Is Enlightenment Worth It?
A number of years ago I read a book, Buddhism Without Beliefs (Stephen Batchelor), which explained the core philosophies of Buddhism, minus the faith elements. The book is great. It guides the reader through the cognitive logics that underpin Buddhism, and I found great value in it. However there was one thing above all that I took away from reading it.
I learned I never want to become enlightened.
It turns out, enlightenment is all about anguish.
Anguishes are the things that torment us. The thoughts that keep us up at night. The “I wish”, the “if only”. The cognitive patterns that cause misery, large or small, enduring or brief. Anguishes are the barriers to a persistent happiness.
“Anguish emerges from craving for life to be other than it is” — Stephen Batchelor
On close examination, we can see that anguish drives our behaviour. We fear the realities of the dangerous and difficult world, so we work hard to build financial buffers, employment stability and a home to call our own. Perhaps we fear that those we love are in need, which only throws gas on the fire. We yearn for romance, love and community. In their absence we actively strive to find them.
Buddhism Without Beliefs characterises anguish as that which “emerges from craving for life to be other than it is”. Examine your behaviours and motivations. Can they not, at their root, be distilled down to this?
Buddhist enlightenment is to be free of these primal notions that ensure we are never truly happy. Sure, they served us well for millennia. An anguish-free human would not have done well in the wild, oblivious to their need for warmth and food. But in the civilised world we live in, what do we need anguish for?
Enlightenment, very simply, is the cessation of anguish.
Many pursue enlightenment, perhaps now more than ever. Maybe we meditate. Maybe we engage in plant medicine and sacred ceremony. Perhaps we simply engage in self-exploration and cognitive growth. We might even choose to live a simple life and be content with it.
We all seek eternal happiness in one way or another. Isn’t this what ‘retirement’ means in our cultural psyche? That day when we can finally stop worrying about the pressures of the world and just enjoy margaritas on the beach. But is there a cost to uninterrupted happiness?
Enlightenment is retirement from the world
I think that anguish is mis-characterised. Sure, it’s the root of all misery, unhappiness and suffering, bla bla bla. But anguish is at the core of all the good deeds that have ever been done. Anguish drives our behaviour. It just so happens that our behaviour is incredibly powerful.
“To become enlightened is to retreat from the project of humanity”
Mother Teresa was driven by the torment she suffered in the knowledge that lives were being destroyed by war. Nelson Mandela by the deep racial injustices of his country. Gandhi by the plunder of his people by a foreign power.
If these people were enlightened, they would have achieved nothing. Free of their anguish, they would be happy regardless of the state of the world. But they were not. Anguishes were such a burden that they dedicated their lives to their causes.
We all have our own causes. We don’t need to be the famous world leaders to do good in the world. We can dedicate our lives to the betterment of our selves, our friends, our families and communities. Our desire for life to be other than it is drives us to improve life, to change it. The sum of all people acting on these drives is the project of humanity — the forging of a world that is better, in some way, every single day. Our yearning for purpose may cause suffering, but it gives us power.
The cessation of anguish is the cessation of our drive to improve society. To become enlightened is to retreat from that project of humanity. To retire early. To hang up our hats and say “I’m out, I’m happy how I am, I have no more to give”.
Enlightenment is, ultimately, a selfish state of being. It would be lovely to be free from anguish and eternally happy, but it would deprive the world of our capabilities.
Despite all this, I don’t think that the pursuit of enlightenment has no value. As cliché as it is, the journey is what matters. The road to enlightenment is a road of personal growth. Those enlightening activities make us more balanced, more capable, and of more value to society.
We absolutely should engage in introspection, we should meditate, we should work hard to be better people and to understand the nature of life. We can moderate the pain that anguish causes us. But we must never reach that enlightened destination.
Know that anguish will always be present, and welcome it. It’s that familiar friend that ensures we never lose our motivation. It is our reason for doing what we do. Ultimately, it drives the human project.
We will always walk the path, hand-in-hand with anguish.