from The Psychology of Liberty
by Wes Bertrand © 2000, copylefted 2007

Historical/Religious Views Of Enlightenment

To see life from an emotionally enlightened perspective seems to be a driving force in most religions. Religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, or Judaism portray either some ideal or set of ideals to be strived for. These ideals are meant to bring about such things as happiness, personal fulfillment, and social benefit.

Each religion contains a rich history of how each arose and the processes by which each was refined. This is usually accompanied by an immensely diverse set of customs, practices, and rituals. These activities provide structure and organization that help unify people. Religious practices, such as going to church, enable like-minded persons to share experiences and participate in events that cater to desires of togetherness and belongingness. Social needs are thus met and a deeper feeling of relatedness and sense of community can be fostered.

To concentrate on the various teachings of religious belief systems (i.e., the values and virtues they propagate) would of course lead to a book in itself. However, it is important to consider the psychological essentials they convey. These essentials are the building blocks for an “enlightened” state that billions of people strive to embrace. Seen as giving hope to people, these essentials can be viewed as a form of layman’s psychology. They try to explain and even rectify dilemmas about reality, mental processes, emotions, and social relationships in commonsensical or intuitive ways.

Children far and wide are encouraged to study religious teachings. When trying to make sense of the world, some kind of stable set of beliefs about how to live one’s life has immense appeal. Much of what a person learns about ideas and emotions comes from people immediately around him or her. Often, children absorb the values and beliefs most readily available; adults provide a specific context for them. Hence, it is not surprising to find Taoists in China, Hindus in India, Christians in the Western world, and so forth.

Children yearn to make sense of things. They also yearn for someone or something to help them figure out themselves and others. As they grow up, young persons can begin to deliberate the values and beliefs they have been offered, or they can simply accept them (for better or worse). Inevitably, though, people end up with thoughts and feelings about who they are and what is possible to them.

Regardless of the particular beliefs they acquire, people everywhere have at least a general feeling of what enlightenment is, or should be. This feeling is generally formed as one seeks to understand life in childhood. Children typically struggle constantly to make things intellectually and emotionally comprehensible (or at least secure). In fact, it is highly unusual for a child to not ask questions about the nature of people, things, and the universe in general.

Yet those who desire others to adopt a particular belief system may want to spare newcomers the task of thinking independently and figuring out one’s emotional world for oneself. They may want to make it seem as if all one’s questions have been miraculously answered—as if one’s internal troubles have been swiftly alleviated—as if one’s quest for understanding has been greatly shortened.

Unfortunately logic is not normally applied to many of the messages sent by religious doctrines and practices. As a result, contradictory answers to a variety of life’s questions can overwhelm the logical ones. Parents and other adults can make it easy or difficult for a child to continue questioning what enlightenment means. When they give a child truthful (i.e., noncontradictory) answers, or when they at least admit to not knowing the correct answers, they allow a child to make sense of things. Pretense is thus avoided. However, contradictory answers (whether or not fully recognized as such) typically must be wrapped in enticing or powerful emotional packages. They often target the child’s feelings of self-worth through external validation and various rewards and punishments.

By taking these potential problems into account, we are able to objectively examine various religions for logical clarity. Again, each religion has some sort of idea of what it means to be emotionally fulfilled, so let us review a few. Although, we must keep in mind that many aspects of a particular religion can be viewed in the literal sense or in the metaphorical sense. Even those individuals who subscribe to the same religion can have quite different interpretations of it.

Essentially for the Hindu, enlightenment is called nirvana. It is a state of feeling in harmony with one’s task to be fulfilled. Although, traditionally, complete nirvana is supposed to be reached after death, it can also be understood to occur primarily when one has renounced the things in life that trouble one’s self—such as desires. One thereby becomes somewhat “unattached” to self and the world.

Nirvana, as a state of enlightenment (achieved, in this sense, during one’s life), relates to a generalized description of who one should be, regardless of what one actually does. Irrespective of one’s particular “dharma,” or duty, it points to a longing to be content with one’s life. One is free from senseless desires, frustrations, and conflicts. This longing can be realized in any number of ways and practices (Yogas). Here is a passage of what it means to be divine from a book of Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita:

A man who is born with tendencies toward the Divine, is fearless and pure in heart. He perseveres in that path to union with Brahman [the Godhead, essence of the universe], which the scriptures and his teacher have taught him. He is charitable. He can control his passions. He studies the scriptures regularly, and obeys their directions. He practises spiritual disciplines. He is straightforward, truthful, and of an even temper. He harms no one. He renounces the things of this world. He has a tranquil mind and an unmalicious tongue. He is compassionate toward all. He is not greedy. He is gentle and modest. He abstains from useless activity. He has faith in the strength of his higher nature. He can forgive and endure. He is clean in thought and act. He is free from hatred and from pride. Such qualities are his birthright.

When a man is born with demonic tendencies, his birthright is hypocrisy, arrogance, conceit, anger, cruelty and ignorance.73(p.114)

Clearly, these statements outline many favorable virtues for individuals to practice. Yet simultaneously a few statements need explanation and justification, such as renouncing the things of this world and being free from pride. Even the idea of obeying the directions of scripture can be problematic. It makes one immediately wonder whether the scripture is always right, and how such a practice can accommodate personal autonomy and independent thought.

Of course, the first and last sentences from the above quote must be dismissed as contradictory if they are not judged metaphorically. The notion of “divine” or “demonic” tendencies in a volitional being is untenable. Nevertheless, such statements are what make Hinduism a religion believed and practiced in all its forms and facets by hundreds of millions of people. Selection of the good in writings like this definitely points to trying to find and maintain a certain degree of psychological awareness.

Yet in the search for the good, one can learn to tolerate the bad by overlooking or disregarding it. When people do exactly this on a regular basis, they may never critically inspect popular ideas and practices for contradictions. Maybe, then, the bad becomes the not-so-bad, and eventually the acceptable.

One can find various ideas and directives about self-renunciation, submission, endurance, and self-effacement in Hindu works. These naturally may be used to make dire social and political conditions seem more tolerable. After all, the pervasive religious ideas of sacrifice, selflessness, and renouncement of earthly things have been used for centuries in this endeavor.

But Hinduism is definitely not alone when it comes to ideas about surrender of self and worship of the various symbols in scripture. One can find overt statements about this in the ancient Chinese literature of Taoism. It is readily apparent in one of the Taoist scriptures, the Tao Te Ching. The following statements represent admonishments to any ruler of people:

It is just because one has no use for life that one is wiser than the man who values life.(p.137)

Do that which consists in taking no action; pursue that which is not meddlesome; savour that which has no flavour.Make the small big and the few many; do good to him who has done you an injury.(p.124)

Exterminate the sage, discard the wise, And the people will benefit a hundredfold; Exterminate benevolence, discard rectitude, And the people will again be filial; Exterminate ingenuity, discard profit, And there will be no more thieves and bandits.These three, being false adornments, are not enough And the people must have something to which they can attach themselves: Exhibit the unadorned and embrace the uncarved block, Have little thought of self and as few desires as possible.(p.75)

Not to honour men of worth will keep the people from contention; not to value goods which are hard to come by will keep them from theft; not to display what is desirable will keep them from being unsettled of mind. Therefore in governing the people, the sage empties their minds but fills their bellies, weakens their wills but strengthens their bones. He always keeps them innocent of knowledge and free from desire, and ensures that the clever never dare to act.Do that which consists in taking no action, and order will prevail.102(p.59)

Naturally, the beliefs involved in these statements can foster quite terrible social and political situations. In fact they may be instrumental in relegating hundreds of millions of people to conditions of poverty, disease, and famine. Although singled out from the full context of Taoism, these statements have a definite influence—no matter how much they are embellished or minimized. As in all religions, many notable exceptions do exist. But the bad tends to drive out the good; contradictions tend to drive out truths. No matter how they are interpreted, statements such as the above run counter to what we have discussed so far about the nature of living organisms.

Life for human beings is a process of self-generated and self-sustained action.75 For an organism to stop taking the actions that its nature requires assuredly means death. For humans, to fail to act, to fail to assert one’s needs, desires, goals, and ambitions is, at best, to remain in a state of half-life/half-death—to lose much of one’s dignity. At worst, it is to take steps backward in development, to regress to the point of dissolution of consciousness and being.

The state of half-life/half-death can be furthered with the common religious (and secular) conception of contentment. People can settle for a set mode of living and endure this condition to the end. Instead of realize one’s full potential, one can dispense with happiness and believe that desires frequently lead to frustration or wrongdoing. Consequently, people should be content with, among other things, the despots who rule over them as well as the existence these rulers helped create.

When a person cannot make sense of his or her inner (and outer) world, the self becomes fragmented. It may become something mysterious that seems to be influenced by strange forces. Conflicts between emotions, clashes among thoughts, and inconsistencies among values become regular troubles. During this process, a person may come to view the self as the root of all that is bad. He or she may think that the self is to blame for all the anger, hatred, resentment, contempt, and evil found in the world. Since problems with the self cause such things as fear, anxiety, and torment, the self should be scorned, repudiated, disowned.

However, problems will not begin to vanish when one has renounced the self. Life will not suddenly become more wholesome, serene, and beautiful. To believe that these things will occur is to default on understanding the nature of human consciousness and the nature of reality. Ultimately, we have two basic choices: conclude that what one has been offered for enlightenment is either wrong or insufficient and continue looking for a better way—or settle for whatever is most emotionally appealing at a particular time.

Buddhism is another religion that stresses becoming selfless and meshing with the totality of existence. Yet it does have sometimes a different emotional tone about enlightenment. One focuses on a personal grasp of one’s being in reality. An emphasis is placed on the proper mindset to act in the most enlightened way, and an increase in one’s present moment awareness is key in this process. Along with such things as meditation and concentration exercises (which can be found in other religions as well), many paradoxical statements are provided for a person to untangle.

Aspects of Zen Buddhism, for example, help one achieve a heightened sense of awareness and a state of relaxation in tasks, in which one does not try too hard. Zen assists one to integrate mind and body, which enables a person to function precisely and gracefully without being hindered by unwanted mental conflicts or distractions. Not surprisingly, Zen-like teachings are commonly used for practice of the martial arts. They aid the body and mind to act as a unified whole. The following is a list of thoughts from a collection of Zen writings:

Consider your essence as light rays rising from center to center up the vertebrae, and so rises livingness in you.(p.162)

Consider any area of your present form as limitlessly spacious.(p.164)

Feel your substance, bones, flesh, blood, saturated with cosmic essence.(ibid.)

Abide in some place endlessly spacious, clear of trees, hills, habitations. Thence comes the end of mind pressures.(p.166)

Feel cosmos as translucent ever-living presence.(ibid.)

With utmost devotion, center on the two junctions of breath and know the knower.(ibid.)

On joyously seeing a long-absent friend, permeate this joy.(p.167)

Wherever satisfaction is found, in whatever act, actualize this.(ibid.)

In summer when you see the entire sky endlessly clear, enter such clarity.(ibid.)

See as if for the first time a beauteous person or an ordinary object.(p.168)

Each thing is perceived through knowing. The self shines in space through knowing. Perceive one being as knower and known.86(p.174)

As one ponders over these, one might feel more at peace with oneself and the world. Being at peace is one of the main goals of most religions, Zen in particular. Certainly this idea points directly to psychological enlightenment.

But the idea of losing the self can readily be found in the writings and teachings of Buddhism too (it appears to be a general theme in Eastern philosophy). Part of this idea may involve striving to not be self-conscious in a way that inhibits spontaneous functioning; we all may be familiar with our capacity for unnecessary self-censorship. Yet the notion of losing the self most probably originates—as mentioned before—from the idea that self-conflict and self-torment are the main factors in all the disdain and problems with people.

Still, we can never fix a problematic self by running away from it. To become enlightened in the genuine intellectual and emotional sense we have to examine, understand, and remedy troublesome emotional conflicts. Only after we have accomplished this can we begin to live freely.

To finish the spectrum of orthodox religions, we turn to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Even though Islam differs more in its historical origin and scripture, it nonetheless presents its doctrines in the same kind of format as the other two. Enlightenment for the Christian, Hebrew, and Moslem entails study of structured moral teachings and doctrines. Many stories and examples (morals) are given to provide an overall picture of how one should live one’s life. Diligent reading of scriptures enables one to become more knowledgeable about this. Religious stories typically are interpreted to be passed on by God (e.g., Yahweh, or Allah), by an incarnation of God (e.g., Jesus), and by one or more prophets (e.g., Muhammad).

The various morals to be followed are well known in our culture—for example, the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament. “Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” “Thou shalt not kill,” and numerous other moral edicts are heeded in order to be pious and virtuous.

The ways in which the Old Testament, the Koran, and the New Testament can be interpreted are probably as numerous and multifaceted as the people studying them. With so much complexity and so many dimensions of thinking and literary emotional expression, a plethora of understandings and insights are bound to arise. Nonetheless, the yearnings for enlightenment and a psychology free of conflict are addressed by the many denominations of these religions. As one studies and practices their teachings, one strives to be a more fulfilled person.

For instance, Jesus Christ represents what enlightenment is or should be in Christianity. His words and actions are of paramount importance in determining how one should live. He was on Earth to spread the word of God to humankind (similar to the prophet Muhammad). For the Christian, emphasis is placed on being a virtuous person who does not indulge in immoral acts (as the religion interprets them). Trying to be free from sin, coupled with repenting and seeking atonement for one’s sins, are often seen as the practices that bring enlightenment.

These brief descriptions of aspects of the world’s major religions are useful in showing that people everywhere may be in search of essentially the same things: personal fulfillment and happiness. Many people accept and practice certain religious teachings in order to derive psychological health and moral guidance. And children around the world either willingly or somewhat reluctantly adopt various religions and philosophies that are believed to be helpful by their parents, teachers, and contemporaries.

However, we must not overlook the main difficulty with religions in general. Many accept the notion that having faith in the realm of philosophical views is preferable to actually having coherent, fact-based knowledge. Hence, unfounded assertions from ancient texts and beliefs in events that allegedly require no demonstration or validation replace logical integration. In addition, many religious doctrines preclude the attainment of enlightenment because their context of understanding is based heavily on inarticulate feeling, instead of rational understanding. Such an imbalance soon loses respect for logical thought and objectivity.

Religions involve many philosophical issues of course. Yet in the midst of myriad sensible statements, one also finds a variety of illogical notions. Insuperable contradictions can be found in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, as well as politics. In religious teachings, important words—for example, truth, honesty, and life—can be rendered meaningless because they are not taken epistemologically seriously.

In order to advocate truth, one must know (i.e., define) what words mean in logical terms. This goes back to Rand’s statement that the truth or falsehood of a person’s convictions rests on the truth or falsehood of his or her definitions. When a concept is vaguely or illogically defined, it can become an anti-concept, that is, a concept that obfuscates or denies logical interpretation of the term.81 Thus, “truth” in reference to believing in the supernatural is quite different than scientific or logical truth. “Honesty” in reference to preaching life after death is quite different than acknowledgement of the facts of reality; necessarily, the meaning of “life” changes too.

Despite the emotional tasks, values, and goals of various religions, in order to free ourselves from psychological conflict we must use logic. If we ignore logic, we ignore the significance of contradictions. Rectifying contradictions must be done by the self-directed focus of an independent mind——a mind that is not compelled by others (or perhaps more ominously or mysteriously for a child, by an omnipresent God). This is why so many morals, commandments, admonishments, rules, guidelines, and emotional appeals are of so little help. And this exposes another detrimental aspect of most religious teachings.

Regardless of the rationality or irrationality of their values and virtues, many religions are authoritarian in nature. What they espouse is thought to come from a higher or more powerful authority than one’s own mind. Consequently, religious doctrines and rituals tend to maintain an unchallengeable nature. Self-surrender and obedience to the teachings are required to properly live and learn by them; questioning the doctrines in any fundamental way is forbidden. Certainly this can wreak havoc. For instance, it can hamper the fostering of trust in oneself to be an authentically thinking and feeling individual.50 We must be able to question authority as well as search for logical answers.

To begin the quest for enlightenment with unidentified or vague feelings is to potentially create major disappointments and difficulties. To use such feelings to accept any doctrine that hints of bringing enlightenment (or at least a doctrine that calms possible fears and insecurities), is to not honor one’s rational faculty. Hoping to achieve happiness (or enlightenment, or a clear state of mind) will usually not get us there.

Blind belief based primarily on feelings undercuts the only faculty we have to distinguish truth from falsehood, good from bad, real from unreal, and objective knowledge from mere arbitrary assertion. To use our mind to deny our mind is definitely contradictory.

Enlightenment entails not only the utilization of logic, but also psychological awareness, which leads to mental health. To grasp our philosophical and scientific base of understanding in these areas, we need to know what discoveries have been made about the mind. We need to know what emotions and feelings are, and how they relate to thoughts. We need the knowledge to enable us to accomplish the objectives being sought. Taking this approach puts the horse in front of the cart, so that logical analysis is possible.

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