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Chapter 4 - Enlightenment Defined

Before I try to define enlightenment I want to remind you of two critical points. First, as I pointed out earlier, defining enlightenment isn’t going to produce enlightenment. Defining an experience, any experience, doesn’t produce it. It simply makes it more understandable. So don’t expect the definition to change your life. And second, the fact that enlightenment is an experience means that it is subjective. Like other human experiences such as falling in love, losing a loved one, or facing your own mortality, your sense of enlightenment will be yours and yours alone.

Perhaps the simplest way to describe what the enlightenment experience is like is by using an analogy. At Disney’s MGM Studios in Orlando, there is a ride called, appropriately, The Tower of Terror. When you ride it, you are strapped into an elevator-type car which, after a short ride through a spooky old hotel, is dropped thirteen stories in a free fall. While the entire ride is entertaining, it is the momentary "jolt" when you first are dropped that turns your stomach. Some people scream with delight. Others just scream. But everyone experiences the sudden turn of the stomach that is the trademark of the ride. Experiencing enlightenment is a lot like riding The Tower of Terror.

When you strip away all the new age mumbo jumbo and religious connotations, enlightenment is simply a state of detachment. But detachment from what? From the ideas and concepts about life that we have come to see as absolute, permanent truths rather than the subjective, temporary beliefs they are. That's it. The things you hear about "being one with the universe," "having a direct experience of God," and the like are merely interpretations of this detachment and only serve to complicate the concept.

So how is enlightenment like riding The Tower of Terror? Well, to understand that we must add one component to our definition of enlightenment and take into account that "instant" in time when a person transitions from an unenlightened state to an enlightened one. Just as one's stomach turns the moment The Tower of Terror drops you from the thirteenth floor, your mind "turns" when something you knew to be true instantaneously drops out from under you and you are left scrambling to make sense of what has just happened. This is not the same as acquiring knowledge through study and coming to hold a more accurate sense of reality. That is called education and it has nothing to do with enlightenment. In fact, in some ways education is the exact opposite of enlightenment. Education takes place slowly over time and rather than promoting detachment from believing in ideas and concepts, education promotes the adoption of "more accurate models of reality" as the student progresses. Like The Tower of Terror, enlightenment rips your psychological world out from under you in an instant and leaves you dangling in the air.

Is this pleasant? It depends on what state you were in before you became enlightened. Remember I said at the beginning of this book that if you're currently happy in your life that you should stop reading this book right away? This is why.

If things are going well for you, why shake it up? Enjoy the ride. On the other hand, if you’re struggling in life and your understanding of the world is working against you, enlightenment can help you make some powerful changes. The potential power of the enlightenment experience is a direct result of the detachment that lies at the heart of the experience.

Think of it this way, normally when you experience something, you and the "something" tend to be, for a period of time, "one" in psychological terms. Or to put it another way, you are "attached" to what you are experiencing. Think of a very happy time in your life. Now, consider how you would have described your feelings to someone at the time it was happening. Would you have said, "I am experiencing much happiness at this time" or would you have said, "I am very happy"? Most of us would use the second phrase because that is exactly the way we experience our states of mind. I am sad. I am bored. I am tired. In other words, you and the state of mind are psychologically "attached" for the duration of the experience. Of course, when it comes to experiences, you can count on one thing - soon, other experiences will come along and change everything. “I am sad” becomes “I am happy.” “I am bored” becomes “I am excited.” “I am tired” becomes “I am energetic.” As our experiences change, our attachments to them change. And this is done without our conscious participation.

The experience of enlightenment, however, is unusual in that rather than experiencing "attachment" to something and becoming identified with it, you experience "detachment" from all things and identify with nothing. Regardless of the circumstances of your life, for that brief moment in time when you slip into enlightenment, you aren't attached to any of them. In this moment, you have power. You see through the illusions of life and are no longer bound by them. But this power is fleeting. The never-ending stream of human experience blindsides us with other thoughts and concerns and our blissful state slips away before we even realize what has happened.

So the cycle of awareness for those who haven’t experienced enlightenment goes like this: attachment, attachment, attachment, attachment, ad infinitum. They do not question their assumptions about the world because they don’t realize they are assumptions. Unenlightened people experience their assumptions as absolute facts and as such, are powerless with regards to their own thinking. Sometimes their assumptions pay off. Other times their assumptions wreak havoc in their lives and they wonder what went wrong.

The cycle of awareness for those who have experienced enlightenment, however, looks like this: attachment, attachment, detachment, attachment, attachment, detachment, attachment ad infinitum. Though these people also spend much of their lives in a state of attachment, there is a mysterious "something" that gets left behind whenever they have an enlightenment experience. This mysterious "something" is what sets them apart from the masses. It is what helps them every so often break the hold that attachment has on their lives and re-enter that coveted state of mind called enlightenment. The mysterious something is doubt.


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