Letting Go of Enlightenment

1. For as long as I can remember, the aim of my life was to find enlightenment. I wanted what I imagined people like Socrates, the Buddha and Aurobindo had. What my father was talking about. Starting at 16 I wanted to be enlightened the way teenagers usually want to be a doctor or an astronaut or a football player.

2. Every day since the desire was lit – or the compulsion began – was a good day or a bad day depending on whether the day brought me closer to enlightenment. Closer to what those special people – the wise people, the realized ones – had. If I felt I made progress during the day, I felt good, like my life had meaning. If I felt I didn’t make progress or was stuck, I felt like my life was meaningless and I was wasting my talent and my inner spirit. It was a constant, unrelenting pressure I put on myself. But I didn’t realize I put it on myself. I thought it was just part of the process.

3. As the years turned into decades, and the search kept going without an end in sight, without feeling really any more enlightened, I started to lean more onto blaming others. Thinking: my dad introduced me to the path too early, imprinting me with the desire for enlightenment when I could have first sought simpler and more normal aims like becoming a doctor or having a family. And: academic philosophy was too Eurocentric and didn’t help me cultivate my potential, instead forcing me to spend too much energy just staying afloat and not leaving it. Also: My family and friends don’t really understand me, and pull into mundane issues, and so draw me away from my higher goals. Alas: People don’t care about what I say, intent on more combative and less subtle ideas. Woe is me, fighting the good fight against the tides of indifference.

4. As long as I keep telling these stories about how others blocked me or hindered me, the fantasy goal of enlightenment remained. I was able to accept that my goal all along was a good one, well thought out, coherent, necessary – and so could live into that as my life’s meaning.

5. When I think about how hard and long I have been struggling to become enlightened – giving it all of my “effort” – I am reminded of a story about my father. When he was younger he attended some lectures by the well known thinker Swami Chinmayananda. In a discussion setting one person said that he was getting a lot of headaches when he meditated. To which my father replied, “Maybe you are not meditating”. With which Swami Chinmayananda agreed, implying that meditation is a space of deep relaxation and not something to be sought while forcing oneself – and so it is the forcing oneself, rather than the meditation, which led to the headaches.

6. I heard this story many times from my father. I usually heard it as another story in which my father comes out looking smart and enlightened. But perhaps I didn’t think too much about it because, deep down, I identified neither with my father nor with Swami Chinmayananda but with the earnest person giving it “his all” and yet ending up with headaches. That has been me for many years.

7. I see better now the point of the story. What if enlightenment just isn’t the kind of thing one can aim to acquire the way one acquires cars or a profession or a social identity or a family or even knowledge in the more ordinary sense? What if enlightenment isn’t something one “acquires” at all? What if it isn’t an action one performs (“I finally caught it”) or a destination one reaches (“I am almost there”)? What if the very concept of enlightenment is more a trick of the mind than a reality?

8. The second century thinker Sextus Empiricus described this way the manner in which a person reaches tranquility: it is “just like what is told of Apelles the painter. For it is said that once upon a time, when he was painting a horse and wished to depict the horse’s froth, he failed so completely that he gave up and threw his sponge at the picture – the sponge on which he used to wipe the paints from his brush – and that in striking the picture the sponge produced the desired effect.” As long as the painter sought to paint the froth, he kept failing. But when he gave up the effort and let it go, what eluded him happened in an unexpected way.

9. Sextus Empiricus identified enlightenment (or as he called it ataraxia) as suspension of judgment. A quieting of the mind from constantly labeling things as good and bad, true and false, to pursue and to avoid. This is strikingly similar to a state of awareness talked about by the Upanishadic sages, the Buddha and Lao Tzu. All these diverse thinkers speak of a mode of being where one is not defined by ones beliefs and desires, and whether they are true and good, but rather steps back from the beliefs and desires themselves.

10. If enlightenment is not identifying with one’s constant mental stream depicting things as good and bad, it is obvious why enlightenment can’t be an achievement in a normal way. This is Sextus’ point. When I hold on strongly to the belief that enlightenment is good and can’t step back from my desire to be enlightened, those very facts get in the way of enlightenment.

11. It’s a simple point. What I had difficulty with was not understanding it but rather implementing it. I couldn’t let go – and still struggle to let go – of the desire to be, and to be seen as, enlightened. When I understood something, immediately my mind would interpret it as “Now, I am closer to my goal. I am getting there.” And the main thought: “Now I will be good enough.” That last thought is the key to the feeling of running without end.

12. Why did I hold on so strongly to the aim of enlightenment at 16? Why did I latch on it?

13. Not just or even mainly because my father was talking about it with me. That makes it seem like I was an empty vessel he filled in. No, it’s because something about how I thought of enlightenment was doing psychological work for me.

14. At 16 I was looking for my public social identity. Normally we think of that as a growth from an adolescent identity into a broader adult identity – from being defined mainly in relation to family to having a broader social identity. This is a familiar and normal teenage struggle. The way people navigate this growth lays the foundation for their adult years.

15. In my case, I couldn’t imagine what kind of a public identity could balance the different sides of me. If I dated, I seemed to be going against my family background. If I thought of an arraigned marriage in the future, that pulled against my modern side. If I became a doctor, etc, it would make my family happy – and yet it would pull me into the American dream at the cost of thinking about the social conditions of those historically oppressed in America. But if I became a community organizer or an activist, that seemed disconnected from my family identity. What could I become such that my family, my American friends and myself could all recognize it as a good thing to become? A social identity which was an extension of my family side, which addressed social needs in America and the world and which gave me room to grow as an individual?

16. In the West there was already a long standing and primary image of the Eastern sage. Vivekananda dazzled Americans already in the 1890s without giving up his Indian self – in fact by proudly being a champion of Indian philosophy. So too was Paramahamsa Yogananda later on, with his book The Autobiography of a Yogi. In the 60s Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was the guru to the Beatles, a symbol of the Western society. In comparison to these kinds of thinkers, my 16 year old self thought of becoming a doctor or an engineer as reenforcing the inner Indian and outer American dichotomies which I found so constraining in high school. Even more than a profession, what I first wanted was a public identity which transcended the limited Indian and American identities I was struggling with.

17. I didn’t seek enlightenment starting at 16 just to have a public identity. No. It’s appeal was that it seemed to balance my inner growth with a public identity. I was thinking (not consciously but all too intently) that my seeking enlightenment would balance all three aspects of myself: my inner growth, my family identity and my American identity. It’s not that my father pushed me into philosophy. Rather, by providing the idea of enlightenment, he opened up a path which I rushed headlong into with aims and goals which my father might not have realized I had. And indeed as a 50 year old with an unsure physical health, with no guarantee that he would live for another 25 years as he did, he saw the force of the philosophy he was communicating as independent of issues of India and America.

18. This set the stage for the constant push and pull in my life. Far from the ideal of enlightenment just merging the different sides of me, it became a way that I was constraining myself from growth even as I was seeking growth in the social world. I wanted my public identity to be “he is seeking enlightenment” because I thought that would give me room to balance the Indian and American sides. This made me hold on strongly to the beliefs about enlightenment and to its effect on my social ego, even as a good aspirant I was trying to give up any such attachments. The more I felt this tension, the more I felt I needed to try harder to push through it. The harder I tried, the more the conceptual knots tightened.

19. This was the deeper tension I had in academia. Becoming an academic was me growing into a social identity as a philosopher. But even apart from eurocentrism and the lack of engagement with Indian philosophy, there was a more basic problem. It was not at all clear how the social identity I was gaining as an academic relates to the social identity I wanted to have as an enlightened person. The deeper problem here wasn’t that Indian philosophy wasn’t taught, but that even more basically, the concept of enlightenment was seen to have no relation to that of a professor. A philosophy professor was many things: a meta-scientist, a conceptual analyst, a creator of concepts, a political activist and so on. But an enlightened person or a wise person wasn’t one of them. Most of the day to day activities of being a professor – grading papers, getting published, departmental struggles – were no different in spirit from the activities of any other high brow profession my family liked such as being a doctor or an engineer. The deepest issue here wasn’t structural racism, though that is important. The deepest issue affected white philosophy professors as much as anyone else: that in the modern 20th and 21st century university, seeking to provide higher education to the masses, being a professor didn’t set you apart from everyday society, but rather put you right in the middle of it. Not as a monk living in the midst of the poor, but as a professional training other would be professionals.

20. This isn’t to say that philosophy professors are ok with this. Rather, it is to say that to the extent they are not ok with it, there are real limits on how much they can change it. The broader economic and cultural forces are pushing the concept of philosophy professor further away from the ideal of wisdom and enlightenment.

21. I can’t ultimately bemoan this fact because leaving academia has been helpful for me to see just how much I conflated my desire for a public identity with my desire for enlightenment. It is the very conflation built into the current concept of a philosophy professor – with the general public still equating philosophy with enlightenment while the profession of philosophy equating philosophy more with just another kind of public identity akin to other professions.

22. After so many years where the concept of enlightenment was tied in my mind with getting social affirmation, seeking enlightenment is for me a sure sign that I will never get it. The more I hold onto it, the more, like the painter in Sextus’ story, I keep trying to get the painting just right – attempt after attempt, frustration after frustration, in a cycle of pain and disappointment. The seeking gets in the way of the being.

23. But isn’t blogging still a way of seeking public affirmation? Why blog then? Not quite, since this assumes that blogging is something external to my mind. Not seeking enlightenment doesn’t mean to stop thinking. It means to not identify with the thinking in a certain way. To not worry if the thinking will get me where I wanted to go, and to the public recognition my 16 year old self was seeking. It is to think just to think in this moment without expectation for the next moment. It is to blog just to blog as a form of thinking, as it is helpful to me in the moment and as it might help another in the moment they are in. Nothing beyond that.

24. Aiming for enlightenment has been such a constant for me that setting it down feels like saying goodbye to a friend. But all along it was an imaginary friend my past self constructed.

5 thoughts on “Letting Go of Enlightenment”

  1. You probably know, Bharath, that in ancient Greece and Rome, “philosophy” was thought of not primarily as a profession but as a way of life. The French Jewish philosopher [insert name later] has written extensively about this… There was also in Neoplatonism some preoccupation with “seeing” the “One,” as Plotinus had apparently done; which then of course deeply influenced Christian mysticism. And this feeds into modern Romantic notions of deeper experience, as in William Blake and Wordsworth. Of course professionalized philosophy in modern universities is embarrassed by all of that, and becomes as it were “technical,” as you describe. I’ve just been reading again about Wittgenstein’s struggle between the mystical identity that he modeled on Tolstoy and others, and the “profession” of philosophy which he advised his students not to join. So your inner divisions are by no means without precedent in the West, though usually without the intercultural dimension that you added to the mix. I might mention one more social identity that can be thrown into the mix, in the modern world, and that’s the identity of a “crank.” If you don’t fit into the academic mold or into the mold of the Romantic genius, you can always crank out writings and impose them on your friends and acquaintances, as my father did for a long time. I sometimes think of my own “blog,” composed though it mostly is of academic papers that have been published, as not too different from my father’s “crank” writings, because Anglophone academic philosophy really isn’t interested in its heritage of philosophical mysticism, but wants rather to forget it. It’s just about as embarrassing as the Romantic notion of genius.

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  2. But what I really wanted to say is that, for me, Walt Whitman is the model. He celebrated the beauty and freedom in everyone and everything. He did enjoy some of the perquisites of Romantic genius, but he was too much of a small-d democrat to spend much time or energy on that. He simply saw and celebrated the intimations of “enlightenment” that are everywhere–the ways in which the world goes beyond mere mechanical and self-interested interaction, into something that’s higher than that. His job wasn’t to be a special human being, his job was to celebrate all human beings (and plants, animals, etc.). The whole kit and caboodle. Since I’m not much of a poet, I make it my job to celebrate Whitman, and Plato and Rumi and the others who seem to me to be doing (in their various ways) the same thing that Whitman did.

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    1. I really like Pierre Hadot’s work. Heard Putnam rave about him in a class once. It was so refreshing to read about the spiritual and life philosophy dimensions of ancient philosophers – they sounded just like the ancient Indian philosophers I admired.

      Modern Western philosophy’s identification of philosophy with a certain kind of rationality divorced from the whole being and the effects of colonialism brought about the idea of the rational west vs the irrational (spiritual) east. This led to two kinds of forgetting. One, forgetting the decidedly argumentative and intricate conceptual argumentation for debate’s sake – very much rational in an academic sense – of a lot of Asian philosophy (thinkers like Amartya Sen and B.K. Matilal brought this out in the west in the last 50 years – and is now a thriving Indian philosophy community in the West). And second, forgetting the strongly spiritual and consciousness and life transforming practices within which a great deal of western philosophy took place (brought out by thinkers like Hadot, then Foucault, the later Putnam, yourself).

      As much as the rational side of Indian philosophy has been suppressed in the western philosophical consciousness, it is coming to the surface more now than the spiritual side of Western philosophy. That is telling and interesting. This is one reason I found the Sen and Matilal Indian philosophy stuff, though amazing, somewhat distant to my own interests. For when the idea of the rationality of Indian philosophy is emphasized while setting it apart from the spiritual dimensions of Indian philosophy, Indian philosophy is being reinterpreted as not really spiritual just as it was done with Western philosophy in the last few centuries. Both Western and Indian philosophy are being written into the form of 21st century academic conceptions – because 21st century classrooms are not able to acknowledge the deeply philosophy as life ideals of so much of previous philosophy, east and west. The limited rationality conception of western philosophy then pushed the spiritual dimensions more into the arts, literature, poetry, as with Whitman, and for me, who I find very moving, Tolstoy.

      I feel much of the 21st century task in philosophy and the arts generally will be heal these false dichotomies of east/west, but also rationality/philosophy as life and philosophy/literature, etc. A lot of this will come I suspect from outside academia, with academia becoming more and more embroiled in cultural disputes for its survival.

      Very interesting to hear about your father. I see my blogging as part of a crank identity, in your sense of the term. What kind of ideas did your father explore in his writings?

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