You Can’t Script Enlightenment: Moving Beyond Magical Thinking

You Can’t Script Enlightenment: Moving Beyond Magical Thinking

JG: You know, there’s a fair amount of controversy now as people try to sort out the difference between teachings based on reality and those that are the product of the religious imagination from earlier eras. I guess Ken Wilber might say we have moved from a magic/mythic level of development to the modernist, rational level of development, to the post-modern and integral levels. And so there’s this admixture of stuff—unrealistic stories that are the result of the magic/mythic orientation of the time periods in which they were created, as well as plenty of material that is based on actual observation.

So when it comes to the disagreements about enlightenment or arahatship, say, that seems to be part of it. But then another part of it is the mushroom culture and the way our projections proliferate in the darkness when we don’t talk about states and stages, and the fact that they actually exist and that some people are actually more advanced than others. So it is easy to hallucinate and imagine when you rarely or never hear a teacher say, “OK, I got first path on this date.” At least I have not heard this. You do not hear people talking about their experiences very often. Would you agree?

KF: That’s right. This is why some of us now are experimenting with this idea of coming out of the closet about enlightenment. We don’t know what the results will be, but we do see the problems with the other system. We see the problems with the “mushroom culture” of keeping everybody in the dark. The argument against disclosure has been, “Well, we don’t want to indoctrinate the yogis. We don’t want them to just start coming up and parroting these phenomena, these experiences, or pretending to be enlightened.” And, of course, there is something to that.

JG: Absolutely.

KF: But really in my experience it is the very unusual person—in fact I have never had it happen—who can convince me that they are enlightened when they are not, because they are going to make a false step. If they keep talking about it, they are going to start talking about something that just doesn’t fit.

JG: But it underscores the importance of keeping things balanced. We’re talking about spiritual friendship here, rather than guru-disciple stuff, but working with a teacher who has been there who can help you sort it out. And I guess as a student you also have to keep your ego in check and really be cognizant of the spiritual materialism and project mentality.

KF: Yes. It is hard to self-diagnose. But because this is a biological, human phenomenon—as I call it, a physio-energetic process—it happens. If people even get close to looking in the right direction, these things tend to unfold more or less efficiently depending on how they are practicing.

 And just to drill down to ground level here, you have good students who in recent months have attained to Paths—First Path, Second Path—right? So you are dealing with people on a regular basis who are moving along the Progress of Insight in a very real way.

KF: It happens all the time. Lots of the yogis I work with are First or Second Path, and we have several people who I think are Third Path. We even have several people who are regulars on the forum who I think are arahats . So this practice works. One of the things that I think is interesting is that once you publicly say, “I am enlightened. I am an arahat,” as audacious as that might sound to a lot of people, other people who have that same experience level will also come out of the closet and say, “Me too.”

It doesn’t happen often, at least not so far. I know just a handful of people who have personally approached me and said, “I am an arahat.” And of the handful of people who have made that claim, most have seemed credible to me. Every once in a while somebody will say something and I think they are mistaken, and I tell them so.

JG: So, in other words, shadow sides are unavoidable. You just have to be aware of them. There is the shadow side to saying, “Don’t discuss the states and stages of the path,” which is this mire of confusion that people get lost in.

KF: Right. That’s right, because shadow stuff is going to happen anyway. People are going to be confused at times; confusion is normal and inevitably. Some people are going to possibly, through no bad intention, get indoctrinated and start reporting things that have not really happened. But that is fine. That is not the problem. The real problem, in my opinion, is the lack of disclosure. When you do not have disclosure, you have this weird situation where nobody can even tell who the competent teachers are because you’ve got competent teachers who are saying, “Oh I’m not enlightened. I would never claim enlightenment.” They sometimes do this even if they are enlightened because they believe it is somehow virtuous to pretend they are not. This to me is just absolutely asinine.

And then, on the other hand, because of the mushroom culture and because of the darkness, we’ve got teachers who frankly have no idea what they’re talking about who are very popular and have all kinds of students, and they are just leading students down the primrose path because, after all, we don’t talk about these things. So I ask, what kind of legitimate pedagogy would allow for that?

JG: There are real consequences for that lack of disclosure just as there are real consequences, at times, for having it all be out in the open. It is going to make it easier for people to be unskillful about the Progress of Insight or about their attainments and so forth.

KF: Yes. There are consequences either way. For me, I always like to come down on the side of more disclosure rather than less because, if you think about it, when people withhold information, you have to ask why they’re doing it. Now, they may be doing it because that was how they were taught. And I think there really is a lot of that. Most of the dharma teachers that I know about, whether they are disclosing or not, have good intentions. So I do not want to say that people are involved in the mushroom culture because they are evil—that is far from the case.

And yet I think they are making a mistake because if you are withholding information, who benefits? You always have to ask this question, who benefits? Is it true that your students benefit from your lack of disclosure, or is there some subtle way in which you as the teacher benefit from your lack of disclosure?

For example, maybe you are benefiting from the mystique that can build up around a dharma teacher when nobody knows much about them. Well, that is very dangerous and I do not recommend it because there are a lot of reasons why this is a bad idea. Let’s look at disclosure from the point of view of disclosing your basic humanity, which is say, admitting your faults.

If you are a dharma teacher and you do not do that, people are going to buy into the magic-mythic ideas and they are going to start projecting upon you that you are a perfect being who smiles beatifically all the time and does not get angry, has no sex drive and could never violate any of the five precepts and on and on. You do not want that. At least not for very long. That is just a mess.

JG: Yes, right. Whereas if you disclose and you say, “Look, hey, this is what enlightenment is. It is not a comic-book scenario,” you have just cut out a lot of, hopefully, projection. And that can be very helpful to people.

KF: You want to keep knocking down the projections all along the way because it is a compassionate thing to do. It isn’t easy, though. It’s difficult because you’re going to get painted into a corner as a teacher. People are going to look at you lovingly and they are going to project—they’re going to see something that is not there. Unless you keep saying, “Yes I am enlightened and enlightenment does not mean I am ‘good,’ per se. I’m a human being just like you with all of the virtuous and not-virtuous qualities that you have. The difference is that I’m not as sticky, and that is all.”

JG: Now, this is where I have a question, because I totally agree with the idea that it is a wrong view that enlightenment is this comic book thing. But I also think, what is the point if this process does not result in a person who does less harm to himself and others and is, on the whole, a kinder and better person? Throughout history, we have saints. We read these accounts of Dipa Ma or other teachers, the love that people felt in their presence and so forth. So, the whole heart-centered quality of spirituality? Isn’t any of that meaningful?

KF: Well, when I talk like this, the way I’m talking with you now, my wife will say, “OK, but you are pretty nice.” [laughs]

Now it may happen—and I admit that it often does happen—that people become kinder and more compassionate when they are enlightened. But that is not the point. The point, if there is one—maybe we should just say that there is not a point… there’s just a process; there is no point any more than there is a point to growing up, becoming an adult, getting old and dying. That is just the way it unfolds.

But if we can let go of this idea that we can script our own enlightenment, we will be way ahead of the game. You cannot script this. It is going to be what it is, and if you insist “I’m only going to have the kind of enlightenment that turns me into a nice guy,” well, that is not up to you. That is none of your business, and that is what I want to tell people. Let enlightenment be what it is. All you can do is do your practice and watch it unfold. This is not about you anyway.

Because this is about finding out that you are a fiction. So wanting to control it from your grave is completely absurd.

JG: And what about the brahma-viharas and metta practice and all of that stuff?

KF: All of those have to be seen as ways to make society run better. It is very good to cultivate positive mind states because it helps society function when people are treating one another better. Those practices work. If you are really serious about becoming a nice person you should definitely do the brahama-viharas. They are only tangentially related to enlightenment. Because on the one hand we are talking about training the mind to think in a certain way with these practices like the brahma-viharas—otherwise known as the divine abodes, which are, by the way, metta (loving-kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy at the good fortune of another), and uppekha (equanimity). So cultivating those is a very beautiful thing to do. This is humanity at its best. I practice those. I encourage people to practice them, and that has nothing to do with enlightenment.

JG: You can do those practices, but if you are embedded in them…

KF: That’s right. Because enlightenment is when you’re not embedded in the experience and so does it happen that people who are not embedded in their experience often spontaneously manifest those qualities? Absolutely. It does happen that way. And yet if we think that we are going to script enlightenment and push it and boss it around based on our preconceptions, that is just more thinking. That is just more embedded thought.

JG: Is it Wilber who points out that there were enlightened samurai who were chopping people’s heads off, because failure to do so was unthinkably immoral in the culture of the time?

KF: That is actually very hard to deny, although it is unsettling to people.

JG: It does point to the lack of conditionality of that way of being I guess.

KF: It is easy for those of us who are sitting in a warm, comfortable living room in the United States or Europe to say that enlightenment means that you’re never going to do anything that violates our cultural code, but you can imagine situations in which you would do things that right now seem abhorrent. I remember reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl about his experiences in concentration camps in Germany during World War II. One of the things he said that really struck me, he talked about how day after day a truck would come to take prisoners to the fields to work. You knew that if you got on that truck to work you would survive the day. If you did not make it onto that truck you would be killed that day. He said that the prisoners would fight amongst themselves and kick each other off of the truck, scrambling for a place on that truck, so they could survive another day. These were prisoners fighting amongst themselves trying to get on the truck.

Frankl said, “We who have come back… we know: the best of us did not return.” That is incredibly powerful to me, for him to acknowledge that. Now, that is disclosure.

JG: So do we want to be a person who pretends not to have that side? Isn’t that worse? What is better, to have the courage and honesty to be willing to make that kind of a disclosure or to be somebody who pretends to be Spiritual Guy all the time?

KF: Exactly.