By Caitlin Johnstone
The path to enlightenment is the process of becoming clearly aware of all the different aspects of the way you operate inside, which enables you to relate to life as it’s actually appearing instead of through the filters of old conditioned mental habits. The path to the liberation of our species is the process of collectively becoming clearly aware of the reality of our situation as opposed to the false narratives about it, so that we can begin solving our problems as they actually are instead of the way the establishment media describes them. These two processes are recursive mirrors of each other; one describes the process on the micro scale, the other on the macro, but they occur in the exact same way.
People sometimes complain that I talk about the problems that humanity faces without ever offering any solutions. I disagree with this criticism; I talk about the solution to our problem all the time, using plain language that anyone can understand. It just often goes in one ear and out the other, because it’s not the sort of answer that people have been conditioned to listen for.
When people ask for solutions to our problems, they’re conditioned by the standard rhetoric of our time to get an essay about labor organization, political activism, consumer activism, cryptocurrencies or technological innovations, depending on where they’re at on the political spectrum. What they are not conditioned to listen for is the most direct and honest answer that I am able to give them: that we’ve got to move from an unhealthy relationship with mental narrative into a healthy one.
This is not some lofty or impractical suggestion, it’s just the thing that we need to do in order to pull up and away from our ecocidal, omnicidal trajectory and move into a healthy collaboration with each other and with our ecosystem. As long as our minds are susceptible to the manipulations of the powerful people who rule us by controlling the dominant narratives in our world, we’ll be bent to the will of sociopathic plutocrats and opaque government agencies until we plunge forever into the darkness of extinction or dehumanizing dystopia. Individuals are capable of transcending the unwholesome relationship with mental narrative which dominates conventional human consciousness, so that’s a potentiality which exists within our species as a collective as well.
This is the only off-ramp that I can see from the armageddon superhighway. It’s impossible to get the people to use the power of their numbers to unseat their oppressors as long as their oppressors are able to control the thoughts that they think in their heads. Political organization and activism can be thwarted by mass media campaigns which manipulate the majority into continuing to support the status quo. Cryptocurrencies and technological innovations are impotent as long as those in power can control the stories that the majority tells itself about how they work and what should be done with them. You won’t engage in revolutionary behavior if you’re being manipulated into not wanting to. So we’ve got to become impossible to manipulate.
This is the solution, and it’s very achievable. For millennia humanity has been writing about the capacity within all of us to transcend our old conditioning patterns and perceive the world free from the filters of mental narrative. They wrote about it within the limitations that existed on their expression at the time, coloring their descriptions with their respective religious beliefs, linguistic and cultural conventions, and what understanding of the mind they had access to in a pre-science world, and their ideas were generally cloistered within small esoteric circles due to the limited nature of communication, but the underlying message was always the same: reality is not what our thoughts describe, and we are all capable of perceiving beyond that mental veil.
Up until now, the phenomenon of what many refer to as enlightenment has been a fairly rare occurrence within our species (though I suspect not quite as rare as some claim). According to some teachers who’ve been coaching people through the process for decades, it seems to be happening more and more frequently today. The teacher Adyashanti writes the following:
There’s a phenomenon happening in the world today. More and more people are waking up—having real, authentic glimpses of reality. By this I mean that people seem to be having moments where they awaken out of their familiar senses of self, and out of their familiar senses of what the world is, into a much greater reality—into something far beyond anything they knew existed.
These experiences of awakening differ from person to person. For some, the awakening is sustained over time, while for others the glimpse is momentary—it may last just a split second. But in that instant, the whole sense of “self ” disappears. The way they perceive the world suddenly changes, and they find themselves without any sense of separation between themselves and the rest of the world. It can be likened to the experience of waking up from a dream—a dream you didn’t even know you were in until you were jolted out of it.
In the beginning of my teaching work, most of the people who came to me were seeking these deeper realizations of spirituality. They were seeking to wake up from the limiting and isolated senses of self they had imagined themselves to be. It’s this yearning that underpins all spiritual seeking: to discover for ourselves what we already intuit to be true— that there is more to life than we are currently perceiving.
But as time has passed, more and more people are coming to me who have already had glimpses of this greater reality.
Renowned author and teacher Eckhart Tolle agrees:
I see signs that it is already happening. For the first time there is a large scale awakening on our planet. Why now? Because if there is no change in human consciousness now, we will destroy ourselves and perhaps the planet. The insanity of the collective egoic mind, amplified by science and technology, is rapidly taking our species to the brink of disaster. Evolve or die: that is our only choice now. Without considering the Eastern world, my estimate is that at this time about ten percent of people in North America are already awakening. That makes thirty million Americans alone, and in addition to those people in other North American countries, about ten percent of the population of Western European countries are also awakening. This is probably enough of a critical mass to bring about a new earth. So the transformation of consciousness is truly happening even though they won’t be reporting it on tonight’s news. Is it happening fast enough? I am hopeful about humanity’s future, much more so now than when I wrote The Power of Now. In fact that is why I wrote that book. I really wasn’t sure that humanity was going to survive. Now I feel differently. I see many reasons to be hopeful.
You are of course free to believe these guys or not, but I personally don’t see any incentive for them to be disingenuous about what they’re seeing in their field of work. The best way to make a fortune as a spiritual teacher is to gather a large cult-like following around yourself under the presentation of having attained something exceedingly special and rare, not to say essentially “Yeah this is happening all over the place now; it’s no big deal. What happened to me is becoming as common as grass.”
So why the change? Why after millennia of enlightenment remaining a rare phenomenon are we suddenly seeing it becoming more common?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that we’re at evolve-or-die time as a species, and something primal deep within us is leaping to clear that hurdle in the same way all organisms fight to survive with everything they’ve got. Maybe it’s got something to do with our exponentially improved ability to network and share information, making useful pointers and teachings which guide the way to enlightenment vastly more accessible. Maybe our unprecedented access to information itself is the cause; billions of human brains suddenly connected to mankind’s entire collective archive of knowledge is in and of itself a drastic change in human consciousness. Maybe it’s all three. Maybe it’s something else we can’t see yet. But it does appear to be happening.
So what is enlightenment? There are as many answers to this question as there are people interested in it. Many will tell you that it’s a “merging with the divine” or some other unhelpful word salad of metaphysical specialness. Others will tell you that it’s a recognition of your own true nature as pure awareness which witnesses the play of forms. Others will say it’s the awakening of an energy in the spine known as kundalini, whose rise up through the crown of the head transforms your way of functioning. Others will say it’s simply seeing life as it is, unfiltered by mental conditioning. Go to online spiritual discussion forums and you’ll find people arguing about this question with the same vitriolic fervor as you see between different political ideologies in the forums you’re probably more familiar with.
Personally I haven’t found it very useful to talk about enlightenment as one specific thing that happens in one specific instance, like a lightbulb flicking on once and then you’re done. There are many different aspects to the human condition, and you can be very conscious of the way some of them are happening and deeply unconscious of others. The fiery shopkeeper guru Nisargadatta Maharaj, for example, was profoundly lucid on the nature of awareness and the field of consciousness which appears within it, able to speak with earth-shaking clarity that radically changed people’s lives despite having little education. But he was also a chain smoker and died of lung cancer, unable to bring clear seeing to that particular unwholesome aspect of his functioning. Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor had a stroke in a specific part of the linguistic center of her brain, permanently changing her relationship with mental narrative and bringing her a tremendous amount of inner peace, but she can’t teach people how to get there for themselves because she didn’t consciously walk through any path to get there.
Enlightenment is more like the process of turning on the lights in a very large house, room by room. For some people the kitchen light is on, but the entire upstairs floor is dark. Others have the lights on in the master bedroom and the basement, but everything in between is endarkened.
Some people have a very clear understanding of the nature of awareness and thought, which tends to get the most play in the discussion of spiritual enlightenment. But others have flicked the lights on in the way their bodily energy systems operate, able to experience and use those energies in a way that other people just aren’t conscious of. Others have enlightened their previously repressed childhood traumas, and are able to clearly understand how their experiences in life have shaped the way they’re conditioned to think and behave. Others have enlightened their emotionality, and have a deep, emotionally rich relationship with life while others sedate and ignore their emotions. Others have enlightened their inner guidance system and are able to perceive a tug toward wise decisions which lead them to take beneficial actions. None of these are any more special or important than the other, they’re just different rooms in the house that either have the lights on or off.
Whenever you hear about a spiritual teacher conducting themselves in a way that could be described as un-enlightened, sleeping with students or having childish temper tantrums or whatever, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not enlightened in some sense. It could just mean that they’re enlightened in one way but not the other. In one way they’re able to relate to life with great clarity, and in another they’re just as confused and clumsy as anyone else. The lights are on in the attic but not the living room.
And, to bring this home to the opening paragraph of this essay, the same is true of the process of enlightening the world. There are a great many ways in which humanity is asleep at the wheel, and we’re going to have to bring the light of truth to all of them.
We’re going to have to bring the light of truth to the ways we’ve all been lied to by our teachers, by our politicians and by our media. We’re going to have to bring the light of truth to the horrors of war and the sinister motives behind it. We’re going to have to bring the light of truth to what we’re doing to our ecosystem and the forces which incentivize us to play along with ecocide. We’re going to have to bring the light of truth to the ways we enslave and are enslaved by each other in our interpersonal relationships, and how we enslave and are enslaved by our current social systems. We’re going to have to bring the light of truth to racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry and the ways that they prevent us from having wholesome relationships with each other. We’re going to have to bring the light of truth to the manipulations of the financial sector, money in politics, the evils of factory farming, the prison system, the war on drugs, and the structures which keep economic injustice in place. We can’t fight problems if we can’t see them clearly, so we’ve got to help each other turn the lights on in all of those areas. We’ve got to enlighten them.
None of the steps taken on this path toward the enlightenment of humanity are any more or less important than any other. One rebel may spend their energy exposing the false narratives of the news media. One rebel may bring attention to the plight of the Palestinians. One rebel may spend years making a documentary exposing the senseless butchery of dolphins in Taiji. One rebel may help film the unseen cruelty of factory farming. One rebel might share her story and expose the reality of rape culture. One rebel might help show everyone all the genocide and exploitation that went into creating their country as it currently exists, and help them come to a mature relationship with and response to that reality. One rebel might make art encouraging people to open their eyes to what’s really going on. Each of these small rebellions help flick on the lights of the house that is our world, and we need all of it.
With intense, sincere inner work, we can flick on the lights of our inner world room-by-room so that we can relate to life as it actually is in more and more ways. With intense, sincere outer work, we can flick on the lights of our outer world room-by-room and begin solving the problems that had previously been obscured by blackouts and propaganda disinfo. These movements are fundamentally the same. They both complement each other, and they’re both indispensable.