Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Fully Enlightened or “Excessive ‘Spiritual’ Excess?

Originally posted on August 13, 2010

This is a gentle rant against the use of such words as “fully,” “completely,” “absolutely,” or “pure” in talks and articles that have to do with spiritual practice. Such words represent that category in grammar called the “superlative”—as in not better, but “best.”  The trouble with this group of words is that they often represent what is also called an “asymptotic limit.” The speed of light is one of those—and the point of an asymptotic limit is that although it can be named, in fact, in reality, it cannot be reached—except by a certain even more mysterious whatever called electromagnetic energy, one small fraction of which is visible light. But perfection is also an asymptotic limit. We can approach it, but the closer we get the harder it is, the more work it takes. Really, you just can’t get to perfect.

Now in our ordinary words, fast, very fast, and incredibly fast still operate for most things in realms that are hardly close to the speed of light. What I’m getting at is that for most situations, good, very good, and very, very good are still far from perfect.

What, you may ask, is the problem? This essay is a challenge to all the spiritual mumbo-jumbo or political exhortation that uses superlatives. Too many sham self-proclaimed spiritual teachers suggest that unless you’re fully, completely pure, absolutely divorced from your ego, completely surrendered to the guru, and in other ways superlatively sacrificed, you don’t get to be saved, enlightened, whatever. I consider such talk to be a con job, a scam, a verbal bit of flibberty-flab that lures you with one hand and tosses you away when you’ve run out of money. After all, how would anyone know if you’re fully, absolutely, genuinely, sincerely, truly, devoted? Free of doubt and ego? And unless you are, they get to promise you the moon! If you’re superlatively whatever, you get it—but if you fail, if you’re only 98.3% self-sacrificing, they have a back door, they get to keep your money and say you didn’t try hard enough.

So I’m allergic to any talk that uses such words. If I concede that the person is ethical and sincere, I then must question that speaker’s level of critical thinking. I consider this type of superlative-osity as careless thought, mental-short cuts that prop up illusions. They feed unrealistic expectations (see blog on dingle-derry complex.)

“Getting” enlightenment or “having” wisdom seem to me to be related in this semantic obfuscation. The illusion of possession, of achieving full whatever, attaining permanent guaranteed holiness or cosmic awareness—these treat such abstractions as if they were permanent stages of mind-body knowing. (There are some skills that tend to be more like that, like swimming, riding a bicycle—once you get the “knack” you don’t forget in the way you might forget some remembered fact.)  I recognize that there are spiritual teachers who do not make such claims, but say intead that disciplined spiritual practice may generate variably higher degrees of peace of mind or subtle pleasure, related to a less distracted capacity of enjoying the moment. There may even be breakthroughs of deep insight and a sense of more vivid “reality.” But it comes and goes, for most people, and at this point in our understanding, such states of mind are rarely continuous.

I am wary about any implication that wisdom or equanimity is attainable once and for all. I think it’s a practice. You can start with the turbulence of a child’s mind, perhaps at 10 – 20%—the higher numbers if your life isn’t too stressful—but as you expand, even with optimal learning of life’s lessons, your life may become nicely balanced, quite wise, but how perfect can it get, given the vicissitudes of age, health, culture, relationships, and so forth?

Let’s say you get to (I’m making this up), say, 80%. You’re pretty happy, content, successful. Does that mean you won’t be tempted to give in to unworthy motivations? And say you’re pretty good at recognizing temptations and overcoming them—does that mean 80% or 90% of the time? What if no one gets to 100% on anything?; or if they do, it’s just a passing whatever.

So, as with the misleading ideals about perfection or words like “fully,” we need to penetrate the semantics of possession: Too many people have the idea that it is possible to get there, achieve it, have it, hold on to it, harvest the benefits of having established yourself. You’ve studied, you get a diploma, people think you’re smart, and you take a job that requires a diploma, and you do the job as is needed, routinely. You lose your passion, your real interests are your family and your hobbies, but you still have the illusion because of the degree that you belong to the intelligentsia, that you are an intellectual. You’ve proven it. What if it’s not that way at all in life, it’s just the way fools have set up various human social organizations? (They haven’t improved the way they do this setting-up because they don’t know how to do it better. Remember, this is only the 21st century, not the 67th century!)

How can one discern whether another person—or even themselves—are “fully” anything? I mean, what if compared to last month, you’ve advanced from 30% to 50% along the way. Maybe that jump in skill or competence may feel as if you’ve “gotten it,”—at least compared to what a clod you had been before. I hear the adolescent line, “I totally get it!” when in fact there’s just been a discernable advance—or, worse, a blip that is inflated by arrogance.

What if in my meditaton, prayer, and selfless service (or maybe cult-brainwashed-exploited) I develop the illusion or delusion of having become enlightened? How would I or anyone else know different? . Or worse, what If, because what if I can achieve only 78% of the requisite quality, or only 99% –are all bets off if I haven’t completely done whatever? This kind of linguistic “catch” is common in spiritual discourse and allows false gurus to say, “Well, you haven’t “really” done it, so my guarantees that you’ll get your heavenly pay-off doesn’t apply”—or expressed in equivalent ways.

Are there any ways a truly enlightened teacher can be sure he or she is really enlightened and not just self-hypnotizing himself? Can you be 90% enlightened and it will seem like 100% but in fact there are some essential components you haven’t learned or mastered?   Or 99%? Or 70% And how can a potential disciple tell?

Can a guru, sage, or teacher be such in some respects but clueless about politics, economics, how to manage a spiritual center, maintain a business, or ensure that her disciples don’t end up acting as foolish as people in other religions? How is any religion substantially different from the cult presented in the satirical newspaper, The Onion?

The terms, “sacred,” “sanctity,” “holy,” and the like are equally vague, applicable to many situations, entirely arguable. Are there some activities that are more sacred than others and how can one discern this? Is contemplating a mountain more sacred than studying the sacred literature of another’s religion? Is studying a non infallable but stimulating religious book less holy than trying to study an officially designated holy (but boring) text? Can the study of embryology or history be sacred?

I’m really very open to a certain kind of spiritual sensitivity, reverence, awe, mystery, passion for understanding, and such, but as soon as I encounter words I am a bit sensitive to how easily they can be distorted, used to manipulate, and obscure thinking itself. So let’s remember that words are human connections and thereby subject to the limitations of human mentality.

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