Abandoning Enlightenment

I’ve blogged several times about how I was trying for Zen enlightenment, by practicing mindfulness and meditation. I’ve decided to give that up (for now).

Two reasons.

First, every time I try to live and think in the Zen mindset for an extended time, my mind begins to turn…dark, in a bad way. In the beginning I feel free, happy, peaceful, almost weightless. But after a few weeks, I seem to accumulate a kind of – how can I put it? – a counter-energy, that sends me spiraling into anger and despair. I don’t mean to suggest anything mystical by the word “energy.” I simply don’t know any other way to describe it.

No doubt there are strategies for dealing with the darkness. But I’ve been hurt by it too many times, and I’m wary. For now.

The second reason is that I’ve come to doubt the wisdom of enlightenment itself.

Far from being some abstract religious concept, enlightenment is a genuine mental state, a way of letting go of (and also embracing) yourself, your anxieties, your attachment to pleasures and your fear of pain. It is a supremely transcendent state. Novice that I am, I’ve still tasted a little of it here and there, and it’s truly beautiful.

But it has its problems.

Because enlightenment, for all its joy, is still just a mental state – a perspective, a way of viewing the universe. It does not by itself grant any additional knowledge or wisdom. Although it makes you feel connected and compassionate toward all beings, it apparently does not make you more likely to go out into the world and help people. For all its emphasis on giving up the self, enlightenment is an oddly selfish thing. It’s all about you: your peace, your compassion, your insight, your union with the rest of the universe. And so many Zen masters seem ignorant of this, leading their students to treat them with inappropriate reverence.

You may ask: so what? Why not seek enlightenment for what it is, knowing its limitations, and pursuing the other virtues (like knowledge and kindness) separately?

The problem is that the path to enlightenment is a long, arduous one, demanding enormous time, energy, and dedication that could be spent on other tasks. And even if you do achieve it, what then? What does it really mean to be free of passion and attachment? Doesn’t that mean you aren’t driven to pursue your dreams with the same fire as before? Isn’t that the price of inner peace?

How could it be otherwise?

Could Einstein have discovered relativity with a placid soul?

I’m young, of course, and ignorant about many things, Zen not least. It’s quite possible that I misunderstand the nature of the path. Indeed, the ideal of Zen enlightenment still has a strong appeal for me, and I may turn back to it someday.

But for now, this is where I am.

If you have any insight of your own, I’d be happy to hear it.


8 responses to “Abandoning Enlightenment

  1. I never did finish that book about Zen, but I read enough to kind of form my own opinion on it.

    Everyone has so many different interpretations and opinions. At first, I thought, “Wow, they know what they’re talking about” but then I saw how much disagreement about what exactly Zen is, how we should achieve Zen enlightenment, ect. So, it seems to me it’s not such a concrete thing… not as enlightening as it’s supposed to be.

    I do meditate every so often, just because it’s enjoyable. But Zen, meh. I’m not inclined to believe in anything that supposedly special.

    • It’s true that people disagree a lot about Zen, but that’s only because people disagree about everything. That doesn’t make Zen or enlightenment any less remarkable. And don’t be fooled by the term “enlightenment” – it’s a real thing, but it doesn’t mean gaining knowledge. Which is part of the reason people disagree so much.

  2. Zen enlightment is pretty much the opposite of what I aspire to. I’m all about passion, about pursuing dreams, and making the world a better place through action. Zen enlightenment seems to be a very passive thing — acceptance and understanding and sitting back being one with oneself. I don’t want to live that way. i want passion and madness and laughter and confusion and debate and crazy adventures.

    …maybe when I’m older, I’ll look back and think I was foolish. But I don’t think so. Good luck with your non-enlightenment.

    • Thanks, Jo. I sort of agree, and sort of disagree. Zen certainly can be passive – and, in reading about it, it usually seems to be – but Zen also means never giving in to your fear, which I think could be an enormously powerful tool for positive action. You’re right, though, that it does mean giving up the fiery passions that drive us, and that worries me as well.

      • Dear Brian what happened was natural. The only problem with your “effort” is the effort itself. It’s true everyone makes efforts.. dark night of the soul blah blah… but the shocker is what sages say ” Effort prepares you for the relaxation” for the push but that push is by giving up on all effort. its a paradox.. you spent lifetimes in search for enlightenment and just as you feel it’s right across there you get into counter energy.. what ever is happening is correct.. coz you reach the cliff but that subtle desire is still there ” what is enlightenment”.. Give up the effort.. and don’t analyse even if years go by.. When enlightenment happens there is no “you” only enlightenment exists. The biggest barrier for the “you” to fall is ” you” yourself.. Give up and don’t analyse.. Stay blessed. Enlightenment always existed. “You” never did. Anytime the person can fall restoring the natural order. Stay blessed.

  3. At the end of the day, sir, all we can really do is do something. Either this or that. I have been practicing meditation (though not particularly Zen meditation) for about 6 years consciously, and I can totally relate to your reactions as I had them initially as well. As far as selfishness is concerned, it doesn’t have to be that way, though one can make it that way. One doesn’t have to sit cross-legged 24×7 in order to order the famous Enlightenment hamburger (a vegetarian one for me, please! haha). One can always go out, live life with complete awareness, help people, make an impact in the world, all the while detached to the outcome because after all, it is the journey, not the destination– it is the process of eating the Enlightenment hamburger that is delightful, not once the hamburger is over 😉


  4. “Doesn’t that mean you aren’t driven to pursue your dreams with the same fire as before? Isn’t that the price of inner peace?” No way Hose. You can do whatever you want. Before enlightenment, you can be depressed. After enlightenment, you can be depressed. You don’t enter some sort of out-of-control realm of perception that guides you along like a tram against your own secret desires. That seems like an image about it you are setting up for yourself. The mind is insidiously clever when it comes to prolonging it’s own death, did you not consider your own concerns in this regard as one of these traps? However, I would suggest you truly abandon enlightenment all together. And then you’ll be struck with the kendo stick of enlightenment when you least expect it. Or perhaps you won’t! Are you the bull who has swallowed a ball of hot iron? No way out of that mess, your deep in the mud of existence.

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