Spiritual writers and teachers often use the word enlightenment. But what does this word really mean? The word enlightenment seems to mean different things to different people. In eighteenth century Europe, it meant a philosophy based on reason, not on tradition or superstition. In Eastern spiritual paths, it usually means transcending the physical plane to find a state of bliss beyond the sufferings of this world. In casual conversation, people will even speak of others with open-minded, progressive opinions as “enlightened.”
Whichever way you prefer to define the word, all of these cases have something in common, which can be found in the word itself. In the middle of the word enlightenment, you will find the word lighten, meaning “to relieve a burden in whole or in part.” Or, it can mean “to become lighter or less dark.” Both of these definitions describe the essence and purpose of the spiritual path: to lighten the burden of life in this world and to lighten the darker aspects of human character.
But how then do we lighten ourselves? How do we lighten our burdens and lighten our characters? The key is to examine our attachments, those things that we cling to in our minds so strongly that we cause pain to ourselves and others. This examination, this self-watching, can begin with understanding the three kinds of attachment: attachment to recognition, attachment to security, and attachment to control.
Recognition: The Desire to Be Special
The need to be special, to stand out, and to gain status above and beyond others causes much suffering in the world. To a large extent, this desire is ingrained in us from a very young age as we get extra positive attention for getting the best grades, for winning at sports, or for being the best looking or the most charismatic. When people are at the opposite end of the spectrum—unpopular or lacking in money and status—they are often unloved and undervalued. Naturally, we do not want this for ourselves, and so we seek to be seen as better than others around us, to place ourselves as high on the social hierarchy as possible.
The problem here is not that we are seeking to be the best. In and of itself, it is a great thing to try to be the best you can be at anything you do. The problem is when we lose sight of our true value—the value of our souls. Your value does not come from your achievements in this world, and neither does anyone else’s. If you devalue yourself or anyone else based on lack of status or accomplishment, you have sown the seeds of unhappiness for yourself and others. If you are fortunate, you can feel the joy of winning an Olympic gold medal or gaining entrance into a top university, but if you attach your value to these things, you will find that your joy is shallow and fleeting.
Security: The Yearning to be Safe
It is normal and natural to want to be safe. However, ironically, the world has made itself a very dangerous place because of this impulse. People stockpile guns and countries develop nuclear weapons all in the name of “security.” The problem is that total security is an illusion that can never be achieved, and spending your life seeking security leads to a lifetime lived in a state of fear and worry. The economy will never be 100 percent stable for all time. Other countries and people can act aggressively against us, no matter how much we build up our armies. A disease can grow to epidemic proportions and take your life at any time, too. These are just facts of life, and living in a state of fear will not change them. We can do our best to prepare for any eventuality, but remaining in a state of resistance against them is futile and miserable.
This is true for individuals, too. Becoming your best self will probably require being courageous in some way, so if you always play it safe, you won’t grow very much during your life. You will have to “stick your neck out” to become your best self, and there is no way you can guarantee that your risks will pay off. Also, you will have to open your heart fully to love fully, and there is no guarantee that someone won’t hurt you emotionally in exchange for your love. But the other choice—living a closed-hearted, safe life—is essentially a life wasted, devoid of growth and connection to other people.
Control: The Drive for Power
Perhaps the darkest side of human nature is our lust for power over other people. Human history is marred by endless stories of countless people oppressing and controlling others. Countless wars have been started because of this attachment, too, as people seek political, cultural, and ideological control of other people.
Even if you are a peace activist and a champion of oppressed people around the world, this attachment may affect you more than you think. Our personal relationships, too, are affected by our need to control how other people act and think. Many marriages and friendships end over petty differences in perspective and opinion. And even the most altruistic people can get caught up in thinking that others are “foolish” or even “evil” if their political and religious perspectives differ from their own. This need to control the minds and actions of others makes lasting peace impossible, both personally and globally.
Love, Not Attachment
It is important to understand that developing a stance of non-attachment is not the same as being calloused or uncaring. In fact, losing your attachments makes you freer to open your heart up wider. It is like being able to see the world from a higher perspective, from a God’s-eye view, if you will. Instead of only loving those to whom you are most attached—yourself, family, your religion, your political group, and your country—your heart can grow to embrace the whole world.
So, make loving more and loving better the object of your quest for non-attachment. You do not have to be perfect in this non-attachment; rather, it is a journey that slowly moves you from a small-minded perspective to a wider, all-inclusive perspective. The point is to look and to see what you are really doing to yourself and to others when you keep your love small and limited to your own self-interests. If you can commit to this, step by step you will come closer to the mountain top that is the true experience of enlightenment.