeal of traditions and practices of spiritual awakening or liberation in the West is rooted in both a sense of alienation and in social and political conditions and perceived injustices therein. The problem is that without acknowledgment of the reality of these two dimensions —the personal, psychological and biographical individual and the objective socio-political realities— spiritual practices and teachings often fail as 'ethical' practices. Practitioners therefore easily fall into a trap becoming isolated within a form of spiritual materialism centered on the self. Through the lense of this spiritual materialism, the notion of liberation or awakening appears possible because it appears as a personal responsibility, rather than one centering on the totality of our engagements with the outside world. The ideal 'image' symbolising 'Enlightenment' within this context is the Sage, or a utopian community of awakened individuals who have overcome the problems of 'ego'.

In my view, such concepts of spiritual liberation and awakening or misleading in that they attempt to bypass the psychological and socio-political realities by reducing these to symptoms of human ignorance rather than real existential problems that all of us struggle with and for which we do not yet have perfect solutions. As a consequence, spiritual liberation is, for me, much more akin to, on the one hand, a process of self-inquiry and education, and one of social engagement, rather than isolation and rejection of social and cultural values and norms. My feeling is that we need to understand the way we are, our historical situation, in the same way that we understand how a forest grows, by exploring the huge complexity of relations that over time results in a particular situation. Impatience and a lack of willingness to explore and pursue inquiry into areas that make us uncomfortable will inevitably determine how far we are able to grasp these realities and truly be able to imagine ways of accommodating them or promoting transformation.

The true measure of the value of any spiritual practice is therefore not only whether it enable us to feel good —to achieve a measure of peace— or to feel we have some oversight, but the extent to which it empowers and inspires us to engage with our lives, including those things we find difficult and challenging. Rather than retreating from the world, a true spirituality of liberation is one that frees our empathy towards the world, towards others, causes us to seek to understand them, and to engage with them to challenge injustice, oppression, etc. A spirituality of this sort is not reserved for an elite and its able to operate whenever and whereever. It does not portray the world as an illusion but recognises the fundamental continuity between the subjective reality of individual life and the collective reality that sprouts from the totality of our relations. The ethical dimension is, in this view, an expression of our response-ability towards others and the entire world. Thus, whereas the concept of Enlightenment as it has come to be understood in the West holds a promise of some sort of 'rising above' the misery of the world, the reality is that any attempt to detach ourselves and achieve some measure of peace and happiness constitutes a betrayal of our most intimate obligations toward other human beings and their suffering and the injustice they experience. The way out of this trap is to accept 'response-ability' and begin the altogether more difficult, long-term process of finding out what we can actually do. This is exactly what those who surrender their responsibility to faith or a Guru try to avoid in an effort to evade being tainted. The result is however almost inavitably a self-dellusion that results in a great deal of disdain and miscomprehension of those who 'live ordinary lives' and conform the social norms. The resulting spirituality is aggressively defensive and materialistic, unable really to imagine solutions to the problems of society that do not involve wholesale submission to an idea or a leader. This is a recurring pattern of both religious and political life throughout the ages and it is worthwhile noting that whatever the trajectory, eventually the outcome is either self-destruction or an uneasy compromise with authoritarianism and power.

A spirituality that is ethical will not seek to avoid such historical examples but actively engage with these as problems of humanity and society for which solutions are needed.

I hope this all makes sense.

—Daniel Waterman, 2018.

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