Enlightenment Reframed

When East Meets West in the Consulting Room

Walter Truett Anderson
Enlightenment Reframed

This article first appeared in the May/June 2004 issue.

Several decades have come and gone since Eastern enlightenment traditions, such as Buddhism, began migrating into the Western world, and by now, just about everybody has some idea of what the word enlightenment is supposed to mean. Ask the average person on the street and you’re likely to be informed that it’s a state of near-supernatural wisdom attained by great spiritual leaders, and also by students who find the right guru and faithfully absorb his teachings over many, many years. This state involves a loss of ego and an awareness of unity with the cosmos–hence the famous joke about the Zen master who said to the hot-dog salesman: “Make me one with everything.”

That description isn’t entirely wrong, but it leaves out a lot. One of the things it leaves out is the fact that enlightened beings are still human, with human kinks in their character and human gaps in their knowledge. This is an important omission that feeds the spiritual hero-worship so prevalent among seekers after enlightenment. The common understanding of enlightenment also leaves out most of the human race. Not included are people who aren’t spiritual, who don’t study with a teacher of Zen, Hindu, or Sufi lineage, or who do study, but find that the teachers don’t quite speak their language.

Fortunately, a more comprehensive view of enlightenment is now emerging. Building on inquiry across a number of fields, together with the rediscovery of much wisdom of the past, it considers enlightenment as an ongoing restructuring of consciousness through which individuals form a different idea of who and what they are, what’s real, and how the world works.

In this emerging view, we can begin to see enlightenment as a quite real and thoroughly natural development in the lives of individuals and the evolution of the species. It involves experiences that happen in varying degrees to many people more or less like you and me, all over the world, in all kinds of contexts, and it involves an understanding of self and the universe that’s surprisingly compatible with the worldview offered by 21st-century science. This way of looking at enlightenment doesn’t deny the great value of the wisdom that’s come our way from Asia, but it puts those teachings into a larger context and opens the door to a new concept of human nature–of what we are and what we may become.

This restructuring of identity may take place gradually over time, like the transition from adolescence to adulthood. It may also be marked by one or more powerful aha! experiences like those that often occur in psychotherapy, in which the client suddenly recognizes that she’s been seeing herself and her problems within a certain framework of assumptions, and that entirely different frameworks are available. And it happens to different people in quite different ways.

A Matter of Death and Life

You can see some of the elements of this alternative view of enlightenment in the experience of a man named Steve Berkov, whom I’ve interviewed several times. When he went into therapy, he was about 40. He was an emergency-room physician with an M.D. and a Ph.D. in pharmacology who’d been having unexplainable dizzy spells that interfered with his work. He went to see a neurologist. A CAT scan revealed a shadowy spot in the left side of his brain that appeared to be a brain tumor, an astrocytoma. If it were that, the prognosis was clear and devastating: he had a short while to live, probably not more than a few months. His therapist was Abraham Levitsky, a Gestalt analyst in the San Francisco area who was a student and friend of the late Fritz Perls. In therapy, Steve was hoping to get some help in dealing with this new development, which he describes as “absolutely terrifying.” He had to make an abrupt transition from being a man in good health with a lot of living ahead of him to one staring death in the face. As a result, he began to think more seriously than he ever had before about the meaning of his life.

Then the neurologist tried a different treatment, based on the possibility that the CAT scan had revealed a small stroke rather than a tumor, and Steve responded to it. So he got another piece of medical news, in a way no less unsettling than the first: he had his future back.

I don’t think anyone who hasn’t had such a one-two punch of life reverses could know how it felt, and how deep the effects can be. Steve continued in therapy, and continued to ponder life’s larger questions. “The course of therapy made me more aware of myself as a separate individual, as a person, a doctor, a father–all the things I was,” he says. “And slowly, it became clearer and clearer to me what that meant, how I saw myself in relationships, who I was.” In short, he was having a fairly successful and conventional course of therapy.

Then one day, in a session with Abe, his therapy went in a direction that neither of them had anticipated. Steve says: “I had a profound experience of not feeling separate from anything. I was here and Abe was over there and the trees were out there, but I had a physical sense of interconnectedness. I suddenly knew that there was no separation–only the appearance of separateness. And with this came a dramatic feeling of well-being, a feeling that nothing could be other than it was. Everything was somehow profoundly right.

The feeling of interconnectedness faded, returned briefly the next day, and gradually became always, in a sense, there–a feeling he learned to access and understand. He began to develop some thought experiments for exploring these phenomena. You could call these meditations, but that word generally conjures up an image of somebody sitting cross-legged on a cushion, and Steve did most of his spiritual work in his sports car on his way to and from work. One of the things he learned in his explorations–a lesson that people who meditate have been discovering for centuries–was that talk, even his own inner monologue, got in the way.

So the explorations became a part of his life–not exactly a part of the therapy, but not exactly separate from it either. After a while, the therapy ended, to the mutual satisfaction of both parties, but they continued to get together occasionally. Sometimes, when Steve described his explorations, Abe would point out parallels to experiences in the literature of spirituality. So, in some ways, you might say Abe was taking on a role of spiritual teacher. But in other ways, it was Steve who was taking on that role, as he explained to Abe the precise nature of the experiences he was having and the understanding he was developing.

About 10 years later, Steve had another bad round of medical problems. He was unable to work and spent about a year recovering. During that time, he had two more revelatory experiences that were different from his everyday meditative explorations. The first of these was mild. The second was more in the ton-of-bricks category.

He was in the habit of taking long walks in the woods with his dog, and it was during these walks that the two experiences occurred. He says of the first: “There was this sense of suddenly realizing that I didn’t have to have things be the way they were before. There was nothing I needed to do. I didn’t understand what that meant, but I wasn’t doing anything. I was just feeling good about life. And I also had this profound sense that just walking in the woods and being aware of the beauty of it was the whole purpose of life. I had never been somebody to think there were purposes in the universe, that sort of thing, but I had this clear sense that if youcould define a purpose, it was that I was there to appreciate the beauty of life.” He says he felt this powerfully, and felt as though his eyes were being opened. He adds: “But it was still Steve Berkov’s eyes that were being opened.”

About a week later, he was walking in the woods again and still pondering this feeling that life had a quite simple purpose when the second revelation hit him: “I looked up at the sky, and then something happened that, to this day, is very difficult for me to describe. You know how if you just stare into space for a while, things will lose their definition, get washed out? That happened, and all of a sudden I sort of spaced out, and then found myself with an awareness of coming back from someplace. The only way I can describe it is a place of luminous nonbeing. There was nothing and then everything was back, and back like a thunderclap. And in that moment, I absolutely understood that it was not my consciousness that was there. What I had thought was my consciousness was all consciousness–universal consciousness, in which Steve Berkov was one of the many elements. That experience was so powerful it damn near knocked me off my feet.”

He felt disoriented and weak, and had a difficult time making the 45-minute walk back to his house. When he did get home, he slept for about an hour, and he says that when he woke up, the disorientation and the confusion were gone. “I had this absolute clarity about the origin of my being, of who I am–not as Steve Berkov, but as all. I knew it like I’ve never known anything in my life.”

If Steve has any aspirations of hanging out his guru shingle, he conceals it remarkably well. He occasionally appears on panel discussions about the psychology of enlightenment when invited, or when Abe organizes them. In these sessions, he’s frequently quizzed about the details of his experience. People ask how he can go about the business of acting like an ordinary person, and he says: “When I’m sitting around talking with people, I feel as separate as anybody else. But on another level, I know it’s the universe that’s doing it. We’re not separate and we’re not doing it. What I now experience more or less continuously is this sense of non-separateness, and also the socially constructed self, Steve Berkov running around living his life. Those two things I experience simultaneously. They’re only different when I choose to see them that way, but it’s all one. It’s what we all are. That’s what there is.”

Steve is in good health now, happily married, and enjoying life. I’ve gotten to know him well, and have gone over his story in considerable depth. I enjoy his particular way of presenting things. He makes it clear that he’s not a teacher, and doesn’t presume to tell anybody anything about what they can or should do with their lives. He simply describes his own life experiences, with a curious mixture of detachment and scientific enthusiasm.

I believe what he says. I’ve run across any number of people in spiritual circles who strike me as either dishonest, or insane, or both. He’s not one of these. In fact, if I had to make a list of the sanest people I know, his name would be near the top.

So what did Steve’s therapist do that helped him cope successfully with his unsolicited adventures in higher consciousness? I think he did several things.

He didn’t abdicate his role as therapist, even when he began to perceive that Steve was, in some ways, moving beyond him. There were therapeutic issues to be dealt with, and he continued to deal with them in more or less the usual fashion, until both he and Steve concluded that it was time to terminate the therapy.

He did suggest to Steve some things he could read that might help him understand his experiences and relate them to those of others, but he wasn’t playing spiritual teacher–his was really more in the mode of a mentor or adviser, or simply a friend.

Most important, he believed and supported his client. He didn’t diagnose or pathologize Steve’s experiences–which undoubtedly many therapists would have done. I don’t mean to suggest that a therapist should cheer unreservedly for any client’s announcement of spiritual attainment. Such announcements may be delusional strategies to avoid engagement with deep psychological issues, attempts to inflate an enlightenment-related insight for personal promotion, or any of several other varieties of self-serving nonsense. I’m only suggesting that therapists should do what therapists get paid for–making informed judgments about their clients’ mental health and progress in therapy. And if the judgment has something to do with enlightenment, the therapist should know the territory.

Knowing the territory includes, of course, some acquaintance with the core ideas of Asian enlightenment traditions, and also perhaps some of the interpretations of them that have been offered by Western writers. It includes an open-minded and informed sensitivity to what spiritual schools aspire to teach and spiritual seekers aspire to learn. It should also include an informed awareness of the cult tendencies and the myriad traps, scams, and hustles along the spiritual path. And it must involve a feel for the big picture–the evolving social and cultural reality within which 21st-century people try to make sense of their own personal stories as they grapple with what Paul Tillich called “matters of ultimate concern.”

A Broader View of Enlightenment

The description of enlightenment as a dynamic, ever-changing system of interrelated ideas and processes helps us break free of the narrow-minded concept that it’s an all-or-nothing business: you’re either enlightened or in the dark. This isn’t even faithful to the Asian traditions; Zen, for example, recognizes several different levels of enlightenment. And it’s contradicted by Western psychological research, such as Abraham Maslow’s studies of peak or mystical experience. In Motivation and Personality, Maslow wrote: “The theological literature has generally assumed an absolute, qualitative difference between the mystic experience and all others. As soon as it is divorced from supernatural reference and studied as a natural phenomenon, it becomes possible to place the mystic experience on a quantitative continuum from intense to mild. We discover that the mild mystic experience occurs in many, perhaps even most individuals, and that in the favored individual it occurs often, perhaps even daily.”

More recently, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research into those “mild mystic experiences” (he calls them “flow”) has shown that they occur to people in the course of many surprisingly commonplace activities: working, dancing, climbing a mountain, gardening. For some people, inner anxiety and self-consciousness disappear when they become deeply engaged in such pursuits. “What slips below the threshold of awareness,” he says, “is the concept of self, the information we use to represent to ourselves who we are.” Csikszentmihalyi also has found evidence of a range of experiences in which people’s identities seem to merge with something else–a sailor with his boat, a violinist with her instrument. These may not qualify as enlightenment, but the research does suggest that, even in the everyday lives of ordinary people, the distinction between self and other may be considerably more fluid than we suspect.

You can find accounts of mystical experiences in connection with art and music and poetry, or in nature. Drug trips can release major insights under the right conditions. So, apparently, can space travel: astronaut Edgar Mitchell perceived the unity of all being while returning from the moon aboard Apollo 14. An old woman, a patient of Steve Berkov’s, told him about her love of gazing at the stars until, at some point, she realized that she wasn’t looking at a lot of things, but at one. In many such ways, in many degrees, people see the world differently, and form a different–sometimes profoundly different– understanding of their place in it.

Sometimes, just reading something that makes a powerful impression can tip a person into a mystical experience. This happened to me some 40 years ago as I was sitting alone one evening in my little apartment in Los Angeles, reading a collection of essays about psychology. One of them was entitled “The Ego and Mystic Selflessness.” Its author, Herbert Fingarette of the University of California at Santa Barbara, had been studying former patients of psychoanalysis–people who’d successfully worked through the issues that first brought them into therapy. In his paper, he reported on his surprising discovery that many of them exhibited characteristics similar to the states of mind found in the literature of Asian mysticism, such as a certain quality of engaged detachment. You might say that they’d moved into the territory of enlightenment, but didn’t know it.

I hadn’t read anything like that before, had no particular interest in Eastern spirituality, had never been in psychotherapy, and certainly hadn’t tried putting the two in the same conceptual box. But I followed Fingarette’s argument with mounting interest, as he shuttled back and forth between West and East–first quoting his research subjects’ attempts to describe their post therapy thoughts and feelings, and then offering excerpts from Hindu and Buddhist texts that mirrored them. He mentioned, for example, a woman named Katherine who’d gone into analysis in part to deal with her stormy and conflicted relationship with a friend, Alice. Asked how she feels about the friend now, she replies: “Well, I don’t have any desires now. I used to want Alice to be shown up in her true colors, to have people see how wrong she was. Now I just don’t think about it. I get along.” Later she adds: “I’m just not involved. It doesn’t matter in the same way.” Fingarette pointed out how much Alice’s statements resembled aphorisms from spiritual literature such as: “Desire flows into the mind of the seer, but he is never disturbed.” He also noted the emphasis in mystical literature on “freedom from striving” and “acceptance.”

His thesis wasn’t just that there are close parallels between the consciousness of the former patients and the mind of the mystic: he argued also that, although this consciousness might appear to be a state of deadheaded apathy or withdrawal, it was actually quite the opposite. These people were very much alive, in touch with their emotions, and engaged in the world. But they had learned how to step back and take a look at their own thought processes, and to let go of some of the vanities and resentments that had formerly clogged up their lives. He pointed out that we find it hard to talk about this because we really don’t have a language for it. What we have is only “the language of self,” in which we can’t really describe the inner life of the person who’s come to see that the ego-tripping, injustice-collecting “I” isn’t exactly who he or she really is.

Fingarette went on to explore the concept and experience of enlightenment in some detail, in a way that put it much more into the real world for me, freeing it from the cliche´s about mystical states that I’d heard before. And he quoted a passage from Buddhist scripture describing what it’s like to discover that truth–the moment of a “turning-about in the deepest seat of consciousness,” somewhere beyond the realm of words. In the midst of this, I looked up from the book and felt the dawning of a shift into a wider space of feeling and understanding. It was as though I’d caught a glimpse of the state that the mystics and former patients were trying to describe. The experience was moving, incredibly beautiful, and quite unlike anything that had ever happened to me. I sat there savoring it for a while, and then went outside for a walk, feeling totally at peace and enormously grateful. I remember passing a big plant and reaching out to touch its great, cool leaves, the way you might reach out to stroke a friendly dog. This was an intellectual experience, but it was more than that: it was emotional, marked by a feeling of love–not for anything or anyone in particular, just love–and it was physical. I noticed a distinct change in the intensity of my sense perceptions, especially vision. Everything seemed to be in sharper focus than it’d been before. That feeling stayed with me for a long time afterward; I don’t know when it went away, or if it ever did.

I didn’t think of the experience as an enlightenment, and had no illusions that I’d miraculously turned into a high holy man on the spot. It was more in the category of what I’ve come to call a door-opener–one of those psychological events that shifts your perspective and inspires new kinds of curiosity. I took a new interest in Eastern enlightenment traditions and Western psychotherapies, and began to explore them. And as I did, I found many new points of connection between the two.

Aha! experiences, mystical experiences, flow experiences, door openers, all of these occur to many people, because they’re all part of human nature. So do the experiences that we call enlightenment, but there’s a difference. In flow experiences, the concept of self slips below the threshold of awareness, but the person is usually unconscious of this change. What happens in enlightenment experiences is that the person knows that the “I” that we normally take to be the experiencer isn’t present. There’s an awareness that things are happening, but without an awareness that they’re happening to anyone in particular or because of any individual’s volition

This restructuring of consciousness is the core of enlightenment. It can explode into the mind in one blinding flash of insight, or it can arrive in gentler installments that become the framework for an ongoing re-visioning of everything in life. This mental shift is the source of all the other perceptual, emotional, and cognitive phenomena that are commonly found in the enlightenment complex: the immersion in the present, the lessening of attachment, the palpable presence of love–love without a lover or even a loved one–the sharpening of sensory perceptions, the sense of amazement at the ordinary, and the discovery that everyday, I-centered cognition is only one way to organize experience.

Enlightenment and Therapy

Issues related to enlightenment–such as the need to understand and integrate the powerful mystical experiences that drop unexpectedly into so many lives, the urge to go deeper into the puzzle of who and what we are, the half-fearful yearning for a merger of self with the totality of being–often find their way into psychotherapy. Although some practicing clinicians prefer to stay clear of such murky subjects and stick with the DSM and psychopharmacology, others welcome them.

Leading transpersonal psychologists, such as Frances Vaughan, author of several classic books and papers in the field, and David Lukoff of the Saybrook Graduate School, believe that it’s possible for therapists to address such issues while maintaining a boundary between the role of therapist and that of spiritual teacher. The general guideline seems to be that it’s the patient who must take the initiative in going in that direction. This makes sense, but I think it’s a lot clearer in theory than in practice. In practice, the line between therapy and spiritual teaching is mighty hard to find, and the line between the pursuit of mental health and the quest for enlightenment may not exist.

Psychiatrist Arthur Deikman, best known for his book The Observing Self, describes the process of introspection as not only “the basic activity of psychotherapy,” but also the basic activity of spiritual practice. He says, “I tend to get people in my practice who want a psychiatrist with a spiritual orientation. At least they think they do, but usually the problems they think are spiritual problems turn out to be bread-and-butter problems–intimacy, work, fears of failure, negative self-image. I’m not a spiritual teacher, and I tell them that very specifically. If they say they want to get into meditation or something like that, I tell them to go to one of the centers around here. I don’t instruct them myself.”

But when he does get into matters that might be described as spiritual, he often starts by talking about something I hadn’t previously thought of in that connection. He asks people what they’re doing for others, and how they go about it. He values service, and says he’s found that people often have powerful experiences of loss of self when helping others. But he’s suspicious of do-gooders, and his research is aimed in part at identifying the ways that service work can be tainted by the ego needs of the helper. “What’s desirable,” he says, “is to reach the point where you’re serving the task. You’re not doing good, you’re doing what’s called for.” He tells a Sufi story about a would-be disciple who comes to a teacher and says: “I’ve been waiting for God to tell me what to do.” The teacher says: “You see that plant? It needs water. How loud does God have to shout?”

The point, as he explains it, is that would-be doers of good need to avoid becoming too pleased with themselves. “If you can help someone become aware of the hidden greed and vanity that’s operating, so that they can get some freedom from it, you’re doing spiritual teaching.” He adds: “What I tell my clients is that the goal of psychotherapy is realism–about themselves and about how they interact. And realism is also the goal of mysticism. The difference between therapy and mysticism is mainly just a matter of emphasis.”

We don’t need a whole new body of practices or–God help us–a new school of psychotherapy to develop a skill for recognizing and coping with the emerging view of enlightenment that I’ve been trying to outline here. Schools of psychotherapy serve useful purposes, but they’re also ego structures that people identify with, and like other such social inventions–race, creed, nationality–they tend to foster a them-and-us mentality, based on a spurious sense of difference. I doubt very much that the things that happen to people’s psyches in therapy are as different as the various theories would have you believe. Fingarette’s findings indicate that even devoutly secular modes of therapy, such as psychoanalysis, can move people toward enlightenment insights without the knowledge of either the therapist or the client. There’s something inherent in the analytic process–the sustained engagement with existential issues, the focus on disciplined investigation of one’s own thought process–that leads, however circuitously, to the “Who are you?” question that’s at the heart of all enlightenment traditions.

What we need is a larger context, an evolutionary and developmental one that folds the personal ego narrative into a wider story. This shouldn’t seem terribly far out: after all, modern psychotherapy came into a world that Darwin’s ideas had turned on its ear. The whole edifice of psychoanalysis was built on an evolutionary story–humanity’s struggle to become civilized, to tame the primitive id and avoid being crushed under the weight of the guilt-dispensing superego.

The Freudian evolutionary story is about growing up in society. The story forming now out of the convergence of new ideas about cosmology, biology, and psychology is about growing up in the universe. This larger story is a very large one indeed, going back some 14 billion years. The part of it we need to be immediately concerned with is modest by comparison, however–50,000 years or thereabouts, since our ancestors invented language. We don’t really know when that happened or how long it took to happen, but it was, as evolution goes, a fairly recent event. And it was an enormous leap in the development of life on Earth–the appearance of a new kind of consciousness, marked by a capacity for self-reflection and symbolic communication.

Language is a tool of enormous, even godlike, power. With it, people create the world and all the objects in it, and create themselves. The individual has a life story, a name, names of ancestors, a story about the society of which he or she is a part. In some places, personal identity extends beyond life through myths of immortality and belief in the soul. People frame their personal fantasies and plans in words, and they employ words to fashion all the things that make a society–laws, rituals, literature, history.

The invention of language liberated Homo sapiens from the limitations of prehuman existence, but it also built a new kind of prison–a world of words. In it, people became identified with the narrative of the bounded self, the “skin-encapsulated ego,” as Alan Watts described it. They internalized the beliefs of their societies–their categories of class, tribe, religion, nationality, and gender; their stories about the world–as if they represented some transcendent cosmic order, rather than the all-too-human creations of a particular time and place.

But there have always been people who learned to see through the reified world that language creates–that world of objects and egos. We have no record of how frequently that’s occurred. We do have records from some 2,500 years ago of the young Indian nobleman Gautama, who began to teach that ordinary human existence is an unsatisfactory state in which people make themselves miserable as a result of a basic misunderstanding of their own nature, and that there’s a way through the confusion. And we have some writings–interestingly, from about the same time period–of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who, in a few fascinating fragments, told us that there are no things, only flux, and that our very selves are illusory.

Ideas such as these became institutionalized, not so much in the West, where Socrates and Aristotle trumped Heraclitus, and theistic Christianity triumphed over mystical gnosticism, but strongly in Asia in such forms as Sufism, Advaita (nondual) Vedanta, and Buddhism. These institutions were the products of heroic effort that went on over many centuries and occupied the best minds of the societies in which they took root–people who went at the task of liberating the human mind with as much dedication as contemporary scientists have gone at the task of decoding the human genome. Buddhism differentiated into a number of distinct schools and movements, some of them tending toward Buddha-worship and others–of which the best-known is the iconoclastic Zen–tending more toward the idea that liberation is right in front of everybody, achievable chiefly by paying attention.

Now, in the age of globalization, it’s no longer geographically accurate to talk of Eastern enlightenment traditions and Western science. Both of these types of knowledge have become citizens of the world, elements of 21st-century global culture. We’re now writing another chapter of the evolutionary story, drawing on a wealth of sources that has never been available before. We have translations of all the major works of Eastern spirituality into English and other major languages. We have an ever-growing library of interpretations of Eastern thought by contemporary Western writers. In the world of psychology, we have the whole transpersonal movement, which is largely grounded in Eastern spirituality. We also have important bodies of psychological research and theory-building that are not based on Eastern spirituality and have no transcendental agendas or tendencies that might render them suspicious, but are nevertheless providing important pieces of a framework for thinking about enlightenment in new ways.

In developmental psychology, for example, theorists from Jean Piaget through Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan to Mary Belenky and Robert Kegan have shown how, as we grow and change, we periodically reconstruct our worlds, and develop new ideas of who and what we are and how we relate to our environments. Kegan’s major book, In Over Our Heads, outlines a system of three major stages in the evolution of civilizations–premodern, modern, and postmodern–each of which imposes certain cognitive and epistemological demands on people. The main cognitive skill the present age calls for, he believes, is the ability to “objectify,” to see all sorts of cultural institutions and rules–gender roles, for examples–as social constructions, rather than as eternal verities. “Transforming our epistemologies,” he writes, “liberating ourselves from that in which we were embedded, making what was subject into object so that we can ‘have it’ rather than ‘be had’ by it–this is the most powerful way I know to conceptualize the growth of the mind.” It’s only a short step from this to recognizing subject itself, the “I” which we take to be the very pivot of our being, as object also. Even the subject-object distinction is now in question.

Closely related to this is the work of such postmodern/constructivist psychologists as Kenneth Gergen, who focuses on the process of constructing identities, and how the conditions of present-day life in globalizing, information-saturated societies change that process, often requiring people to construct new identities. Gergen doesn’t use the e-word, but his vision of shifting identities implicitly contains the recognition that any identity is, as the Buddhists say, illusory.

Another valuable body of work is Howard Gardner’s multiple-intelligence theory, which offers a framework for thinking about the variety of ways that enlightenment can unfold through the life cycle. In his major book on this subject, Frames of Mind, Gardner identified seven types of intelligence that manifest themselves, in varying degrees and combinations, in different people: linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal, and interpersonal. Although Gardner decided against adding a specifically spiritual category of intelligence, his work nevertheless offers an interesting perspective on such matters.

For each kind of intelligence there’s a long history of corresponding spiritual and religious resources: for the linguistic intelligence, for example, holy scriptures and the poetry of mystics from Jalaluddin Rumi to Walt Whitman; for the musical, the chants and hymns of virtually every world culture; for the logical-mathematical, the great systems of the philosophers, the number-based mysticism of cabala, and G. Spencer-Brown’s Laws of Form; for the spatial, cathedrals and mazes; for the bodily-kinesthetic, hatha yoga and the dancing dervishes; for the intrapersonal, the monasteries and the solitary practices of meditation; for the interpersonal, the “I and thou” philosophy of Martin Buber and the practice of service to others; for the naturalist, an intelligence type Gardner identified later, the animist religions that are common in indigenous societies and the encounters with nature that are universal sources of mystic experience.

This concept of different forms of human intelligence sheds some light on the past, and should also be helpful as we go forward into forming a psychologically based concept of the enlightenment complex. It helps us understand how different potentialities may come into play as people develop. It has something to say about our strengths and also about our weaknesses–how and why people who’ve had genuine enlightenment experiences may still have flaws, foibles, and blind spots.

Psychological concepts such as these are building-blocks in the creation of a wider story that puts the evolution of individuals within the context of an evolving global society and an evolving universe. But it’s still work in progress.

Thinking Big, Thinking Small

The kind of thinking that puts enlightenment in a new context is going on in a number of fields. I’ve touched on only a few of them, without venturing into the fascinating and relevant developments in other areas, such as neuropsychology, cosmology, and philosophy. All these wisdom sources are making it possible to bring the subject into the mainstream in a way that’ll enable all people–not just the ones who are deliberately engaged in some form of spirituality–to understand enlightenment and relate it to their own life experience in whatever way makes sense for them. And it becomes possible to think of enlightenment as a facet of human evolution, not simply as the good fortune of certain people in certain spiritual traditions.

Psychotherapists are on the front lines of bringing enlightenment into people’s daily lives, whether they realize it or not. Many people who are grappling with matters of ultimate concern turn to therapists instead of or in addition to spiritual teachers. And the unfolding events of the 21st century–from terrorism to global climate change to the breakneck speed of scientific and technological developments–promise to keep providing reasons for ultimate concern about what we are and what we may become. Therapists, even those who might prefer to stick to the bread-and-butter issues and everyday problems of clients’ personal lives, aren’t likely to be able to avoid working in the wider story of evolving humanity, and being what Rollo May called “practical philosophers.”


Walter Truett Anderson, Ph.D., is the author of numerous books, including Evolution Isn’t What It Used To Be; The Future of the Self and The Next Enlightenment .