Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing - by Jed McKenna

"Act, but don't reflect on the fruit of the act," said Krishna to Arjuna.

Where, then, does wrongness reside outside of our physical organism? And the obvious answer is; nowhere. But if this whole existence thing is to have any dramatic element to keep it interesting, it needs conflict, and so an artificial wrongness must be inserted into the mix: Fear. All fear is ultimately fear of no-self.

"My own awakening ran its course in less than two years, Martin. And that's without any living teacher to help me. I've never heard of the process taking longer than that. I really don't see how the process could take much longer than that." When I say this, I don't mean that it only takes two years from the first spark of spiritual longing. I mean two years after the point when the process of awakening actually begins; the primary epiphany, the first step.

Allegiance to any spiritual teaching or teacher--any outside authority--is the most treacherous beast in the jungle. The first thing we want to do when we begin our journey is find the companionship and validity that comes with an established group, and in so doing we effectively end the journey before it begins.

Awakening is the process of deprogramming. Enlightenment is the unprogrammed state.

There's really no point in trying to figure out all the possible reasons why seekers don't find. It's just another distraction, and there's no shortage of those. The point is to wake up, not to earn a Ph.D. in waking up. You're either awake, or you're not.

Even now it takes a conscious effort to maintain my false self, my dream character; to animate it, to keep it running. And this trajectory I'm on will take me as close to non-existence as anyone can get and still have a body. In other words, I will continue to channel progressively less and less energy into my dreamstate being, my teaching will reduce down to its most refined and least tolerant form, my interest will withdraw from the world, and I will become as minimal as a person can be. Jed McKenna is like the outfit an invisible man wears so that he can interact with people without freaking them out.

Once you get past the notion that duality (by any name) is "bad" and unity (by any name) is "good," you also get past any need to "help" or "save" anyone.

Enlightenment isn't like graduating high school only to start college, or even finishing college to enter the "real" world. It's the final graduation. No more hunt, no more chase, no more battle. Now you can go out in the world and do whatever you want; learn guitar, jump out of airplanes, write books, tend grapes, whatever.

The misconception about enlightenment stems from, or is at least compounded by, the fact that most of the world's recognized experts on the subject of enlightenment are not enlightened. Some are great mystics, some are great scholars, some are both, and most are neither, but very few are awake.

At the very heart of this confusion lies the belief that abiding non-dual-awareness--enlightenment--and the non-abiding experience of cosmic consciousness--mystic union--are synonymous when, in fact, they're completely unrelated. It's possible to have either without the other, and there are countless millions of cases of mysticism and cosmic consciousness of varying degree for every one case of enlightenment. The critical distinction is that one is in the dream and the other is not. One is truth-realized and the other is not. One is within consciousness and one is independent of consciousness. The enlightened have awakened from the dream and no longer mistake it for reality. Naturally, they are no longer able to attach importance to anything.

Enlightenment is about truth. It's not about becoming a better or happier person. It's not about personal growth or spiritual evolution. That essentially defines the quest for enlightenment; the you that you think of as you (and that thinks of you as you, and so on) is not you, it's just the character that the underlying truth of you is dreaming into brief existence. Enlightenment isn't in the character, it's in the underlying truth. Now, there's nothing wrong with being a dream character, of course, unless it's your goal to wake up, in which case the dream character must be ruthlessly annihilated. If your desire is to experience transcendental bliss or supreme love or altered states of consciousness or awakened kundalini, or to qualify for heaven, or to liberate all sentient beings, or simply to become the best dang person you can be, then rejoice!, you're in the right place; the dream state, the dualistic universe. However, if your interest is to cut the crap and figure out what's true, then you're in the wrong place and you've got a very messy fight ahead and there's no point in pretending otherwise.

"The technique is called Spiritual Autolysis. Autolysis means self-digestion, a process through which you feed yourself, one piece at a time, into the purifying digestive fires. The process of Spiritual Autolysis is basically like a Zen koan on steroids. All you really have to do is write the truth. Just write down what you know is true, or what you think is true, and keep writing until you've come up with something that is true. It doesn't matter where you start, just grab a thread and start pulling. You could start by using Ramana Maharshi's query, ‘Who am I?' or ‘What is me?', and then just work at it. Just try to say something true and keep at it until you do. Write and rewrite. Make it cleaner and cut out the excess and ego and follow it wherever it leads until you're done. This isn't about personal awareness or self-exploration. It's not about feelings or insights. It's not about personal or spiritual evolution. This is about what you know for sure, about what you are sure you know is true, about what you are that is true. With this process you tear away layer after layer of untruth masquerading as truth. Anytime you go back to read something you wrote, even if it was only yesterday, you should be surprised by how far you've come since then. It's actually a painful and vicious process, somewhat akin to self-mutilation. It creates wounds that will never heal and burns bridges that can never be rebuilt and the only real reason to do it is because you can no longer stand not to."

"Any time you have serious thinking to do, the first step is to get the whole shootin' match out of your head and set it up someplace where you can walk around it and see it from all sides. Attack, switch sides and counter-attack. You can't do that while it's still in your head. Writing it out allows you to act as your own teacher, your own critic, your own opponent. By externalizing your thoughts, you can become your own guru; judging yourself, giving feedback, providing a more objective and elevated perspective."

"Here's a thought," I continue. "When you're doing the writing, Spiritual Autolysis, do it for someone else. Write it for someone else. Express your knowledge for someone else's benefit. Write it for publication, as if the whole world will see it. Or write it as a series of letters to your son, or to an imaginary friend, or to the child you once were. Whatever. Use the process of Spiritual Autolysis as a means of expressing your own highest knowledge for someone else's benefit. And, of course, keep improving it until you've stated the truth." "Which I'll never do?" "What, state the truth? No, of course not."

"Let me state it plainly, Arthur: I don't do heart. To the extent that I advocate any path, it is a path without heart, devoid of compassion, totally free of any thought for others whatsoever. The thinking is simple: Wake up first. Wake up, and then you can double back and perhaps be of some use to others if you still have the urge. Wake up first, with pure and unapologetic selfishness, or you're just another shipwreck victim floundering in the ocean and all the compassion in the world is of absolutely no use to the other victims floundering around you. Resolve your own situation first, and then maybe your compassion will translate into something of value to others. I suppose that sounds cruel or unspiritual or whatever, but it only works the way it works."

I'm not really a people person. I don't understand people and I don't identify with them. I don't identify with my own status as a man or a person or a human being. I have a very distinct impression of life as a stage drama, and I find it endlessly mystifying that anyone truly identifies with their character. I watch my own life with amused detachment. I may be doing this or that--fulfilling my role--but I'm almost always out in the seats somewhere, watching it all, as unprepared for the next thing I do as anyone else. Being a detached observer is my reality and I find it belief-defying that everyone isn't the same; that they're up in their characters playing out all this life stuff like it's for real. Sometimes I think that grabbing them by the shoulders and shaking or slapping them will snap them out of it. Not really, but kind of.

Waking up isn't a theoretical subject one masters through study and comprehension, it's a journey one makes; a battle one fights.

"As to suffering," I continued, "forget it. It's a non-issue. Suffering just means you're having a bad dream. Happiness means you're having a good dream. Enlightenment means getting out of the dream altogether."

"There's no point in acting like someone who is already where you want to be, the point is to get there yourself. The way to become a sage isn't to act like one. Become a sage first and then you pick up all the sagely characteristics free and easy."

I have a real love/ hate relationship with Zen; rather, I love Zen and hate New Zen. Real Zen is about the hot and narrow pursuit of enlightenment; the shortest distance between asleep and awake. No rules, no ceremonies, no teachings, just the muddy, bloody battle of waking up. New Zen--the Zen that drives a publishing and merchandising industry--is all about being asleep and staying asleep.

If I could only have one teaching tool, it would be the updated cave allegory, (or, better yet, the Wachowski brothers' cave allegory, The Matrix). Almost any aspect of the journey of awakening can be explained within the framework of the cinema, and on the aisle that leads to the exit.

I'm a fan of transpersonal psychology in general and Dr. Stanislav Grof in particular. "[The mystical experience] is an ecstatic state, characterized by the loss of boundaries between the subject and the objective world, with ensuing feelings of unity with other people, nature, the entire Universe, and God. In most instances this experience is contentless and is accompanied by visions of brilliant white or golden light, rainbow spectra or elaborate designs resembling peacock feathers. It can, however, be associated with archetypal figurative visions of deities or divine personages from various cultural frameworks. LSD subjects give various descriptions of this condition, based on their educational background and intellectual orientation. They speak about cosmic unity, unio mystica, mysterium tremendum, cosmic consciousness, union with God, Atman-Brahman union, Samadhi, satori, moksha, or the harmony of the spheres."

The samadhi that Grof describes is, of course, the most beautiful and profound experience a human being can hope to have, but it is only of peripheral interest within the context of spiritual awakening. The reason I wish I could get a better handle on these two subjects is, as I've already stated, to be better able to correct the tendency of those on the "spiritual path" to be chasing the one and calling it the other. Everybody wants the radiance and the bliss and the union with the divine, and everyone seems to believe that spiritual enlightenment is the name for it when you have dipped yourself into the divine so many times that it has permanently altered your spiritual hue. My opinion is that the experience of unity is like the most uplifting piece of music one can ever hope to hear. It raises the bar and makes other music sound tinny and discordant by comparison, but eventually the memory fades and regular music resumes its previous place in one's heart. More to the point, in my view, the mystical experience is something to have, not something to have had. The memory of it begins receding the moment it's over and it quickly takes on the remote quality of a dream. One may remember that one has had a mystical experience, but that memory bears little or no resemblance to the experience itself.

"When someone says that they became enlightened in an instant, they're probably talking about the transformation brought on by a transcendental experience; an experience of mystic union or some variation of it. It's powerful and can be quite transformative, but it's not enlightenment. Enlightenment isn't flashy and it doesn't just occur like an epiphany."

"You've probably heard the saying, ‘Before enlightenment a mountain is a mountain, during enlightenment a mountain is not a mountain, and after enlightenment a mountain is a mountain again.' Well, it's like that. Before enlightenment I believed my ego was me, then enlightenment comes along and no more ego, only the underlying reality. Now it's after enlightenment and this ego might be slightly uncomfortable or ill-fitting at times, but it's all I've got. The idea that your ego is destroyed in the process of becoming enlightened is roughly correct, but it's not complete. Before enlightenment, you're a human being in the world, just like everyone you see. During enlightenment you realize the human being you thought you were is just a character in a play, and that the world you thought you were in is just a stage, so you go through a process of radical deconstruction of your character to see what's left when it's gone. The result isn't enlightened-self or true-self, it's no-self. When it's all over it's time to be a human being in the world again, and that means slipping back into costume and getting back on stage."

I return to Julie's question about the magazine's in-the-world-but-not-of-the-world cover. "It means what we talked about," I continue. "It means that you're playing your role on the stage, but you don't confuse your role with yourself or the stage with reality. It means you know that you're playing a character in a staged production. To switch analogies, it's like lucid dreaming. You achieve normal waking consciousness within the dream so that you're in the dream but not of the dream."

Jane Roberts said that miracles are nature unimpeded, which is a good way of saying that if you take your hand off the tiller, the boat will steer itself and do a vastly better job of it than you ever could.

"Right action has nothing to do with right or wrong, good or evil, naughty or nice. It is without altruism or compassion. Morality is the set of rules and regulations that you use to navigate through life when you're still trying to steer your ship rather than let it follow the flow."

I'll tell you what I wish someone had told me when I was feeling confused and alienated. I wish someone had told me that there wasn't something wrong with me and that I shouldn't be trying to make it right; that I should stop trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. I wish someone had told me that I wasn't like everyone else not because I was defective, but because I was designed for other things. Being different might seem like a curse, but the important part is that it's also a blessing. I wish someone had told me to stop trying to fix the curse part and start figuring out the blessing part.

I would describe the awakened state by saying that because I have no sense of self, I have no sense of possession or right or entitlement. I don't take anything for granted. Nothing is mine; it's all on loan and it must all go back. My body is not my body, my life is not my life. I want nothing and I want for nothing. I am free. My normal, unengaged waking state ranges from a kind of bubbly cheerfulness to an almost embarrassing level of giddy delight. I may drift off into a game or a movie or a conversation for a while, but the center to which I always return, upon which I turn, is comprised of awe and gratitude and great gladness. This is the clear and natural state of the awakened perspective. Compare this to the unawakened perspective. One lives in a constant state of want and struggle to get. Perennial badguys attachment and desire aren't the problems, they're symptoms of the underlying malady that drives us to live in opposition to the natural order. Our lives are spent in a futile effort to sweep back the tide so we can build these tiny sandcastles of ego which can only survive as long as we constantly erect them. In this scene, we make all the natural elements wrong, and we spend our lives and life-energy struggling against them. The process of awakening might be viewed as the transition between these two poles; the journey from fear and wrong-making to gratitude and open-eyed acceptance.

Do you want to awaken? To stop being a false, artificial, self-benighted being? Then developing and sharpening this sense--the ability to detect fear and the source and emanations of fear--amounts to nothing more than disengaging your own autoimmune system; the subsystem of ego that keeps this poison from making you sick. Yes, to get it out you must let it in, breathe it deep, and allow yourself to become sickened by it. The way out is through, and there can be no rebirth without first a death.

Running apart from the herd is certainly better than running with it, I could tell Chris, but of no substantive difference if you're still running in the same direction. I'm not too put off by Chris's rant on the nature of delusion or the fact that he presumes to educate me on this issue. Communicating is a powerful key to understanding, whether it's by oral expression or written. The mind naturally aligns itself into a more coherent state when it seeks to transmit knowledge than when it is merely processing it for its own needs.

The forest of delusion is treed with concepts, and ultimately, all concepts mean the same thing; you're still in the forest.

On this journey, if you aren't ashamed by how naive and foolish you were just a few days ago, you've stalled.

"Wouldn't an enlightened Zen master believe in Zen? Wouldn't an enlightened Sufi believe in Islam?" "You're talking about vehicles and destinations. Once one has arrived at the destination, the vehicle is discarded, forgotten."

"But what about when people explore their inner selves? Make journeys of self-discovery? Aren't they going within to find the truth?" "They're just exploring the ego--making a study of the false self--which is a lifequest as valid as any other. But you don't wake up by perfecting your dream character, you wake up by breaking free of it. There's no truth to the ego, so no degree of mastery over it results in anything true. Putting attention on the ego merely reinforces it."

Ego-death as a means to no-self--abiding non-dual awareness--is what this journey is all about. That's the reason behind the devotion, the prayer, the meditation, the teachings, the renunciation. Anyone headed for truth is going to get there over the ego's dead body or not at all. There's no shortcut or easy way, no going under or around. The only way past ego is through it, and the only way through it is with laser-like intent and a heart of stone. The caterpillar doesn't become a butterfly, it enters a death process that becomes the birth process of the butterfly. The appearance of transformation is an illusion. One thing doesn't become another thing. One thing ends and another begins.

I like happiness as much as the next guy, but it's not happiness that sends one in search of truth. It's rabid, feverish, clawing madness to stop being a lie, regardless of price, come heaven or hell. This isn't about higher consciousness or self-discovery or heaven on earth. This is about blood-caked swords and Buddha's rotting head and self-immolation, and anyone who says otherwise is selling something they don't have.

Spiritual enlightenment is the damnedest thing. It is, literally, self-defeating. It is a battle we wage upon ourselves. Truth is a uniquely challenging pursuit because the very thing that wants it is the only thing in the way of it.

Enjoy your life, it's free. Cosmic Consciousness and Altered States and Universal Mind are the names of rides in this vast and fascinating dualistic amusement park. So are Poverty and Disease and Despair. Enlightenment, though, is not another ride. Enlightenment means leaving the park altogether, but why leave the park? In the park you can be a saint or a yogi or a billionaire or a world leader or a warlord. Be good, be evil. Happiness, misery, bliss, agony, victory, defeat, it's all here. What's the big rush? When the time comes to leave the park, you'll know and you'll go, but there's certainly nothing to be gained by it.

To the outside observer, much of Buddhist knowledge and practice seems focused on spiritual self-improvement. This, too, is hard to speak against, except within the context of awakening from delusion. Then it's easy. There is no such thing as true self, so any pursuit geared toward its aggrandizement, betterment, upliftment, elevation, evolution, glorification, salvation, etc, is utter folly. How much more so any endeavor undertaken merely to increase one's own happiness or contentment or, I'm embarrassed just to say it, bliss? Self is ego and ego resides exclusively in the dreamstate. If you want to break free of the dreamstate, you must break free of self, not stroke it to make it purr or groom it for some imagined brighter future.