Why You Shun Enlightenment

Many want enlightenment, few achieve it. Why?

Posted Oct 25, 2015

Drawing by Alexi Berry, used with permission
Source: Drawing by Alexi Berry, used with permission

Many profess a desire to be enlightened. There are dozens of best-selling books about how to attain enlightenment. Yet very few ever accomplish this goal. Why? With all of the material available to anyone seeking it, why do so many waver between wanting to be enlightened and remaining in the drama of life?

The easiest answer is that enlightenment is difficult. Several psychology theorists based their theory on enlightenment (or a related term) as the ultimate goal. Carl Jung made self-realization the ultimate goal of analytic psychology. Abraham Maslow declared self-actualization the ultimate goal of his theory. These terms are synonymous with enlightenment. Yet both Maslow and Jung declared that few people attain the goal.

The simple explanation for so many giving up on or falling short of the goal is that it is hard. This is psychology, however, with a goal of insight. As such, there should be discussion of why it is hard.

  • Just about everyone who writes about enlightenment or the path to it mentions the natural human tendency to get sucked into the drama of life. There is magnetism toward not being present; to be drawn into the past or future, and to be distracted from what is happening in the present moment.
  • The drama of life is interesting and can lead to feeling alive. Many view enlightenment as boring or detached, and they wouldn’t want to experience that detachment.
  • Gaining insight requires analysis. This takes an objective perspective, and the ability for one to step out of their limited perspective, question their thinking and perception, and analyze motives for nearly everything.
  • Enlightenment is work, and takes time. Matthieu Ricard quotes the Dalai Lama: “The problem in the West is people want enlightenment to be fast, to be easy, and if possible, cheap.” In other words, we simply may not be willing to put in the effort and time.
  • Much of the work of enlightenment seems insignificant and trivial. Focusing on not giving into a craving, not allowing distraction to divert from the goal at hand, self-motivation to workout or eat better or otherwise make what Maslow calls the growth choice, doesn’t seem to contribute a great deal to enlightenment.
  • In this culture people are more worried about appearances than actually being a better person. For example, agreeing with others to prevent conflict, going with what the group thinks, and actually buying into the popular beliefs are easier and promote fitting in, but often aren’t congruent with growth and transcendence.
  • People rely on compulsive behaviors to self soothe, and would rather do this than actually be with negative mood states.
  • Allowing the unconscious to lead one’s behavior takes less energy and focus than being conscious, and humans have a natural tendency to conserve energy.
  • We expect perfection, and when we fall short of it, give up on the path. This is similar to meditation, when people say, "I can't meditate" because, like everyone else, your mind wanders.

There are many reasons getting caught in life’s pull dominates in the competition with enlightenment. People generally seek enlightenment as an escape from the pain of life. Some continue to pursue it, while others easily slip back into unconscious life once the turmoil passes. I don’t mean this post to seem judgmental. In many ways it is natural not to seek enlightenment. Humans gravitate toward the easiest path. It is likely ingrained in our DNA, and part of our evolutionary process. But it is also part of developmental history to seek enlightenment and to transcend the human experience. The information is there if you’re so inclined.

Copyright William Berry, 2015


Raz, G.; 2015); Interview of Matthieu Ricard and Pico Iyer for TED Radio Hour; article retrieved on 10/18/15 from: http://ideas.ted.com/want-to-be-happy-slow-down/.

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