Beyond the Enlightenment Disease

[Published in Connection Magazine, 2001. Aimed at taking an in depth look at what became famous around that time, Neo-Advaita]

It is the year 1984. I am sitting at the feet of the man who is to become my spiritual teacher a while later. He asks me, “What do you want?”
“I want to be enlightened,” I reply. He laughs and asks me whether I’d be prepared to walk through Berlin naked. ‘If that’s all it takes,’ I think to myself, let’s go! So I start to undress and then he really starts to laugh, and says, “You have to do everything you possibly can. You must want enlightenment like a drowning man grabs at the proverbial straw and then you have to let that go, too.”

This was the first time I realized that I wanted to be enlightened, in this lifetime! But I didn’t really know what enlightenment was, although I had some ideas, of course, ideas that changed in the course of time, naturally. Anyway, I read a lot and learned that what I was striving for could be called ‘Cosmic Consciousness’ (R. Bucke), and that in the Buddhist literature enlightenment was the end of suffering, and that in Zen it was Satori, a breakthrough to this most desirable state of nirvana. And in the course of time I learnt that the highest achievement was called Samadhi, or Moksha (Hindu), Fana, (Sufi) Wu (Taoism), Objective Consciousness (Gurdjieff), the Supramental (Sri Aurobindo), etc.

So I put myself, struggling, for as a former hippie I was rather anti-authoritarian, in the hands of a Master, Michael Barnett, whom I took to be enlightened. He had what I was looking for, and therefore he could give it to me, at least that’s what I thought. And in the many years to follow I experienced small and slightly bigger breakthroughs, moved in transcendental spaces, divine dimensions, visionary states and spiritual places. And at times I felt myself to be enlightened, I was filled with light and blissed out, I saw beings and things like they are in essence, and my eyes shone like the floodlights in the stadium during the Euro cup. If then I reported my “progress” to my teacher, he only told me time and again that this wasn’t It. “Everything you think is It – isn’t,” he used to say. And anyway, my spiritual hunger hadn’t been satisfied, and I still lacked the Big Insight.

The Big Insight: “If I am enlightened,” I was convinced, “than I’ll have no more problems, not with myself, not in relationships, nor financially; I’m free of the world and it’s inadequacies.” I wished for a kind inviolability, wanted to be above all things, untouched by the problems and suffering of mortals. That would be enlightenment. And, arrogant or not, I set out my own conditions too, “I will become enlightened in the city, because if it is only to be attained on a mountainside or in the woods it is unattainable for most people (who live in cities).”

A very male view: Enlightenment as the peak of human possibilities that must be attained. So I became more radical in my behavior and thinking towards everybody, except towards my son. In that regard I had decided irrevocably: If I had to decide between enlightenment or my son I would drop enlightenment until he reached his 18th birthday and could take care of himself. But he was the only exception. Not his mother, not my friends and acquaintances; here I experimented regardless, breaking quite a few of my own (and their!) taboos and hearts more than once, living low budget, meeting many situations head on that I hadn’t encountered before and were new to me, situations that promised important lessons but put me on the line, too, to put it mildly. Like when the head of the community of my teacher one day stormed into the office in which I was sitting and working like 8 other people. She started to shout at me in front of all the others, reprimanding me for stuff I hadn’t done. And every time I wanted to protest, “but…!” she would stop me and shout at me even more. After ten minutes, an eternity, she went out just as fast as she had come in without giving me the slightest chance to defend myself.

“I’ve had it!” I fumed. I was not going to take this! But when I wanted to pack my bags all of a sudden I realized that my reaction had been an automatic stereotype. And that I had decided to break free of all automatisms. I dropped what I was doing and sat down in a meadow to look at it: my whole movie on this topic.

That was only one of the hundreds of films that I had to watch as time passed by; every conviction was based on such a movie and started others, about my masculinity, the inner child, my wish for inviolability, my relationships, profession, deficiencies, what I took to be truth, my strengths and weaknesses, in short the whole hotchpotch one takes oneself to be, and of which one says: That’s me.

Over the years my idea of enlightenment changed of course. Experience taught me that even states of consciousness in which I saw as clear as clear can be or in which I was at one with everything that is, in which I was flooded by transparent joy, in which the subtly profound delight of the cosmos was looking through my eyes to behold the human frenzy, that all of these states come and go. So whatever I experienced in these states couldn’t have been enlightenment because the “holy” scriptures all seem to speak of something that lasts forever. Even meeting the then deceased Osho in a humbling vision in which he showed me where he was, in the heart of all his students, nay of all people, did not finish my search; when this vision overwhelmed me my body bowed down to all hearts and then all hearts bowed down to me and I collapsed in my chair and cried for hours — this experience also, which happened to me during one of his video-discourses in which he said something that would be characteristic for the next phase on my way to enlightenment, has now turned into a memory; one of the most beautiful ones…

Osho in this discourse said, “Human beings are the most vulnerable beings of all, more vulnerable than the petals of roses.” And it became obvious to me that all my striving for enlightenment so far was rooted in the wish to be invulnerable. The scales fell from my eyes: Enlightenment does not make one invulnerable and places one beyond everything. So that finished that part of my search, and the quest continued but now the focus turned very much towards this world. The entire deep spiritual, sometimes even divine, experiences were all right with me but now I was going to incarnate, become flesh and bones to be here in this world and this body.

So whenever I found myself drifting into spiritual dimensions I immediately anchored in the body again, in the senses, the present breath. I began to engage socially and put much more value on the exchange with others than before. Friendliness, mutual respect, even courteousness were again essential achievements of human relating in my eyes. People striving for transcendence now looked like hard and dry rocks, deserts in the midst of the flourishing jungle of feelings and sensations. I was not much interested in spirituality anymore. Not being was important but living, not floating above the world of things, no more moving beyond the given and present but rather diving deep into it, that’s the way I used to put it at the time.

And a serious separation with my teacher occurred. Because of the way the students related to each other and, in a critical situation, how he behaved towards me. Only later did I learn that this hadn’t been my true reason, but for the time being the break-up provided the opportunity to emancipate myself from him and his community. And indeed emancipate myself from the spiritual world itself. This went so far that just looking at a spiritual book and reading a couple of lines made me physically sick. It didn’t matter whether these were books of my former teacher, New Age, Buddhism, Zen, Sufi or science and philosophy! The world, the senses, other people, relationships, feelings – that was all there was for me, nothing else really mattered.
And then, one day as I was just sitting in my room looking out of my window it dawned on me, and almost took my breath away: It’s all about nothing! Life, the cosmos, the world, my development, and enlightenment, all of this is nothing special at all. Life is about living not about any goal! Striving for enlightenment had gotten me to move, and now the reason for this movement had disappeared from me: I would still have countless experiences but they had no goal anymore; they did have a characteristic though, and that was to broaden my horizon. Nothing was more present than any other thing, everything and everyone is equally here (everything actual has this one quality: it being here now, its Isness, as Meister Eckhard used to put it), as if every phenomenon is celebrating its being, and I came to see it with these very eyes: Being is synonymous with bliss.

And then I was only in awe: That there is anything at all, that anything or anyone exists and that there’s an awareness to go with it recognizing phenomena and makes sense out of them, that is enlightenment! That everything is! It is remarkable and at the same time absolutely obvious, like the air we breathe. The obviousness of all things, states and situations, and of all experiences no matter what they are! What connects me with you, you with the world, and everything with everything else: That we are here, and just the way we are, with the consciousness that is available to us.

Suddenly and out of the blue I was free indeed. Nobody who could or had to okay me anymore, no more inner or outer authority, no guru or master, no god or Buddha, not even myself: I was nothing but the streaming of tendencies and inclinations that meanders through this time and world, that took himself for unenlightened and sometimes for enlightened and now for nothing in particular anymore; just one among the multitudes, not separated from what happens to be the case, always in the flow that’s flowing just now, and at the same time free of it — but not in a way that I could describe, even to myself. The old questions (Who am I? What is all of this? What is the meaning of life?) fell away or answered themselves.

And now I could read spiritual literature again. Much that had been dark or mystical to me before was now quite obvious and evident, often I even had to grin, saying, “Why be so complicated?” But what I noticed most was that hardly any of the enlightened ones said clearly that it was all about nothing. Clearest was Nagarjuna who had said about 1000 years ago: “Emptiness of all views is prescribed by the Buddha’s as the ‘way of liberation’. Incurable indeed are they who take Emptiness itself as a view. It is as if one were to ask, when told that there is nothing to give, to be given that nothing.”
A very beautiful old description of the way I go, the way of liberation.

When I met an old friend, now a sword-master, a few weeks later, and told him that I was still a bit angry with my former spiritual teacher who had withheld the most obvious of all facts, he smiled and asked, “And what is your anger good for?” I had to grin; that I had been so attached to my irritation, what an irony, it had only been there to give me enough space to look with my own eyes. Breaking up with spirituality had given me space, free of opinions and convictions, scriptures and teachings that I had taken in until that time, free of the idea of enlightenment. And all the anger disappeared. I contacted my former master again. And only now could I really start to appreciate his work.

Before my spiritual crises I had done energy-work once a week, and had thought of myself as a competent facilitator, someone who could give the participants essential experiences. Then I wasn’t so sure anymore and finished working. And with the distance from spirituality grew the distance from that kind of work. And the end of the crisis didn’t really change that, as I believed that it wouldn’t be right to ‘sit by the side of the river and sell water.’ What I had found is already given to all whether they know it or not. And I was far away from perfect wisdom, total emptiness, all-encompassing love, egolessness or some such. Sure, sometimes I look at people and look deep into their nature, sometimes I know all I need to know without knowing where that comes from, sometimes there is a silence that comes down on everything without smothering a single sound, sometimes I am flooded with compassion for a human being or other beings, and sometimes I’m not there although everything is there. But not one of these states can be taught anyway. I thought. Wrongly.

Factual happenings I bow down to: Sometimes when I am with people these days they suddenly see that all their endeavors are really all about nothing, and a huge load falls of their shoulders and they are free, and smile, for a moment; until they believe again that it can‘t be that simple or because of something else that bothers them. In my spiritual work I actually only work to reveal that smile in the background of all experiencing, if it has a real purpose at all. Even if I work with chakras, the flow of energies, or lead meditations or dance or whatever is happening, the real work is about the freedom from all attachment to experiences. Bowing down to the endless beauty that‘s here, the happiness of being alive, the pearls of insight that befall us; all of this is to be treasured, but sticking to experiences or the one that experiences them doesn‘t make sense, as it is all nothing special. That one has to discover for oneself though.

„Enlightenment is that which one hasn‘t got when one has got it,“ Sugata, publisher of a prominent German magazine devoted to ‚essentials‘ writes in an email to me. And hits the bull‘s eye. That‘s why I feel a bit awkward towards the army of neo-enlightened ones (I don‘t mean to put them down with terming them thus, but I simply use the pre-fix „neo“ to distinguish them from the enlightened ones so far; 23 of them are mentioned in the Satsang-Kalender of Connection 5/2000) especially if they speak of their enlightenment experiences, an experience which authorizes them to give Satsang and teach the „true nature“, „the one moment“, „total freedom“, „the reconnection to the original nature“ (all quotes are… well, quotes).

But if the enlightenment-experience is not an experience at all, as I tried to point out earlier from the example of my journey, if enlightenment is rather „that which one hasn‘t got when one has got it,” then what? What if the way in truth leads to nowhere? What if there is only a natural development, only beautiful places and vistas from the edge of the road, forever expanding horizons, but simply no end, and most of all no final end-solution to the problems of the world or our being in it? What if the enlightenment-experiences of the Satsang teachers are beautiful („I was one with Osho, god, all being“ for instance) but nothing but experiences? And what if, and this is the main point, the holding on to these enlightenment-experiences, the attachment to this state as the Real, True, Only State isn‘t different from attachment to other beautiful states, like making love for instance? Then these people are suffering from the enlightenment-disease, because that‘s how we could call this spiritual contraction where one is stuck with the enlightenment-experience or the one who experienced it.

I don‘t mean to say the enlightenment-experience of the neo-enlightened ones is irrelevant, no, not at all! I do believe they all had deep experiences far beyond the ordinary, and they can help others to make similar experiences. But to turn these experiences into the foundation of one‘s enlightenment or awakening misses the mark, as I have tried to show.

The opposite of this, to deny that one is attached to certain special experiences; enlightenment, freedom, etc. misses the mark just as much. To deny the dimension one is in at a particular moment only leads to detours, confusion and perplexity. One is then casting a mist. It doesn‘t make sense to deny the actually perceived state, the feeling of not being enlightened or being stuck in all kinds of structures or the ego, denying that would be even worse. To believe one is what one isn‘t doesn‘t confuse anyone else, apart from those people who already kid themselves into believing they are different from what they are.

What helps us on this journey is truthfulness, openness and authenticity. The spiritual city slicker has to clear himself of many things before he can accept the obvious. As long as reincarnation, Satsang, energy-work, retreats, therapies, esotericism of all denominations, astro- and other logics or even enlightenment are still essential questions or answers, how could one accept that all of this isn‘t special at all but just weather; clouds and sunshine and rain and snow and falling leaves?

So as long as one is searching it helps to do so with all one‘s heart, because whatever one does wholeheartedly and engages in totally will reveal its secret sooner or later. And that never stops. Any horizon can be broadened, and there will still be all kinds of things to master, and difficulties to rise above; but the unknown is without end. That‘s where my trust lies, without a shadow of a doubt. I accept what the unknown puts on my path, no matter what, being a free human being I have no choice: How could I possibly say no to what comes and goes on this journey?

11 Replies to “Beyond the Enlightenment Disease”

  1. It’s an old blog yes but just happen to come accros it today and it shines like new 🙂

    Thank you, I so enjoyed reading, it even brought a few tears to my eyes.
    I’m zipping my coffee and it tastes warm and sweet to my lips.
    It’s a somewhat greyish June day, I can hear the birds singing through the open window and here in the room all is quiet except the clicking sound of my typing.
    It’s a beautiful day.
    Namaste my friend

  2. Dear Mushin, I also do not believe that we need to “become enlightened” it is in fact not possible. We can not become what we already are. I remember the day between age 12 and 13 when I lost what I was. I felt fear for the first time, together with it I suddenly was “body” conscious. Strange sensations appeared like blushing, embarrassment, hesitation, fear, a sense that I no longer know who or what I am. I went into deep melancholy. Cried myself to sleep every night after that, longing for my home. My parents became impatient, telling me I was home. All I could utter was that this was not my home. I even went as far as searching in the near by forest for the abandoned baby child. I had a deep sense, if I found the child, that someone had abandoned, I would find me/love again. At the time of the “fall” I was standing on top of a 30′ diving tower from which I had been diving regularly, fearlessly. Not now, now I was thinking and thinking that I could get hurt. That never crossed my mind before. It was during those lost years I started to have what I called “out of body experiences” which really were just (expanded states of awareness allowing me to feel the resemblance of home again occasionally) and or I felt trapped in this “not me” person/body. I never went on a search for enlightenment when I ended up in India with a guru, I was looking for me. Where had I disappeared to, I asked. It was through meditation that I made my way back to me, the me (innocence/love) I had known and lived as a child. I was naturally loving and compassionate because for me there was no separation between me and all other living creatures. I had no need for love, I was love. This fall from what we are naturally, happens to everyone, some early some later. I was fortunate that for me it happened late in my childhood which left me with full memory and thus engaged me in a very directed return, rather than a chase after some illusory promise of enlightenment. I believe it was Jesus who said something like “you shall again return to the innocence of children”. So the question is not what this innocence or purity is, but that we are it! It needs no name, and is all names. It has no form, and is all forms. It has no sound, yet is all sound. And when we are back home we know it. It is ordinary, comfortable, loving, compassionate and ever open, ever interested without being entangled or attached.

  3. And there comes this time when “Buddha is on the road kill him” this having to be thrown out, or throwing ourselves out from teacher, community, goal orientation, in order to deepen our understanding of what is/is not is obviously an important stage. And how important teachers are who say “SO” when another kundalini high is shared. The question of “who experienced it?.. where is it now?” quickly releases one from the overwhelm of these magical experiences. And what freedom when the question of who we are or not, finally no longer matters and being, flow, here and now is what is. And this whole journey is typical, and predictable and only seems unique to us while we are experiencing it. Eventually we laugh, as the joke was on us.

    1. Dear Margrit,

      you’re most gracious in what you write, especially regarding me, but I would like to think that we do not need to become enlightened at all to move through the stage of grief and into the acceptance of the ‘labor of emergence’. But maybe you’re right; I simply don’t know. For me it is obvious that awareness is indeed formless, but so are many processes. Actually I would think that there is no such ‘thing’ as consciousness or awareness – both are processes, as in “awaring” maybe, if that were a word. It is really very much like music; even though it can be produced by voices and instruments it is not the voices or instruments but what coincides with a particular use of them. A melody is not a ‘thing’ either and it can only be appreciated in its impermanent play; trying to hold on to a particular note or number of notes doesn’t help much. So as much as there is no such thing as music, there is no such thing as consciousness.

      I see that it is somewhat true that when we individually transform so does the world – but that’s the world inside us, than, that transforms. The world ‘outside’ needs more than inner transformation; even though a certain inner transformation might enable you to more effectively help transform the world or support the birth of what is emerging. From where I come from it seems important to make that distinction as the clarion call that has sounded so long – “Change yourself to change the world” – has also fostered that people turn away from the world that is a major transformative agent to your self, AND it has fostered a high concern with people’s stage on the Way. But everything that matters for human beings, most of them at least, is love or compassion, collaboration and community, and what I would call ‘deep participation and belonging’ to life and being/becoming. And regardless of our development, when we explore what it means and how to be compassionate, how to participate and collaborate and act upon what we understand and see as true than the Way is the Goal and we have already arrived Home.

      Thank you for eliciting these lines.

  4. Revisiting this blog post from so many years ago I’m touched… how beautiful in its freshness that time was! And how beautiful in its freshness is this time now, when I’ve stepped down a s a teacher actually, I would now say, what is indicated here – but then was still ‘contaminated’ with the sense of something special, even though I would have denied it at the time.

    Thank you, new readers who drop by here, for re-calling me to this!

  5. You nailed it! I would wake up every morning trying to reach those “enlightened” experiences that I have had in the past and review what I had read in spiritual books as a way to reach those experiences once again. This “nothingness” you speak of is so easy to reach that it is almost impossible, it is very tricky. You can not think your way to it… “Incurable indeed are they who take Emptiness itself as a view.” I was about to say that I fear going to bed tonight and waking up having lost this nothingness like feeling but I just completely discarded that feeling as it came to me. You are an amazing person, you are nothing.

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