Getting More Enlightened: Circles and Squares

So, it seems as if the problem with existing enlightenment traditions is that there is too much going on. They are too complex as phenomena to be able to, at least for the untrained or inexperienced person, tease apart what is the experiential core, and what  simply an accretion of ritual, symbolism, and social practice.

But here’s the thing about training or experience: It may not even help. I have had profound enlightenment experiences (I think). I have also been deeply steeped in one of the least dogmatic and mythological spiritual traditions one can possibly conceive of, Theravada buddhism, which is about as close to the bare bone of practice as one could get, after 2500 or so years. …And you know what? I’m still not sure how much one had to do with the other. I know, by the standards of the tradition, I may well be significantly accomplished. But what does that mean? My most profound experiences have had little to do (at least overtly) with the teachings I received or the practices I learned. The most profound experience I ever had, for instance, was brought about by sadness over a breakup and thinking about my cat, and the content of that experience only fits the canonical buddhist model if you squint at  it rather intently. I’m sure the practices I was doing and the way I conceived of enlightenment at the time had something to do with it, but I’m just, as I said, not sure exactly what, and, at a certain point, that started to stunt my progress. I wasn’t sure, after a while, what I was doing, or why.

Let me be clear: even at a highly accomplished level, I still don’t know how to disentangle my first hand experience from the social realities of the traditions I have been a part of, which makes me unsure of what exactly my experiences even amount to.  So what exactly is one to do to correct this state of unclarity? As I said, it seems like we need some outside metric to evaluate what we are doing.

So let’s try this: what is the simplest, most mundane, most non-conceptual example of something we could call enlightenment?

Let’s do a little exercise. Look at this:

Coffer Illusion

How long does it take you to see the circles?

I’ll assume you’ve never encountered this particular ‘illusion’ before. If you have, go find one that you haven’t tried before.

What, as precisely as you can describe it, is it like for you when you see through the illusion for the first time?

A very mundane ‘enlightenment’, if it is at all…banal, even. But is there something there that might point us in the right direction?

Let’s assume there is.

Getting More Enlightened: Pick a Spot, Start Digging

Image result for digging a hole

Okay, so if we posit for the moment that we must start from some more-or-less intuitive (but possibly quite arbitrary) point and evolve our understanding of both process and aim as we go, then where should we start?

The obvious temptation is to simply pick one of the existing spiritual traditions and work from there, so let’s see how that goes.

The difficulty that immediately comes to mind is that all existing spiritual traditions have accumulated a significant amount of myth, unfalsifiable metaphysics, dogma, or impenetrable symbolism. While we can stipulate that most traditions have some useful core of technique and some at least partial grasp of the correct aim, if we simply pick a tradition and begin to work within it, we run the risk of leading ourselves deeper and deeper into delusion and confusion. If we agree intuitively that becoming a zealous convert is not the same thing as the enlightenment we want, we need to figure out how to avoid this.

The problem seems to be that there are two gathering points (or attractors, perhaps) for practitioners in every tradition: One is the gathering point where the tradition acts as an outgrowth of, and supplement to, authentic experience.  The other is where the tradition draws practitioners into deeper and deeper conformity with itself, for itself, at the expense of authentic experience.

Simply put, the worry is that, even if we concede that our initial practice and aims are imprecisely or imperfectly conceived, we still might end up developing in entirely the wrong direction, and not even know it. There are at least two different things going on in any tradition, and we can’t be sure, by the lights of the tradition itself, which we are doing.

So if, again, it seems that what we want is authentic personal experience, and we are concerned to avoid psuedo-experiences created by confirmation bias and social reinforcement, then it seems like we need some outside separate criteria to know that we moving towards one attractor, and not another.

…but if it turns out we need some kind of outside criteria for true enlightenment-related practices and aims anyway, in order to not be led astray by the distortions of existing tradition, then why not simply use that? From this perspective, tradition might be a useful helper, but not a good master.

So, a false start, perhaps, but instructive.


Getting More Enlightened: First Principles

Image result for euclid elements

I have some new ideas, or, perhaps, some new ideas about how to approach old ideas. But they need some firming up.

I finally decided the best way is to work them out, out loud. Because working out the ideas is part of the point of the process. Maybe part of becoming enlightened is working out what you think enlightenment is. It might even be, when you have a completely clear idea of what enlightenment is, you are enlightened.

But when you pull apart the myths, strange idealisations, misidentifications of otherwise ordinary experiences, or the occasional outright pathology, is anything even left? Do we just have to do a practice to figure out what the practice is supposed to accomplish?

But if you don’t actually begin with a clear idea, then how do you even know what you’re practicing? It’s kind of like those philosophical disciplines where they spend almost all their time just trying to define what it is they are even talking about. Epistemologists study ‘knowledge’, but cannot agree on what knowledge  is. That doesn’t seem to stop anyone from talking about ‘knowledge’ and using ‘knowledge’ in all kinds of contexts, though. The idea seems to be that if you become more familiar with the thing you are doing, you can do it better. But, the issue remains, better at what…?

It’s a paradox that is sometimes called the problem of the criterion: you can’t really develop a clear criterion for something until you have a clear-cut example of it, but how do you identify a clear-cut example of something if you have no criterion for it? Usually, you start with something that seems intuitively right, then apply some logic to it. You identify the contradictions and pull them apart, you refine the object of study at the same time as you refine the method of studying it.

So maybe it’s like that. Maybe we are trying to define something we are already intuitively familiar with (or, at least, feel like we are), and trying to get ourselves a better handle on it. Maybe we are already enlightened–we just need to know what that means, so we can do it better. Become more enlightened.

First steps. Careful steps.