What are the benefits of spiritual awakening? Why should everyone strive to become enlightened?
In your meditative journey, you experience what the authors call insights (vipassanā): epiphanies that dispel your illusions about life, revealing how it really is. These insights, which The Mind Illuminated calls “realizations,” enable you to reach enlightenment.
Once you’ve reached enlightenment, you and everyone else around you will experience the benefits listed below.
How Spiritual Awakening Benefits You
The authors say that one of the benefits of spiritual awakening is that you experience deep contentment because the five realizations free you from suffering. According to the authors, you suffer when you crave for pleasure to continue and pain to end. For example:
- After your vacation ends, you long for it to keep going.
- Your persistent toothache makes it hard to enjoy everyday life.
- You find the pain of losing a loved one unbearable.
Because pleasure is impermanent and pain is unavoidable, you’re in a constant state of craving, and so you constantly suffer.
By contrast, if you’re enlightened, the five realizations each help to cease your cravings. For instance, you might recognize that your cravings are impermanent and that they bring you suffering.
When enlightenment ends your cravings, you enjoy pleasurable experiences more because they feel sufficient and you don’t worry about them ending. For instance, you wouldn’t feel a looming sense of dread as your vacation came to a close.
(Shortform note: How can you enjoy everyday pleasurable experiences more if you haven’t yet achieved enlightenment? Psychology research suggests that you can do so by 1) planning for them in advance (as this builds pleasant anticipation) and 2) staying present while experiencing them. For example, plan a picnic in a park with your friends a week in advance, and while you’re there, avoid using your cell phones so you can fully appreciate nature, the food, and your conversations.)
Furthermore, when you’re enlightened, painful experiences bother you less because you no longer experience cravings to end pain. You experience pain as it really is: an impermanent physical and/or emotional sensation. A toothache is a painful sensation that will pass, and the loss of your friend is a painful emotion that will also pass.
(Shortform note: Even if you haven’t yet achieved enlightenment, there are still ways to manage painful experiences. In Self-Compassion, psychologist Kristin Neff says that you can do so by practicing self-compassion. When you’re suffering, gently comfort yourself; recognize that suffering is a universal experience; and refrain from either exaggerating or downplaying your suffering. For example, if you bomb an interview, first comfort yourself by remembering that your success at interviews doesn’t reflect your worthiness as a person. Then, recognize that many people find interviews challenging. Finally, take it easy for a day or two so you can recover from the painful experience—but avoid wallowing for a whole week.)
|Enlightenment and the Four Noble Truths|
These ideas about suffering, craving, and ceasing your cravings comprise the Buddha’s primary teachings, and they’re often organized into the Four Noble Truths:
Truth 1 (dukkha): Life is full of suffering. Some argue that “unsatisfactoriness” is a better translation of dukkha than “suffering” because it captures how constant craving makes us feel persistently dissatisfied.
Truth 2 (samudaya): You suffer because you crave permanence (such as youthful looks, enduring happiness, and long-lasting possessions). Some translations of this Truth call our craving for permanent pleasure “clinging” or “attachment,” and they call our craving for pain to end “aversion” or “hatred.”
Truth 3 (nirodha): You can end this suffering by realizing that you’ll never satisfy these cravings for permanence because everything is impermanent.
Truth 4 (magga): By living a lifestyle known as the Eightfold Path (which we’ll explore later), you can cease your cravings permanently and reach enlightenment.
How Enlightenment Benefits Others
The authors also say that your enlightenment benefits others. As previously noted, enlightenment is the result of strong mindfulness, and you continue to act mindfully when you’re enlightened: You behave intentionally rather than automatically. Therefore, you improve others’ lives by treating them with compassion. Furthermore, because you no longer chase cravings when you’re enlightened, you harm others less—for instance, you won’t cheat on your partner to pursue your craving for a more exciting relationship.
Cultivating Morality Through the Eightfold Path
The authors of TMI don’t explore in depth how to ensure your enlightened behavior benefits others, but the Eightfold Path—Buddha’s eight steps for achieving enlightenment and living a moral life—provides additional guidance. The steps of the Eightfold Path are:
- Right Speech: Avoiding hurtful speech, such as lies and unkind words
- Right Action: Treating others with love and compassion; abstaining from indulgence
- Right Livelihood: Pursuing work that contributes positively to society
- Right Effort: Eliminating cravings and harmful emotions
- Right Mindfulness: Cultivating mindfulness
- Right Concentration: Cultivating concentration
- Right Understanding: Understanding the Buddha’s teachings
- Right Intention: Cultivating mindsets that help with understanding these teachings
TMI primarily focuses on the fifth and sixth steps, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. The first three steps—Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood—together are called sila (“discipline”), and they concern morality and how you treat others. If you haven’t yet reached enlightenment and therefore still experience cravings that drive you to harm others, sila may offer guidance on minimizing the pain you cause. For instance, the step of Right Speech says that you should only speak when you have something useful and gentle to say, and you should avoid lying and gossiping.
If you’re interested in following the three steps of sila as part of your meditation practice, consider listening to dharma talks about sila or joining a sangha (a community of Buddhist practitioners) that emphasizes cultivating sila.
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