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The Dark Side of Enlightenment

Ignorance is bliss. We’ve all heard that catch-phrase. And we all know it’s woefully true. Buddhism and other enlightenment seeking’ spiritual schemas offer tools for dealing with the pain that accompanies ‘awakening.’ Because in truth, when we ‘wake up,’ what are we bringing into our awareness? The depressing and ugly First Noble Truth: Life is Suffering.

Buddhism, specifically Vajrayana Buddhism (practiced in the region of Tibet) attempts to lighten the load of this truth by assuring us there is an escape route: Enlightenment can release us from the prison of suffering. Now, Vajrayana Buddhists (VB) would explain that the 8-fold path to enlightenment is not easy. What they will likely fail to divulge is how much suffering can be expected while navigating the 8-fold path.

Especially in modern-day America. In order to practice “right view, right intentions, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, etc. etc.,” we have to become massively aware of ourselves and the forces that influence and affect us. What I’ve come to discover is that Awareness IS the cause of Suffering. Remember, ignorance is bliss. Well, that means awareness is pain. In order to correct and attain ‘right view’ for example, I must observe and note everything about my current and past views to see what exactly is going on. Simply starting today with a ‘right view’ is impossible. I have to deconstruct and examine what constitutes my views up to this point. I have to understand where my views originate, why they’ve served me to this point and how they are flawed in order to correct and reapply them. Reflecting upon my views the privileged person that I am…not always so pleasant. In fact, before I thought upon my experience and it’s global cultural context, I wasn’t bothered by it all. Ignorance. But after more than a decade on the 8-fold path, world travels, many years of higher education, many years working with a wide variety of people and contemplating my views on all of it: I’m in deep, grave pain. Awakened. I’m devastated by the institutionalized oppression present in every country on earth. I’m baffled by the gross inequities caused by greed in every corner of the planet. I’m disgusted by the blood lust that continues to fuel wars, violence, and genocide. I’m humiliated by my unearned privileged position as a white American in a world where appearances still matter the most and keep me alive at the end of the day. And however infinitely important it is to know the truth of all of it because it’s real, I’ve never suffered so much as I do now. And all the meditation, deep breathing, yoga, and whatever else we can throw at it, doesn’t change the reality of who we are as humans and doesn’t hold a candle to the pain it causes me.

I hate to tell you VB, the only relief I find from the impossible practice of ‘right view’ is intentional Ignorance. I deliberately ‘check out’ by distracting myself with activities and made up worlds. I dance, listen to podcasts, cook, watch movies, talk with friends about trivial happenings, and desperately try not to think about all of the awful things happening to innocent people, animals, and plants right now at this very moment. Some people would try to spin my behaviors as ‘mindfulness’ tools that I’m using to assert my ‘right view’ in the world in order to manifest a better one. I’ve tried that trick myself. I’ll be honest; to live in the modern world today and try to be mindful, self-aware and informed every step of the way, requires more energy than all the meditation in the world could generate. Maybe I’m just not there yet. That’s what I expect the VB to say. I should remain diligent on the 8-fold path and in time I will see. Maybe it’s true. But I’m so tired and beat down with this awareness, I don’t see the payoff. Sure, I’m a better person on paper for taking in the ugly and letting it affect me. But am I happier? No. Am I enlightened? Somewhat yes. And it sucks.