You're Enlightened. Now What?
Suppose you are enlightened. Whether it was because you were born into it, stumbled into it, or worked at it, no matter. Perhaps you ate some magic mushrooms. Perhaps you had an epiphany on a park bench. Perhaps you spent decades meditating in a monastery. Perhaps you read a self-help book or attended a retreat or some high-end executive workshops. How do you translate the experience or insight into the wider world?
Do you try to turn your experience into a commodity so that everyone gets to have more of it, on the cheap? Do you create a tribe of like minded missionaries?
What makes you think that your company or religion or city-state will avoid all the pitfalls that have traditionally bogged every other cult: authoritarianism, corruption, hypocrisy, compromised quality produced by effects at scale? Why should you be exempt from “the innovator’s dilemma?” Doesn’t every new Jesus eventually become a Grand Inquisitor? Is enlightenment compatible with bureaucracy?
You describe your experience as one in which you realize everything is one. You are photosynthesis. You are infinitely compassionate and truly feel the pain of all beings.
But there are political considerations. Will you go to war to protect your values and ideals against those who are not infinitely compassionate and do not feel the pain of all beings? Will you renounce your family and your communities of origin so as not to be overly tied down in your loyalties, being free to love everyone all the same? But you will have to choose a country in which to live? You already speak English and are unlikely to learn more than one or two second languages.
Edmund Burke, fondly quoted by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism, writes, “I prefer the rights of an Englishman to the Rights of Man.” But as an Enlightened person which will you prefer? The protections afforded by particular group identity, or the ideals of one global cosmopolitan non-identity?
Perhaps you have no theory of change, no desire to change anything, since everything is already perfect and one. If so, perhaps there is nothing to do. You can continue working in corporate law and noticing the splendor of the stack of paper work on your desk.
But a question nags at you: why can’t the world already know what you know? They’d be so much better off. So much happier.
You map it out. A theocracy will be necessary, with you at the head, or as part of a council of sages. But what do you know about education and foreign policy, ecology and immigration, tax reform and monetary policy? All you know is that you are everything and nothing.
Should you hire people to advise you or to act on your behalf even though they aren’t enlightened, having spent their time specializing on practical things instead of watching their breath pass in and out of their nostrils? Maybe they don’t need to be enlightened, after all. It is enough to have a division of labor.
But what about the feeling you had, originally, that everybody deserves to have the same kind of transformative experience that you had when you were at burning man? On the other hand, somebody has to do the paperwork…
What do you do? You begin to wonder: is enlightenment practically directive, practically neutral, or perhaps, you sometimes worry, impractical and maybe even anti-practical.
Hi Zohar! I'm coming to this late but I just found this blog through a comment on Astral Codex Ten.
I'm really enjoying reading through your whole back catalogue, but this post in particular really resonated with me!
I'm a grad student studying meta-ethics/practical philosophy, specifically the work of Christine Korsgaard. But the question that drew me to grad school as opposed to a monastery was this: 'why did the Buddha cross the road?'
In other words, when the housebuilder has been seen and builds houses no more (!), when the self has been uprooted, by what roots are we connected to the practical world? Even supposing our embodied practical knowledge continues to reproduce a world of ends, tools, and obstacles, what principle would regulate our navigation through this world, if we have ceased to identify with our principles?
I've been trying to develop an answer to this question, and I have some ideas, but it sure is a stinker of a question!
Great read Rabi. Thanks for offering these important considerations. They actually inspired me to write an article of my own, somewhat in response to yours but with an “alternative” angle. Would be super interested if you’d read it and let me know your thoughts. Best wishes!