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?
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.
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.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.