What is Enlightenment?

 In Freethinking Awakenings

We can say that the word “enlightenment” means the state of being enlightened.  But then what does “enlighten” mean?  We can go with a common dictionary definition, which might offer something like: “to give intellectual or spiritual light to; instruct; impart knowledge to”.  And so we can understand that enlightenment is dependent on intellectual development and knowledge.  But there is another component to this, which we can understand with the symbolic analogy to light that can be mentally attained.  We can imagine someone who is highly knowledgeable (and if we want, we can imagine this person to be literally in the sunlight), but yet who is emotionally distressed and depressed.  We can then realize that enlightenment is not solely about knowledge and that it obviously has nothing in particular to do with light in the physical sense.  And if we also imagine this person coming to the light, so to speak, what has changed?  What does this figurative this “light” represent?  Perhaps it is the peace that can be attained in one’s life through the appreciation of the intellectual insights that one has gained.  If it was the knowledge and understanding of truth that provided this person with inner and outer peace in his or her life, then this person has attained a certain enlightenment.

Essentially, enlightenment is the degree to which one is able to attain satisfactory answers to important questions in life on the basis of observation and reason, and wherein it is such realizations that lead to inner and outer peace.  It is important to understand that this state of enlightenment is not something that you either have or don’t have.  It is not like a basic light switch, in which the light is either on or off, but more like a dimmer switch, where there are countless shades and degrees of light.  You may wonder whether or not you might be enlightened.  If you are in a position where you are capable of reading a book, any book written by anyone, then you would have to already be enlightened, at least to some extent.  We can imagine that the vast majority of those reading this book already had a high degree of enlightenment before even starting this book.  All the same, it is probably beneficial to accept that there are opportunities for each of us to become more enlightened.  There are many degrees of enlightenment that can be achieved, and one’s degree of enlightenment can be increased or perhaps even decreased depending on certain circumstances.

The opposite of enlightenment is some form of madness and insanity caused by ignorance and delusion.  This means that if someone has broad ignorance of reality that this lack of knowledge is the cause of their depression and inner demons, then they are very lacking in enlightenment.  If you want to show someone what hot is, you can say “put your hand near the stove, this is hot.”  If you want to show someone what cold is, you can say “put your hand in ice water, this is cold.”  Then you can explain that heat is actually the movement of molecules; the faster they move, the hotter it is. Then this person can say “But doesn’t that mean that the cold actually is hot, but to a lesser degree?”  Yes, and analogously, someone who is crazy and delusional is less enlightened than someone who observes the world carefully and comes to reasoned conclusions and is able to find reasonable answers to any question they might ponder, and thus achieving a certain peace in life.  But then you could also say that the reasoned person is also crazy, but to a lesser degree.  And indeed, we would probably have to say that someone would have to be completely perfect to understand the universe fully and be absolutely lacking any degree of insanity or delusional thoughts and completely at peace internally and externally in order to be fully enlightened.  Likewise, even the craziest among us would have to have a completely nonfunctional brain in order to not have some degree of enlightenment, just by virtue of being alive and having somewhat functional sensory organs.

Enlightenment is something worth seeking, even if we understand the practical limitations.  Just as there is a broad spectrum of between perfect peace and total war, and where within this recognition we can seek greater peace while acknowledging that we may not ever achieve full peace and complete absence of war and conflict in the world, likewise enlightenment is something that we can seek to nurture and grow within ourselves and within society, even while we understand that it is unrealistic or impossible for one to achieve perfect enlightenment.

To clarify, this definition of enlightenment differs somewhat from the Buddhist conception of the word where followers of this religion seek enlightenment through what is known as the eightfold path.  The word “enlightenment” is the western translation of the Sanskrit and Pali word “bodhi”, which means the knowledge or wisdom, or awakened intellect, of a Buddha.  In the Buddhist context, enlightenment usually comes with insights into the Four Noble Truths that are central to this worldview.  It does appear that there are some similarities between the Buddhist eightfold path and the aspects of enlightenment that are outlined here, and there may also be similarities between what some Buddhists have in mind when they think of enlightenment and the meaning that is intended within this project, but there are important conceptual differences between these two senses.  One main difference is that, from a Buddhist perspective, enlightenment is often seen as a state that one can be in, whereas enlightenment by our definition comes in degrees and can be approximately measured.

In addition, this definition of enlightenment differs somewhat from the Eighteenth Century philosophical movement known as The Enlightenment.  This project draws heavily from the ideas, methods, values, and arguments that were promoted by Enlightenment-era thinkers, but herein the word “enlightenment” is meant as a state of mind and/or a belief system and the relation such things might have to the truth and to peace.  And so our use of this word is not really intended to directly refer to a school of thought from a historical time period, unless otherwise stated.

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