By Pallavi Bhatacharya
Jed McKenna loves to sky-dive, watches sitcoms and uses slang. To think that once he ran an ashram! Not quite a New Age guru, he is what he calls ‘a truth guy’. And the title of his latest bestseller is Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing
At the very outset of his new book Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing, Jed McKenna questions if one can earn spirituality by “meditating; praying; chanting; yoga; vegetarianism; attending darshan and satsang with realised beings; donating money to Greenpeace, Amnesty International and Free Tibet; reading classical spiritual literature; purifying yourself; abstaining from sex and so on”. If your answer is yes, you are grossly mistaken. And according to the author, you will forever be the caterpillar, never to become a butterfly.
Situated in the USA amidst Iowa’s pastoral cornfields, McKenna’s little ashram had housed various students over the years who came to him hoping to ‘develop spiritually’, ‘grow closer to God’, ‘go to heaven’, ‘become enlightened’ or ‘something along those general lines’. Paul, an ex-soldier, wants to evolve into a new person. Arthur wants ‘the technique’ to spiritual evolution. Jolene, a teenager, is trying hard to fathom which Zen book will help her out. McKenna’s students remind him of the people who amused him at church as a child. To him they were ‘just cows that were pretending they were people’, following religion just for the sake of it.
Harsh and judgemental as this may sound, as you read on you realise that McKenna is not a heartless guy. “I don’t eat human eyeballs,” he jokes. He is down-to-earth and interacts with his students in earnest patience. He candidly tells them: “I’m not a priest. I am not a holy man or a guru. I have no teaching. I’m not representing any lineage or system.”
McKenna even warns his students about fraudulent spiritual teachers and advises them not to follow any teaching blindly but to use their discretion. An interesting and humorous analogy is used to differentiate between true teachers and quacks. He likens spiritual leaders to vampires. A true vampire would just bite to instantly convert someone into a vampire. But a false vampire would enrol vampire wannabes in classes and prescribe a strict list of dos and don’ts, like not eating garlic, not going out in the sun, not drinking holy water. Similarly, in the real world, it’s immature to ape a religious master. He puts the questions to his students: “Why should I turn the other cheek if someone belts me and I wanna belt him back? To act like Christ?… Some great sage in India only sits facing north, so now I have to face north all the time?”
Rather than teaching his students magical mantras or handing them good luck charms, McKenna insists they try ‘Spiritual Autolysis’: “Autolysis means self-digestion, and spiritual means… hell I don’t really know. Let’s say it means that level of self which encompasses the mental, physical and emotional aspects. Put the two words together and you have a process through which you feed yourself, one piece at a time, into the purifying digestive fires.” This nonsensical definition also comes as bathos to one who wants to climb the spiritual ladder to a fantasised level. But what McKenna means is that everyone should seek and finally absorb the truth.
What makes the reader turn the pages is that Spiritual Enlightenment is not a book of didactic lectures and vague philosophical discourses. McKenna simplifies the most complicated metaphysical concepts with wit that will tickle your funny bone. To differentiate between mysticism and enlightenment, he uses a delightfully original version of Plato’s popular cave analogy.
To the author, enlightenment stands for truth, and mysticism is a shadow of reality. Plato had imagined a cave where prisoners were chained and all they could see were shadows on the walls. The shadows are the only reality they know of. But one of them snaps his chains and turns his head to see a fire burning at the entrance of the cave. Out of curiosity he goes towards the fire and is led on towards brighter daylight. If he were to return to the cave and explain to the cave dwellers what he saw, they would be confused since for them, the world was limited to shadows and echoes.
To make Plato’s theory comprehensible to his students, McKenna replaces the cave with a movie-theatre, the screen is where shadows interplay, the audience is enthralled by unreality, while the projection screen is Plato’s fire or light source. His student is finally able to distinguish between enlightenment and mysticism. “Mystics stay in the theatre, but the theatre isn’t the whole thing. It’s not the final, total, most ultimate thing. Enlightenment isn’t in the theatre. If you want to be enlightened you have to go up the aisle and out the exit to the sunlight and totally leave the theatre!”
That enlightenment has nothing to do with mysticism is the crux of the book. An eye-opener for all of us who might confuse the two. McKenna says that people who are too overwhelmed by mysticism and perpetually remain unenlightened are like flat characters in a soap opera, woven in the maze of unrealistic plots. He quotes Ryokan: “In all ten directions of the universe there is only one truth… Truth isn’t an idea or a concept. It’s not in libraries or in the words of sages. It doesn’t come in a flash of lightning or a peak experience. It’s not a feeling of ecstasy. It’s not a concept to be understood or a feeling to be experienced. It’s not in your heart or your mind. It’s further… Spiritual awakening is about discovering what’s true.”
The reader may wonder what the road to enlightenment is. McKenna writes in a poem: “There is no path to enlightenment: / It lies in all directions at all times. / On the journey to enlightenment, you create and / destroy your own path with every step.” He feels that after spending many years being agonised, vague and ignorant, he had finally found the truth of enlightenment. However, he believes that a statement like “I am enlightened” is a fallacy. He writes: “There is no such thing as an enlightened person. The person writing these words, the person that speaks to the students, isn’t the enlightened one. My personality, my ego, what appears to be me, is just an afterimage.”
The book comes a full circle when Julie Meyers, a journalist who spends days interviewing him and getting confused, finally realises that McKenna is not one of the ‘ascended masters’ her magazine usually covers but a realist who wants to send the point across that trying to act spiritual by meditating, being a vegetarian and buying pictures of mandalas and saints is not the road to enlightenment (see extract).
The epilogue quotes the Bhagavad Gita: “The unreal has no being; / The real never ceases to be.” McKenna urges readers to keep asking what’s true until they know.
‘‘What’s your most embarrassing moment as a teacher, or don’t you have one?’’
‘‘Well, I had a guy once who was totally stuck in the mud. Nowhere close to anything interesting, just wallowing in the details of his life. Family problems, money problems, health problems, and so forth. Couldn’t get out of it, couldn’t get above it. I wanted to encourage him to try to adopt a larger overview, a broader context within which to view his existence, so I told him to pretend that he just found out he was going to die tomorrow, and then look at all these problems in that light.’’
‘‘That sounds very effective. I could see where that might put someone’s day-to-day concerns into perspective.’’
‘‘Yeah,’’ I respond somewhat sheepishly, ‘‘so could Billy Jack.’’
She bursts into laughter. ‘‘Really? You got it from a Billy Jack movie?’’
‘‘Yeah. I saw it when I was, like, ten, and the thing about dying tomorrow was probably my first profoundly moving insight. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with the advice, but I regretted it as soon as I said it. I was afraid I’d be exposed as a fraud who just went around repeating kung fu movie wisdom.’’
‘‘What was your second profoundly moving insight?’’
‘‘I don’t know, probably the cogito—cogito ergo sum. I spent a lot of time with that one, years, really. If a tree falls in a forest and all that.’’
‘‘All what? You mean the Zen koan? If a tree falls in a forest thing isn’t koan because it has a very specific answer….’’
‘‘Oh! Well, I’m sure a hundred generations of our best thinkers will be grateful…’’
I laugh. ‘‘The answer is yes because the question says so. The question establishes that the tree and the forest are known to exist without being seen, so it naturally follows that any sounds therein exist without being heard.’’
‘‘It sounds more like you found a loophole in the question.’’
‘‘More like a wormhole into the deeper question. What do we know for sure? That’s the real question. That’s what the cogito is. That’s what solipsism is. This isn’t theory. This isn’t belief or faith. This is the basic fact of existence. It’s all about figuring out exactly what we know for certain as opposed to everything else. It’s truly amazing that something so glaringly obvious and irrefutable is so universally ignored by science and philosophy and religion.’’
‘‘And that is?’’
‘‘That we don’t know anything—can’t know anything.’’
‘‘Can you define ‘anything’?’’
‘‘Solipsism is defined as the belief that the only thing you can know for sure is that you exist, and that another true knowledge is impossible. But, like I say, it’s not really a belief. It’s just the way it is.’’
‘‘So I know I’m sitting here, but….’’
‘‘No. You know that you are. Body, planet, space, time, people, everything else is taken on faith.’’
‘‘So I’m not sitting here…’’
‘‘No, you don’t know that either. All this doesn’t mean that what seems to be isn’t, just that it’s unverifiable. You could say that it’s highly likely that you’re sitting here, but that’s not true either. There’s no particular likelihood whatsoever that your perception of reality has any basis in reality.’’
‘‘Damn, that’s a little freaky. You’re not the usual spiritual teacher talking about higher states of consciousness and deeper states of love, I see.’’
‘‘No, I don’t go there. I’m more a truth guy. Your magazine doesn’t cover this stuff a lot?’’
‘‘Not really, we usually cover ascended masters and channel entities and prophecy and yoga and all that stuff.’’
‘‘Oh, yes,’’ she laughs. ‘‘Tantra sells magazines.’’
‘‘Well, we’ve touched on right action, solipsism, bhakti yoga Sonaya-style, and Billy Jack,’’ I say, but am interrupted as lightning sizzles through the sky above the buildings across the river and the already heavy rainfall seems to double in an instant. The battering drops of rain give the normally languid rivers tumultuous appearance that jibes well with the raging skies. We stop talking for a while and just enjoy the show.
‘‘What’s next?’’ I ask when the storm settles down a bit.
‘‘You’re enlightened but you obviously have an ego. Isn’t that a contradiction? Doesn’t the ego have to be annihilated to achieve nirvana?”
“Oooh,’’ I coo appreciatively. ‘‘Good question. Both are true.”
‘‘Okay,’’ she says, referring to her notes and then leaning into the microphone at my collar to speak. ‘‘You’re enlightened but you obviously have an ego. Isn’t that a contradiction? Doesn’t the ego have to be annihilated to achieve nirvana?’’
‘’Oooh,’’ I coo appreciatively. ‘‘Good question. Both are true. Yes, I have an ego and it looks similar to the one I dropped to, and as you say, achieve nirvana. But then I came back all enlightened and everything, and I needed something to wear. I look around and there’s my discarded ego lying in a pile on the floor so I slip into it and here I am.’’
This is something a lot of students and seekers get hung up on and there’s really no satisfactory answer except to say ‘Come see for yourself’. Ramana Maharshi addresses this point this way: ‘‘The ‘I’ casts off the illusion of ‘I’ and yet remains as ‘I’. Such is the paradox of Self-realisation. The realised do not see any contradiction in it.’’ The unrealised, though, do see a contradiction, but, frankly, the unrealised see a lot of things that aren’t there.
I continue answering Julie’s question.
‘‘You’ve probably heard the saying, ‘Before enlightenment a mountain is a mountain, during enlightenment a mountain is not a mountain, and after enlightenment a mountain is a mountain again.’ Well, it’s like that. Before enlightenment I believed my ego was me, then enlightenment comes along and no more ego, only the understanding reality. Now it’s after enlightenment and this ego might be slightly uncomfortable or ill-fitting at times, but it’s all I’ve got. The idea that your ego is destroyed in the process of becoming enlightened is roughly correct, but it’s not complete. Before enlightenment, you’re a human being in the world, just like everyone you see. During enlightenment you realise the human being you thought you were is just a character in a play, and that the world you thought you were in is just a stage, so you go through a process of radical deconstruction of your character to see what’s left when it’s gone. The result isn’t enlightened-self or true-self, it’s no-self. When it’s all over it’s time to be a human being in the world again, and that means slipping back into costume mad getting back on stage.’’
‘‘But now you know…?’’
‘‘Sure, because now you’re actually in the audience, watching the drama. I could never mistake the play for reality again, or my character for my true state. Happily, I never know what my character is going to do or say until he does it or says it, so the whole thing stays interesting.’’
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