The Myth of Enlightenment
Here is a lovely new book, Remember Who You Are: Seven Stages on a Woman’s Journey of Spirit, by Linda Carroll (Conari Press, 2008). You can get a feel for her thoughtfulness in this meditation of hers on the myth of enlightenment.
The illusion of enlightenment–a place of permanent arrival or an ultimate state of being–is one of the most common perils we are likely to experience as we move along our path. Buddhist students are warned about becoming attached to enlightenment as a goal. Many women do have moments of transcendence and see beyond the veil. The trick is not to dwell on the vision but to appreciate it as a glimpse of the divine as we move on to the work of living.
Spirituality is not a goal; it is our essence. Depression, disillusionment, and doubt are a part of life. So are sorrow, anger, struggle for meaning, and difficulties with love. There is no escaping the human condition.
We are not human beings trying to be spiritual.
We are spiritual beings trying to be human.
–Jacqueline Small, teacher and writer
A good teacher can help. Yet here, too, we must tread carefully. Misdeeds by teachers and masters are not infrequent, and power can often be abused. A guide who has not explored her own dark side or who is not open to challenge is not a safe person for a student to trust. Be open to doubt and question authority.
When I was 11 years old, I asked a priest if the stories in the Bible were true. The room fell silent. Thinking I ought to explain, I continued, “I mean all those pagan babies in Africa. Will they really go to hell?” I was immediately removed from the classroom and given a terrifying description of what would await me in the hereafter should I doubt church teachings or ask such questions ever again.
Forty years later, as I stood on the banks of the Ganges River in India, a Sadhu with orange robes and a long beard approached me and asked if I wanted a blessing. Believing I need all the help I can get, I am usually open to gurus, amulets, and blessings of all kinds. When I said yes, the Sadhu removed a nasty-looking tin cup from under his robes and dipped it into the river. He told me that if I drank the water, it would make me strong and bring enlightenment.
I had spent three days looking at what was floating in those waters: Dead cows, piles of garbage, and even human corpses. I looked at the cup, the man, and the river, and I could not drink. Still, I couldn’t meet the Sadhu’s eyes when I refused. Somewhere deep inside, that authoritative voice from childhood still shamed me.