Enlightenment: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?

Enlightenment: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?

I’ve been reading a lot of books about enlightenment lately, and I still don’t have a clue as to what it is and why it matters. Can you help?
Think of it this way: You suddenly find yourself at the center of a huge room so dark that you are unable to see your hand in front of your face. Wandering around in the dark, you continually crash into objects and become quite battered. In time, you grow hungry and thirsty and realize that unless you find a way out of the room, you will die. Determined to alleviate your suffering you work diligently to find a wall, and then feel along the wall looking for a door. In time, you come across a light switch. Throwing the switch, the room is bathed in light, and you make your way effortlessly to the exit. As you leave the room you discover an infinite number of other rooms, each inhabited by people desperately seeking a way out. You go from room to room, showing people where the light switch is. Throwing the switch is enlightenment. Helping others do the same is why it matters.

My husband and I have an on-going argument about the origins of evil. I say it comes from people; he says it comes from God. What do you think?
I think people come from God, so you’re both right. I also think you’re asking the wrong question. Good and evil go together the way up goes with down, and front goes with back. You cannot have one without the other because there is no one or the other. There is only the singular yet multifaceted reality out of which we arise, in which we live, and to which we return upon death. Rather than debate metaphysical abstractions, why not explore your definitions of good and evil. For me, “good” is that which reduces needless suffering, and “evil” is that which increases it. Once you have defined your terms, you can then discuss how to “turn from evil and do good” (Psalms 34:14). I promise you: this will be a far more fruitful discussion.

My grandmother died three years ago, and I’m convinced that I sense her comforting me in times of despair. Is she really here, or is this a figment of my imagination?
Yes! Yes, if you are feeling a comforting energy that you identify as your grandmother, then of course she is there. And yes, this is a gift of your imagination. Don’t disparage imagination; it is at the core of all human genius. When a person we love dies, we are left with clear impressions of that love, and it is a wonderful act of imagination to tap into those impressions in a manner that brings us comfort. Human life operates on a number of planes: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. If you sense your grandmother comforting you on any of these dimensions, be grateful, and don’t forget to tell her you love her. After all, “love is stronger than death” (Song of Songs, 8:6).

I have been struggling with my religious identity for years. How do we “know” what religion we are? How do I know if I am Jewish or Christian or Buddhist?
Let me start by saying that while I respect labels such as Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist, I am leery of them. Labels like these carry so much baggage and determine what we think, how we act, whom we love, and whom we fear. So while I am proudly Jewish, the way another may be proudly Cherokee or Chippewa, I am careful not to let my tribal roots define me fully or limit me spiritually or politically.

Regarding your specific question, I would suggest changing your focus from identity to practice. Focusing on spiritual practice shifts the question from “Who am I?” to “What works for me? What brings me closer to truth and helps me live justly and compassionately?” Focusing on practice allows you to learn from and adopt teachings, texts, and contemplative tools from different (often competing) religious systems without having to burden yourself with the baggage of any of them.

You don’t have to know what you are; you have to do what you can to draw nearer to truth. If you find that the practices that work for you come from one particular religion, you might explore taking on that label. But if you find yourself blessed with practices from different traditions, stick with the practices and leave the labeling to others.

I’ve been thinking about going on a spiritual retreat. Do retreats help?
It depends. “To retreat” means to cease attacking one’s enemies. A spiritual retreat promotes the cessation of hostilities with your spiritual enemies — all those thoughts, feelings, words, and actions that perpetuate fear, anger, ignorance, and otherness, and keep you from realizing your true nature as a manifestation of the one Life that manifests as all life. If the retreat you are planning does this, it probably will be very beneficial.

A retreat, however, is not a panacea. Spiritual maturity is the capacity to live from your true nature in the midst of the everyday madness of the ordinary world. If going on retreat is a substitute for maturation, allowing you to escape from the world rather than helping you transform it by living more lovingly in it, don’t waste your money. If it is a means to maturation, however, if it is a place where you will learn and practice the arts of contemplation, and compassionate and just engagement with self and others — go! And go often.

My pastor was driving drunk and his wife was killed when he slammed his pickup into a tree. He says it was God’s way of telling him to get sober. What do you think?
I think God should have spared your pastor’s wife, and sent your pastor a copy of Alcoholics Anonymous: Big Book instead. The fact that your pastor believes God (and not the pastor himself) is responsible for his wife’s death, and that God killed her to improve him, suggests that your pastor is not only an alcoholic but a narcissist as well. Beware of those who do harm to others and see it as a blessing from God.

My sister and I play this game all the time: We recite all the rules of our religion and then look around to see how many people are going to hell. We start with strangers and then look at friends and even our parents. In the end, we end up being the only people in heaven. Is that possible?
I doubt it. Given the rules of your game and your passion for playing it, where you’re going has nothing to do with heaven.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, poet, and teacher. His most recent book is The Angelic Way: Angels through the Ages and Their Meaning for Us (Bluebridge). To send him questions, email [email protected].

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