Plumbers of Enlightenment
Enlightenment is illegitimate, not so much in the ordinary legal sense but in the wider sense of disowned and unrecognized. Unlike religion, there is no orthodoxy of enlightenment, because unlike religion, enlightenment can’t be a matter of faith. It must be one of certainty and practical realization. To become a practicing minister or a licensed physician, you need only to go through the proper channels and get registered. To become an enlightenment teacher—not in any real sense, but socially speaking—all you have to do is say that you are enlightened—or better yet, don’t say it, imply it. None of this makes the evening news. Enlightenment teachers are, with the odd exception on Oprah, illegitimate. It is a quack industry.
The irony, tragedy, and comedy of all this, for serious seekers, is that only when we get enlightened will we be able to decide who’s genuine and who isn’t. It takes an awakened being to recognize an awakened being. Yet, irony upon irony, self-professed enlightened teachers tend not to frequent the same spaces (you won’t be seeing Dueling Avatars on NBC any time soon). In fact, from what I’ve observed during my time on the marketplace, most spiritual teachers who claim to be enlightened (whatever word they use) tend to disparage other teachers, just like many businessmen badmouth their competition. They won’t actually name the inferior merchant (that’s bad taste and might hurt their public image), but instead they use vague and general terms of besmirchment, such as “Anyone who claims to be enlightened isn’t” (Tony Parsons, who claims to be liberated). Alternatively, they will infer, in a suitably humble and self-effacing tone, that their own realization status is higher or more real than anyone else’s. They may come up with different denominations—awakened, enlightened, liberated, actualized, realized—or suggest that there are many different levels, grades or stages of attainment. Good luck to the sincere seeker who seeks to make sense of all this. He or she will probably end up envying not only the ordinary consumer who considers all of it bunk, but the true believer who has found a spiritual teacher to reach the parts the others couldn’t and become comfortably encased in spiritual dogma, like a mosquito inside amber. Such encasement offers temporary respite from the endless quest, at least until the cracks start to appear, whereupon the quest commences anew.
The more these illegitimate concepts and values are popularized (tip of the hat to Shirley MacLaine, Deepak Choprah, and Eckhart Tolle), the more legitimate they become. If an enlightened master can appear on Oprah, there must be something in it. If celebrities have their gurus, the fans will soon want one too. The market rapidly expands, not through an influx of genuine, quality product but, au contraire, from a dirge of quickly and cynically knocked off imitations. Paradoxically, the more “respectable” (i.e., marketable) the product becomes, the more disreputable. And with the Internet, everybody (not just sisters) are doing it for themselves. Everybody can be a writer, an artist, a musician, a filmmaker, a porn star, a celebrity. As the spiritual market becomes legitimized (and spirituality becomes just another material pursuit), soon everybody can be an enlightenment teacher for a day. They won’t even have to learn guitar or Photoshop. Manifest destiny becomes The Secret. Whatever you believe becomes your reality and nobody else’s (besides paid subscribers).
The more spirituality and enlightenment become commodities, the more they are fixed as concepts in people’s minds, the more they coagulate into articles of belief and the further they get from reality. For the genuine seeker, it becomes harder and harder to get a bead on them or even to know what they are. The same thing happened with religion thousands of years ago. “God” went from something that couldn’t be named or represented visually but only experienced directly, to something that could be talked about (and have scriptural laws assigned to it) by people who had no experience of it. In the end, talking about God became a way to fake having had a genuine experience of God, until only the word was left and the people who talked about God the most were the furthest from Him. Ironically, this is a charge already being leveled at enlightenment teachers: if they talk about it they can’t be it. The trouble with this dictum (which does hold some truth) is that it leaves any genuine enlightenment teachers with no recourse. They may as well become plumbers and hope to enlighten people while they’re fixing their pipes.