One day someone asked me if I was enlightened. I responded, “no one is enlightened.” It just came out of my mouth without any thought behind it, as if I was speaking spontaneously from some knowing that I did not even know that I knew. But it wasn’t a knowing of some intellectual idea. You know the kind- where we learn a fact and just repeat it because it sounds smart or even “enlightened.” No, I said it point blank without even a trace of doubt in what I was saying. I was not arrogant about it. I didn’t feel I needed to defend what I had just said. There was no ego behind it. There wasn’t even a belief behind it. I don’t have the belief that nobody is enlightened. Beliefs are too heavy to carry around. And you have to defend them against people who believe otherwise. No, this carried none of the usual weight of ego or belief. It came from my mouth as lightly as a feather, as if to say to the person, “It doesn’t matter whether you believe me, or even if I’m “right”, just go look at the issue yourself, and you’ll see what I mean.”
That conversation was left right there, never to be discussed again with that person. But what came out of my mouth stayed with me, gnawing at me, in the way a melody nags at you as a songwriter, begging to be turned into a whole song.
So here’s my whole song on “nobody is enlightened.”
Change is the Only Constant
First the short version of the song: No one is enlightened because reality is constantly in flux. It is a constant movement of change. So to say that there is a fixed person in that constant flow that has reached a fixed state within that constant flow is frankly just good fiction or fairy tale. This doesn’t mean there are not different degrees of clarity that show up in that constant flow of life. It’s just that life is impermanent – nothing lasts, including any state we might call awakening or enlightenment.
How can any fixed state of anything be claimed when life is in constant flow? And who would want to claim that anyway?
Oh yea, that’s right, the ego would want to claim it. Yet the ego itself is not even a fixed thing. It’s a pattern of activity. So at best there is a pattern of activity in the brain that wants to believe there is a self there that is enlightened (or unenlightened for that matter). And that pattern of constantly referring to oneself as awakened or allowing others to constantly place that label on you is like an addiction. We get a hit from it, like with any addiction. Maybe our spiritual teachers would be better served attending addiction treatment centers instead of telling the world how awakened they are. Just a thought . . . and it passed 🙂
No More Ego?
But seriously, what is enlightenment? What does it mean to be awakened? One common definition is the complete dissolution of one’s identity as a separate self with no trace of the egoic mind remaining.
HOLD ON, STOP THE PRESSES FOR ONE MOMENT – NO TRACE OF EGOIC MIND CAN BE LEFT IN ORDER TO QUALIFY AS ENLIGHTENED????
Whoa… let’s take this topic a bit deeper.
First of all, the definition above sets the bar very high and means that very few, IF ANY, people qualify as enlightened, even if there were such a state as the complete cessation of ego. I’ve heard devotees of certain gurus claim that the teacher was untouched by anything. But one can never truly know the subjective experience of another. We don’t know if there are internal triggers or compulsions hidden
from the view of a teacher’s followers. Shame isn’t dealt with very skillfully in many spiritual methods and shame keeps people hiding their secrets.
But I’ll go further to also challenge the notion of a permanent state of complete cessation of ego or, for that matter, the notion of a permanent state of anything. We live in a reality that is impermanent in every way.
There is no fixed state called enlightenment, so to claim such a thing would be like claiming you have discovered unicorns. It’s a great idea and it sells books, but is it true?
The Myth of the ‘Self’
I don’t mean the phrase “nobody is awakened” in the funny neo-advaita way, where a teacher says “there is no self, therefore there is no self to be awakened.” Yes, that’s funny and sometimes cool to say. No, that’s not what I’m referring to. That’s too simple and obvious and dare I say, overused. That’s an ATTEMPT by the teacher at speaking from the Absolute. But nothing is real from the Absolute perspective, not even the Absolute is real because it too is a concept. It’s all illusion. Why make selves special things that aren’t real in the Absolute sense?
Why don’t we jump up and down and dance in the street when we find out that bananas are also not real in the absolute sense? We don’t do that because we haven’t mistakenly taken ourselves to be bananas.
We have taken ourselves to be selves (separate ones, in fact). The belief in there being a separate self is what lies at the core of all suffering. Don’t believe me? Read about the Perennial Philosophy. It’s a universally accepted principle among spiritual traditions that states that the belief in a fixed, separate self is the root of all suffering.
No, no, no, I’m not speaking from the Absolute. And by the way, none of your teachers nor any dead teachers ever spoke from the Non-Dual/Absolute either. You can’t speak from the that. One utterance of a word places the expression into dualistic, relative language. And what would come out of your mouth would largely be a set of concepts you learned, all of which are partial views of reality (because humans cannot see beyond partial views until they evolve beyond the false notion that there is an
objective reality just lying around out there and their minds see it for what it is). From the Absolute, there is nothing to say and nothing is known. The moment one opens his or her mouth, he or she is speaking from the relative.
Read Ken Wilbur’s book Integral Spirituality to truly grok this. Most spiritual teachers would be put out of business (followers would leave by the masses if they uncovered this scandal that Ken points out) – if those teachers dismissed what he is saying and continued teaching within what Ken calls the Myth of the Given. They would die out like an endangered species no longer able to survive on a disintegrating landscape (think Polar Bears grasping onto the last oceanic ice caps melting from climate change). These teachers have no real ground to stand on, and yet most don’t even realize it yet because they stay contained within their limited traditional (often regional) frameworks, which they mistake for a pre-given reality (and so ignorance abounds, to put it in Buddhist terms).
I stopped teaching for five years partly because, after reading that book, I could not stand in front of an audience any more claiming either implicitly or explicitly that I am enlightened because NO ONE IS.
There’s a lot of ignorance in the spiritual scene. Ken is trying to clean it up! He actually points out very convincingly that awakening looks very different at different levels of our evolving consciousness, thereby putting to rest the notion that there is one “enlightenment” that we all stumble upon.
The Death of the ‘Guru’
Enlightenment is not a level of consciousness we evolve into and stay there. It’s a state we go in and out of, while we also dance with our human conditioning that shows up even after we claim to be awakened.
I know of no person who has reached the complete cessation of suffering.
To suffer means to endure, to carry pain over in time. So don’t let teachers get away with the lie. I recently heard that Eckhart Tolle (one of my favorite teachers of all time), who looks peaceful most of the time, was recently seen during a talk getting really angry and then denying his anger for quite a long time. Come on, Eckhart, I love you but please own up to the conditioning that still operates within you.
No teacher needs to be the sacrificial lamb.
I once read “Perfect Brilliant Stillness” by David Carse. He claims in a number of ways to be living in a state of “perfect brilliant stillness” just as the name suggests. Although I found the book brilliant in its poetic use of words (many of which are probably pointing to real experiences he has had), I found David to be full of himself and kind of lost really.
I find most teachers like that these days. They are afraid to tell the real truth about their actual human experience. They’ve not done deep inquiry on shame and it shows. They reveal only what they want to reveal to their followers, only the things that won’t make them feel ashamed. Therefore, so much about their thoughts, feelings, behaviors and patterns stay out of the public eye. Meanwhile, they are followed like Gods, precisely because they are portraying God-like features to the crowd, but as they walk off stage or finish their books, the humanness is there, right there, still unspoken about.
The most that David Carse wrote in his book is that he still has conditioning, still gets angry. Yes, David, we know that. You are human like the rest of us. However, why did you devote a very small section of your book to that point, and instead spend hundreds of pages talking about your perfect brilliant stillness? You haven’t reached enlightenment – the full cessation of your angry conditioning – so why imply that you have?
Why not be more transparent and say, “Hey I wasn’t able to work through some deep strands of my own conditioning.” Truthfulness always wins. It’s like gravity.
Granted, there are different degrees of clarity, just not fixed dualistic extremes like enlightened v. unenlightened. What you see and experience has more to do with where you are and who you are on the spectrum of clarity than it has to do with any kind of pre-given enlightenment or awakened state. I spend quite a bit of time in what people might call the Absolute (although I just call it silence), the experience of not knowing, not thinking and not speaking. It’s quite profound and peaceful. But the
“Absolute” has nothing to do with what I’m saying here.
So when you hear a teacher say or imply that he or she is speaking from the Absolute, run as hard and as fast as you can out of the meeting and never turn back or you can respond by saying, “you must be speaking from absolute bullshit then!”
Then redirect them to Ken’s book or this article (if, for no other reason, they can be presented with a different view).
As Ken says, everyone is always speaking from within a partial, relative view, which has more to do with where you live on earth, than from any channel you’ve opened up with some pre-given universe or some being in the universe who is spoon-feeding you insights to channel to other humans. Face it. It’s a fact.
Change the Paradigm
It’s time we stopped letting spiritual teachers get away with spreading ideas that have been disproven and beaten to a pulp by science, pragmatic spirituality (that doesn’t involve magical thinking) and postmodern philosophy. The world is simply different now than it was when enlightenment teachings first came out. And yet, most teachings I see are very much caught in old, archaic ideas, dismissing science, saying things that have been disproven, things that sound like “the earth is flat.” My gentle and loving suggestion (which you are free to ignore completely): Stay only with those teachers who don’t say such fairy tale nonsense. Every teacher must and should be questioned directly, including me. Otherwise there is no freedom to be realized. If any teacher (or anyone else) gets ego defensive as you question them, you can pretty much rest assured that they are neither awake, enlightened or speaking from the Absolute. If you challenge me and I get defensive, it’s probably just plain old ego.
Many spiritual teachers in the nondual tradition let you assume that they are enlightened or awakened, as if they have reached this fixed state where they are never upset or bothered or worried. It’s all bullshit. Don’t believe it. So as not to overgeneralize, I will give a list of teachers here who I do not believe engage in this kind of bullshit. These are teachers I trust not to say whacked out things that can
easily be deconstructed by Ken or by our inquiries:
You can find them on YouTube. They are the ones who don’t pretend to be enlightened.
They don’t wear the materialistic garb of enlightenment. They are just simply speaking from clarity. If you know any such teachers, please introduce them to me. I would like a circle of friends as teachers who aren’t full of it.
There is no teacher I find more lost than Tony Parsons. It seems every other sentence he is trying to make the point that there is no self. Sounds like he doth protest too much. If there’s really no self, Tony, you don’t have to keep saying it. Show them what you mean exactly. But he doesn’t do that, year after year. Instead, because he lacks the ability to truly express himself, he resorts back to the mantra, “there is no self.” Thanks Tony, I’ve heard enough. I’ll pass. You’re stuck in the myth of the given.
I’ll Say it Again: No One is Enlightened
Gone are the days when I refuse to call teachers out on this stuff. Everyone is up on the chopping block, including ME. I’ll put myself on the chopping block first. Just listen to my most recent videos, interviews, audios. Read my writings. I’m sharing my real life experiences, not just the experiences that sell books. And I’m not doing that as a way to say “hey, look, I’m ACTUALLY enlightened compared to these other teachers.” Nope. Not doing that because no one is enlightened. There are just different degrees of clarity, which I will discuss below.
The ones that seem to argue with me the most about this notion that no one is awakened or enlightened are the ones that love the notion of awareness as the non-changing context within which all the changes happen (all the comings and goings of thoughts, feelings, sensations and states).
Their argument is that, even though all this phenomena is coming and going, awareness remains as something fixed. Ok, that’s the argument. But it isn’t the truth. It cannot withstand scrutiny, let alone scientific scrutiny. Even if you recognized an awareness “behind” it all that is seeing and allowing all thoughts, feelings and sensations and everything else to come and go within that awareness, that AWARENESS is not actually a thing. It is the act of seeing. It is not a giant blank movie screen or even a projector in our heads on which the vibrant relativity of life plays itself out within a fixed awareness. And it certainly isn’t a self, or even True Self that is somehow enlightened or awakened. True Self is yet another term that people use as if there is really something fixed in our experience as a True Self.
The Search for the True Self
Go looking for that True Self. Where is it? There simply isn’t anything in our experience that is static and fixed and can be called ‘awareness.’ Science has recently come close to showing that what we call awareness actually emanates from the brain, not beyond it. If true, that destroys tons of myths perpetrated for centuries by spiritual teachers. There is a seeing, but it’s more like a verb, not a fixed thing and not a True Self that is a fixed thing. So why are so many people trying to hold onto something that is not fixed? Let go of the notion that there is an awareness behind everything and then feel the rug get pulled out from under you (in a great way). It’s like a free fall where you have nothing to stand on, not even awareness. That’s
freedom to me.
Freedom is not having to defend a fixed awareness that I cannot even see or find.
I may be looking from awareness, but it’s not a thing. It’s a seeing, a verb. It can’t be found as a thing.
There are no fixed things. Don’t believe me. Look for yourself through inquiry. What’s most disturbing about those who claim awareness is the only thing that is real and that all phenomena is unreal is the utter convenience of such a statement. What better way to keep the ego/self alive than to believe there is a True Self behind all phenomena that is TRULY THE SELF.
Hmmmmmm, that protects us from having to truly face the fear of death. After all, the story goes that awareness survives death. Has anyone proven that yet? Sounds like Christianity. Do we rely on blind faith? I thought nonduality was about direct experience. How is the phrase True Self or Awareness allowed to be reified if nothing in reality is fixed and everything is impermanent? Does awareness get a pass on that insight? Is it the only real thing? Once I start to question people who hold tightly to the notion that awareness is the only real “thing,” they begin to back off. They can’t prove it. Nor can they find it when they look. They just infer its there. Proving something is real based on inference is like building your house with a deck of cards. It’s bound to crumble. Teachers just recite language from previous teachers (hand-me-down-knowledge). Or they say, “It’s my direct experience that there is a fixed awareness.” My response? Go find it! You may find the act of seeing. You won’t find a thing called awareness (except as another conception, like all of our conceptions like self, other, etc). So can we now give up on the notion that reality has fixed things and then take life and spirituality a lot less seriously. Be like children!
Rest, See, and Inquire
If you read the last chapter of my first book, “Love’s Quiet Revolution,” you’ll see that I deconstructed a lot of these ideas within myself. I inquired into all of it. I used my own inquiries and then I used Byron Katie’s work to destroy any notion that thoughts are true, especially these kinds of spiritual thoughts. I feel freer because of that exploration. That doesn’t make me enlightened, for that would be falling for the same error I’m pointing out in this text. But that questioning did improve my clarity (which is always a matter of degree because there is always more conditioning hanging around somehow).
No one ever reaches the FINAL STATE OF CLARITY, which would be just another backhanded way of saying “I’m enlightened.”
Reality doesn’t know fixed things like that.
Having done those explorations and inquiries, I can’t answer the question, “Scott, are you enlightened?” Why won’t I answer that? Because it doesn’t matter to me. I’m only interested in being free from holding tightly false ideas that don’t point to anything real in our world. I’m only interested in the truth, not in our loose and random conceptions of it. I refuse to answer the question not because I think I’m more enlightened than other teachers. No, no, no, please don’t project that on me. I have no use for it.
The reason I refuse to answer that question is that no one is enlightened or awakened. There are just different degrees of clarity. And I’m happy where I am today in my own degree of clarity. Seeking can end once you no longer believe there is a fixed state of enlightenment or awakening that you must reach in the future. Once you deconstruct those concepts, all that is left is the present moment. And within the moment, you can rest, see and inquire into whatever is arising in that moment that seems to obscure clarity. It’s that simple. It has nothing to do with chasing a future state. Isn’t living in the present moment more important than believing in these spiritual concepts? The experience is always better than the map or the concepts (all of which are second hand knowledge).
But most importantly, I don’t want to do any more harm to people. I think it harms people when teachers don’t tell the truth, when they aren’t transparent, and when they led people to believe nonsense such that there is some fixed state of enlightenment and they have reached it. All that you have reached is some degree of clarity, Mr. or Mrs. Teacher. You still have conditioning. And conditioning is tied to the separate self belief.
Stop lying to your students. You are harming them.
They create or maintain deficiency stories because you won’t tell them the truth. They are left to falsely assume that you have reached this fictitious state called enlightenment (rather than you telling them exactly where you are actually on the spectrum of clarity, what you still believe, in what situations you still get triggered). Saying you’ve reached the goal is not only untrue, since in reality goals are also constantly in flux, but it often makes spiritual seekers feel as if they are lacking or deficient. So in your attempt to awaken them, you only imprison them more.
Do no harm.
For a more in depth examination of how you might have been fooled on the spiritual path by certain teachers, email Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org.