The Psychology of Enlightenment

The act of seeking enlightenment can help you psychologically.

Posted May 18, 2016

A lot of my writing focuses on enlightenment and / or self-actualization as a psychological goal. Part of this is a result of the existential belief that enlightenment / self-actualization is the goal, and that on some level we all (or at least most of us) know it. This idea is suggested in a post I recently saw by Jason Silva (a philosophy personality known for “Brain Games” and “Shots of Awe”). In a post on Facebook he quotes Timothy Leary:

"Admit it. You aren’t like them. You’re not even close. You may occasionally dress yourself up as one of them, watch the same mindless television shows as they do, maybe even eat the same fast food sometimes. But it seems that the more you try to fit in, the more you feel like an outsider, watching the “normal people” as they go about their automatic existences. For every time you say club passwords like “Have a nice day” and “Weather’s awful today, eh?”, you yearn inside to say forbidden things like “Tell me something that makes you cry” or “What do you think deja vu is for?”. Face it, you even want to talk to that girl in the elevator. But what if that girl in the elevator (and the balding man who walks past your cubicle at work) are thinking the same thing? Who knows what you might learn from taking a chance on conversation with a stranger? Everyone carries a piece of the puzzle. Nobody comes into your life by mere coincidence. Trust your instincts. Do the unexpected. Find the others…"

This paragraph illuminates a couple of things: First, it reflects an aspect of life we are all caught up in; we yearn for something deeper, yet get caught up in the trivialities of life. We have to survive, we have to work and get things done and pay the bills and all the other myriad of things that distract us from what might be truly calling us. Second, we think ourselves different from others, deeper perhaps, but we keep it to ourselves or deny it for fear of venturing into that depth.

It is necessary to take a moment and discuss the human condition. Many posit that to live is to suffer. It is the First Noble Truth of Buddhism. In other religions humans are promised a heavenly existence once they have suffered through this one (and done so with some sort of moral compass). There are jokes / sayings that encompass the feeling life is difficult: “Life sucks and then you die”. “F- my life”. Most people are satisfied to distract themselves from the pain of life. Some work to overcome the pain inherent in it. Still others seek to find meaning in the pain.

Wayne Dyer described one of the first steps of enlightenment as being able to recognize how something difficult in life turned out to be a blessing. In both “The Stories of the Lotus Sutra” (p. 88 &145), by Gene Reeves, and “Don’t Be a Jerk” (p.22) by Brad Warner, the authors allude that being born human (as opposed to a god) is a blessing. Both say this is a result of the hardships leading to the desire to work toward enlightenment. Whether this is true, or humans just choose to find meaning in their suffering and become better people, the result is the same: movement toward self-actualization / enlightenment. As such, a mental health issue like addiction, depression, anxiety, or the like, are blessings because they encourage the person to work on his/ her self, and thereby create a more meaningful and happy, life.

This striving, however, isn’t always easy. The human condition, as Eckhart Tolle says, is to be lost in thought. We can’t strive toward enlightenment 24 hours a day, seven days a week. From time to time we drift back into simply existing, paying the bills, getting children to and from appointments and activities, working harder to please our superiors, etc. However, we benefit from the realization this isn’t who we are or what we are here for.  As I wrote in, “Think Buddha, Be a Buddha”, we already posses Buddha Nature. We are already complete.

Like the thin façade that we keep up to get through our tasks, so is the thin veneer of the self. In “Don’t be a Jerk”, Zen Master Brad Warner translates Dogen's Genjo Koan: "To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self." p.56. The gist of the few pages on this is that you are a reflection of your environment, you are as natural as the universe, and that by understanding all of this and coming into the moment, the self is transcended and forgotten.

I spend a lot of energy attempting to get students, clients, and everyone else of matter in my life to understand that what we think moment to moment is a reflection of conditioning and defense mechanisms. Basically, it isn’t really you (if there is such a thing) and, to put it bluntly, is really just absurdity. As I’ve written too many times to count (see just about everything I’ve written for Psychology Today) the human condition is to lie to oneself and forget you are lying. The solution is to drop this idea of oneself and be in the moment.

But, as I suggested in interpreting Timothy Leary’s statement, we have to function, and as such, need a veneer of “self.”  When able to be mindful, we still eventually fall back into our idea of a self, and pick up milk or whatever other task we believe we have to get through. This is natural as well. We just have to work at not getting lost in it.

There is a dark side to this interpretation: perhaps we all believe we are different, that, “the more you try to fit in, the more you feel like an outsider,” because that is a defense mechanism to place oneself above others (another ego trick meant to elevate a sense of self). But even if it, it furthers my point: All thought is absurd, the truth cannot be truly known, and the solution is to lose one’s sense of self and simply be in the moment.

Copyright William Berry 2016


Reeves, G; 2010; The Stories of the Lotus Sutra; Wisdom Publications, Somerville, MA. (p. 145, 88)

Silva, J: Facebook post May 10th, 2016; Retrieved from:

Warner, B; 2016; Don’t be a Jerk; New World Library; Navoto, CA; p. 56, & 22). 

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