I’ve written a few pieces on this blog about the problems with schemes that promise you a so-called “enlightenment experience” fast. Mostly I’ve tended to focus on Genpo Roshi’s bogus Big Mindâ„¢ nonsense. But there are plenty more where that came from. I Googled the words “enlightenment fast” and this is what came up:
Here’s a webpage about the fast track to enlightenment.
And here is another webpage about how to fast track enlightenment.
Here’s one advertising enlightenment in 15-30 days.
Here’s a YouTube video with a hip, young dude telling us about the quick path to conscious enlightenment.
And here’s a book called Instant Enlightenment: Deep, Fast and Sexy.
That’s what I came up in about ten minutes without even really trying, imagine how many more you could get if you actually put in some effort.
Recently I started reading the book The Three Christs of Ypsilanti by Milton Rokeach. It’s an interesting story about three patients at a mental institution who each thought they were Jesus Christ and the psychiatrist who brought them together to meet one another. The book is all about the phenomenon of identity and the nature of what we call “self.” In chapter one, titled The Problem of Identity, the author explains some things that I believe can help in understanding precisely why getting enlightenment fast is such a very bad idea.
In this chapter he writes about the psychiatric concept of “primitive beliefs.” A person’s primitive beliefs, he says, “represent basic truths he holds about physical reality, social reality, himself and his own nature.” They are “rooted in the individual’s experience and in the evidence of his senses.” Rokeach says that “unlike other beliefs, primitive beliefs are not normally open to discussion or controversy. Either they do not come up in conversation because everyone shares them and takes them for granted, or, if they do come up, they are virtually unassailable by outside forces.” Further down the page he says, “A person’s primitive beliefs thus lie at the very core of his total system of beliefs, and they represent the subsystem in which he has the heaviest emotional commitment.”
These beliefs, he says, can also be thought of in terms of what’s called “object constancy.” This is something we learn early in childhood wherein we determine that the things we experience in the world maintain their identity over time. Little children love peek-a-boo because they are beginning to learn this, but don’t quite get it just yet. So they’re genuinely surprised when their mom hides her face behind a blanket and magically reappears again when it’s removed. We further learn – or at least begin to believe – that we ourselves also retain identity over time. This becomes a core belief that we feel is so obvious we never even think to question it.
A disruption of these primitive beliefs, Rokeach says, “would lead a person to question the validity of his senses, his competence to cope with reality, or even his sanity.” He further quotes Helen Merrell Lynd from On Shame and the Search for Identity who says, “Sudden experience of a violation of expectation, of incongruity between expectation and outcome, results in a shattering of trust in oneself, even in one’s own body and skill and identity.” This shattering can lead a person to replace his original set of primitive beliefs with others that don’t have a good foundation in consensus reality resulting in phobias, obsessions, delusions and even hallucinations. A person may begin to rely “solely on his own subjective experience, he abandons social support altogether.”
In Buddhism we have the idea of anatman, or “no self.” We say that the self is unreal, an illusion. Furthermore we say that our perceptions of the world are not necessarily true in any ultimate sense. They are conventionally useful and socially agreed upon, but they rest on a rather shaky foundation of consensus beliefs. In other words, we are dealing very directly with what Rokeach calls our “primitive beliefs.”
Just reading about this or hearing it in a lecture by a guy in a goofy black robe doesn’t usually cause most people any real problems. In fact, if you’re like I was when I first encountered these ideas, you imagine that this is some kind of metaphor, something that’s not really meant literally. After all, it could not possibly be literally true because the existence of a real thing called “self” is so incredibly obvious and unquestionable.
When you meditate, though, many of your most basic assumptions about yourself and the reality you live in begin to break down. If you’re involved in one of the many time-tested styles of meditation, this process generally happens very gradually and you receive a lot of help with the transition from people who have gone through it themselves and managed to make it out the other side without going crazy.
The problem for lots of us these days – especially in America – is that we no longer have much trust in tradition. We’re all about innovation! Tradition is for suckers! We want something new!
The fact that people have been working for thousands of years on this problem of how to carefully tread this path into the unknown and unknowable is lost on us. The traditions that have grown up over that long period of trial and error to assist people in gradually entering into a very different way of looking at themselves and the world they live in seem silly and outdated, the products of a bygone age that we have moved beyond.
In re-imagining meditation for the current era of speed and efficiency, we have discarded the traditional framework for it. We want results and we want them quick, damn it! We have a lot of stuff to do! We want to get enlightened right away and move on to the next thrill.
But those who went before us on this path already saw the dangers in that. People have been going bonkers from trying to get enlightenment too quickly for thousands of years. This isn’t something that just started happening in 1965 when the first hippie freaked out from forcing himself to see the light when he wasn’t really ready for it.
Most programs that promise you enlightenment quickly and easily are just scams to get you to spend money. They are usually based on hypnosis and other forms of mind control. Some are deliberately trying to get you into the sorts of vulnerable states Milton Rokeach describes in his book so that you can then be easily manipulated and used. In other cases there is often a cynical disregard for any sort of follow-up to the experiences they lead you into. Participants are left shell-shocked, not knowing what to do with their newly transcended egos.
Meditation is a good thing. When handled properly it can yield amazing insights. But it’s never something that should be rushed. You need to take care because you are working with your own most basic understanding of yourself and the world you live in. That’s not something you want to mess with.
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