Apotheosis—The Hero's Journey Leads to Nirvana

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Mind Illuminated" by Culadasa, Matthew Immergut, and Jeremy Graves. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is enlightenment meditation? What are five things you need to understand in order to be enlightened?

Enlightenment is the ultimate goal of meditation. In the same way that mindfulness requires strong concentration, enlightenment requires strong mindfulness.

Keep reading to learn how to practice enlightenment meditation, according to The Mind Illuminated.

Enlightenment Meditation

As you strengthen your mindfulness, you experience what the authors call insights (vipassanā): epiphanies that dispel your illusions about life, revealing how it really is. These insights, which we’ll call “realizations,” enable you to reach enlightenment. 

(Shortform note: Traditionally, enlightenment meditation includes two separate sets of teachings: teachings about concentration meditation (cultivating concentration and mindfulness) and teachings about insight meditation (experiencing realizations). The authors of TMI in some ways match this tradition: They present mastery of concentration meditation as something that makes practicing insight meditation easier. However, they also seem to suggest that concentration meditation itself can produce realizations, perhaps circumventing the need to practice insight meditation separately.)

The Five Realizations

According to the authors, five realizations are necessary to reach enlightenment. We’ll explore each one.

1) Interconnection (paticcasamuppāda): Everything is interconnected. All of the world’s matter and energy, such as the matter in our bodies, came from something else. The saying “We’re all made from stardust” gets at this idea. 

(Shortform note: The idea that everything is interconnected is also a theme within ecology—the study of interconnected systems in nature.)

2) Impermanence (anicca): Nothing lasts. This means that there are no things, only events—much like in the saying “You never step in the same river twice.” A river is the event of water flowing, not a collection of unchanging things such as water droplets. 

(Shortform note: Physics often explores the nature of impermanence. For instance, in The Order of Time, physicist Carlo Rovelli also makes the case that there are no things; there are only events in time. According to Rovelli, a tree would be the following series of events: its seed bursting, the elongation of its trunk, the growth and eventual loss of its leaves—and the virtually infinite number of smaller processes that occur in between these steps.)

3) Suffering (dukkhā, also known as the First Noble Truth): We suffer because everything is impermanent. For instance, you might suffer when your experience of temporary fame ends or when you notice your body aging. 

(Shortform note: Whereas Buddhism teaches that humans suffer because everything is impermanent, Christianity teaches that humans suffer as a result of disobeying God. When God created the world, it was free of suffering; but, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s orders by eating from the tree of knowledge, suffering became part of the world.)

4) Emptiness (suññatā): Your mind creates your reality, and you therefore can’t know what the world is actually like. In other words, the world is empty (lacking inherent meaning), and we fill it with meaning. For instance, having children isn’t inherently meaningful—but some people choose to fill their life with meaning by becoming parents. 

(Shortform note: In arguing that acknowledging life’s lack of inherent meaning is essential to achieving the positive experience of enlightenment, the authors of TMI frame emptiness optimistically. By contrast, the philosophy of existential nihilism interprets life’s lack of inherent meaning more pessimistically. According to some existential philosophers, it’s frightening and agonizing to realize life is empty and feel you must create meaning regardless.)

5) Selflessness (anattā): The ideas of interconnection, impermanence, and emptiness apply to you, too. You’re an impermanent event dependent on other events and you therefore have no persistent, inherent self. 

(Shortform note: The limitations of English can make it difficult to clearly describe the concept of selflessness. For instance, the sentence “you have no persistent, inherent self” requires the use of “you,” since English sentences are typically constructed using a subject (in this case, “you”). This use of “you” contradicts the meaning of the sentence—that there is no you. Expressing this idea may be easier in pro-drop languages: languages such as Japanese and Arabic in which it’s seen as grammatically correct to omit pronouns from the sentence.)

The authors of TMI insist that having a conceptual understanding of these five realizations isn’t enough to reach enlightenment. To reach enlightenment, you have to experience these realizations through meditation. It’s similar to how reading about a drug that alters your perception won’t actually alter your perception—you have to take the drug to experience that.

(Shortform note: The authors’ emphasis on experiencing realizations over simply understanding them mirrors the Buddha’s emphasis on experience. When the Buddha taught how to reach enlightenment, he focused on practical lessons that encouraged people to experience meditation rather than philosophize about it. His definition of enlightenment also reflects this emphasis on experience. In one scripture, he describes enlightenment as “the destruction of greed, hatred, and delusion.” In other words, enlightenment isn’t just a conceptual understanding of greed, hatred, and delusion—it’s actually destroying your negative desires (greed and hatred) and your reliance on conceptual categories (delusion).)

The authors claim that enlightenment benefits both you and others. Let’s explore how.

How Enlightenment Benefits You

The authors say that when you’re enlightened, 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.)

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.

Practicing Enlightenment Meditation: 5 Realizations for Awakening

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  • That the true goal of meditation is to reach enlightenment
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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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