Enlightenment – so what the bloody hell is it?

To be clear here – I'm on the journey, I'm not at the destination. My perspective still shifts and changes, my understanding deepens and my knowledge grows. So this is incomplete… I may have a better version later. But I'm itching to write what I've seen so far, so write is what I'll do…

Enlightenment – to the best of my understanding – is a permanent shift in perspective on who exactly you are, how you relate to reality, and what your role in all of this is. It isn't 'figuring something out'. This is gnosis, not episteme – meaning it is something you know by being directly aware of it, moment to moment (like knowing you are conscious) rather than something you learn or work out (like knowing that exercise helps you loose weight). It's knowledge, not belief, understanding, not faith. It's like looking at an optical illusion, and suddenly seeing through it – you realise you were making a mistake before, but now you properly understand what you are looking at and won't be fooled again. It's also an understanding that is ineffable, in that you can't explain it to someone or put it into words, but it is understandable, and you can help someone else to 'get it'. With time and work.

I'm going to switch from using the term, and concept, enlightenment to the term awakening for a bit – enlightenment is a good headline, but I want to be more specific. In my tradition enlightenment is divided into three stages – awakening, liberation and returning to the source. I've got no clear idea about the latter two, so I'm just going to talk about the first for now.

I'm not awakened. But one of the nice things about this work is that you get previews. Incomplete moments of insight that show you what's coming, and where you are heading. Moments that make you go 'Bloody hell, it's so obvious – why didn't I get it before?' But which then fade away leaving you going 'How the hell was that so obvious?' Therefore this description will, by necessity, be partial. But I write to try to inspire other people to explore, to encourage other people to take the journey, and to try to turn the idea of enlightenment and awakening from something abstract, woolly, and impossible, into something meaningful, worthwhile, and achievable.

So let me use an analogy. There's already a very well known analogy for enlightenment out there, although most people don't seem to realise that enlightenment is the subject of it. Plato had his cave, but I… I have role-playing.

Despite the prevalence of geeks in magickal circles, I can't actually guarantee everyone reading this has played a role-playing game. Certainly, few will have put quite as many hours into role-playing as I did during many happy years of passing time with friends. However, alongside role-playing the analogy of watching a film, or reading a book, also apply… just not quite so entertainingly well.

Clicky below, and let me tell you all about it…

Imagine, if you will, that you're playing a role-playing game, or watching a film, and you've forgotten that's what you're doing. You have begun to identify so strongly with a character that you've forgotten about anything beyond the game/film. To you, the game is reality. Imagine how that would turn a pleasant, fun, past-time into something far, far more frightening, stressful, tense and upsetting. Plot twists would become horrible, set-backs depressing, problems would feel unjust, and the death of other characters… horribly, horribly upsetting.

That, in essence, is living life before awakening. The thing we're all doing. We've got hooked on existence and we've forgotten the wider truth of reality. We've got lost in a story, and think that the story is all that exists.

Think about how that changes the experience of story-telling – when we aren't lost in the story we might deliberately seek out stories full of drama, pain, fear, even death – because some of those stories are pretty cool, they're dramatic and exciting. Even sad stories can be powerful and beautiful. The distance we have, the knowledge that they'll end leaving us unscathed, gives us license and freedom to 'live' through painful and difficult stories, learn from them, be excited by them, and then move on. Without that distance… sad stories become a source of torture.

Imagine someone you were playing alongside, or who was watching the same film as you, has remembered that they were just playing a game, that the story wasn't real. Imagine how strange, even hilarious, your stress and concern would be to them. How they would try to reassure you that really, everything is okay, that you're getting stressed over nothing important. That everything is just fine. But how, deep in your forgetfulness, their reassurance that everything was okay would seem ludicrous.

You might say to them, "I'm unhappy. I don't understand this. Life seems random and cruel." They would say, "I'm sure it does. I can see exactly why it does. But it's only a game." That'd actually be kind of annoying – "Just a bloody game? I'm heartbroken, I'm miserable in my job. This 'lighten up it none of this matters' bullshit doesn't help at all." Your friend might still smile, but really, they'd know that they can't help you, because whilst they might know the truth, unless you can see it too this game, this story, really is unfair, painful, and miserable.

Naturally, you'd try to solve your unhappiness. You might say "I think I know what'll make me happy. If I complete this adventure, I think I'll be happy." Or "If I win this battle, I think I'll be happy." Or "I just need some more money to buy more of the stuff I need. Then I'll be happy." I imagine your awakened friend might reply "I'm sure that would make you happier for a time. But I'm telling you, that's really not the problem."

Everything we might thrash around trying to do, every idea we come up with for how to create a happy life, for how to deal with the fear of death, the inevitably of losing our friends and loved ones, the nagging sense that there's something not right about the way we're living… all of our plans for winning, succeeding, getting the things we needed to make it okay… to all of it our awakened friend would clearly and obviously have only one answer "What's you're suggesting is probably good – but it's just not the fundamental problem."

To him or her it would just be so damn obvious what the problem was. That until we resolve that – until we remembered that this is just a fun game, just a story we're telling to entertain ourselves – nothing else was really terribly worthwhile. Nothing else would make more than a scratch on the pain and worry of life until we addressed the real problem.

But hopefully we might one day stop worrying about going up a level, and beating the current boss, for long enough to listen to this whole idea about awakening. You can imagine what the next exchange would be:

"So awakening will solve this pain, suffering, and worry?"
"Yes."
"Right, I'll do that. Okay, I'll roll my research skill, and learn everything I can about enlightenment."
"Okay… that may help a bit… but that's not really dealing with the problem."
"Yes, I know. My research has revealed to me that meditation is key to awakening. So I'm going to build up my meditation skill. Now I'm going to roll my meditation skill."
"Okay…"
"But I've just passed my meditation skill again and again, but I'm not awakened. Why not? Why doesn't it work? Are you sure it's real?"
"But you're really not dealing with the problem."

[I should say at this stage that the non-analogy equivalent of this exchange describes near perfectly literally years of conversations with my enlightenment teacher. When you're lost in it it's remarkably hard to break free from this mindset. You can't break free from the game by playing the game better, can't remember it's a story by continuing to follow the story]

"So research isn't helping, meditation isn't helping, what the hell do I have to do to awaken from this game?"
"You just need to… stop playing the game."
"How the hell do I do that?"
"Sit down, shut up, and pay attention. Just stop playing."
"But sitting down and not doing anything… hang on… that sounds a lot like… a lot like meditation… Oh, bloody hell, I've been doing it wrong haven't I?"

And if you do sit down to meditate – not to do anything, not to achieve anything, not to make a difference, not to work something out, not to gain insight, but just to not play the game for a while… Well, if you do this often enough, regularly enough, then maybe, just maybe, your attention will start drifting from the game. Maybe you'll catch a glimpse of the room you're in, before you return to looking at your character sheet (or your eyes will move from the screen, and you'll disengage with the film for a minute). Maybe you'll see something of your friends who are sitting with you – even that friend who died in the campaign the other week, the friend who you're still mourning but who looks perfectly happy over there rolling up her next character, looking forward to getting to play with you again. Maybe – between the times when you're worrying that your stats aren't good enough, or that you'll never complete this employment quest – you'll catch more and more glimpses of what's beyond the game.

Until one fine day you realise – it's just a bloody game. A marvellous, wonderful, entertaining game that you're playing to have fun with your friends, to pass some time telling stories, to give yourself a chance at exploring what it's like to have a different life and a different personality.

The first few times this happens you'll forget again pretty quickly – the game really is very compelling, it's what makes it so worth playing – but if it happens enough you'll carry around knowledge that it's a game all the time. Eventually you'll never forget it's just a damn good game.

And that's awakening.

2 Responses to "Enlightenment – so what the bloody hell is it?"

  1. I think the best definition of enlightenment is "seeing things as they actually are."
    Edward Bowman recently posted..Categories Of Unsavory Human Beings

  2. Please discuss this further, as you promised.

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