Back in my true-believing religious days I looked upon enlightenment as something special, difficult to achieve, and rare. Now, I see it pretty much opposite: not unique, easy to attain, and commonplace.
When you read descriptions of enlightenment in the world's spiritual, mystical, and philosophical literature -- and I've read lots of them -- some commonalities start to become apparent beneath all of the bewildering idiosyncratic descriptions.
The basic one is this: loss or lessening of self-hood, egotism, sense of separateness.
Supposedly enlightened people, such as the Buddha, talk about how "I-ness" isn't truly real. We humans aren't ego-encapsulated entities who inhabit our own realm of reality. Rather, we're part and parcel of the cosmos, an integral aspect of the interconnected world.
Well, that's exactly what science says. Also, everyday experience.
So what's the big deal about "enlightenment"? Nothing, really. In fact, that's what much of the literature on this subject says: enlightenment is realizing that there's nothing to be enlightened about, nor anyone to be enlightened.
In short, there's only reality. Seeing things as they are (necessarily, of course, within the confines of human consciousness) is the clearest perception.
Likewise, I suppose we could call wiping dirt off of a pair of glasses in order to see clearly "enlightenment." But since it's really just an act aimed at seeing normally, where's the need for a special word?
In "The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are" Alan Watts writes about this simple seeing as well as anyone I've read. Last year I quoted some passages in a blog post, Alan Watts tells me who I am: Everything.
This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not "come into" this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree.
As the ocean "waves," the universe "peoples." Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the entire universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals.
Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated "egos" inside bags of skin.
...Apart from your brain, or some brain, the world is devoid of light, heat, weight, solidity, motion, space, time, or any other imaginable feature. All these phenomena are interactions, or transactions, of vibrations with a certain arrangement of neurons.
Thus vibrations of light and heat from the sun do not actually become light or heat until they interact with a living organism, just as no light-beams are visible in space unless reflected by particles of atmosphere or dust. In other words, it "takes two" to make anything happen.
Back in the 70's I spent several years in a Systems Science Ph.D. program. Never earned a doctorate, but I learned a lot about interconnectedness. The world isn't made up of discrete entities. Feedback, interchanges of energy and information, looping chains of causes and effects -- this is how the universe functions.
In a chapter, "The World is Your Body," Watts says:
As soon as one sees that separate things are fictitious, it becomes obvious that nonexistent things cannot "perform" actions. The difficulty is that most languages are arranged so that actions (verbs) have to be set in motion by things (nouns), and we forget that rules of grammar are not necessarily rules, or patterns, of nature.
...Yet isn't it obvious that when we say, "The lightning flashed," the flashing is the same as the lightning, and that it would be enough to say, "There was lightning"?
...To sum up: just as no thing or organism exists on its own, it does not act on its own. Furthermore, every organism is a process: thus the organism is not other than its actions. To put it clumsily: it is what it does. More precisely, the organism, including its behavior, is a process which is to be understood only in relation to the larger and longer process of its environment.
For what we mean by "understanding" or "comprehension" is seeing how parts fit into a whole, and then realizing that they don't compose the whole, as one assembles a jigsaw puzzle, but that the whole is a pattern, a complex wiggliness, which has no separate parts.
Parts are fictions of language, of the calculus of looking at the world through a net which seems to chop it up into parts.
There are many ways to come to the understanding Watts speaks of.
Science is one way, since the laws of nature are marvelously interconnected, just as nature itself is. Ecology teaches us that no species is an island, sufficient unto itself. Rather, every living organism survives (and dies) via interchanges with its environment.
Meditation, in the broadest sense of "seeing clearly," is another way. I can intuit that when I feel myself sitting on my cushion, that sensation is a product of nerve endings in my butt, the firmness of what I'm resting on, and how my brain interprets that aspect of bodily awareness.
Whenever it seems that my self is a discrete independent entity, I'm not viewing reality accurately. I've narrowed my vision to focus on this or that aspect of the cosmos. That's fine, but every "figure" needs a "ground" to be perceptible.
The figure always defines the ground and the ground defines the figure. They are inseparable -- you can not have one without the other.
Everyone recognizes this. But often we forget this fact, or fail to pay attention to it.
"Enlightened" people simply do a better job of attending to reality. And I suspect that how this attending occurs plays a big part in whether someone is revered as an enlightened sage, or just appears to be a normal human being.
Meaning, some people will have a stronger intellectual or cognitive understanding of the universe's interconnectedness. Others, a stronger experiential or emotional understanding.
I suspect that these two varieties of understanding (which doesn't exhaust the varieties of "enlightenment") aren't as discrete as is often supposed. Thinking about how I am connected to the world likely will lead to different emotional states; I may feel less anxious, more compassionate, and such.
Yet as Watts said, "Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated 'egos' inside bags of skin."
Fortunately, reality has a way of winning out.
Modern neuroscience is showing us the falsity of believing in a separate self that somehow inhabits our psyches distinct from the brain. Studies of the effects of meditation are offering up clues about how mindfulness can help heal the illusory rift between ourselves and the world.
Our understanding of enlightenment is steadily growing. So much so, I suspect that one day that word will go out of use. We'll just speak of knowing reality.