"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
The carved figure above represents the role of meditation in coming to a full and innate understand of reality, or enlightenment. By Adityamadhav83 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The Self and Reality
One possible understanding of enlightenment is the integration of the self and reality. The responsible thinker must first ask, “What is the self? and what do we mean when we say ‘reality?’”
Of course, far greater minds than mine have tackled these immense questions in much greater depth and nuance. Suffice it to say for now, a “self” has to do with your identity. It is who and what you think you are.
And reality? I think most people in the enlightenment philosophy and cultural traditions will tell you that the concept of reality is too tremendous to subject to the inherent limitations of any particular language. Still, many thinkers, teachers, philosophers and the spiritually inclined have tried to allude to the essence of reality.
They often compare it to a river, emphasizing the constant flux and change of rushing water contrasted with the “permanence” of the river itself. [Clearly this idea, the symbolism of an eternal river, was dreamt up before the time when human activity started to have deleterious effects on the river systems of the world.]
Oftentimes these people will describe the character of reality as indifferent – uncaring, uninhibited and unchanged by the facts of existence.
Sometimes people — of the monotheistic religions especially — will describe reality as loving.
However you conceptualize it, reality is simply “what is,” and what is permanently.
So again, returning to the idea of attaining enlightenment, what we are trying to do is merge with this all-encompassing reality – to become One with what is.
What does alienation have to do with this?
A common definition for alienation is a feeling of isolation from something that you would otherwise feel a part of or involved in. For instance, I often write about alienation from nature: Human beings, of course, are animals that spring from nature, and yet our civilization often makes us feel separate from nature.
Indeed, civilization can be deeply alienating.
But how can this feeling of alienation, which we usually think of as negative, bring us toward enlightenment? Alienation has this power when we use it to disassociate ourselves from the petty details (and particularly the emotions) that we usually associate with our “reality” in favor of what is beyond our individual experiences.
We can map our experience of life on a spectrum: At one end is the experience where your momentary sadness is you. Your feelings of failure mean that you are a failure. These things you bought are indelibly yours, you’re not just borrowing them for a period of time and then throwing them out with the trash, selling them or passing them on to the next generation.
On the other end of the spectrum is this mysterious reality. It comprehends the fact of your mortality, but without the fear and the sadness. Actually, if reality is imbued with any emotion at all, it is most likely imbued with all of them, so reality can see the pain but also the joy, indeed the triumph, of your life coming to an end.
Thinking of this spectrum then, alienation toward enlightenment happens when your experience becomes less about you and more about everything, all that is true in the known and the unfathomable universe(s). Likewise, the path of alienation from enlightenment happens when your experience becomes more, let’s say, grounded. You move further away from a perfected immersion with reality as you contemplate our solar system, the movement of the planets, the “music of the spheres.”
Further away still when you contemplate our world, its myriad of interconnected species including human beings, its flowing waterways, cycling climate and seasonal patterns.
Further away still when you take in the human society, its cooperation and its strife, its geopolitical boundaries and its integrated economy.
Until eventually you arrive again at you. Your thoughts. Your daily life. Your pain and your struggles.
Alienation helps explain every space in which you can find yourself on the spectrum because, really, you are at least a part of everything that you conceive at different levels of your experience. Enlightenment then, is the experience of understanding that not only are you a part of everything that is, you are everything that is and it is you.
Be *Here* Now
The prospect of enlightenment asks us where we want to reside on this spectrum. I would argue that it is someplace in the middle. I think its best to live at a level that helps you see that your actions are meaningful. The food you buy (where it comes from, who handled it, why you want it) says something meaningful about how you take care of yourself/what you think you deserve, what mass media messages you have received, whether the local or international economy is bolstered by your purchase, what ecosystems you’re impacting, what labor systems you’re reinforcing, and on and on and on. To live at a level of experience than can (but doesn’t have to) contemplate all of this does not have to be stressful. Stress is often counterproductive anyway.
Step closer to reality on the spectrum, and I think you recognize that these actions, while meaningful, don’t begin to come close to the permanent and eternal truth that sometimes people will do good and sometimes they will do evil and sometimes they will make mistakes, species will die and some new ones will emerge, suns will explode and asteroids will collide and at the heart of everything is just … what is.
And it’s beautiful.