The enlightenment experience is viewed differently according to the given spiritual tradition. A structural model is aptly articulated by the Hindu formula “Not this, not this.” The utility of this formula (neti, neti) is that it enumerates the beings and experiences in the practitioner’s state of mind without thereby confining observers to a given prescription, belief system, or content. The practitioner is identifying that which is not essential, not substantial, which does not resonate with the search or objectification which is sought. Interestingly, neti refers to the cleansing process in yoga, universalized into a cleansing of mind from worldly accretions.
In that sense, the process never finishes. The philosophical goal is not manifestations of power, divinity, or visualization. Because all is continuous, interrelated, and interconnected, the process is an unfolding as much as a maintenance.
Enlightenment is not an isolated state, and pursuit of enlightenment is futile without a context. The recourse is to establish a way of living, a path. As the Buddhist Shantideva (8th century) so firmly emphasized, one must pursue a way of living that precedes and is prerequisite to any higher state of mind. Indeed, this way or path is superior to the enlightenment state. The way or path is grounded between ethics and nature, while enlightenment is a transient state and not a norm for human beings.
A consistent, sustained way of living is the investment that could potentially yield the fruit of enlightenment. There are no shortcuts. All traditions, even where enlightenment stories are presented regularly, present them casually or anecdotally, first assuming the investment as practice, then secondly assuming enlightenment states to be accretions and not goals, happenstance that may be good or may be indifferent. The Zen saying of mountains and rivers are mountains and rivers before, then not mountains and rivers, then mountains and rivers after, means that reality is and has been always the same, but the individual changes.
In Judaism, Ezekiel the prophet waits on the mountainside where he lives as a hermit or at any rate lives in seclusion. He stands before the natural elements on a wild night of watching. The winds roar, lightning bolts flash, thunder booms — but “not that, not that.” Only when the storm abates and stillness falls, and silence envelopes him on the dark mountain, a slight breeze caresses his forehead, and he recognizes God’s presence.
“That!” he may have exclaimed.
In Zen tradition, a meditator sits deep into the night. Darkness and silence envelope his body and senses. His breathing is minimal, his thoughts have long diminished with the rhythm of his breath. Suddenly, a bird sings. The meditator, in that moment, is stirred. “That’s it!” he may exclaim.
In Christianity, especially that practice closest to the desert hermits, is found the tradition of the via negativa, the negative way or path, which consists essentially in discarding that which is not divine or leading directly to God. But even here, the same named path in Meister Eckhart presents a different flavor than the practice of Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross. The latter seem to try to very consciously and deliberately to make their practice achieve transcendence. Their austerities and asceticism are genuine, but the force of these twin personalities — with John of the Cross attempting to describe like an early psychologist the road map to enlightenment — deprecates the quiet and dogged practice of “not this” with a sense of competition and pursuit. Hence the oscillating cycles of a “dark night of the soul” with “ecstasies,” which are identified as elements of Western mysticism but which are unknown in the quieter personalities of Orthodoxy or Asian traditions.
Is mysticism the same as enlightenment? Does the variety of personalities suggest a variety of religious experiences other than the generalities described by William James? The mystic connotes a forward and assertive personality eager to plumb the depths of a vision. However, the excesses of such a pursuit can easily conflate a sense of power with exceptionalism that alienate others — and in the cases of Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, and John of the Cross got them into trouble with authorities. In these cases, the mystics’ troubles arose due to intolerance by authorities, but authorities are bound to be skeptical and strive to uphold orthodoxy. Historically, then, the troubles were due to the absence of an important component of most Western traditions: eremitism.
Ecclesiastical authorities in the medieval West (and thereafter) knew that asceticism can lead to disenchantment with the world that may culminate in disenchantment with authority because authority always lacks a certain moral force to temper its power. Asceticism is this moral force lacking in institutions and their representatives. Thus asceticism was curbed by communitarian settings in monasteries and convents. Hermits were looked upon with suspicion, literally confined and yet observable in the case of female religious in anchorholds, or regulated into orders in the case of men, until eremitism disappeared in the West in the 16th century.
But historically wherever eremitism was safeguarded, and popular sentiment saw the hermit as a reservoir of wisdom, including the hermit’s critique of communitarian, social and power settings, eremitism was able to provide the physical conditions for the way or path originally mentioned as the prerequisite to enlightenment.
This is why the Christian desert hermits read so refreshingly in contrast to the later mystics, who while diligent in their attempts to articulate their understanding, nevertheless must be intentionally vague not only because of the nature of their experiences but because of the scrutiny of authorities. In comparison, the solitaries of the East historically could write and communicate more freely and openly because their eremitism had no oversight.
It is only natural that solitude frees the self to pursue a path that is always difficult in the world, especially when the world consists of deliberate hostility towards a serious eremitic path. The Western world (and its imitators today) does not so much offer the freedom to pursue solitude as it offers autonomy. Autonomy means that anyone can do anything. Autonomy is a flexible social latitude and contrived functional tolerance afforded individuals who stay within spheres of normality. But autonomy is the continuity of ancient authority, still defining the lines of behavior and demarcating through culture and technology preferred practices and behaviors. This autonomy represents a spiritual chaos. At the same time that it is destroying the cultural environment for pursuit of a path, autonomy is destroying nature and viable forms of solitary labor and self-sufficiency.
The solitary will find many obstacles to daily practice, and especially to enlightenment practice, which today requires a certain understanding of what the modern world is doing. Such a current awareness overlaps with trivia, news, gossip, celebrity, and power, all inimical to the tranquility required by the solitary. Yet trustworthy monasteries and anchorholds are fewer and fewer because their trustworthiness is always in question by solitaries leery of power, abuse, and interaction with others. Fewer and fewer, too, are isolated places in the world where nature is undisturbed and exploited. The cell must be one’s retreat, and the descent of quiet our mental atmosphere. Above all, attuning to one’s personality, conforming oneself to the personality patterns of past adepts, is a profoundly individual task but the only way to insight.