enlightenment? or a cold beer instead?

What is this thing called "enlightenment" and why would one want it?

I've got nothing against the concept: I just want to know what the specific benefits are.

Unfortunately, there's not much hard info on the benefits of enlightenment, nor on what it is exactly or how it manifests or how to achieve it. It's one of those slippery words/concepts, like "God", that can mean many things to many people. Conveniently though, we can identify a small number of broad themes to help make sense of all the detail. Enlightenment is believed to involve:

  • escaping the endless cycle of reincarnation -- the recurring samsara of birth, death, rebirth -- in which every soul is believed to be trapped

  • quantum entanglement in the biological sense, ie being "at one" with all living things

  • getting closer to God (I don't know what "closer" or what "God" means; but some people do, apparently)

  • absence of personal identity, or the state in which one finds oneself after losing oneself

  • living outside of time / "living in the now", a technique believed to lighten the (alleged) psychological burden of regrets about the past and anxieties about the future

  • accessing lost or secret knowledge about how things really work, and our individual roles in the process

  • seeing through the illusion, the maya, of a time-bound, material world in which everything is relative to every other thing, and nothing stands still long enough to be real.
Some would say that the above are pretty cool -- awesome, even wicked! -- and that they comprise "worthy goals". In fact there seems to be the default assumption that achieving enlightenment is a worthy goal. Is it really that clear-cut? Many people see extinguishment of their personal identity as something to be avoided at all costs, not embraced with joy. Where's the satisfaction in achieving something if you're not around to be satisfied?

To be fair though, extinguishment of personal identity is included as an outcome of becoming enlightened only in some models of enlightenment, not all.

So, why would one want to become enlightened? Where's the WIIFM in being no more than a link in the great chain of being?

An idea that is one of enlightenment's fellow travellers is that this world, this life is horrible and nasty and full of pain and suffering. (Or, per Hobbes: nasty, brutish and short.) Yet in this unenlightened world, people experience great joy, love, clarity and fulfilment. Is that joy an illusion? Is their fulfilment unreal? Is Love mere chemistry? And if it is, so what? It's enjoyable to feel happy. In fact, it makes one happy to feel happy, illusion or not.

Enlightenment offers (or seems to offer) the opportunity to escape, not only the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, but also the responsibility for the outcomes of prior actions. Nor does throwing "karma" into the mix change anything. Because even if there is such a thing as "karma" and even if it works in the way that it is commonly said to work, there will always be people who believe -- correctly or incorrectly -- that they can escape the consequences of their actions. An illusion can produce non-illusory effects in reality!

And on the subject of illusions, you've probably heard or read somewhere that "time is just an illusion" or that "time does not exist". Dubious. Fishy. Time may be not what we think it is; it may be an illusion. But it's a real illusion. The illusion exists. Otherwise, how could we talk about it?

And it's a very specific illusion, related to the experience that people say they have of "the passage of time", the sequence and flow of events in reality. We're told that time is an illusion, that there is no sequence and flow of events, but rather that everything happens at once. We're told that time is not what we think it is, not what we feel it is; it's something else, eg an illusion. But there's something there, isn't there? If time is an illusion, it's incorrect to say that time doesn't exist.

According to Einstein, there is no absolute time, no Governing Clock of the Universe. There is no right time, ever. Whatever time is, it's relative. But it does exist. As do all of those things that are said not to exist because of their being mere illusions, epiphenomena: Life, Consciousness and Causality, to name but a few. We don't understand what they are or how they work. But our inadequacy makes them no less real.

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Karen said...

MM -- Whenever I need enlightenment I know I can always return to this post to have a cold beer instead. Merry Christmas or something like that!

masterymistery said...

Karen, I'd be delighted always to be able to offer you a cold beer, a cigarette (if you still want one), an interesting chat, and my friendship. Which you may or may not find enlightening.
Thanks for stopping by and best wishes to you and yours. Cheers, MM

The Real Cie said...

For many years of my life I have wanted enlightenment. Now I'd be happy to just have the cold beer only I can't have that either thanks to hypertension, bipolar disorder, amlodipine besylate, and Lithium. So I'm pretty much screwed.

masterymistery said...

Hi The Real Cie, I still want enlightenment, I think. If only I knew what it is. At least with beer you know what you're getting! Thanks for stopping by. MM

Thomas Hall said...

I've always found it infuriating that when creationists deny evolution, they are instantly met with general anger and criticism, but claims that time does not exist are usually allowed to be accepted or go unnoticed, even though this is 28 times more un-logic and reason-y.

masterymistery said...

Thomas Hall, yes that's one of my peeves too. Time may be an illusion, but it's a real illusion, the illusion really exists! Thanks for stopping by.