Higher Living Reflections

Twofold Path to Enlightenment

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world. – The Buddha

The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been kindness, beauty, and truth. – Albert Einstein

Three Sovereigns for Sara, which draws heavily from historical documentation, is a gripping drama of the Salem Witch Trials. In it, Vanessa Redgrave portrays Sarah Cloyce, one of three sisters accused of being witches. In a captivating court scene, Sarah is commanded to recite the Lord’s Prayer without error. She does so, but in the stilled hush of the room, the girls scream anew. They point to an invisible “yellow bird” fluttering by Sarah’s ear that tweeted the words of the prayer into her ear. At that moment, the enraptured hush of the spellbound court is shattered, and it becomes abuzz anew.

In exasperation, Sarah throws her hands into the air and directly and forcefully says, “What nonsense! Can’t you see the children are playacting?”

It’s not that they don’t see, but that they refuse to. They place their fear over their reason and allow the prevailing hysteria to rule. The adults fall into line – comply – and decide the girls’ “vision” proves Sarah guilty.

So began the history of conspiracy theoryism in American history and culture. Since then, it has been a meandering, circuitous path from Salem to QAnon. As the inimitable Yogi Berra put it, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

To enlighten presupposes a condition or state in which a person or people exist in darkness. Thus, enlightening is to shine a light upon to dispel ignorance and to make known truth.

The Witch Trials occurred during the nascent years of the Age of Enlightenment in which reason and science challenged the last vestiges of the Middle Ages in which mummery, superstition, and quackery acted as governing forces in human affairs. Thought leaders such as John Locke, Isaac Newton, Jacques Rousseau, and our Founders dispelled that nonsense by positing science and reason are indispensable to grasping reality.

In the East, two millennia before western minds were becoming enlightened, enlightenment in a different context became a prevailing ethos. In the fifth century BCE, Siddhartha Gautama introduced his philosophy of life that took a deeper look into ultimate reality. The Buddha set forth the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, which address suffering and right living. A core principle is that life is filled with suffering as the result of human wants and desires: Attachments. And fear. Fear of losing that which one holds dear, secular and beyond.

Though the two perspectives approach enlightenment differently, they overlap. In The Quantum and the Lotus – thank you, Claudia, for the gift – an astrophysicist and a Buddhist monk discuss how quantum physics dovetails with Buddhism. A conclusion that can be drawn from their exchange is that for one to attain true enlightenment, he/she must draw upon every aspect of his/her being. Not only brain power – thought – but also emotion, behavior, and spirit.  

The science of emotional intelligence confirms the Buddha’s insight, offering evidence we think what we feel and feel what we think. It is a circular, self-reinforcing interaction, which means we can be our own fount of joy or our own self-afflicting, wound-inflicting firing squad.

You choose.

There is no easy path to enlightenment. For the West’s great thinkers, it is largely through reason, observation, and objective, quantifiable evidence. In Buddhism, the path is more nebulous that can be considered this way:

Student: “How do I attain enlightenment.”

Teacher: “Pick up sticks and carry water.”

Student: “What should I do after enlightenment?”

Teacher: “Pick up sticks and carry water.”

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  • Jim Ringel
    March 3, 2021 at 1:19 am

    Nice touch point, Jerry. So then, the further point is–how do we keep from attaching to enlightenment. By letting it go.

    I appreciate this write-up. Keep the good stuff coming.

  • Rick Posner
    March 4, 2021 at 2:18 am

    Ahh yes! You gotta keep on pushin’!