Towards a Humanist Enlightenment

Enlightenment. Isn’t that the goal of most of us? It’s why we pursue spiritual paths and try to learn how to be better people. It’s why we learn and practice meditation. It’s a goal – to be enlightened. But what does it mean to be “enlightened.” What exactly is it we are seeking?

Consider yourself a work in progress

The web defines it, generally speaking, as having greater knowledge or insight about a particular subject or situation.

But when I think of enlightened individuals, I think of a Buddha-like individual, who is both wise and serene and beyond it all, yet still engaged actively with life. My image of an enlightened person is someone who is more than … me, certainly. Better, lighter, wiser, and much more knowledgeable.

When I imagine myself as an enlightened being, and don’t laugh – I know you do this too – I imagine myself gliding through life’s difficulties without any problem at all. Throw whatever you have at me – and if I’m enlightened, I’ll solve my problems gracefully. (At this point, imagine me in a flowing red gown – literally floating through a cluttered office with a serene but happy smile on my face, leaving organization in my wake. Oh, and of course, I’m glowing with an otherworldly light.)

But is that a realistic vision? Obviously not. I’m not all that great at levitation and I don’t get out much so I don’t even think I own a flowing red gown.

But what about the “solving my problems with grace and ease” part of my vision? That’s not realistic either. I think this is why pretty much every human the rest of us have considered enlightened, reject the title.

Problem solving is difficult for everyone. Including those of us who are relatively enlightened.

Are you enlightened?  Like a Humanist?

So, how can we construct a more realistic concept of enlightenment? I think a Humanist’s awareness of our fallibility and finite nature is actually quite helpful here. There are 2 aspects of a Humanist approach I think help achieve what might be considered a realistic level of enlightenment. The first is having a universal mindset and the second is accepting our own fallibility.

Want to not get so worked up about inconsequential problems? Well, I’ve got good news for you. Whatever you are struggling with doesn’t really matter. Not when you consider the scope of the universe. You really are small and insignificant and your problem is like the problems of an ant. It may matter to you in the here and now, but in the big scheme of things. Nope. It doesn’t matter.

This knowledge is both horrifying and freeing. And knowing this, that ultimately it doesn’t matter, helps me find humor in whatever situation I find myself in. As horrible as the problems I have faced, and last year, I faced a nearly fatal problem, I’m still able to laugh at it and my situation and my response to it. The knowledge of the ultimate futility of my life gives me just enough distance that I am able to remain emotionally stable, for the most part, and get on with solving my problems as best as I can.

So no. I don’t get all worked up. In fact, the worse the problem I have, the more likely I am to find humor in my situation. I may come off as enlightened to others, but really, I’m just accepting my reality with humor because, as Camus so aptly put it – life is absurd.

I think the other way Humanism helps is that we are fallible creatures. Our brains play tricks on us and thinking through problems is hard, even in the best of circumstances. As I tell my classes, no one does critical thinking perfectly. It’s something you practice and get better at, but it’s always going to be a struggle.

And that’s not all. Even when we commit ourselves to the active practice of compassion, there are times we fail and get frustrated at the other humans on the planet. It’s easy to view these periodic failures of our highest ideals as evidence that we aren’t enlightened.

Realistic Enlightenment

But I don’t think that’s a realistic way of viewing what’s happening. Compassion is a practice. Critical thinking is a practice. The more we practice. The better we get. The more effective we get. And that’s ok.

To me, what makes someone enlightened, is not whether they are perfect, but whether they are aware of themselves. Do they have greater knowledge and insight into how they behave than the average person? Are they able to use that knowledge to change their behavior for the better, most of the time? If so, then that’s a person I would consider to be enlightened, in a realistic and humanistic way.

To me, a humanistic conception of enlightenment is the realization that I am a work in progress.  And as long as I continue to try to find ways to do and be better, despite it all, I’m doing life right.


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8 thoughts on “Towards a Humanist Enlightenment”

  1. Thanks for the very down-to-earth approach to enlightenment–and the humor. One point I react to a little differently than you. I think in actual situations I work up towards a universal mindset in stages. A problem I’m having doesn’t prompt me to think right away, “in the cosmos as a whole this just doesn’t matter.” I’m more likely to think, let’s be patient and persistent and see what happens. Later, if nothing improves, I might think, “So this mess is here to stay. Don’t fight the problem. We’ll have to adjust. Life will go on.” And if it’s a matter of life maybe actually not going on–like my heart surgery–then I’ll try to be peaceful about it. I don’t, in my heart, find life to be futile or absurd. It’s more that struggle seems built in and difficulties often work themselves out in mysterious ways.

    • Hi Brock. I don’t normally go through life thinking things don’t matter. It’s more that I use that as a way to calm myself down so that I can think rationally about the problem at hand.

      I find it very hard to focus on constructive problem solving when I’m antsy. And if I care too much – I get so nervous I can’t barely function.

      It’s very easy to get so worked up about how important it is to get this right and that self imposed stress makes thinking rationally hard. So – reminding myself – ultimately it doesn’t matter – helps me to take the pressure off myself enough to actually figure out a problem that will probably work fairly well – or be good enough. And that if it doesn’t work – that’s ok too, in the big scheme of things. But really – I want it to work.

      For me – it’s about balancing my stress against my need to get things done against my need to stay sane in the process and not get too worked up. The result is – I’m focused. I work hard to get things done even though – ultimately – it probably doesn’t matter. I know even though in the big scheme – it doesn’t matter, in the here and now and to me it does, so I’m working on it anyway. And – I get to do this all while calm and bemused. Most of the time anyway.

    • The other thing – it doesn’t ultimately matter – helps me with is if I get caught up worrying about inconsequential things. What I call – proxy problems. These are the problems we work on solving that won’t actually solve our real problem. But because our real problem is really difficult we focus on the little details that don’t impact anything here and now because it’s easier than facing reality.

      Reminding myself it doesn’t really matter – helps me refocus on what really does. And that means I waste less time on the proxy problems that don’t fix anything and more time on the real problems that actually do impact my life.

  2. Reminds me that I need more time in nature- where the trees will grow regardless of when my problems are “solved” and no matter what the solution may turn out to be. Thank you

  3. You’re going to find that enlightenment (abiding non-dual awareness) is much simpler than your concept of it. Getting your ideas out of the way is the trickiest part.


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