The Enlightenment Trap

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

I always thought when I began my teaching practice that certain Buddhist principles were going to be harder than others to convey. Rebirth/reincarnation, impermanence and no-self, Dependent Origination, or even situational ethics were going to be tough especially from a Western contemporary perspective. But of all of these, and they are a close second, by far the hardest Buddhist concept to engage with the Sangha members has been that of enlightenment. I am not alone in this experience. My dharma brother, Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi, after years of teaching, makes a habit of not using the word enlightenment at all. Many Buddhist teachers I speak with, or read, also have reflected on this reality. So the obvious question is “Why?” The answer for me is simple because the English word enlightenment comes with a lot of baggage. While much of Buddhist thought can be classified as either philosophical or psychological, enlightenment falls in the human realm of the spiritual, even the mystical for some.

For those new to Buddhist study, meditation and enlightenment are linked often enough. The thinking is “Why meditate?”, “to become enlightened” they might say. So there it is, up front and center. Even when the teacher never talks about enlightenment when facilitating a meditation session. It is in the back of a practitioners mind if they are honest.

Our spiritual life is apart of the sweetness of a practice that can be transformative and deeply personal. When our meditation sessions move closer to serenity we experience moments of insight that might develop into feelings of bless at times, and that can create a need to grasp for more. It might also energize the notion that this insightful bless is close to what one might define as an awakened moment. The danger here is that we might be driven to want more. We become hooked on the experience and want to define it in terms that can be mystical. This misdirected feeling is a trap because it can be another act of grasping. When we cling or grasp after something, even for a spiritual experience, we fall back into samsara which is another form of unsatisfactoriness.

So what are these experiences we might encounter during meditation, and do they have anything to do with enlightenment? From my experience with working with others in various stages of refining a meditation practice, they need to be viewed from the mediator’s worldview. They can be examples of simple feelings of tranquility to a heightened state of ecstasy. In a positive sense they are earthquakes that can shake your practice awake. They can also manifest in an experience of total absence of thought which can feel like an out-of-body moment. In these moments you might experience a real connection with the universe where the notion of self disappears. You come out of this thinking “This is it, I have had an enlightened experience!” This is what we call a meditation-high that can be addicting if we get carried away by running away from reality. What I say to students is to be careful. Celebrate your meditation session’s progress, but also be concerned. You might just be moving closer to glimpses of the nature of the mind, and thus reality, but you might also be experiencing a trick-of-the-ego-mind too. Interestingly, the spiritual path is not about personal sensational feelings, but about experiencing what is real and not filtered through our personal preferences and dispositions. When that happens, what is real might seem different and new to us, but it has been “just like that” all along.

The main concern we should recognize in these unique experiences is that they can misdirect our focus during meditation away from the study of ourselves and how we are, which is the real purpose of mindful meditation. Any extraordinary or passionate feelings are just temporary experiences that mediators need to be aware of, and not fall for the trap of distracting us away from the real purpose of our zazen. We can adjust our expectations during meditation periods by first judging our mood, and set our techniques accordingly. Awareness off the cushion is brought to the cushion. If you grasp after repeating a moving experience it becomes a distraction around the current sitting experience that prevents it from arising again. Another one of those Buddhist paradoxes.

Another caution that wise mediators practice is not speaking with others about their meditation experiences to feely. While it is very tempting, consider your motives. Ask your self, “Why do I want to share this?” Live your experience don’t give words to it. Words will always fail you when it comes to expressing what a spiritual experience was like. It is important to share these experiences with your teacher, or an experienced intimate spiritual friend. Your teacher will/should know exactly what you are trying to express and know how to direct your continued meditation practice, both on and off the cushion. But others, not so much. Be silent and go back to the cushion. My experience is that when we talk about our experiences inappropriately we might just be transforming opportunity into an obstacle. My own teacher discouraged all of us monks not to speak after meditation, don’t share because it moves us away from the experience.

Here is the big reason for not speaking about our spiritual experiences: it is dangerous to our own personal development. Yep. When we speak about extraordinary events during meditation we just might identify them as awakened moments, or enlightenment, and start to believe it. Our ego-mind wants to convince us that it knows what is best, and sense we want to be enlightenment, it will make it happen. We might even convince our teacher (which is another dharma talk). And before we know it, we have groupies wanting to hear our enlightened mind. That is when things really start to get weird. Once this happens it is hard to pull back to any form of normality in our practice and we begin to try to catch lighting in a jar.

There is definitely a place for spiritual highs which is the same place for spiritual lows. When left alone our spiritual experiences will drive our practice forward in useful and productive ways towards our own human flourishing. They inspire us and left us up by teachings us we are on the right path. But, and this is a big but, they can also trap us in the swamp of unknowing. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said, “Enlightenment is ego’s ultimate disappointment.” When we learn the importance of giving up any idea of becoming enlightened, we might just discover it was there all along, just hiding in the wings of a mind in the clouds. A clear mind has no clouds. Then what happens you might ask? Just keep sitting is always the best answer.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Enlightenment Trap

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