The Enlightenment Lottery
There’s a documentary made in 2009 about spirituality called Who’s Driving the Dreambus? It includes interviews with a number of prominent spiritual teachers (Jeff Foster, Timothy Freke, Gangaji, Amit Goswami, Boris Jänsch, Tony Parsons, Genpo Roshi, Guy Smith) and gives a fairly useful overview of contemporary spirituality. For one thing, almost everyone in the movie agrees that there is nothing the seeker needs to “do” to get enlightened. But while I was watching it I started to wonder, if that were the case, why were all these spiritual adepts even talking about it? Why not talk about beekeeping or baseball? Wasn’t listening to a spiritual teacher tell us there’s nothing to do to get enlightened doing something? Why even make the movie?
I found myself wondering, did spiritual teachers teach that there was nothing to do because it was what sold? Was it a way of giving people a reassuring message to go home with so they would come back for more—roughly the same thing Christianity had been doing for centuries: selling salvation by fiat? It doesn’t matter to most seekers if what they take away with them is negligible to the point of non-existence; it’s the equivalent of buying a lottery ticket. What’s being purchased is hope. And since hope is blind, it doesn’t really matter how bad the odds are.
Like winning the lottery, enlightenment is the ultimate and absolute life changer. It fits comfortably on the cosmic menu alongside “God,” “truth” and “Heaven”: if there is such a thing, it’s the only thing that counts. Like filthy riches to the unwashed poor, once its existence becomes known about, life becomes dull and grey without it. Our cup becomes forever half empty.
Like Santa for kids, it doesn’t matter if the enlightenment or salvation being offered is real or not so long as the belief in it is. Belief in unreal concepts creates perpetual demand, which, as every businessman knows, is the key to a healthy market. Look at how advertising imbues the most ordinary products with magical qualities, as if a deodorant or beer could give its owner sexual magnetism. The product fails but the belief, the fantasy, and the hope remain, and the consumer keeps coming back for more.
The hardest drug to quit is the drug that almost works. Whether it’s sex, drugs, money, or food, we get addicted to the pleasures that nearly give us what we’re looking for (relief from the misery of our lives) but never quite do. If spiritual beliefs and practices were a total bust, we would lose interest in them. If they really worked, we wouldn’t need them because we’d be enlightened. What makes spirituality endlessly fascinating to seekers is that it keeps promising to work but never quite does. Like gamblers who almost win the jackpot before losing everything, spiritual seekers keep coming back for more, and the spiritual marketplace thrives.
Just like the desire for effort-free wealth, the desire for spiritual attainment is so powerful that seekers aren’t discouraged by the paltriness of the products and services on offer, any more than a lottery ticket buyer is discouraged by the odds. Seekers always believe they will beat the odds. The spiritual market, like Las Vegas, preys on naiveté and optimism. A gambler’s handbook that had hard and fast, verifiable methods for winning would bring down the gambling business. A true and effective spirituality would be the end of the spiritual market.
The only means to that end is to strip away all of the misconceptions about spiritualty and see what’s left—if anything. It’s possible that, like Las Vegas or the global economy, once we are able to see the inner workings of the spiritual marketplace, we’ll discover it’s corrupt to the core and be forced to throw it away and start from scratch. Dire as such a scenario may seem to some, the alternative is to stay shackled to a system whose only purpose is the fattening of the few and the exploitation of the many. The sheep-like seeker is forever numbered with the fleeced, and following a guru or a spiritual system may be about as smart as trying to take snapshots of the sharks while our ship is sinking.