QUESTION: I am confused by one of your statements regarding enlightenment and ego. You have stated before that you can become enlightened and still be a jackass. I don’t quite understand how these two things are NOT related.

As I sit with myself and become more deeply aware of who I am as a divine being, am I not getting to know my ego? Isn’t this part of the process? I know I must be missing something here.

So, I guess my question would be, what is your definition of enlightenment? Is it an end goal or is it a process?

I ask this because as I go deeper inside myself, I’m finding that I am becoming even more confused. Words and definitions that I thought I understood are becoming more and more perplexing to me.

ANSWER: So glad that you are asking these questions. Far from inane, this line of questioning is crucial for our culture. Let’s start by remembering that all words are lies. At best they point somewhere towards the direction of what we are aiming for. Remember this fact when ruminating “as I go deeper inside myself, I’m finding that I am becoming even more confused. Words and definitions that I thought I understood are becoming more and more perplexing to me.” This is a positive development, as you are being shown the difference between conceptual knowledge and direct experience. One can read about an elephant or be told a story about it, but words pale when one is standing next to one.

To paraphrase Nisargadatta Maharaj: don’t worry about understanding, enough if you don’t misunderstand. Telling a story about something we have not tasted is tricky business. As the truth starts revealing itself to us, we realize that the reality and story are two very different things. Confusion can lead to more seeking and more desperation. Or it can lead to stepping aside from the mind and getting a glimpse into one’s true nature. The purpose of the use of koans in Zen is to bring about this breakthrough that you are describing: by first exhausting the mind and its storytelling capacity. Riddles like “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” can not be solved mentally, but the confusion and exhaustion of the mind in trying to answer it can lead to an insight to the greater nature of things.

In the journey towards ourselves, there is mental/conceptual understanding and knowing. Truth reveals itself through the latter and words are useless here. At best, they are a vague description that will definitely mislead us when we have no direct experience of it. Even the word “experience” is not correct, since an experience is an event; it has a beginning and an end. Your true nature just IS, it always has been, and always will be. Again words. It is like someone telling us stories of Niagara Falls while we are in the desert: a useful distraction maybe, but certainly not a thirst quencher.

The point that was being made with the statement about enlightenment and being a jackass was the delineation between doing spiritual work and psychological/therapeutic work. While the line between the two can crossover as well as be blurred many times, they are separate things. In a hyper-individuated culture such as ours, it is important to work on both ends of it: the psychological as well as spiritual. This is even more important when we notice that many of us come to spirituality as a refuge from early psychological wounding. That wounding has to be addressed via therapeutic work, otherwise it can lead to all kinds of havoc. Just observe all the power, money, and sex issues around spiritual communities. On top of that, there is a prevalent, albeit unconscious, magical thinking that spiritual understanding takes care of everything. It just is not so: it will not pay our rent, help us in our relationships, nor soften certain addictive behaviors.

We are lovers of stories, and spiritual stories about enlightenment have a special place in our hearts. We like to believe that once this thing called enlightenment happens, we have access to a magical potion and all our personality melts away and we are just kindness and love. Yes and no. Very few people would argue against Nisargadatta being enlightened. Read I Am That and every paragraph can blow us wide open. Watch videos of him and see how agitated and angry he could get with people that were not following his explanations. The point here is that certain vasanas or bodymind tendencies, such as anger, can continue even when enlightenment has occurred. Enlightenment changes the perspective, not the personality, although it can soften things. This fact does not fit in with our story of it.

As interesting as these discussions might be, they do not necessarily help us on our path. However, digging in and grappling with these issues internally is priceless. Keep questioning, entertain people's stories and explanations, but believe nothing. Do not settle until you know. Step away from your mind and the truth shall be perfectly clear.