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By Ryan Serio
I very often hear people throw around the term “enlightenment”, which they often tend to associate with “pure consciousness”, a state of attainment that they seem to believe transcends everyday reality. The religious connotations of this usage of the term show a substantial deviation from traditional Eastern applications. There is no “pure consciousness” to attain, other than simply utilizing the clarity of our own mind to view life as it really is, devoid of abstract conceptualizations. In a sense, true enlightenment is the realization that there is no enlightenment. Without the body there is no mind, and without our environment there is no body. So any pursuit to divorce mind and body in duality, whether through the quest to find God or attain an ultimate truth in “pure” being, will inevitably falter. And moreover, to view our mind and body as distinctly separate from the world we live in that guides our own evolution, is equally erroneous.
A single human being is composed of over ten thousand billion cells, each functioning in a unique and highly specific way to drive life in our body, constantly and consciously involuntarily utilizing low entropy energy and releasing high entropy energy as waste products to maintain itself. The cells that aren’t functional, as well as those that are dysfunctional, are singled out and marked to literally commit suicide in a programmed cell death known as apoptosis. The information packets, or genes, which are stored in segments of our DNA corresponding to specific patterns of bases, are kept from disrupting the rest of the genome following random mutations by a highly complex system of replication and repair, in which mistakes made by the cell itself (as well as damage from outside sources like UV light, mutagens, or radiation),are rapidly fixed by a highly specialized system containing a wide array of different functional proteins working in unison–a process that is not only inherent in humans,but is conserved from and added on to various living organisms in our ancestral line, often dating back to our ancestors that gave rise to yeast, worms and insects! This is why some of the biggest breakthroughs in modern science and medicine have come from evolution-based experiments with these very simple yet molecularly complex organisms that share some of the most essential components of our own DNA. So there is a ton of experimental evidence showing that there is an astonishingly high degree of interconnectedness in the biosphere. Add to that the fact that we have all literally formed from stardust–remnants of elements cooked up by enormous exploding suns which existed before our current sun was even born–and it becomes blatantly obvious that all physical life is intimately connected to the universe which conceived it through chemical reactions that have been ongoing dynamic processes over the course of billions of years.
So why do we so often have the desire to escape the magnificence of life in its physical form? Why do people seek a Westernized version of “enlightenment”, which is the opposite of the traditional concept of enhanced awareness of the experience of being alive, by replacing that expression of conscious acceptance with an escape from reality not much different from that we often notice and criticize in Biblical literalists?
In Christianity, life as we know it is passed down from a hierarchy traced back to a supreme deity in which Earth is the middle ground between heaven and hell; a pit stop on the way toward either eternal reward or intolerable damnation; an interlude to death. Is enlightenment, as viewed by Western society whose practitioners often scoff at the idea of a Biblical God, that much different? Just as Christians may “miss the moment” by focusing on the future and amplifying the past in judgment, so too does the seeker of enlightenment entirely become engulfed by the fantasy of a perfect future in seeking a fully transcendent state of being, often viewed as separate from and sometimes even antagonistic with their own bodies! Too often the concept of enlightenment is used to escape the reality of living right now, and this is a major injustice to the philosophical doctrine of Buddhism, which gives practical ways in which students, through letting go what is not necessary to survive and be happy, may achieve an inner peace while living moment-to-moment and finding enjoyment in both the simple and extravagant aspects of daily life. Enlightenment is not something to be reached or attained. It is not a destination to where you wake up one day and proclaim that you’ve arrived. It is our birthright, and it can be achieved simply by being who we are and realizing that all of life is precious and beautiful by silencing the incessant chatter that clouds our thoughts and emotions and prevents us from discovering this realization. There is no “heaven” to find. There is no “enlightenment” to attain. There is no reason for us to look for something outside ourselves that dangles in front of us, forever out of our grasp, like a carrot in front of a donkey being held in place by the rider, representative of our own ego foolishly conditioning itself to understand that which is beyond discriminatory reasoning.
Now you may think that giving up on finding God or attaining enlightenment is giving up on hope, and that is exactly right! What is incorrect, however, is the assumption that giving up hope necessarily leads to despair. When you cling to hope, only to have it snatched away, only then will you identify with the perceived feeling of hopelessness associated with a sense of lack from losing grip on what you endeavored to grasp on to. When you stop identifying yourself with and attaching yourself to what you are hopeful for you can see that all such reaching for something outside your self is fruitless and yes, hopeless. We all have the inner desire to be expressive and creative, and this is manifested in several different ways. When we hope on something that is an abstraction of our own creating, then we lose that sense of ingenuity and conform our thoughts and actions to revolve around a static image of what we perceive to be reality, rather than expressing ourselves just to express ourselves and shine our light for all in our vicinity to see and absorb. Instead of clinging to hope and relying on a concept, wouldn’t it be more productive to establish a vision of achievable goals which may be realized through practical, step-by-step actions? Doing this allows you to look at things in a totally different way and realistically live your dreams through the journey you take to realize each particular goal you set for yourself. There is no need for a “final” say, whether it be from God or from some “higher knowledge” to be discovered in the form of “enlightenment”. The only “higher” knowledge is what is provided through the experience itself without the mental coloring done afterwards, as you expand your awareness to open up to new avenues which were hidden from your view in prior moments. Who needs an ultimate, absolute truth when there is a world of infinite possibilities already in sight relative to whatever choices you decide to make?
Now, there are some constraints placed upon us that often prevent us from enjoying these infinite possibilities life offers, and unfortunately, our environment does often play a critical negative factor for many people. We live in a world where most people live in highly stressful environments and may be victims of poverty and famine. Now I am not saying this is any kind of excuse,because I have seen people rise out of these conditions to live some of the most purposeful and fulfilling lives imaginable. But with the number of have-nots increasing dramatically in society, it is inevitable that the idea of finding inner happiness will be a foreign one to many people engulfed by the collective mindset of such a skewed interpretation that society has created for itself. If happiness is associated with, on one spectrum material goods, and on the other the attainment beyond current conditions in the form of religion or “religious” enlightenment, then there will be a LOT of unhappy people in the world that just can’t cut free completely from the reality that is their own way of life in their environment. Look at the people preaching enlightenment and religion now and compare it to those of the past. Whereas many modern-day preachers and gurus live cozy, comfortable lives, Jesus ordered his followers to give up their belongings and take not worry about what tomorrow brings. Buddhist monks throughout the ages lived in seclusion with only bare necessities and under strict codes of discipline. True enlightenment is for everyone, regardless of their living conditions, and in the previous examples a lack of wealth was a badge of honor for those following the path of wisdom. The world we live in now is much different. There is a striving for attainment of outer idols, whether they be possessions, various forms of powerful positions, hidden knowledge, or even salvation. Any concept regarding a person’s state of well-being that is said to be necessarily obtained is always essentially unattainable, and the failure of many to recognize this critical piece of information is crucial in understanding why so many people have such a warped idea of what constitutes reality.
In a society that is dominated by material things, is it any wonder why so many people go off in the opposite direction by rejecting all that is physical in an attempt to find true happiness? Yet the objects of our desire–money, possessions, etc–are perverted by the associations made by the minds of people who associate them with “material reality”. The expression of the information encoded within our genomes through the formation of various peptides from the genetic alphabet are just as much of a material reality as the objects we buy using the money we make, only we take for granted the involuntary cellular processes and focus on the conscious decisions regarding our consumerism instead because it is practical to think about. All of these things may make it simpler to function in society and may improve our quality of living if we allow them to, but when the concepts behind these objects dominate our thinking, they become a golden calf, an idol. And when viewed in this way, a group of people will indubitably create a polar opposite extreme of thinking that rejects all material reality by seeking that unattainable “pure consciousness” through “enlightenment” (when it wasn’t the material reality itself but our own skewed interpretation of the abstract concept pointing at that material reality that caused the problem!) In reality, we cannot escape our bodies nor should we ever feel the need to! We need to be happy “in our own skin”, because what is inside us is intimately connected with everything outside of us as well–not just a part but as a microcosm of the whole of reality. And the world and the universe is not to be transcended but embraced in all its glory, just the way it is. And if we don’t particularly like the way a certain aspect of our lives is, then it is up to US to take the necessary steps NOW to make it better, so that we may use our gift of creativity to help make THIS world, the only world we live in, the paradise that we can envision in our minds.