As of Monday May 14, 2012, I have awoken. On Tuesday May 29, I altered my consciousness permanently and actualised my awakening. I would recommend that people who want to think about enlightenment read my Big Evolution paper also. If this is too direct, check out The Penny That Blots Out the Sun by Alfred Pulyan.
There's a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.
What is enlightenment? I don't know. But here I am, trying to characterise what enlightenment is. If you're completely comfortable with that, then you've reached a state of enlightenment.
That is pretty much the situation with almost every realisation I outline here, and with every realisation you get closer to complete enlightenment (by complete, I simply mean you cover all aspects of your thinking). Enlightenment at the outset, is simply being comfortable and accepting as your environment changes around you (knowing yourself). This doesn't mean that you have to consider yourself as standing still; on the contrary, you're moving through life in an equal and colinear manner. In other words, enlightenment is a dynamic (as opposed to static) process that occurs from birth to death. And in the end, it's a self determination process. In other words, who is to say that one human can say more (i.e., "judge") about another human being than another in this world? In fact, it would against the concept of enlightenment to make a statement such as "person X is not enlightened." (If you are, there would be no need to make such a statement; note the irony here of this whole missive in that context!)
As arrogant as it may sound, I consider myself to be generally enlightened. There are few things that perturb me in terms of thought (even though I can lapse in terms of action---see the distinction I make below). I am writing this to clarify my thoughts (this is the reason I write everything else on this website) and hopefully it'll also give other people some insights. I don't believe there is a general path to enlightenment that many religions purport to provide, and my realisations should not be taken as such.
By the same token, this missive is by no means religious or spiritual in any way (I'm an atheist, for the record). From a pseudoscientific viewpoint, enlightenment is simply existing in a complex dynamic equilibrium with one's environment. Achieving this state (which is between the states of California and Washington, but it's not Oregon since Oregon is too homogeneous :-) could also be considered the equivalent of attaining nirvana.
What this has to do with various spiritual concepts is generally left for you to figure out, though I'll point out some interesting connections along the way. In my view, enlightenment isn't a goal in and of itself but a means by which further progress and productivity can occur within yourself and with regards to your activities. Being at peace with the mundane things in life lets you focus on the more interesting aspects.
Enlightenment can be viewed as a process, where if one understands the process (even if one does not/can not/is not able to implement it), then that person could have achieved a state of enlightenment (in thought). Similarly, if one implements the process, with or without being cognisant of their actions, then they've achieved a state of enlightenment (in deed). There's a difference between knowing the path and walking the path. Indeed.
Since we're human, we're likely to screw up with respect to our actions every once in a while, even if we are aware of what we should have done. However, this cogency is what enlightenment is all about. If you know yourself really well, then you can take steps to rectify the situation even if there is a lapse in action. Realising this is an enlightenment of sorts.
In this regard, I believe that you can become "deenlightened", where if you fail to maintain a state of enlightenment, you stop living in that state. In other words, if you achieved your nirvana, a supreme enlightenment, through following the Eight Fold Path of Buddha for example, and you went against the path, then you would lose your enlightened state. Regaining this state should be easier in comparison to the original attempt, however.
I think The Matrix tells a good coherent story. The crux of the story in the movie, beyond the allegory to all kinds of societies, is the issue of choice (and causality). There's a Doctor Who episode titled Enlightenment which talks about enlightenment as not a thing to possess, but rather the choices you make.
Enlightenment is generally a wholistic Zen-like concept, i.e., where you either arrive at this equilibrium all at once or not at all. However, I believe the dualistic way of thinking can be used to dissect emotions and actions where one does reach an equilibrium with their environment with respect to a particular thought or action. For example, one could have achieved a state of enlightenment with regards to money. Such a person would not worry about money at all (extremely rich people are not necessarily enlightened in this regard) but may not behave the same way in other respects, such as with regards to anger for example. All these factors however play off each other and being enlightened in one area is likely to affect another area (and vice versa). Realising this is also an enlightenment of sorts.
Furthermore, one feature of the state of enlightenment is that it allows you to transcend the mundane, i.e., the categories that occur when you apply dualistic thinking concepts to human emotions and actions. For example, reaching an enlightened state with regards to love or hate just means you go beyond those two choices, where you're in a position that cannot be boxed into nice dualistic categories. Thus being aware of dual nature moves you closer to the state of enlightenment. Remember that even though I write in dualistic terms below, the point is to transcend categorisation (and that even though enlightenment can't really be parcelled out in this manner, the below can be thought of "as features of enlightenment").
Purity of the heart is to will one thing. --Kierkegaard
I'd say before one tries anything, one should be focused and pure on their goals and the process at hand. This doesn't mean that you give it your attention every moment, but that you are not in a corrupting or ethically polluting situation. Your motivations must be pure in that you're doing whatever you're doing for its own sake and nothing else. This kind of lifestyle I think is necessary (for me at least) to achieve enlightenment.
One of the most ethically polluting entities in the world (and I expound on this more below) is money. Essentially if you are doing anything for money, it is not pure and in my view generally leads to dissatisfaction (and forlornness, in a Sartrean sense). But a more insidious kind of pollution occurs when your goals seem to be noble, but yet you're doing something for a reason other than for doing it.
Let me illustrate this with a positive example based on a subject that is near and dear to my heart: scientific research. Some of the greatest scientific research has been conducted by people completely oblivious to its consequences (positive or negative). These scientists did it in a pure manner, i.e., purely for the intellectual and conceptual challenge. However, if you look at the research world today, there is a ton of research that is being done that is motivated by social pressure. and not because the researcher is genuinely interested in the answer.
This only makes things worse for both the researcher and society: the researcher isn't happy because they are not really doing what they want to do. Since the research has been polluted, the results are designed to produce what society wants to hear, which may not be accurate leading to long term problems. A pure researcher, on the other hand, would question themselves in a Popperian vein until they were exhausted, probably resulting in what society really wanted.
Emotions are key to reaching the state of enlightenment. Emotions influence the use of our intelligence, which generally exists, in my view, to further the propagation of our genes. However, our minds and brains are powerful tools and like I say above, if you can achieve an enlightened state with many or all of your emotions, then productivity and progress will be easier. There is a paradox of sorts here, however: all emotions, even the so-called negative ones, are part of the human intellect. To completely shut off these emotions I think is ultimately destructive. Yet, how can one achieve a state of contentment (or apathy, or blissfulness) while expressing these strong emotions? In my view, the answer lies in the application of these emotions. Any emotion, even negative ones like hatred, when applied constructively, can be positive. In fact, the notion of positivity and negativity is itself an illusion.
"Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." --Yoda
By far the most contentment I believe is received when you can exist in equilibrium with your environment with regards to anger. As I say above, banishing anger isn't healthy. I do think there is a difference between different kinds of angers. The directed kind is one where you get angry at a specific person or thing. Indirected anger is where you can be angry at a situation. The former is usually destructive and I think the latter can be extremely constructive. This is overall a tricky distinction to make. For example, if you're sitting in traffic, you could get frustrated and blame all the other drivers around you. This directed kind of anger doesn't do you or anyone else good since it is completely beyond your control at that moment in time (and this is an important realisation to make). However, you could (fairly rationally) decide that sitting in traffic isn't good for you or for the people around you, take up engineering, and design better means of transportation. Now that would be a constructive way to channel your anger.
The thing is, as long as you're in this mode, i.e., thinking constructively (say by taking an engineering course or letting others deal with the problem while you deal with others), you reach a certain sense of calm and awareness realising that something is being done and consequently, your frustration disappears. At this point, one has gone beyond the state of being angry or not angry. They're still angry, but it has been translated into a passion of sorts. This is transcending the emotion and arriving at a state of enlightenment.
Related to anger is the notion of forgiveness. As long as you harbour resentment towards a specific person or action, you're not very likely to feel calm or content and you're definitely not existing in any sort of any equilibrium.
I think the key to forgiveness is to realise there is nothing to forgive (i.e., go beyond forgiveness). People do things intentionally or unintentionally and it is unrealistic to expect that in a complex system all interactions will go the way you want it to. Thus when a person does something that affects you negatively, the last thing you can afford to do is give into those emotions. This is easier said than done, but again requires adopting an Sartrean existential world view that you are solely and ultimately responsible for your actions. I do not believe any human being has the "right" to forgive anyone or anything; they can just get over it like on a bridge over water.
Related to anger also, and the complement of forgiveness, is the notion of revenge or retribution. This in my view is one of the most difficult emotions to transcend. This essentially requires application of the Christian maxim of turning the other cheek, when something is done to you that makes you feel the need to take revenge. Again, rather than being passive, the important realisation for me at least was based on Nietzsche's "abyss" metaphor. I quote:
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you. --Nietzsche
The point isn't that you should not express revenge in some absolute moral sense, but that when you do, all it does is hurt you and not help you. This is why I'm a pacifist, since violence always begets violence and makes you a less content person.
In general, one should never do anything they wouldn't want to see in this world. So if you would like live in a world without violence, then you shouldn't express violence. This in conjunction with the golden rule (which says you should only do things you want done to you) is a powerful way of dealing in any complex adaptive system.
More quotes in this regard:
You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." --Matthew 5:38:45 [I'm a staunch atheist for the record, but as a pacifist, I find this quote inspirational.]
An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. --Gandhi
Buddha, as the first of his Four Noble Truths, said "desire is the cause of all suffering." I generally modify that to say that desire for material goods is the cause of all suffering.
This issue is also related to motivation for why you do anything in life. As I say above, I believe whatever you do in life should be "pure". Transcending the need for money or material objects in and of itself is a state of enlightenment. This doesn't mean you can't make money or have material objects. It's just that shouldn't be your motivation to do anything in life.
I disagree with Buddha in that I think any desire for its own sake that is pure is a virtue. After all, the contradiction in Buddha's statement (and Buddhism) is very obvious: he desires enlightenment.
No one is perfect. Realising that is a state of enlightenment. No one can be changed and you can't make someone love you. Realising that also gets you closer to enlightenment. I write more about these issues in my relationships essay.
The song Somebody by Depeche Mode, which I quote in its entirety in the relationships essay, I think takes an enlightened view towards relationships. Not just romantic relationships, but all kinds. This is best illustrated in this section of the song:
Though my views may be wrong,
they may even be perverted,
she'll hear me out
and won't easily be converted
to my way of thinking.
In fact, she'll often disagree.
But at the end of it all,
she will understand me.
This could apply to any interaction between two people.
I am an atheist but whether you're religious or not does not have any bearing on enlightenment in my view. However, with regards to religion (or any other philosophy for that matter), you need to be able to look at it as a very subjective thing. For example, I consider my atheist views to be very subjective and whatever makes someone happy is what I think they should believe in. (See quote from Somebody above.) All this done while realising that there is not a single person who has a monopoly on some absolute truth that doesn't exist (or, in the spirit of Gödel, any absolute truth must be paradoxically relative).
The more interesting aspect of religion is to look at the philosophies underlying the major ones. Much as I don't think very much of organised religion of any kind, philosophies attributed to people like Jesus Christ (regardless of whether he existed) can be enlightened. For example, with regards to the forgiveness and revenge point above, being able to turn the other cheek, either in a specific situation or generally in your life makes you enlightened with regards to those notions. You have transcended beyond the mundane concepts of forgiveness and revenge.
Eastern religions have an appeal to many westerners since they tend to directly stress enlightenment (in the way Judeo-Christian ones stress Heaven). I however don't think Eastern religions are more special than their Western counterparts and are just as prone to corruption and pollution.
That said, the philosophies behind Taoism and Zen Buddhism are colinear with a lot of the points I make above. The basic idea is to transcend beyond the dualistic way of thinking about life and think of the universe as a coherent whole, i.e., a nonlinear complex system in a dynamic equilibrium.
There's a lot of dualism in the above, as well as in our day to day discourse. The point is to integrate the outward looking views with the inward looking ones, which I think is presently severely lacking, and come up with a cohesive and complete well-rounded worldview.
I think one is born readily capable of attaining enlightenment (or perhaps a child already has it and slowly begins to lose it as they become more and more immersed in The Matrix). I therefore think it is current society that distracts from achieving that goal. Ultimately I think and feel that enlightenment has to do with accepting the futility, or as Satre would put it -- forlornness, of life. This is a positive viewpoint, as I outline in the meaning of life missive.