Enlightenment is Dead

It is written that the path to enlightenment, and the mystical experience of spiritual reality, is tied to some sort of death. That to be illuminated and holy, your ego has to die forever. You shed your identity like a caterpillar and become one with your universe; a giant, happy skippy butterfly of a universe.

Others write the opposite; that ego cannot die, but that enlightenment is a transcendence of ego. You still have ego, but you’re also (potentially) above it. As Joseph Campbell wrote, “it is not the death of ego, but the dying to ego-attachment.” Instead of being another fixed form asshole on planet Earth, you’re loosey-goosey, fluid, easy-going, and able to put others before yourself.

I think that neither of these messages is really hitting home in the self-exploring, spiritual communities within and without the New Age. I believe there is confusion as to the concept of death, a confusion which is as deep-seated in the human psyche as it is difficult to grasp.

Thankfully, Freud had a name for this ‘complex’. He called it Thanatos, or the death drive. Basically, he said, there are two contending forces in each of us; the will to live, and the desire to be dead. Eros and Thanatos. Thanatos, if I may paraphrase, is self-destructive, a wish to be gone with all the hurt, the anguish, the bullshit. Just peace.

Apparently we all have it to some degree. I’m not a big Freud fan, but let me show you how this concept seems to apply to many seekers of enlightenment.

A personal example will illustrate my point. One day I was surfing the web and I found an ‘online ashram,’ or an online spiritual community based on Hindu practices. Intrigued, I watched clips of a white, middle-aged lady composing herself and dressing herself as an Eastern guru, or teacher, and I read some articles that explained her basic philosophy. It came down to the point that oneness, the mystical and glorious union with all reality of the highest spiritual experience, is actually just one step along the path to true enlightenment. And the real goal of every seeker, she said, should be to surpass that into what she calls a “zero state.” Here all identity ends, even the undifferentiated, blissful identity of oneness, and there is basically nothing. Zero. If you can imagine what ‘nothing’ is like.

Put another way, the main goal of this online ashram is to die while still being alive. Ego death, oneness death, everything death. Doesn’t it sound like they want to create zombies? Here’s the thing. I’ve experienced something similar to the ‘zero state’ myself and thought, ‘this is not for me.’ I wasn’t ready to step all the way in. Basically, I came back because I wasn’t ready to die, mentally or physically.

In this particular spiritual community, the Freudian urge to be rid of life, and of having to live and experience and feel and feel bad at times, has become an ultimate mystical doctrine.

Granted, for some people this might be desirable. It may even be your destiny. You might believe yourself that oneness is passé. But for most of us it’s more important to recognize the death drive for what it is, and weigh the balance to see if we don’t favor life after all: that oneness is great, and it’s good enough for us.

Think about it. When others die, the world goes on. If we are up to it, how much greater a goal it is to be alive, to steer life with an awakened heart, and make this a playground for beings who we can become one with.

Hell, we’re all gonna die anyway. So why try so hard?

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