Our Western culture has done a great disservice to the idea of enlightenment. As is often the case in Western culture, that which is meant to invite us deeper into the human experience has become a vehicle for escape.
Enlightenment is not about transcending the human experience so that one might always know peace and happiness, rejecting anything that might disturb that peace – especially that which might be emerging from within us. Instead, enlightenment is about being, and learning to be, fully human.
Enlightened people experience anger. Enlightened people grieve in the face of loss. Enlightened people become resentful, frustrated, impatient, worried, anxious and afraid. The difference is the way in which these emotions and experiences are expressed. Those who are moving along the path of enlightenment have learned to recognize these feelings when they arise, honor them, and give themselves time and space for processing (either alone or with another). Those who are not on this journey either reject or suppress these feelings within themselves, or they project these feelings onto another, in this, making themselves or the other the enemy. Those on the path of enlightenment respond with loving compassion and presence. Those, not on the path, react – typically in some negative or violent way.
Let’s use Jesus as an example: Jesus became angry when temple practices were financially benefitting the rich while taking from the poor. Jesus became frustrated and impatient when Peter wanted to make him a king. Jesus wept when he learned his friend Lazarus had died. Jesus grieved when betrayed and abandoned by his closest friends. Jesus was terrified in the face of certain death. He bargained with God, hoping to be spared his fate. He suffered pain. Jesus doubted and felt abandoned by God as he hung on the cross.
If Jesus felt all these things, then why should we expect anything different from ourselves? Enlightenment is not about escaping the human condition. It is learning how to be fully human – to be fully present with it all and allowing it move through us. As Jesus came to show us, it is in being fully human that we are truly free.
(A little aside…..be very suspicious of anyone who tells you they are enlightened. Humility is the true mark of enlightenment, and an enlightened person would never claim this for themselves for they know that enlightenment is not something to be attained.)